Joint Security Area marks the birth of the modern Korean blockbuster. It quickly became the highest-grossing film in Korea at the time, achieving over one million admissions in only 15 days. Check out our thoughts on Joint Security Area (공동경비구역 JSA) after the jump.
JSA is very much a film of two stories. In the first story we see Major Sophie E. Jean (Yeong-ae Lee), a Swiss investigator of Korean ancestry who is travels from Switzerland to the highly sensitive demilitarized zone between North and South Korea to lead the investigation into a confusing incident which left 2 North Korean soldiers dead, and 1 South Korean solider (Sgt Lee Soo-hyeok, played by Byung-hun Lee) badly injured. The North Korean claims the Sgt Lee crossed over the demilitarized zone and murdered their soldiers, while South Korea claims that Sgt Lee was kidnapped by the North and killed the soldiers while he was escaping. Tensions between the two nations are high, and as Major Sophie delves deeper into the incident, it is clear that something more than a “border squirmish” happened.
The second and far more captivating story is the one of the North and South Korean soldiers who manned the posts on their respective sides of the border. The real story behind the border incident is slowly revealed in a series of flashbacks which show the unconventional relationship which developed between the border guards. What started off as a note thrown over the border as a joke, blossomed into the most unexpected and yet most beautiful of friendships. The pair of guards from each side of the border slowly take greater and greater risks to get to know each other, culminating in the 4 men spending many a long night in the hut on the North Korean side of the border. The conversations and silly children’s games that the men play are both delightful and very comical. They are very much like school mates from different parts of the city/country who are getting to know each other and their respective backgrounds – there really is a child-like quality to their relationship.
This was, and still is a brave film. Director Chan-wook Park made a mainstream South Korean film which portrayed both sides as equal, as the same, as simply men caught up in something that they don’t necessarily support or understand. He stripped away the politics, the recent history, and the mistrust. What is left is four men from the same ancestry who form the most unlikely and yet the most natural of bonds. The simple nature of true brotherhood and friendship is a far stronger message than any political statement about reunification could be. The North Koreans were not portrayed as stereotypical evil loose-cannons – they were simply just Koreans.
In this film we can recognise some of director Chan-wook Park’s unique style, which we have become familiar with after the success of films such as Old Boy and Lady Vengeance. While this film is not ultra-violent, it still contains some rather heart-stopping moments. An extended scene involving a landmine is particularly gripping and tense. As always the photography is excellent, as is the use of light – the scenes in which the soldiers are walking through the fields are particularly beautiful. Byung-hun Lee (who most viewers will know from the fantastic I Saw the Devil) is especially strong in this film. The delight he shows at the unlikely friendship is heart-warming; equally the pain he feels when they are torn apart is palpable.
The let down of this film is definitely the weakness of the investigation storyline. Major Sophie is a rather over-written character, and her overly complicated back-story has no bearing on the film but adds unnecessary length to the running time. The Swiss UN workers have rather awkward English, but it is their one-dimensional nature and not their English which doesn’t sit quite right (did that soldier really need to smoke a pipe?). Less time with the Swiss soldiers and the dropping of Major Sophie’s back-story, and more time on how she put the pieces of what happened together would have made the film more cohesive and engaging.
Overall JSA is a very enjoyable film, and it’s easy to see why this was the first real Korean blockbuster. The bond between the border guards was something special to watch – The film has comedy, action, mystery, and most importantly it has the bond and love of brotherhood.
Director: Chan-wook Park
Writer(s): Seong-san Jeong, Hyeon-seok Kim, Mu-yeong Lee, Chan-wook Park, & Sang-yeon Park (novel ‘DMZ’)
Starring: Yeong-ae Lee, Byung-hun Lee, Kang-ho Song
Runtime: 110 minutes
We would like to thank the Korean Cultural Office Sydney for giving us the opportunity to see this film.