Joint Security Area film review

The climax of the film. Not a Korean version of Reservoir Dogs.

Joint Security Area (2000) is a South Korean Film directed by Park Chan-wook. It is the story of an investigation into the death of two North Korean soldiers in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), an investigation that opens up some of the attitudes that pervade both sides of the Korean border.

While I have seen many Japanese films before, this is my first Korean one, and I am exceptionally impressed by the quality of the story. Moreover, the story is a uniquely Korean one (although I have heard unfortunate rumours that an American remake is in the offing).

Many of us English speaking Westerners have little knowledge of the Korean War and the effect it has had upon the people who live in North and South Korea, which means I have to delve into some history. For starters, the war ravaged the entire peninsula, first as the North Korean armies invaded the South and surrounded the Pusan Perimeter, then, with American intervention, the North was pushed back and its armies forced to retreat across into China, and then, with Chinese intervention, the Americans and its allies were pushed back to the 38th parallel where a cease-fire was agreed upon (for a useful animated map showing this back-and-forth movement, click here).

Since that cease fire, these has been no formal ending of the war. As a result, the North and South are still officially at war, despite the fact that no actual hostilities have broken out since 1953. The North, as we know, is a paranoid Communist dictatorship. The South, backed by the USA, is a market economy.

Between the two Koreas there exists the DMZ, a buffer zone surrounding the border that is unpopulated and heavily mined. The only place where the two Koreas have any formal link is the Joint Security Area located in the former town of Panmunjeom - which is where the two opposing sides organised the 1953 armistice.

The picture on the left (courtesy of WIkipedia) shows the actual place where North and South meet. On either side you can see some old, blue buildings. These buildings were built originally in 1953 for the armistice talks and have remained there ever since. The photo is taken from the North, and you can see three North Korean guards in this lane way. Just on the other side of the two guards facing one another is a line of concrete. That concrete line is where the actual borders of North and South cross. Although we can only see three guards here from the North, there are often South Korean or American guards who stand on the southern side.

Whenever North and South need to meet (for whatever reason), the blue buildings you
see here are used. In order for relations between the two sides to remain calm and objective, another entity is involved in the process - the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission
(NNSC), which is made up of soldiers from Switzerland and Sweden. It may seem rather strange to have North European soldiers trying to keep the peace in East Asia, but their presence and neutrality ensure that any of the problems between the two sides can be approached carefully
and with some restraint.

One important feature of the Joint Security Area is the so called "Bridge of No Return", a road bridge that links the two Koreas. On each side of the bridge there are guard towers - one for the North and the other for the South. The border between the two Koreas also runs through the middle of this bridge.

Well, enough of the history lesson. What about the story?

At this point I need to warn you that I will be revealing part of the plot. Unlike other reviews I have done (where I have tried hard to not reveal the plot) there is no way to adequately review the film without revealing important details. You have been warned.

Warning: Plot Spoiler!

Swiss Army Major Sophie Jean begins her investigations.

The film opens with news stories of the increased tension between North and South. Two North Korean soldiers have been killed in the guardhouse at the Bridge of No Return and the NNSC has dispatched a military lawyer to conduct the investigation. The lawyer, Major Sophie Jean (Lee Young Ae) from the Swiss Army, is half Korean herself and discovers very quickly that clear differences exist between the Northern and Southern accounts of what happened.

One thing is, however, certain - that the killer is South Korean Army Sergeant Lee Soo-hyeok (Lee Byung-Hun). His account, however, differs from a survivor and witness of the shootings, North Korean Sergeant Oh Kyeong-pil (Song Kang-ho).

South Korean Sergeant Lee peers across the border at North Korean Sergeant Oh.

The difference between the two accounts is considerable. Sergeant Lee states that he was "relieving himself" in the bushes near the guardpost when he was suddenly attacked by North Koreans and dragged unconscious across the border to the Northern guardpost. When he regained consciousness, he was able to free himself from his bonds, grab a pistol and shoot his way out of the guardroom. Wounded in the knee, Lee then struggles to make his way across the Bridge of No Return. Alerted by the shooting, North and South Korean soldiers turn up at the scene and begin firing at one another.

