Joint Security Area (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Although the story opens when a member of the Swiss Army Forces is sent to investigate a double murder at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a strip of land that separates North and South Korea, Park Chan-wook’s “Joint Security Area” is not so much a murder mystery but rather an excoriation of bureaucracy, of those in power, and of disguising status quo as peace. The core of this drama, certainly an anti-war picture, is friendship shared between two South Koreans and two North Koreans, soldiers tasked to guard their respective territories but instead finding themselves opening up to something new or different, anything outside of simply spending another long day looking through binoculars and wondering what soldiers on the other side are up to.
In the middle of this humanistic picture, I realized it is quite possibly the first time I was seeing North Korean soldiers portrayed as complex people. In the news, in books, and in the movies, North Koreans are shown as if they were robots, either marching in unison or standing as if paralyzed on the spot. Here, they can look stern in uniform and wield guns in menacing fashion, but they are also capable of joking, laughing, experiencing sadness, and saving lives outside of their bubble. Song Kang-ho and Shin Ha-kyun play Sergeant Oh and Private Jung who find Sergeant Lee (Lee Byung-hun), soldier from the south, within North Korean territory after he gets separated from his scouting group. Sergeant Lee has stepped on a mine; Sergeant Oh and Private Jung decide to help him even though their training dictates that they to kill dirty capitalists on the spot. Why didn’t they do what they were programmed to do?
What I find beautiful and compelling about this film is that questions are raised about one character but real answers can be found by understanding someone else. It is the very definition of empathy, and the work requires the audience to tap into it. In the case Oh and Jung, we spend ample time with Lee and Private Nam (Kim Tae-woo) in the South Korean border house. They are so bored, and when they are aren’t, they’re worrying about trivialities. The mind has to go somewhere. Soon, the four soldiers are under one roof drinking, playing games, and opening up about their private lives. We find ourselves caught up in it… until we are reminded once again of the murders that took place. What exactly took place that led to bloodshed?
The investigation is led by Swiss Army Major Jean (Lee Young-ae). She is under the impression that she is sent to the DMZ to extract the truth from the suspects and submit an official report. She expects a cut-and-dried solution. But then again she is under the assumption that the demarcation between north and south is clear and defined. It is, after all, what we see on television; it is what we are told by those who have power and willing to work to maintain that power. There is a curious but unexplored detail about the major being biracial (caucasian mother, Asian father) and how (or if) that may be tinting her lens as a neutral figure, as a professional who studied law, as a woman in a line of work by which the majority are men. There is a strength about Lee that I wished was tapped into a lot more.
The director exercises an eye for visual pageantry that gets his points across in a most efficient manner. Consider, for instance, the distance between the North and South Korean border houses. They’re within eyesight, not more than a hundred yards away. Yet the space in between requires constant monitoring. Any sign of crossing a literal painted line would summon men with big guns. Also, the bridge that crosses the demarcation between North and South Korea is literally called “The Bridge of No Return.” With a name so dramatic, you wouldn’t think it’s a wooden bridge. But it is. And it doesn’t even look all that sturdy. Park possesses a knack for highlighting silliness but at the same time it is a sobering reminder of what is. It’s as if he’s saying, “Surely we, as an intelligent species, must be better than this.”