A.K.A. JSA, A.K.A. DMZ, A.K.A. CSI: DPRK

Film: Joint Security Area
Year: 2000
Director: Park Chan-wook (also co-writer)

North and South Korea: “Hey, have you seen our unity?”
World History: “Oh, wait, I just had it…”

On the one hand, Joint Security Area is a tense military thriller about soldiers at the Korean DMZ answering the call of nature at dangerously inopportune times. On the other, it is a bromantic tragedy that strives for its complicated neutrality in lamenting the decades-long cold war between North and South Korea. All throughout, Korean New Wave founding father Park Chan-wook (of deserved Oldboy fame) directs this sensitive material like he’s trying to make the best damn CSI episode ever—with, overall, pretty compelling results.

The story takes places in the late ‘90s, a time when relations were as fragile as ever between the communist North and capitalist South. Infantrymen stationed at the border’s Joint Security Area—the only site in the demilitarized zone where soldiers from both sides of the conflict stand close enough to spit on each other—serve their compulsory terms knowing that war could erupt at a misread gust of wind. (A U.S. helicopter was shot down after slipping into North Korean territory in 1994, resulting in the last recorded casualty at the mutual post.) A few of the more seasoned guards seem eager for the sparks to start flying; most of them tread lightly, like men in a pit of snoozing snakes.

Into this tightrope-tense, glass-house-on-the-border environment, a combination stone/hot knife (I don’t know, I’m tired) appears: two North Korean soldiers are found shot to death at their outpost, with a third wounded, and a South Korean sergeant returns to his side claiming to have been kidnapped and escaped. His story seems dubious. The UN-appointed neutral police force calls in one Major Jean (Lee Young-ae), a Swiss officer born to a Korean expat, to investigate the shootings, and let the truth determine whether they are an invitation to war.

Across the opening act, Jean’s findings are, naturally, next to nil. Her confidence and intuition are meant to buoy this portion of the film as she and her team beat their international heads against the wall. Personally, I found them closer to sinking the movie, especially given some awkward English-speaking that has the cast acting more fluent than they are. (Granted, it would likely be more uncomfortable to have them continually shift acting styles in congruence with languages—but even as is, their delivery is like an MLB pitcher shoving a brick of cheese through a chain-link fence.)

However, JSA does begin to float in the middle passage, an extended flashback which reveals the backstory to the murders as one of forbidden correspondence and camaraderie between the gridlocked halves of the disunited country. Without reaching for allegory, the movie wields both personal and national themes with great dexterity, investing us simultaneously in the literal and symbolic threads of the central relationship. By the movie’s end, I came to feel embroiled in the conflict on multiple levels, without having to search for one through the other—which, though it can be a fun exercise and an efficient mode of encryption in more suppressive artistic climates, is maybe a waste of time when Korea is still sweating at the brink of chaos.

Thanks are due to a sharp script and at least four excellent performances. Song Kang-ho, before he went on to steal scenes in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder and also every Korean movie ever, is maybe not as far-and-away more engaging than his co-stars as I might have expected, but he does channel a certain stage-one Colonel Kurtz mystique as Sergeant Oh of the North. And if Park’s somewhat giddy direction does not show quite the same focus as his legendary Vengeance Trilogy that would follow, it certainly shows the same level of vision.

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