Escaping North Korea, But Not Hard Times in The Journals of Musan


Less than a year after defecting from North Korea, Seung-chul (writer-director Park Jung-bum) remains unable to catch anything resembling a break. Over the course of the Seoul-set Journals of Musan, a feature-debut prizewinner at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, he gets fired twice, beat up (also twice), and entangled in the criminal dealings of flatmate and fellow defector Kyung-chul (Jin Yong-uk)—all while fielding a variety of cruel insults, including from sanctimonious crush Sook-young (“You are a bad person”), a member of the choir at Seung-chul’s church. The Journals of Musan is most heartbreaking when the protagonist, hiding behind an overgrown bowl cut, quietly tries, and nobly fails, to restore some semblance of order to his surroundings (at one point, he rinses a supervisor’s coffee mug before getting turned out of the office; at another, he attempts to repair his new jacket, sliced by thugs with a box cutter, with packing tape). In depicting a world totally hostile to his protagonist, Park establishes that, for many defectors, the South can be nearly as difficult a place to live as the North. But by playing Seung-chul as extremely sullen, and by constantly calling attention to his disheveled appearance, Park also provokes viewers to blame the character for his own problems— and thus confront their similarity to the movie’s hard-hearted citizens. Group scenes, meanwhile, often suffer from a peculiar handheld drift, as if in troubling over which insult to add to which injury, the filmmakers neglected to attend to rudimentary blocking.