Goddamn You! Your kung fu is lacking...

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Pulgasari (1985)

Background - I bought this film on dvd a few years ago.  It was a Japanese dvd, with no English language option.  In my first (and, to date, only) custom job, I attached a subtitle file to the film and timed it.  Bar a few jumps, it turned out rather well.

Summary - It's a weird monster movie. I'd actually say that the monster isn't even the focal point. It's a story about oppression in a medieval society, which could have went in another direction without Pulgasari. It was interesting to see the monster adding to, and directing, the story; rather than a story entirely based around a monster.

I'll break down the various parts:

Story - A warlord king is seizing the iron of the kingdom, to gain absolute strength. A village tries to resist as they need the metal for farming and survival, so the blacksmith is thrown in prison. His relation is a freedom fighter/bandit type. The blacksmith fashions a small figure out of rice before he dies, and prays for the mythical Pulgasari to save the nation. His daughter cuts her finger and blood drops onto the figure, bringing it to life. It starts off small, but as it eats metal it grows rapidly. Eventually, it is huge, and leads a rebellion against the king and his bad uns. The coda brings the story full circle. It's an interesting set-up, easy to understand and reasonably well paced. Amongst the tragedy there's the odd bit of comedy, too.

Epic Monster Scale - Obviously, Pulgasari starts off small and grows to be huge. It certainly stomps through the countryside and smashes places up. No complaints there. There's also huge shots of thousands of extras, either fleeing from, or charging with, the monster. There's a lot of cannon explosions and burning balls catapulted around. It is an impressive sight for such an obscure film.

Production values - The costumes are bright and lively, with ridiculous hats. Amusing stuff. The thousands of extras were supposedly real soldiers. The monster suit isn't half bad - big daft eyes and layered armoured plating. There's a few scenes where actors are standing beside part of a huge foot or leg, and they work reasonably well. The model work is very good - Toho people were shipped in and created the miniature buildings, cannons, landscapes (and the suit - one of the Godzilla actors played the monster). There's some excellent detail in this work, with buildings collapsing in dust, smoke and fragments, which looks convincing. The scale shots of the little Pulgasari are fine, too, for the period. The matte shots of Pulgasari walking in the background as soldiers run in front are a bit chod, as the prints look very different. The scenery is frequently lovely, but there's some unpleasant dead animal scenes featured that add nothing to the film and leave a sour taste. Unnecessary trash, and the one feature about Eastern cinema that I truly despise. Richard Harrison made some observations about animal treatment on Godfrey Ho's sets (IFD films) that truly disgusted him, and a lack of care and respect for animals in Asian film of this period was all too common. The music is a bit Italian-esque, with synths.

Notes - We've heard about the director being a South Korean, who was kidnapped by the leader of North Korea, imprisoned for years, before being personally invited to direct this tale of workers rising against corrupt leaders. What I didn't know was the Toho connection, the fact that the director escaped from North Korea before this could be finished, and the fact that he remade the story over a decade later in the film The Adventures Of Galgameth. The trailer is practically identical, but has this cheesy kiddiness to it, that makes it look like an annoying version of Pulgasari's largely straight-laced effort.

Summary - I liked Pulgasari. It was better than I expected, and played out differently to a lot of kaiju films. The production values were mostly very good, and served to add a lot of charm to the film.

Originally posted on ntsc-uk


  1. I'm sure this is worth a watch out of curiosity alone, but I can't help but feel the backstory to this is more fascinating than the actual film.

  2. Probably. The film is a kaiju effort with the monster as a metaphor. It's setting is quite refreshing and I liked the way the monster was part of the story, rather than simply being THE story. Nevertheless, you're right - the history behind the film is extraordinary. The Japanese disc also included loads of production photos. The working conditions didn't look bad! Great work from Toho.