Title: Joint Security Area (Kongdong Kyeungbi Kuyuk JSA)
Length: 120 minutes
Lee Young Ae: Sophie Jean
Song Kang Ho: Sergeant Oh
Lee Byung Hun: Sergeant Lee
The Korean movie Shiri, released in 1999, made a slight wave in the waters of cinema; it was one of the high-budget, Hollywood-esque productions that gleamed from every corner and was crammed chock full of Hollywood stereotypes: the fatal love, a battle against time, and best of all, explosions. It made a small wave, as its politics involved (South Korea v. North Korea) caught international attention. But in the year 2000, the film JSA: Joint Security Area outclassed Shiri in every single way, being a unique look of an incredibly small piece of land with huge historical significance attached to it. For a brief while, this became the best-selling movie in Korea, but was almost immediately replaced by another Korean movie after it, "Friends" (an equally good though different type of movie). JSA is a military drama, though not along the violent aspects of Black Hawk Down; it contains a more humanistic point of view.
The small strip of land in question is the DMZ (Dimilitarized Zone), located between South and North Korea. The 38th parallel borderline was originally created after World War II to facilitate moving Japanese POWs and to carve up the Japanese empire between the United States and the then Soviet Union. What was originally a temporary marker became relatively permanent as the years dragged on and re-unification seemed to be an impossible idea with the advent of the Cold War. During the Korean War, when North Korean soldiers invaded South Korea, the DMZ zone was established as part of ceasefire arrangements towards the "end" of the war (the war hasn't technically ended yet), with Panmunjeom, a series of buildings on the border, created to allow negotiations between both sides. You would call it something as trite as the forbidden zone or no man's land. But they are both true terms, and they have been true for several decades now. This small strip of land is symbolic of many of the things lost to two countries when they were divided without so much as a by your leave.
Two North Korean soldiers (Lieutenant Choi, Private Jung) are seemingly murdered by a South Korean soldier (Sergeant Lee Soo Hyuk) at a North Korean outpost in the DMZ, and after a brief but intense firefight between North Korean and South Korean soldiers, the two countries are confronted with a confounding mystery. Who killed the soldiers is not the question, but rather, why. It isn't an ordinary case of murder; the politics and consequences involved are tremendous. Did the North Koreans invade South Korea to kidnap a South Korean soldier, who then killed the North Korean soldiers while he escaped? Or did the South Korean soldier sneak up on the North Koreans and murder them unawares in a type of violent jingoistic patriotism?
The truth is much more difficult. But is even that final possible scenario, really, the truth?
Sophie Jean (half-Korean and half-Swiss), a neutral officer from Switzerland, is called in to investigate the murders. Charged to stay "perfectly neutral", Sophie encounters friction between herself and officials from both countries, who are only too eager to point fingers, ready to end the ceasefire but are limited by the fact that the world is watching. At one point, a South Korean general berates a soldier who participated in the rescue mission to retrieve Sergeant Lee:
"If a battle starts, you shoot the bastards.
You call yourself a soldier?" says the general.
The soldier stares at some point ahead of him, sweating. "I thought my primary mission was to rescue Sergeant Lee, sir!"
The general taps the soldier on the shoulder with the tip of a baton, chiding. "So that's why you couldn't aim straight?..."
"I didn't want to start a war, sir!"
"What, a soldier is afraid of war? You moron!" The general makes a move to hit the soldier with his hand, but Sophie enters the room with other Swiss soldiers; the general drops his hand and forces a smile on his face. Leaning over, he pats the soldier on the back and says, in a low voice, "Wars don't start that easily..."
Sophie, after listening to the two "official" stories, can't help but notice the apparent contradictions. The number of bullets shot don't add up; a stray photo of a girl is found on the wrong side of the border; a South Korean soldier originally thought to be uninvolved attempts to commit suicide; and when two survivors of the incident are brought together at Panmunjeom, the entire interview implodes when the South Korean soldier breaks down and the North Korean soldier proclaims, over and over again, the glory of North Korea.
What initially looks like a simple case of political intrigue afoot turns out to have a more tragic, more human touch to it. It becomes very clear to Sophie that the relationship between the Sergeant Oh, Private Jung, Sergeant Nam, and Sergeant Lee was that of friendship, but it still does not explain why two soldiers died...
The friendship between the four soldiers is an interesting reflection of a wish that many South Koreans had or still have: that one day the two countries may be reunited (a theme that was reflected in the earlier movie Shiri). It may be interesting to note that South Korea's interest in North Korea was sparked around the time both Shiri and JSA was released (1999-2000), when the idea of reunification was actually being discussed back then. The logistics of such an idea seem impossible, given the political environment, but is/was a wish that is still there nonetheless.
Dialogue between the four soldiers is friendly: about their lives (military service requirements), what's going on between the South and the North (they know nothing, being military grunts, after all), and of course, girlfriends. A humorous moment shows up when they compare girlfriends; Sergeant Nam keeps a photo of a popular South Korean model in his wallet which Sergeant Oh and Private Nam mistake as his girlfriend (not being familiar with South Korean pop culture, of course). While the North Korean soldiers are picking up their jaws from the floor, Sergeant Lee and Sergeant Nam share a guilty look.
Despite the obvious ties that are created between the soldiers patrolling the border together, the awareness that they are violating something taboo, tiptoeing on something forbidden, hangs above them like a ghostly spectre that no amount of levity can erase:
(the soldiers are hanging out in the underground bunker of the North Korean post)
"I was just wondering... don't you want to come down to the South?" said Lee Soo Hyuk.
Sergeant Oh stares at him for a long moment, a moon pie in his mouth. Spitting out the moon pie in his hand, he stares at the half-chewed mesh of marshmallow and chocolate and says, solemnly, "Lee Soo Hyuk. I'm only going to say this once, so listen well. My dream is... that one day, our (North Korean) republic... makes the best damn sweets on this peninsula. Got it? Until then, all I can do is... dream about these choco pies." Finishing his statement, he puts the half-chewed moon pie back into his mouth and starts chewing again, utterly serious.
Cinematography is spectacular. There is a particularly vivid scene where North Korean and South Korean soldiers face each other across a field on a snowing day. The commanders of both platoons warily approach each other, putting aside their rifles, and share a smoke. No words are exchanged, but the difference between South Korea and North Korea is clear, made striking by the distinctive military wear, the fur hats and AK-47s evoking communist North Korea even as the snow fatigues and M-16s evoke the democratic South Korea, adding another layer to the separation.
The snow field is just one of many beautiful shots; the whole movie is littered with them. The firefight at the Bridge of No Return, where POWs were exchanged at the end of the Korean War, is brief and poetic, with flashes of light bursting in the raining darkness, glass windows shattering and paintings falling, both sides striving to murder each other without knowing the why or how as Sergeant Lee lies across the Military Demarcation Line staring up into the sky...
The story is paced nicely, in a Rashomon type way, with two conflicting perceptions of the truth being presented to the viewer. Unlike Rashomon, a definitive "truth" slowly emerges, though even that truth is slightly distorted as it is spoken from a single witness who himself does not realize the truth; the "truth" at the very end, as discovered by Sophie Jean, does not bring resolve to the issue, but instead brings more tragedy...
If there are any reservations to be made about this movie, it would be largely that the situation that comes about in this movie is fairly unrealistic, given to how heavily patrolled the DMZ is; the CG in the opening is a little excessive; and that Sophie Jean speaks awful English. But putting that aside, the movie leaves a bittersweet taste afterward, a sense of the sweetness of life and how short it is, made all the more palpable by the small details that come back to haunt the viewer with its visual acuity. A brief talk about what matters in a battle that becomes a lesson learned by one soldier. Sergeant Lee's vainglorious boast about how fast he can draw a gun comes back to blow up in his face.
But most poignantly... A group of tourists visit Panmunjeom in one of the scenes, and a particularly enthusiastic photographer takes a picture. It is an entirely forgettable scene until it is revisited at the end of the movie; when one takes a look at the photograph taken, it's heart-wrenchingly poignant to see that one, beautiful, captured moment where all four soldiers were together in one place, a memory of a friendship that lasted once upon a time.
All quotes from the movie. I never learned exactly how Korean is officially romanized; if some spellings are unusual, pardon me.