Without a doubt, Korea is becoming the brightest new country in the Asian filmmaking world. Between Shiri, Whasango, and JSA, they have put out three of the liveliest and most interesting movies released in all of Asia in the past several years. It probably comes as little surprise that two of those three movies deal explicitly with the relationship between North and South Korea: Shiri deals with it in the guise of an action thriller, while JSA is more of a tragic drama.
This is not to say that one movie is inherently better than the other. Shiri is an audience-pleaser and full of slam-bang action; JSA, derived from a bestselling thriller, is more contemplative and thoughtful, with fine acting and a fairly complicated plot that doubles back on itself several times. Both movies are likely to find their audiences easily, and in fact JSA quickly outgrossed Shiri during its run in Korean and Asian theaters.
JSA works in much the same vein as recent American military thrillers like A Few Good Men, where somewhat untested young men and women come up against the weight of the system and try to prove themselves right. JSA, fortunately, doesn't depend on any of the theatrics of that movie (or its jury-rigged plotting or ham-handed execution) to make its points. Over US$1 million (a sizable budget by Korean standards) was spent on building exact replicas of the bridges and buildings at Panmumjeom; there's never a cheesy or unconvincing moment.
The film opens after a border conflict in the DMZ between North and South Korea. After the cease-fire in the Korean War was negotiated at Panmumjeom, both sides agreed to create a Joint Security Area (JSA) there, allowing for both North and South Korean officers to meet in person when needed. A South Korean sergeant named Lee (Byung-hun Lee) , stationed at one of the border watchposts in the JSA, was apparently kidnapped by the opposing North Korean watchmen and brutally beaten. He managed to get himself free, kill two North Korean soldiers, and get back over the border just as a huge firefight erupted between North and South Korean guards.
Or is that what really happened? This is what Major Sophie E. Lang (Yeong-ae Lee) faces when she arrives from Switzerland to pick up the pieces of the case. She and the supervising General Botta (Christoph Hofrichter) are with a subdivision of the United Nations that oversees incidents between the two Koreas just such as this. Both of them are outsiders: Botta is European, and Lang is the daughter of a Korean expatriate and a Swiss mother. As it turns out, an outsider's perspective is probably the one thing that will help them understand what's going on — provided they are allowed to finish their jobs. In one of the best scenes in the movie, we learn that no one on either side really wants anyone to be able to take the blame for this — all the better to preserve the stalemate between North and South.
At first Lee doesn't want to talk, period. The one surviving North Korean soldier, Sgt. Oh Kyeong-pil (Song Kang-ho, who appeared as Ryu's buddy in Shiri), tells a radically different version of events. Lang confronts Lee with the inconsistencies in his statement, and bit by bit the truth of the matter comes out. This Rashomon-style story could have been confusing and boring, but the movie is so solidly put together that nothing falls by the wayside.
The movie reveals this information to us in the form of a long (over an hour) digression in the middle of the film, timestamped with dates so that we understand when things happen. Apparently, almost over a year ago, Lee was on a reconnaissance mission, got separated from the rest of his company, and stepped on a North Korean mine. Sgt. Oh and one of his men showed up, and wound up saving him. They had a reason not to kill him on sight: if he stepped off the mine, he'd kill them all, and Oh's cohort had a dog with him who might give them away if they started shooting.
I will not give away any more details about what happened between Sgts. Oh and Lee, because it is at the very heart of the movie. The film takes time to develop a complicated and ultimately sad story, always returning to the same basic notion: The guy on the other side of the fenceline is, after all, just another guy, and in the end all divisions of nation and country are arbitrary. But the movie is not unrealistic about its beliefs: it is, if anything, grimly realistic about how far such idealism can get us in a world like this one.
A lot of what makes JSA so compelling is how things develop over the course of a long period of time. At first the men on both sides of the line don't even acknowledge each other's existence, let alone humanity. By the time the movie is over, they have become willing to tell lies and even die for one another, sometimes without even quite knowing why themselves. The film's also beautifully composed and shot — cinematographer Kim Sung-bok also filmed Shiri, not surprisingly, although he trades in that movie's hand-held frenzy for a more carefully constructed look. If the film has any technical flaw, it is in the oddball English used by Botta and Lang — it sounds grating, but I realized that it would probably be like that in real life, since neither of these characters had English as their first language.
The director, Park Chan-wook, has been responsible for one other movie before this: The Anarchists, a very thoughtful look at the Koreans who rebelled against the Japanese occupation forces during WWII. With JSA, he has created something worthy of international repute in the truest sense of the term. The movie has real heart and soul, something that ought to come through to any audience, no matter what their native language. And then there is the movie's wonderful final shot, which sums up everything we need to know about what we've seen without saying a single word.