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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
Soh Yun-Huei
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   Joint Security Area  


Joint Security Area

Reviewed by Soh Yun-Huei

Director: Park Chan-wook
Writing Credits: Jeong Seong-san, Kim Hyeon-seok
Starring: Lee Yeong-ae, Lee Byung-hun, Song Kang-ho, Kim Tae-woo, Shin Ha-kyun
Genre: Drama
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Year released: 2000
Runtime: 110 min
Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

Joint Security Area was released in Singapore without much fanfare, despite it breaking Korea’s box office record (and in the process, toppling Titanic). At first glance, it would seem as though Joint Security Area is an extended film version of TV series JAG, but thankfully it rises above mediocrity by the second reel, and becomes a relatively good drama about friendship. Although director Chan-Wook Park tends to go a bit overboard with the melodrama, the film’s central theme is readily accessible to general audiences. However, it must be said that men will probably find it easier to identify with the protagonists in Joint Security Area.

The Joint Security Area describes the area that divides the communist state of North Korea (NK) and the democratic nation of South Korea (SK). Both nations have patrol guards deployed in the area, ever vigilant and wary of its neighbor and any possible incursions. One night, shots are heard from the NK guard post, and a SK soldier Sergeant Lee (Byung-Hun Lee) escapes from the post, leaving two NK soldiers dead and another injured. As any casualties in the Joint Security Area is very sensitive and could possibly lead to an outbreak of war, the Neutral Nations Supervisory Committee (NNSC) sends an officer to investigate the case and present an unbiased report of the event.

The NNSC sends Swiss-born Korean Major Sophie E. Jean (Yeong-Ae Lee) to the Joint Security Area, but she finds that both nations are unwilling to cooperate in the investigation. Both Sergeant Lee and Sergeant Oh (Kang-Ho Song), the survivor on the NK side, are sticking to their depositions, despite several loopholes and inconsistencies in their stories. Major Jean tries her best to massage the truth out of the two parties, and in a series of flashbacks, it becomes apparent that Lee and Oh have become friends despite the political divide between them. However, several questions remain, the most puzzling being the reason behind the shootout. With the deadline for the report imminent, Jean must maintain her neutrality whilst trying to solve the case and avoid the possibility of a civil war.

Although it may seem that Yeong-Ae Lee is the main character in Joint Security Area, her role is actually quite small. By the second reel, she fades out of the picture and is replaced by the true leads of the film – the four soldiers who forge a risky friendship across their nations’ borders. Only in the final reel does Yeong-Ae Lee’s character regain the limelight, providing the solution to the case at hand. All five leads are credible in their roles, but Yeong-Ae pales in comparison to the four actors. Byung-Hun Lee is given the most screen time, but he tends to ham it up a little too much. The standout is Kang-Ho Song, whose portrayal of Sergeant Oh is very grounded and convincing – the emotions portrayed by him range from sadness to anger to quiet resignation, which he all tackles with great aplomb.

The script, written by Seong-San Jeong, Hyeon-Seok Kim and Chan-Wook Park, and based on a novel by Sang-Yeon Park, manages to keep the audience in suspense for a large part of the movie, revealing the whys of the incident bit by bit. Although it is a serious thriller at heart, Joint Security Area, quite unexpectedly, has a few comedic moments that are almost laugh-out-loud funny. As a large part of the film deals with the male bonding between four soldiers, it is possible that male audiences will find the film to be more accessible (especially those who have experienced army life). Melodrama does surface frequently in the film, and the plot holes are there if you are willing to look hard enough. The denouement can also be confusing, especially because the Censors have edited out small segments of the film, and there is a feeling that the director tried too hard to make the ending as "real-life" (read: depressing) as possible. However, Joint Security Area does give audiences a rare glimpse into the political situation facing the two Koreas, which probably explains why the film did so well in Korea.

Joint Security Area is also beautifully shot, particularly the scenes that are set in winter. Chan-Wook Park conveys a good sense of urgency in the battle and shootout sequences, although they do not compare to the kinetic frenzy of other war movies like Saving Private Ryan. An especially poignant scene is the final shot of Joint Security Area, which uses the components of a single photograph to exceptional effect. The message in the film is stark and clear: friendship and kinship should transcend all borders, and countries must learn to be more tolerant of each other. However, Chan-Wook manages to package the message in an easily digestible form, resulting in an educational, yet entertaining film. One of the best Asian offerings of the year.

Final Word: Funny and moving with a tinge of melodrama, Joint Security Area is a film that is eminently watchable without being too preachy. Do note that there are certain graphic scenes involving bodies and a mortuary (and a severed thumb – don’t ask).