With the tensions in North Korea recently making big news headlines I felt it appropriate to introduce a little known film by South Korean filmmaker Park Chun-wook, a name largely associated with his 2003 masterpiece “Oldboy“, as a means of cinematically reflecting over the current state of affairs. J.S.A. (or Joint Security Area) would establish Chan-wook as a talented but more importantly insightful director whose second feature embodied the communal tensions that South Koreans share with their distant relations across the border. As a thriller, J.S.A. keeps the viewer guessing right up until the very end of its lengthy climax and reveal. As a piece of contemporary cinema, it firmly established one of the greatest young talents today, whilst reflecting on what seems like an age-old conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
J.S.A.‘s plot follows an investigation by young Swiss Army investigator Sophie Jean, who is sent to the 38th parallel to uncover the truth behind the shootings of two North Korean soldiers by a Southern trooper. As her journey across both sides of the border continues the differing attitudes towards her presence in both countries begins to reach boiling point when the truth is finally made known to her. Sophie (played by South Korean actress Lee Young-ae) acts as a gateway for the audience to experience the small universe concealed between the two nations borders. Like her, we look through a small lens that never reveals the outer peripheries. The regimes on both sides of the conflict successfully manage to keep us guessing as to who is behind or what caused such political turbulence.
Chan-wook’s direction is less focused than when he began what would later be known as his “Vengeance trilogy”, and some of J.S.A.‘s performance can be a tad on the ‘raw’ side. However with this less experienced mind we are witness to many clever moments in the film’s design and overall look. The cinematography and music used at the coda of the piece is particularly inventive, as are the ways in which both sides of the conflict are portrayed. Although indeed the North Koreans are depicted as highly secretive and suspicious, the moral dilemmas of right and wrong that such a situation can incur are left in the backdrop mostly. Both sides of each of the four main characters are slowly forgotten once their interaction with each other begins.
It is this overall motif of what is the truth that Chan-wook cleverly highlights nearly throughout the plot. Not the truth that the protagonist seeks, but instead the one lurking behind each states propaganda. The differences both pairs of soldiers have been raised to believe quickly become an apparent grouping of lies. It is only after all four come to realize this falsehood do their deaths become even more tragic. The final touch that Chan-wook leaves for us as viewers is a message that the truth (at least for the time being) is best left unknown, for some may not be prepared to accept such shattering change. Whether North Korea will still remain for another 50 years is unclear but one filmmaker is at least optimistic enough to imply status-quo cynicism won’t last forever.