Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 8/22/09.
Before getting the attention of the film world with his Vengeance Trilogy, particularly 2003's Oldboy, Chan-wook Park was just a South Korean director trying to break through in the Korean film scene. With two films to his credit by 2000, Park was also a film critic until he decided to make a film that would give him his first taste of success in and out of Korea. The film revolves around the border between North and South Korea in a political-drama of sorts about an illegal shooting in the border entitled JSA: Joint Security Area.
Directed by Chan-wook Park with a screenplay written by Park, Seong-san Jeong, Hyeon-seok Kim, and Mu-yeong Lee based on the novel DMZ by Sang-yeon Park. JSA: Joint Security Area tells the story of two North Korean soldiers killed on the border supposedly by a South Korean officer. Investigating the shooting are a team of Swedish/Swiss officers as they interrogate camps from both countries as another party could be involved in part of a cover-up. Starring Lee Young-Ae, Lee Byung-Hun, Song Kang-ho, Kim Tae Woo, Shin Ha-kyun, and Herbert Ulrich. JSA: Joint Security Area is a provocative, smart, haunting film from Chan-wook Park.
Arriving into Seoul, South Korea for an investigation on the death of two North Korean soldiers on the border is a Swedish officer (Herbert Ulrich) and a Swiss-Korean officer named Major Sophie E. Jang (Lee Young-Ae). Under the instructions of a Swiss-based German U.N. official (Christoph Hofrichter), Jang must make sure she stays neutral in the investigation where a South Korean officer named Sgt. Lee Soo-hyeok (Lee Byung-Hun) is charged for the deaths of the two North Koreans. What is known was that during some work at the border, Lee was kidnapped by three North Korean officers in which he killed two of them with one wounded as a near-battle ensued. With Lee currently in a state of shock, Jang and her Swedish partner go to North Korea to investigate the bodies of the dead soldiers while trying to interrogate the wounded soldier Oh Kyeong-pil (Song Kang-ho) who revealed a different story of what had happened.
Jang, having never been to Korea in her life, talks to Lee's girlfriend who is revealed to be the sister of one of Lee's friends in Pvt. Nam Sung-shik (Kim Tae Woo). When Lee is starting to talk but revealing very little and Nam's gun was found with bloodstains. Nam attempts suicide where a story revealed Lee's first encounters with Oh and a North Korean officer in Private Jeong Woo-jin (Shin Ha-kyun) during an exercise by the South Koreans where Lee was stuck on a land mine. Lee became friends with Oh and Jeong where he also invited Nam, who was reluctant to meet with the North Koreans as the two parties believed these meetings would involve a possible reunification between the two countries. Yet with the conflict between North and South rising, Lee and Nam decide to make one last visit to the North Korean border station to celebrate Jeong's birthday where an officer makes an appearance that would change everything.
With Nam now in a coma and Lee awoken from his state of shock, Jang realizes that there's something more in what is going on. What she later finds out following a disastrous meeting between North and South Korean officials including Oh and Lee that she is now set to leave because things are becoming two close. With her superior revealing some harsh stories about the North-South Korean conflict during the Korean War that included a war in a concentration camp for North Korean POWs. The end of that conflict had prisoners choose side where 76 of them decided not to choose sides. The superior reveals that reunification will cause trouble as she has no choice but to leave. Yet, she decides to continue the investigation where she learned the truth and its implications for the survivors involved over what had happened.
The film is a traditional whodunit kind of film of sorts with elements of political drama. Yet, it's really about the conflict between the two Korean factions and why the possibilities of a reunification might seem impossible due to political ideals. At the center of the story is this Swiss-Korean woman who had never been to Korea in her entire life where not only she would learn about this conflict but also herself in relation to her own background. A background that could help or hurt her involvement in the investigation. What she would also discover is how these four men would come together at night in the North Korean border station and just have fun while talking about the idea of reunification. Then comes an incident that would change everything with different stories.
The screenplay Park and his team of writers creates is definitely full of intrigue and the fallacies of the political climates that North and South Korean each are involved in. At the same time, there's a lot of character and political motivation that goes on during the investigation and its objective. Particularly since South Korean is influenced by the idea of American capitalism that also has the involvement of the American military around this fragile border area. It is clear that the four men involved this exchange between the two factions that there is a clear disdain towards American involvement. The political intrigue and dramatic elements into the investigation makes the story to be quite mesmerizing though it starts out clunky at first during the first act due to Park's direction.
