Directed by: Park Chan-wook || Produced by: Shim Jae-myung
Screenplay by: Kim Hyeon-seok, Jeong Seong-san, Lee Moo-yeong, Park Chan-wook || Starring: Lee Byung-hun, Song Kang-ho, Lee Young-ae, Kim Tae-woo, Shin Ha-Kyun, Herbert Ulrich
Music by: Jo Yeong-wook || Cinematography by: Kim Seong-bok || Edited by: Kim Sang-beom || Country: South Korea || Language: Korean, English
Running Time: 110 minutes
The first big Korean film to follow the high-octane explosion that was Shiri (1998) was Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area (JSA), another movie set amidst the controversial arena of Korean division and unification. JSA was one of the first major films to establish the modern aesthetic and quality screenwriting of the new millennium Korean New Wave, focusing on intimate character growth and emotional narratives interwoven with dramatic and visceral violence. Park would go on to direct, among other things, his Vengeance Trilogy (2002, 2003, 2005, including Oldboy) and become one of the household names of the industry.
It goes without saying then that JSA is a quality-made film. It’s full of heart, has good characters, and is thematically complex. However, like Shiri before it, JSA doesn’t match the quality of many later, better films from Korea due to the industry’s then still maturating infrastructure and Park’s own rising star. JSA is well paced and well written, but its story is consistently hampered by a lacklaster performance by female lead Lea Young-ae and a couple bone-headed directing decisions regarding the narrative’s international diplomacy subplot.
In fact, most everything that sucks about JSA is identical to what sucked in another mostly good film, X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). Both films are divided between present time periods and flashbacks (or rather time-travel periods in X-Men’s), and in both cases the majority of the adventure that takes place in the past is awesome, while the present-day setting is boring as shit. Sure, there are some interesting confrontations in JSA’s detective story that takes place after the titular incident, but they’re few and far between; they mostly have you wishing for the much more interesting character development between North Korean soldiers Song Kang-ho and Shin Ha-kyun and South Korean soldiers Lee Byung-hun and Kim Tae-woo.
The gist of the story is that the aforementioned pairs of soldiers guarding posts in the heavily fortified Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) become friends. Then society interferes and it all goes to hell. That’s basically it, and Park says a lot through this simple premise without resorting to heavy-handed dialogue or hamfisted social commentary. Song and Lee give particularly heart-wrenching performances.
The same can’t be said about Young-ae and her awkward, cringe-inducing English-language delivery. Park sets up the present-day detective subplot as follows: Swiss and various other UN nationals attempt to salvage the fragile relationship between the two Korean states and prevent all-out war. The lead investigator in this mission is, for some reason, a Korean-born (or Korean-ancestry) Swiss officer, played by Lee Young-ae, who inexplicably speaks fractured, robotic English for the majority of her screen-time and occasionally perfect Korean.
Funny… I thought the Swiss spoke German and/or French and/or relatively perfect English. I know I’m harping on this too much, but seriously, listen to her recite her lines. Why not just have her speak Korean the whole time? Her backstory is also convoluted and poorly explained, and her character altogether uninteresting. If not for this character, this film might be one of my favorite East Asian films of all time, I kid you not.
Back to the good stuff: The primary storyline in the DMZ is interesting, fun, and ultimately heartbreaking. All four actors have great chemistry with each other, and numerous gags and funny conversations abound as a close-knit friendship attempts (and fails) to overcome nationalist aggression. It’s amazing how satisfying and enthralling much of this character-drama is, despite having almost no action or stylized musical sequences whatsoever. There’s a very tense shootout at the end of these flashbacks, but it’s more tragic and horrific than visceral or action-packed, though it is those as well.
Ultimately, I would rank JSA below Shiri despite the former being more akin to the iconic modern KNW films of the later 2000’s and 2010’s that we all know and love today. It’s writing just isn’t on par with Park’s later films like Oldboy (2003) or Bong Joon-ho’s well regarded filmography, nor is it nearly as exciting as the less thematically complex film Shiri. For its cultural relevancy alone, JSA is worth watching, but it’s certainly not a cinematic necessity given its way more impressive recent brethren.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Joint Security Area boasts a heartfelt and emotional bromance only to shatter it with effective, sobering political commentary. It’s a tough but necessary tale, much like La Grande Illusion (1937) in a way, and Park directs it with grace. Song Kang-ho and Lee Byung-hun are standouts and foreshadow their future capabilities as Korean industry leads.
— However… Lee Young-ae is the Achilles’ heel of this movie. Her character and much of the entire present-day timeline are unnecessary, and her dialogue is cringe-worthy.
—> RECOMMENDED; it’s a powerful drama severely kneecapped by a single mishandled supporting role. Regardless, Joint Security Area remains worth watching.
? You didn’t get to Heaven, but that photograph made it close! Speaking of which, this entire film is full of great framing, further emphasizing the film’s themes of lines, geographic borders, and opposing sides.