In the pantheon of despotic leaders, no one was more evil than Hitler (who killed more than 10 million people), no one more depraved than Idi Amin (who bragged about tasting human blood, and who said human flesh was “too salty for me”), and no one more extravagant than Saddam Hussein (who built more ornate palaces than anyone in the history of the Middle East), but Kim Jong Il has to rival all of them for sheer audacity and hypocrisy. The North Korean leader has terrorized his own people through starvation, economic deprivation, and thought control; threatened the West with a cat-and-mouse nuclear program that continues to make headlines, including the last three days; and – in the latest Orwellian twist – overseen the arrest and hard-labor sentencing of two U.S. journalists.
To understand Kim’s pathos, to get a better sense of the egotism that drives this mad man, read a book that Kim wrote in 1973. It’s called “On the Art of the Cinema,” and it reveals Kim for who he really is: A frustrated artist who once produced a horror film (a Godzilla-like feature called “Pulgasari”) and who still considers himself a film aesthete. In fact, Kim thinks of himself as the Communist equivalent of Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, and Clint Eastwood – someone who can make movies that are revered by the public for their dramatic plots, inspiring dialogue, and moral themes that register long after the movie is over.
“The director must have a diverse, rich and bold imagination,” Kim writes on page 127 of “On the Art of the Cinema” before explaining that the director also needs to be “sensitive” (p. 132), and has to motivate his actors to greater performances (p. 141). Filmmakers should have their characters face challenges of “destiny” (p. 135) rather than less emphatic challenges, and should definitely avoid hasty scene changes (p. 133) that confuse the audience. Kim got to put all of his theory into practice with “Pulgasari,” his Godzilla-like drama from 1985 that is available for free viewing on the Internet, complete with English translation. For those who don’t have the 90 minutes it takes to see the movie in total, here are the highlights:
Plot: A poor, noble village gets abused by a corrupt government, which takes away all of its farming tools, and jails most of its men. The village elder, who’s a blacksmith, somehow – in his dying moments in prison – makes a palm-sized creature out of food scraps that his daughter miraculously throws over the
prison walls, through the bars of his cell. The elder’s body is removed from the prison, still clutching the “pulgasari” creature in his hand, though the creature is inanimate – until, in another unbelievable miracle, the blacksmith’s daughter spills a drop of her blood onto it (during a botched sewing job), which makes it come alive.
Huge Plot Twist: The Pulgasari loves eating metal and steel, starting with the sewing needle. The Pulgasari is cute at first, and the daughter and her brother tuck it into bed with them. But the creature wakes up at night, chews off the lock of the door, and goes outside in search of more metal. As it eats more, it grows much bigger, eventually turning into a kind of Godzilla, only with bull-like horns, He-man chest and abdominals, deeper (sharper fangs) and eyes that get huge when it’s disturbed. The villagers realize that they can use the Pulgasari to overthrow the corrupt government.
Battle scenes: For the rest of the movie, the evil government soldiers try to kill the Pulgasari, using everything they can – including a Hell-on-Earth fireball, and an avalanche of rocks that bury the creature, who is now 10 stories tall.
Key turning point: In a Christ-like resurrection, the blacksmith’s daughter slashes her arm to pour her gushing blood over the pile of rocks, which makes the Pulgasari come alive – and enact his final retribution against the evil leaders. The Pulgasari literally crushes the corrupt king with his giant foot.
Unforseen Twist: The Pulgasari needs to constantly eat metal – a ravenous appetite that is costing the villagers their economy since they spend all their time making new tools for the starving creature. The blacksmith’s daughter – in a bid to save the village and the planet – puts herself in a metal container, luring the Pulgasari to eat it. Once the daughter is consumed, the Pulgasari blows up. Everyone is saved.
Kim’s “On the Art of the Cinema” is a natural companion to “Pulgasari.” Written in a dry, assumptive way – as if Kim was gearing it to North Korean high-school students – “On the Art of the Cinema” addresses everything from camera angles to writing good plots, but Kim inevitably finds room to diss Washington and the West, as in the footnotes (page 331) when he refers to “the U.S. imperialist aggressors” and “their stooges.” There’s also this dig on page 173:
A film which merely aims to make a profit by showing off the stars’ faces cannot be real art. The capitalist cinema, which promotes a few ‘popular stars’ to curry favour with the audience, is, in essence, a reactionary arm form which reduces the stars to puppets and the film to a commodity.”
Written in April of 1973, when Kim would have been 32, the book is a case study in Kim’s double-standards and narcissism. On Page 3, for example, Kim writes that “Life without art and literature is unimaginable” — and yet Kim deprives North Koreans of any real art and literature, except if it reaffirms Pyongyang‘s demagogic views. People around the world, including those in North Korea, know that Kim is a monster in real life. Perhaps that’s why, if you go to Amazon’s page on “On the Art of the Cinema,” you’ll find this entry under the category of “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought:” “The Silence of the Lambs.” The 1991 film about a flesh-eating killer is an interesting complement to Kim’s book. Throw in “Pulgasari,” and you have a truly exhausting triple-bill.