The ultimate spoiled rich kid, Kim Jong-il, is also a wannabe movie maker.
In addition to being the national movie critic, he has written a Marxist book on the art of cinema. Yet his personal tastes in cinema have been anything but Marxist: the sketchy information gleaned from the other side of the Bamboo Curtain alleges he’s a big fan of Elizabeth Taylor and Godzilla. His fixation on the second of these icons perhaps led him to produce his most famous and notorious film, PULGASARI.
To be truthful, the backstory on the making of PULGASARI is more interesting than the movie’s narrative. In a scenario out of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE Kim Jong-il ordered the kidnapping of prolific and popular South Korean movie director Shin Sang-ok, who was drugged then brought to North Korea. (First, the director’s wife was abducted in Hong Kong; when Shin arrived to investigate he was taken too.) Initially well treated, Shin was thrown in prison after an escape attempt, where he survived on a diet of rice, grass and salt.
Shin was reunited with his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee, when both were granted an audience with Kim after more than four years in captivity. According to The Guardian, the Dear Leader apologized to his captives for taking so long to get back to them personally, claiming he had been busy at the office.
(North Korea officially denied the abduction but Shin’s wife, risking the firing squad, hid a cassette recorder in her purse during a conversation between her husband and Kim. That 45 minute Side A was broadcast on South Korea radio, blowing the story wide open.)
Eventually released from prison but not allowed to return home, Shin made seven films while in captivity with Kim Jong-il acting as executive producer. The only one widely seen outside North Korea was his Kaiju (monster) movie, PULGASARI.
For Jong-il’s magnum opus, director Shin was allowed to bring in Japanese special effects honcho Teruyoshi Nakano (whose work included the amazingly cool GODZILLA 1985). With a guarantee of safe return to Japan, Nakano imported most of his creative team, including the actor who worked inside Godzilla’s rubber dinosaur suit.
The monster Pulgasari was initially a tiny figure crafted by a starving, imprisoned village blacksmith from his last mouthful of rice. Brought to life with a drop of the blood from the blacksmith’s virgin daughter, Pulgasari grew to a metal-eating Godzilla-like monster whose size and strength increased grew with each mouth of metal consumed. Although he helped the peasants in their fight against oppressive warlords, he also impoverished them by his insatiable hunger for metal. (Coud the director have been slipping in some wry commentary on the film’s executive producer?)
Aside from a cheesy synthesizer score, the most confounding element of the film is the lack of professionalism in the extras (and there are plenty of them). The bit-players and spear-carriers are way too careless, imprecise and unconvincing in creating atmosphere. For people living under the guidance of a military dictatorship, you’d think they’d have been more disciplined on screen.
As for the fates of director Shin and his wife: Kim Jong-il eventually trusted his cinema team and began to dote on them (giving the director an annual salary of three million dollars, but nowhere to spend it). In 1986 they were allowed to travel on business to Vienna where they broke away from their guards, and — after a high-speed chase — received asylum at the U.S. Embassy.