Journals of Musan, told by a master

A few words on the wonderful Korean indie feature Journals of Musan 무산일기 which can still be seen with English subtitles at Cinecode Sonje last week-end of April. It’s undoubtably the indie sensation of the moment, awarded in Pusan, Rotterdam, Deauville among others. The pitch is the kind festivals love (hard life of a North Korean defector in Seoul) but the film is worth much more than its story.

The director demonstrates he has an outstanding personality. Park Jeong-Bum 박정범 has something of the actor/director of , another recent indie hit Breathless 똥파리, Yang Ik-june 양익준, because they both acted themselves the main role. But we also think of not more than the biggest names of Korean cinema, Hong Sang-soo, Bong Joon-Ho, etc.

Because Journals of Musan is an uncompromised movie shot with uncompromised frames and rhythms, from the very first to the last second. The last sequence is a tour de force which remembers, if needed, that mise en scene is a matter of choice and control of the limits where you can push a spectator. One part of the plan is amazingly long, up to the unbearable, but for a very powerful reason, and without making the shot a pure demonstration of style. Then Park Jeong-Bum cuts the shot extremely abruptly, exactly such as Michael Mann in the ending of Miami Vice. That’s what we call mise en scene.

All frames are carefully chosen, and sometimes get extremely sophisticated, such as a one in a clothes shop, in order to express as much as possible from left to right. The same goes with the sound. The director tries often to tell us at least two things at the same time, taking the most benefit from the all means of a movie story telling, a kind of Godart approach. All of this without music on one hand, and neither any overloaded sequence on the other hand, which reminds us then of the achievement of Dardenne Brothers (Rosetta, The Son and co…). And shot with a regular digital camera, maybe not even HD. Those who really care if he used an Iphone, EX1, or a Red whatever, didn’t get the point here.

It’s the first time a Korean director makes us think of such different masters such as Dardenne brothers, and at the same time his fellows indie masters acclaimed in festivals

Nothing is weak in the film, and if ever the depressive attitude of the main character starts to get on your nerves, a sequence in the church may pull out your tears. Not only because of what the guy is telling, his last days in North Korean hell, but one again, because the choice of angle is one of the strongest you may seen these days, and such a choice is a perfect personal choice between compassion and distance with a character. A little later, you’ll get, without notice it at first, the point of view of a dog during a long sequence shot.

By the way, this dog is also one of the best animal character ever pictured. It could get an interpretation prize for being so timely and sometimes funny. Or we can say Park Jeong-Bum makes everybody acting perfectly, including a dog. The dog part seems like the best of all dog stories the korean cinema have told us in the past.

Park Jeong-Bum remains purely Korean, but it’s indeed the first time a Korean director makes us think of such different masters and at the same time his fellows indie masters acclaimed in festivals (if not in their country, apart among filmmakers). All of this in a first feature film, so we can bet in a few years from now, if ever you missed Journals of Musan, you won’t missed his next ones.

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