J.S.A. (Joint Security Area)

written by Seong-san Jeong, and Hyeon-seok Kim Park Chan-wook

directed by Park Chan-wook

starring Lee Byung-hun, Lee Yeong-ae, and Song Kang-ho

available at Movie Studio, Alternative Video Spot, Oddities


review by Stephen Notley

Notice and remember the name Park Chan-wook. Chances are we'll be hearing it a lot in the future, as he's a leading figure in an aggressive new cinematic style from Korea set to infiltrate and influence American moviemaking just as the 1990s Hong Kong school did. Park's 2000 breakout hit JSA (Joint Security Area) is just now popping up in DVD spots around town, and cinephiles ill-served by the last few months of America filmmaking need to rent it immediately.

JSA concerns an incident, a shooting, at a border outpost between North and South Korea. Major Sophie Jean, Korean-sired, raised in Switzerland, is dispatched as part of a U.N.-style investigation and through her we are introduced to the border, the line, the center of the film. The North Koreans have their buildings on the north, the South Koreans have their own structures on the south. Soldiers stand on either side of the line, prohibited by law from communicating in any way with their opposite numbers. And then there's the outpost in question, two cabins on either side of a demarcatory ditch spanned by a 100-yard bridge, a bridge not for crossing, heavy posts barring vehicle traffic.

Uniquely among these people, Maj. Jean can move freely across the border, so we get a peek into both worlds, huge "Rice Is Communism" billboards lining the roads into the North Korean Headquarters. She reads the depositions, interviews the surviving North Korean solider, Sgt. Oh, and the injured South Korean soldier, Sgt. Lee Soo-Hyuk, and examines the bodies of the two dead soldiers. Soon inconsistencies start to crop up.

At this point, JSA feels like a procedural mystery. An American film likely would have made the mistake of keeping it a mystery the whole way through, delaying through twists and red herrings the revelation of the truth until the end, thus leaving no time to actually do anything with it. JSA does not make this mistake, so a third of the way through it shifts and devotes its main attention to the story itself, the strange subversive circumstances that led two South Korean soldiers and two North Korean soldiers to be in that North Korean cabin that fateful night, an intense, heartbreaking examination of human beings living at the rip-point of a nation torn in two.

There's a stark, no-bullshit quality to the storytelling. Scenes are intense, but without the false intensity of fast cuts and sound cues. The camera tends to stand back, let events play out in front of it, relying on powerful composition to make its points. The colors are subdued, lots of blacks and grays and silvers; this is a nighttime movie. And yet, in these institutional places, these military bunkers, these ragged fought-over fields, there are strange beauties, moonlight silvering the tops of dry reeds as enemies see each other for the first time.

And there are guns. Guns, shooting, violence, these are the staples of military stories, but JSA doesn't fetishize the act of shooting, preferring to deal with guns as objects, their weight, heavy steel, clunks on wood or the clacks and clicks of loading. There's an awareness of the weapon, always at the ready, not about violence but the threat of violence, the provocation, the taunt, the threat, the tension, underlying everything that happens, every relationship that evolves.

So when the film does return the mystery-plot for the last third, it's no longer a mystery but a powerful set of relationships still at play in the aftermath. Brotherhood, comradeship, friendship, enmity, all are driven to and beyond the breaking point, leading to the wrenching final revelation of the night of the shooting. "We're enemies, after all." It's a heavy film, heavier than we're used to, laden with sadness and tragedy, told with simplicity and compassion, a cry of anguish from a nation in pain. See it.