JWR Articles: Film/DVD - A Schoolgirl's Diary (Director: Jang In-hak) - November 18, 2009

A Schoolgirl's Diary

Han nyeohaksaengeui ilgi

3.5 3.5

Reviewed at the 2009 Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival
Both sides now

While the Santa Claus Parade wound its colourful way on nearby streets, the Korean Peninsula came into sharp focus in both short and long forms.

Hoping for a better life ahead

A Schoolgirl's Diary
Jang In-hak
2007, 94 min.
Three and one-half stars

Four women

The opening shot of In-Hak’s study of a young girl trying to decide where her future lies speaks volumes. With Mickey Mouse smiling happily on her backpack, Soo-ryeon (Pak Mi-hyang gives a wide-ranging performance) dreams of living in style in a large apartment complex. Paper airplanes float easily to and fro, but her reality is miles away from happiness and contentment. The family lives in an aging house for two main reasons: grandmother loves the smell of the earth (and labours long and hard in it); Father has not yet achieved his doctorate (that accomplishment is recognized by the state and rewarded with superior lodging).

In fact, the sole man of the house (Kim Cheol) is seldom present. His constant research-work at a faraway laboratory/factory (one of the film’s rare moments of drama occurs when Soo-ryeon makes an unexpected visit to the workplace only to find her absent dad in coveralls and being supervised by a woman: she is bitterly ashamed) provides sleeping quarters so that the men don’t waste precious time commuting back and forth to their loved ones.

Soo-ryeon’s sister, Soo-ook (Kim Jin-mi brings a charming tomboy tone to the part) is an avid sports enthusiast hoping to serve Their Leader by winning a spot on the national soccer team. The mother of the girls (long-suffering dignity is nicely crafted by Kim Yeong-suk) works stoically by day in the kitchen and then spends sleepless nights translating scientific volumes in hopes of helping her husband make the requisite breakthrough to earn the recognition (material and societal) of the People’s Republic.

These four women face all manner of calamities from an electrical fire to a tumbled chimney to the red-face embarrassment of mom packing Soo-ryeon a regular lunch for the special-day picnic (everyone else has a feast in a box) to the big C, which threatens to send mother to an early grave. Throughout it all, Father soldiers on even as his eldest “erases his place in my heart” due to his seeming abandonment of the family in favour of endless hours of meetings and failed experiments.

Plusses include the beautiful cinematography (Han Heui-gwang and Hwang Ryong-cheol affording viewers the opportunity of seeing the isolated country) and particularly well-performed music. One song (the original score is a fountain of colours and textures from Jo Seong-su) makes numerous appearances, extolling the joy of hard work for Their Great Leader (instrumental, solo and multi-voice versions all begin with a few intervals that threaten to break in to the Massenet’s “Meditation” from Thais or Brahms’ Violin Concerto); the snippets from a young chorus and school band are first-rate giving, aural proof to the notion of how diligent practice can result in excellent intonation and ensemble even at an early age. Many Western societies could learn from this example.

Then, like an early Disney movie, Father makes a discovery that will improve the lot of his fellow countrymen. All is instantly forgiven on the home front with this victory: the promise of apartment life is soon to be fulfilled. How to celebrate the life-changing event? Why take to the soccer pitch, of course, and demonstrate conclusively that scientists can score points in other aspects of communal living too.

Perhaps overly melodramatic with no narrative payoffs (the cancer seems to vanish despite a life-and-death operation that leaves mom all smiles), In-hak’s film is worth a viewing by anyone who wishes to further understand what many media outlets tend to view as a rogue state even as atrocities in their own are frequently moved to the back pages, if reported at all. JWR

Enjoying free speech in Canada

Chosun Forever
Joo Hyon Kwon
2009, 30 min.
Three and one-half stars

Unwavering devotion from afar

During the Q&A, the ex-guerrilla (through the director’s translation) remarked that his love of music stems from its universal qualities—non-political origins and cross-language appeal (of course, he’s referring to the classics and not jingoistic march-into-battle ditties, national anthems or celebrate-our-nation/leader as superior that comprised much of the ensuing feature’s musical offerings). Intriguingly, his musical career owes its start to the South Korean military which the feisty, Fatherland-fanatic opted to join after being arrested for his political beliefs. Exchanging rhetoric for resin, he soon worked his way to quite a decent living as a section player in some of South Korea’s finest musical ensembles: unified bowing must have been at one with the notion of eschewing individuality for the greater good. (Yet, when on a recent tour of DPRK with his family, the beaming tourist had no retort to his musician-son’s inquiry that if everyone is equal, why were the women not allowed to smoke in public?)

Since coming to Canada some twenty years ago, the unapologetic fiddler has fully immersed himself in this country’s freedom of expression to extol all things about his beloved Fatherland and disparage the U.S. without fear of reprisal.

His children (he also has a filmmaking daughter) have adapted well, stoically recognizing the permanent wall of stubborn belief between themselves and their dad even as his sainthood-assured wife joins her storied husband for demonstrations on behalf of the reunification of the embattled peninsula. JWR

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Director - Jang In-hak
Producer - Kim Jong-il
Writer - An Jun-bo
Cinematography - Han Heui-gwang, Hwang Ryong-cheol
Editor - Pak Jeong-suk
Original Music - Jo Seong-su
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