There’s only one place along the Korean DMZ that soldiers from the North and South stand across from one another, able to look each other in the eye. The Joint Security Area is a small piece of land south of the village of Panmunjom where armed soldiers on both sides patrol, and keep guardhouses over an open bridge that crosses the Sachong River, which was maintained for prisoner exchanges. Though it has not been used for that purpose since the late ’60s, it still needs to be guarded.
JSA: Joint Security Area is the story of an incident on the bridge. Three men on the North Korean side have been shot, two dead, and a South Korean soldier has nearly been killed trying to cross the river to get back to his own side. It’s the worst kind of international incident, and it requires a subtle diplomatic touch to investigate. The investigation is under the purview of the Neutral Nations camp (the Swiss and the Swedes) and they happen to have an ace in the hole: a Swedish national with a Korean father who has never before been to Korea. She might be able to maintain a sense of neutrality without seeming like an interfering outsider, so she’s shipped in to the JSA to find out exactly what happened.
Sophie Jean, the half-Korean Swiss Major, is efficient, intelligent and tough-minded without sacrificing her femininity. She should be the perfect sort of wedge to pry away the secrets of the two survivors of the incident…but neither will speak to her. They have their depositions, and that’s the last either one will say on the matter. As Sophie reads their testimony, two entirely different and completely contradictory stories play out. In the Southern narrative, the South Korean Soo-hyeok Lee has been kidnapped and drugged, and despite his stupor is able to commandeer a pistol and shoot his way out. The Northern story is that while the three men in the North Korean guardhouse were innocently chatting, the door burst open, and an efficient Southern killing machine executes the Northerners in cold blood.
Neither makes sense, but with neither survivor willing to give further testimony, Sophie has investigate on her own the circumstances surrounding the incident. She interviews everyone who knows Lee, and he does sound like a kind of super-soldier: he saved himself from stepping on a landmine in the DMZ, and one time threw a rock across the river to break a guardhouse window, just to make a point.
But as Sophie uncovers more and more information, a completely different story begins to emerge, and this is where Joint Security Area‘s narrative shifts. A film primarily about a criminal investigation would have pieces of the actual story emerge bit by bit, each clue confounding much of what has come before until the jigsaw comes together. But JSA‘s heart is not in uncovering the mystery of the incident, but in reframing its context from international incident to personal tragedy. So after an interview takes a sudden dark turn, the film switches to a flashback that lays out the story almost whole. It’s a twist, and though it comes about 30 minutes into the film it might constitute a spoiler. Be warned.
Lee did come to the guardhouse of his own free will that night, but it wasn’t to murder men on the other side. It was to say goodbye. He’d been visiting them for months, after a chance meeting on the border when he’d accidentally stepped on a landmine, and had been rescued by a North Korean sergeant and his private. This begins a communication between the men in the form of messages attached to rocks, and escalates until Lee actually heads across the river. They chat. They drink. They show off. And little by little, the political tensions that separate the men dissolves into amicability, and then genuine friendship, which makes the incident all the more tragic.
JSA is an early film directed by Chan-Wook Park, the director of Oldboy, The Handmaiden, and the English language film Stoker. Compared to his later output, where the narratives tend to spiral into madness and extreme violence, JSA is relatively straight forward. It looks like the sort of film that doesn’t really exist anymore, but was a mainstay of theaters up until maybe the late ’00s: the mid-budget adult thriller. Park directs with great style, of course, especially with a flair for visual transitions and for staging interesting scenes shot from a top-down view. But the film never approaches the sort of Asian Extreme that became the watchword for early 21st century exports from Asia, particularly Japan and Korea. The violence is very bloody, but not outlandish.
The performances are also uniformly excellent, particularly from the principals, Sophie (Young-ae Lee), Lee (Byung-hun Lee) and especially from Kang-ho Song, who plays the North Korean Sergeant Oh. Kang-ho has been in a couple of Park’s films but is best known for his collaborations with Joon-ho Bong, director of Parasite. They all have to play characters who essentially have dual roles – not in the cheesy thriller character playing two parts sense, but in the sense that they have to keep parts of their own underlying characters under wraps. Lee has a reputation as a bad-ass that seems to be almost entirely unfounded, except for his ability at a quick-draw. Oh has a sort of goofy amiability, but has trained Communist soldiers around the world and is at his heart a proud citizen of the northern Republic. Sophie has been brought into the situation as a neutral whose job is to shed light on the situation without enflaming it, but she sets up one scenario after another that just escalates the tensions.
It’s a story about a delicate balance between friendship, secrecy and divided loyalty. The borders that separate these soldiers of two warring nations can be crossed by a simple, short footbridge, and yet in many other ways they are forced apart. And it never reduces the situations to the simplistic bromides of “borders don’t really exist” and “can’t we all get along.” Though that might be a product of the times in which it were made: in early 2000, a relatively sympathetic representation of North Korean soldiers was unheard of in Korean cinema. Park and his producer mused that they might be thrown in jail for the film.
Despite that, from an American perspective JSA: Joint Security Area feels like Park’s most mainstream film. A respectable, but never dull because of that respectability, drama that tells a complex story clearly and stylishly without ever getting overwhelmed in that style. His later films might have more of the wild and cultish sensibility that draws weirdos (myself included) into investigating the Asian cinema of the early ’00s, but JSA shows that the talented filmmaker and storyteller that gives those madder films substance was already fully-formed before he fully took flight.
JSA: Joint Security Area has been released on Blu-ray by Arrow video. The film has Korean audio and English subtitles. Extras on the disc include a new audio commentary by critic Simon Ward. There’s a new video extra, “Stepping Over Boundaries” (36 min) by Jasper Sharp on the film and Park’s career in general. Archival video extras include “The JSA Story” (37 min) and “Making the Film” (14 min), both featurettes about the production. “About JSA” (3 min), a short about the cast; “Behind the Scenes Montage” (15 min); and Opening Ceremony (3 min). There are also trailers and promo spots, and a pair of music videos. There’s an essay by Kieran Fisher on the film in the included booklet.