Joint Security Area is an excellent film from talented director Chan-wook Park. A beautifully made production which highlights the lunacy of a divided Korea, this is a thought provoking and hugely enjoyable military drama with a serious point to make.
The film is set in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, the place where the prisoners of war were exchanged at the end of the Korean war, a place called Panmunjeom. The border here is heavily guarded by both sides and marked out by a metal line on the ground. The plot centres on a fictional modern day incident which took place in the North Korean border post at "The Bridge of No Return".
The incident in question results in two dead North Korean soldiers and a potentially major international crisis. Major Sophie E. Jean, a Swiss born woman with Korean heritage flies in to lead the investigation and try to piece together what really happened. She starts by interviewing the surviving men who were there Sgt. Lee Soo-hyeok a South Korean border guard and his Northern counterpart Sgt. Oh Kyeong-pil. Lee claims that he was abducted and shot the men while escaping but Oh´s account conflicts and Sophie has trouble getting co-operation to uncover the truth.
The action jumps around in time as several possible versions of events are played out. It seems another person was there and that neither of the survivors are telling the truth about what really happened. The governments on both sides seem keen to forget the whole thing and quick to speak for the two men involved. There are lots of revelations along the way as the film builds towards an explosive and emotional conclusion.
The direction is fantastic throughout and the high production values are apparent in the quality of the action and the seamlessly blended CG. The director Chan-wook Park is expert at blending scenes together as one shot is cleverly linked to the next. He also made the incredible Old Boy and it is the success of that film which has prompted a western release for this. This is a very different film which broke records at the South Korean box office in challenging the divide, which is obviously a highly controversial issue for Koreans, and yet the central theme of the futility of war is accessible to everyone.
The acting is also very good, Byung-hun Lee plays Sgt. Lee and gives a beautifully understated performance. The charismatic Kang-ho Song plays Sgt. Oh and is equally brilliant. Tae-woo Kim and Ha-kyun Shin provide support and the four are completely believable in their parts. The bonding and friendship between them is intelligently portrayed and the inevitable tragedy is deeply affecting. The weak link, if there is one, is Yeong-ae Lee as Maj. Sophie, her character doesn´t ring true and the four soldiers are far more interesting and engaging. The sequences about her past jarred slightly with the main story and felt slightly unnecessary.
JSA is both memorable and moving. Based on the novel DMZ by Park Sang-yeon this incredible story is brought to life expertly by a talented group of people and the result is well worth seeing. With the hostility continuing between North and South Korea it is comforting to be reminded that there are more similarities between people on either side than differences.