Major Jean interviews the wounded North Korean Sergeant Oh.

An altogether different story is told by North Korean Sergeant Oh. He states that Lee entered the guardroom without warning and fired upon the three North Koreans without warning or provocation. Oh, the only survivor, managed to shoot Lee in the leg. Lee then ran from the guardhouse and struggles to the other side while the North and South Korean forces begin firing upon one another.

Jean and her Swedish NNSC assistant obviously work out that further investigation is required. They then view the bodies of the two dead North Korean soldiers in the morgue. Both bodies are riddled with bullets that were fired from a 9mm Beretta handgun - the sort carried by South Korean guards in the JSA. However, while both soldiers were killed by a bullet through the head, one was performed at close range, execution style, which indicated a deliberate act. The other soldier's body was riddled with bullets after he was killed by the shot in the head, which indicates some form of rage.

Private Nam is interrogated by Major Jean.

As the investigation continues, Major Jean concludes that, based on ballistic evidence, 16 bullets were fired, despite the fact that the pistols only carry 15 rounds. Further forensic evidence proves that another person, South Korean Private Nam Sum-shik (Kim Tae Woo) was in the guardhouse at the time of the murder. Moreover, it is discovered that Private Nam's handgun was the one used for the killings.

Major Jean's investigation takes a sudden turn when Private Nam, confronted with the evidence that he was involved in the killing, attempts suicide by jumping from a second story window. Major Jean is then set upon by Sergeant Lee, who nearly strangles her before others rescue her. The badly injured Nam, meanwhile, lapses into a coma.

It is at this point that the film goes back in time many months and shows the events leading up to the deaths. We see a squad of South Korean troops moving through a field of tall grass at night. They are wearing night vision goggles and are very worried. While the officers consult together, Lee (then a Corporal) moves away from the squad to urinate in private. The officers are concerned. They are looking at a map of the JSA and then consult their GPS receiver. Suddenly one of the officers looks up and announces to the others that they have inadvertently crossed the border into North Korea. A quick look through a rifle scope shows that they are very close to the Bridge of No Return, and the North Korean guardpost is in clear view. Quietly and quickly, the squad moves South. Lee, however, is still urinating and is unaware of the squad's passing. Eventually he zips up and takes a few steps to his right and stops. His boot is caught underneath a tripwire. Lee realises he is standing on a landmine. If he trips the wire, he will be killed.

Lee's foot is hooked under a tripwire. He is standing on a landmine.

Lee realises that he cannot move. His calls for help (including on his radio) are unanswered. Suddenly he hears a noise. Something is approaching. A small dog appears and Lee is relieved. But someone is following the dog. Into view comes a North Korean soldier.

The two are shocked at each other's presence. Suddenly they fumble for their weapons. Lee is faster and is able to point his rifle at the soldier before he can get his pistol out. The North Korean raises his hands over his head.

Then Lee is attacked from behind by another North Korean soldier who puts him in a choke hold and disarms him. The man who disarms him is Sergeant Oh. Very quickly Lee explains that he is standing on a land mine. Oh and Private Jeong Woo-jin (the soldier with the dog, played by Shin Ha-kyun) then decide to disarm the mine and save a grateful Lee. Before parting, they share a cigarette with Lee.

North Korean Private Jeong in a moment of crisis.

Lee owes his life to these two North Korean soldiers. Had they left him to die, or had they arrested him, they would be only doing their duty. By saving Lee and then letting him go (despite having crossed into North Korea) their actions have profoundly affected Lee's understanding of the enemy.

Lee's duty in the JSA is varied. Not only does he go on patrols with his squad, he is also responsible for guard duty at border crossing. There he, along with Private Nam, stand guard opposite their North Korean counterparts.

Sergeant Lee (left) and Private Nam doing a live-fire exercise in the JSA.

Lee and Nam are also paired up at "The Bridge of No Return", where they often act as the guards in the South Korean guardhouse.

