May 22, 2008
Plot Outline: Our film takes place between the lines of the Korean DMZ. Two sets of soldiers, North and South, who by happenstance meet and become friends through a game where they toss notes to each other over the line that divides their countries. After this friendship is sealed, eventually the South Korean private asks to make a trip over the line – and he does. Defying everyone and breaking the rules to meet faceless strangers, the two groups come together and a bond is felt between them… yet, it all ends in a bloodbath. What brings about the death of innocence and friendship is what a Swiss investigator is sent in to find out. A young woman of Korean birth must unravel this mystery – and no one is revealing their full hand.

The Review: So everyone and their mother has been telling me about the films of Park Chan-Wook since… well, just about forever it seems. Especially now with his recent explosion in popularity generally due to Oldboy becoming so widespread. Really, Park Chan-Wook’s films have followed me for a long time now. I first read about Joint Security Area back when Shiri was first hitting “the scene”. It’s been a while since those days have come and pass, and I guess Shiri itself left me with a bad stigma, because I never really thought to give JSA much of a chance, because I never suspected it would be anything other than another Hollywood-esque Korean thriller with slightly more violence and a more interesting take on shoddy material. It wasn’t until I learned that the director was the same as the much talked about Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, which I had built up in my head for quite a while as being perhaps the greatest revenge thriller I had never seen (thanks to the endless hype such as on Aint It Cool News). Thankfully, to be honest, it’s best that I saw and reviewed this film originally before seeing Sympathy, because the expectations I had for that film helped me look at this one in a different light and helped me to see what IS actually great about it. Rather than the actual letdown I experience when finally seeing Mr. Vengeance, but that’s an entirely different review completely. So here I was, starting my way through the man’s film set and JSA was thankfully my starting point; since at this moment I would say I prefer it over the other (and the wind was completely taken out of my sails on seeing Oldboy). Now, getting back to the comparison between this film and Shiri is that JSA is much more involved in a descriptiv form of telling a political story. This isn’t an action film by any stretch of the imagination, and you’ll never hear me talk about any of that of course. JSA is far more focused on facts, intrigue and the relationship between characters than any tense, action oriented melodrama. Thankfully it’s quite the opposite in it’s deceptively quiet ways of clueing the audience into what is going on in our characters’ heads. For that, I definitely have to show Park Chan-Wook some respect, because he does do a well job at keeping the mainstream alongside the more thought provoking and craft oriented filmmaking decisions.

The story, which could just be as ordinary as Shiri’s, but with that whole “A Few Good Men” twist to it, takes the higher road and offers a realistic depiction of violence and the haute tension of the current political situation between the two Koreas. The pressure on the characters is palpable, and the story steadily builds throughout the runtime in some, well, intense ways. Although, I can’t lie, as I watched the film I did find myself hoping in those first thirty minutes of the film for it to somehow further distinguish itself from the growing number of films like this or other such classics from South Korea. I think possibly the mix of oddball humor in the midst of things might be what does just that. Not just ‘dark’ or ‘disturbed’ humor, but genuinely goofy comedic work. Slapstick, buddy comedy and even corny little gags between friends. It’s not something one expects from such a ‘serious’ script and even during all of this the tone never really changes and things always remain on track – but we as the audience are allowed to have fun along the way, and that along is enough of a change to have kept my interest during those formidable opening moments. With the political implications in the film, it makes me curious how the film must be viewed in its homeland. Since it was the highest grossing South Korean motion picture ever up until a few years ago when Shiri broke that record, one has to imagine it is looked upon favorably, but I wonder just what does it for them. I have to wonder whether the bonding between North and South, shown in the film, must be viewed as a hope for the future or perhaps even a treasonous idea. I giess it’s for the SK people to decide. As an outsider, I find the idea hopefully optimistic, though with the conclusion of the tale of kenship between disputed countrymen shows some serious underlining doubts. Still, one could only hope any of us could reach the sort of fellowship between the two groups of soldiers as represented in this film.

The drama of the film hits masterful highs during the last two acts of the film, and as the clock ticks along, things get even more and more drawn out. JSA is the equivelant of a cinematic page-turner, the longer you’re into it the more and more you both dread and hope for the story to cease. That’s probably the highest compliment it is going to get from me, as it’s certainly the type of film that sucks you into its’ world. I don’t know just how different JSAW really is from something like… I don’t know, The General’s Daughter, all I can say and this isn’t the most professional quote ever, but JSA, unlike that film, doesn’t suck. From its’ slow beginnings to the taut and intense finale, it doesn’t let its’ grip on you go. The film works as a look at the horrors of a friendship torn apart and the sad shape of a country divided, which is either bleak or hopeful all depending on you the viewer and I have no doubts that there’s a lot more working in this film than meets the eye. If after watching, you don’t feel at least a little down and out about the current political tension in Korean then, well, you just have no heart. It would be interesting to know the director’s political beliefs, and his exact statement about things, but his films make it clear that he is very in touch with the issue (having one of the lead females in Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance as a full blown communist who wants to unify the country show this). I can simply hope that with the way things turn out in the film that the director doesn’t actually place blame or choose sides in his definitive statement, as it wouldn’t seem very ethical, though I imagine it’s as much a possibility as anything. As far as the technical achievements of the film, everything is pulled off without a hitch. The cinematography isn’t really what I would call flashy, but it certainly has it’s moments. Particularly that famous scene where we peek through a bullet hole in the wall of the crime scene near the opening. Much of it is pretty standard, but this sort of story doesn’t really demand to be shown by a flurry of complex camera movements, as this is simply a story about people – and although you can say that isn’t much of an excuse; there’s no need to detract from the actors given this sort of project. The actors all commit to their jobs and deliver powerful performances as well, my personal favorite being from Kang-ho Song (also a lead in Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance) as the North Korean Seargent, who at all times must remain strong minded. It’s simply a great character, and he delivers in spades. I’d say, although the director hasn’t really impressed me abundantly yet, his bringing this actor to my eyes was a great deed.

What else can I say, between the amazing performances, brilliant script and genuinely horrifying look at the mindset of a people torn apart by politics – it is simply a great film. It follows many mainstream rules, but like much of Korean cinema, it breaks just as many and even moreso in this film than in most cases. So, as much as I dislike that, I have to congratulate these sorts of films for managing to sneak more and more of the obscure into their films. Something I wish we would do here at home. It’s a very nice start for the director’s career, and although Mr. Vengeance kind of derailed me, I still want to see more of his films in the future and won’t let myself get too hyped up; that is for certain.

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