PULGASARI: Kim Jong Il’s Kaiju Film

North Korean president Kim Jong Il has died, and cinema has lost one of its greatest supporters - a man who wanted to make movies so badly he kidnapped filmmakers.

Whatever else gets said about Kim Jong-Il in the coming days - that he was a madman, that he was a despot, that he brought his nation to its knees and starved his own people to death - let's not forget that he was also a huge fan of the movies. He had a massive collection of films - 15,000 or more - and was on the record as a big fan of James Bond films, as well as a lover of the Rambo and Friday the 13th franchises. Even before he became the president of North Korea he saw that cinema was the way to escalate the image of his nation in the eyes of the world. Over the years Kim Jong-Il has worked on dozens of film, and he even wrote a book on the subject, called On The Art of Cinema

But perhaps his greatest cinematic moment came with Pulgasari, a kaiju movie made in 1985. That the dictator of North Korea should 'executive produce' a monster movie that was a thinly veiled critique of capitalism is one thing, that he should kidnap a South Korean filmmaker to get it done is something else altogether. 

Kim recognized that North Korea didn't offer the proper talent pool to make great films, so he arranged to get himself a filmmaker. In 1978 Choe Eun-hui, a South Korean movie star, disappeared in Hong Kong. Her husband, Shin Sang-ok - a famous director known as "The Prince of Korean Cinema" - came to Hong Kong in an attempt to find her. It wasn't long before Shin ended up with a burlap sack over his head, was knocked out by some kind of gas, and woke up on a ship, wrapped in plastic. He had been kidnapped by North Korean agents. That Kim Jong-Il always did know how to make things cinematic. The two South Koreans were taken to Pyongyang to make movies for The People.

Shin's initial living situation was okay, but then he tried to escape and ended up in jail, living on cornmeal and grass - making him better fed than most North Koreans. After five years Kim Jong-Il brought him out and in 1983 Sang-ok began making movies for Korea. This was also when he was finally reunited with his wife, a moment that the dictator commemorated with a huge party and an apology. Shin would later say that the North Korean film crews were fine, and made up of good people. 'Just 200 or so were evil, and they were in charge,' he told the Guardian in 2003.

Shin was given a budget of $3 million a year, and he eventually turned out seven films for Kim. Among other landmarks, Shin's movies depicted the first onscreen kiss in any North Korean film. His hosts were friendly enough, but the director was forced to claim that he was in North Korea willingly and that he had defected. But Shin had a plan... (more on that later).

Kim Jong-Il likes Godzilla movies. A lot. So one of the films that he had Shin make was a riff on Japan's kaiju cinema; Pulgasari is the tale of a small doll that magically comes to life when it touches blood. The doll grows into a giant, metal-eating monster who first helps the local peasants overthrow their feudal lord but whose demand for metal overwhelms the farming communities, who must feed the beast their tools to satisfy it. The monster that helped them turns on them, and must be destroyed - a story of capitalism (with its endless demand for resources) run amok.

Pulgasari is terrible, but it's notable for featuring man-in-suit effects by Teruyoshi Nakano, the special effects director of the Godzilla movies since the 70s (he had been working on the films since the 60s). Nakano was convinced that he would be allowed to return to Japan, and so he brought with him his team of Toho technicians, including Kenpachiro Satsuma, who had played Godzilla in numerous films. Satsuma played Pulgasari, and supposedly (according to Wikipedia and a shady looking North Korean website) preferred Pulgasari to the American Godzilla. Then again, who wouldn't.

Pulgasari played very briefly outside of North Korea, becoming something of a cult classic and a truly hard film to find (at one time). Shin and his wife managed to escape Kim Jong-Il's clutches while in Vienna for a film festival. The two raced to the American embassy (in an actual car chase) where they applied for asylum. While the official North Korean party line was that Shin and his wife had defected, the South Koreans had made secret recordings of Kim Jong Il that proved otherwise - and that had him talking about how flawed North Korea's form of socialism was, and how the nation was at the kindergarten level of technology. Lots of bad, bad stuff about his own country, basically.

Shin moved to America, where he worked under the name Simon Sheen. He directed 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up and produced a couple more 3 Ninjas films, which is surely not all that different from working in North Korea. Most amazingly Shin worked on a movie that was essentially a remake of Pulgasari; he was actually very proud of his kaiju film. The American version is called The Legend of Galgameth, which sees a prince teaming up with a metal-eating dragon to save his kingdom.

Eventually Shin moved back to South Korea and made some more movies. He was working on a Genghis Khan musical (really) when he died in 2006; Shin was posthumously awarded the Gold Crown Cultural Medal, the highest award an artist can get in South Korea. I don't know how North Korea marked his passing.