What’s more insane: This movie or its backstory?
In the late 1960s, Kim Jong-il, heir to the North Korean dictatorship at the time, became interested in making propaganda films.
Kim was already deeply fascinated by film. He had even established an underground operation to obtain bootleg copies of international films that were banned in North Korea for his viewing pleasure, expressly against the wishes of his father, national leader Kim Il-sung.
The younger Kim reportedly amassed a library of more than 15,000 titles, particularly enjoying the James Bond and Rambo franchises.
In the 1960s, Kim became fascinated in making films himself. Fortunately for him, it was at that point that his father began to place more responsibility on Kim, who was installed as director of the Motion Picture and Arts Division in the Propaganda and Agitation Department of North Korea.
Kim’s early movies focused on the anti-Japanese struggle of Kim Il-sung and his comrades in Manchuria during the 1930s. While these films helped Kim curry favor with his father, they were unfulfilling for the young movie lover.
He bemoaned that his casts and crew were far inferior in skill to those employed by Western productions and that his employees were unmotivated and lazy.
It was then that Kim began to obsess over Shin Sang-ok, the hottest director/producer in South Korea at the time.
In 1978, Shin had already created more than 60 movies and was well respected in the industry, but his future career was in jeopardy after his studio was shut down by the repressive South Korean government.
Kim believed that Shin was the only director that could save the North Korean movie industry, and began to create a complex plan to capture the director.
Kim lured Shin’s recently divorced wife, South Korean movie star Choi Eun-hee, with a forged message offering her a directing position in Hong Kong. Once there, Kim arranged for the actress to be abducted and brought to North Korea.
As planned by Kim, Shin began searching for his captured ex-wife and traveled to Hong Kong to try to find her, where he was chloroformed and abducted by North Korean agents.
Shin attempted to escape the tyrannical nation multiple times, resulting in him being imprisoned in a North Korean prison camp where he lived on a diet of grass, salt, rice, and ideological indoctrination.
“I experienced the limits of human beings,” Shin wrote of his experience there. After four years of imprisonment, in 1986, Kim was convinced that Shin was ready to start making films, and released Shin and Choi from their confinement and brought them to a meeting.
Shin and Choi had each not known that the other was being held in North Korea and were elated to see each other alive.
The two were brought before Kim, where, in a speech secretly recorded by Choi, he explained his plan for the couple. He wanted them to produce communist propaganda for him and to claim that they had come to North Korea to escape government repression in the South.
Shin agreed to cooperate with the dictator and was immediately put to work directing Kim’s propaganda films. Shin and Choi also remarried, on the recommendation of Kim.
“I hated communism, but I had to pretend to be devoted to it, to escape from this barren republic,” Shin recalls. “It was lunacy.”
While in North Korean captivity, Shin and Choi were showered with gifts and lived in some of the greatest luxury that the country could muster.
Despite this treatment, Shin said that, “To be in Korea living a good life ourselves and enjoying movies while everyone else was not free was not happiness, but agony.”
As a director for North Korean, Shin created seven movies, the most perplexing, as well as the last, of them being the 1986 Godzilla rip-off Pulgasari.
Pulgasari tells the story of an iron-eating Godzilla knock-off molded out of rice and blood by an elderly imprisoned blacksmith. The titular monster’s hunger for iron drives him to overthrow a villainous emperor, but then renders him the villain when he threatens the very resources of the farmers who supported him.
In order to create the special effects for the film, Kim stayed true to his methods and tricked a Japanese special effects team, the one who created the original Godzilla movies, to come to North Korea when they believed they were to work on a film in China.
What they created was a goofy, disjointed film that included a rubber puppet attacking swords and a despotic emperor whose attitude actually bore a resemblance to that of Kim himself. Its anticapitalist message is obscured by its bizarre central character.
Despite these issues, the film was a hit in North Korea, and Kim began looking for foreign distributors for the film so that he could spread his propaganda across the world. He began talks with a distributor in Austria, and later that year, Shin and Choi traveled to Vienna to meet with them.
It was there that the couple would make their escape. With the help of a Japanese movie critic friend, Shin and Choi were able to lose the North Korean agent supervising them and make their way to the American embassy where they were granted political asylum.
This escape outraged Kim, and Pulgasari was pulled from theaters around the country.
Due to this limited release, Pulgasari was virtually unseen outside of North Korea until it was given international release in 1998 in a rare period of greater openness from the North Korean government.
While the filmed bombed at South Korean theaters, it slowly began to gain a cult following worldwide for its eccentricities. Now the film can be found at underground and cult movie theaters around the world.
Somehow, despite how insane this movie can be, its absurdity is continually upstaged by the insanity of its backstory.