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JSA: Joint Security Area
cast: Kang-ho Song, and Ha-kyun Shin

director: Chan-Wook Park

108 minutes (18) 2004
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Tartan Asia Extreme DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
After a Korean border dispute leaves several dead and the circumstances in doubt, independent investigators arrive to discover what actually happened. Interviewing the survivors from both sides of the border uncovers the complicated and emotional truth.

JSA (aka: Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA) is a notable film in several respects. Firstly, after a general moratorium on film exports, it was amongst the first few Korean films to appear in west, to be associated with the emerging Korean 'New Wave' cinema. Secondly it was one of the most successful and expensive films made in the country at the time, and as such was director Chan-Wook Park's breakthrough film. Park has since gone on to direct such cult items as Oldboy, in which he combines a sure sense of staging with a visual, kinetic flamboyance all of his own. Thirdly, JSA is a compelling and moving work in its own right, which makes something haunting and memorable out of a situation which, in outline, could easily have proved propagandist and dull.

It takes place entirely at the Panmunjom, the Korea DMZ peace village at the 38th parallel border crossing. Here North and South Koreans face off under the terms of 50-year-old treaty, glaring at each other across a thin stretch of ground, huddled over spyglasses and rifle barrels or staring each other down across a borderline. The bitter division of the country provides a frequent background to much of its cinema just as, in its way, the spectre of past nuclear destruction has haunted that of the Japanese. But there is a difference. Japanese cinema often shows the dangerous unity of clan, kin or country in the face of crisis. In Korean cinema, brothers are often divided whilst, around them, a fractured society threatens and fights itself. Sometimes the violent resolution of the country's famous stand off promises mutually assured destruction, as is presented allegorically at the climax of Attack The Gas Station! (1999). In other films it can appear as part of an action thriller (Shiri), or as the basis of a recent war film (Taegukgi, 2004), and so on. In the more profound JSA, national division provides a starting point for an examination of the human condition, as soldiers on either side of the line discover what it is to establish warm, normal interaction - even at terrible cost.

"There are two kinds of people in this world - Commie bastards and the Commie bastard's enemies," says a South Korean officer to the Swiss investigator Major Sophie Jean (Yeong-ae Lee) at the start of Park's film. Jean works for the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission. Previously her superior has warned her that her real job is not to investigate, "who, but why," and that "the outcome is less important than the procedure." But as Jean delves deeper into recent events with an insistence born of her own family history, revelations prove Rashmon-like, proving that the truth is by no means black and white. In fact the opening scenes, containing the harsh protocols for her work, are the least satisfying of the film. (A fact exacerbated by the poor spoken English of actress Lee and the woodenness of her Swedish companion). It is only once the viewer enters the experience of the soldiers - a process gradually revealed through a number of sometimes-gnomic flashbacks - that JSA becomes interesting.

JSA was a controversial success in Korea. The action is set very precisely, at the borderline between two societies and Park was concerned to make it as realistic as possible, spending $1 million on building his own Panmunjom. As a narrative his film is just as deliberately less exact, hovering between military thriller, patriotic tragedy, personal loyalty tale as we learn more about the soldiers, now tight-lipped under independent interrogation. Enemies, then friends, comrades and brothers, the men's deepening relationship also suggests a more taboo attraction, one which proved unsettling to home audiences. Ultimately the 'Joint Security Area' becomes less a site of military stalemate than a place where emotional ties ought to provide their own justification and balance.

The structure of Park's film is an intriguing one: a straightforward, and reasonably suspenseful investigation of an outrage frames a sequence of flashbacks and reminiscences, often presented in non-linear manner, fleshing out the main story. In between there is some newsreel footage as well as some exploration of Major Jean's motivations, while the feelings of the soldiers concerned are never elucidated, merely explored through past events. The director's achievement lies in tying all this into a reasonably convincing whole, moving the audience from the coldness of a military tribunal to the warm realm of human feeling.

There are several moments in JSA to savour, some of which occur within the no man's land between the two societies itself - a neutrality which seems to encourage a self reflection and recognition between main participants: the snowy, wordless encounter between two border patrols for instance, where tension is dissipated with a single cigarette; or the first encounter on a cold night between Sergeant Oh and Sergeant Lee, surrounded by mines, their breath freezing in an field. Elsewhere Park's camera records the absurdities of petty border etiquette, at one point shooting from overhead the dividing line where soldiers square off against one another, placing figures in some lunatic grid of their own devising. (At one point Park has two of the soldiers mock the solemnity and rigidity of the border by playing spitting games across the line.) There's a similar overhead shot, this time looking down at a fallen soldier face up in the rain, later in the film. The camera also plays a memorable part in the last scene of the film, as an ordinary snapshot is transversed by a slow pan, pulling out of the composition a final, mute commentary of its own.

Asked earlier why one of the soldiers had deserted his post just to relieve himself, the blithe answer comes back as: "People with constipation should seize the chance when it comes." It's a philosophy that informs a good deal of JSA. Not to put too fine a point on it, the film suggests that, blocked by its own political impasse, Korea needs to loosen up and seek relief as it can. Park's film shows one way, perhaps not the best, but a memorable story all the same.

The DVD extras have been unseen by this reviewer but the Tartan disc features an anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer, both Dolby digital and DTS 5.1 audio, apparently as well as cast and crew interviews, a 'making-of' featurette, deleted scenes, original theatrical trailers, film notes, and a four-page booklet.
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