Park Chan-wook’s J.S.A (Joint Security Area) made huge waves at the Korean box office during the early weeks of its release. The film became the highest grossing film at the time with a million eager moviegoers flocking to see it in its second week. A DVD of the film was even presented to Kim-Jong-Il during the 2007 Korea Summit, an interesting political gesture that resonates with the filmmaker’s attempt to humanise the Korean conflict.
Daily life in Korea might not reflect the on-going tensions between the North and the South, but along the DMZ there is the constant reminder of division, conflict and the struggle for lasting peace. The border acts as a physical and political barrier observed by both nations, with patrolmen rigorously safeguarding it on each side. The political ideologies of both nations meet here and, without compromise, the two sides stand adjacent and in opposition. And then there are the soldiers—individuals tasked with the duty of ensuring their own nation’s safety. People, not political ideals, are stationed there and it is this idea that Park wishes to communicate with his progressive themes of tolerance, understanding and camaraderie.
The Story and Characters
Based on the novel DMZ by Park Sang-yeon, the film tells the story of a shooting within a North Korea J.S.A outpost that leaves two North Korean soldiers dead with a soldier from each side confessing conflicting accounts of the incident. The South Korean soldier, Sgt. Lee Soo-hyeok (Lee Byeong-heon), claims that he was captured and forced over the line and managed to escape, but not before killing two North Korean officers. Conversely, Sgt. Oh Kyeong-pil (Song Kang-ho) of the North states that Sgt. Lee willingly crossed the border and attacked the North Korean outpost. To resolve the dispute, the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) sends a neutral Swiss representative, Major Sophie E. Jean (Lee Young-ae), to investigate.
Maj. Jean is ethnically Korean but she has never visited her native country. She was raised overseas as a Swiss national. She is brought in to discover the truth behind the soldiers’ suspicious dispositions. Her investigation is paired with flashbacks of the events leading up to, and including, the incident in question. However, during her inquiry she becomes aware that her father was actually a North Korean defector, a convenient fact that results in her dismissal from the case. Despite receiving her termination orders, she manages to piece together the two soldiers’ story in time for her own personal sense of closure. What she discovers is as tragic as it is unlikely.
As I mentioned before J.S.A was very well received in South Korea. However, not all involved were satisfied with events depicted in the film. I was interested to find that members of the JSA Veterans Association strongly protested against the film, arguing that it was nothing short of pure fantasy. They demanded that the film explicitly state that it is a work of fiction, a demand that was eventually met.
J.S.A sought to broaden the perspective of the conflict in a time when the majority of South Korean’s held strong prejudices about North Korea and its people—an effort that was well executed in the film. Ideas of brotherhood and friendship are quick to emerge and the film rejects the villianization of North Korean troops and citizens. Instead, the film centres on the commonality between sides, with the political dogma acting as the external source of conflict encasing the events. It is a saddening tale that manages to recontextualise the conflict to reveal a new perspective of humanism in an otherwise politically engulfed state of affairs.
-Christopher J. Wheeler
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