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Spotlight on South Korean Cinema: Park Chan-wook and J.S.A.

For the next few months I’ll be doing a “Spotlight on S. Korea” series, in which I discuss some of the most exciting films to come out of that country in recent years. First up is a look at Park Chan-wook’s JSA: Joint Security Area from 2000.

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While recently suffering through a screening of Im Sang-soo’s interminable The Taste of Money, a ham-fisted melodrama whose trite sociological insights (money corrupts!) seem to only serve as a thin pretext for copious amounts of sex and nudity, I had to ask myself, “Is the S. Korean New Wave finally dead?” Is this really the best of the recent Korean movies upon which the likes of the Cannes Film Festival and IFC Films has to draw? Some would say that the death knell first sounded in 2006: that’s when the S. Korean government, as part of a new “free trade” agreement with the U.S., struck down a “screen quota” law that required theaters to show locally produced movies for at least 40% of the year. Yet great S. Korean films continued to be made over the next several years, even if they were less frequent in number than in the halcyon days of 2002-2005. It now seems, however, that the S. Korean cinema might really be going the way of the formerly mighty film industry of Hong Kong: among the top tier of Korean directors, several have recently tried their luck working outside of their native country for the first time (Kim Ji-woon with the poorly received Arnold Schwarzenegger-vehicle The Last Stand, Park Chan-wook with the superb but under-promoted Nicole Kidman-starring Stoker and Bong Joon-ho with the forthcoming international co-production Snowpiercer). Lee Chang-dong, arguably the greatest contemporary S. Korean director, has always worked at a slow pace, directing just three of his uniquely novelistic movies since his breakout success with Peppermint Candy in 1999. That leaves only the prolific Hong Sang-soo to keep the home fires burning with the dependable annual releases of his patented intellectual take on the rom-com. So now seems like a good time to look back at the remarkable burst of creativity that the S. Korean directors showed in the early 21st century.

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Whenever I am lucky enough to teach contemporary S. Korean cinema in a class, J.S.A.: Joint Security Area is always the movie I screen first, even if it might not come first chronologically among the films I’ve chosen to show. This is because J.S.A.‘s political-thriller plot lays out the entire history of the conflict between North and South Korea in a way that is succinct, accessible and informative without ever being didactic. It is also ideal because it was directed by Park Chan-wook, who is probably the single most popular and critically acclaimed director, on an international basis, to come out of S. Korea since the 1990s. Park was born in Seoul in 1963. He majored in Philosophy at Sogang University, where he also started a movie club (and many critics have seen a dovetailing of these interests in his highly regarded, philosophically inflected “Vengeance trilogy”). It was while in college that Park first decided to become a film director, after attending a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Upon graduation, he worked as a film critic, then as an assistant director before he made his feature directing debut in 1992 with a movie entitled The Moon is the Sun’s Dream. Both this debut film and Trio, his 1997 follow-up, were met with critical and commercial indifference. J.S.A., his third movie, was released in 2000 and quickly broke all box-office records to become the highest grossing Korean movie of all time.

J.S.A. tells the fictional story of a shooting at the “Joint Security Area” on the border between the two Koreas, an incident allegedly perpetrated by a South Korean soldier, that has left two North Korean soldiers dead and another seriously wounded. Because this event inflames an already highly sensitive diplomatic situation, the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission sends in a Swiss Army officer of Korean descent, Major Sophie Jang (Lee Yeong-ae, the future “Lady Vengeance”), to investigate. After interviewing participants on both sides of the incident and hearing conflicting accounts of what happened, Jang quickly realizes that nothing is what it seems. But who is lying and why? This present day story is intercut with lengthy flashbacks concerning the principles involved in the shooting — in particular, North Korean Sergeant Oh (the great Song Kang-ho) and South Korean Sergeant Lee (Lee Byung-hun). Without giving too much of the plot away, Park gradually leads viewers to realize that what both sides are trying to cover up is nothing more harmful than friendship, which pushes the story in directions both ironic and tragic.

