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Jeon Seungchul's citizen registration number brands him as a North Korean defector. It is difficult to find a good job and it's hard to get along with people at church. He is not an ex-convict or a migrant worker, but he is subjected to many discriminations. Like the stray dog he looks after, Jeon Seungchul is a misfit in South Korea's capitalist society. Written by
I am a North Korean defector. I was born in Musan, North Hamgyong province. There was nothing to eat. I was so hungry that I had a fight. I hit on and on and found my friend down. I came home with corn. The next day, I was passing the same way and that friend was still lying there. And the next day, and the day after... I killed a man.
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Park Jung-bum served as assistant director on Lee Chang-dong's outstanding recent film, Poetry (NYFF 2010). In this strong directorial debut he focuses on the plight of a North Korean refugee (from his hometown of Musan in the South Hamgyeong Province) struggling to scrape together an existence in South Korea. Jeong Seung-chul (Park Jung-bum himself), who has just emerged from eight months in a resettlement camp, lives at the edge of a demolition pit in the sprawling outskirts of Seoul. The 125 prefix on his ID card number tells potential employers he's a defecter from up there, and hence undesirable. All Seung-chu can find to do is put up sex show posters for a sleazy promoter, a job that takes him to dangerous neighborhoods where he risks beatings. In contrast to Seung-chu is his roommate Kyung-chul (Jin Yong-uk)), who embraces the capitalist life with ease, getting high commissions on money deals and dressing in the latest Nikes. Meanwhile Seung-chu plods around in the grim gray Seoul winter with his bowl-cut hair and his hunched-over posture. The result is a powerful film but one so relentlessly downbeat (and over-long) that it sometimes undercuts its own purpose -- to delineate a personality and a social situation. But one won't soon forget this protagonist.
It is impossible for those of us who don't know Park and haven't seen him in person to know how much of his impersonation of Seung-chul is performance and how much is his natural given physicality. He has said he had to take the role because only he knew perfectly the mannerisms of the defector friend he based it on. Shots of his rounded, large back are very expressive in themselves. It could be the upper torso of a body- builder gone slack. The meekness is not without a hint of danger, as with Lennie in Of Mice and Men. In the film, Seung-chu wanders hopelessly, meeting up periodically with Kyung-chul, who tries to help him but also feels contempt for him. Perhaps his only friend is the little white mongrel dog he adopts, whose fate is as uncertain as his. The place where they live itself is symbolic of deprivation. As Jay Weissberg of Variety describes it, it's "on the hilly outskirts of Seoul next to a no-man's-land of semi-wrecked buildings toppled to make way for cookie-cutter housing projects." It's a vast, desolate and steep wasteland, not unlike the scene of some Italian neorealist films, which may be a point of reference for Park, as well as the Dardenne brothers. Even here Seung-chu finds a little Christian church and takes unsteady refuge there. He feels like an outsider, and meets no one, but is attracted by a pretty choir member, Sook-young (Kang Eun-jin).
He finds that Sook-young works at a Karaoke bar, and takes a job there himself, which only leads to her discomfort, because she is embarrassed as a devout Christian to be working in such a place. This work leads to his humiliation and yet another beating, this time by drunken customers outraged when he shows moral disapproval of their revelry. Perhaps Seung-chu is a fool of God. On the fringes of modern capitalism, even a saint appears like a cretin and a fool. Is Seung-chu's behavior a sign of moral fervor or simply of an inability to thrive, as the venial, brash Kyung-chul does, in this cutthroat environment? Seung-chu loses both the poster job and the karaoke job; but Kyung-chul gets in bigger trouble: he has lost $25,000 of other people's money.
Eventually more truths emerge about Seung-chu's inner rage and his reason for defecting from North Korea. The narrative is well-paced. As Weissberg says, Park has done a great directing job and created a remarkably memorable, even archetypal, protagonist; yet at 127 minutes the film is loaded with fat crying out to be trimmed off, including a good 10 minutes past where the story really ends. Still, this is a memorable piece of work, distinguished by raw acting and cinematography that is always detached, but sometimes surprisingly light and beautifully pastel in color. There is only ambient sound and music. The Journals of Musan has been presented and been well received at various festivals, including Pusan (where it debuted in October 2010), Marrakech (where it won the top prize), Berlin, Rotterdam, Hong Kong, Tribeca -- and at the San Francisco International Film Festival of April 2011, where it was screened for this review.
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