han-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,
"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.