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Published:July 28th, 2006 17:36 EST
The Epic From the North

The Epic From the North

By Young IL Seo

Godzilla, the United States remix, hit Japanese theaters in the summer of 1998. It would receive a very tepid response, a bomb by any definition. However, it still managed to overshadow another monster movie. It was released simultaneously across Japan to either compete with the American flick or cash in on the monster mania that could have followed. Alas, this movie also bombed at the box office. 1998 was the year of asteroid movies, not monsters. (Remember Armageddon and Deep Impact?) When this movie was later released in South Korea, less than a thousand people attended the showings. The monster dolls and promotional material produced for the release barely moved from the shelves. The movie`s rapid track to B-Movie Graveyard must have upset the man who financed it. Not just finance it, but adamantly produced it, wrote a book for it, and even appropriated over 10,000 extras for it. Oh, and he did all that while helping to lead an impoverished country going through a famine. He was Kim Jong-Il, the infamous leader of North Korea, and the story behind the movie, called Pulgasari, would be much more fascinating than the movie would ever be.

The story begins almost twenty years before the movie`s release. In 1978, Shin Sang-ok, until then the premier director of South Korean movies, was banned from directing after making pointed comments at the South Korean government over censorship. Shortly after that, he divorced his long time wife and favorite lead actress, Choi Eun-hee. He needed to travel all the way to Hong Kong to negotiate his next movie. While he was in negotiations, Shin Sang-Ok was kidnapped by North Korean agents in a superb example of bad thing happening in threes. . After a foiled escape attempt, Shin Sang-Ok was thrown in prison. For four years he was fed nothing but rice, grass, and salt. He even attempted suicide by withholding himself from food. This failed when the guards force-fed him through a funnel.

A guard later told him that he was the first one to have his attempt foiled by the guards, a testament to his importance. All the while, Kim Jong-Il was also having troubles. Although he was not yet the leader, he was a member of Seventh Supreme People`s Assembly, the governing body of aids to Kim Il-Sung, his father.

Kim Jong-Il, a huge fan of movies, and a regular movie critic for the national paper, was planning to release a movie that would embrace the communist ideals... However, his directors weren`t producing quality works. Since they would be paid regardless of the movie`s outcome, Kim Jong-Il watched as movie after movie failed to meet his standards. He even wrote a book called On the Art of the Cinema, with such hints as movies should include musical masterpieces " to help out his directors. After resorting to smuggling in Western films for his movies, he decided to produce movies of his own, with the DPRK`s full support behind it. He freed Shin Sang-Ok and treated him as a VIP. He even reunited the director with his ex-wife, who was also kidnapped alongside him in China.

Kim Jong-Il requested that they remarry, then granted Shin a return to the director`s chair, with more artistic freedom than he ever enjoyed in South Korea. Shin Sang-Ok directed several movies in North Korea, the last of which would be Pulgasari. The film, set in the 1300`s, was intended for international release. Kim Jong-Il wanted this film to win international awards, using the very system of capitalism to spread communism. He paid Shin almost three million dollars in salaries, and routinely shipped truckloads of deer, geese, and cows to the thousands of extras, mostly soldiers, even during the worst of the famine. Japanese production crews from previous Godzilla movies were shipped in, including Kenpachiro Satsuma, who wore a full body suit for Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster and would go on to act as Godzilla for years to come. The movie involves a corrupt king who ordered all iron tools to be smelted into weapons.

A blacksmith, when he realizes that his source of metal was the pots and pans of the townspeople, secretly returns all the metal. He is arrested, and when questioned under torture, makes the brilliant excuse that a monster named Pulgasari (meaning `immortal`) ate all the metal. The local lord doesn`t buy this and has him thrown in jail without food. His children secretly smuggle in rice, which he refuses to eat. Instead, he uses the rice to form a small monster figure. After he dies, his children receive this doll and carry it home. The daughter accidentally pricks her finger, dropping blood on the doll, which then comes to life.

The children soon start calling it Pulgasari, which develops a liking for iron. Pulgasari grows quickly with the consumed metal, and soon is a couple of feet tall. He shows another liking for communist revolutionaries, saving a local leader from execution. Pulgasari becomes the left hand... monster for the revolution, quickly growing to a hundred feet high. He topples over the thousands of soldiers thrown at him, defeats fire, survives cannons and ballistas, and even manages to be reborn after being buried.

He destroys the royal army, and crushes (literally) the king. However, there would be no happy ending here. After the revolution, before anyone has had a chance to celebrate, the leader sees a problem. Pulgasari`s appetite for metal grew with size.

The revolutionaries are stuck with the same problem from the beginning of the movie, as all the farming equipment is set down for Pulgasari to consume. The daughter who brought Pulgasari back to life finds a novel solution to this. She hides in a giant bell, and convinces Pulgasari to eat it with her inside. After Pulgasari does so, he turns to stone, and crumbles away. Apparently Pulgasari was symbolic for capitalism. I didn`t get it either until it was explained to me. Shortly before the film was complete, Shin Sang-Ok and his now wife traveled to Vienna, with heavy guard, under pretenses of film promotion.

They ran away to the American embassy, who delivered them back to South Korea, six years since they were kidnapped in Hong Kong. Kim Jong-Il, angry at their departure, ordered the film banned from his country for the next ten years. During the early 90`s, Kim Jong-Il tried to sell the film to various countries with no success. Only with Japan in 1998 did the film see the world outside. Eight years later, the film has reached cult fame. It is probably the only English dubbed North Korean film available to American audiences.

More of a curiosity than anything, Pulgasari is destined to gather dust on the DVD racks of the curious. Which seems to be where it should be. Imagine if Pulgasari was an excellent movie, winning Sundance awards en masse. Would the world see Kim Jong-Il and North Korea with a more compassionate eye? One can wonder. Shin Sang-Ok moved to America and changed his name to Simon Sheen. He produced a movie called Galgameth in 1996. The movie was about a creature that grew by eating iron. Go figure.