This is a comfort movie. I could watch it once a month. I don’t know why that is, beyond the near-comprehensive analysis of its themes featured in this video, that really gets me. But it’s everything.
A murder on the DMZ prompts an investigation by the Neutral Nations Supervisory Committee, Swedish and Swiss officers who head down to Pyongyang and then Seoul to get both sides of the story. This of course makes for two very different accounts. NNSC agent Sophie Jang, played by international celebrity and BBPX heartthrob Yeong Ae Lee, begins as audience proxy, but maintains this cold front even when the film changes.
And change it does. What begins as a murder mystery becomes a startling human drama of unexpected depth and effect. South Korean suspect Sgt. Lee, played by international celebrity and BBPX heartthrob Byung-hun Lee, formed a bond with one North Korean Sgt. Oh, played by super-actor Kang-ho Song.
It’s a forbidden bromance, if you have it, a four-man brotherhood despite the very real split along the 38th parallel. Now we see why they didn’t want to talk to Jang. It wasn’t about covering up murder for the sake of going free, but covering up something the rest of the world could never understand.
The movie takes its time to peel layers of military culture away, while at the same time using it as a foundation for this humanistic relationship. Because people aren’t hardwired to kill, the military promotes brotherhood among soldiers so that you’ll fire a rifle — on behalf of your family, not yourself. This is how Lee and Oh, and Nam and Jung, come to be friends.
And look at that: ‘because people aren’t hardwired to kill,’ becomes a truism embedded in the story, a necessary idea to motivate the rest of the film. This is a movie about people trained to kill each other, who choose not to. The rarity of this theme would make JSA a standout film, but it’s in the expression of it.
It’s a non-linear film, whose lead is actually Sophie Jang, rather than Lee or Oh. We get flashbacks during the narrative of her investigation, though some of these flashbacks are false depositions. It’s a story that needed to be told non-chronologically, which I always appreciate, because that level of control is taken by the writer, they’re not beholden to the narrator of… Father Time.
And we know how talented a director Chan Wook Park is — Oldboy and Lady Vengeance are top-tier in artistic violence — but this is a case of world-class control over image, the ability to tell stories with the frame and with juxtaposition in sequencing, only, applied to a real story, one that says something beyond ‘revenge is bad’ or ‘don’t be a vampire,’ or whatever the hell.
If I was a middle-school teacher, I would get fired so fast screening this and Boyz N the Hood back-to-back in class. Although wildly divergent messages about humanity (Boyz will characterize young black men on their own terms, rather than white talking heads), the principle of entertainment as platform for education is fully effective. Devastating, on both counts.
Joint Security Area is a heartbreaking film, ending on a note of hope as born of error. Now we know what not to do, basically. And this is a lesson the Koreas should take forward. Even more, it’s a lesson everyone should learn, especially that middle school class. Look, war is unnatural. You can’t do that in an essay, but movies speak a more emotional language, and this one chokes me up each and every time.