RETRO REVIEW: Joint Security Area (2000)

Park Chan-wook’s JSA: JOINT SECURITY AREA — PHOTO: CJ Entertainment.

Directed by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy; The Handmaiden) — Screenplay by Kim Hyun-seok, Jeong Seong-san, Lee Moo-yeong, and Park Chan-wook.

Based on Park Sang-yeon’s DMZ, Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area, or JSA, tells the story of an investigation into the murder of two North Korean soldiers inside a North Korean border house in the Korean Demilitarization Zone. One North Korean soldier survived. So did two South Korean soldiers on border duty, one of which fled the North Korean border house while wounded. However, the North Korean and South Korean soldiers have reported conflicting accounts of what happened, and so Swiss Army Major Sophie E. Jean (played by Lee Young-ae) is assigned by the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission to lead the investigation into what exactly transpired.

One can only imagine the pressure Park Chan-wook must have felt as he was trying to make a film about the tension between North Korea and South Korea. There’s so much tough territory — so many cultural landmines (i.e. faux pas or taboos) — that Park Chan-wook operates around. Almost immediately when I started the film, I was put at ease by how both South Korean and North Korean soldiers or higher-ranking officers were portrayed. Obviously, the ideological differences that divide the two countries are clear for all to see, but what I mean to say is that Park’s film does a good job of depicting both sides fairly and humanistically. Park seemed to have been insistent on emphasizing how their respective political stances color their view of what has happened early on. This, to me, is a sign of a director who knows how much is at stake with such a film, how delicate of a subject he is dealing with, but also a sign of the director possessing a steady hand with regard to storytelling. In the end, he has made it so that this is not so much a film about the ideological differences, but rather the humanity they share.

Throughout the film, there are these stylistic touches that are present. I love the close-up of an owl as it hears what transpired in the fateful night in question. The transitions and cuts are equally inventive, with the turning of a page leading into the next scene or the sudden cut to a theme park ride during the investigation. Not all of Park Chan-wook’s stylistic flourishes appear as smoothly as they do now later in his career, but you get the sense that Park is finding his voice and style as a visual filmmaker and storyteller here, which makes the visual element quite interesting when read as a sign of what is to come for Park Chan-wook down the line (indeed, what we have seen years later from a master filmmaker).

Like I’ve seen in certain other Korean films but also in Squid Game, JSA suffers from its international cast (the non-Korean cast members, that is) being quite rough. The neutral Swedish and Swiss representatives are portrayed in a way that almost gives it a soap opera-like feel. Those parts are genuinely tough to watch, which is a significant problem because these parts open the film. It makes for a really rough first act, and, in general, the film struggles when it is in English. Later in the film, a key piece of information is delivered in English, and it just feels like a history lesson somewhat awkwardly delivered.

Sandwiched in between these rougher English sections is a really fantastic film, though. Led by stellar performances from Lee Byung-hae (I Saw The Devil) and Song Kang-ho (Parasite), this section focuses on how these soldiers guarding each side of the border awkwardly come together to form a friendship. It is a truly delightful section of the film, which reveals it to be quite a humanist picture about testing the limits of imaginary borders that divide people who have a lot in common. These scenes, wherein you see them bonding, are what sits with you after the film comes to an end. It is a film about the futility of hostility and the warmth of shared humanity. It is a hopeful film that exists with stark ideological differences on each and every character’s shoulders — differences that burden them. It is the elephant in the room, but one they hope to ignore as they trade contraband and stories. I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by how sweet some of these scenes were. They make the film stand out.

Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area, or JSA, is quite good but it must be said that significant chunks of it are somewhat rough. It is a fine but relatively unremarkable investigation/interrogation thriller and murder mystery, but, also, a truly excellent film about brothers across borders finding a shared bond and exchanging pen pal-like information, even though such a friendship between the North and the South is taboo. Park Chan-wook shows major signs of the filmmaker he will become, and his steady, stylish, and level-headed approach to a tough subject matter really helps to make this film succeed, as does Song Kang-ho’s dedicated and complex performance.

8.7 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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