Musanilgi – The Journals of Musan

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.

The fallen.

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.)

Posted in: Uncategorized | Tagged:

The Name of the Wind – my first impression

I had to pull the book from the shelf (since I’ve not yet read it) because I got curious. There was a comment on Malazan re-read that basically claimed that Malazan was shallow compared to Rothfuss’ work. Despite its troll-ish nature (joining Malazan re-read to say it doesn’t deserve a re-read) I’m always curious by how works relate to each other and lately there has been quite a discussion about Rothfuss, with the 2nd book coming out. But from all I read there was a certain consensus that the book had pacing issues and was overlong. Which was exactly the opposite that this poster was claiming:

The degree of depth that’s being unearthed in the comments on the Name of the Wind reread thread have felt to me strongly supportive of the notion that the Malazan books are not very dense compared to Rothfuss, fwiw. I enjoy Erikson a lot as entertaining light reading with addictively much plot and world complexity and find the series worth having for that, but my lack of commenting is because I’m really not seeing that much thematic depth; the notions that war sucks and that compassion, integrity, endurance and bearing witness are virtues are neither points that strike me as particularly subtle or innovative nor ones that need so many thousand pages to be conveyed.

See, I’m pretty sure this guy has absolutely nothing worthwhile to say about Malazan, but maybe he has a point about Rothfuss. I’m not interested in a comparison, but I am interested in finding Rothfuss own qualities. The quality of prose is one I’ve seen claimed the most.

So I went reading the first 30 pages, following the re-read in order to see the “degree of depth” that it was “unearthing”. Coming right from Erikson the difference in prose is the most noticeable aspect, and beside it, also the approach to the story. These two lines for example wouldn’t blend too well in a Malazan book:

Graham, Jake, and Shep nodded to themselves. The three friends had grown up together, listening to Cob’s stories and ignoring his advice.

Probably two of the most common lines you can find. There’s nothing weird, or stylish, or significant about them, but they set the story on a level of normality. It’s contained in a slice of life scene that has nothing special about it and actually draws its point from this notion. And again a corner of the world, life made simple, plot details introduced little by little, bits by bits. Hints here and there about hidden elements. Easing carefully the reader in, the story well measured on that reader.

So yes, I see a certain mastery of storytelling. Every sentence drives its point and wants the reader put under that spell that will keep him turning the pages. Feeling the story, the characters, getting involved. It’s a very delicate and caring way of writing, showing passion for the writing itself. It has a traditional air of fairy tales and gives a feeling of safety. The story may include danger, but you know it’s done for the purpose of the story itself. The monsters aren’t real.

Erikson obviously runs opposite to all this. I said many times as there seem to be no slice of life scenes in the Malazan books. No character leading a normal life, caught up in normal business. That kind of relief and reduction of complexity of the world is absent and all the characters are tossed this way and that, snapping between plots. We’ll never know how the Malazan series would look if written from a more relaxed and natural point of view. It’s the opposite of what Erikson does, but sometimes I wonder how it would be.

That’s how I’d frame Rothfuss work at the moment. I recognize a good style of writing honed for a precise effect. I’d say that it sits safely within a tradition, embracing and nourishing it more than challenging it, but this isn’t a “flaw”. I’m far more skeptical instead about “depth unearthed”. It seems to me more of the kind that Larry calls as the “speculative mills”. Meaning that it’s all about piecing together mysteries and doing guesswork about what really happened and finding out all the little hints and mentions of this and that.

But it’s a kind of activity I find dry. I focus on what the writer wants and says, I always stay within the text and do not allow imagination to fill untold stories and alternate possibilities. I know many, many readers thrive on that, projecting themselves in the story and making it their own. I don’t see anything wrong with that, but the “depth” I’m looking for has to be in the text, not in spurious speculation or wishful thinking.

I’m sure I’ll enjoy some “entertaining light reading with addictively much plot and world complexity”, but that’s likely to define more Rothfuss’ work than Erikson’s.

Posted in: Uncategorized | Tagged:

Interior and exterior worlds – microcosm/macrocosm

From Midnight Tides. Thematically linked to “The Tree of Life” and symbolic spaces (see second paragraph, it can’t be more explicit than that):

Drawn to the shoreline, as if among the host of unwritten truths in a mortal soul could be found a recognition of what it meant to stand on land’s edge, staring out into the depthless unknown that was the sea. The yielding sand and stones beneath one’s feet whispered uncertainty, rasped promises of dissolution and erosion of all that was once solid.

In the world could be assembled all the manifest symbols to reflect the human spirit, and in the subsequent dialogue was found all meaning, every hue and every flavour, rising in legion before the eyes. Leaving to the witness the decision of choosing recognition or choosing denial.

Udinaas sat on a half-buried tree trunk with the sweeping surf clawing at his moccasins. He was not blind and there was no hope for denial. He saw the sea for what it was, the dissolved memories of the past witnessed in the present and fertile fuel for the future, the very face of time. He saw the tides in their immutable susurration, the vast swish like blood from the cold heart moon, a beat of time measured and therefore measurable. Tides one could not hope to hold back.


He sat huddled in his exhaustion, gaze focused on the distant breakers of the reef, the rolling white ribbon that came again and again in heartbeat rhythm, and from all sides rushed in waves of meaning. In the grey, heavy sky. In the clarion cries of the gulls. In the misty rain carried by the moaning wind. The uncertain sands trickling away beneath his soaked moccasins. Endings and beginnings, the edge of the knowable world.