(interview made for KoreaFilm, at Pusan International Film Festival 2010)
Mr. Park Jung-bun, The Journals of Musan, your first feature film, had its world premiere in the “New Currents” section of the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF), where it won one of the two main awards of the competition, as well as the International Critics Prize (FIPRESCI Prize). How did you meet the real Jeon Seung-chul and how did your relation with him evolve? What attracted you to his story?
Jeon Seung-chul was my friend when I was attending the Yonsei University, where I majored in Physical Education. Seung-chul had just escaped from North Korea and he used to play ice hockey, he was a professional ice hockey player. That’s where we met, at the university. We were colleagues and we majored in the same field. For about three years, we were hanging out like best friends and I got used to hearing things about how North Koreans are living in the South Korean society. I thought that there was some irony there. It was a very absurd environment that had started pushing him away while he was living in the South. At first I was just hanging out with him, I didn’t really think of him as a character of my film.
How did Jeon Seung-chul die?
Seung-chul was struggling with cancer in 2008, when I made a short film called 125 Jeon Seung-chul. I wanted him to play the main character, but he got sick, so I couldn’t really ask for it. For a very long time, I was with him, by his side, seeing him struggling with cancer. Seung-chul asked me to make the film and then to show it to him. So I made the film and brought it to him to watch. Unfortunately, this was two days before he died.
And you were also the main actor in this short film?
Yes, I was.
So this short film was the starting point for your feature film?
The short film is about this character’s one day, when he’s trying to get a job, but he doesn’t succeed, because his citizen registration number starts with 125. So I would say yes to your question, as in the feature film there is a sequence where Seung-chul is trying to get this job, but that whole sequence was one short film before. Yes, I would say the short film was the starting point from which the film expanded and I got to show every aspect of Seung-chul’s everyday life.
To what extent you have been faithful to the actual events? In other words, how much is truth and how much is fiction in The Journals of Musan?
The motivations and the main events that are happening are true, but the details of the characters’ actions and their dialogues could be fictitious. For example, when you are confessing in the church that you killed someone, the events may be true, but it’s a matter of how you express it, right? So I think that all that matters is expressing the details, to show how these North Koreans are pushed away by South Koreans. All these events are true, but how they deal with it and how they act in details came out of my mind.
This particular event with him accidentally killing someone back home, in Musan, was true? Did it belong to the biography of Jeon Seung-chul?
I wouldn’t say it was part of his biography. I was trying to depict the North Korean defectors’ everyday life in just one character. I just tried to put together every aspect of their lives, so not everything is necessarily true. That particular event is not true, he didn’t kill anyone.
Did you audition other actors for the part of Jeon Seung-chul?
No, I didn’t audition anybody else for the role and for any other roles as well, except for the flat mate and the girl from the church. Those two are professional actors, but all the other are non-professionals, people I just picked up from the street. The reason I didn’t audition anyone for the role of Seung-chul is because the character has to get beaten very much, so I couldn’t afford to use any actor, because it would have been too hard for him. I also wanted to film something that’s real, so, when it comes to violence, I wanted to do it by myself from the start.
When did you begin writing the script and how much did the script development take?
I met Seung-chul in 2002, but I thought of making a film out of his story in 2004. I actually started writing the script in January 2009 and I finished after one month and a half, but I cannot say that this was the start, because I had been taking notes from 4-5 years before that.
How long did production and postproduction take?
I should say that I was assistant director for Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry. While Lee Chang-dong was writing his script, from January to May 2009, I took a break, I finished my script in mid-February and than I shot my film. From June 2009 to June 2010, I was working with Lee Chang-dong. After Poetry was released in theatres in June, after Cannes, I finally had the time to work at the postproduction of my film. I managed to finish the postproduction process just one day before this festival, PIFF, started.
How did you manage to find the money necessary for the production of the film?
With 125 Jeon Seung-chul I won some awards in short film festivals and that money really helped the production budget. It was a quarter of the budget. The rest of it was loaned from the bank and I got everything by myself. The whole production budget was 80,000 dollars, which is not very much.
That is because you shot in HD, not on 35 mm film?
Did you try to get money also from the Korean Film Council (KOFIC)?
I got some money from KOFIC, but for postproduction only.
I believe it is very difficult for a director to play the main role in his film, and you appear in most of the scenes. Which were the main difficulties during shooting?
The main difficulty was that I didn’t draw the storyboard before shooting. I was shooting and acting, while people didn’t know what I was doing, so there were some difficulties in communication. The whole production took 24 shooting days and every single day I got my nose bleeding. All the staff members, seeing me like this, were saying: „Oh, my God, this is so painful, we have to work harder”. I found this ironic: I got all the pains, I was the one suffering and in this way the staff, watching my hardships, cooperated better. After this, everyone around me told me not to play the main part and direct at the same time, because it is too hard, but for my next project I have to do it all by myself again, because it’s a story that only I can play. But I think I’m going to do this for the last time.
However, after you’ve suffered all the pains, now you will also receive all the gains… There is another English title that I found for your film, Out of Musan…
Yes, Lee Chang-dong made these two titles, Out of Musan and The Journals of Musan, but I decided that the second one was better. The reason why he made these titles is that I wanted to give this feature film the same name as my short film, 125 Jeon Seung-chul. But Lee Chang-dong said that films are like children and, if you make two different films, why would you name them in the same way? It just doesn’t work that way. And I agreed with him, so he thought of other titles.
How did you manage so well to keep the balance between the psychological and social aspects of the protagonist’s motivation? Because he is motivated both in the psychological and in the social plan…
As you may have noticed, I have been influenced by directors such as Lee Chang-dong, the Dardenne Brothers and Cristian Mungiu. The most important thing about those directors is that they are able to tell a story which influences the individuals through those individuals. By depicting all the details of their characters’ everyday life, they actually get to say something about society and how society is affecting them. Trying to keep a balance between these two sides was my task and I always wanted to do that through looking in the character in a detailed way. By looking at all those details, I wanted to expand to the society. That’s how I tried to work.
You’ve mentioned Cristian Mungiu and I’m also from Romania. Did you watch other Romanian films besides 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days?
4, 3, 2 was the only film I’ve watched by Cristian Mungiu, but, when I first watched it, I was very shocked and I watched it several times after that, and I got to think: „Could I make this kind of film?” But in Korea there are not really many chances to watch a Romanian film, so that is the only Romanian film I know.
Here, at PIFF, there were other three Romanian films…
Then maybe I should have seen them.
Why have you chosen to make a feature debut with such a tough topic as the situation of a North Korean defector in South Korea?
When it comes to topics, I think you don’t get to choose your topic, but the topic itself will chose you, so I’m just reacting to that. So the topic comes to me and I have to make it. This is more a reaction rather than me going around and trying to find topics and to choose the right one.
Is the current situation of North Korean defectors as dramatic as you presented it in this film? What can be done, in your opinion, to improve their situation?
The main difference between North and South Koreans is that they don’t get to choose the same things, they don’t have the same choices or options, because we’re living in a capitalist society and in a capitalist society the most important thing is that you must have the education and ability to make your choices. But here there aren’t enough education systems for North Korean defectors or these programs last for two or three months and then they are out on their owns. So we have to make them aware of how reality is like in South Korea. We should educate those people much more than two or three months. South Koreans should teach them how to fish rather than give them small money and send them away. I think there should be a systematic solution on a long term.
Is it hard to make films in Korea? You produced your film independently, so how hard is was for you?
This is a universal problem, the main problem is the budget and I think that, for the low budget independent films, there are no roots to be financed and released. And that was the most difficult thing, because there is no way for these independent films to make money. That is probably because, unlike in France, where there is a huge variety of films to show the people, in Korea there are not many ways for independent films to meet their audience. This may be the main problem, the financing and reaching the audience.
Did you finish also a film school?
After my BA in Physical Education, I worked for a film company and from 2007 to 2009 I attended graduate studies at the Film and Digital Media Department of Dongguk University. The Journals of Musan is in fact my graduation film.
So how come you didn’t get support from your school?
My school gave me the camera and equipment, but no finance.
Your film had its world premiere here in Pusan. How did you feel about the feedback of the audience?
When I was at the screening, I could actually feel the audience and I was grateful for that. I have been trying to talk about hope, but, in order to show the audience what hope was like, I had to show what pain was in the first place. I thought that this was really ironic, but at the same time I felt guilty for giving them so much pain. At the same time, I’m glad that the film was screened here and that I got the opportunity to meet the audience. I wish to find many other ways to meet the audience.
When will The Journals of Musan be released theatrically?
The film has already a distribution company, but we haven’t decided yet when to release it, because the film has to be better known by the people first. After some more festivals, people will get to know about it.
Please tell me something about the story of your next film and why do you feel the need to play again.
My next film is called Alive and the motivation for this is that another very close friend, as close as Jeon Seung-chul, killed himself a while ago. After his death, I got to think about why do people have to live and how do they survive and all this kind of stuff. And the reason why I play the main role is that there is a lot of violence in this film as well, including both psychological and physical violence. So I couldn’t really force anyone to do it for me. The story is really simple. It’s about a guy working in a factory, who falls in love with a girl. When the girl abandons him, he tries to find a new life in Seoul, but he cannot be loved in Seoul, so he comes back. I’m trying to show the audience how he is struggling to survive and his passion for life. I feel that the audience can see all that. Basically, I didn’t want to force anyone to this dark side of the character. On the other hand, I am very familiar with the environment and with the story. The film was financed by the Asian Cinema Fund here in Pusan, so I have the opportunity to do it. I should add that the policeman in The Journals of Musan is my father, Park Young-deok, and he will also play the part of my character’s father in Alive.