A shooting incident in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) leaves two North Korean soldiers dead, one South Korean soldier wounded and a fragile political situation. The Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) gives Swiss Armed Forces Major Sophie E. Jean the task of investigating the incident - a potentially volatile situation given that, despite a confession from one of the soldiers, the statements from each of the Koreas completely contradict each other....
Despite his recent foray into Hollywood with Stoker (U.S.A.: 2013), director Park Chan-wook is likely to, for a while yet, remain best known for his 'The Vengeance Trilogy' - which began with 2002's Sympathy For Mr Vengeance. Prior to that release, the director had broken a run of bad luck at the box office with his film J.S.A.: Joint Security Area (2000) - a wildly successful commercial hit which, became the highest grossing film in Korean history. Based on the best-selling novel 'DMZ' by Park Sang-yeon, J.S.A. is a harrowing political thriller dealing with the difficult relationship between South and North Korea. The subject of Korean reunification had been broached on film on numerous occasions prior to the release of J.S.A. - notably in the blockbuster Shiri (Kang Je-gyu, South Korea: 1999) – but the film still managed to provoke controversy. J.S.A. is a film best viewed with as little pre-knowledge of the plot as possible and is difficult to discuss without giving away at least a few initial details - therefore be warned: the rest of this post contains some plot spoilers...
Opening in the manner of a somewhat conventional thriller, Joint Security Area takes some time in outlining the political background for its investigation in the aftermath of the DMZ shooting. It is established from the outset that the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) - a body given the task of regulating the relationship between the two Koreas – will be required to maintain a position of complete neutrality while investigating, with the adhesion to procedure prioritised over the conclusions of the investigation. This exposition-heavy opening means that J.S.A. feels a little clunky to begin with, this fragile political situation is outlined through some really quite stilted dialogue in English by non-native English speakers. At a push it could be argued that this emphasises the mix of different languages, cultures, histories and points of view surrounding the political process at the DMZ, but in reality these are pretty flimsy and poorly written scenes and, eventually, we find that they add little to the overall effect of the film anyway. Fortunately, despite this awkwardness, what is established well here is a sense of distance - the 'outsider' perspective succeeds in placing the audience in the position of the investigator and provides Park Chan-wook some distance in order to deliver a story that requires its own delicate balancing act. Despite how confusing this may all sound, the careful explanation of the situation is almost certainly one reason why J.S.A. plays well very with overseas audiences who may be unfamiliar with the historical and political backdrop.
It’s only a short while after the initial set-up that J.S.A. begins to properly reveal itself (here's the spoiler part): the big twist - given away in the trailers for the film, I'm not ruining it - is that the soldiers involved in the shooting were all friends. I won't reveal how these relationships develop but narratively J.S.A. takes its focus away from its initial investigative thriller premise. This mis-stepping of the audience from political thriller into character drama is J.S.A.s biggest strength, it's clearly where Park wants to spend time with his characters and it's here that the script and the cast finally come to life. In terms of dream-casting, J.S.A. pretty much nails it: Lee Byung-hun and Kim Tae-woo are the South Korean soldiers alongside their Northern counterparts, played by Song Kang-ho and Shin Ha-kyun. There's a clear rapport between the actors and the unlikely friendships that evolve as the soldiers slowly open up to each other are convincing. Importantly, there's an underlying frisson as the soldiers hesitantly confront their uncertainties about each other, gently prod ideologies and recognise their commonalities. There’s a childlike naïvety to the friendships – at times quite literally as they play silly games and jump around like school kids. It's to the credit of both Parks direction, strong performances and an intelligent script that the balances and simultaneously sidelines the differences between the northern and southern ideologies – a feat pulled off with seeming ease and believability.
