Joint Security Area (2000) Movie Review

Chan-wook Park’s “Joint Security Area” (“JSA”) tells the tale of 5 soldiers — 3 North Koreans and 2 South Koreans — who become involved in a bloody gun battle one cold night while manning their respective posts along the dangerous DMZ. When the smoke clears, two North Koreans are dead and one South Korean is shot in the leg. The incident lights a fuse that threatens to spread into all-out war, forcing both sides to send for a mediator to “solve” the problem.

Of course, what both sides really want is to blame the other, and soon two stories emerge as to what happened that night. Enter Major Sophie Lang (Yeong-ae Lee), an officer in the Swiss Army, famous around the world for their neutrality (or cowardice, depending on who you ask). Sophie is Korean, but she’s never been to Korea. As Sophie begins her investigation, it turns out 4 of the 5 men involved had become friends over the nights spent staring each other down across the DMZ. But if they were friends, why are two North Koreans dead?

It’s remarkable how director Chan-wook Park (“The Humanist”) and his writers managed to straddle the line of neutrality. The characters of the 4 Koreans at the heart of the matter are all very sensibly drawn, and through them we’re made to understand the stupidity that takes place each day as the two sides literally stare each other down across an imaginary line. To its credit, the movie never tries to draw a clear delineation between the politics of the two sides. As the movie goes along, peripheral characters from both sides spout propaganda and slings mindless mottos. The gist of “JSA” is not whose ideology is superior, but that ideology at this point is irrelevant compared to the heartbreak of a divided Korea.

“JSA” is a South Korean film, so one expects a little favoritism towards the South Korean characters, right? One would be wrong. If you were to look at the character breakdowns, it’s the South Korean soldiers who comes out as “less of a man” than their North counterparts. The most notable soldier in the whole movie is North Korean veteran Oh (Kang-ho Song, “Memories of Murder”), who is cool and calm under pressure. In comparison, Lee and Nam whimpers like little babies when faced with obstacles. Oddly enough, if director Park favors anyone, it’s the North Koreans, who are shown as more competent and brave, while the South seem disorganized and childish.

Cinematographer Sung-bok Kim (“Shiri”) gives us a very vibrant look at the DMZ. The winter scenes are wonderfully photographed and the flashbacks are intercut seamlessly into the main flow of the film. “JSA” is a good-looking film from beginning to end, and it achieves a great deal of style without drawing attention to itself.

Still, I have two faults with the film. One concerns the Sophie character. Forget for one moment that Yeong-ae Lee’s English is not very good, thus making me doubt her credentials as a Swiss Major. (In fact, she’s much too young to be a “Major”.) Sophie is determined to get to the bottom of the conspiracy, and even after she’s dismissed from the case, she refuses to leave. Why is Sophie willing to risk her entire career just to “get the truth?” She’s a Swiss national, after all.

“JSA” is a good film and it tells an important story about Korea’s current sad state. Unfortunately my second problem has to do with just that. Besides making its point about the futility and absurdity of having two Koreans separated by an imaginary line, the film really has nothing else to offer. Okay, I get it — Korea shouldn’t be divided, and it’s all the politicians and warmongering Generals’ fault for keeping the line there. And…?

There is only one plot to “JSA” , and that’s the “truth” behind the shooting incident. Once we’re able to piece together what happened, you wonder what else the film could have offered, and realize there’s not much there. The entire movie, besides the beautiful scenery, feels like a TV episode of “JAG” rather than a feature-length film. Perhaps if more had been done with the Sophie character, or the political situation. As it stands, the movie gives us a brief 10-second sound byte from a TV newscast about the international crisis resulting from the shootout and nothing else.

Chan-wook Park (director) / Seong-san Jeong, Hyeon-seok Kim, Mu-yeong Lee, Chan-wook Park, Sang-yeon Park (screenplay)
CAST: Yeong-ae Lee …. Major Sophie E. Lang
Byung-hun Lee …. Sgt. Lee Soo-hyeok
Kang-ho Song …. Sgt. Oh Kyeong-pil

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