WTF ASIA 3: Joint Security Area (2000)

PARK CHAN-WOOK! Y’ALL LIKE PARK CHAN-WOOK, RIGHT? Anyways, given the whole Joint Koreas Summit at the Joint Security Area, here is a movie set at the Joint Security Area called JSA: Joint Security Area, directed by PARK CHAN-WOOK!


Available on Google Play and Youtube. Approximately 109 minutes.


Sophie Jang has traveled from Switzerland to Korea’s Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission in order to investigate the deaths of two North Korean soldiers by a South Korean soldier at the border of the two nations, the Joint Security Area. The two deaths led to a minor firefight between the two countries across “The Bridge of No Return” and accusations are flying. Sophie is tasked with finding out why the shooting happened, but both sides already have their official stories. The South accuses the North of kidnapping one of their troops, who killed the two soldiers during his escape. The North accuses the soldier of sneaking across the border and attacking the guard post. It is not long before she realizes that both sides are hiding something, and the people directly involved in the deaths share a major secret that could mean death for all of them.


By the way, I posted an image from Google Maps of the JSA, and pointed out the bridge.


And that secret? Well, I will not tell you here. I will say, though, that it is a fairly simple one. Aaand, I might have dropped a hint somewhere already. So, think of the simplest answer that you can and you might be correct. But that is not really the point. The movie stops being a mystery once we enter the flashback that takes up a significant portion of the film. It turns into more of a character piece about people and nationhood, about war and hatred, about loyalty and friendship, about trust and betrayal, about the trauma of having to do a horrible thing, about the inevitability of tragedy in a hostile world, about the lengths that people will go to protect a secret, and the lengths that people will go to maintain the cycle of hatred. It shows how the best and worst of human nature can reside everyone.


When I first saw this movie all those years ago, the first thing that I noticed was the bad English language sections. It is hard not to notice them, as the first actual scene of dialog three minutes in is all in English…and none of the three actors are native speakers. Granted, neither are the characters, but it was jarring to me all the same. This isn’t Stoker. None of the professional actors are native English speakers and none of the native English speakers are professional actors. Most of the English language scenes seemed to simply be there to provide a wider context for the story in relation to the war for the sake of foreign viewers, with a few scenes having Sophie explain her detective work to this Swedish guy (whose face somehow got plastered on the front of the cover of the DVD that I saw at my local Blockbuster Video way back when). I look back at it now, after having heard English being spoken in movies and television shows from Korea and movies from China and Japan. Honestly, the English in this movie is not that bad in comparison. At least not the accents. There is no mumblemouth at least. Even the actual dialog, exposition-y as it is, is not that bad, and there is little Engrish or really awkward grammar. The acting in the English scenes is…bad…but I have seen worse English-language acting in Asian entertainment from native English speakers. I had once figured that maybe the English would be better in the English dubbed version. It is not. So take it or leave it.


It is also a little funny to note that Sophie seems so much more comfortable speaking Korean than she does speaking English. Of course, she is supposed to be from Geneva, but we never hear her speaking French. And she looks half-Swiss the way David Carradine looked half Chinese or whatever. One minor character actually asks if she really is in the Swiss military and, instead of taking out a badge or passport, she takes out a Swiss Army Knife. Perhaps that was meant as a joke; let’s just assume that it was. Regardless, her being half-White is simply another thing that you will have to take or leave.


One thing that is notable, however, is how she is never the love interest to any character and that possibility is never even brought up. Of course, that could be helped by the fact that she is not even in the movie during the flashback. That is probably one of the things that made this movie stick out for me. She is set up at the beginning to be the protagonist of a mystery, but another protagonist emerges once the story takes a turn. She eventually returns as the protagonist after the flashback, but it plays differently than it would have as a straight mystery, due to the flashback. That Sophie is not going to become the love interest of the other protagonist is made pretty clear once the flashback is over. That can be a little difficult to get a hold on, but I thought that that was a clever tactic. Honestly, I feel as if I am making this sound more complicated than it is, simply so that I do not completely spoil what you could probably figure out anyways.


This film is a uniquely Korean film if only for the fact that it deals with a uniquely Korean subject: the Korean Conflict. The Korean peninsula is…or was…one of the most ethnically homogeneous places in the world. Korea has a long history, often told in a way that holds the people together through good times and bad times. Lots of living under foreign domination and feelings of national resentment and pride. Unfortunately, world events split the peninsula into two countries, which have been at war for the almost seventy years. Maybe things are turning around, but we shall see. Many South Korean movies television shows that involve North Korea (at least the ones that I have seen) have been reluctant to simply paint North Korea as THE bad guy, and sometimes play up the notion that things could be different if only this or that. Brotherhood is supposed to imply togetherness, but when brothers are pitted against each other, the resulting bloodshed can be worse than in any other type of fight. And the pain can be that much more severe. How this is presented varies from story to story, and some are more successful than others. In my opinion, Joint Security Area presented it pretty simply and quite effectively.


This movie was released in September of 2000, only a few months after the first Inter-Korean Summit. It was a time of hope, but also uncertainty and skepticism.  This is reflected in Joint Security Area. And, we saw what happened after that. An entire generation has gone by, leadership has changed, but similar possibilities and perilous pitfalls on the path to peace face the peninsula with the recent third Inter-Korean Summit. So, it is a bit of nonsense that Amazon Prime took this moment to make it unavailable for streaming. Yeah, sure, someone going into this hoping to see an accurate depiction of the place or the circumstances will be disappointed, but still…Oh well. I suppose that there was a reason. And if that reason is that it is necessary to break the North vs South cycle, then so be it. That is just the price have to pay to legally see the movie streaming: a couple of dollars.


Korean movies, well some of them, have a tendency to favor emotional catharsis over coherence, with scenes that sometimes do not even follow their own logic. This movie has at least one, and it is pretty crucial from a dramatic standpoint. If you get stuck on how certain characters can suddenly be there or suddenly not be there, you might get taken out of the scene. Taken from a dramatic standpoint, though, it still works. And this movie can get quite dramatic, but it rarely goes overboard. There are a few funny moments, especially when the flashback explains some of the things stated in the first section. Yes, it may be naively simplistic from a political standpoint (maybe even a bit laughable given the current situation) and grossly inaccurate from a military perspective, but I think that it still holds together. Overall, it is a very effective drama. And a very good movie. It may not be a perfect film, but it is one of my favorites.




WTF ASIA 4: Lahore (India: 2010, approx. 135 minutes)


Free on Youtube.


WTF ASIA 5: Hard Boiled (Hong Kong: 1992, approx. 128 minutes)