Joint Security Area (공동경비구역 JSA) Made in: South Korea Language: Korean, English Director: Park Chan-Wook Starring: Lee Young Ae, Lee Byung-Hun, Song Kang-Ho, Shin Ha-Kyun, Kim Tae Woo, Herbert Ulrich, Christoph Hofrichter Year: 2000
Synopsis: Two North Korean soldiers are shot dead and another wounded at their border post in the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). This is the area smack dab in between North and South Korea where soldiers from both sides literally stand face to face. The demarcation point is a concrete line that no one is allowed to step over.
Compounding the mystery is the involvement of a South Korean soldier, Sgt. Lee Soo-Hyeok (Lee Byung-Hun) and his subordinate, Private Nam Sung-Shik (Kim Tae Woo).
An investigation is launched by the NNSC (Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission), made up of Swiss and Swedish military personnel. Major Sophie Jang (Lee Young Ae), a Swiss officer who had a Korean father (and therefore speaks Korean), is tasked with spearheading the investigation.
She shuttles between North and South Korea interviewing witnesses, including Sgt. Oh Kyeong-Pil, the North Korean soldier who survived the shootout ( played by Song Kang-Ho). Soon she finds that the sworn statements of both Sgt. Oh and Sgt. Lee are inconsistent with the evidence recovered from the scene of the crime. In other words, something's really fishy.
As political tensions rise at the Joint Security Area, the investigation begins to take some very interesting turns...and the answers turn out to be anything but simple.
The Good: Based on the novel by Park Sang Yeon, Joint Security Area is a well-constructed story that often shifts between flashbacks and the Sophie's investigation.
It deals with a hot-button political issue that has influenced international Asian affairs for over half a century, and director Park Chan-Wook approaches it largely from a humanistic point of view.
The characters, each possessing various strengths and flaws, are compelling. Especially powerful is Song Kang-Ho in his role as the compassionate North Korean sergeant. We genuinely care about all the characters, despite their flaws, and the climax is pretty emotional (albeit depressing).
The tragic theme of impossible friendship is sobering, especially if you think of it as an allegory about the division between two nations with a common language and heritage.
Since the film obviously could not be shot on location at the real Joint Security Area, a set had to be built. And they did a really good job- the end result is very convincing.
Check out the map below to see the real Joint Security Area...with the help of Google! Look for marker "C"
The Bad: As much as I liked Song Kang-Ho's character, there was really no explanation or background information as to why he was such a nice guy. Park Chan-Wook clearly seems to be no fan of either the South Korean or US military.
His biases seemed to have poked through on more than a few occasions, often portraying most of the South Korean and US troops as two-dimensional, incompetent, war-mongering buffoons. All the while, the message seems to be that the soldiers from the North are, deep down, just a bunch of misunderstood nice guys who are deprived of stuff like chocolate and porn.
Yeah, you know, it was those same "nice guys" who decided to sink a South Korean destroyer for no apparent reason. Okay, maybe I'm being too general, but Park sometimes lets these biases taint the otherwise strong theme about friendship and humanity.
Who would like this movie: Joint Security Area is for you if you like mysteries, foreign films, or have an interest in the political/military affairs of North and South Korea.
The film was very well received in South Korea, and was one of the highest grossing films made there. And it is said that a copy was even given to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il in 2007. I wonder what he thought of it?
The film is very good overall, but I didn't find it super-duper. A French war film called Merry Christmas (Joyeux Noel) explores a similar theme but arguably does a better job.
The story plays out well and the characters are good, but Park Chan-Wook's anti-military biases and a few instances of melodrama keep it from being truly stellar.