At the welcoming party for the East Asian Languages and Cultures department at Columbia, I met a visiting scholar from Japan whose research focuses on Godzilla as a global phenomenon. Happily, I was able to tell her about Pulgasari, which she’d never heard of: a North Korean Godzilla movie from the 1980s. (The trailer is full of explosions and highlights the hwacha, a sort of primitive rocket launcher that Koreans are rather proud of.)
I have never actually watched Pulgasari — I need to get to it one of these days — but the story of the making of Pulgasari is one of the very weirdest tales in all of cinema. In 1978, North Korean agents kidnapped the Korean actress Choi Eun-hee in Hong Kong. Her ex-husband, the prominent director Shin Sang-ok, went to Hong Kong to investigate and was promptly kidnapped as well.
The kidnappings were the work of Kim Jong-il, whose father, Kim Il-sung, was then still the leader of North Korea. It took several years, and Shin spent some time in North Korean prison, but in 1983 he was reunited with his ex-wife in Pyongyang. Under pressure from Kim Jong-il, they remarried. From then until their eventual escape in 1986 at a film festival in Vienna, Shin worked on North Korean films, the most famous of which is Pulgasari.
The aftermath is almost as weird. Shin and Choi escaped to the US embassy, and they were granted asylum. Back then, South Korea was under the right-wing military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan, and Shin feared that the government wouldn’t buy his kidnapping story, so he stayed in the US until 1994, when the politics in South Korea had changed. He eventually died of hepatitis, supposedly while working on Genghis Khan, a musical, which sounds like an Asian Springtime for Hitler.
The full Pulgasari film, with subtitles, is available on YouTube.