"The Bridge of No Return" as depicted in the film. The tree on the left is depicted as being the one responsible for the "Axe Murder Incident". Here we see people crossing the bridge from the North Korean side.

Lee soon realises that the guards who saved his life - Oh and Jeong - are stationed opposite him in the North Korean guardhouse. He then begins to throw letters and parcels across, thus beginning an illicit communication with these two North Koreans. The two North Koreans respond in kind, and a form of "long distance friendship" occurs between Lee in the south and Oh and Jeong in the north (despite the fact that less than 100 metres separates them). Lee sends them popular South Korean music which is much appreciated.

Eventually the temptation is too much. While Nam (who is unaware of the illicit communication) sleeps in the guardhouse, Lee crosses over the bridge and enters the North Korean guardhouse.

Oh and Jeong gape at Lee.

Lee (left) and Jeong consider the dangerous nature of this meeting.

After being shocked by Lee's impetuosity, the three soldiers eventually retire to an underground bunkhouse where they toast their new friendship. It is revealed there that Sergeant Oh is an experienced soldier who has trained soldiers in Egypt and Libya, and who has killed in battle.

Despite the danger of Lee's actions and the actions of the two North Koreans in not arresting or killing this enemy soldier, they agree to continue their clandestine relationship. Their jobs are similar, too, with both Jeong and Oh guarding the border crossing. This makes for a hilarious situation in which Jeong and Lee, facing one another in their positions directly across the border from one another, begin a "spitting competition" that causes both of them to break down in laughter.

Jeong and Lee stand opposite one another, the border dividing them.

Lee cracks up after managing to spit on Jeong's foot.

Jeong cracks up after hitting Lee in the face.

Nam, however, remains unaware of this situation, but not for long. Eventually Lee convinces Nam to come with him across the Bridge Of No Return to meet Jeong and Oh. The four become quick friends.

Jeong, Lee and Oh see a picture of Nam's girlfriend, and are suitably impressed.

The four soldiers playing a game in the North Korean bunkhouse.

One night they have a hopping competition.

Despite their growing, illicit friendship, the four still understand that they are at war. Jeong at one point wishes that the South Koreans could get out of the way so that they can attack the Americans. At another point, Nam and Lee, alone together on the South Korean side, consider whether it is possible that Jeong and Oh are actually trying to get them to defect to the North. One night, while Oh begins to scoff down a Choco Pie, Lee asks off-handedly whether Oh or Jeong would like to "come down south", where he can have as many Choco Pies as he wants.

Suddenly the atmosphere goes cold and Oh turns on Lee and declares his allegiance to the North. While Oh enjoys eating the South Korean Choco Pies, he would much rather wait until the North had the ability to manufacture the best chocolates on the Peninsula. The tension passes,

Later, a full scale security alert occurs, and South Korean troops are rushed to the border. At the same time, North Korean troops are placed on high alert as well. The danger passes.

Nam and Lee agree that their friendship with Oh and Jeong cannot last, and decide to visit them one last time. Jeong, a talented artist, is given a present of brushes and paper from Nam. Jeong begins to cry and the four are heartbroken that their friendship must come to an end.

Nam opens the door of the guardhouse to leave, but the door opens before he gets there. In the doorway stands a North Korean Lieutenant who has come to check on Oh and Jeong. The North Korean officer pulls his gun on Nam and forces his way back into the guardhouse. Lee, meanwhile, has drawn his Beretta and is pointing it at the Lieutenant. A tense stand off ensues, and Sergeant Oh tries to calm everyone down.

It's at this point that I will no longer continue a description of the plot. Sorry about that but I need to move on from what the film signifies. If you want to see how the film ends, and more about Major Sophie Jean's investigation into what happened, then go and hire it yourself - or better still, buy it. While I have given a substantial summary of the plot it is better for you to discover the rest for yourself.

Again, as Westerners, we need to remember that the situation facing both North and South Korea is unique. These are a common people with a common language who share a common history. However, the fracture that is the demilitarized zone has turned brother into enemy, and trust into suspicion.

