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Festivals and Conferences, Korean Cinema

Films From the South #10: The Journals of Musan (Musanilgi, South Korea 2010)

Seung-chul (Park Jung-bum, right) meets the dog who will become his companion.

The quality of films coming out of South Korea continues to be very high. When I read the festival’s blurb on this title I did wonder if it was really a good idea to watch it as the last film of three in an evening session. But around ten minutes in I’d forgotten about my reservations. Park Jung-bum is the writer, director and lead actor in a bleak tale about a North Korean defector (from Musan) trying to survive in Seoul. The film is over 2 hours long and it’s his first feature. But Park was previously an assistant on the much acclaimed Poetry and some of that film’s magic has certainly brushed off onto his own début.

Jeon Seung-chul finds himself sharing a small apartment literally on the edge of Seoul (there is a ‘demolished village’ next to the apartment) with a rather more ‘worldly-wise’ defector, Kyoung-chul, who has already settled into the capitalist culture of the South. Seung-chul struggles to earn a living fly-posting but is physically attacked by rivals, whereas Kyoung-chul has developed a lucrative racket in charging other defectors from the North large sums to send money home via his uncle in China. Seung-chul’s attempts to get a better job are thwarted by the giveaway of his North Korean identity which comes from the ‘125’ code in his South Korean ID number. His only relief from the misery of work and the inhospitable apartment is his visits to a church where he develops an interest in an attractive young woman in the choir – who he doggedly follows across the city.

As my brief plot outline reveals, this is essentially a neo-realist idea with the two obvious references being Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. The former provides the hopelessness of the struggle for a proper job – often a process of one step forward and one step back. Like the old man in Umberto D, Seung-chul also seeks company from a dog – in this case a very appealing puppy. The neo-realist narrative idea is matched by a strictly functional camera style (shot on HD video).  Any danger of sentimentality is avoided by making Seong-chul a very human figure, someone who is sullen and stubborn as well as honest and hardworking. I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot development so suffice to say, things go wrong for Kyoung-chul as well as Seung-chul and in the last third of the film there is more action and an important revelation about Seung-chul’s past in the North. Seung-chul eventually meets the woman at the church and for a moment I was worried that he was going to find ‘salvation’ as a church member. (I’ve no animosity towards organised religion as such, but the idea of ‘redemption’ in this scenario threatened to undermine everything that had gone before.) But this doesn’t happen and the woman proves to be as false and self-centred as most of the other characters that Seung-chul meets.

There is a very annoying programme on UK Radio 4 called ‘The Moral Maze’ in which moral questions are explored by a panel of ‘experts’. I’d like to sit them down in front of this film. Its humanism poses very difficult questions to which there are no easy answers. Seung-chul is not a ‘hero’ as such in the narrative. But it’s difficult not to feel for him and then to question yourself about how you might react if you met him. If you do manage to see the film, have a look at the various reviews and they will give you a flavour of what Park Jun-bum has stirred up in his representation of a character and a situation based, I think, on real events.

I hope the film gets a wide international release and I noted that its Korean backer is the same company, Fine Cut, which was involved in co-producing the Argentinian film Carancho. The character behind Fine Cut, Suh Young-joo has a long history in the South Korean industry and the new company is emerging as an interesting player in the international market for smaller independent films.

Trailer for The Journals of Musan:

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