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KIM JONG IL’S MONSTER: THE MAKING OF PULGASARI

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Following on from Zak Hepburn’s ‘Top 5 Kaiju Beasts of Cinema‘ we have the story of the strangest monster movie ever made. Enjoy the story of the making of ‘Pulgasari’.

All great movie monsters are born out of death and destruction. For Frankenstein’s monster it was lightning, for Godzilla it was radiation and for Pulgasari it was the soul of Kim Jong-Il.

The making of the movie ‘Pulgasari’ is about the most unlikely story you’ll ever read. While it has many fantastical elements, it’s really just the simple story of a man who wanted to spread his message about the evils of uncontrolled capitalism to the enslaved nation of North Korea. Our story starts in the late 1970s. By this time Korea had divided into two nations; General Park Chung Hee ruled the south, while Kim Il-Sung the north. The only thing the two men could agree on is that the cinema needed to be suppressed and controlled at all costs. Both men put in place strict censorship laws that squeezed the life out of the Korean film industry. Park Chung Hee even went as far as shutting down the studio of Shin Sang-Ok who was known as the Orson Wells of South Korea. The Korean film industry might have died a slow death if it wasn’t for young cinema buff Kim Jong-Il. He wanted to make propaganda films inspiring films to show the world the righteousness of he Korean Workers’ Party. The Korean Workers’ Party is the only legal political party in North Korea. According to official sources it was established by Kim Jong-Il’s father when he was 14 years old.

Park Chung Hee: Ruler of South Korea. (left), and Kim Il-Sung: Ruler of North Korea (right).

Park Chung Hee: Ruler of South Korea. (left), and Kim Il-Sung: Ruler of North Korea (right).

I’m sure if you asked North Korean officials they would say that Shin was selected to be the premiere director of North Korea. Anyone else would say that he was kidnapped and forced to shoot films against his will. You see Kim Jong-Il was a big fan of Shin. I’m sure he would have hired him by traditional means if he could, but North and South Korea had been at war since 1951 and had no diplomatic relations. So Kimmy came up with a plan. He sent two agents to South Korea posing as film investors. They lured Shin Sang-ok and his partner Choi Eun-Hee to Hong Kong. There the agents managed to separate the two and chloroform them before finally transporting them to North Korea where they would spend the next eight years.

Chio Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok (left), Shin Sang-Ok while directing (Right).

Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok (left), Shin Sang-Ok while directing (Right).

Being ethically opposed to communism, Shin tried to escape but was soon re-captured. He was taken to an all-male prison camp where he assumed he’d spend the rest of his life. He spent four torturous years living on a diet of grass, salt, rice and Korean Workers’ Party indoctrination. He spent this time thinking about his beloved Hee. He had no idea if she was dead or alive. Then, as if for no rhyme or reason Shin was released and reunited with Hee. Soon they were both sitting across from Kim Jong-Il. Kim apologised for Shin’s extended stay in prison, saying that he would have addressed the matter sooner except that he was busy. He went on to express his disdain of North Korean cinema and his desire to transform the industry into something a whole lot more appealing. His first action would be to reopen Shin’s studio and employ him with a salary of $3M a year. Shin, no doubt bewildered by his situation, made the best of it and started churning out films. In 1984 Shin went on to create ‘Runaway’ which he considered his personal best. He also started formulating an escape plan. Lucky for Shin, Kim had written a book ‘On the Art of Cinema’. Shin studied it and was able to get into the head of Kim Jong-Il. He knew if he played into Kim’s game he could win his trust, lulling him into a false sense of security. 

‘Be loyal to the party and prove yourselves worthy of the trust it places in yourself” – Kim Jong-Il’s ‘On the Art of Cinema

Kim Jong Il - On the Art of The Cinema

Before he could escape, Shin had another monster to deal with: Pulgasari. Loosely based on a 14th-Century Koryo monarchy, and heavily inspired by Godzilla, ‘Pulgasari’ is about a wicked king who keeps his people in misery and starvation. That is until an old blacksmith, imprisoned by the king, creates a tiny figurine out of rice, which he infuses with his remaining life force. The figure is brought to life by the blood of his daughter. Pulgasari has an insatiable appetite for iron. Iron makes him grow into an unstoppable beast. He ends up freeing the people but at a high cost. Pulgasari eats all the iron in Korea, leaving them unable to do even basic things like farm and cook. This means Korea will now have to go to war with other nations over iron and it might result in the end of the world as they know it. Just in case I need it beat you over the head with an IRON BAR: Pulgasari is a metaphor for capitalism.

‘Pulgasari’ was a massive production that had over 700 people working on it. This is not including the thousands of extras used in the battle scenes. Kim had hired Toho studio top staff to do the special effects including Kenpachiro Satsuma who played Godzilla from 1984 to 1995 portrayed the monster Pulgasari.

Rare behind the scenes pictures Pulgasari.

Rare behind the scenes pictures Pulgasari.

Kim Jong-Il was extremely pleased with the finished film, immediately wanting to follow it up with a sequel.  Kim had made plans to do a joint venture with an Austrian company. He trusted Shin and Hee to go to Vienna, accompanied by an escort, to finalise the deal. There the couple had arranged to meet an old friend, who had a car waiting for them ready to hightail it to the American embassy. The embassy believed them as Hee took the precaution of audio recording their original meeting with Kim. Shin and Hee were free. Kim, humiliated, shelved the sequel along with Shin’s studio.

Kim Jong-Il on the set of Pulgasari

Kim Jong-Il on the set of ‘Pulgasari’

‘Pulgasari’ would remain unseen outside of North Korea until 1998, when Japanese film critics campaigned for its release. North Korea, needing the money, agreed. It bombed.

Shin was able to re-establish his career in North America but one wonders, was it really worth the effort. He went on to pseudo-remake ‘Pulgasari’ with ‘The Adventure of Galgameth’. He also produced the sequels ‘3 Ninja’s Kick Back’, ‘3 Ninja Knuckle Up’ (which he also directed) and ‘3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain’. I’m sure some days on the set he would have looked over at Hulk Hogan’s wig and longed to be back in North Korea. Not really, Shin Sang-Ok had an amazing life and you can read all about it in his autobiography ‘Kingdom of Kim’. You can also watch the full version of Kim Jong-Il’s masterpiece, ‘Pulgasari’, below.

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