Park's direction is truly haunting from his eerie visuals that would set the stage for later films to follow. Yet, it starts out a bit slow while the acting in English isn't that great either since you have actors from different nationalities seemingly uncomfortable in speaking English. Yet, when the investigation goes on what starts to unravel scene by scene, it becomes a far more provocative film. There's an entrancing quality to the camera angles and intimate scenery that Park presents at the border station while allowing bits of humor and such to happen. Park's approach to action and how he creates the idea of what had happened reveal in its different stories to add an aura of mystery to the film. Despite a slow, clunky beginning, Park's work in the film is truly fascinating as he engages the audience with provocative ideas and haunting images.
Cinematographer Sung-Bok Kim does excellent work with the film's eerie photography with the dark, blueish color of the nighttime scenes at the border area in the forests and bridges. Kim also has some more colorful, grainy looks for some of the scenes of a nearby town and bright colors for the daytime scenes at the buildings near the border as Kim's work is solid overall. Editor Sang-Beom Kim does fantastic work with the editing in creating a leisurely-paced feel to the film while playing with the film's structure in moving back and forth to what is going on in the investigation and what happened where the second act is all about what happened leading to the events. Art director James David Goldmark along with cinematographer Sung-Bok Kim, as an art director, do brilliant work in the re-creation of the station borders and bridge along with the buildings of the Joint Security Area to reveal the dark political feel of the film.
Costume designer Sang-hoon Park does excellent work in the creation of the uniforms that the characters wear from the distinguished suits of the North Korean and other international personnel to the more infantry uniform look of the South Korean soldiers. The sound work by Seok-weon Kim and Wong-Yong Kim is very good in the tense atmosphere of possible conflict along with scenes of gunshots and things that go on for dramatic elements of the film. The music by Jun-Seok Bang and Yeong-wook Jo is very good in its elements of suspense and chills with eerie orchestral arrangements and soothing, dramatic pieces for some of the film's calmer moments.
The cast is excellent with small roles from Herbert Ulrich as the Swedish officer accompanying Jang and Christoph Hofrichter as their superior who is more interested in making sure things stay the same without any kind of disruption. Kim Tae Woo is excellent as the South Korean Pvt. Nam who at first is reluctant to take part of the exchange only to become a pawn in the investigation consumed with guilt. Shin Ha-kyun is really good as Pvt. Jeong who is fascinated by American products as well as a girl both factions seem to be fascinated by. Song Kang-ho is great as Sgt. Oh, a North Korean officer who whistles when he exhales cigarette smoke who is loyal to his country but also frustrated as he befriends Sgt. Lee. Lee Byung-Hun is really good as Sgt. Lee, a South Korean who is saved by Sgt. Oh from a landmine as he shares with about his own ideas of a reunification between the two Korean factions. Finally, there's Lee Young-Ae as Major Jang. While her performance in English is at times, awkward and uncomfortable, she's in her element in maintaining a calm, observant performance where she uncovers what happens while dealing with what has happened.
The film drew massive acclaim in South Korea as it was later seen in 2007 by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il by South Korean leader Roh Moo-Hyun. The film would be Chan-wook Park's first international success winning several awards while being presented at the 2001 Berlin Film Festival and awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Seattle International Film Festival. The film would mark as a breakthrough for Park's career as his next three films would give him massive international attention.
JSA: Joint Security Area is a brilliant, provocative film from Chan-wook Park and company. Fans of Park's films, particularly the Vengeance trilogy, will see this film as a great example of Park's early work while being a nice introduction of sorts to the famed South Korean directors. Fans of political thrillers and dramas will see this as a refreshing film about murder and intrigue while getting insight into the fragile relationship between North and South Korea. In the end, JSA: Joint Security Area is fascinating, entrancing film from Chan-wook Park.
Chan-wook Park Films: (The Moon Is... the Sun's Dream) - (Trio) - Judgement (1999 short film) - Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance - (If You Were Me-Never Ending Peace and Love) - Oldboy - Three... Extremes-Cut - Sympathy for Lady Vengeance - I'm a Cyborg but That's OK - Thirst - (Night Fishing) - Stoker - The Handmaiden - (The Little Drummer Girl (2018 TV series) - Decision to Leave