I had wanted to see Joint Security Area for a long time. Its incredible box office success in Korea stamped it as something worth tracking down, especially as the previous box office title holder was the engrossing North-South action flick Shiri. I was delighted when I got the news that JSA was screening at MIFF 2001. I knew I was going to like this film.
Turns out, I loved it.
That is, if “love” is a term that can be applied to a film which makes your heart ache, a film which starts in a blood-spattered bullet-holed shack and then backfills the tragedy with characters you come to care about deeply, all the while knowing that some of them are already on the slab with rigor mortis and fist-sized exit wounds before you even came in.
I’m getting ahead of myself, but that’s the mindset you inherit from a film which cuts a swathe from middle to start to middle to end. So, this is how it opens:
The Joint Security Area marks the divide between North and South Korea. Soldiers from each side man the bunkers on either side of the narrow Bridge of No Return, so named because it was the last north or south road taken by POW’s when they returned home after the Korean War. Once the prisoners had crossed to their respective sides, the border was closed. No return.
At 2:16am on October 28, there is an ‘incident’ in the JSA. Both armies mobilise and exchange fire. The situation nearly escalates into full-scale conflict.
According to the South, the trouble began when the North captured one of their men while he was taking a dump. He heroically managed to escape, killing two of the enemy and wounding another before limping back across his own lines.
According to the North, the Southern soldier was a mad dog who stole across the bridge in the dead of night, burst into a hut and assassinated two soldiers and wounded another. The killer fled back across the bridge, and was shot and hit by the heroic surviving soldier of the North.
The only elements that correlate are the two bodies in the North Korean morgue. The situation demands an independent settlement by Swiss peacekeepers, so Major Sophie Jean (Lee Young-Ae) is assigned to the case, the first female staff member stationed at the Swiss camp since 1953. Half-Korean and raised in Switzerland, Major Jean understands the tensions without having a personal stance.
Her Swiss superior cautions her, the only important thing is to see that procedure is followed. Procedure calls for interviews with the two survivors, Sergeant Lee (Lee Byung-Heon) of the South and Sergeant Oh (Song Kang-Ho) of the North. The Major inspects the corpses, examines the crime scene, and begins to make connections. Her mistake is that she is set on uncovering the truth, something that neither side had anticipated or desired.
The film is split between the events of the cold present — a slick, stark, military procedural drama — and the events of the warm past — a warm, earthy, blokey comedy. How would you spend your time guarding a bridge that divides a country? These are the film’s most engaging moments, but it’s hard to really enjoy an amusing spitting duel when you are waiting for those fatal shots to ring out. JSA telegraphs its punch, but it’s still heavier than you imagined.
The point to all this synopsis overkill is to demonstrate that the killer weapon in Joint Security Area is the script, which strafes from dark to light to pitch black without missing a single target. Clues are first scattered and then gathered — this film hides nothing behind its back (when it is over, you want to watch it again). Add to that astounding cinematography, bravura performances, melancholy music and sets so realistic you’d swear it was shot on location (nope, not many South Korean film crews welcome in the JSA) and you begin to see why it blew apart the Seoul box office.
There’s no way out of a green field when you’re standing on a landmine.
There’s no way to divide a country without leaving some people standing on the line.
There’s no way you should miss this wrenching Korean epic.