Thursday, June 01, 2006

Overlooked DVD of the month - JOINT SECURITY AREA

JOINT SECURITY AREA is a fascinating, flawed but brilliant movie by acclaimed South Korean director, Park Chan Wook. Indeed, JOINT SECURITY AREA was the movie that catapulted Park Chan-Wook to fame in South Korea and persuaded the studio to give him licence to do pretty much anything that he wanted to for his next film. They must surely have been shocked to see him produce the baroque, visually beautiful, extremely violent revenge dramas: SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE, OLDBOY and LADY VENGEACE. To my mind, JSA is a far less successful film that these revenge movies, but it is still far better than most of the stuff you'll find at your local multiplex. Moreover, it is worth watching because it contains important techical advances for South Korean cinema, not to mention the fact that it bravely tackles the taboo subject of North-South relations.

JSA is a straightforward adaptation of a popular South Korean book called DMZ - De-Militarized Zone. It deals with the relations between Communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea. Despite the cessation of hostilities at the end of what we in the west refer to as the Korean War, North and South Korea are still at war. They are separated by the DMZ on the 38th parallel. This is literally a wide trench policed on either side by soldiers with the United Nations Neutral Nations Security Commission trying to keep the peace. The story revolves around a shooting incident. Each side blames the other, and the UN brings in Major Sophie Jean, a half-Korean, half-Swiss soldier, to investigate the matter.

Major Sophie Jean is played by the future Lady Vengeance. She does a serviceable job in a difficult role. Her ability to act the English speaking lines is limited by her strong Korean accent - a notable flaw in a character supposedly raised in Geneva. Moreover, I found the framing device of having an investigator try to work out "what really happened that night" is weak. It throws up a red herring. A lot of viewers get obsessed by the precise chain of events that night, as though this were a straightforward thriller. I suppose that, in defence of the scriptwriter, including the Major Jean character allows us to see how impotent the UN are in this situation. Cynics tell Major Jean that there is no such thing as neutral diplomacy - she will have to pick a side. Worse, to preserve peace she will have to hide the truth. Sadly, the film never really explores how she feels about her position as a designated investigator that everyone wants to fail.

For me, the real meat of the story is not the UN investigation, which looks a bit sub-CSI and severely bogs down the first half hour of the movie. JSA is great not because it is an effective thriller. It is great because it is a fascinating study of how people get to know each other in spite of the misconceptions they have about each other. In other words, it is a good old-fashioned character study that sinks or swims (I think the latter) according to how good the actors are. This is where director, Park Chan-Wook hits pay-dirt, because he has four great actors performing superb dialogue. The idea is that a low-level South Korean soldier, Sgt. Lee Soo-hyeok (played by
Byung-Hun Lee) meets a North Korean soldier, Sgt. Oh Kyeong-pil. Sergeant Oh has travelled abroad, and can see through the propoganda. He realises that one poor bastard on sentry duty in no-man's land is as fucked as another, no matter whether a Communist or capitalist. Soon, Sgt. Lee's sidekick, Private Nam Sung-shik and Sgt. Oh's sidekick, Jeong Woo-jin (Ha-kyun Shin, who played Ryu in SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE) are also meeting up. The four soon become firm friends - swapping candy, soft porn., and happily farting in each other's presence. The friendship even survives the first DMZ alert, when each side starts firing at the other. Suddenly the stakes are higher. What happens if it becomes a shooting war and they are ordered to kill each other? Or what happens if the southerners are shelled by their own side when the visit their friends in the north? Of course, this being a war-zone, pally chats about cookies cannot last forever and it all ends up in the bloodbath that Major Jean is sent to investigate. (I am not ruining the plot, by the way - the movie opens with the "incident" and works back to the start of the friendship.)

Despite the obvious technical achievements of the piece and the lush reconstruction of the Korean De-Militarized Zone, I found JSA to be a flawed work. The lighting is often poor, the editing rough, and there seems to be an awful lot of photography that is cliched. For instance, when Major Sophie Jean arrives on a plane from Geneva, we have one of those stock shots of the underside of the plane as it comes in to land. Most importantly, fans of later films by Park Chan-Wook should bear in mind that he was basically a director for hire on JSA. This, and the fact that he was just younger and had a less developed style, means that the movie looks more like a conventional picture than a classic crazy, extreme, beautiful Park Chan Wook movie. Similarly, the orchestral score is fine, but it is used in rather an obvious manner. In fact, at times, the movie is scored like a Tom and Jerry cartoon, with screetching violins at moments of high tension. There is none of the ironic juxtaposition of beautiful chamber music with horrific violence that we get in, say, LADY VENGEANCE. I only spotted two classic Park Chan Wook touches. First, near the end, when Major Sophie Jean is learning about her father in the pagoda, we have some nice dissolves from the ariel view of the padoda to the ariel view of her umbrella. Second, near the beginning of the movie, when we see the version of the shootings in the deposition, we see the nissan hut from the outside and a flashing light from behind the glass that is meant to represent the guns firing. Later, in sharp contrast, we have a scene where the guys are taking a group photo inside the hut. The camera cuts away to an outside shot, and once again we see the light flash from behind the glass. It's a great little motif, and emphasises the movie's message: that friendship and hostility are only a split-second away from each other.

JOINT SECURITY AREA was originally released in South Korea in 2000. It is available on DVD.

1 comment:

  1. Yo Bina, nice review. In fairness, you should warn hard-core PCW fans that there isn't as much crazy violence in this film. It's still class though.