SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - A young man climbs a dusty, narrow staircase toward a job interview. A kindly police officer walking ahead of him looks back and says, “Don’t tell him you’re from North Korea, OK?”
The telling scene comes early in “The Journals of Musan,” a dark and brooding South Korean movie that has won international acclaim for its portrayal of the struggles faced by refugees from communist North Korea in the capitalist _ and, as depicted in the film, often heartless _ South. The movie opened in Seoul last week.
Raised in an impoverished totalitarian state, many North Koreans lack the education, financial resources and personal connections to compete in the South, one of Asia’s richest countries. In turn, they complain of discrimination in the job market.
Park Jung-bum, the 36-year-old director of “The Journals of Musan,” is part of a young generation of filmmakers inspired by their plight.
The movie, whose honors include a feature film award at this year’s film festival in Rotterdam, is loosely based on the experience of his late friend, Chun Seung-chul, who came from the North in 2002 and died of stomach cancer a few years later. Park also incorporated stories about other North Koreans he knows into the main character.
The director, a shy and thoughtful man who also plays the leading role, becomes animated when talking about his North Korean friends.
“My big question was this: They came here to be happy, but if they have to stay in the bottom class in South Korea, was there any meaning for them to come all the way here?” he said in an interview.
North Korean characters have long featured in movies here _ often as the evil enemy _ but a growing population of escapees living on the margin has given filmmakers, and South Koreans generally, a new view of their brethren from the North.
The number of North Koreans in the South has grown from about 1,000 in 1998 to 20,000 today, mostly as a result of a famine in the 1990s that killed some 1 million people. The journey often takes years, with escapees sneaking into China and then making their way to Southeast Asia en route to the South.
Film critic Park Yoo-hee, a research professor at Korea University, described movies such as “The Journals of Musan” as a turning point in how filmmakers approach North Korea. The escapees are now seen as an internal South Korean issue, rather than fantasized characters from someplace far removed.
“North Koreans are no longer abstract, distant characters South Koreans fear or sympathize with. They are part of the reality in South Korea. And these films show such changing perceptions and attitudes,” she said.
“The Journals of Musan” is shot with a shaky hand-held camera against a blighted background, often circling an empty, unpaved lot near the fictional Chun’s apartment, which is slated for demolition.
Park said the real Chun’s life was full of difficulty. He had no marketable skills. He initially couldn’t read English signs, which are common in South Korea. He couldn’t keep up at school, and Park wrote practically all of Chun’s papers at the university they attended. He couldn’t afford equipment to play ice hockey.
“He didn’t have tools to compete with us here in South Korea,” Park said.
Although the two Koreas share thousands of years of common history, they have grown sharply apart _ politically, economically, culturally and even linguistically _ since they split into two nations more than six decades ago.
Park was motivated to make this film because he was angry at the way Chun was treated. In the film, he made Chun, a relatively positive person, into a darker character to dramatize the challenges and injustice he faced.
The fictional Chun keeps his jacket on indoors, as if cold follows him wherever he goes. He stares at the ground, hiding his eyes behind curtain-like bangs. His only friend, besides a North Korean roommate, is a stray dog he adopts.
The film deals little with Chun’s past, other than a scene in which he tells a South Korean church audience that he fled North Korea because he was hungry _ so hungry that he killed a friend over food, bringing home the corn and leaving the body lying outside.
Park’s film is part of a second evolution in the cinema’s treatment of North Koreans.
From the end of the 1950-53 Korean War until the late 1990s, films largely depicted northerners as evil or victims. In part, that was enforced by censorship, which began under South Korea’s former military dictatorship and continued through the first decade of democracy.
The first change came with the emergence of the “sunshine policy” of embracing North Korea under President Kim Dae-jung, a former dissident who took office early in 1998.
A box office hit that year, “Swiri,” depicted a female North Korean assassin who falls in love with a South Korean intelligence officer.
“For the South Korean audience then, seeing a North Korean character with conflicting emotions was refreshing,” said Park Yoo-hee, the film critic. “Until the mid-1990s, for more than three decades, it was impossible for such films to pass government censorship.”
Heartwarming melodramas followed, such as “Joint Security Area” in 2000 and “Welcome to Dongmakgol” in 2005, in which North Koreans were no longer the bitter enemy, but respectful, even endearing, objects of love and friendship.
President Lee Myung-bak has taken a harder line on North Korea than his two liberal predecessors since he took office in 2008. Some South Korean directors, meanwhile, have shifted their focus to the lives of the refugees.
In “Crossing,” a 2009 film based on a true story, a North Korean sneaks into China to buy medicine for his sick wife. When the wife dies, he hires a broker to bring his son out, but the son dies in a Mongolian desert, only hours before their planned reunion.
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