To escape his country’s harsh economic conditions, Jeon Seung-chul (played by the director) defects from Musan, North Korea to Seoul. He ends up living in the city’s rundown outskirts and makes ends meet putting up street ads. His only satisfaction is going to church, where he meets and becomes attracted to Sook-young, a choir singer who works in a karaoke bar by night. The Journals of Musan depicts the tremendous difficulties North Koreans have integrating in the capitalist society of South Korea, where they are often marginalized and subjected to discrimination.
I watched this movie today at a festival (same as this, a year ago). Another Korean movie and another masterpiece. It won “Best New Filmmaker” at the Tribeca Film Festival. A dramatic story of a North-Korean “defector” (Jeon Seung-chul) trying to stay afloat in Seoul. A shy guy, very respectful, head always bowed down, always staying on his own and barely saying a word. The filmmaking style is equally respectful (“deferential”, as written below). Never forcing scenes or exploiting them artificially. Very self-consciously. There are many scenes where the humor or the dramatic effect could have been boosted, but they aren’t and the story keeps its natural, unbiased, “muted” feel. No forced perspective.
There are a few key points. One is that there’s a religious theme at some point. There’s a religious song of which a couple of lines link back to the movie and can be used as interpretation. One is about how God saved the like of a “wreck” like “me”. As a prayer, being thankful that God had regard EVEN for a “wreck” like oneself. The other is that this salvation brought clarity. I was “blind” and now I see and understand.
Only that this story has no salvation. It’s not a cynic view on religion as these religious guys in the end are the only ones who (somewhat) accept Jeon (the protagonist). Yet the truth behind this story is that there’s no salvation at all. A fish out of the water sooner or slightly later dies. There are actually more than one ways to interpret the movie, as a tragedy or in more optimistic ways.
At some point I started to think in the perspective of the passion of Christ. And the Father/Son. The Father let it happen. He watched it. He watched his son being crucified and didn’t move a finger. See this then in the world’s perspective, the tragedies of every day. Stories, likes this one in the movie, based on a real story apparently, that have only innocent victims and no happy end. The Father, all-seeing. Not moving a finger.
The dog in the image is the puppy that the Jeon saves (from the world/environment) and tries to protect. Anti-god. He tries to do all he can and more even if already in the deep end of trouble. A puppy again like the reflection of someone living in a hostile world. A puppy that, left alone in that city, would likely die. In the puppy there’s the reflection of the protagonist, and it’s on the puppy that we see the protagonist’s “compassion” (hello Erikson, the themes are all renewed). A victim trying to save another. Jeon gets beaten a number of times by some thugs while trying to do his work, yet it’s only the third time, when he has the dog with him, that he fights back. To save the dog from them. He goes to search for him around when his “friend” first tries to sell the dog, and then abandons him after he figured out he couldn’t get anything from him. Saves again the dog’s life a number of times. Keeping him afloat as he was trying to do with himself. The movie ends with a “long take”. He gets again the job at the Karaoke, after he was being unjustly berated and fired, and after the woman pitied him when she learned he was being discriminated as North-Korean and was having a very tough life, the woman asks him to go out to a shop to get beer for customers and gives him as well something to eat for the dog. So we see this long take of him going out, feeding the dog for a while, then walking through the road to the shop, getting the beer making sure it’s of the right kind as asked, then walking back. A long, uninterrupted sequence. At some point it hits, but it’s entirely on the viewer. The camera follows the man from behind, not too close, looking at the whole road. He continues to walk down the road and it’s you, watching, to realize, whenever you manage to notice and without cuts in the scene, that there’s something in the middle of the road. Jeon continues to walk till he’s 2/3 feet away from his dead dog. Probably hit by a car while he was away. He stays there watching the dog, the scene running uninterrupted. The street is quite trafficked and cars start to move Tiananmen-like around the silent, unmoving Jeon and the dog on the ground. After a very long moment Jeon moves another step toward the dog, then continues on, walking past him. And the movie ends.
Maybe I’m a cynic but the way I see it is that Jeon tried to save the life of the dog. In the end he couldn’t do much, the dog died not because of all the previous threats he was saved from, but simply hit by a car. A city, an environment not hospitable. A fish out of its water. The kind of fate that likely happened to Jeon himself later. So god is watching, but the only ones who seem to care are “us”, victims.
My spectation included a woman behind me that squealed aloud every time something bad happened to the puppy, but that watched impassively whenever all sort of bad things happened to the protagonist. Women…
“Critics” opinions from the internet:
Some of the best films can be found in the new, catch-all “Viewpoints” section, like writer/director/star Park Jungbum’s strong debut, The Journals of Musan, based on his real-life friend, Seung-chul, a North Korean defector in consumer-crazy Seoul. Park has no other agenda than to put the viewer in Seung-chul’s shoes. Like the film’s other bemused characters, the viewer will likely misjudge or at least change her/his opinion of the stolid man underneath a severe bowl cut. He earns just dollars taping (alas, not plastering) posters for a few dollars during the day, and at night he buses tables at a karaoke bar (for $4 an hour) managed by a pretty woman he first spies in church. (The film features one of the most beautifully directed scenes I’ve seen in a long time—a cringe-producing karaoke version of a Christian hymn.) Seemingly simple, deferential—stunned, really—Seung-chul’s slow to react, even when bullied. The only friend he has is a dog he finds on the street. (You’d be crazy not to be reminded of De Sica’s Umberto D). And it’s another film from South Korea that depicts Christianity without cynicism or condescension, in which faith plays an important motivator. (Park has worked as assistant director to Lee Chang-dong, whose Secret Sunshine is another probing, expansive film that deals with faith.) Finally, for dog lovers, it also features the cutest. Puppy. Ever.
As a North Korean defector now living in South Korea, Jeon Seung-chul, the based-on-true-life main character of writer/director/star Park Jung-bum’s debut feature, The Journals of Musan, endures all sorts of marginalization and abuse as he barely scrapes a living together putting up posters on walls. Truth be told, Park’s film itself sometimes feels like punishment, from its Dardennes-like aesthetic to its general humorlessness. Nevertheless, there are glimmers of a real, if amazingly bleak, worldview underlying its dour surface, as well as a tough-minded compassion that one might even go so far as to call humanism, that makes the end result feel less like the condescending wallow in ugliness that one might have expected.
The only levity from Jeon’s marginalization comes from the stray dog he eventually takes in and cares for—despite the protestations of his cheating, manipulative roommate. Yes, this character detail comes right out of Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. (another story about a down-on-his-luck outcast and his dog), but Park employs the detail in his own interesting ways. With most of the human beings around him giving him nothing but grief, the dog, of course, becomes Jeon’s only source of nonjudgmental love and companionship. (When his roommate angrily leaves the dog out on the street one day, Jeon naturally panics; tellingly, Park chooses this one moment to unleash the film’s only point-of-view shots.)