This break in relationship, I believe, strikes at the heart of all Koreans. It is a painful tear in their joint national psyches. The JSA is the only place where the two halves meet - and only in blatant and continual hostility and distrust.

JSA is an important film for all Koreans because it has essentially removed quite a number of taboos. For starters, the film makers and the cast are all South Korean, which, in a time of perpetual war, would normally result in the usual "good vs evil" storyline, where the good South Koreans are pitted against the evil North Koreans. Not so in JSA. In JSA the North Koreans are humanised - they are shown to have normal human reactions, behaviours and beliefs. More than that, they are shown to have traits like loyalty and compassion - the sort of things that only the "good guys" would have. As a result, the film breaks down the stereotype and makes the audience (in this case, South Koreans mainly) question the nature of their own attitudes.

Jeong - a North Korean - has artistic ability and makes sketches of the girlfriends of other soldiers.

The heart of the film is the relationship between the four soldiers. Like Romeo and Juliet, these soldiers are attracted to someone that they have been taught to hate - yet their experiences tell them otherwise. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, of course, there is nothing romantic about their friendship. Like Sam and Frodo in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the bonds of deep male friendship are explored.

Yet the friendships these four have is naive and innocent. They play games; They eat chocolate; They boast about themselves and insult one another; They talk about women (Lee even takes a porn mag over for Lee and Jeong, much to their delight); They arm wrestle; They listen to music; They smoke and drink alcohol together; They tell jokes; They fart.

In short, the most remarkable aspect about this story is the fact that the four soldiers are unremarkable. They are not special in any way. None of them is a secret agent. None of them have entered into the friendship for spying purposes. There is no deep conspiracy occurring. While Major Sophie Jean's investigation proves that a cover-up had occurred, the natural reaction - that one or both sides was doing something hidden and secretive in order to gain advantage over the other - is proved to be far too complex. The fact is that four soldiers became friends - they became, in Australian parlance, close "mates".

Yet the reality that is the divided Korea eventually destroys this close friendship. Despite the crossing of the Bridge of No Return and spending time with one another, they remain formal enemies. More than that, they are also professional soldiers, and act accordingly. This fact is borne out in a scene where Lee and Nam are doing a live fire exercise with cut-out figures of North Korean soldiers being shot at by the South Koreans. In this scene, Nam and Lee begin to wonder whether Oh and Jeong have become their friends in order to capture them or kill them or for some other horrible purpose. Lee, however, makes his final judgement - "they saved my life", referring to the landmine he had been standing on. There's no more to be said. They cannot have any evil purpose - they saved Lee's life. At that point it is Lee's turn to shoot at the target.

All three bullets strike the target, once in the head, and one through each eye. The message here is clear - these people are soldiers, and soldiers will do their duty. They will make split-second decisions based upon their training. Even though the four soldiers are friends, they will, given the opportunity and the circumstance, react like soldiers.

Sadly, like Romeo and Juliet, the film is a tragedy. The friendship that is normal amongst people can be destroyed by the power of beliefs and attitudes and results in death. While Nam and Lee can walk back and forth over the Bridge of No Return, they can longer return to what was before. On the one hand, their attitudes have changed towards one another. On the other hand, the system that controls them has not changed, and will deal with any problems accordingly, including the actions and reactions that have been drilled into the four soldiers.

The use of Major Jean's character helps give the film a subtle twist. When the film starts she is the clearly identifiable main character... yet after some time she becomes sidelined by the narrative of the four soldiers' friendship. Lee and Oh, silent and sullen at the film's beginning, have their characters developed more fully as the film progresses.

Major Jean (right) interviewing Lee's girlfriend.

One important part of the plot early on involves Major Jean interviewing Lee's girlfriend as she is preparing for a show - she is a dancer for a children's concert. During the interview she innocently reveals that, while she and Lee are "not serious", she likes him because of his friendship with Nam, who is her brother. When Jean asks her further about this, she confirms that Nam and Lee are close friends - a fact which eventually leads Jean to place Nam in the guardhouse at the time of the killings.

