As a North Korean defector now living in South Korea, Jeon Seung-chul, the based-on-true-life main character of writer/director/star Park Jung-bum's debut feature, The Journals of Musan, endures all sorts of marginalization and abuse as he barely scrapes a living together putting up posters on walls. Truth be told, Park's film itself sometimes feels like punishment, from its Dardennes-like aesthetic to its general humorlessness. Nevertheless, there are glimmers of a real, if amazingly bleak, worldview underlying its dour surface, as well as a tough-minded compassion that one might even go so far as to call humanism, that makes the end result feel less like the condescending wallow in ugliness that one might have expected.
The key to The Journals of Musan lies in a line of dialogue uttered by a priest late in the film after Jeon has made a particularly brutal confession to a bunch of folks at a local church. Just before he asks the small group gathered there to pray for him, he basically says that because God is all-seeing and all-knowing, He sees the circumstances behind the sin Jeon has just confessed to, and thus is able to forgive him his transgressions; because of that, people should be able to forgive as well.
If The Journals of Musan indicates anything, though, it's that people, for the most part, either can't or simply aren't willing to comprehend the circumstances behind others' actions. All throughout the film, Jeon is, among other indignities, neglected, fired, berated, taunted, and physically violated—and all of this comes at the hands of people who don't know the full story behind this guy and his closed-off behavior. In short, Jeon is a victim of an environment whose inhabitants generally lack empathy—or, at least, if they show empathy, they do so only after they either know his backstory or if it's most convenient for them to finally reach out to him. (It doesn't help that Jeon himself seems almost unbelievably shy and inarticulate; his attempts to garner the affections of an attractive, devoutly Christian woman he notices at that local church mostly come off as uncomfortably awkward.)
It's a cold, cruel world Park paints in The Journals of Musan; in fact, it's very similar to the cold, cruel world his filmmaking compatriot and mentor Lee Chang-dong painted in his most recent film, Poetry, where the elderly main character's attempt to try to access her literary side was portrayed as her own way of accessing empathy amidst a maze of rampant self-interest. Lee apparently encouraged Park to make this film, an expansion of a short film he made in 2008 about the same character; unlike Lee, however, Park refuses us even the occasional moment of visual beauty to offset the relentless grimness.
The only levity from Jeon's marginalization comes from the stray dog he eventually takes in and cares for—despite the protestations of his cheating, manipulative roommate. Yes, this character detail comes right out of Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D. (another story about a down-on-his-luck outcast and his dog), but Park employs the detail in his own interesting ways. With most of the human beings around him giving him nothing but grief, the dog, of course, becomes Jeon's only source of nonjudgmental love and companionship. (When his roommate angrily leaves the dog out on the street one day, Jeon naturally panics; tellingly, Park chooses this one moment to unleash the film's only point-of-view shots.)
But not even Jeon is susceptible from the influence of the emotionally chilly environment around him; desperation can sometimes make people do unsavory things. By the film's concluding scenes, we witness the beginnings of Jeon's moral compass—which he had so long struggled to maintain in spite of his many adversities—going out of control…yet, ironically, as this happens, we also see his life taking turns for the better. Its long-drawn final shot suggests a tragic split between his moral and material sides. When confronted by death, Jeon instead chooses to move on relatively quickly, too busy focusing on his own life to dwell on it. Either this cold, cruel world is finally getting to him or he's simply accepting its ugly realities.