J.S.A.: Joint Security Area’s success was Park Chan Wook’s license to make any film he wanted; this film was Park’s (Vengeance Trilogy) breakout hit in South Korea, and even though he wrote the script for “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” a few years before this he made this film, “J.S.A.“ was made and released first. Most Korean political thrillers I’ve seen that delved into the tension between North and South Korea such as the popcorn flick “Shiri” and “Typhoon” often somewhat portray the South Korean side the “good guys” while the North Korean side are oftentimes take a darker light as the “bad guys”. Park Chan-Wook’s masterpiece, however, stays neutral on this situation and the film is truly something that goes straight to the hearts and emotions of its audience.
In the Demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea, peace is a very fragile thing, as fragile as the wooden bridge that links the two Koreas. When two North Korean soldiers are killed, supposedly by one South Korean soldier, it threatens to ignite a full-scale international conflict. An impartial Intelligence team led by a Korean female officer, Maj. Sophie Jean (Yeong Ae-Lee, Lady Vengeance) is sent to investigate and they quickly find flaws in the official report of the events. It’s a race to uncover the truth as tensions rise in one of the most heavily guarded border in the world.
The film is an incredible tale of forbidden friendship that blossomed between border patrol soldiers that explores the consequences when something goes awry. J.S.A. is a powerful and complex film that explores the honesty and the beauty of being close and comfortable towards your countryman. It is truly an engaging film about camaraderie and loyalty while using the backdrop of a political mystery. The film also delves into the ideals of the Korean people, from both sides of the border. The film has similarities to "Midnight Clear" with a powerful metaphor for the rest of the world. What makes J.S.A. so special is that there are no clear good guys and bad guys, no black and white; the main antagonist (or bad guy) is the overall situation between the two countries itself, and the political ramifications of the incident. The North and South Korean people are the victims of this tension; victimized by an invisible enemy that cannot be seen but felt in their hearts.
When I first saw this film in 2003, I wasn’t really expecting much. I thought it was just going to be another political thriller and while it does begin that way; the movie is a mystery on its exterior but it manages to become more than that. Park definitely sidesteps that impression by putting the central focus of the film on 4 soldiers, their budding friendship and relationship, who are divided by nothing but the border shared by two on each side respectively. The four soldiers are played by Kang Ho-Song (Secret Sunshine), Lee Byung-Hun (A Bittersweet Life), Tae Woo-Kim and Ha-Kyun Shin. It’s no surprise that Kang Ho-Song and Lee Byung Hun gives a remarkable performance as well as a younger Yeong Ae-Lee (Lady Vengeance); the solid performances by its cast are the film’s greatest strength. Park’s style of direction is that the timeline shifts from past to present and vice versa to unveil the supposed incident of the breakout and the secret friendship between the four. This was an ingenious but risky style in storytelling; it may become a bit blurry and inexperienced watchers may find it a bit confusing and maybe even boring. However, Park effectively allows us to get a lot deeper into the psyche of the Korean people in my opinion. The actual investigation itself may be the film’s weakness; as the proceedings seemed too simple and some “findings” were too convenient.
It’s quite sad to witness the tensions of a nation separated by its ideals and very inspiring to see just how the soldiers overcame the hostilities between their sides and encourage each other to “breakdown the walls” of politics. These soldiers represent their people and their hope for reconciliation. This theme hits home to the hearts of its audience. Their slight fear of being discovered is portrayed as they spend the evening playing cards and bonding in their own playful manner while trying to avoid the political discussions. The differences between the two sides are also expressed in the form of a simple “cookie” or chocolate bars. While they develop friendships, they still do maintain their loyalty to their respective political ideals.
J.S.A. is an actual metaphor for the rest of the world. It is quite sad for a country to be divided by an imaginary line. It effectively expresses the idea that social and political differences, color and blood, race and beliefs should not be allowed to become the bane of brotherhood and friendship. These invisible lines are things that should be forgotten and disposed of much like the soldiers in this film who reached out and became friends. Despite the film’s faults that scenes “borders” almost to the point of becoming too melodramatic, the film is quite effective with its cinematography, story and theme, that the great performances reaches out to inspire us with its humanity and optimism. Its very hopeful and powerful message is its true human splendor.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! [4+ stars]
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