You may not notice him while walking around the streets of Seoul. He is a lonely man downtrodden everyday at the bottom of South Korean society. He is usually quiet with passive attitude and his drooped head. He has silently endured his new world and its heartless people with belief and faith, but every day of his life is the struggle with a very little sign of hope, and his situation is getting more difficult. He is getting tired now.
South Korean movie “The Journal of Musan” is about the harsh reality inside the daily life of one North Korean man who escaped from his country to South Korea for a better life. Seung-cheol(Park Jung-bum) is not so different from others in appearance, and he speaks the same language, but, like his fellow North Korean defectors, he is not welcomed in the society as much as illegal immigrants. Although he is at least officially a South Korean citizen, the first three digits of his citizenship identification number always remind others who he is. When a detective tries to help him get a better job, the employer says he does not want to employ him because of that.
When he says to others he will do his best, he really means it. He has been doing menial jobs, and the recent one is pasting up the posters advertising a nightclub on the walls. This job is not as easy as you think; it is hard to keep posters stuck to the walls, and there are also other people doing the same job for a different nightclub – some of them are not nice at all. His boss is unkind; he frequently humiliates Seung-cheol while exploiting him.
Even his home is not a good resting place for him. He lives with his friend Kyeong-cheol(Jin Young-wook) in a small apartment. While Seung-cheol tries to live in an honest way, Kyeong-cheol is involved in some shady plan to swindle the money out of others. When he buys a windbreaker to Seung-cheol at the department store, he also steals other clothes for Seung-cheol, who refuses them and gives them back to the shop. He adamantly sticks to his principles – even when others including Kyeong-cheol regard him as a pathetic loser.
Nevertheless, there is a small but bright light in his life. He seems to be a sincere Christian(he reads the Bible every night before sleep), but his main purpose of attending the church meetings is watching Sook-yeong(Kang Eun-jin). He likes her, but he has been reluctant to approach to her. Usually at the back row, he just watches her singing hymns as a choir member.
One day, he finds where she works. It is a Noreabang in his neighbourhood, a Korean merrymaking place where you can sing and drink in Karaoke booths. He is hired by her while not telling her they go to the same church. She soon comes to learn about that, but that seems to make her a little closer to him. She asks him not to tell anything about her work to the people in the church. She says she temporarily manages the place due to her ailing father. It’s true, but I doubt whether it will be just ‘temporary’ for her.
The harsh reality keeps threatening Seung-cheol’s fragile existence in his world. Constantly pushed into the corner by others, he gets more exhausted and desperate than before. In addition, his friend gets stuck in a serious trouble with other North Korean defectors, and that also puts Seung-cheol’s life in jeopardy. Now, his only comfort is a dog he is recently keeping, but there are lots of possibilities that their warm relationship also can be broken at anytime.
The director Park Jung-bum worked as an assistant director for Lee Chang-dong in “Secret Sunshine”(2007). The influence from Lee Chang-dong is apparently shown in his realistic approach. The rhythm of mundane daily life is captured in a calm but absorbing way, and, once you allow yourself immersed in it, you can feel the tension kept being mounted behind the screen little by little. The movie is sometimes suffocating, and I particularly remember a long take sequence where the camera closely sticks to the character. I was agitated while watching him, for I knew something could suddenly happen outside the screen.
While following Seung-cheol and understanding him, you will wonder when he will reach to the breaking point. He believes he can earn his living through honesty and diligency, but his belief is constantly shaken by the others unkind to him. The screenplay written by Park is a little bit manipulative(and possibly exploitive in others’ opinions) when pulling Seung-cheol toward melodramatic situation, but I recall what Roger Ebert said in his review for “El Norte”: “The lives of poor people are melodramatic from birth to death.” In our safer world, we sometimes forget how unstable their lives are.
With one of the worst haircuts since Anton Chigurh, Park Jung-bum gives a good understated performance. He does not say much unless it is necessary. We frequently see him from his behind in many crucial moments in the film. But we see a weary decent man who struggles to move on with lots of baggages inside him. When he finally lets out what has been inside him at the church meeting with his quiet voice, it is harrowing to observe him even though we only watch the back of his head.
Jin Young-wook is despicable but understandable as a selfish friend. He shamelessly asks for help to his friend even in the last meeting between them, in spite of all that have happened between them. Seung-cheol bitterly promises to help him – for a while. Kang Eun-jin is also good as Sook-yeong. She is quite unfair to Seung-cheol at one moment due to misunderstanding, but, like many of us, she is capable of realizing her error later and sincerely tries to compensate for that.
I learned later that the story was based on the experiences of a real life North Korean defector the director had known(The movie was dedicated to his memory; he died at the age of 30 due to stomach cancer). The people like Seung-cheol have a really hard time in North Korea, and we cannot probably imagine or understand what they experienced in their horrible condition. They put their lives at risk to come to our country, but we only accept them into our country and then ignore them like second-rate citizens. There is always possibility that North Korea can be suddenly collapsed – how will we treat millions of hungry, desperate people like Seung-cheol? And our clueless current government does nothing except waiting for North Korean to be collapsed by itself.
The film does not push its points to the audiences. In its objective attitude, it observes Seung-cheol and others without any judgements. Near the climax, there is the moment when Seung-cheol makes an important decision for his life as he follows his desire. The film does not tell you whether it is wrong or not; it only points out that his life gets a little better as a result. Is the last moment the symbolic expression of what he has lost inside him or another sad reality in his life? I have to think about it again, but I know for sure that he will move on – because he has to.
Sidenote: “Musan” is the name of Seung-cheol’s hometown in North Korea.