A Special Report by Kaiju Search-Robot Avery
The history of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il’s propagandist foray into the giant monster genre is a more convoluted one than has previously been known.
Our story begins back in the year 1978 with the kidnapping of South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok and his wife by North Korean intelligence, under orders of Kim Jong-il, son of Kim II Song the ruler of the country at the time. They were to be kept there under house arrest for many years to come. Kim, being the avid fanatic of cinema that he was, ordered Shin to make several films for him.
One of these films was an epic fantasy adaptation of the Korean legend of Pulgasari, the Iron-Eating Monster.
The film depicts the titular monster as an ominous horned devil-like giant demon – one that, according to legend, is summoned to exact revenge for those who had been wronged by the oppressive Emperor and his armies. It was decided that the film would incorporate suitmation techniques not unlike those being used in the popular “Godzilla” series from Japan. Being a fan of the Toho company’s famed film series, Kim would not let the kaiju eiga influence end there. He even went so far as to hire several staff members from the Japanese outfit to contribute to his production. He placed the company’s Teruyoshi Nakano in charge of the special effects and hired Kenpachiro Satsuma to portray the title character. Kenpachiro was the then-current “Godzilla” suit actor and had just portrayed the “King Of The Monsters” in the film Return Of Godzilla [aka Godzilla 1985].
Before Pulgasari could be completed, however, Shin Sang-ok and his wife escaped, defecting to the West in an operation somewhat reminiscent of a James Bond film. In order to complete the project, Kim Jong-il replaced Shin with director Chon Gon Jo.
Pulgasari would remain on the shelf until the early 1990s when North Korea attempted to market it outside of the country. It was not until 1998 that distribution rights were finally sold to Japan.
The film then received a limited theatrical release there and become a moderate success. Later, in the year 2000, it would return to Korea — this time given a theatrical release in South Korea. The film wasn’t as huge a success there as was hoped. Upon its release, Shin Sang-ok made a failed attempt to sue for the rights to return his name to the director’s credit. The film was subsequently sold to America and released directly to video.
In 1996 Shin changed his name to Simon Sheen and remade his beloved work in the United States under the new title Galgameth [aka The Adventures Of Galgameth; Legend Of Galgameth]. This version is a more juvenile-themed take on the story.
But the story doesn’t end there. Or rather it didn’t even begin there — with the kidnapping of Shin Sang-ok and the making of Pulgasari. It is little known among kaiju fans that Galgameth would be the third film adaptation of the famed legend of ‘The Iron-Eating Monster’. ‘Third’ version, you say? Surprising but true! Shin’s original film was in fact itself a remake. Apparently the story had been brought to the big screen many years prior to these events, originally adapted by director Kim Myeong-jae as Bulgasari [aka Pulgasari; The Iron-Eating Monster; Starfish] in 1962. Little is known about this version as it is considered a ‘lost’ film. Not until recently did we have any sort of clue as to the nature of the film. The discovery of two promotional posters has given some indication as to the monster’s appearance:
The Korean Film Archive, along with some basic production and release credits, offers the following plot synopsis:
During the later years of Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), a talented martial artist is murdered. His resentment makes him born again as Bulgasari, a monster that grinds and eats up iron. The monster takes his revenge on the traitors responsible for his death.
Who knows if Bulgasari will ever surface or if it is indeed lost in filmdom’s distant past, never to be seen again by human eyes?
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Thanks to Avery Battles for preparing this article — the Backbrain
The Backbrain’s review of Pulgasari can be read here.