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One of the things that surprised me the most when I started exploring S. Korean cinema years ago was the degree to which its filmmakers expressed a desire for reunification and reconciliation with the North, a country with which they are still technically at war. J.S.A., a movie without precedent, was widely acclaimed by S. Korean critics as well as audiences upon its first release. In fact, the only sector of S. Korean society that seemed to disapprove of the film was the military (whose members objected to a sympathetic portrayal of the N. Korean “enemy”). The movie’s plea for tolerance and peace was clearly a message that resonated far and wide in a country whose inhabitants have been raised to hate and fear a neighbor they know little about, despite sharing a common language and culture. Yet because film censorship laws had only been relaxed in S. Korea a few years prior to J.S.A. being made, it was a message that would not have been possible any earlier. Fortunately, Park Chan-wook was well-positioned to deliver such a message in making J.S.A. (not only as a young ambitious writer/director eager to bust taboos but also as a member of the Democratic Labor Party, the most progressive political party in his country).

One of the central ideas in J.S.A., posited, as is often the case with Park, in mostly visual terms, is the tragic notion that borders are man-made and therefore arbitrary. The motif of borders, whether physical or psychological (sometimes the division is within a single character), is one that recurs throughout S. Korean cinema and Park’s movies in particular. The notion of “being divided” seems almost ingrained in the Korean consciousness and Park fully explores the concept here, occasionally with a dash of absurd humor, in the film’s many bifurcated frames. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the final shot of J.S.A., a doozy that haunts in its evocative ambiguity: in a flashback to an event that occurred midway through the movie, Park allows his camera to pan across and zoom in and out of — Ken Burns-style — a black-and-white photograph of all four of the film’s main characters in happier times; two soldiers from the North and two from the South, each standing on opposite sides of the border that runs through the Joint Security Area, are united together in the same frame yet separated from each other by a government-enforced line of demarcation — a moment that is frozen in time forever.

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J.S.A.: Joint Security Area is available in a serviceable edition on DVD from Palm Pictures. An upgrade to Blu-ray, a format on which all of Park’s subsequent movies are available, would be most welcome.

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

60 responses to “Spotlight on South Korean Cinema: Park Chan-wook and J.S.A.

  • Susan Doll

    Excellent piece. Very helpful for cinephiles and film scholars. I am so looking forward to other posts in this series.

  • Spotlight on South Korean Cinema: Nowhere to Hide | White City Cinema

    […] was totally ripped off by the Wachowski siblings for their third Matrix movie). If, as I speculated months ago, the golden age of South Korean cinema truly has come to an end, cinema lovers will still always […]

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  • shao jun huang

    I knew some Korean’s history as an Asian since I was young. I just heard and discussed some news about the North Korea with my friends few days ago. My friends told buying the import product in North Korea is crime. And only the president and some kind of important can use Internet to reach things outside the North Korea. I though they just kidding at that time, but now, I thought the reason may be the North Korea tried to stop their people compare themselves with the South Korean.
    The movie J.S.A. seems told the audience the tension situation between South and North Korea was made by the last generation. One point is the major Sophie Jang who was a Korean but grew up at other country would not have those hard feeling to any side of Korean. Even her father is a victim of the Korean War. Her knew the situation between South and North Korea, so she chose to listen to herself instead of listen to Sgt. Lee, Private Nam, and Sgt. Oh.
    Another point is Sgt. Oh and Private Jung chose to help Sgt. Lee instead of left or killed him when they first met. Sgt. Oh was a good and smart man. He seems understand the true of these two sides of the country. He was the first man to give a hand to both side people even he did it in private. He taught Sgt. Lee that they could be friend. Then Sgt. Lee would introduce Private Nam to Sgt. Oh and Private Jung.
    Unfortunately, the fifth man broke everything. At the same time, the movie showed a cruel true to the audience. The influence from last generation was too strong to make these four men trust each other. The killing started, and everything went back to the tension situation.

