As anyone who has ever seen M*A*S*H knows, the country of Korea has long been at war with itself. Still, that hasn't stopped North Korea's "Supreme Leader" Kim Jong-il's love of South Korean films. In particular, he enjoys the work of Sang-ok Shin and admires his oeuvre so much, he had the director kidnapped and brought to North Korea. Shin eventually escaped (and would go on to direct such classics as 3 Ninjas: Knuckles Up) but not before he directed this daikaiju film for Jeong-il.
The story of Pulgasari (aka Bulgasari) has many antecedents in both myth and pop culture. It bears similarities to "The Golem of Prague", the Daimajin series, and even Gojira. However, I feel the film it most closely resembles, in spirit anyway, is Mighty Joe Young.
The story takes place in feudal Korea. The evil king (Yong-hok Pak), who has displays of histrionics that would put Fred Sanford to shame, regularly raids small farming villages, confiscating iron to manufacture weapons. Opposing him are the rebels, led by Inde (Ham Gi Sop), blacksmith Takse's (Gwon Ri) apprentice and Barry Prima impersonator.
When Takse is tortured and imprisoned for helping the rebels hide iron from the king's men, the old man blames an iron-eating monster named "Pulgasari." Takse's son, Ana (Jong-uk Ri) and daughter Ami (Chang Son Hui) throw rice into his cell for Takse to eat, but the blacksmith, knowing his days are numbered, fashions the food into a tiny figurine of the titular monster and prays to the gods to let it take revenge for his people's suffering. A drop of Ami's blood animates the tiny creature, and it is soon discovered that the beast has an insatiable appetite for all things metal. As the monster grows to giant proportions, Ami conscripts it into the rebels' struggle with the king.
Pulgasari, as a character, walks a thin line between force of nature and purposeful protagonist. He has a personality (of a sort), but his actions are dictated more by plot needs than any type of attempt at individuation. Sometimes he does as Ami wants, and sometimes as he was made to do. The link between Pulgasari and Ami is emphasized in the film's second half, and it has an interesting, if ultimately confusing, conclusion.
Unlike other movies in this genre, there's a definite sense that General Fuan's (Riyonun Ri) soldiers actually have a chance of defeating the giant. All too often, you know that everything an army throws at a monster like Godzilla or Gamera will only bounce off or, at best, slow him down. that's why daikaiju movies work best when there is another monster to fight. The odds are more evenly matched. That said, Fuan's traps, though large and constructed on unrealistically met schedules, do instill a confidence in their effectiveness.
The special effects are the meat and taters of the film, and their director, Teruyoshi Nakano, delivers nicely. Though there's some dodgy rear projection shots, and Pulgasari's size fluctuates from shot to shot, the monster's design and construction are solid. The miniature work is also effective and shot convincingly. Even the full-size Pulgasari feet never come off poorly.
The movie maintains a nice pace, not through its use of the m0nster but through the story of the rebels' fight. The two sides go back and forth with one, then the other gaining the upper hand. The battle scenes, while a bit on the sloppy side, have enough action to revive interest whenever the story slows down. It can be argued, in fact, that without this structure, the film would not be as good as it is.
The movie doesn't rely solely on military or physical aspects in its conflicts. There are magical and even spiritual facets that are touched on. Granted, they are entertained only long enough to move us to the next plot point, but that they're brought up at all is admirable. This leads into the Golem-influenced resolution, where the film deals with the problem of what to do with a being like Pulgasari (essentially a living weapon) after its (military) usefulness has expired. The solution feels inevitable, but there is a sequence in the film's final moments that may have you scratching your head.
Pulgasari is far from a perfect film. The acting is manic and overwrought. The editing has a tendency to violate the rules of Time and Space. Nonetheless, there's more in the "Plus" column than in the "Minus" column by film's end. It's not a classic by any stretch, but it is a solid, entertaining entry in the genre. Who would have thunk it?
MVT: Pulgasari - a nice character design and some good special effects work are the flame for moths like me.
Make or Break: The underlying narrative, while fairly boilerplate and sometimes repetitive, keeps moving along nicely, and the conflicts therein generate interest enough. That'd be a "Make" for me.