Yongary Vs. Pulgasari: Two Koreas, Two Kaijuu

In 1967, the biggest thing in Asia was kaijuu eiga, or giant monster movies. Toho was at the top of their game with a string of Godzilla hits and were just about to release Destroy All Monsters (1968), a film that would push the franchise over the edge and become one of its most successful giant monster movies yet. Rival studio Daei was just getting going with its Gamera movies that, while not as technically advanced as Toho’s, still captured the imaginations of the kiddies. Even studios not known for fantasy films were throwing their hats in the kaijuu ring. It’s no surprise then that South Korea should have made their own version in 1967.

Entitled Daekoesu Yonggari aka Yongary, Monster From The Deep, the film follows the typical giant monster movie formula as made popular by the original Godzilla (1954): monster appears, monster walks around, important men discuss how to kill monster, monster is vanquished. If you’ve seen any number of second-tier kaijuu films such as Rodan (1956), Varan The Unbelievable (1962), or Gappa: The Triphibian Monster (1967), this formula should feel as familiar as eggnog at Christmas. But what makes Yongary different, and ultimately worth watching, is that it’s a Korean film, and thus uniquely different from the plethora of Japanese rubber suit monster movies that came before it.

Our story begins with a Korean astronaut being launched into space to observe a plane drop an atomic bomb in the Middle East. Right away the film announces that it’s not going to obey the laws of reality as we understand them so you’d better just hang on and enjoy the ride. I mean, getting past the fact that Korea has a viable space program in 1967 that’s so flush with cash it can afford to send a man into orbit just to take a look around, we’re supposed to believe that this man can see things happening on the ground from miles out in space with the naked eye? The fun continues. A model of a passenger plane drops a bomb from 100 feet off the ground, which explodes and causes an earthquake (which can also been seen from space) to head towards Korea. Three guesses as to what’s causing the earthquake.

Aside from the obligatory similarities to Japanese monster movies—shots of people running and screaming, a precocious child who somehow understands what the monster is thinking, a man in a rubber suit—Yongary differs in that it is very culturally Korean. The family is the center of life in Korea and this is reflected in the film. It seems that the main characters can’t go anywhere without an entourage of family members, with three generations pretty much always on screen. This is especially apparent at the space center, where the hysterical family members are allowed to stand around amidst a national crisis and bother the workers. This insistence on family all the time reaches an apex in the climactic sequence, when everyone, wives, girlfriends and even a small child, pile into a helicopter to attack the monster, which we’ve just seen shoot fire from its mouth and lasers from its rhinoceros-like horn. Family before safety, apparently.

As for the quality of the monster, Yongary is a far cry from the kinds of monsters Toho was making, but still on par with perhaps Gappa or everyone’s favorite lizard chicken, Guilala, from The X From Outer Space (1967). Yongary doesn’t get to do much except walk around and knock stuff over, although he does do a dance at one point for no reason.

Yongary, Monster From The Deep is the kind of movie you put on at a party to laugh at. The strings holding up the helicopter are particularly visible, as is the guide wheel under the jeep that “splits apart” when Yongary shoots it with his nose laser. Why does a monster that lives underground need to breathe fire and shoot lasers? It’s better not to ask.

Yongary was remade in 1999 by Hyung-Rae Shim, the man behind the national embarrassment Dragon Wars: D-War (2007), and released in the US in 2001 as Reptilian. It is even worse than the original, with computer graphics that would make even a first-year computer animation student blush.

Meanwhile, a couple hundred kilometers north of Seoul, a young man was being primed to succeed his father in running a country. This young man, who would become known as the Dear Leader, was a huge fan of movies. Although he is known to prefer American and Hong Kong films, it would not be surprising if he also favored giant monster movies for in 1985, his country, North Korea, released Pulgasari, a Communist kaijuu film with a very unique back story.

What is a film-loving budding dictator to do when his country’s film studios aren’t up to snuff? Why, kidnap a director from a more prosperous country, that’s what. Sang-Ok Shin, a prolific South Korean director and producer, got into a car one day and ended up on the north side of the DMZ, with specific instructions to make a giant monster movie. On board were members of Toho’s special effects team, including Kenpachiro Satsuma, who played Godzilla from 1984 to 1995. The result was Pulgasari.

It’s the 14th century and Korea is united under the Koryo dynasty. A village of farmers is suffering under the yoke of the local government, who exact high taxes from them. To add insult to injury, they’ve taken the farmers’ tools and pots to melt down to make weapons to fight a local group of bandits, who are actually the young men of the village. The propaganda is apparent (there are no other kinds of North Korean films), with the peasants rising up against the tyrannical government, but compared to some other DPRK films, which feature the kinds of permanent dead smiles you see on the faces of performers in the mass Arirang games, Pulgasari is positively Oscar-worthy. Sure, it’s melodramatic and everyone overdoes the wailing, but it’s apparent that Kim Jong-Il had export in mind when he made this, so it’s not that far off from the emotions on display in Yongary.

The local blacksmith refuses to help the government so he’s thrown in jail with nothing to eat. His family sneaks him some rice but instead of eating it, he molds it into a fetish of Pulgasari, a legendary monster. When the daughter of the blacksmith cuts her finger sewing, the resulting drop of blood brings the little doll to life. Pulgasari starts small but soon grows into a giant monster and champion of the peasants. Together with Pulgasari, the farmers rise up against the oppressive government, making it all the way to the Koryo capital. There’s just one problem: Pulgasari is a voracious eater, and what he consumes is iron. The farmers soon find that their secret weapon could become their own destruction.

The propaganda aside, Pulgasari is not such a bad movie. Sure, there’s a bit too much wailing for Western tastes and there are a lot of bad beards stuck to the faces of the government officers, but compared to Yongary (or even some Gamera films), Pulgasari—both the movie and the monster—look pretty good. This is undoubtedly due to the participation of Toho. The monster, a kind of iron Minotaur, is as good as anything Toho made up to that point. Some of the practical effects in the early scenes of tiny Pulgasari, like when he wakes up in the sewing kit, are particularly good. It seems that North Korean blue screen technology was lacking in 1985 though, as scenes showing both the monster and the farmers consistently confuse Pulgasari’s actual size. It’s hard to get a sense of how tall he is until he stands next to a building. This being a period film, those buildings are classic Koryo palaces, and it’s great fun to watch Pulgasari tear them down. It makes a nice change from the usual bland apartment buildings that get knocked down in these kinds of films.

Pulgasari remained hidden behind the borders of the DPRK until 1998, when a Japanese company decided to distribute the film in Japan. Oddly enough, it opened in theaters in 1998 directly opposite Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998). As for kidnapped director Sang-Ok Shin? He managed to escape back to South Korea before Pulgasari was finished, and went on to produce and direct an entry in the 3 Ninjas series.