Awards are justifiably accruing to “The Journals of Musan,” multihyphenate Park Jung-bum’s impressive debut following his work as assistant helmer on Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry.” Based on the story of a North Korean defector friend of Park’s, pic exposes the marginalization of escapees from the North through a protag whose unsophisticated yet steady moral compass is battered by people mired in cynicism or worse. Though it cries out for trimming, “Musan” is a welcome, substantive marker on the current cinema landscape and winner of major prizes at Pusan, Marrakech and Rotterdam. A limited arthouse run is likely, possibly including Stateside venues.
The helmer immediately signals the importance of place, setting the lead character’s living quarters on the hilly outskirts of Seoul next to a no-man’s-land of semi-wrecked buildings toppled to make way for cookie-cutter housing projects. From these opening images, Park makes clear that, like the topography, his characters are people on the edge.
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Following eight months in a resettlement program for defectors, Seung-chul (Park) struggles to make a living in the employ of a sleazy promoter by papering the city with cheap sex posters. With his frequently bowed head, ill-suited haircut and reflexively protective body language, Seung-chul tries to exist without being noticed. His only companion is fellow defector Kyung-chul (Jin Yong-uk), his brash roommate, who is enamored with capitalist ease.
Seung-chul is drawn to a local church and struck by pretty choir member Sook-young (Kang Eun-jin), whom he sees posting a help-wanted sign at a karaoke bar she manages, despite the self-revulsion she feels for doing work “shameful before God.” He gets a night job there, inspiring several superb scenes in which Seung-chul’s ethical behavior is misconstrued by people unused to earning or offering respect.
Park makes painfully clear the prejudice encountered by North Koreans in Seoul, visiting a number of humiliations on his protag, who’s unused to standing up for himself. The puppy he looks after and defends (a shoo-in for this year’s cutest screen pooch) is a mirror of Seung-chul himself: docile, loyal and bewildered by mistreatment. Park piles on a few too many indignities, and misses a perfect ending about 10 minutes before the actual finish, yet as helmer and thesp, he’s crafted a moving character abused by a society alien to his sense of socialization.
Park has said he cast himself in the lead because only he knew his friend’s mannerisms, and while this is undoubtedly true, Seung-chul feels like both an individual and an avatar, a tragic figure whose understanding of the world is continuously at odds with that of the people around him. Calling “Musan” an anti-capitalist film would be a too-simplistic misreading; rather, he’s critical of the unfettered morality that can be a by-product of capitalism run rampant.
Much like Seung-chul himself, the camera is observational rather than participatory, viewing the world from a certain remove and at a similar pace. The exceptions are those moments when the protag needs to run, and the lensing suitably shakes up the screen, offering bursts of visual jitters that jive with the emotions not just of the lead, but of the viewer as well.