Pulgasari: History And Review



Happy Chinese New Year 2021! The year of the ox! Last year was the year of the rat and I dove into the history of the lost kaiju film, Nezura. This year being the year of the ox, I want to dig into a more controversial movie. One that kaiju fans still talk about to this day and that movie is Pulgasari. What I will be doing here is give you a history lesson of the movie and give my review on the movie. The source I will be using for the history of the movie will be from the book titled "A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Incredible True Story of North Korea and the Most Audacious Kidnapping in History." I recommend reading it to get a more detailed version of the movie's history.


The History of Pulgasari:


From 1954 to 1975, Godzilla became a world wide cultural icon. Godzilla became so popular that North Korea's Supreme leader, Kim Jong-Il, was a fan of the movies himself. If there are any other interests this dictator had other than torturing people it was watching movies and over time, he would have collected over a thousand bootleg copies of movies outside of North Korea. This lead to his desire to produce movies of his own. His father, Kim Il-Sung, didn't think highly of the idea of his son producing movies. He saw it as a distraction. However, Kim Il-Sung also saw potential to spread propaganda pieces by letting his son produce films.


Since the people of North Korea are not experienced in making movies at all. This lead to Kim Jong-Il kidnapping South Korean director, Shin Sang-Ok, and actress, Choi Eun-Hee in 1978. Shin and Choi were married at one point and Choi was starred in the majority of Shin's films. They would divorce later on and Choi would remarry South Korea's President, Park Chung-Hee.


Using his knowledge from James Bond films and learning that Shin would chase after Choi if she was in danger, Kim invited Choi to Hong Kong for to audition for a movie. As it turned out, Choi was kidnapped at the location spot where the audition was suppose to be held. While Shin was in America hoping to restart his film career, he would get a message about Choi's disappearance in Hong Kong. Just as Kim predicted, Shin flew to Hong Kong to search for Choi and was kidnapped by North Korean operatives.


Shin (left) and Choi (right) with Kim Jong-Il (middle)

While Shin was being tortured at North Korea's prison, Choi was being chauffeured around by Kim to plays and banquets to get Choi to feel comfortable around him and talked into switching sides. When Kim and Choi were first introduced, Kim broke the ice with a joke saying, "Come on, Madame Choi, what do you think: How do I look? I'm small as a midget's turd, aren't I?" Choi almost laughs unsure how to react to Kim's ice breaker. During her time spent hanging around with Kim, she realizes she needed to put on her best acting performance to save her life. Choi would even come into contact with Catherine Hong, an abductee from China. The two would become friends and learning that Catherine is Catholic, Choi decides to convert to Catholicism and Catherine would perform Choi's baptism in an area where they couldn't be found by North Korean authorities.


During his two and a half years spent in prison, Shin would two attempts to escape. After his second attempt, he was banned from talking with the other inmates. There were many times he would try to commit suicide or starve himself to death. All attempts failed every time as the guards would catch his every attempt. Shin would regularly receive the poorest medical treatment or be force fed just so Shin is kept alive and Sung would interrogate Shin afterwards telling him how pitiful he looked. Shin would even describe the unimaginable horror of the living conditions in the prison and the rules he had to follow.


On March 6, 1983, Shin would come to an agreement with the Deputy Director that he wouldn't try escaping North Korea anymore if he and Choi lived together. Shin would finally reunite with Choi and meet Kim Jong-Il face to face. Kim would announce that Shin would become his official film advisor, Choi as his official representative for all Korean women, and that Shin and Choi will hold a wedding ceremony on the Great Leader's birthday - April 15th. Shin realized that if he and Choi had never divorced, then they would have been celebrating their twenty-ninth wedding anniversary.


Shin would begin making films for North Korea on October 20, 1983, with his first film An Emissary of No Return, which was based on a stage play that was written by Kim Jong-Il. Other movies Shin directed includes Love, Love, My Love (1984), Runaway (1984), Salt (1985), The Tale of Shim Chong (1985), and his final movie, Pulgasari (1986).


After watching The Return of Godzilla, Kim decided it was time for North Korea to have a monster movie to claim as their own. Shin and his crew were unfamiliar with the techniques used in the Godzilla films, so this required having to "outsource" people that are. Kim sent agents to Japan and kidnapped the special effects crew and Godzilla actor, Kenpachiro Satsuma, from the Godzilla parent studio, TOHO Co., tricking them into thinking they were being hired for a big-budget Hollywood film that was being filmed in China.


Even though Kim Jong-Il loves Godzilla movies, he would only talk to the Korean film crew and would stay far away from the Japanese film crew due to his anti-Japanese sentiments. Satsuma and Shin would actually sit down to a conversation and Satsuma was fascinated that Shin was hoping to make a film in Japan one day. Satsuma would then ask Shin if he was planning to go back to South Korea and Shin's response was, "It would be too complicated, politically, to go back." The conversation simply ended with that.


Pulgasari would run behind schedule constantly. This is due to constant power outages and inadequate special effects equipment. Either Satsuma or the special effects director, Teroyuki Nakano, would have to request new equipment after North Korean technicians would steal the tools they needed.


By December 28th, 1985, Pulgasari wrapped up filming and was released several months later hailing as Shin's best film in North Korea. Shin and Choi would be sent together on tours to promote the movie at film festivals. One of those film festivals Shin and Choi would be sent to was in Vienna, Austria. After arriving in Vienna, the couple would find themselves staying at the Intercontinental Vienna and Shin noticed the person at the front desk was Japanese. The night preceding the escape, he contacted the front desk and asked for the Japanese employee to come up to the room. The man knocked on the door and Shin pulled him in quickly, whispered to him that he was seeking asylum in the United States, slipped a note in the man's hand, and shoved him out the door. The note read in English: "We are Shin Sang-Ok and Choi Eun-Hee, husband and wife. We want to take refuge in the U.S. Embassy." And below that it read in Japane