  • zhuyu ye

    The whole movie combines the traditional Korean specialties with a tragic ending, but not deliberately. A comment suddenly occures to me saying that Andersen’s fairy tale has a good development, but usually escape sa sad ending (daughter of the sea turned into foam, happy prince was sent to the furnace), it appears the ideal and the reality of the conflict. “JSA” is not a fairy tale, but it gives the same feeling.
    When it comes to the battle waged, we often praise the friendship between comrades, but “JSA” tells a story about a relationship between the “enemy”. War is not out intention, they always placed close relatives’ photos in pockets, they raised a puppy in the post, they would carry sketch book and pencil close at hand …… but this time, they were only tools under authority. During the investigation, because both sides refused to say the truth, Sophie had no choice but ask both sides to meet together. They were sitting on both sides of the table, standing behind them is their support forces. Sophie took the model to reproduce the case, was present on behalf of man-puppet characters, then in front of them committed suicide jumping through the window to play the South rose plant video. When the time Wu Jing saw Lee Soo-hyuck shaken expression, surprisely he pushed the table, punch down with Lee Soo-hyuck, shouting “Long live the Democratic People!.” Scene immediately became belligerent, tables were overturned models scattered on the ground, as a support officer drew a pistol, riding in the man-puppet. However, soldiers, they are like those who have been twisted to pieces puppets.
    Although the theme of war film, “JSA” contains only one scene of gun shoot. I always do not like no drama and bloody fight scenes, for this period, i was totally moved. Lens had been switched quickly. It is difficult to forget they flew across the border in the rain back to the post, drenched ground curled up in the corner of the room crying. Bullets flew across him, crushing glass and house utensils in one place; it is difficult to forget their anxious expression because they worried about whether Lee Soo-hyuck had returned safely; it is difficult to forget Lee Soo-hyuck’s limping leg, falling down as to run to the other side as fast as he can. One scene showed that he faced to the sky, at that moment rain mixed with tears .
    The movie gave me a deep impression on those little details. For example, in Northern outpost tried to adjust the camera angle; when on duty they spat with each other; for example, when a gust of wind blew caused a little panic ; for example flashing back and showing that black and white photographs at the end of the movie ……

  • Edmund Eng

    Honestly, I did not know much about the history of Korea, but after watching JSA, I have a better idea on it. I know more about Chinese history because im Chinese, but Korean history is something very new to me.
    Personally, I love the plot of this movie. The director, Park Chan-wook does a really good job at conveying emotion through relationships with other people. Even with all the conflict going on between North and South Korea, these group of soldiers from both North and South Korea managed to build a relationship that could not be broken. It was a strong relationship, like brothers. They were willing to sacrifice for each other and put their lives on the line for each other. I feel like that relationship made the movie a lot more interesting because we can all relate to that close bond.
    One other thing I wanted to point out is the use of people smoking together out of respect. Smoking is emphasized in the movie to show one’s respect to one another and a sign that they are comfortable with each other. This aspect of the movie really caught my eye and I found it a very unique addition to the movie.
    I really enjoyed this movie because it was very interesting and unique to me. I’m not a fan of Korean dramas or movies like this, but I can honestly say that this movie could make me a fan. Overall, this movie was great and I would love to watch more movies similar to this and learn more about Korean history.

  • Cristina Rosas

    I first didn’t understand what was going on. This film consists mostly of a long flashback . I’ve never understood the difference between North Korea and South Korea. After this film I now have a better sense of how it is. North Korea is considered very strict and both sides are raised to hate each other and be enemies. Basically a civil war was going on. The director took advantage of the changing times and got this film made otherwise it would not have been possible. The introduction of the film we see a mysterious shooting and the shooter is presumed to be Sergeant Lee. I agree with your post about the imaginary lines made by man. In the film the borders are feared as expressed in the scene where Sergeant Lee attempts to introduce Private Nam to his North Korean friends. When these two North soldiers were introduced they seemed dangerous but they ended up helping Sergeant Lee out of the trap. Private Nam is scared to even step one foot over the line. I like how you said the original style of the shot of the photograph in the end. It’s nice to know how this inspiring film technique was imitated and was used well. It really emphasized the theme of the whole film in literally one picture.

