Trivia Since filming is obviously not allowed at the real JSA, a replica was built at the studio which still stands today.
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J.S.A. (Joint Security Area) (2000)
17th May 05
In the DMZ separating North and South Korea, two Nth Korean soldiers are killed, supposedly by one Sth Korean soldier. When a neutral Swiss team are brought in to investigate the case, they soon suspect that a cover-up has taken place, and that another unkown party may well have been involved.
When is it right to cross the line? It’s a question we’ve all faced, but never (thank God) to the extreme of the soldiers on the North / South Korea borderline, where even a shadow over spilling the divide can result in nervous trigger firing death. A place where land mines are common, and both sides have their guns trained on each other in constant suspicion of each other’s motives. Think Berlin Wall, only twice as volatile.
Chan-wook Park’s J.S.A. (Joint Security Area) was released in Korea 2000 and went on to become one of the biggest box office hits of the year, spectacularly launching Chan-wook Park into the mainstream in the process. The plot is fairly simple. Major Sophie Jean (Yeong-ae Lee - soon to be seen as Chan-wook Park’s Lady Vengeance) arrives at the border control to investigate an ‘incident’ that has resulted in the deaths of two North Korean soldiers. Although the Major has Korean heritage, she actually comes from Switzerland, and is thus ideally suited to lead a neutral investigation.
The prime suspect is Sgt. Lee Soo-hyeok, a South Korean soldier who claims he was kidnapped by the North soldiers and escaped after a brief gun battle. It seems a cut-and-dried case, but as the Major starts delving deeper, she begins to notice flaws in the story (Where is the missing bullet? Why was a drawing of a girl found at the scene?) that hint that something else happened, and that there has very probably been a cover-up to protect the identity of an unknown party who may have been at the scene.
Initially coming off a little like US military investigation films such as A Few Good Men or Courage of Fire, J.S.A. soon leaves these films in it’s wake with some beautiful direction and a storyline so well structured it comes across like an ingenious SunDoku puzzle. Filmed with various flashbacks and points-of-views, we get to intimately know all the characters involved, as we, along with Major Sophie, gradually begin to piece together not only what happened, but more importantly why.
The performances from all the main five cast members are very good, with particular mention to Byung-hun Lee as the unfortunately idealistic South Korean Sgt. Lee, and Kang-ho Song, his North counterpart. Their first meeting at night in the cornfield, with Sgt. Lee unable to move due to having tripped a land mine is a classic, with gorgeous cinematography, and fantastic minimalist dialogue. As the South Korean soldier pleads to the man standing in front of him (a natural enemy) to save his life, we realise that despite each other’ s political ideals or geographical positioning, there’s really little difference between the two after all.
For a film that could have been such a hot political potato though, J.S.A. is surprisingly (and thankfully) apolitical, settling instead for a more universal message of “oh, why can’t we all just get along?” There are also some very funny moments, especially as the four soldiers (two from either side) slowly begin to become friends by playing arm-wrestling matches and trying to push each other over, and there is even a (shock horror) fart joke that’ll have you giggling to yourself like a girl. Indeed, by the time you get to the ‘spitting’ scene, you’ll be struggling to contain your smiles as much as the characters in the film themselves.
Flaws? One or two. It’s a minor shame the English-speaking parts of the investigation team are not quite up to scratch (although you may find it adding to the humour of the film), and there are one or two plot-points that don’t ring true, but overall they don’t detract from the raw emotion of the film as a whole. What’s most important here (aside from the beautiful film making in itself) is the journey of the two Sergeants, one from the Communist North, the other from Republican South, and what happened when they both tried to cross the line that separated them both.
It’s a stunning journey, a more than worthy story, and ultimately a great film with a (be warned) last shot that will leave you feeling both exhilarated and numb at the same time. With this, Sympathy For Mr Vengeance and Oldboy, Chan-wook Park is clearly emerging as one of Asia's most exciting, intelligent and important film-makers who has not only crossed over the borders of his own country, but that of the world. And amen to that.