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aka - J.S.A.
Korea 2000
Directed by
Park Chan-wook
110 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

Joint Security Area

Synopsis: Swiss military officer Major Sophie Jang (Lee Yeong-ae), the daughter of a Korean expatriate and a Swiss mother, arrives in Panmumjeom on the border between North and South Korea to conduct an impartial investigation of an incident which has resulted in the deaths of two North Korean soldiers. With conflicting depositions from the two survivors and both sides resenting her presence, she tries to work out what really happened.

The fact that the marketing for this film makes it looks like a blockbuster action film belies the fact that it is an original, adept and intelligent drama. Near the end of the Second World War, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel to expedite the surrender of the defeated Japanese forces to the armies of the US and USSR. Originally intended as a temporary measure, this dividing line became a permanent fixture in the Korean political landscape. In 1948, Korea was officially divided in two, with the Republic of Korea in the south and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the north, which ultimately led to the Korean War in 1950. As part of the Cease-fire Agreement that ended the Korea War in 1953, a 4km-wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was created to act as a buffer between the North and South. In addition, the two sides agreed to create a Joint Security Area (JSA) around Panmumjeom where both sides could meet face-to-face but which has also been the scene of various incidents.

Based on the Park Sang-yeon novel, "DMZ", Park Chan-wook's film centres on a modern-day cross-border incident in this flashpoint of North-South tensions. The incident is re-told via Rashomon-style flashbacks, twice according to the conflicting depositions and, finally, the true account. What makes this more engaging viewing that the standard action film is that the narrative explores with empathy and impressive directorial style the human implications of the incident and the political and ideological divide on which it was based. In fact, from the atmospheric opening night scenes one can tell that this film is a considerable cut above standard crowd-pleasing action fare. The first Korea film to use the Super-35 format, cinematographer Kim Sung-bok ably realizes Park's conception whilst the production is of comparably high standards (nearly $US 1 million was spent on an almost-exact replica of the Panmumjeom border setting).

Joint Security Area is a little difficult to follow in the early stages particularly because Lee Yeong-ae speaks in broken English and it takes time to orient oneself to the interplay between past and present, reality and hypothesis, but once one understands one's viewing position one can engage with and appreciate the complexity of the film's structure. The two central characters South Korean Sgt. Lee Soo-hyeok (Lee Byeong-heon) and North Korean officer, Sgt. Oh Kyeong-pil (Song Kang-ho) are both compelling in their roles. Across all departments, this is a superior quality film combining thought and action with great flair.




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