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Joint Security Area  Return to Pan-Asia Review Archive
Year: 2000
Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Lee Young-ae, Lee Byung-heon, Kim Tae-woo, Shin Ha-kyun
The Skinny: One of the most successful Korean films ever. Park Chan-wook's tale of friends divided by physical and psychological lines is one of the most intelligent and touching films of the year. This is how you make blockbusters.
by LunaSea:
     Reviewing this film right now and analyzing what it communicates presents some sort of irony, because after recent tragedies we still have political ideology "triumphing" over human decency in 2002. Countries that should give an example to everybody almost blacklist without trying to understand. Suddenly, North Korea becomes a problem, moreso than it's ever been in recent years. They are "evil."
     You'd think that the people of South Korea, a country that's been living this problem for decades, would react in a stronger way than the most powerful president in the world, but instead I see many people trying to understand, to reconcile or at least set a positive path for the future. Even if the two Koreas might not be ready for the big step right now, it seems they're traveling the right road, and the success of movies like this and Shiri, concerning the relationship between the two countries, just shows how much interest this theme generates. It's a great thing to see South Korean artists trying to understand their neighbors instead of blindly judging them.
     As both the past and the present have shown, this type of film often crumbles under its own pressure: it tries to get too political or its bias is so obvious that it's hard to appreciate the art behind it. JSA instead puts something simple like friendship, respect and humanity on the backdrop of one of the biggest conflicts of ideologies in the world. It's like the last tenant of the cold war, only this time there's only a few inches dividing the two countries.
     Director Park Chan-wook is not trying to support one side or another, he's instead showing the tragedy and irony (as he often calls it) that ideology can create. As one of the characters points out at the beginning of the film, the people leading the two countries find convenient to hide the truth and keep status quo - calling it "peace" - when the public may think a change is needed. Of course the manipulation of information is a problem that many countries share, and we're the ones who suffer the consequences.
     We're always reminded of that line, dividing the countries, and the "irony" comes from the fact that the minuscule line represents the same small line the characters are walking when meeting together. The countries are that close, yet they're still apart. The thing that brings them together is human contact, friendship, the exchange of opinions, sharing a cigarette, playing silly games together; normal things that we take for granted but those people cannot experience anymore.
     The main strength of the film is reaffirming the fact that humanity could triumph over politics, but sadly it's not enough to erase decades of division, prejudices and dogma. There's a perfect contrast between the part where characters meet and become friends, "brothers" (which in Korean assumes meanings that probably many people cannot understand) and those where ideology, social and political upbringing ask them to react in a brutal way to save themselves. That allows the film to go beyond a simple mistery/legal investigation thriller, becoming a social reflection of what it means to live in the DMZ. It's like being a fragile glass between two rocks, a wrong move and it may break....
     Major Lang (Lee Young-ae) represents the NNSC, and from the beginning we understand that she's been brought there to wrap things up quickly and get back to normality, to silence, to status quo. The fact she's trying to understand what happened unlike her superiors, and is not blinded by any of the opposite ideologies helps her solve the riddle, but she crosses the line (pun intended) and of course problems begin. The pressure for the suspects is too great, one of them even commits suicide. If it was just a routine kidnapping case, why all the noise? Because Lang is about to find out the truth, to break status quo and, well, create problems she doesn't even begin to understand as an outsider.
     We're presented with the depositions of the opposite factions (which become "fake" flashbacks, and might confuse people a little), but at the end what really happened is shown, and from the first tense scene of Lee finding himself trapped in "enemy territory," with nowhere to go thanks to a mine, the charm of the film begins to develop. Lee (Lee Byung-heon) and Oh (the great Song Kang-ho) begin a relationship, first with letters, music tapes and magazines...then with contact. One of the best scenes of the entire film sees the troops arriving at a snowy camp, side to side. The captains walk to the middle, and in what seems to be a tense scene, they just exchange cigarettes.
     The characters are well developed in this central section of the film, well enough to involve us, and shock when the inevitable happens. This is clearly the best part of the film, often mixing laughter with touching moments. It makes you think that after all those countries are not that different, and just need understanding and a little faith. The problem though is that they get caught, and the consequences are terrible. This is where the film had to become bleak, shocking and as realistic as possible, and JSA scores on all counts. Two people who were sharing a copy of Playboy - laughing and joking around - suddenly become enemies, doubts arise, a castle of cards built with difficulty crumbles under that nasty word called dogma, propaganda. The smiles are over, we only see tense faces and screams. We see blood, and it's over for them. You could make the mistake of thinking what happens to Major Lang sort of ruins the final part of the film, but it's completely necessary and logical as far as the plot goes. It's just dirt thrown at her for crossing the line, for getting too close to the truth, and that way we can understand better the way the film ends.
     The strong performances from all the actors help this film blossom. Song Kang-ho's is nothing new, he's used to great acting, but it's Lee who surprisingly shines with his portrayal of Sgt. Lee, the most conflicted character of the film. Lee Young-ae gives another solid performance, even if her breakout would happen one year later with Hur Jin-ho's One Fine Spring Day. Perhaps there are a few flaws, such as the NNSC officers and some of the generals of the opposite countries being mere caricatures, and the scenes in english feeling somewhat forced, but it's nothing that will hurt the film. Park's message is too strong, too well executed for it to matter.
     A difficult film in today's world, that challenges preconceived notions and judgments, affirming that people can reunite if they let go of their ideologies, if they accept that some truth has to be told to change things for the better, and showing the irony and tragedy of such a division. It's both an anti-war film, and also a tremendously touching and charming drama, technically superb (cinematography, sets, sound) and with winning performances. One of 2000's best. (LunaSea 2002)
Availability: DVD
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Widescreen Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen