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Joint Security Area (2000,Korea)

20/06/2011

Director: Park Chan Wook        Starring: Yeong-ae Lee, Byung-hun Lee, Kang-ho Song

Park Chan Wook shot to fame (or perhaps notoriety) in the West with 2003’s superb revenge thriller Oldboy, a film that has both style and substance and which set him up for a succession of international hits which have cemented his global reputation as filmmaker of vision and skill. Without this apparent overnight success it seems unlikely that Joint Security Area would have seen the light of day outside of it’s native Korea, dealing as it does with the demilitarized zone seperating North and South Korea and the political and personal tensions which stem from it and while it may lack the gloss and accomplishment of his later work it still has a lot to offer audiences.

After an incident on the border which has resulted in the shooting of two North Korean soldiers by a soldier from the South, the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission that oversees things on the joint security area of the title are called in to investigate. The South claim their man was kidnapped by the North and was forced to fight his way out, the North paint him as a cold blooded assassin intent on starting a war. It soon becomes apparent that there are inconsistencies between the depositions of the only witnesses and the evidence and as the tale unfolds we discover that there is more to the relationship between the young Sergeant Lee Soo-heok (Byung-hun Lee) responsible for the shooting and the more experienced Northern Sergeant Oh Kyeong-pil (Kang Ho-song) who is the only survivor. As the investigation deepens a series of flashbacks fill in the details of the events that lead to Lee and Oh becoming friends, despite their official imperatives to hate each other and how this in turn leads to the bloodbath on the border.

It’s ostensibly a film about brotherhood and national identity. The system is set up to ensure that these men regard each other as enemies. The South despise their “commie scum” neighbours, the North have nothing but contempt for the “Southern puppets” of the Americans. Both have been trained to hate each other and yet, due to happenstance, come to regard each other as fellows, seperated only by a border rather than any real differences. After their initial meeting they become closer and closer friends and take more risks, Sergeant Lee crossing the border to enjoy the cameraderie of his new North Korean comrades in their guard post, sharing stories, drinking and discovering that really they aren’t all that different to each other.

It’s a concept that runs the risk of crossing into the realms of implausibility given the risks involved in forming and pursuing such a friendship in these circumstances but the cast manage to bring a believable air to the story. Sergeant Lee is young, impulsive and reckless, Sergeant Oh has the air of a man who has gone as far as he will go with the military, has seen more of the world than his colleagues and is tired of the whole charade of hatred that has been fostered in his homeland. Somehow it works, even the scenes with the Swiss officers in charge of the NNSC investigation letting the side down a little.

Visually there is a notable absence of the trademark visual audacity Park Chan Wook is so admired for in his later films but there are definitely the embryonic beginnings of his style on show with the occasional striking shot or sequence rising up above the murky darkness of night time on the DMZ. One that springs to mind is a shot of a flashing light, signalling it is safe to come across the border for a visit, as seen through the closed eyelids of a sleeping border guard. The throbbing pink and red of the blood in the man’s eyelids is a hint at what would eventually develop into the luscious colour schemes and vistas that mark out the likes of Lady Vengeance, I’m A Cyborg and Thirst. If you are expecting that sort of dynamism from JSA though you will be disappointed.

Far more conventional than you may expect, JSA runs the risk at several points of becoming a fairly pedestrian military drama in the vein of A Few Good Men. Certainly plot wise, there are little by way of surprises to be had but what it lacks in suspense it makes up for in the quality of the relationships and the unusual setting. The issues attendant to the Joint Security Area between the Koreas are not something that are commonly discussed in the West (or at least not in the UK at any rate) and so prove to be an interesting aside to what is essentially an essay on the age old subject of the brotherhood of man and how these soldiers may wear different uniforms and believe in different political ideologies but on the inside are essentially the same, with the same needs, feelings and opinions. It’s a diverting couple of hours, competently handled and definitely worth watching, just lower your expectations of Oldboy-esque grit and Lady Vengeance style glamour or you may be disappointed.

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