Tribeca: “The Journals of Musan” – a North Korean tries to find a life in the south

This entry was posted on 24.04.2011

The Journals of Musan. Photo: Image.net

The Journals of Musan. Photo: Image.net

Back then before the wall came down, West Germany helped each East German who managed to run away from the “socialist” dictatorship with money. How much? I don’t even remember anymore, but I remember that in the last year of the GDR West Germans weren’t happy about how high the amount was. How does South Korea treat North Korean’s defectors? Not well – at least not in Park Jungbum’s first feature “The Journals of Musan (Musan Il-Gi)” which is screening at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Jeon Seung-chul tried three different ideologies – and none of them really worked. He lived in North Korea, where he was sometimes so hungry he even did a bad thing (as we learned later in the movie). He managed to get away through China and made it to South Korea.

But capitalism doesn’t treat him well either. “We risked our lives to get out of North Korea,” one guy says, “only to make a few dollars per hour in South Korea.” Four dollars, that seems to be the going rate, for North Koreans. Capitalism doesn’t really need unskilled workers anymore – not even in South Korea, not even if they are from the other part of the country.

But to be fair: Seung-chul (who is played by the director, Park Jungbum) isn’t really doing well, neither when he puts up posters around the city, nor when he finally finds a new job, working in a karaoke bar.

He tries another ideology – religion. But christianity doesn’t help him either, not even when it comes to finding new friends. Seung-chul is a pretty lonely guy who can’t really connect. His roommate is a traitor who helps other North Koreans sending money to their relatives and who charges a high commission for it. He likes a girl in the church choir (whom he only knows from a distance). But when he finally meets her at the Karaoke bar (where she also works, even though it’s a shady business), he isn’t able to open up to her.

His only friend is a little puppy somebody left behind on the street – Seung-chul already knew him and shared his fast-food lunches with him. But somehow the dog has to suffer when Seung-chul finally does better (although this has to do with some activity his priest would not approve).

“The Journals of Musan” have been highly praised in Korea; the movie won two awards at the prestigious Busan International Film Festival. The movie “perfectly balances its cinematic values with contemporary political issues and becomes a witness of our times from artistic, psychological and social aspects”, the International Federation of Film Critics wrote. Politics play a minor role in “The Journals of Musan” though – surprising for a movie that deals with refugees from North Korea.

The movie leaves a lot of open questions though. The main one: Park Jungbum dedicates his movie to the “late Jeon Seung-chul”. Is this a real life story? And if so – what happened to Jeon Seung-chul? Too bad that these questions aren’t answered.

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