JSA: Joint Security Area (2000) Review

"JSA: Joint Security Area" Korean Theatrical Poster

"JSA: Joint Security Area" Korean Theatrical Poster

Director: Park Chan-wook (Park Chan-uk)
Cast: Lee Byeong-heon, Song Kang-ho, Lee Young-ae, Kim Tae-woo, Sin Ha-gyun, Choi Sang-woo, Kim Myeong-su
Running Time: 100 min.

By Equinox21

J.S.A. has been my favorite Korean movie, my second favorite Asian movie (behind Chungking Express), and one of my top 5 favorite movies in general ever since I first saw it. Everything about it (save for one minor aspect) is absolutely top notch; acting, music, story, direction, ambiance… all perfect. As outstanding as J.S.A. is, watching it still brings down my day a bit as it is a great example of a classic tragedy.

When there’s a murder in a North Korean watch tower on the border between North and South Korea, Swiss-Korean investigator for the NNSC (Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission), Major Sophie Lang (Lee Yeong-ae), is called in to solve the mystery. The South Korean soldier that shot and killed 2 North Korean soldiers and wounded a third in the tower, while being wounded himself, has already been identified. What the Major must discover is exactly why the shootout took place. She doesn’t get any help from the two surviving players in the shootout, as North Korean Sgt. Oh (Song Kang-ho) claims that Sgt. Lee (Lee Byeong-hyun) simply walked in and started shooting, and Sgt. Lee claims that he’d been kidnapped and was forced to shoot the North Koreans in his escape. Through the course of the movie Major Lang must prevent hostilities from increasing all while she discovers the shocking truth. The story is absolutely perfect, and easily one of my favorites because of the great implications that the truth holds.

So as not to spoil any of the surprise, I’ll just say that the acting was terrific from Song Kang-ho, Shin Ha-kyun, Lee Byeong-hyun, and Kim Tae-woo. The entire impact of the movie rests on their shoulders, and they do not disappoint!

The direction was brilliant by Park Chan-wook. There are a number of elements he adds to the movie to keep the suspense and drama on overdrive. In particular is one seemingly minor scene in the first act that is repeated at the very end of the movie, but from a different angle in which it yields an entirely different emotional impact the second time around.

The music was extremely well placed in J.S.A., and has one of my favorite soundtracks of any Korean movie. It fits the tragic mood of the movie very well. It’s also such a moving soundtrack that it’s one of the few that I’ve bought. It couldn’t have been any better.

The ONLY negative aspects of this movie were the few portions that were in English. Lee Yeong-ae’s limited ability to speak English hurt the movie in only those few parts, but thankfully this had no impact on the overall story or feel. I just ignore these few scenes negative aspects when watching the movie, because every other scene more than makes up for it.

Everyone should watch this movie because, simply put, it is brilliant. Everything about it, except that one minor flaw, was perfect. This was a huge success in the South Korean box offices, and rightly so. See J.S.A. as soon as possible, if you haven’t already.

Equinox21’s Rating: 10/10

By Dragon Ma

Would you risk a certain death for something greater? I’m not sure that’s the question JSA is asking but it’s along those lines. This film deals with a friendship that occurs after someone takes a risk and walks over a line that’s marked certain death for the person who walks over it and anyone who greets him at the other end.

The film opens with a shooting and two men, Sergeant Lee(Lee Byung-Heon) and Sergeant Ho(Shin Ha-Kyun) from South Korea surviving and two from North Korea Lieutenant Choi and Private Jung(Kim Tae-Woo) dead and another North Korea, Sergeant Oh (Song Kang Ho) surviving. Major Sophie-Jean (Lee Young-Ae) is brought in by the NNSC (Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission) to find out what really happened. As Sophie begins to investigate she finds not everything is as straightforward as she thinks.

After the success of Shiri came another film dealing with the division of North and South Korea, only this one is not as loud and bombastic as Shiri. It’s more of a detective story but as you watch the film it explains early on what happened, the only thing that needs to be explained is why and that’s where JSA gets interesting. As both sides meet for the first time and realize neither is made out to be the enemy that they’ve been told you begin to appreciate the friendship although you know it’s not going to last and that’s the tragic part, this friendship will not survive because of the pervading outside forces that threaten it. The acting is superb across the board, the only weak link that maybe considered is Lee Young-Ae who never grew up in Korea but speaks perfect Korean but has broken English. Park-Chan Wook’s direction is smooth and assured and he doesn’t miss a step, although there is a misguided attempt at history somewhere in the film but that’s only a minor point, he also brings a great visual sense to the film but it’s used only sparingly so it doesn’t distract from the story or the characters. I recommend this excellent film to anyone who is interested in watching Korean films, it’s a great introduction as to why there has been such a buzz surrounding that country and here is your proof.

Dragon Ma’s Rating: 10/10

By Alexander

There are many things to like about Joint Security Area, from its fresh perspective of the volatile border between the two Koreas, the inclusion of a neutral Swiss investigative party depicted by competent (!) gwailo actors, a compelling and suspenseful narrative and deft direction by Park Chan-wook. But the most appealing quality of this dramatic thriller are the dynamic performances of Song Kang-ho (Shiri) and Lee Young-ae. Lee is particularly riveting as a South Korean soldier torn between his loyalty to an unexpected friend and his duty to his country. He effortlessly shifts from the expected stoicism of a border guard to boredom to terror as his character is faced with mounting dilemmas after an ill-advised encounter in North Korea.

JSA should not be dismissed as a straight action film ala Shiri or the dozens of films being churned out by Hong Kong crap factories. It’s so much more than a violent shoot-’em-up framed by the always topical conflict between North and South Korea. Rather, it’s a moving story that personalizes the agony faced by many Koreans separated from loved ones by political ideologies and massive, guns-at-the-ready armies.

JSA is REQUIRED viewing, and would serve as a fantastic introduction to the exciting (and rapidly expanding) world of Korean cinema.

Alexander’s Rating: 8.5/10

By Len

Between the two koreas lies a demilitarized zone, guarded by soldiers on both sides who are trained to be enemies. One night, this balance of terror is upset by a weird shootout on the North Korean side in which several soldiers from both sides are injured and killed. A young South Korean sergeant makes a confession on which he states that he’s responsible for the bloodshed, but what was he doing on the wrong side of the DMZ in the first place?

UN sends a neutral committee from Switzerland to investigate this volatile situation, headed by a young korean-born female officer. From here starts a intriguing mystery told in flashbacks and eyewitness accounts as slowly pieces of the puzzle start to reveal themselves.

Starting off like a normal, by-the-numbers actioner, JSA soon starts to develop into a intriguing drama where instead of political issues, the relationships between people are the main focus. As both sides give their views on what happened, the viewer starts to understand the actual course of events leading to the shootout but right until the end some things are kept under wraps, and thus the film constantly manages to surprise. Not only with plot revelations, but with the quality of the drama also.

Like some of you might have guessed already, I love this film. Director Park Chan-Wook knows how to keep the suspense until the very last scene and never loses touch of the actual human beings involved in the incident. This isn’t a film about soldiers, but a film of real people, with actual lives, who just happen to be soldiers in two rival nations. The brilliant acting plays a big part in this. Song Kang-Ho, who some might know from Foul King and Shiri, is just awesome as the north korean officer somehow involved in the shooting and Yeong-Ae Lee is very convincing as the South Korean sergeant who’s obviously trying to cover for someone by confessing.

In the end, the last piece of the puzzle is revealed as the camera slowly tours over a photograph taken by a tourist earlier in the film and forces the viewer to think about what (s)he has just seen.

A great film.

Len’s Rating: 9/10

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