JSA, or Joint Security Area, was director Chan-Wook Park’s first big hit. Park, also known for Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, made the movie the highest grossing Kprean film at the time. JSA begins with an investigation being led by a Swiss born and raised and half Korean Major Sophie E. Jean, played by Yeong-ae Lee, investigating an incident on the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Two North Korean soldiers have been left dead, raising tensions that could prove to be the spark needed to set off a full-scale war. A wounded South Korean border guard, Sgt Lee Soo-hyeok, played by Byung-hun Lee, has been found on the demarcation line between the two sides and claims that he was kidnapped by the North. As Major Jean proceeds to interrogate the soldier the truth is gradually revealed through various flashbacks.
While not quite as gripping as Oldboy or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, JSA nevertheless makes for both an absorbing thriller and a comment on North-South relations. It goes without saying that Park’s visual style is very evident, from the often playful camerawork to more lyrical moments of the wind eerily blowing across marshland.
JSA is really two stories in one. The first is Major Jean’s investigation is far less interesting and plays like a reworking of A Few Good Men with an added dose of some well-meaning politics. The first half hour which sees the Major arrive at the DMZ and set up the subsequent plot, proves to be a rather inauspicious start with a lot of eyebrow-raising exposition and unconvincing acting that doesn’t bode very well. The real meat to the move was the story involving the border guards. The performances behind the four soldiers are all excellent, the smallest of glances and exchanges convincingly depicting relationships that move swiftly between mistrust, uncertainty and familiarity. Unfortunately the flashback structure between the two narrative threads does prove to be a rather irritating device, and you can’t help but wish that the movie had focused on the central story in a more linear fashion that would have suited it far better.
JSA was a decent movie, mainly due to the story behind the relationship of the border guards, but at times it moved along very slowly. It’s definitely not one of Park’s crowning achievements, but it hit a nerve with the Korean public.