South Korea. Home to Gangnam. And kimchi. And those angry store owners whom you see in Black movies. And the guy who made Oldboy. Speaking of which, a few years before he made Oldboy, Park Chan-Wook made another film that would put him on the map. At least in South Korea. The movie is called JSA: Joint Security Area. This is not the first Korean movie that I watched, but it is the first that I truly saw. Whether or not that makes any sense, this movie remains one of my favorites.
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 isâ€¦or wasâ€¦one of the most ethnically homogenous 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 past sixty years. 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 most effectively.
Sophie Jang has traveled from Switzerland to Koreaâ€™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 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.
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 Englishâ€¦and none of the three actors are native speakers. Granted, neither are the characters, but it was jarring to me all the same. 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. 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 isâ€¦badâ€¦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 have 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; letâ€™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.
Korean movies, well some of them, have a tendency to favor drama 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 I really really like it.
Oh, and before I end this, I want to talk about something near and dear to my heartâ€¦ the DVD. I donâ€™t exactly remember when I got my version of the DVD, but it was definitely geared towards an English-speaking audience. What, with there being an English audio track as the default setting and then ANOTHER English audio track listed as an option and THEN the original Korean audio track. I suppose that I may have gotten this DVD around the time whenâ€¦certain peopleâ€¦were complaining about having to press â€œ1â€ on the phone for English. Well, no worries with this Korean movieâ€¦although maybe you might be fooled into thinking that it was something else. The front cover of the DVD that I bought looks like the picture at the top of the post. I will post it again here:
It is not much of a spoiler to say that helicopters do not play a significant role in this film, but I guess that they look cool, so why not show three of them? That would be preferable to showing that civilian airplane that was onscreen for nine seconds during the first two minutes of the film. A little bit of deception, I guess, but no real implications. When I went to Blockbuster several years ago, however, I found a copy of this film, not in the foreign language section, but in the action section. It looked like this:
Notice the difference? Now, if you are at all familiar with South Korean Cinema, you may recognize Song Kang-Ho, the guy in the middle of the first picture. On the other hand, who among you has any idea who that White guy is in the second picture? No, he is not George Clooney or that guy from Heroes. He is some actor from Germany whose only work I can see with any major Stateside connection is something involving Rosario Dawson. Ring a bell? Well, guess what; he is a tertiary character. If you want to count how much screen time he has in the film, you had better decide whether seeing his shoulder counts. There are only two reasons that I can think of as to why he is featured so prominently here. One reason is that he gets first line of dialogâ€¦spoken from the background to a foreground character who is not even looking at him. The other reasonâ€¦wellâ€¦
Next time: Lahore (India: 2010, approx. 135 minutes)
Time after next: One Million Yen Girl (Japan: 2008, approx. 120 minutes)