  • Mandukhai Damdinjav

    I am a big fan of Korean movies. This movie was really a great narrative about the South Korea and North Korea. I saw this movie, when I was a teenager before, but never really understood the story line of this movie. Now more than five years have past since I watched it the first time. Now I truly understand the movie. It is truly a tear jerker melodrama.
    The scene’s are always evolved around the and at the border. Sgt. Lee and Sgt. Oh met at the field, when Sgt. Lee got stuck on a minefield. Ever since Sgt. Oh saved Sgt. Lee, they became friends, who would send each other letters, and even crossed the border to hang out and talk to Sgt. Oh and his other soldier Jeong. Sgt. Lee keeps sneaking to the North Korean border line to Sgt. Oh. Over the course of days and weeks they became good friends. They would play games with each other, and talk about their personal life. The end scene of the photograph of the four soldiers was a great technique zooming and out to show us the regular happy they were. Until the reality hit them with their country. Neither of them wanted to reveal the truth to protect the country.
    Major Sophie E. comes in two solve what really happened between the four soldiers. Sgt. Lee and soldier and friend Nam Sung. They both were just normal guys, who were friends. Close friends. Sgt. Oh and soldier Jeong Woo were on the North Korean border.
    Both sides were lying to Major Sophie. She tried to find out and tried to push both sides to find out, but she got stuck because neither soldiers wouldn’t talk to protect their side. In the end she found out that they were both side were lying, and they were actually friends.
    This movie has a lot of the physical and psychological motif that appears through out the scene. When Nam Sung was questioned that his wapon was fired, he got scared, and tempted suicide. He threw himself of the window. Sgt. Lee kills himself in the end. Jeong dies, when all four of them got caught by the North Korean Sgt.
    In this film we had the main colors of green, dark blue, brown, white, and black colors. The plot is that those four soldiers got entangled in their friendship with each other. The emotions are and feelings aren’t hold back in the end.
    It is truly a sad melodrama,that shows the tension between North Korea and the South Korea film.

  • Mercedes Abreu

    There are very few movies that I will watch again and very few movies I will brag about. But J.S.A I enjoyed, and will watch again. Compared to what I’ve watched in theatres lately, I enjoy my Saturdays at HWC. I had an idea of the strife between North and South Korea, but only from a PBS WTTW view point. It was not until Private Nam jumps from the window do I become hooked. At first I thought the premise was a soldier gay love affair, and even thought it might have a resemblance to A Few Good Men (Reiner, 1992) – Even better, Park Chan-Wook does an incredibly thing,- J.S.A- an unlikely friendship between soldiers fighting/ standing for different sides, although they do share a language and culture, they are divided. They also share the psychological border that stops their boots in their tracks. I can agree Sargent Oh, is an extraordinary character, for example his loyalty as a person, as a brother speaks a bit- when he is indulging into a chocolate moon pie and Sargent Lee suggest that in being part of South Korea, he’ll get to eat as many moon pies as he’d like. Sargent Oh removes the entire pie from his mouth to say he would continue to eat the North’s horrible version of moon pie than convert. J.S.A does expressed the desire for reunification and reconciliation among both sides. I can agree this movie is a bold statement for peace. J.S.A a great thriller melodrama -I enjoyed it greatly. I am looking forward to see Stoker, the trailer was intriguing.

  • Lakita Flowers

    Nice post, I really like how you pointed out how the boarder that divides north and South Korean being man made. Park Chan-wook did a good job in show casting the division amongst North and South Korea. I knew a little about the division of N and S Korea but I had no idea how serious it was. J S A gave me a lot of insight on this issue. It really doesn’t make sense to divide people of the same culture because of what happened in the past then to teach the future generations to dislike the other side. For them to have that hate it must be taught. This movie is very sad, people died just for having a friendship with the so called “enemies.” The final shoot of the movie is amazing. Seeing all four of them happy and looking right into the camera but only being divided by a government line is really sad.

