Back in September 2000, a little known Korean filmmaker co-wrote and directed a poignant tale of North and South Korean soldiers stationed at the infamous DMZ located in Panmunjom. The rest, as they say, is history. At the time, Joint Security Area smashed Korean box office records to become the highest-grossing Korean film ever made. In addition to winning numerous accolades for its star-studded cast and director, it was also one of the first Korean blockbusters to help raise the international profile for the country’s burgeoning movie industry.
In his breakout film, director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) delivers a well written, superbly acted drama about heightened tensions at the 38th parallel, and the underlying pain of a divided nation. The film opens with gunfire as conflict erupts on the border between North and South Korea. Major Sophie E. Jang (Lee Yeong-Ae, Lady Vengeance) is called to investigate the truth behind the deaths of two North Korean soldiers. What unfolds is a subtle, yet moving story with elements of classic thrillers and “whodunit” murder mysteries. While Park does not set out to create an edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting twist, viewers will get more out of the movie if they go in without knowing too many details.
There is no shortage of Korean films dealing with the rift between North and South Korea (Swiri, Taegukgi); however, where JSA succeeds is in Park’s willingness to dive into gritty, intelligent storytelling. Park deftly handles a sensitive subject matter, using clever transitions, subtle dialogue and artfully composed scenes to keep the movie from falling into the cliché war-movie genre. Drawing on influences such as Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, JSA relies on non-linear storytelling and unreliable narrators to actively engage the viewer in what’s going on. Park also manages to get outstanding performances from his main cast. As North Korean general Oh Kyeong-Pil, Song Kang-ho (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, The Host) delivers a compelling performance, ranging from humorous to threatening in a blink of an eye. A fresh-faced Lee Byung-hun (I Saw the Devil) also stands out as the haunted Sgt. Lee Soo-hyeok.
That is not to say JSA is without a few rough edges. The English-language scenes in the movie require a certain suspension of disbelief due to fact that Lee Yeong-Ae is far from fluent in English (think Zhang Ziyi in Memoirs of a Geisha). It’s a bit odd that her character—a Swiss national who has never been to Korea—is most comfortable speaking in her non-native language. Furthermore, while the dialogue in JSA is usually spot-on, most of the English-language scenes serve as tedious exposition for those who are unfamiliar with the history of North-South Korea tensions. These explanations come off as largely unnecessary. For instance, a scene at the DMZ where Lee Byung-hun’s character practices shooting card-board cutouts of North Korean soldiers is far more effective at illustrating how fragile peace is than a badly disguised history lesson. While this may detract for some, these scenes are far and few between, and mostly disappear once the main plot gets rolling. Overall, JSA is a smart, stylish and gripping film and represents Korean filmmaking at its finest—a must-see for any Asian movie aficionado.