Friday, January 29, 2010

The People's Monster

Here's the scene:

The late seventies was a difficult time for acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok. His marriage to actress Choi Eun-hee had ended in an unhappy divorce and his career was in a slump. The once prolific director was frustrated by censorship of his films at the hands of the South Korean government. Unwilling to yield to their demands, his studio was dissolved in 1978. It appeared that his tenure as South Korea's premier filmmaker had drawn to a close.

Later that year, Shin received word that his ex-wife had vanished while pursuing an acting job in Hong Kong. Concerned for her safety and thinking the worst, Shin departed to Hong Kong to investigate but could find no trace of her. Remarkably, the situation only worsened from there. Shin was attacked by two men while walking to a restaurant, and was knocked unconscious with chloroform. When he awoke, he found that he had been kidnapped and was en route to North Korea. He spent the following four years in a prison, enduring attempts at brainwashing while surviving on a diet of rice and salt, all while trying to determine why exactly he had been captured. He made several attempts to escape, but all failed.

In 1983, Shin was released and was astonished to be reunited with his wife, whom he learned had been kidnapped back in 1978. The two were escorted to a party and came face to face with Kim Jong-il, son of then-president Kim Il-Sung. Kim explained that he had made it his personal mission to revamp the stagnant North Korean film industry. A true movie buff (aparently listing the James Bond and Friday the 13th franchises as his favorite films) Kim wanted to produce movies that would demonstrate the true granduer of the Worker's Party of Korea. Shin had been kidnapped to bring some new talent and fresh ideas to the table. For the next three years, Shin made movies for the North Koreans, under the careful scrutiny of the future dictator.

The result? Meet Pulgasari, the Monster of the Month.

At the insistance of Kim Jong-il (who was fond of Japan's Godzilla series in spite of the usual anamosity between the two countries) Shin had the thankless task of creating a giant monster film that showcased both communist values and the North Korean ideal of the "spirit of self-reliance." The result was bizarre film that featured a scaly, metal-eating minotaur called Pulgasari. The enormous creature was employed against a cruel emporer by the farmers he oppressed.

Shin was somehow able to convince Kim to enlist in the aid of Japanese special-effects artists and actors who had previously been involved in Godzilla movies. Within the rubbery Pulgasari suit was Kenpachiro Satsuma, who had previously portrayed Godzilla in several of those films. Pulgasari was released to theaters in Korea and Japan in 1985. The following year, Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee escaped to Vienna and then to the United States, dashing any hopes that Kim Jong-il might have had for making a sequel.

Sadly, this unique movie received only spotty distribution on VHS and has never had a proper release on DVD. As for the film's creators, Shin Sang-Ok directed the 3 Ninjas series in the 1990's, sadly dying in 2004 before he could begin work on a biography of Genghis Khan. Kim Jong-il continues to dominate the people of North Korea through his brutal State Security Department and an insidious cult of personality. Word is that they've gotten the bomb too.

-Listen to this story from NPR's Day to Day


  1. Pulgasari's got nothing on the Host.

  2. I wanna see a patriotic, free market monster like King Kong take the pain to this Axis of Evil city-stomper.

  3. I demand more Hyper Kitchen!