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“The Journals of Musan” is a Korean indie drama which has won a great deal of praise, having been hailed by several critics as one of the best Korean films of 2011, and winning prizes at a variety of festivals including Pusan, Rotterdam, Yerevan and Deauville. Based upon the real life experience of his late friend, the film marks the debut of former Lee Chang Dong assistant director Park Jung Bum, who takes on the lead role himself of a North Korean defector attempting to make his way in the South. Following up on Park’s 2008 short “125 Jeon Seung Chul” (also included on the DVD), revolving around the same protagonist, the film is a gritty, down to earth character study which shines a bleak light on an often marginalised section of Korean society.
Park plays Seung Chul, a North Korean man who has defected to the South, and who now lives in Seoul under the watchful eye of a police officer assigned to liaise with refugees (played by the director’s own father Park Young Duk). Unable to get a proper job due to his status, made clear on his ID card, Seung Cul is forced to work for sex shops putting up posters and handing out flyers, spending his spare time attending church. Hoping to work his way into the life of attractive parishioner Young Sook (Kang Eun Jin, “War of the Arrows”), he takes another job helping out in the karaoke bar she runs with her father, though things don’t work out as planned.
Very much an indie production, “The Journals of Musan” at times has the feel of a documentary, with a high degree of realism and a wandering script that seems to border on improvisation, featuring little in the way of artificial drama. This to an extent is deceptive, as the film is actually a very intelligent and well-constructed affair, offering a rich character study of an unfortunate man pushed to live on the fringe, combined with fascinating social commentary. Seung Chul is certainly one of the most fully realised and engaging protagonists seen in Korean cinema for some time, a wretched at times unsympathetic man who suffers daily abuse and humiliation while trying to get by. The film is brave in its depiction of Seung Chul, never making him a one note pity magnet, there being hints of violence behind his confused meekness, and it benefits from never trying to simplify his situation. Park is superbly believable in the lead, adding genuine humanity to the role, and his daily bullying and attempts to get closer to Young Sook slowly draw the viewer in. Although with a running time of over two hours the film is a bit long and does tend to meander, Park holds things together successfully.
The film also does a great job of exploring modern Korean society by allowing events to unfold through Seung Chul’s eyes, as he encounters the harshness and hypocrisy behind capitalism and Christianity. This is seen partly through his roommate Kyung Chul (Jin Yong Ok, “71: Into the Fire”) another North Korean defector, who works illegally sending money to North Korea, double crossing people and ending up in trouble himself. Young Sook is a similarly significant character, with her changing and confusing attitude towards Seung Chul reflecting the way in which he tries to live by some of the supposed ideas of the church, and runs into difficulties as a result. There’s a great deal of subtle symbolism throughout the film, and it all works very well, in particular through Seung Chul taking in and caring for a puppy, the only thing or person he is truly able to form a bond of sorts with.
The film was shot in naturalistic, economic fashion with much of its drama unsurprisingly taking place in ruined wastelands of old buildings, dirty back streets and construction sites. Park shows a strong visual sense, and this grim backdrop further underlines Seung Chul’s outsider status, as well as adding a certain air of danger, as he encounters and is attacked several times in these dangerous neighbourhoods. Although the film has an oppressive, squalid feel, he never lays things on too thick, and maintains the all-important level of realism throughout, with a few glimpses of light and hope here and there.
“The Journals of Musan” is an excellent and deeply humanistic film, and well deserving of the hype and praise. Expertly directed and acted by Park Jung Bum with a maturity that makes it hard to believe it’s his first feature, the film makes for an absorbing and revealing drama and a character study of real substance.
Jung-bum Park (director) / Jung-bum Park (screenplay)
CAST: Jung-bum Park … Jeon Seungchul