Thursday, March 21, 2013

Movie Review: "JSA: Joint Security Area"

Today I'm beginning a retrospective of the films of Park Chan-Wook, up to but not including his latest, "Stoker". His first two movies ("The Moon is the Sun's Dream" and "Trio") are impossible to find, likely due to the director's own wishes. As far as most people are concerned, his directorial career begins in 2000 with "JSA: Joint Security Area"

Today many are unaware that the Korean war is still going on. The armistice that "ended" the war was never converted to a foreign peace treaty, and the North claims that even the armistice itself is invalid. The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is one of the scariest places on earth. Both sides put their tallest soldiers at the front lines to stare at each other just in case anybody makes a move. Were full war to resume, they would all presumably die. Both North and South have a show village complete with houses (and in the South's case, actual residents) meant to broadcast to the enemy how much greater life is on the other side of the border. Bullhorns blast propaganda over enemy lines. And citizens and visitors are bused in daily by both sides to sightsee in an ethically troubling spectacle

Meanwhile people continue to die on both sides in sporadic conflicts. In the first scene of Park Chan-Wook's "JSA: Joint Security Area" (2000), gunfire erupts in a North Korean guard shack near the border. According to the North, a South Korean soldier crossed the border and went berserk, killing several Northern guards. The accused soldier claims to have been knocked out and kidnapped while taking a leak, killing or wounding his captors while escaping. Both sides threaten violent retaliation. In an attempt to get to the bottom of things, the neutral UN observers send an investigator in the form of Sophie (Lee Young-ae).

While Sophie is ethnically Korean she is culturally Swiss, which makes her an outsider in her "native" country. Her neutral co-workers give her context in English, helpfully serving as an entry point for foreign audiences without seeming like a cheap sop. My one complaint with this device is that the English is spoken with a variety of thick accents (Korean, Swiss, who knows what else) without subtitles... not easy for American ears to parse. Thankfully the Korean mostly takes over after the first 10 minutes.

Unsurprisingly, both sides are lying, though to what extent and why is the film's real mystery. As Sophie untangles the plot, we see flashbacks of what has transpired. Seargeant Lee (Lee Byung-hun), a southern soldier, accidentally steps across the poorly marked border and onto a landmine. Afraid to move, he cries out in desperation to a few passing Northern soldiers, including the world-weary Seargent Oh (Song Kang-ho). Taking pity on Lee, the soldiers save his life and tell him to sneak back home.

This act of kindness eventually leads to a cross-border friendship between four guards. Sneaking across to meet in an unused bunker, their scenes together dramatize the true nature of the division between North and South. None of the soldiers bear each other any particular ill will, and they all wish for eventual peace (though under their side's banner of course). The rants and threats of their respective governments seem to mean little as they shoot the shit with nothing better to do.

The Southern soldiers smuggle contraband across to their friends in the form of bootleg audio cassettes and moon pies (a clear indicator of the American presence in the South). Oh proclaims his love of these glorious desserts, as Lee points out that he could have all the moon pies he wanted if he were to defect. Immediately a chilling silence descends on the room. Oh spits the moon pie out into his hand. "I'm only going to say this once, so listen well. My dream is that one day our republic makes the best damn sweets on this peninsula. Got it?". The subject is never broached again.

At some point this fragile charade is shattered, and I will not spoil how, but it all leads up to the opening shootout. In the present, Lee and Oh both have a vested interest in the truth not being known, as both would certainly be executed for treason. What is shocking is how neither side's leaders particularly want the truth discovered either. Long before Sophie made her entrance, both sides decided what the truth was and postured accordingly. Facts would upset the propaganda.

Unlike Park's future works, the direction of "JSA" is conventional, lacking his typical stylistic excesses. This fits the story, however, as it is a message film attempting to reach as many people as possible. Yet it's all well done with some very evocative shots. The best may be a scene tracking back and forth across a bridge, showing only the soldiers' feet as one tries to convince the other to sneak across the border with him.

Other scenes are tonally tricky, but Park nails them. One shows two platoons from either side lining up in the forest, as their captains light cigarettes and communicate wordlessly. Clearly this is a buried olive branch, disguised under a layer of intimidation. In the film's most intense scene, Lee and Oh are cross examined in the meeting room that straddles the border, and Lee is on the verge of spilling the beans entirely.

This scene is really the key to the entire film, and an excellent showcase for Song Kang-ho, my favorite Korean actor. The character of Seargeant Oh is the most interesting by far, and many of his scenes require him to say one thing and mean another. He's also the most level-headed of the fraternizing soldiers, taking charge when emotions threaten to overrun the fragile peace. In this case he manages to cause a diversion that saves everybody's skins, by upending furniture and screaming out his hatred for his secret friend, loudly praising Kim Jong-Il and condemning the South in a hearbreaking display.

Many Westerners wonder how North Koreans can appear so brainwashed by their dictator. One popular theory is that many know full well the tragedy of their situation, but only show it in secret or behind a mask of adoration. When the nation wept at Kim Jong-Il's funeral, we have to take their word as to what they were really crying about.

"JSA" is required viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in Korea. Neither side is given a free pass: despite the more open aggression of the North's stance, an early scene shows a Southern general's frothing desire to kill communists. The relationship between the soldiers rings true to a nation that was a single cultural entity until it was ripped apart by foreign superpowers waging a proxy war. Some would argue that Park only came into his own as a great director with his next film, but that seems unfair to me. Not all great films have to be flashy, and from the acting up, "JSA" is excellent.

Other films directed by Park Chan-wook:

The Moon... is the Sun's Dream (1992)
Trio (1997)
Joint Security Area (2000)
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)
Oldboy (2003)
Lady Vengeance (2005)
I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (2006)
Thirst (2009)
Stoker (2013)


  1. Cool, I'm not very familiar with Parks earlier stuff, just his post Vengeance trilogy output. Looking forward to more.

  2. You mentioned elsewhere that you were worried about being able to find a copy of Three... Extremes for this retro, so I thought I'd mention that Tartan Video in the UK have a region-free (I think, don't quote me on it, but most of their releases are) release of the film under their Asia Extreme label that you should be able to get from Amazon UK without too much trouble. It's well worth it, IMO.

    Otherwise, great review! I'm looking forward to reading more.