Another review from our Cinema on the Park bloggers, this time Sam McCosh takes a look at Park Chan-wook's seminal classic JSA. You can also read Andy Buckle's thoughts on the film here. Send us your opinion on JSA if you managed to see it at KOFFIA2011, COTP2012 or in the comfort of your home thanks to Madman Entertainment. Email to: email@example.com
Joint Security Area (공동경비구역 JSA) marks the birth of the modern Korean blockbuster. It quickly became the highest-grossing film in
at the time, achieving over one million admissions in only 15 days. It was screened as part of the "Birth of the Blockbuster" month at Cinema on the Park, which is showcasing 4 fantastic films. I am especially looking forward to seeing The Host for the first time on Thursday 24th May. Korea
We were privileged to have Russell Edwards from Variety as the guest speaker once again, and he introduced the film by telling us a story about his experience seeing the film in a "concrete block" Korean cinema without subtitles. Even without the subtitles he knew the film was something special and enjoyed it very much. It certainly would of helped that than the first 20 minutes of the film contains a lot of dialogue in English.
JSA is very much a film of two stories. In the first story we see Major Sophie E. Jean (Yeong-ae Lee), a Swiss investigator of Korean ancestry who is travels from Switzerland to the highly sensitive demilitarized zone between North and South Korea to lead the investigation into a confusing incident which left 2 North Korean soldiers dead, and 1 South Korean solider (Sgt Lee Soo-hyeok, played by Byung-hun Lee) badly injured. The North Korean claims the Sgt Lee crossed over the demilitarized zone and murdered their soldiers, while
claims that Sgt Lee was kidnapped by the North and killed the soldiers while he
was escaping. Tensions between the two nations are high, and as Major
Sophie delves deeper into the incident, it is clear that something
more than a "border squirmish" happened. South Korea
The second and far more captivating story is the one of the North and South Korean soldiers who manned the posts on their respective sides of the border. The real story behind the border incident is slowly revealed in a series of flashbacks which show the unconventional relationship which developed between the border guards. What started off as a note thrown over the border as a joke, blossomed into the most unexpected and yet most beautiful of friendships. The pair of guards from each side of the border slowly take greater and greater risks to get to know each other, culminating in the 4 men spending many a long night in the hut on the North Korean side of the border. The conversations and silly children's games that the men play are both delightful and very comical. They are very much like school mates from different parts of the city/country who are getting to know each other and their respective backgrounds - there really is a child-like quality to their relationship.
This was, and still is a brave film.
a mainstream South Korean film which portrayed both sides as equal, as the same,
as simply men caught up in something that they don't necessarily support or
understand. He stripped away the politics, the recent history, and the
mistrust. What is left is four men from the same ancestry who form the most
unlikely and yet the most natural of bonds. The simple nature of true
brotherhood and friendship is a far stronger message than any political
statement about reunification could be. The North Koreans were not portrayed as
stereotypical evil loose-cannons - they were simply just Koreans. Director
In this film we can recognise some of director
's unique style,
which we have become familiar with after the success of films such as Old Boy and Lady Vengeance. While this film is not ultra-violent, it still
contains some rather heart-stopping moments. An extended scene involving a
landmine is particularly gripping and tense. As always the photography is
excellent, as is the use of light - the scenes in which the soldiers are
walking through the fields are particularly beautiful. Byung-hun Lee (who
most viewers will know from the fantastic I Saw the Devil) is especially strong in this film. The delight he
shows at the unlikely friendship is heart-warming; equally the pain he feels
when they are torn apart is palpable. Chan-wook
The let down of this film is definitely the weakness of the investigation storyline. Major Sophie is a rather over-written character, and her overly complicated back-story has no bearing on the film – but it adds unnecessary running time. The Swiss UN workers have rather awkward English, but it is their one-dimensional nature and not their English which doesn't sit quite right (did that soldier really need to smoke a pipe?). Less time with the Swiss soldiers and the dropping of Major Sophie's back-story, and more time on how she put the pieces of what happened together would have made the film more cohesive and engaging.
Overall JSA is a very enjoyable film, and it's easy to see why this was the first real Korean blockbuster. The bond between the border guards was something special to watch - The film has comedy, action, mystery, and most importantly it has the bond and love of brotherhood.