Sitting nicely between at the beginning of The New Korean Cinema wave, as well as clearly show influence from the Hollywood infiltration in Suth Korea the few decades prior, Chan-wook Park's much heralded and well received J.S.A., or Joint Security Area is an action thriller done right. Often credited as Park's introduction to popular moviegoers, J.S.A. has subtle hints to the methods and commentaries the director would later incorporate in his Vengeance Trilogy, of which Oldboy is perhaps his most well-known work. It contains a handful of well-known Korean actors, ones whose faces I can now identify, although learning names is still taking some practice, and comments upon perhaps the most strenuous of subjects to the Korean person, the hyper-intense relationship to their bordered communist neighbors North Korea. Like Shiri, a work that was for quite some time the highest grossing film in South Korea, J.S.A. considers the validity and necessity of a division between Korea and goes so far as to cross the seemingly impenetrable, all be it non-physical, border. As a thriller, J.S.A. is exceptional, playing into the all to familiar practice of a non-linear narrative within South Korean films, yet managing to use this detachment from temporal space to create contradictions between the recounting of hotly debated events resulting in the murder of a North Korean soldier. As a film deeply entrenched within the political concerns of a divided Korea moving into the 21st century, Park is careful to consider the validity and verifiability of accusations of rule breaking, particularly when the tensions are predicated on political ideologies, ones enforced by colonized forces and non-present entities. A border crossing film in the most literal sense, J.S.A. questions the notions of ideological divides and posits a possibility of something transcendent of such detachments, especially when loneliness and a longing for fraternal bonds come into play.
Joint Security Area situates itself quite knowingly within the history of a divided Korea, going so far as to incorporate images and writings reminding viewers, mostly Koreans already aware of the hostilities, of the lynchpin created by the DMZ in the 1950's. With little explanation beyond this the film depicts the results of this pin being pulled when a shot fires and a North Korean soldier is killed, resulting in a shoot-out between two divided nations. What follows is the joint investigation by a fictitious global initiative noticeably similar to the United Nations, which intends to investigate how the incident began. The investigation is led by Major Sophie Jean (Yeong-ae Lee) a child of a Korean War refugee and Swiss woman. If her gender were not already a point of contention, her problematic mixed identity certainly adds a problematic layer. Yet as her investigation begins it becomes clear that the stories provided by the South Korean soldiers engaged in the act, as well as their North Korean counterparts do not match up, heavily predicated on a lack of explanation to a missing firearm slug. For the South Korean army Sergeant Lee (Byung-hun Lee) represents the point of inexplicability, yet it becomes apparent that he has crossed over to the North Korean side, purely by accident, but, nonetheless, stepping on a mine in the process. Lee is discovered by Sergeant Oh (Kang-ho Song) who is wary at first of his pleas for help, but after explaining that he can diffuse the bomb with his help Oh reluctantly agrees. The two share a few moments of discussion and eventually end up sending mail to one another via a flying brick. Upon the joking suggestion of another soldier in the North Korean Army Lee finally crosses the border and after initial fears the group begins hanging out, eventually bringing another soldier from each side into the picture. The group keeps their meetings secret, but during one night of revelry, they are discovered leading to a panicked firefight that kills two North Korean soldiers. The remainder of the narrative centers on Sophie's discovery of this, as well as her own problematic past as it relates to the Korean divide. Tragically very few survive the entire altercation and the two countries remain problematically severed.
I mentioned in the introduction that this is a film entirely concerned with border crossing, this of course expands way beyond the simple idea of moving from the South to the North and exists on metaphorical levels as well. Firstly, Sophie represents a variety of crossed borders, firstly in her mixed race identity that crosses national borders, as well as social and political ones. Similarly, her place as a female within the masculine oriented world of the military represents a border as well. Even the methods by which the film narratives itself transcend borders, Park's non-linear narrative and use of time both as a grounding signifier and a means to undermine moments crosses temporal borders quite frequently. Of course the film, while bookended by Sophie's experiences is inevitably about the soldiers experiences as they do cross that literal border. In crossing the "Bridge of No Return" Lee and Oh have invariably crossed their countires ethical and political borders as well, ones that have very dire consequences resulting in the very least with incarceration and at the very most death. However, the group also transcends notions of fraternal relations, almost to the degree of intimacy as they share food, fond memories of their girls back home and a latently sexual exchange of spit. However, what proves to be the greatest border crossing has to be Park's choice to depict North Korea not as a place of propaganda driven blind followers, but a country being destroyed by lack of food and a grounded economic future that, nonetheless, finds hope in their leaders and the ideas of communism. Park's film advocates a unison between two opposing ideas that does not mean synthesizing, nor does it mean absolute exclusion. It, like Shiri, envisions a a border that exists to mark nothing more than delineations, but can always be moved across with little threat to one's life.
Key Scene: The moment when the soldiers decide to take a picture of their friendship, Park choose to up the graininess of the scene, subsequently causing it to have a nostalgic feel in line with sentimentality and it comes off beautifully.
This movie is a bit pricey and I had to rent it from the USC library to watch. With that being said it is quite excellent and purchasing a copy is on my to do list, as it should be on yours.