Non Fiction Diary (2013)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

“It was beyond terror. I’d seen countless crime scenes, but I’d never seen anything like it.”

The speaker is Go Byung-chun, former chief detective of the Police Violent Crime Unit in Seocho, Seoul, who, in 1994, headed the investigation into one of Korea’s most shocking crime sprees. In Yeonggwang County in the Province of South Jeolla, a group of angry, disaffected young men had been abducting, robbing, torturing, murdering and incinerating people, even eating their roasted flesh, and forcing hostages to participate in the killings. Their original intention was to steal from the rich and give to the poor, but none of their actual victims was wealthy. Once arrested by Go and his team, the so-called Jijon (or ‘most revered’) Clan confessed immediately and unapologetically to six killings. These men’s guilt is never in question – which makes them the perfect test case for a broader dialectic on the death penalty’s uses and abuses. Mitigating circumstances would just cloud the debate – although this film certainly places the men’s actions in their social and historical context.

It’s very much to director/editor/producer Jung Yoon-suk’s credit that Non Fiction Diary lays out all these sensational details in 20 matter-of-fact, newsreel-led minutes, before shifting its focus to a series of parallel contemporary cases with very different outcomes, all in aid of anatomising the state of a nation caught in the contradictions of capitalism and rapid globalisation. Indeed, where the Jijon Clan failed to make a single dent on the Gangnam rich kids whom they claimed to despise, poor maintenance standards would succeed a mere month after their arrest, as the Seongsu Bridge, one of the main arteries to the Gangnam district, collapsed, killing 32. A year later, in Seocho, Go would happen to see the five-storey Sampoong Department Store falling down – an incident, caused by the ‘wilful negligence’ of a cost-cutting executive, that would take 502 lives. It was in fact to this, and not to the notorious Jijon Clan murders, that Go’s words quoted at the beginning of this review refer – for Go, in charge of one case and a (still haunted) eyewitness to the other, considers the Sampoong ‘accident’ similar to the Yeonggwang murders in its financial motivation, and yet “a far more serious crime.”

Non Fiction Diary is concerned with these historical sequels to the Jijon killings, suggesting that all three calamities were born out of Korea’s rush to industrialised modernisation once military rule gave way to President Kim Young-sam’s 1993 civilian administration. In particular, Jung emphasises the contrasting forms of justice meted out in these three cases. Whereas officials and managers deemed responsible for the Seongsu bridge incident were merely fired or put on probation, and the President of the Sampoong Department Store was sentenced to 7.5 years imprisonment for manslaughter, the six Jijon Clan killers were quickly tried and condemned to death – and the sentence was carried out, unprecedentedly, within a year.

In Jung’s mosaic of file footage, carefully edited to create suggestive juxtapositions of historical data, at one point we see a Clan member, led out in prison uniform, declaring to camera, “Two military coup leaders are innocent, but I am guilty? Fucking ridiculous!” He alludes in particular to the fate of Chun Doo-hwan, coup leader in 1979 and violent suppressor of the 1980 Gwangju Democratisation Movement (leading to a notorious massacre of several hundred civilians). In the mid-90s, Chun was first ruled exempt from court action as a ‘successful coup leader’, then tried anyway at President Kim’s time-serving insistence and found guilty, only to see his death sentence subsequently commuted to life imprisonment. By 1997, in the last two weeks of Kim Young-sam’s Presidency, Chun was granted a Special Pardon and became a free man. The same day that Chun was released from prison, in a final juxtaposition that Jung cannot resist highlighting, 23 ‘common’ criminals were executed – the highest number in a single day since the 60s.

All these interconnections and overlapping ‘entries’ create a diary of Korea’s early growing pains as a civilian democracy, with lessons that still speak to those in power today. Non Fiction Diary is in part a video essay campaigning against the death penalty still enshrined in South Korea’s constitution. More importantly, it’s a multi-faceted discourse on crime and punishment, on wealth, power, greed – and on those that easily become dispossessed, marginalised and discarded in the wake of relentless, money-chasing progress.

Anton Bitel