  • Julie Vera

    I truly admire Korean Films, and I never knew I would enjoy them. This is my first time watching a Korean film and I was wondering if Park Chan-Woo the director of J.S.A made this movie to send a message. I knew that North Korea and South Korea had been enemies for a long time. In the movie you have Major Sophie Jang trying to figure who was responsible for the death of two soldiers, and how did it all started. It’s amazing to see how the director showed the bright side of each soldiers, and that they seem tired of all the hate that is going on between N. Korean, and S. Korean. Sgt. Lee was rescued by a North Korean Sgt, which was Sgt. Oh. The director showed his viewers that one good act can change everything, just like it even made Private Nam change his view about N.Korea. In the movie you see the goofy side of all four soldiers. After reading your article I was not surprised that the military disapprove of this magnificent film. Especially when lots of hate has been going on for years.

  • Shield K.

    I didn’t think that I would enjoy a political thriller, but JSA was an excellent movie. The style of movie, as well as its script, was what made this movie so easy to watch. With the flashbacks throughout this film, its gives you a chance to try to figure out yourself with what really happened. As the story starts to unfold you realized how tragic it all was. It wasn’t so much as a political motive but the protection their friendship and the love that they had for one another regardless of the man-made boarder.

    I also like that this movie was educational while entertaining. This film gives those who are unaware or know little of Korea’s history a chance to explore it and try to understand how one country turned into two. I think that it’s a tragic history. The North Korea people are in limbo, very unaware of the changing outside world. They believe in a great leader who has done little for them, even causing North Korean famine. As the North is left behind, South Korea became a thriving, technological, modern day society. South Korea is one of the most technologically advanced country in the world and they aren’t stopping anytime soon. They have come very from since the Japanese occupation of Korea/Korean War. And I think that only time can tell the fate of these two countries.

  • Andrew Klapp

    JSA is a very obvious plea for reunification. The pivotal event in the film is the two North Korean and South Korean soldiers losing the ability to remain friends, and that event is made clear only after most of the film’s time is spent showing the depth of their friendship. From the initial building of trust with Sgt. Oh disarming the mine that Sgt. Lee was standing on to the seemingly endless nights of playing games in the guard house.

    I agree that the film emphasizes that borders are arbitrary, but the ending makes it obvious that while crossing them is a good start, actually removing them is far more complicated than that.

    The story is told largely in flashbacks, which is often done poorly and results in a frustrating and confusing film experience. This story, however, really benefits from this method because it uncovers the details as Mjr. Jean does.

  • Doug Jones

    I haven’t really been familiar with Korean film and cinema but I was so amazed on how well this film really puts is the audience in such enjoyment and in some ways at “the end of our seat” throughout the film. The most important aspect of this film is that it is told through flashbacks and its like a puzzling type of way the film is made. We the audience put the film in chronological order since we are putting what went down with who in JSA. It is familiar to other American films that use the flashback techniques that has the audience intrigued and kept the attention all to the screen.

    Another big aspect of the film that is used In a different Spotlight and different form of way is that it conveys the “forbidden love” but in this case it’s the forbidden “friendship” that separates the North and the South. The forbidden “feel” to it is similar to (for example) “Romeo and Juliet”. Just like in that case if they were seen together it would bring outrage and hate between the two sides. Just like in JSA, if the soldiers were caught in their opposing side’s territory, they would be in huge trouble and will most likely face severe consequences and maybe even death.

    JSA is a film that stands out for itself and provides all types of emotion. Where it’s happy and good feeling such as the soldiers bonding and creating a “brotherhood” with one another. Then at other times it provides, sad and emotionally disturbing feels, such as the final scenes where they have to be done with each other for good and they even start to kill each other or themselves at a point. It really is a film to remember.