This particular scene is notable because of its use of masks. The dancers backstage are putting their costumes on for their children's performance. Lee's girlfriend is dressed as an ape and, after revealing the information about her brother, Nam, to Major Jean, she places the ape head on and goes out with the other dancers to perform their routine. The camera then has a side focus, showing the dressed up dancers performing, with Major Jean shown backstage.

The juxtaposition is clear. On one side we have a person who is investigating a murder mulling over some important information. On the other side we have a series of dancers in animal dress performing happy dance routines for children. Darkness and light. Truth and lies. Sadness and happiness. Revelation and cover-up.

The scene itself is a microcosm of what probably occurs within South Korean society. In order to cope with the continual threat posed by the North, one solution is to ignore the threat, put on a happy face and do your routines. Yet this is not enough. The director, Park Chan-wook, probably inserted this scene as a challenge to the Korean viewers. Is it right to keep the truth from escaping? Is it right to depict the North as evil and the South as good? Is it right to cover up in the pursuit of happiness?

Another theme that runs throughout the film is the use of lines - borders that you are not meant to cross. We have the concrete line dividing North and South at Panmunjeom that is continually guarded by North and South alike, facing off at one another in a parade-ground like stance. One scene has Oh and Lee facing one another, with Oh remarking humorously that Lee's shadow is now on the North Korean side. We have the metal line across the Bridge of No Return marking the same border. When Lee convinces Nam to walk over it for the first time to meet Jeong and Oh, Nam hesitates and begins to doubt. While the two argue, the camera remains focused upon the metal divide on the bridge and the boots of Nam and Lee facing each other from either side.

A South Korean Border patrol chase a rabbit.

But the Rabbit has already been caught by the North - held here by Private Jeong.

If there is one scene which encapsulates the film, it is when a North Korean and a South Korean patrol meet in a snowy wilderness. The border divides them clearly, as seen in the background. A face off ensues, with the North Koreans pointing their guns towards the South, and the South Koreans pointing their guns towards the North.

The face-off between North and South.

Suddenly the squad leaders of both sides walk out to meet one another. Sergeant Oh is the Northern Squad leader, while Lee remains at the rear while his squad leader goes out to meet Oh.

The Squad leaders exchange cigarettes.

The two do not talk. Instead, as they approach each another they each pull out a packet of cigarettes to offer to one another. The South Korean smokes the North's cigarette, the North Korean smokes the South's cigarette. They both stand, with an implied border between them, not talking, but smoking together without rancor or threats. Eventually they finish and walk back to their units, who then return to their patrols.

It is an interesting scene. It is both threatening and humourous. The men on each side point their weapons in a real show of military strength. Meanwhile the leaders of the two get together for a wordless smoke. This is yet another juxtaposition that the film portrays. Moreover, it is a microcosm of the entire North-South relationship - threats, real danger, hatred, suspicion, and a cordial yet ultimately useless relationship between the leaders of North and South. Moreover, despite the real threats and the danger, the two units move off without incident - in the same way North and South still manage to keep the peace. But while there is a lack of war, there is also a lack of relationship. Something that we see in Lee's reaction in this scene to seeing both Oh and Jeong. While his fellow soldiers remain poised for action, Lee lowers his rifle unconsciously - he knows that no threat exists. He is then upbraided by a fellow soldier for being lax in his duty, and raises his weapon again. Lee's actions betray his thoughts - peace is more than just lack of war, it also involves relationship. Lee lowers his weapon because he knows that Oh and Jeong have saved his life - they are no longer a threat to him. This saving of Lee's life implies the beginning of the relationship.

Finally, the four soldiers in their friendship refer to one another as "brothers". Pointedly, both Oh and Jeong manage to convey their distaste of the word "comrade" and embrace the use of "Brother". North and South may still be separate, but they are still brothers. The film holds out some hope that one day the two nations may be one again.

