Journals of Musan -- Film Review

A subtle exploration of twisted human nature with a twist. 

BUSAN, South Korea – A lot is written between the lines of Park Jungbum’s laconic cinema lexicon in “Journals of Musan,” a bleak, clear-eyed look at the murky heart of human nature through the struggles of a North Korean defector to fit into his new sanctuary.

Albeit a low budget film with a dusty, grungy neo-realist aesthetic, several factors count in “Journals”’ favor if marketed with care, namely Park’s art house pedigree as assistant director to the revered Lee Chang-dong; the never-out-of-date topic of the North Korean experience; the sneakily clever way in which Park turns liberal-humanist clichés about discrimination inside out into a character and social study far more cynical and thought-provoking.

No-nonsense cinematography, coarse DV image texture and harsh lighting are fitfully chosen to record the hard-hitting realities the protagonist Jeon Seung-chul faces as a North Korean defector living in Seoul. Hired to paste posters on walls, he is short-changed and verbally abused by his boss, then repeatedly pummeled to a bloody pulp by rival poster-boys. Taking a $4 per hour graveyard shift in a karaoke, he gets into trouble with co-worker Sook-young when she discovers that they go to the same church. 

Although bullied, cheated, ostracized and hurt at every turn, Jeon tries to maintain his dignity and do the right thing instead of throwing in his lot with flat-mate Gyoung-chul, who shoplifts and double-deals with their Northern compatriots. Just when one begins to feel a mixture of pity and disdain for the wimpy Jeon, he makes a shocking confession in church that divulges an unforeseen side to his nature. This is followed by a change in attitude that mocks the values the film ostensibly affirmed up to this point. Irrespective of North or South, communist dictatorship or capitalist democracy, the rules of survival are the same. 

Jeon is played to perfection by the director himself. The spare script effectively funnels audience attention into him, who is never less than engaging. With his pudding-bowl haircut, chubby figure (possibly a sign of poor nutrition) and clumsy gait, he looks more at home as a buffoon in a light comedy. This makes his later transformation (or reversion to his old self) all the more disturbing.

Jeon may be a social outcast due to his origins but South Koreans come across as even more messed up. A prime example is the holier-than-thou Sook-young, who not only takes out her twisted Christian ideas on Jeon, but also loves to play the patronizing savior. The scene when she initiates him into the church choir is cannily ambivalent -- they sing “Amazing Grace” but by this stage, he has turned his back on redemption.

Ironically, it is not any person but a dog that becomes the moral compass for his actions. His unconditional love for his dog not only supplies intermittent moments of tenderness amidst stone-cold human interactions, the director makes the audience care about its fate (which is pivotal to plot development) as much as about Jeon’s.

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