Joint Security Area

JSA/Joint Security Area (2000 South Korea 107 mins)

Source: Madman Entertainment Prod Co: CJ Entertainment/Intz.com/KTB Network/Myung Film Company Ltd Prod: Lee Eun-soo Dir: Park Chan-wook Scr: Jeong Seong-san, Kim Hyeon-seok, Lee Mu-yeong, Park Chan-wook, from the novel DMZ by Park Sang-yeon Phot: Kim Seong-bok Ed: Kim Sang-beom Art Dir: Kim Sung-bok Mus: Bang Jun-seok, Jo Yeong-wook

Cast: Lee Yeong-ae, Lee Byung-hun, Song Kang-ho, Kim Tae-woo, Shin Ha-kyun

The demilitarised zone, or DMZ, that separates North and South Korea is, ironically enough, one of the most heavily militarised areas on earth. This barbed-wire, land mine-studded stretch of land is about 151 miles long and two miles wide. The DMZ was created as one of the provisions of the armistice agreement of 1953 that began the cease-fire that effectively ended the Korean War (although officially North and South remain at war). This surreal landscape is perhaps the most prominent and potentially explosive relic of the Cold War era. About 600,000 South Korean soldiers face down over 1 million North Korean troops, assisted by nearly 40,000 American soldiers on the South Korean side. The DMZ is also a popular tourist attraction, hosting about 100,000 visitors each year, who are treated to such sights as museums, shrines to reunification, observatories with telescopes, and on the North Korean side, “Propaganda Village”, an empty town broadcasting praises to Kim Jong-Il six to twelve hours a day.

The Joint Security Area (JSA) of the DMZ is located in Panmunjon, a village destroyed during the war, and the site where the armistice agreement was reached. The buildings in the JSA sit directly on the line separating North and South, and in fact the line directly bisects a table in the main conference room. The Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, a fact-finding body made up of Swiss and Swedish personnel, has their offices here (1).

This sensitive, hair-trigger military situation (fluctuating daily according to the latest dispatches from Pyongyang and Washington), has been a fact of life in Korea for well over 50 years. Park Chan-wook, the director of Joint Security Area, was born in 1963, so like everyone else of his generation, he has known no other reality, and learned of the conflict second-hand from various elders. This distance from the pain felt by those who lived through the conflict and were separated from their families as a result, is perhaps what allows him to declare that, “[t]he division of the Korean peninsula is not a tragedy; it is an irony”. This distance also allows the situation to be mined for blockbuster fodder, as Joint Security Area followed closely on the heels of Shiri (Kang Je-gyu, 1999), both films becoming box-office record breakers upon their respective releases. It would be useful, then, to explore how Joint Security Area, in keeping with its subject matter of the divided Koreas, is itself a divided aesthetic object, introducing elements that attempt to work against its own status as a Hollywood-esque crowd-pleaser.

Perhaps the most significant flouting of blockbuster codes is the lack of a romance between the attractive main characters: Major Sophie E. Jean (Lee Young-ae), a Swiss-Korean hired by the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission to investigate the shooting of two North Korean soldiers, and Sergeant Lee Soo-hyeok (Lee Byung-hun), a South Korean soldier under investigation for the shootings. While Shiri foregrounds a love-triangle, against which the national division forms a sensational backdrop, the extent of the physical contact between the male and female leads in JSA is a chaste hug between the two near the film’s conclusion. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a romance of sorts in the film. As Kyung Hyun Kim powerfully argues in his excellent study of recent Korean cinema, The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema, it could be said that the real romance in JSA occurs between Sgt. Lee and Sgt. Oh Kyeong-pil (Song Kang-ho), the North Korean soldier who saves Lee from a land mine and later befriends, and who is also involved in the shooting. They also each bring a close friend to share in these secret trysts where Lee crosses “The Bridge of No Return” (so called because it was the passageway for North Korean POWs who were made to choose sides after the war), to fraternise with these North Korean soldiers, breaking a major taboo. Actually, more than one. Kim identifies the latent homoeroticism that exists in this scenario:

The prohibited companionship between the four male soldiers, the breaking of political taboo through games of bodily contact (playing the children’s game one-leg wrestling), the exchange of bodily fluid (the spitting game while [Su-hyeok] and Sergeant [Oh] are on guard at a public area while only a few feet apart), and the use of actual guns and bullets as instruments of pleasure, threat and eventual killings all post allegories of same-sex eroticism. (2)

The portrayal of Sgt. Oh, the North Korean soldier, is a nuanced and complex one that also works against the blockbuster code of characters that easily fall on either side of a good/evil divide. If we again use Shiri as the example of the conventional actioner, the North Koreans are portrayed as single-minded ideological automatons, able to infect the streets of Seoul like a virus of terrorist cells, because of their identical appearance to “normal” South Koreans. However, in the figure of Sgt. Oh in JSA, we find someone who is basically a South Korean in a North Korean uniform. He loves South Korean pop music and chocolate cakes. He also represents a paragon of masculinity that attracts Sgt. Lee, as Kim explains (3). (Interestingly enough, Song Kang-ho, the actor who plays Sgt. Oh, also plays a South Korean detective in Shiri, a character who is very similar in demeanor and temperament.)

Park’s directorial strategies also create a tension between action spectacle and more quiet contemplation. As opposed to the frantic handheld camerawork of Shiri, JSA makes full use of its widescreen frame (it was the first Korean film to use Super-35, the Hollywood big-budget standard), to create more deep-focus static compositions. The overt action is limited to the raid on the guard-house after the shootings, and of course the shootings themselves. These scenes are repeated as a necessity of the Rashomon-like structure of the film.

However, both JSA and Shiri, despite their opposing narrative strategies, ultimately reach the same pessimistic conclusion, that of the perhaps unbridgeable gulf between North and South. Early in the film, a South Korean general tells Sophie Jean, “There are two kinds of people in the world: Commie bastards and Commie bastards’ enemies. Neutral has no place here. You have to choose sides.” In the scene which shows what actually occurred during the fateful shootings (as opposed to Lee and Oh’s fabricated depositions), even though they once called each other “brother”, Lee at one point says to Oh, “We’re enemies, after all”. Therefore, as JSA winds to its tragic conclusion, it would seem that on celluloid, as in life, reunification may indeed be the ultimate impossible dream. Perhaps we can see in this the germ of hopelessness and despair that Park would mine in his subsequent films Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Old Boy (2004), the first two sections of his “revenge trilogy.” In these films, which feature desperate, inarticulate characters, and artfully choreographed killings, tortures, and mutilations, Park paints a grim landscape where the violence of North and South has turned in upon itself and become internalised within those films’ characters.

Endnotes

  1. Robert Marquand, “Korea’s bizarre cold-war border”, The Christian Science Monitor March 10, 2003.
  2. Kyung Hyun Kim, The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2004, p. 264.
  3. Kyung Hyun Kim, p. 266.

About The Author

Christopher Bourne is a writer and cinephile based in New York City.