Although an ensemble piece, a very young looking Lee Byung-hun plays the soldier who gets the lions share of the screen-time as Sgt. Lee Soo-Hyuk. The soldier who has confessed to the shooting, it’s largely through Lees perspective that we unravel the background of the incident. Flitting between the bleak investigation and the brighter, happier time with friends, Lees every-man contrasts between the light hearted moments and managing to hold a scene intensely - even in complete silence. Kim Tae-woo gets a slightly more dour role but is solid as Nam Sung-Shik. Shin Ha-kyun is on top, likeable form here as the slightly nervous Jung Woo-Jin. It's a pretty small role but Shin makes the most of it with a memorable performance. The actor and character who dominates J.S.A., creating the biggest impression is Song Kang-hos Sergeant Oh Kyeong-Pil. The most difficult of the soldiers to portray convincingly, Song delivers a multi-layered portrayal of a North Korean soldier without resorting to caricature. Oh is a thoughtful and humorous man, aware of the shortcomings of his country but retaining an intense pride. Most importantly – in terms of breaking on-screen stereotypes - he’s charismatic and likeable. It's a brave performance accompanied by some very well written scenes, including a powerful speech, delivered beautifully by Song expressing his pride, hope and faith in his country. J.S.A. emphasises its willingness to recognise two conflicting points of view and to put the differences aside. Despite the difficulties, contradictions and occasional pettiness of either side, there’s no attempt to align each of the two perspectives with each other and this is probably J.S.A.s most important choice – the focus is on the common ground rather than forming a criticism of an ideology. In fact, with the exception of the opening and closing bookends authority figures remain largely off-screen throughout J.S.A. (Swiss Army Major Jean doesn’t really count, she’s effectively been neutered), yet their presence is felt pressing in on everyone involved throughout.
Despite its sensitive subject matter, J.S.A. is clearly designed as a commercial film for a broad audience. A large budget is reflected on screen through its impressive sets (most famously those replicating the famous village of Panmunjom) and its technical quality. Cinematography is by Shiri lensor Kim Sung-bog, who gives the production a slick 'nineties action film' feel and successfully conveys a sense of scale. This style works well and there's some clever uses of framing throughout, as well as one of the finest, most heartbreaking final shots in cinema. There’s a few clichés in the script here which are even less subtle when acknowledged visually1 but these are small mis-steps and there's plenty of scenes which remain in the mind long after the closing credits. Park Chan-wook indulges in some of the visual flourishes that would later become a bit of a trademark, but these are largely visual and structural choices to enhance the narrative and keep everything moving. Despite the glossy leanings towards Hollywood-style thrillers Park pares the central issues down to the connection between a group of men despite the politics and history that surrounds them. There's a refusal to pander to the happy ending or romanticising the situation too much that gives J.S.A. its power. There's no last minute cop-out.
For all of its strengths, it still must be said that J.S.A. does have its flaws. With the exception of a few (very guessable) revelations the investigation of the shooting is largely uninteresting and has few places to go once we've established the key relationships between the soldiers. It's hard not to feel that actress Lee Young-ae has drawn the short end of the stick when it comes to pulling these scenes together, but even a sub-plot involving the background of her father adds little overall. This does, for what it's worth, feels a lot smoother on subsequent viewings - the flaws remain but the oddly emotionally cold bookends are less grating.
For some viewers the 'remove the politicians and the armies and we would all get a long' message may seem too naïve, simplifying the difficult history of North and South Korea far too much. This is a fair point, however this would also be almost be to miss the point: Joint Security Area is clearly a commercial film with thriller elements established on the fears of the relationship between the two Koreas. Where it manages to becomes a more interesting and empowering film is in its ability to locate and touch upon the a sense of hope of reconciliation between two alienated nations rather than a political dissection. It's the simple sense of hope that J.S.A. manages to stir up that manages to be both uplifting and heartbreaking at once.
Over a decade after its original release Joint Security Area remains a powerful and moving film, and it is often rightly referred to as a classic. An important film for many reasons, J.S.A. provided another key moment in the emerging hallyu both domestically and overseas with a controversial subject matter transformed into box-office success, and the emergence of Park Chan-wook - a director whose subsequent output would, for many, define the latest generation of Korean filmmakers.
Alternative Reviews: Korean Film