Outside of Hollywood, the South Korean film industry is one of the most successful. It’s affectionately known as “Hallyu-wood” and is responsible for some great movies, like Oldboy, Train to Busan, and 3-Iron, which have all reached a level of commercial and critical success.
The same, however, cannot be said for North Korea, whose only not-entirely-propaganda (but totally is) film is so campy that it makes The Room look like a masterpiece. We’re talking, of course, about Pulgasari.
Don’t worry. The communist propaganda film was, unironically, also a merchandising opportunity. (Photo by Claw Mark Toys)
The film’s origins lie in the 1970s when Kim Jong-il was still just the head of the state propaganda department. Jong-il was a huge movie buff and wanted to create his own. One obvious downfall of living in an authoritarian dictatorship that shuns artistic expression, however, is that it’s hard to find artists who haven’t already been executed. So, he set his sights on the man known as the “prince of South Korean cinema,” Shin Sang-ok, and his actress ex-wife, Choi Eun-hee. In their prime, the power couple was compared to Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. While the two South Korean film magnates were visiting Hong Kong, North Korean agents abducted them.
Shin Sang-ok was forced to create six propaganda films for Kim Jong-il between 1978 and 1983 — all of which were terrible because Shin sabotaged his own art in protest. Then, Kim Jong-il pitched Pulgasari, a pro-communist knock-off of Godzilla. In order to get the special effects right, Jong-il also got staff from Toho Studios (the studio behind the Godzilla films) to North Korea. He did this by saying there was a very lucrative film being shot in China. They only realized something was up when they instead landed in North Korea.
The budget was so high that it almost bankrupted the nation, but Kim Jong-il was still happy. Author Paul Fischer wrote about the filming in his book, A Kim Jong-il Production. In it, he describes how Kim Jong-il was as giddy as schoolkid throughout production even though everyone half-assed everything.
The film is about a Feudal Korean blacksmith who turns into a giant metal-eating monster called Pulgasari. An evil, corrupt king tries to stomp out all of the rebellions and it’s up to the blacksmith and his daughter to overthrow the evil, capitalist monarchy. Shin was very heavy-handed about how this metaphor also applied to the Kim dynasty.
After production wrapped, the world watched the kidnapping in horror. To prove that Shin Sang-ok, Choi Eun-hee, and the crew weren’t kidnapped, Kim Jong-il sent them (with the film) on a world tour. They were also sent to talk to investors for Kim’s next great masterpiece about Genghis Khan. The first chance they got — at the Vienna Film Festival — they all bolted and went into hiding.
If you haven’t seen it, know that it’s painful to watch — seriously, it takes a lot of beer to get through it.
Don’t say we didn’t warn you: