Eleven directors were in the running for the $15,000 New Directors award at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, and the jury (Nick James, Daniela Michel, and Marie Therese Guirgis) selected South Korean director Park Jung-bum’s The Journals of Musan (English trailer. Info.) as the winner. “The unexpected ways that the film fuses the personal with the sociopolitical makes it truly original,” they offered, “especially its sophisticated use of imagery and point of view.” Director Park was in attendance at the Festival and, before the honor was announced at the SFIFF Golden Gate Awards, I was able to interview him thanks to the arrangement of San Francisco Film Society’s Hilary Hart, with Korean translation provided by Jacki J. Noh.
SF360: I understand that this film was based on a friendship you had. Could you tell me a little bit about how the film developed?
Park Jung-bum: Jeong Seung-chul is a friend of mine whom I met in 2002 when he came to South Korea from North Korea. He came into our University and he was my friend at school. We both majored in physical education and that’s how I met him. He used to play ice hockey in North Korea. He was always very positive and very bright. I felt like we matched. He was more like my younger brother. I felt very close to him and there were times that we lived together. As a friend of his, I naturally met people that he hung out with, other North Korean defectors. So I was able to see their world. It was a kind of darkness within South Korean culture.
SF360: So it sounds like the relationship you had with your friend is very different from the portrayal in the movie, but you learned about the more pessimistic experience that North Korean refugees had through your friendship with him?
Park: That is correct. [North Korean refugees] came to South Korea to be happy. Well, the main reason was because they had nothing to eat there. But you cannot just live with food. You need other things. What they were seeking was general happiness, but what they found was that it’s also difficult to find genuine happiness in South Korea as well. South Korea did not allow them to be happy, to seek what they were looking for. So people get really disappointed and some do commit suicide and some were even tying to return to North Korea. And, as you see in the movie, some betray their friends.
But I also saw this [dark side of the experience of North Koreans in South Korea] was a kind of dichotomy that existed in our [South Korean] society. I thought, well, this darkness is not just about them, but also about the very poor people, the people we don’t pay attention to or are very difficult for us to meet. So I wanted to throw a question to the audience that with these kinds of people surrounding us, how should we live? What kind of life should we lead?
SF360: Your film completed a triptych of North Korean refugee films in San Francisco, The San Francisco International Asian American Festival was a couple months ago, and they showed both Jeon Kyu-hwan’s Dance Town and Zhang Lu’s Dooman River. Like yours, they are all very pessimistic of the plight of North Korean refugees. Do you see your film as a counterweight to mainstream portrayals of North Korean refugees in South Korea or are most portrayals of that community consistently pessimistic?
Park: I know the director Jeon Kyu-hwan. But I didn’t get to see his film. I saw Dooman River. So I am aware that all these movies talk about North Korean defectors. So I am very familiar with [Zhang Lu]. We are close. We talk a lot. What he portrays is from the perspective of Koreans living in China, [coming over] from Yanggang [Province in North Korea]. What I portray is the lives of North Korean defectors in South Korea, what they experience.
But if I can find something in common between myself and Zhang Lu, we didn’t make the films to attract some empathy or sympathy or attention [to the plight of North Korean refugees]. It’s more showing the reality of these peoples’ lives. We both feel that the most realistic film [is what we should] pursue and try to create. So in that sense, we both agree.
I asked myself this question How should I live? We have these neighbors that share the same space but there’s indifference [towards them]. There is lack of empathy and sometimes we might not even acknowledge that they exist. Is it OK to do that? Is it the correct way or is it wrong? [What is] the meaning behind that? Again, we are living in the same society, same era, same space, yet is it OK to just ignore, is it OK to pretend that they don’t exist? And I find that very sad and maybe that’s a very selfish [response] that capitalism breeds. So I wanted to report that. These people exist. They are your neighbors. So that’s the kind of question that I wanted to ask the audience, but also, it’s the question that I ask myself. With these neighbors, how should I live? Interestingly, I get a lot of questions about that via email or questions when we have a screening…
Foreign documentaries on North Korea suffer from a number of unique challenges, including issues of access, verifiability, and potemkinism. They also face the challenge of how to fairly represent “the other” to an audience that has no direct experience of the object of study. To what extent can the filmmaker allow audiences to make up their own minds, when so much mediation necessarily takes place? How can he ensure some balance between competing voices? How can the film be fair to its subject? These are challenges that face any documentary, but are present to a greater degree when the subject is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a radically different society with a singular media image that has been built up over the past six decades. Four of the most widely-viewed documentaries on North Korea illustrate the many failings and occasional successes in addressing (or avoiding) these issues: Welcome to North Korea, The Vice Guide to North Korea, A State of Mind, and North Korea: A Day in the Life…