If 1999's South Korean box office smash "Shiri (Swiri)" was dubbed by the local press as 'the little fish that sank Titanic', then "Joint Security Area (Gongdong Gyeongbi Guyeok JSA)" might as well be known as the blockbuster that ate "Shiri" for lunch. Within two weeks of its release during the fall of 2000, "Joint Security Area" took in one million admissions, a feat that had taken "Shiri" three weeks to accomplish, and went on to become the biggest box office draw in Korean history-- that is, until the gangland saga "Friend (Chingu)" bowed into theaters a few months later. And though it is not as action-oriented as "Shiri", "Joint Security Area" is an engaging and emotionally resonant military drama indicative of the continuing maturity of South Korean cinema.
Near the end of the Second World War, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel to expedite the surrender of the defeated Japanese forces to the armies of the United States and Soviets. Though this had initially been envisioned as an interim measure, this dividing line became a permanent fixture in the Korean political landscape as each side shepherded separate governments and attempts at reunification failed amidst the growing Cold War tension. In 1948, Korea was officially divided in two, with the Republic of Korea in the south and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the north, which ultimately led to the Korean War in 1950.
As part of the Cease-fire Agreement that ended the Korea War in 1953, a 4km-wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was created to act as a buffer between the North and South. In addition, the two sides agreed to create a Joint Security Area (JSA) around Panmumjeom, the site where the Cease-fire Agreement had been negotiated, where both sides could meet face-to-face. Unfortunately, because of the close proximity between the North and South, the JSA has been witness to a number of incidents over the last five decades. In 1976, North Korean soldiers attacked and killed two U.S. Army officers who were stationed in the JSA on behalf of the United Nations, while there were high-profile defections by a Soviet citizen (which resulted in a deadly firefight) and a Chinese military officer in 1984 and 1989, respectively.
Based on the Park Sang-yeon novel "DMZ", "Joint Security Area" centers on a modern-day cross-border incident in this flashpoint of North-South tensions, specifically at the 'Bridge of No Return', where prisoners-of-war were exchanged at the end of the Korean War. Swiss military officer Major Sophie Jang (Lee Yeong-ae, who appeared most recently in "One Fine Spring Day"), the daughter of a Korean expatriate and a Swiss mother, arrives in Panmumjeom to conduct an impartial investigation of the incident, which has resulted in two deaths. Not surprisingly, both sides remain tight-lipped about the details of the incident, and treat her investigation with suspicion.
Based on the depositions filed by each side, two possible scenarios arise, which are told in "Rashomon"-style. According to the South, South Korean Sgt. Lee Soo-hyeok (Lee Byeong-heon of "Bungee Jumping of Their Own") was abducted by North Korean soldiers and dragged across the Bridge of No Return. During his escape, Lee killed two soldiers and wounded another. This runs counter to the account given by the wounded North Korean officer, Sgt. Oh Kyeong-pil (Song Kang-ho of "Shiri"), who states that Lee deliberately crossed the bridge and started a shooting spree.
As Jang's investigation develops, she uncovers evidence suggesting that neither account is correct, such as how the number of bullets recovered at the crime scene are inconsistent with the number fired by Lee. With the use of extended flashbacks, the truth about the incident, as well as the unlikely connection between sergeants Lee and Oh, gradually comes to light, revealing a tragedy borne of a divided country.
One of the most striking aspects of "Joint Security Area" is its sumptuous cinematography, as it is the first Korea film to use the Super-35 format. This is most apparent in the flashback scenes, where director Park Chan-wook and cinematographer Kim Sung-bok (who also lensed "Shiri") have crafted a number of memorable scenes that drip in atmosphere, tension, and surprisingly, warmth, such as a night-time run-in between Lee and Oh amidst a field of billowing ferns and tall grass, or the well-staged firefight that ensues around Lee's escape. And though the story jumps back and forth between the present and the past, Park's poised direction and technical prowess ensures that the transitions are not only eye-catching, but also easily understood.
Though "Joint Security Area" may lack the firepower unleashed in "Shiri", it more than makes up for it with its compelling and emotionally resonant script. Like "Shiri", "Joint Security Area" offers complex North Korean characters, and a tragic tale about a friendship doomed by the entrenched political distrust and fear that have divided Korea for almost fifty years. When story finally comes full circle, revealing the truth about the shootings and the damage that it has wrought, the epiphany is devastating, which is best summed up in the poignant closing shot, a fleeting moment of friendship along the 38th parallel, forever frozen in time.
If there is a fault to be picked on, it would have to be the clumsy scenes conducted in English between Jang and her Swiss cohorts. Lee Yeong-ae's difficulties with the English language are readily apparent, which is both distracting and unintelligibly confusing (especially when she utters key expository dialogue). Likewise, the Swiss characters are occasionally difficult to understand with their thick accents and somewhat stilted line delivery. Thankfully, the Korean performances, including Lee's (who also has the distinction of playing a female character that is not a love interest in a Korean film), are much stronger. Lee Byeong-heon is convincing as a man torn by the truth, as is Kim Tae-woo, who plays his quiet but loyal sidekick. Shin Ha-kyun's ("Guns & Talks") turn as a North Korean soldier is also affecting, as the comic relief trappings of his character eventually give way as he becomes the epicenter of the tragedy. However, the standout performance would have to go to Song Kang-ho, who demonstrates his considerable dramatic range as a North Korean soldier whose sense of duty and honor transcends borders.
"Joint Security Area" is one of the most expensive film productions in South Korean history, and it shows. In addition to the immaculate production values and lensing, Myung Film actually spent close to $1 million to build an almost-exact replica of the Panmunjeom to house the production. Despite its 'blockbuster' status and financial success, there is still a lot of heart in "Joint Security Area", making it one of the more memorable and moving films of the 'Korean New Wave'. And though the film's release has mainly been limited to Asian-Pacific film markets, with a stateside release still in limbo, North American audiences can catch this modern classic via the recently released Hong Kong import DVD and VCD.