Despite these wonderful themes, the film does have a number of problems - especially for English speaking viewers.

For starters, the English subtitles in the film do not fully convey the meaning behind the Korean dialogue. Obviously I can't speak Korean and relied upon the subtitles on the DVD. I also watched some of the film's documentary, and in that doco they included scenes from the film. I noticed almost straight away that the documentary used more complex English words in the subtitled movie scenes than were used in the actual film's subtitles. Although the temptation may be there to simplify the film for us dumb westerners, the fact is that those who appreciate sub-titled films are more likely to appreciate the use of more complex words. Although this may seem slightly "alien", the fact is that the film will always be "different' because it is spoken in Korean. Some plot holes that I thought existed in the film were only actually the result of bad subtitles.

Secondly, there are sections of the film in which the dialogue is in English. Major Sophie Jean is Swiss, and speaks English to her superior officer and to her Swedish assistant. I'm obviously assuming that, since a language barrier exists between the Swiss and the Swedish, and because of the presence of Americans in the JSA, that the NNSC probably uses English and Korean as the standard method of communicating.

Nevertheless, the English dialogue is astounding in its ineptness. Had they spoken in Korean and their words put into sub-titles it would have been better. The scriptwriter for the film probably had some working level of English, but, for some reason, neither the script nor the actors could convincingly manage to pull off believable English dialogue. I suspect that the film's producers insisted on English as a means to broaden the film's appeal in America - but if so, they needed better script and acting work to pull it off.

Having said all that I must praise the producers, and the director, for creating a film that is so Korea-centric and yet has so much appeal universally. The details of the film, including the immaculate recreation of the
Panmunjeom site, and the use of historically accurate locations such as the Bridge of No Return, make no compromises. The film forced me, as an English-speaking viewer, to understand the details of the North-South conflict (including the NNSC, the Bridge, Panmunjeom, the history of the Korean War) rather than simplifying it or putting it on a platter for me. This is probably because the intended audience - South Koreans - already know much of the situation.

The film also lacks a major Hollwood star - but that is completely understandable. The fact that the film has managed to gain such a following and such critical acclaim in the English speaking world speaks volumes for the film's quality - all without the need to employ even a token Hollwood actor. The film suffers in the West because, well, we westerners find it harder to distinguish amongst Asian faces. Yet the film manages to overcome this. I am certain now that if I ever meet Song Kang-ho (who played Oh) walking around in Australia I would ask him for his autograph.

The film's heart - the relationship between the four soldiers - is also the source of its strength. Each of the four soldiers has an endearing quality about him. Lee is impetuous, emotional and skillful. Nam is simple but easily pleased. Jeong is the "joker" whose mannerisms give him a comedic edge. Oh is respectable, tough, trustworthy and honourable. The four get on so well that the audience cannot help but enjoy their simple and open friendship - as well as mourn so much the tragedy that befalls them. The film forces us to care about these men who find that being human and being a soldier cannot always be reconciled. It forces us to care about "the enemy" and to see them as human beings rather than as mindless and faceless drones.

In this day and age, when we are constantly being told that we are threatened by a faceless enemy (JSA was made before 9/11), the film offers us an alternative to bombastic threats and a "kill them all" mentality. It is a war film for people who love peace.

© 2007 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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Tyler Olsen said...

Very nice review for the film. I watched it last night on Netflix and enjoyed it very much

@n$HuL said...

Very well written... btw when the South Korean guard shows his "girlfriend" to his North Korean friends,he is actually showing a photo of a beautiful south korean model/actress. Hyok realising this confronts him amusingly in the other part of the room while NK soldiers gape in amazement at the photo. HAHA.

Jomo W said...

JSA is one of my favorite K films because of its (now mostly superstars) cast and the layered story-telling.

The idea of a civil war is heartbreaking, and SK dramas and films to a wonderful job showing stories of brothers who end up opposed. Someone usually dies and I end up crying.

The last shot of this fim had me in tears as the credits rolled. I didn't expect that to happen, but it was the perfect release after all the tension.

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