If you’ve made it out of North Korea, travelled all the way through China, and finally arrived in the promised land of the South, you might expect to find yourself in a kind of paradise free of violence, fear, and oppression, where opportunity and freedom rule. The reality, however, is rarely so pleasant. Those arriving from the North do so with little support, face constant stigma and the threat of exploitation, and may end up just as hungry and alone as before. The hero of Park Jung-bum’s Journals of Musan (무산일기, Musanilgi) is one such lonely soul who finds himself tested and betrayed until cheated even out of his own innocence.
After months in a resettlement centre, Seung-chul (Park Jung-bum) is living with a friend in a rundown flat next to a village knocked down to pave the way for yet another batch of swanky middle-class homes on the periphery of an ever expanding city. Assisted by a friendly policeman who urges him not to tell his prospective employers that he’s come from the North, only that he’ll work hard, Seung-chul looks for honest work but finds it difficult to come by, not only thanks to the mild stigma attached to being a defector but his relative lack of equivalent qualifications, and restrictions on his movements. Meanwhile his roommate, Kyung-chul (Jin Yong-ok), has decided the best buck’s a fast buck and started an individual enterprise “assisting” his fellow North Koreans sending money home via his uncle in China for a “small fee”. The only job Seung-chul can get is pasting up fliers for clubs and bars often over those for other establishments at the behest of an exploitative gang leader who rarely pays him and threatens to take the work away altogether if Seung-chul continues to refuse the less legal jobs he’s often “offered”.
Seung-chul is an innocent, godly soul who truly believes it should be possible to live honestly and with kindness in a land of freedom. His only refuge is the local church of which he is a devout member, but even here he is an invisible outsider who sits and eats alone only just brave enough to venture in in the first place. Developing a fondness for a pretty woman in the choir gives Seung-chul another reason to attend, and eventually a hope of a job too when he silently follows her to the karaoke bar she works in where they happen to be in need of another pair of hands.
The church, however, is just one of the many institutions to renege on their promises, offering relatively little in terms of real support to suffering men like Seung-chul who are granted only superficial welcome. Sook-young (Kang Eun-jin), the young woman Seung-chul idolises, is ashamed of her job in the karaoke bar which she feels to be immoral and in conflict with her otherwise intense religiosity, taking against Seung-chul on spotting him at church in fear that he will spill the beans and out her as an impure woman among her flock. Seung-chul would never do such a thing, though as he points out he doesn’t have any friends there to spill the beans to anyway.
In any case he continues to admire her from afar while she remains oblivious though slightly irritated to think he may have formed an attachment to a “helper” girl after he gets into a fight with a drunken patron who was touching her inappropriately. “Why do you care about people like that?” she asks him, tellingly, exposing her religiosity as the puritanical kind all about rules and oppression and not at all about compassion or kindness. Sook-young looks down on the helper girls as fallen women, advising Seung-chul that a godly man like himself has no business falling for “that sort of girl” before firing him when she catches him singing hymns in the karaoke booth, convinced that his excuse of not knowing any other songs must be a lie.
Sook-young seems to have no idea Seung-chul is from the North. True enough he speaks little but no one picks up on his accent and he’s been trained not to volunteer the information for fear of rejection. Once she finds out, Sook-young is full of remorse, actively inducting Seung-chul into the church and making him her good deed for the day. It’s not only the social stigma that plagues Seung-chul, but a kind of exoticisation. Kyung-chul’s other sideline is earning money through lectures to anti-communist organisations to whom he parrots the accepted line on North Korea – the violence, the oppression, the famine, though stopping short of the full horror. Seung-chul, unwillingly dragged to a church support group, reveals the full extent of what it cost him to survive and discovers no one quite wanted that level of honesty or is willing to help him in the depths of his despair. All anyone wants of a defector is to say what it is they want to hear, any deviation from the accepted line will not be tolerated in an eerie echo of all they’ve escaped.
Gazing at an expensive tailored suit, Seung-chul chases dreams of success but finds only exploitation and abandonment. His only real attachment is to a little dog brought in off the street to whom he shows the tenderness no one has yet shown him but even this small comfort is not enough to sustain him in the fiercely capitalist environment of modern day Seoul. Seung-chul is presented with a choice, one which strains the fragile innocence he’d been careful to preserve for his new life, and finds himself no better than the world which surrounds him. North or South, survival has a price but you can damn yourself by paying it even in the knowledge that those around you sold out long ago.
The Journals of Musan was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.
International trailer (English subtitles)