After winning 17 awards with his feature debut, director says he is ‘overrated and lucky’
This is the sixth in a series on up-and-coming Korean filmmakers. ―Ed.
Clad in blue jeans and a grey hoodie, director Park Jung-bum looks nothing like the North Korean defector he played in his award-sweeping feature debut, “The Journals of Musan.” He no longer has the character’s bowl-cut, nor does he have that sluggish gait.
“Oh, of course I look different,” says Park during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul, Sunday, with an indulgent laugh. “I’d gained almost 10 kilograms for the role. I wanted to look simple and clumsy.”
It’s been an unforgettable year for the 34-year-old director, who turned himself from a physical education major into one of the most acclaimed indie filmmakers in the country. The April release of his feature debut, which was also his final grad school project, instantly put him under the spotlight.
The movie, which is based on the real-life story of late Jeon Seung-chul ― a North Korean defector whom Park became friends with while attending Yonsei University’s physical education college together ― has just won its 17th international award last month by winning a jury prize at Tokyo FILMeX.
The noir portrait of a North Korean defector struggling to make Seoul his second home previously won the Tiger Award and the International Federation of Film Critics award at the 40th International Film Festival Rotterdam, as well as New Currents Award at last year’ BIFF ―- among 14 other prizes it received at world’s renowned international film festivals. The film-fests include SF International Film Festival, Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, and Yerevan International Film Festival.
Yet Park, who made the film during the four-month paid vacation he received from renowned director Lee Chang-dong, while working as the assistant director for Lee’s 2010 drama “Poetry,” says he and his film are “overrated.”
“If the movie did not deal with a North Korean defector, I don’t think it would’ve received this much of international spotlight,” Park says, with a laid-back smile. “I had no idea the movie would receive this much attention. Our crew was actually thinking of doing a small screening of our own in case it doesn’t make it to any film festivals of any kind.”
Director Park Jung-bum stars in his feature debut “The Journals of Musan.” (JIN JIN Pictures)
And whenever receiving trophies overseas, Park could not help but think of his late friend whom he played himself in the movie. Jeon died of stomach cancer in 2008, only six years after he defected to Seoul. Park was friends with Jeon’s older brother, who had fled to Seoul earlier in 1996.
“So I got introduced to Seung-chul naturally,” Park says. “I was later involved with a soccer team made of young North Korean defectors as well.”
After finding out they were attending the same school, Park and Jeon started to live together in the university district of Sinchon. When Park decided to become a filmmaker after watching Takeshi Kitano’s 1997 film “Hana-bi” while serving his military duty, Jeon made it his dream, too. The duo planned to make a film together that’s based on Jeon’s life ― until Jeon was diagnosed with stage-four cancer.
Park on his own completed his 2008 short film, titled “125 Jeon Seung-chul” ― which later became the basis of “The Journals of Musan” ― just two days before Jeon passed away. Jeon could not see the film, as he was heavily drugged with morphine. The number “125” referred to the first three digits of stigmatizing national identity registration number given to North Korean defectors in South Korea.
“I was reminded of him the most whenever I walked up the steps to the stage to receive the trophies,” Park says. “It just didn’t feel right to win those honors alone. It didn’t feel real. I was asked why I didn’t look very happy after each ceremony I attended.”
In many ways, the gloomy, sluggish character in “Musan” is different from the real-life Seung-chul. Unlike the quiet, often abused film character, Jeon was rather like a “comedian” who kept his positive drive against the odds. “He was a hilarious dude,” Park says of his late friend. “He had a dry sense of humor. When I talked about something he wasn’t familiar with, he’d act as if I were trying to trick him for nothing. It was very funny.”
Throughout the interview, Park very often uses the word “lucky.” For one, he had a “perfect” support network for the movie. His father accepted Park’s request to star as the caring police officer in the movie. Director Lee Chang-dong gave thoughtful advice throughout, though always taking indirect approaches.
“When we finished editing after spending two months and a half, we showed the final version to director Lee,” Park recalls, laughing. “All he said was, ‘Oh, you guys are just starting to edit, right?’ My editor and I were so discouraged we drank for the next two months. We later cut the original 150-minute film to the current 127-minute version.”
When the movie was screened for the first time, all Lee said was “Good effort.”
“We really didn’t know what to think of what he said,” Park said, still laughing. “Later we figured out it was a compliment, and that he does not say it every often.”
Until he watched the life-changing Japanese film while serving in the military, Park’s life was all about playing sports of different kinds. He had never thought of becoming a film director. “My father majored in physical education so I naturally followed the path,” he says. “I prepared for physical education college in high school, and spent almost eight to nine hours practicing everyday after finishing the first four periods of school.”
Park now fondly remembers having difficulty following his liberal arts coursework while attending university. “I would study so much, and I’d always get a B or a C,” he says. “So I spent a lot of time in the school library, just reading. Those reading hours made me want to write, and eventually want to make movies. So that’s another lucky moment.
“From practicing sports I learned how awesome it is to challenge and break your limits ― my body knows it,” he says. “It’s the lesson that I keep reminding myself of whenever making films.”
Park is currently preparing for another feature-length film which will be about construction workers. “I want to make films that are real,” he says. “I don’t want to compromise anything just for the sake of money or entertainment. I don’t want filmmaking as a means to achieve something else ― I want it to be solely about movies.”
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org