  • Derian Avalos

    JSA surprised me. It was fantastically well-made, but that’s not what surprised me. Instead, it’s the idea, as you point out, that South Koreans pine for unification, especially since when I learned about the demilitarized zone in high school, and by learning about what conditions are like in North Korea, where famine is widespread and a dictatorship is in place, I got the feeling that North and South Korea truly wanted nothing to do with each other. And yet what this film and your lecture showed is that it’s not quite as clear-cut as that (it hardly ever is, right?), and that there is another side to the situation that gets ignored by western education and the media.

    And so, the notion that South Koreans want to be unified with their people is tragic, since the border in place makes it impossible. And as you (once again) point out, it’s made even more tragic by the fact that the borders are man-made. In JSA, we get the notion that borders can just be arbitrary and silly. We, in a way, learn to fear them, because they keep things out, and sometimes give us the idea of being kept safe from something else. Much like when Private Nam first fears crossing the border; he has been conditioned to fear the North because of the border. And yet, when Sergeant Lee and Private Jeong begin spitting over the border and at each other, we see the true silliness of the situation; the border is truly just as absurd as that short interaction.

    I have to say that I really enjoy more tragic films that have friendship as their theme, like Stand by Me, and JSA was not a disappointment. I really didn’t expect the flashback scene to be so long, but it was brilliant nonetheless, and really is the meat of the movie, in my opinion. Because of its tragic nature, I get the feeling that the film is calling for some sort of impossible change, as depicted by the scene in the outpost, where the murder takes place; human nature is near impossible to change, and someone will always get in the way, but there is always a small ray of hope that the impossible can somehow be achieved.

  • Jessica Diaz

    I had never watched a Korean political thriller before and thought I was not going to like it but I honestly really enjoyed it. At first I didnt undestand it because it showed the ending first then went on to a flashback but then I started to get it when the action started happening. I never knew Korea was divided into a north and south. I think its sad that its still going on today. It was a really good political thriller that showed the history of Koreans conflict between north and south being informative, funny, sad and intriguing. It was interesting how the man made border divided them and couldnt even show their shadow on the other side. The relationship of Sergeant Lee, Private Nam and Sergeant Oh, Private Jung was a strong bond of friendship that showed that their was no harm in bonding with the other side because they are all human. I thought the comedy in the film such as when the four guys would play around silly games like standing on one leg or the guards spitting at each other brought humar to the film instead of being all about depressing war. The ending was really sad because it was like the bond of like four brothers who had become soo close ended up with them shooting one another because they were discovered. The shooting was soo bloody and tragic. When Sergeant Lee said to forget the brotherly crap because at the end they were enemies something of that sort had me dissappointed because he had a point. Even though they had formed a friendship they were at war with one another. Even though Sergeant Lee and Sergeant Oh were on different sides they still tried to protect one another. They had a strong connection especially since Sergeant Oh had saved Sergeant Lee when he disactivated a mine he had stepped on. I thought it was a sad ending because Sergeant Lee killed himself and Sergeant Oh was discharged. The image at the end was really significant because it showed the four guys on their side divided by the border and was surprising to see that a picture taken during the film throughout the beginning would be used at the end closing up on the four of them. I thought it was key in the fillm because it was unexpecting and didnt occur to me that the ones who were at the front of the border line would have formed a friendship that ended up tragic.

