Pulgasari

Pulgasari. Korean Film Studio 1985.
Pulgasari. Korean Film Studio 1985.

Before watching the movie:

I’m not sure if this will work, but I’m going to experiment with something different. I’ve gotten into foreign movies a little bit before, but this is much more out what I’m familiar with than the others. I haven’t even seen a Godzilla movie before. So I’m not sure how well this will connect with me. I’m going ahead anyway, because I want to spend a while escaping from ideologies, dictators, monsters, and country-destroyers with a propaganda movie produced by a dictator about a monster destroying a country.

After watching the movie:

In a farming village impoverished by a bad harvest on top of a cruel Governor, many young men choose to leave their downtrodden law abiding lives to become bandits. In order to fight the gang of bandits, the Governor orders Takse, the elderly village blacksmith to forge weapons for the army made from melting down farming tools seized from the villagers, but Takse secretly has his neighbors reclaim their stolen tools in the night.  Refusing to tell the Governor where he has hidden the government iron, Takse is imprisoned, beaten, and starved. In his cell, he sculpts a model of a legendary monster, the Pulgasari, and with his dying breath, wishes it to help the people he could not. Animated by a drop of his daughter Ami’s blood, the tiny beast comes to life with a voracious appetite for iron. Though it at first eats the villagers’ tools, it proves to be a valiant fighter for them against the forces of the Governor and later the King, as the band of bandits grows into the Farmers’ Army and, fed on the iron weapons of the government soldiers, Pulgasari grows into an unstoppable, insatiable giant.

This story isn’t as much a story about a monster as the hero of the people as it is about a people’s rebellion that happens to have a monster on its side. As well as a lengthy origin, there’s a long stretch where it seems to completely forget about Pulgasari while the town and the bandits that left it merge into a revolutionary army and the Governor is generally continuing to be despicable. Eventually the monster joins the fight, but then it becomes a series of attempts by the King and his General that will definitely stop it until it shrugs off the assault again. Which would probably be more interesting if I was supposed to be supporting the King, but that’s propaganda for you.

None of the villagers other than the blacksmith and his daughter really stand out much. The story holds a lot of regard for his two sons and his nephew who is the leader of the bandits, but they were just kind of there, and they fade away for long stretches, as well as not all of them making it to the end. I expected the Governor to be important, but the insurrection quickly goes over his head and becomes the King’s problem. Mostly though, it’s just about the relationship among the People, the King, Ami, and Pulgasari.

The most important part is only in the last five minutes or so, and is widely considered to be the filmmaker’s deliberate undercutting of the intended message (for reasons that have become the subject of a documentary and are probably more interesting than a lot of Korean Film Studio’s works). It gets talked about disproportionately to the rest of the story to the point that it sounds like it accounts for more like the last third of the movie, but it simply lingers after victory to ask what happens to the demon that led you to victory when the fight is over.

The parts of the story that were people to people were quite interesting. The parts that were the unstoppable force of destruction against another obstacle weren’t so much. Maybe they would have been better with more convincing effects, but they weren’t bad for the time and the budget. The power of the People (allied with a supernatural monster) is ultimately what’s on display, with a warning that the monster may not be so easy to control when the battle is won.

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