The Journals of Musan (2010)
One can scarcely imagine a time when the issue of reunification of North and South Korea ceases to be a topic of passionate conversation, particularly in the South. In fact, most matters related to North Korea are unlikely to lose currency on the Korean peninsula in the foreseeable future. The fora for exploring North-South issues are manifold, not least of which being film, a medium that is the most likely to approximate verisimilitude and attain universal relevance. On both fronts, The Journals of Musan shines brightly in the firmament of recent cinematic offerings.
The film follows the struggles of North Korean defector Seung-chul as he attempts to find some economic foothold in the South. He lives in a small apartment with another defector, Kyung-bol. The general ease with which Kyung-bol moves through the world, at least when we initially meet him, suggests that he has transitioned altogether more naturally to the opportunism demanded by an intensely entrepreneurial society than his diffident roommate. One of the first images of Seung-chul is him reading a Bible while sitting on a floor mattress and listening to devotional music. He attends church regularly, though is clearly not an integral part of the congregation as evinced by how his forlornly hunched figure sits so inconspicuously in one of the back pews, and quickly departs once the service is over.
The only other person who comes close to approximating a friendly presence for Seung-chul is Detective Park who regularly checks on him and attempts to help the Northerner find better employment. In one early scene, Seung-chul is on the verge of landing a job with a clothing manufacturer which entails traveling to China a few times a month, only for the owner to realise that the number on Seung-chul’s ID card indicates he is a defector from the North. He relays this suspicion to the sheepish detective, who had attempted to elide the fact during the interview, and that is simply that, Seung-chul’s unchosen origins putting paid to this modest aspiration. We subsequently learn that Seung-chul’s primary employment is putting up posters in various parts of the city and in the course of this line of work he must contend with a brash foul-mouthed boss and two thugs unhappy with what they see as an encroachment on their turf.
What appears to promise a brighter development, and to possibly push the film in more a conventional direction, is his attempt to ingratiate himself into the life of a woman he has noticed at church. She hasn’t noticed him, however, so when Seung-chul lands a job at the noraebang (karaoke room) where she works, she is none the wiser to their connection or his possible designs. Suffice it to say that the nature of their relationship wouldn’t in the least satisfy the rom-com crowd.
The most touching relationship in the film is between Seung-chul and a puppy named Baek-su that he decides to take under his weary wing. This is telling in a range of ways. Whereas most of the humans in Seung-chul’s life treat him cruelly, indifferently, occasionally even violently, or simply fail to show the requisite interest that might make sense of his behaviour, the dog remains loyal and affectionate throughout. Another behavioural difference related to this cute canine is that while Seung-chul mostly accepts his miserably marginalised fate with pained passivity, he shows great emotional intensity whenever his beloved crossbreed is physically threatened by boorish people seeking to take out their frustrations on the defenseless dog.
Even the church fails to be a bridge between Seung-chul and other people. Christianity is supposed to have forgiveness as one of its central tenets, though the sense we get, an impression never challenged by subsequent developments, is that Seung-chul remains outside a religious fraternity he seems earnestly dedicated to and, cruelest ironies of all, one meant to welcome all comers regardless of their sinful taint.
Though this is a small film, it nevertheless manages to touch on a number of pertinent and significant themes. For instance, in Seung-chul’s constantly frustrated struggles to better himself economically, we are given an implied critique of the casual cruelty of the capitalist system. While this type of economic arrangement is not nearly so wantonly predatory as the North’s so-called communist regime, nevertheless those on the bottom of the socioeconomic rung are forced to debase themselves for a mere pittance while enduring scornful and sometimes even violent treatment at the hands of callous employees. To further emphasize his social isolation, the filmmakers have Seung-chul live in an apartment building at the edge of a desolately windswept landscape where a village once stood. It has been demolished to make way for new apartment complexes, encapsulating South Korea’s rapid modernization these last few decades in which so much of its traditional life has been so rapidly swept away in wave after wave of what apologists for capitalism’s transformative power often dub “creative destruction.”
Even the suffering experienced by North Koreans has become a commodity south of the 38th parallel as evinced by one of Kyung-bol’s sidelines – providing “anti-communist” education, for
a fee, to university students. Kyung-bol also does business with a number of acquaintances from the North whom he helps send money back home. In one scene they are watching a news insert about South Koreans sending flyers attached to balloons across the border. According to one of the defectors, this gesture insults Kim Jong Il and thus only makes matters worse. Such stunts presumably lead to an intensification of the already extensive oppression visited upon its denizens by the rulers of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea.
Shot in an almost stringently realistic manner, with the cinephile term cinéma vérité coming most immediately (though hopefully not too pretentiously) to mind. This is most apparent in a chase sequence that might leave the faint of heart feeling a tad dizzy. If the shakiness of the shots are anything to go by, then the filmmakers probably couldn’t afford a steadicam, but this actually works to enhance the film’s realistic patina. In fact, it is precisely this low-fi, highly naturalistic and intimate approach which gives The Journals of Musan its sense of immediacy and allows the audience to even more heart-wrenchingly identify with Seung-chul’s plight. The film does not even have a score, as all the music we hear is on camera, further reducing any obvious markers of maudlin manipulation. The filmmaking style is echoed by the dispassionate, almost deadpan, manner in which tragedy and hardship befalls Seung-chul. The steadfast stoicism he shows in the face of it all is what takes our association with, and thus sorrow for, him to even greater heights of emotional intensity. Anything more overtly manipulative in the stylistic presentation would have had quite the opposite effect.
For me, good films are defined to a large extent by how intently engaged I am with the plight of the central characters. On that criterion alone, and setting aside all political and cultural factors, The Journals of Musan is a deeply rewarding, if acutely disspiriting, cinematic experience that will haunt one’s waking hours with melancholy pensiveness long after the final frame fades. With an obliquely nodding allusion to Kafka, The Journals of Musan should serve as a delicately administered ice pick to even the most jaded filmgoer. If this isn’t the case, I would not only check for a pulse, but for even the vaguest trace of a heart.
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