CANNES Q&A: 'Journals of Musan' Director Park Jung-bum

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Park Jung-bum

The South Korean director brings his award-winning film about a North Korean defector trying to find his niche in the South to Cannes.

The Journals of Musan by Park Jung-bum paints a bleak portrait of a North Korean defector trying to find his place in the South. The neo-realist drama takes what could have been humanist preaching into something far more noir and harrowing, as it sheds off layers of hypocrisy and divide that exist within a society and an individual. The writer-director-actor of the indie flick is a 35-year-old Park Jung-bum, who served as assistant director to the revered Lee Chang-dong. The film debuted at the Busan International Film Festival last year, where it won the New Currents Award. It has since been hotwiring the festival circuit, picking up additional trophies at Rotterdam, Marrakesh, Deauville and Krakow, Poland. The Hollywood Reporter's Seoul correspondent Lee Hyo-won recently emailed Park, who was in San Diego after picking up Tribeca's Best New Narrative Director Award. The director spoke about his film, which recently released in local theaters, as well as lessons he learned from Lee Chang-dong.

The Hollywood Reporter: It must not have been easy -- writing, directing and playing the lead role in the film. What was most challenging about the project?

Park Jeong-bum: The biggest difficulty making the film was overcoming the lack of time and funds. Working with a small budget limited the amount of shooting time in a given location. Being penniless I had to cut scenes short and wasn't able to do many things the way I wanted to. I also feel indebted to the crew members, who had a difficult time since I was also acting.

THR: Your character is based on a real-life North Korean defector, Jeon Seung-cheol. How did you craft the screen persona, and what did you focus on while acting?

Park: I concentrated on realistically portraying my character to show why he lives the way he does. So I made an effort not to exaggerate and appear composed, to make even the most striking incidents appear like ordinary, everyday occurrences.

THR: South Korean directors have a unique position when it comes to telling stories about North Korea or North Korean refugees. But at the same time, it seems that the more personal a film is the more universal it is, rather than when it tries to preach social messages.

Park: My film began as a very personal story, something focusing on the day-to-day life of an individual. I think that's why audiences were able to empathize with the film more easily. Had I blatantly addressed the issue of North Korean defectors, it would have changed the story's turn of events and made things feel rather artificial. I think allowing the audience to view the North Korean defector as just an ordinary person made the story a bit more digestible, particularly since it shows social irony that an individual experiences.
THR: Quite ironically, issues related to North Korean refugees remain largely taboo in South Korea, and are largely ignored unless they receive attention overseas.

Park: I think my film was overrated. I don't think it would have received so much attention without the North Korean defector factor, had it just been about a poor laborer. (Such films) receive the least bit of attention only if it gets favorable reviews overseas. It's because independent films get a limited release and lack funds for promotion.

THR: How do audiences react to your film? Were there any questions or comments that particularly struck you?

Park: In the credits I mention that the film is dedicated to the late Jeon Seung-cheol, and people were curious about how he actually died. Viewers asked if, as an extension of the film's plotline, Jeon was killed by friends or committed suicide. I began making the movie after my friend (Jeon) passed away from cancer, so I never really thought about that. But this is a very plausible question and really made an impression on me.

THR: What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
Park: I hope watching the movie would inspire people to take a little more interest in the marginalized poor.

THR: How did working with director Lee Chang-dong influence your filmmaking?

Park: Director Lee Chang-dong has an imposing presence like mountains. He would throw questions for me to explore on my own, rather than directly provide answers or lessons. From this I was able to learn how to examine the way I view the world or the attitude with which I make films.

THR: What did Lee say about your work?

Park: He's a man of a few words. He said, 'Good work.'

THR: What do you have planned for your next film project?

Park: I'm working on the scenario for Sanda, (Living) which I plan to start shooting this winter. It's about a guy trying to save his suicidal older brother.

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