Sunday, October 10, 2010

Joint Security Area

Film: Joint Security Area (2000)
Dir: Chan-wook Park
Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Following World War II, Japan lost control of the Korean peninsula, and the country was divided between the Communist north and the Capitalist south. In the early 1950s, constant border skirmishes and raids escalated into a full-blown war. The United States came to the aid of South Korea while the Soviet Union backed the North. That war ended, but today there still exists a buffer zone between the North and the South known as the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) where diplomatic engagements take place.

The “Joint Security Area” or JSA refers to the only part of the DMZ where forces from each side stand face-to-face. Armed guards from each region patrol the border with mutual paranoia and distrust for their enemy neighbor. Chan-wook Park’s Joint Security Area tells the story of Korean soldiers reluctantly caught up in the conflict.

In the film, two North Korean soldiers are shot and killed in the JSA and a South Korean soldier is held as a suspect. The South claims he was kidnapped and forced to shoot his way out; the North claims he infiltrated their camp and committed murder. Swedish and Swiss officers from the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission intervene to investigate the incident and hopefully alleviate the North-South tensions before a serious conflict erupts. The investigation is led by a Swiss-Korean woman, Major Jean (Young Ae Lee), who finds evidence to suggest a possible cover-up among the survivors of the shooting.

The film opens with the investigation, and through flashbacks, slowly reveals the series of events that led up to the incident. Nothing is as it initially seemed when the story reveals an unlikely situation. The script is well-structured and moving. It brings up issues of loyalty, patriotism, and defiance. Furthermore, the film is full of fascinating historical information about the decades-long Korean conflict. World history buffs should find it very interesting.

Young Ae Lee gives a solid performance as an investigator trying to find the truth against an onslaught of lies and cover-ups. It is nice to see a Korean actress in a non-romantic role. Kang-ho Song, a staple of Chan-wook Park films, portrays a North Korean sergeant, while Byung-hun Lee plays the South Korean soldier being investigated. Both actors are great but Song has a quality about him that makes him unforgettable in every film he does. His acting often transcends a need for subtitles because his face can say so much without speaking.

To those who have ever watched a Chan-wook Park film, it should come as no surprise that the directing of Joint Security Area is tight and skillful. The visuals are not as bold or eccentric as Park’s more recent films, but such style would not be appropriate to the subject matter anyway. JSA is based on a real, ongoing Korean conflict and tells an emotional tale, so no flashiness is needed here.

While it may not be as badass as Oldboy or Thirst, the pacing is steady and the drama is intense. The scenes involving the investigation are not as tense and interesting as the flashbacks, but fortunately after the first 30 minutes, those scenes are few and far-between. Good storytelling and fine performances make JSA a breeze to watch. It is recommended viewing for fans of Park or war dramas, and world history/current events enthusiasts.


Sean D. said...

I see you removed certain details from your review. I think you did a nice job working around it. I'm really glad you liked this movie too. This was the next Chan-wook park film I saw after the Vengeance Trilogy. As soon I finished watching, I knew two things. One, Chan-wook Park has become one of my favorite directors (if not my favorite). Two, Kang-ho Song has become one of my favorite actors. Needless to say, I really like JSA a lot. It's probably my third favorite of Park's films after Oldboy and Thirst. Anyway, great review.