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[Herald Review] ‘Journalist’ an imperfect, but worthy attempt to take pulse of society

While watching director Michihito Fujii’s “The Journalist,” I had to keep reminding myself that this is a movie based in Japan, not South Korea, so reminiscent was it of a similar incident here just a few years ago in which the government went rogue to abuse its might and sway public opinion in its favor.

Having said that, I have mixed feelings on the end product. I was not a fan of the performance by Shim Eun-Kyung -- an accomplished actress held back by speaking in a foreign language -- and the narrative was oversimplified the actual story it was loosely based on, while it was oddly devoid of energy.

The Journalist (Pop Entertainment)
The Journalist (Pop Entertainment)

All the same, I felt like the film pointed out several poignant issues that are worth pondering in both Korean and Japanese society.

The film follows a young reporter named Yoshioka Erika (Shim), a young US-educated Japanese reporter working for the fictional Toto Shimbun. When an unidentified source sends the paper a classified document about a shady plan to build a medical university, Yoshioka pursues the story despite thin leads.

Meanwhile, Sugihara Takumi (Tori Matsuzaka), a civil servant working for the Cabinet’s intelligence office, grows skeptical about his job that involves manipulating public opinion and discrediting anyone that his superiors deem to be “against the nation’s interest,” which includes the victim of a sexual assault. He is caught between wanting to lay low to provide for his family -- which includes a baby on the way -- and the urge to do the right thing.

But when Sugihara’s former boss and mentor encounters an unexpected fate, he is no longer able to just stand by and gets involved in Yoshioka’s crusade, taking a risk that could easily end up destroying them both.

The issue the film raises is relevant in today’s world: What is the role of the traditional media in times when so much information is flowing through the internet? How much credibility can we place on the waves of information we read every day? 

The Journalist (Pop Entertainment)
The Journalist (Pop Entertainment)

Taking on the form of a political thriller, the film depicts an official government body manipulating public opinion in a rather obvious way. Intelligence workers become faceless minions of an evil empire, typing away in a cold, bluish environment, and the administration is depicted as absolute evil. In the newsroom, the shaky cam and Yoshioka’s timid behavior are used to portray her uncertainty.

Maybe it’s the director’s style, but I felt the symbolism lacked subtlety and was too on-the-nose, plus the process of Yoshioka’s news gathering was rather vague and unrealistic. But the later scene when the article is being created was done admirably with fast-paced editing that blended well with the tone of the climax.

As a thriller, I felt like the plot was rather predictable and too linear, as the characters were one-dimensional and the twists were obvious; anyone could predict who the mystery source was by the second act. The story itself was a bit contrived, with characters acting the way they do simply because the script requires it.

In terms of the acting, this is far from Shim’s best work. Her performances in other films prove she can act, but her stiff demeanor, low energy level and inherent limitations in line delivery proved costly. Matsuzaka, on the other hand, did a good job portraying someone stuck in a dilemma.

While it is not really a standout film, I admire the director and cast for boldly raising the film’s core issue, which is not an easy thing to do under the current political situation in Japan. Also as a Korean, I thought it touched on thoughts that both Japanese and Koreans should really consider.

Nearly a decade ago, South Korean intelligence officials conspired to manipulate public opinion ahead of the 2012 presidential election, which ended in victory of the ruling party candidate Park Geun-hye. Last year, the Supreme Court confirmed the punishment for those involved in the matter -- which include four years in prison for former National Intelligence Service Chief Won Se-hoon.

The term “fake news” is something that scarcely anyone living in today’s society can escape. “The Journalist” challenges viewers to tackle this issue, and really ponder the role of the traditional media and social media services in dictating what people think.

The film opens in local theaters Thursday.

By Yoon Min-sik (