A realistically desolate story about a North Korean refugee, the main character is a candidate for our pity, having a stigma from his past. Everyone there recognizes his background easily from his social security number, starting with 125, and thus every job interview is doomed to failure. This is a movie project designed to make us feel, yet sadly, the direction and stolid performance don’t set us up to care. All of this could be very moving, but the sheer laziness and the stubbornness of the main character ticks me off, as is his lack of thankfulness to people that try to help him through this unfriendly world. In other words, he often bites the hands that feed him. Eventually we learn that a haircut and a new suit don’t make for a better man…
Park Jung-Bum’s accomplished debut feature The Journals of Musan was awarded both the FIPRSECI Jury Award and a Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. How it garnered such esteem is really beyond me. The promo materials promised the tale of a North Korean defector living a lonely life in the south, searching for some human companionship. It sounded like painfully stereotypical triumph of the human spirit film festival fare. They say nice guys finish last but, in Seung-cheol’s case, the question quickly becomes whether he will ever finish at all or even come close to the eventual happy ending he so desperately desires and so truly deserves. Should we care? Should we root for him? A huge ‘no’ in that department, as the main characters biggest problem isn’t his lack of awareness but rather his desire to connect and truly become a part of a South Korean society.
Like Tom Hanks in Castaway, when you feel alone you adopt a friend in the most unlikely of scenarios. With most of the human beings around him giving him nothing but grief, the dog, of course, becomes Jeon’s only source of nonjudgmental companionship. Sweet moments should arise from the build up but instead Jeon gravitates towards possible companionships without ever showing he’s capable of receiving or reciprocating it. Poor doggie. A victim trying to save another.
His coming out party at the end isn’t exactly a huge payoff either. He sort of gets the girl, but I’m not sure why anyone would want her. He never gets to express his feelings for her and their friendship is thrown away like a garbage on street. For the average viewer, like me, this deserves a better explanation. It should not be left open, now being only understandable for those who already know what’s going on in that part of the world. On the fringes of modern capitalism, even a saint appears like a fool. Is Seung-chu’s behavior a sign of moral fervor or simply of an inability to thrive, as the venial, brash Kyung-chul does, in this cutthroat environment? That is what this film wants to ask you, yet sadly we just don’t care enough to answer.