Human connection and tragedy in a demilitarized zone
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[In an effort to thoroughly examine the themes and impact of this film, spoilers will follow].
Jeong Woo-jin (Shin Ha-kyun) loves puppies. He’s got an infectious, child-like smile. He cries when he receives a thoughtful birthday present. He also happens to be a North Korean soldier working along the demilitarized zone at the border between North and South Korea. And before Joint Security Area (2000) is over, we’ll see his body riddled with bullets on screen multiple times as the scene of his death is recreated and retold from different perspectives over and over again.
In fact, burgeoning master director Park Chan-wook will make sure we see Jeong Woo-jin’s humanity entirely stripped from him on screen. We’ll see his brains splatter, his blood splash onto the camera. We’ll see his lifeless, bullet-ridden corpse rolled around a morgue as nothing more than a piece of evidence in an unsolved crime.
And yet JSA isn’t Jeong Woo-jin’s story, really. Indeed he isn’t even the main character. Rather JSA tells the broad, sweeping story of a divided Korea through a tragic event occurring among a small group of soldiers along the border. I simply felt that Jeong Woo-jin’s story was the best entry point into JSA, because he’s illustrative of the profound levels of both humanity and tragedy that Director Park injects into what might otherwise have been simply a slick, militaristic action/thriller/mystery.
We begin with a Rashomon-like structure in which an incident is being recreated and we’re seeing the events that occurred along the border from various perspectives. First we hear our lead character Lee Soo-hyuk’s (international superstar Lee Byung-hun) version of the story as he, a South Korean soldier, was kidnapped, dragged across the border, and had to heroically shoot his way out and escape, leaving Jeong Woo-jin and another Northern soldier dead in the process. Next comes Oh Kyeong-pil’s (international superstar Song Kang-ho) version, in which Southern soldier Lee Soo-hyuk bursts into their guardpost on the North side and executes his comrades. These depositions are both entirely false, and it’s up to a neutral foreign investigative body headed up by Major Sophie Jean (Lee Yeong-ae) to solve the mystery in order to keep international tensions from heating up to a boiling point.
But it’s here where JSA distinguishes itself as something much more than just a military/legal thriller. Because the truth of what happened takes up the majority of the film’s runtime, and it’s far more human and bitingly tragic than any of the versions presented to the authorities. In fact, through a chance encounter one night many months before the tragedy, Northern patrolmen Oh Kyeong-pil and Jeong Wu-jin stumble across our lead Lee Soo-hyuk, who had accidentally ended up on the Northern side after being separated from his platoon… and he has stepped on a landmine. Some tense exchanges occur, but in the end the Northern soldiers dismantle the mine and save Lee Soo-hyuk’s life. Working in bizarrely close proximity to one another along the border but on opposite sides, these soldiers strike up an unlikely friendship, and Lee Soo-hyuk eventually begins crossing over to the patrol post on the North side and simply… hanging out with his new friends. Eventually he brings along another soldier friend from the South and they more or less bro out — playing cards, drinking, checking out porn magazines, and telling fart jokes. In a way, the mundanity of their friendship, the natural rapport and easy laughs they share together, are the heart and soul of JSA. Without this extended middle sequence where the truth becomes concretized and we understand on a profound level that these ideologically opposed political enemies are true friends, the rest of the film really wouldn’t work, and the profound tragedy of the situation wouldn’t be felt so acutely.
Because in reality, by sheer chance a North Korean officer simply walks into the outpost where they’re all hanging out on that fateful night. In a way it was inevitable. There’s only so long you can drink and play cards in the joint security area before it’s all going to come crashing down just from a logistical perspective. But as an armed standoff immediately ensues, blood is tragically shed. In fact, it’s his South Korean friends who ultimately take Jeong Woo-jin’s life, and on his birthday no less.
And once we know the tragic truth, investigator Sophie Jean’s mystery portion of the film becomes more of an unpacking of human flaws and the limitations of nationalism. For a time, it seemed unity and shared human connection really could prevail among friends who share the same blood, the same peninsula, but divergent political ideologies. And for that brief time, it was beautiful; even normal. But as reality came crashing in, base instincts were reverted to, friend shed the blood of friend, and truth must be suppressed at all costs to avoid embarrassment for the political factions involved. In the aftermath of this incident, our grief stricken Southern soldiers will make suicide attempts; unable to stomach the killing of their friend at their own hands.
Park Chan-wook and his entire creative team took an enormous risk telling a politically charged story such as this, never knowing if they’d be punished for addressing so directly the political realities of North and South Korea. The film doesn’t ultimately come down on some kind of clear or pat political message, either. It simply explores the tragedy of a divided nation and reckons with the trauma that their political reality inflicts on the Korean citizens on both sides of the DMZ. It’s a slick and entertaining film that packs a salient human gut punch, and it portends a master filmmaker on the rise.
An absolutely dynamite physical media release, Arrow knocks it out of the park with JSA. The film’s transfer looks incredible and Park Chan-wook is simply a magnificent visual stylist. The film is loaded with evocative visuals and this Blu-ray just pops. Also loaded with fantastic bonus features, there’s lots of brand new features created just for this release (Simon Ward audio commentary, Asian cinema expert Jasper Sharp interview, and Kieran Fisher liner essay among the highlights), as well as a trove of archival bonus features. There are hours of bonus features to dive into and unpack, which is fitting for a film early in the careers multiple internationally renowned breakout Korean talents. This disc comes with a high recommendation.
And I’m Out.
JSA: Joint Security Area is now available on Blu-ray (USA) from Arrow Video.