"If you see me in church, don't talk to me... pretend you don't know me."
Seung-cheol (played by director Park Jung-bum) is a North Korean defector struggling to survive in his new surroundings in the South by taking any and every job he can find, no matter how badly paid or demeaning it may be. His only friend (with whom he shares a tiny, dilapidated apartment) is Kyeong-cheol (Jin Yong-wook) who treats him as little more than a bumbling, inadequate fool and thinks nothing of stealing from shops and charging other North Koreans to send money back home to their relatives, and, in fact, even the policeman (Detective Park, played by Park Young-duk) who is helping them to settle in their new country constantly berates Seung-cheol on an almost daily basis.
While working for a pittance putting up posters for a sex shop throughout the city, Seung-cheol's attention (and heart) is caught by Sook-yeong (Kang Eun-jin), and following her he manages to secure a job in the karaoke bar where she works.
However, no sooner does he begin to dare to hope that he may have finally found someone with whom he can really connect and may be at last be heading towards a life worth living, than he discovers that even appearances can be deceptive...
Life presents us with challenges. That's what it does, and it is rather good at it. And while some ultimately see the struggle against adversity opening up veiled opportunities leading to an eventual happy ever after, others just never seem to get an even break.
One such individual is Seung-cheol who, having struggled his whole life in North Korea, risked life and limb to extricate himself from his altogether desperate situation and escape to a (hopefully) better life in the South, but far from becoming an integral part of some kind of utopian society, he has, instead, been increasingly marginalised and left with no alternative but to eke out whatever semblance of an existence he can, simply to survive from day to day.
When we are first introduced to Seung-cheol, he already appears to have been beaten by life. His apologetic demeanour - head often bowed and eyes focused downward - positively screams of his desperation to be accepted and allowed to find and live a normal, quiet existence, but try as he might to both do the right thing and fix situations that have already gone wrong, every single step he takes seems to achieve nothing but to bring another blow to knock him down yet further.
While those he comes into contact with, as well as those he works for (and even the individuals who conflict with him), certainly couldn't be said to care, the fact of the matter is that they're just too busy keeping their own heads (just) above water to have time to concern themselves with the needs of this obvious outsider. Yes, Seung-cheol is consistently exploited and, yes, he does repeatedly fall prey to the fallout from, and consequences of, others' personal agendas, but they too are living hand to mouth and that in itself can't fail to affect the rules of engagement.
From a cursory glance, it could be said that Seung-cheol is rather naive and while, considering his background, that's entirely understandable, even here there is a further level to be considered: For, Seung-cheol's biggest problem isn't his lack of awareness but rather his desire to connect and truly become a part of a South Korean society from which he is largely separate and shut off, invariably resulting in him taking people far too readily at face value and thereby making himself an all too easy target, without him even consciously realising it.
Add to that the fact that almost everyone's outward persona differs from who, and what, they really are - deliberately so, in an attempt to allow them to, or for them to be deemed to, fit in - and Seung-cheol can consequently be almost guaranteed to get the reality of situations wrong, at virtually every conceivable opportunity.
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.
With The Journals of Musan, director Park Jung-bum provides a in-depth character study of his real-life friend Jeon Seung-cheol while detailing the difficulties faced on a daily basis by those (outsiders and South Koreans alike) who find themselves on the very outskirts of society.
The characterisations present are incredibly realistically drawn and portrayed throughout, ensuring that viewer empathy is kept at its utmost from even the early stages of the film with the nature of that empathy gradually morphing from sympathy for Seung-cheol to respect. This subtle change in audience reaction was likely deliberately sought by director Park, especially considering his friendship with Seung-cheol, but never feels forced or in any way fake and, in fact, serves to raise the level of poignancy almost exponentially on numerous occasions.
Considering its storyline, The Journals of Musan was always going to be an incredibly dark affair, but it never fails to touch the heart and firmly stays in the mind long after the credits roll.
Park Jung-bum was assistant director on Lee Chang-dong's Poetry
(2010) and the effect of working with the master of subtlety (and of arresting gripping drama from the tiniest of moments) clearly shows throughout The Journals of Musan. While Park Jung-bum is not yet in the same league as Lee Chang-dong (and let's face it, who is?), he is, nonetheless, a talent worth looking out for in the future.
Jeon Seung-cheol sadly died of stomach cancer aged just 30 years old, and The Journals of Musan resolutely stands as a fitting and lasting tribute to a good and gentle man who was never really given a proper chance.
The Journals of Musan is without question an incredibly dark affair, but it never fails to touch the heart and ultimately stands as a fitting tribute to a gentle man who was never given the chance he truly deserved.
edition reviewed here is the Korean (Region 3) Single Disc Release
from Art Service Korea, provided as an anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. There are no image artifacts and no ghosting present, and the
picture remains consistently sharp throughout.
The original Korean
language soundtrack is provided as Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby 2.0, and is bright and clear throughout.
Excellent subtitles are provided for the main feature, but English speaking viewers should be aware that there are no English subtitles available for any of the DVD extras.
Actors: Park Jung-bum, Jin Yong-wook, Kang Eun-jin, Park Young-Duk, Kwon Kwi-deok
Directors: Park Jung-bum
Format: NTSC, Widescreen
Subtitles: English, Korean, None
Region: Region 3
Number of discs: 1
Distributor: Art Service Korea
Commentary with director Park Jung-bum and Myong-ji University professor Kim Young-jin
Short film: "125 Jeon Seung-cheol" (2008)