Real lives in North Korea: Three day film event in Australia

14 03 2013

voices-in-exile-poster_smallNorth Korea Film Event in Canberra (20th March, ANU) and Sydney (21st March, Sydney Cheil Church in Strathfield, and 22nd March, University of Sydney).

Panoptic Perspectives is the title of a two-day film event, organized by scholars from institutions in Sydney and Canberra, to be held in venues at the Australian National University, Cheil Church in Strathfield and Sydney University.

The purpose of this event is to offer different perspectives on a phenomenon much discussed in the popular media, but rarely considered beyond the singular, highly politicized and bi-polemic story of good and evil, right and wrong – North Korea.

Through the medium of film, and the discussion by guest speakers that will precede and follow each screening, it is hoped the audience will gain a more nuanced understanding of some of the issues surrounding ‘North Korea’ and the North Korean people.


Alternative Approaches to North Korean Issues. – 22 March 12 PM at Architecture Lecture Theater 3, Wilkinson Building, University of Sydney, co-hosted by Global Social Justice


The Journals of Musan (2011). Directed by Park Jungbum

– 20 March 05:30 PM, Coombs Lecture Theatre, HC Coombs Building (8a), Fellows Road, Australian National University

– 21 March 5:30 PM, Sydney Cheil Church (Sydney St & Concord Rd.)

– 22 March 5:20 PM, Old Geology Lecture Theater (next to Footbridge Theater), University of Sydney, co-hosted by Global Social Justice Network

Q&A with the director (Park Jung-bum) after the screening

A Schoolgirl’s Diary (2007). Directed by Jang In-hak

– 22 March 1:45 PM Architecture Lecture Theater 3, Wilkinson Building, University of Sydney, co-hosted by Global Social Justice Network. Discussion with Dr. Leonid Petrov after the screening

Yodok Stories (2008). Directed by Andrzej Fidyk

– 21 March 2:00 PM Sydney Cheil Church (Sydney St. & Concord Rd.) Discussion with Dr. Leonid Petrov after the screening

Each screening is preceded by a short talk introducing the key themes of the film. Each film will also be followed by a questions and answers session. Guest speakers include Park Jung-bum, director of The Journals of Musan

Admission (access per day): Student $5 Adult $10 (RSVP on the event webpage is recommended to secure your seat)

For more information, go to:


Journals of MusanReleased in South Korea 2011. Synopsis by Markus Bell
Director Park Jungbum said in interviews that he based the main character for The Journals of Musan (무산 일기) on a North Korean friend he met while at university in Seoul. The film highlights several important themes concerning the lives of North Korean refugees. Firstly, that arrival in South Korea is not the end of their struggle to find safety and security; secondly, for better of for worse, organized religion plays an integral role in the lives of these individuals; and thirdly, that ignorance is at the root of much of the prejudice that exists against North Koreans living in South Korea. The Journals of Musan is important in that for the first time, the South Korean public were offered a window into the lives of a few of the 24,000 North Koreans residing in South Korea, many of whom have been through indescribable hardships to arrive in their new home.

Yodok Stories_Andrzej FidykReleased South Korea 2008. Synopsis by Christopher Richardson
For every artist whose career has advanced under the patronage of power, another risked life and reputation to present alternatives to the narratives of the state, whether through graffiti, subversive songs, paintings, or plays. In North Korea, where life is characterized by surveillance and control, such examples are rare. Yodok Stories, first staged in 2006, is perhaps the most famous example. This was a story crying out to be told: a concentration camp, in the early 21st Century, in the heart of East Asia. Although the idea for the musical came from Polish filmmaker, Andrzej Fidyk, its strength comes from the creative participation of so many North Koreans. Yodok Stories is a powerful corrective to the stereotype of defectors as passive victims. Although the bombast, blood and thunder of Yodok Stories might initially seem bizarre, or kitsch, the musical powerfully evokes the aesthetic of North Korean arts, notably the revolutionary operas The Sea of Blood and The Flower Girl. There are more than 24 million North Koreans alive today, and at least as many stories. Both at home and abroad, it is time they were told.

Schoolgirl's DiaryReleased in North Korea 2007, in South Korea 2011. Synopsis by Dr. Leonid Petrov
One of the most successful films produced in North Korea, The Schoolgirl’s Diary is an attempt to resolve the growing conflict between selfish individualism and patriotic self-sacrifice. It chronicles a girl’s life through her school years: one that’s full of the peer pressure and family problems familiar everywhere. Echoing the Russian film Courier (Kuryer) (1986), which struck a chord in Perestroika- stricken Soviet Union, The Schoolgirl’s Diary views the grim realities of life through the eyes of a teenager. If something in the film turns out to be politically unpalatable, the immaturity of youth is blamed—not the film director. For a cash-starved North Korea, this film was an instant success. Viewed by some 8 million people in 2006, it received high praise at the international film festivals in Pyongyang and Cannes.

Local media coverage in Korean:

기획특집 – 노블레스 오블리주운동을 통한 북한이주민돕기 (상)

탈북자 및 북한 문제 관련 영화제 개최

영화 통한 ‘북한 문제’ 조명

재호북한이주민후원회 및 일부 연구자들

Park Jung-bum Offers Notes on his Unique POV

24 05 2011

by Adam Hartzell (SF360, May 16, 2011)

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 trailerInfo.) 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…

See the full text of the interview with Park Jung-bum here…

Documentary Film and North Korea

By Andray Abrahamian (38 North, 20 May 2011)

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