Monday 26 December 2011

Kim Jong-il memorial edition

So. Farewell, Kim Jong-il. Mourned only by latter-day Stalinists, the Dear Leader inflicted unspeakable barbarities on his people: his love, as Philip Gourevitch says, was indistinguishable from contempt. But besides being a terroristic dictator, Kim Jong-il was also, improbably, the world's most evil cinephile.*

And he wasn't content with passively enjoying his collection of 20,000 tapes and DVDs. No, sir, Kim went out there and made films, none more famous than the subject of this review, the 1985 creature feature Pulgasari. Gojira rip-off though it may be, Pulgasari, in all its glory and inadequacy, remains a weirdly chilling testament to both the horrors and the odd ambition of North Korea.

Kim, who had written On the Art of the Cinema in 1973, was concerned about the North Korean film industry even while his father was still alive. His flunkeys could churn out turgid communist propaganda, but they lacked the grand vision the people's republic required.

Shin Sang-ok (1926-2006) was one of South Korea's most successful directors. With a string of hits during the fifties and sixties - the Golden Age of Korean cinema - Shin was praised even in the North for the 'dedication and faith in the people' his works displayed. When the military regime of Park Chung-hee closed down Shin's studios in 1978, Kim Jong-il saw an opportunity. His agents abducted Shin's ex-wife, the actress Choi Eun-Hee, in Hong Kong, then nabbed the director himself when he went to investigate.

If kidnapping is the sincerest form of flattery, Shin had little cause to appreciate the compliment at first. Making several attempts to escape after his arrival in Pyongyang, he was confined to prison for four years, where he subsisted on grass, salt and rice. It wasn't until 1983 that Shin and his ex-wife were released and reunited at a party organised by Kim. There, the Dear Leader's heir apparent explained his plans. The couple - who soon remarried at Kim's suggestion - were to live in luxury while Shin directed films for the regime, Kim overseeing him as executive producer. The arrangement worked for several years, until Shin and Choi managed to flee to the United States in 1986.

Their most prestigious - and most lavishly budgeted - project was Pulgasari. A giant monster film, Pulgasari grew naturally out of Kim's obsessions: besides gangster films and the Friday the 13th** series, he was also a fan of the Japanese Gojira movies. Korean gwoesu ('giant monster') films, based partly on the Japanese daikaijū tradition going back to King Kong, partly on native Korean storytelling traditions, were already a popular genre in the South. (The film was, in fact, given a limited release in Seoul in 1998, where it bombed.)

In fourteenth-century feudal Korea, the peasants are oppressed by an evil king (Pak Yong-hok). Rebels, led by Inde (Ham Gi-sop) are harrying the king's forces from the mountains. The governor (Pak Pong-ilk) has decided to melt down the peasants' farm tools and cooking pots to make weapons; this leads to a riot in which the village blacksmith (Ri Gwon) is arrested. He's starved into submission in prison, while his fellow prisoners go on hunger strike in solidarity. (It's worth noting the film was made before the famine of the 1990s killed millions of Koreans.) With his last strength, the blacksmith moulds a small figurine of a reptilian monster out of rice, and when he dies his spirit lives on in the creature.

Soon, the blacksmith's daughter Ami (Chang Son-Hui) and her brother Ana (Ri Jong-uk) discover that the figurine is alive, and hungry: having devoured Ami's needles, it begins eating all the available metal at the forge and turns into a rather cute child-sized creature ('Little Man' Machan, a Japanese actor and former midget wrestler). Pulgasari - the name of the creature, after a legendary monster - saves Inde from execution by the king's forces and joins the rebel army. The task facing General Fuan (Ri Riyonun) is to stop the gigantic beast through increasingly implausible schemes before it helps the ragtag bunch of rebels overrun the whole country.

As in most gwoesu films, the monster appears early and receives a great deal of screen time. Kim clearly decided nothing but the best would do, thus guaranteeing the only reason anyone outside North Korea ever saw Pulgasari: the monster was created by the legendary Toho Studios, the home of Gojira. By guaranteeing safe passage, Kim managed to convince Nakano Teruyoshi to sign on as special effects director, while Satsuma Kenpachiro, who'd played Gojira before and would do so again, was the man in the monster suit.

Satsuma gives by far the best performance in the film. Compared to the overacting of Ham and Chang (on whose distraught face Shin lavishes countless close-ups), Satsuma manages to convey a range of emotions using body language alone (the other actors seem to have redubbed many of their lines). But he's overshadowed by the terrible monster design (it's sort of like Gojira, only with horns and worse in every single way) and the too-obvious special effects trickery. Pulgasari is virtually never seen in the same frame as the actors, except when human-sized, but I'd love to see the six-foot needles they must have used for an early scene.

Pulgasari is revolutionary propaganda: the monster creates a fictional scenario in which agrarian communism triumphs over the evil of feudalism. But there are rather sinister undertones to this superficially simple narrative. In the course of the film, Pulgasari increasingly overshadows the human characters both literally and metaphorically (Inde, our ostensible protagonist early in the film, is eventually killed by the king's soldiers in a throwaway scene). What's more, any 'faith in the people' is rather undercut by the fact that they're shown to be quite helpless until bailed out by a hundred-foot reptilian monster that singlehandedly accomplishes the liberation mere human resistance couldn't.

For this reason it's tempting to read the film as a fictionalised version of the DPRK's founding myth, with Pulgasari as a metaphor for Kim Il-sung. In that case the film's ending becomes even more intriguing. After killing the king and establishing a peasants' republic, Pulgasari - who, recall, turns swords into sustenance without going by way of ploughshares - begins to consume all the metal in the land. Soon the peasants are forced to offer Pulgasari their pots, pans and tools. Realising that the monster is unwittingly destroying the people, Ami convinces Pulgasari to turn to stone (or something like that: the ending is terrifically unclear).

It's otherwise a watchable film: not good, certainly, but Shin's work is competent at least, and the scene of Pulgasari's creation is really quite beautiful (if hindered rather than helped by the soundtrack, a very 1980s combination of synthesizers and traditional Korean music). The martial arts choreography, too, is efficient even if it never shines (the hundreds of extras are real-life North Korean soldiers, apparently). But beneath the feel-good propaganda of Pulsagari, a Stalinist horror lurks.

*In a world where Michael Bay and Eli Roth continue to find funding, that's saying something.
**I, of course, prefer the morally much less objectionable Halloween series.

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