There's something discomforting about The Schoolgirl's Diary because it seems to be talking not just about one teenaged girl's struggle with poverty but about that struggle within a whole nation. The impoverished reality of living in a house where the doors fall down if you lean on them and faulty electrical outlets burst into flame doesn't feel like a portrait of the lower classes in North Korea. It just feels like plain old North Korea. Your heart goes out to Su-ryeon (Pak Mi-hyang) because she's struggling for a better life. Yes, and that's just as director Jang In-hak intended. But you also feel for Su-ryeon because you're not so sure that a better life is out there waiting for her. After all, you see her father (Kim Cheol) thanklessly toiling away at a factory for the greater good with only his wife (Kim Yeong-suk) according him any respect. As to mom herself, she's a martyr who's been diagnosed with a cancer that you doubt her socialized medicine will be able to cure. Su-ryeon's sister Su-ok (Kim Jin-mi) is the only happy member of the family. And where will her soccer skills take her? The North Korean women's team has been banned from the World Cup in 2015 for doping; the best the team has ever done is the World Cup quarterfinals in 2007. (Other years, it's been banned, didn't qualify or didn't enter.)
Amid this dreariness, Su-ryeon's pursuit of a better life is achingly optimistic if you can even say she's looking for a better life at all. Any personal goal eventually becomes so subordinate to the needs of the community that dreaming of better days can only mean dreaming of a better world...for everyone. In some ways, The Schoolgirl's Diary's selflessness stands in direct contrast to the egotism that reigns supreme in American pop culture today. Try to name a movie that depicts the nobility of good for goodness' sake without being framed as a satire and you're left drawing a blank. Far be it from me to wish for a stoic life in which luxury translates as potato taffy and warm soy milk is the reward for a hard day's work. Distasteful as it feels, the humility underlying The Schoolgirl's Diary is admirable. Now if only it weren't so depressing. Two red thumbs up for this one, my comrades.