Starring: Chang Son Hui, Ham Gi Sop, Gwon Ri
Director: Shin Sang-ok
Running Time: 95 mins
Pulgasari is a North Korean film about a small town in feudal Korea where a powerful rules over the peasants with an iron fist. However, when one resident is beaten, arrested and eventually dies, his final wish comes true, that small lizard toy will grow into a large monster, and live to defend his family and the townspeople from brutal rule.
Yes, this is basically a North Korean attempt at Godzilla. And it doesn’t even fall into the so-bad-it’s-good category, simply because it’s just a poor film. Although it boasts excellent production values for its circumstances, it fails to grip you as an entertaining monster movie, completely lacking in character development, with big action the name of the game from start to finish.
Let’s start off on the plus side first, however, with the production values. Although it looks totally out of place when compared to American blockbusters of the 1980s, you have to say that this isn’t all that bad a film for North Korea of all places.
Directed by a once famous South Korean director, Shin Sang-ok (how and why he came to direct it is fascinating*), and also featuring assistance on the special effects from Teruyoshi Nakano and others, the people who worked on the original Godzilla movie, the film looks pretty passable for the era and country of origin, even though the large monster, Pulgasari himself, isn’t particularly impressive.
However, as the original Godzilla’s success and the failure of countless monster movies since proved, you can’t make the genre work without a compelling story. Now, on the one front, the film does have the big monster on the side of the protagonists, fighting against the iron-fisted king in honour of the deceased man’s wishes. However, that means he feels even less relevant to the story as a big monster.
Sure, in part, he represents the strength of the peasantry fighting off the landowners, and in that you can see a bit of propaganda, but in truth, this film can just be watched as a simple blockbuster, with barely anything in the way of pushy North Korean propaganda as per normal.
But even without propaganda, the story just isn’t good enough. Pulgasari himself wasn’t too impressive to me given the fact that he’s a good guy, and the special effects, while passable, aren’t stunning for the era, and all of the human characters were just generic shells that had very little in the way of a compelling emotional background. They’re oppressed, and then they rise up. That’s about it, and it’s not really enough to get you engrossed in what’s actually happening, or even to simply support their cause.
So, while there are positives to be taken from this movie in relation to what North Korean films are normally like, it’s a very boring watch, with a terrible story and dull action from start to finish, and that’s why I’m giving it a 5.5 overall.
*But instead of wasting your time with this, go and watch the story of how South Korean director Shin Sang-ok ended up directing this, and numerous other North Korean films: ‘The Lovers And The Despot‘.