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JSA: Joint Security Area
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by Jay Seaver

"A great Korean movie which CAN'T be made anywhere else."
5 stars

It's easy to see why Hollywood would want to do a Americanized remake of Joint Security Area; if I were a studio executive seeing it at a festival, I'd think "great, taut thriller, a murder mystery with the specter of war hanging over it; we could sell a lot of tickets if not for the subtitle thing." Most executives probably stopped there, realizing that although you could theoretically set the story on any border in the world, few will be as inherently dramatic as the demilitarized zone between the Koreas - meaning you're a step behind even before starting the screenplay. So be smart, and go directly to Park Chan-wook's Korean original before the guys who didn't realize that this movie can't be changed without being diminished crank out an inferior version.

The movie starts with a potential disaster - shots fired on the North Korean side of the border, and a soldier from the South trying to crawl back home. Two North Koreans are dead, and one seriously injured. It's the sort of incident that could lead to a great deal of saber-rattling and perhaps even war, but fortunately cooler heads prevail, and a Neutral Nation commission is given the job to investigate, with Major Sophie Jean (Lee Yeong-ae), a Swiss officer of Korean descent, flown in to head up the inquiry.

Certain things don't add up, though - there appear to be more bullets than could have been fired from one gun, and no-one is talking. As Maj. Jean follows her leads, the audience is given backstory - where we learn that the presumed shooter, Sgt. Lee (Lee Byung-hun) and the North Korean survivor, Sgt. Oh (Song Kang-ho) had actually met eight months before: A Southern training exercise had accidentally crossed the border, and in their haste to return lest they provoke an incident, Lee had stepped on a land mine. Unable to move without detonating it, he was rescued by Oh's patrol. The two became friends, and (along with a fellow soldier on each side) began clandestinely meeting afterward - a situation that certainly doesn't seem destined to end in violent death.

Joint Security Area is adapted by director Park Chan-wook (and three others) from a novel by Park Sang-yeon, and though many of its broader themes are somewhat universal, the details are rather specific to modern Korea. Soldiers all around the world often have more in common than the ideologies of their superiors would indicate, but Korea is the last vestige of the Cold War where what intuitively be a single country is divided by a line drawn by outsiders. Germany has reunited, while Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union had the problem of enforced unity, as opposed to separation. JSA derives much of its power (especially for its original Korean audience) by continually playing up how arbitrary the line between North and South is. There's no language, ethnic, or cultural barrier between Lee and Oh, no compelling reason for them to live on opposite sides of a border. Both are loyal to their countries, and there's constant wariness from both groups that their new friends are looking to entice them to defect. Major Jean isn't as separate from Korean politics as she initially thinks, either, as information about a skeleton in her family's closet dating back to the war emerges.

Even if the Korea-specific elements don't resonate personally or even really pique one's interest as more than a generic reason that this incident is Very Important, the way Park tells his story is quite compelling. The crisp military uniforms and locations add senses of urgency and importance to the story, although the actual depictions of military life manage to add warmth - Lee's partner sleeps on the job, while the room in the North Korean base where the group meets is dark, run-down and lived-in. He crisply jumps forward and back along the movie's timeline, providing subtitled dates to orient the audience because they can't always trust the information that Lee and Oh give to Jean. What little gunplay and action there is is shot matter-of-factly, with an emphasis on clarity. This is especially important, since the how and why is more important than the who for this mystery. All in all, the style is less flashy than his later movies (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy), but no less effective.

Lee Yeong-ae is given first billing, and serves as the film's viewpoint character, but mah be slightly miscast; she seems a little young and soft-spoken for her rank, maybe not up to the important job she's given. You don't reach Major without being career military, and she doesn't come off as that. The enlisted men come off better: Lee Byung-hun plays a young man nearing the end of his compulsory military service and clearly not looking to make a career out of it. He's naive, but smart enough to not make the same mistake twice. The best performance - the heart of the movie, really - comes from Song Kang-ho. Where Lee is a young NCO, Oh is an old sergeant. Unlike the rest of the soldiers, he's actually seen combat, and isn't afraid to make decisions, even if they go against what he's been told in the past. He even delivers a line which mixes talk of the separated countries and candy with humor and dignity.

Park Chan-wook is one of the most notable filmmakers in one of the world's most vibrant national cinemas; it's hard to imagine this is a first feature, given how assured it is. Indeed, though his two subsequent movies are more adventurous, this perhaps still stands as his best work, and a must-see thriller. Even if you don't speak Korean.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=12452&reviewer=371
originally posted: 06/24/05 18:16:38
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User Comments

8/10/09 menten Only Koreans can fully understand this film. 5 stars
10/10/07 Christian Starup Engaging after the first 3rd or so. Very good acting. 4 stars
2/27/07 William Goss Acting prevents cock-eyed optimism from besting Korean military drama. 4 stars
11/21/06 Ryan Norton So good, wish American cinema could turn out genuine films that elicit emotions like Park! 5 stars
8/22/06 K.Sear I thoroughly enjoyed this film. I brings many elements together in one tight package. 5 stars
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  DVD: 12-Jul-2005



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