Park’s breakthrough success feels like a cinematic page-turner, set in the context of an investigation on a shootout incident at the border separating North and South Korea.
Dir. Park Chan-wook
2000 | South Korea | Drama/Mystery/Thriller | 109 mins | 2.35:1 | Korean, English & German
M18 (passed clean) for nudity and violence
Cast: Lee Yeong-ae, Lee Byung-Hun, Song Kang-ho, Kim Tae-woo, Shin Ha-kyun
Plot: After a shooting in the DMZ leaves two North Korean military officers dead, a South Korean sergeant stands accused. With both sides offering radically different accounts, it’s up to a Swiss-Korean envoy to unravel the twisty truth.
Awards: Nom. for Golden Bear (Berlinale)
Source: CJ Entertainment
Subject Matter: Moderate – Politics, Brotherhood
Narrative Style: Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Viewed: The Projector Plus
A few years before his ‘Vengeance’ trilogy, which includes Oldboy (2003), permanently raised his artistic street cred and established him as one of the foremost players of the Korean New Wave, Park Chan-wook broke into Korean popular cinema with Joint Security Area, at the time the highest-grossing movie in Korea’s box-office history.
Utterly compelling, JSA feels like a cinematic page-turner; before you know it, an hour would have passed. Adapted from Park Sang-yeon’s novel for the big screen, it is a testament to the screenwriters’ skill that they managed to keep the mystery aspects throughout the film.
After a shootout at the border separating North and South Korea dramatically raised tensions between the two nations, a neutral party commissioned to investigate the incident steps in. It’s best to go into JSA blind and let the narrative unfold, the less said the better.
“Here, the peace is preserved by hiding the truth.”
All I can say is that what makes Park’s film tick the right checkboxes isn’t just confined to his natural filmmaking skills or getting strong performances from the cast which include Lee Byung-hun, and the legendary Song Kang-ho, considerably younger then, as a North Korean sergeant, but how the main theme of brotherhood is set against the idea of patriotism.
One of the criticisms levelled at the film has been its weak English-language parts, particularly the early stretch when the investigation is being set up by a Swiss-based peace unit.
Finishing with a shot of understated poignancy, JSA while not as polished as Park’s subsequent films, remains a cultural touchstone and a thrilling political fantasy that we wish some of it were true.