  • Yeongjae Nam

    “J.S.A: Joint Security Area” is a South Korean movie in 2000. This movie is about sad Korean history which is divided by regime that communism and democratic. Our country is always hoping to reunification each other someday. When I was in elementary school and ten years old, this movie released and it was sensational at that time. I watched it with my family and I recalled that my father highly recommended to watch this movie because the atmosphere at that time most Korean should watch this film. South Korean government and North Korean government tried to reconcile and very favorable to each other at that time. The previous president Dae-jung Kim and Jung-il were close to each other and met several times for good relationship. That time was most peaceful time with South and North Korea after the Korean War. In school, teacher always highlighted that South and North Korea have to reunify as soon as possible and teacher let students to sing “Our hope is reunification.”
    I think Korean movies are highly related to Korean politics at that specific time. When the government tend to open mind to distribution of any kinds of movie, Korean movie industry is very active and well make movie. During the Democratic Party’s president in South Korea, from 1998 to 2008 year, Korean movie was golden age. However, when the government controls the movie distribution, Korean movie technically make common story and common movie.
    J.S.A is very well made Korean movie. The editing technique is really good and sound track is great harmonize with the sad feeling of protagonists. Specially, zoom in and zoom out technique is great. The scenes have overtones. The flashbacks are greatly organized and appropriate in whole story. The protagonists shares deep and sad feeling why our nations are divided by two. Sgt. Lee and Sgt. Oh are very close friends like family. They share same emotion of Korean song and taste of cookie. They both shared too many things except same nation. When they played like children, that scene showed natural and pure instinct of human being. Only physical barrier which is system is exist between them. There was no barrier in their mind.
    It was third time I watched this film. First was when I was ten years old, second is three years ago, and last was 1 weeks ago. Every time I discovered new things in this film. This movie is one of my favorite. This movie is not just movie. It is our record of our country’s sad history and good example of introducing South and North Korea’s history to other country through movie form. Someday, I hope to make separated family in South and North Korea and I hope that movie impacts South and North Korea’s relationship and help to reunify as soon as possible.

  • Seoyeon Jang

    The movie, J.S.A: Joint Security Area, is a war film made in 2000 by a famous director in South Korea, Chan-wook Park. This movie is about the friendship of four soldiers, Sgt. Lee, Private Nam, Sgt. Oh, and Private Jung. They are the soldiers guarding the border called “Military Demarcation Line (MDL),” which divides Korea into two, South Korea, and North Korea after the Korean War. The setting that the sympathetic between South and North Korea was the first attempt and fresh content in the 20th century, and it aroused the hope of reunification for many people at the time. However, it also showed the tragic reality in Korea that the conflict between South Korea and North Korea cannot be easily solved, through the setting that South and North Korean soldiers could not continue their friendship ever and that eventually the movie ended in the tragic conclusion, death and suicide.
    The film, J.S.A: Joint Security Area, is special because it not only used a new subject matter, but it also used a new expression style. It distinctly revealed the personality and the emotional side of characters in the movie through actions and facial expressions of the characters, and it implicitly delivered a philosophical message through the object device. For example, Sgt. Lee and Private Nam gift a chocolate pie, a lighter, a shoe shine, and painted tools to North Korea’s soldiers, and it shows how much and truly they think about the North Korean friends. In addition, through the scene that four soldiers are kidding and laughing, it highlights that they are pure and childlike people. Also, in my opinion, the military demarcation line, which is simply drawn on the floor, seems like as a mental border not a physical border. As a result, people could be more shaken and got a stronger message after watching the movie, J.S.A: Joint Security Area. And this is a feature and attractiveness of contemporary South Korea Cinema compared with other countries.

  • aspic

    Joint Security Areas in Korea connect the two political halves of North and South. The Bridge between the two checkpoints is a symbol between the territories and their undeniable connection. As the neutral Maj. Sophie is uncovering the truth about the relationship between these soldiers she ultimately encourages the suicide of Sgt. Lee and Nam. Honesty is innocent. It is purely itself and those who understand the truth bring weight to it. All Koreans have similarities the same as all humans have similarities. The boundaries we set, physically,mentally and institutionally, creates conflict.

  • Alex

    The Korean films we have been watching in class lately have been very intriguing, interesting and entertaining. Before this class the thought of Korean films had crossed my mind, I always thought well I don’t know which foreign movies to look for so i didn’t. none the less i thought this movie was great very fun to see the different techniques used in films from here and film from Korea. So far I feel this film had been my favorite, minus the obnoxious song that gets repeated many times through out the film and the fact that the film was ended with that track(the song is good but it got overplayed). Great film I’ve already recommended it along with some others I’ve seen. p.s just figured out how to do these hence the late post.

  • Nadia

    J.S.A really surprised me,I was not expecting that much emotion and sadness from a movie that at first very much seems like a thriller. I do think it’s a thriller but it tackles a lot hard issues. Which would make sense since Park majored in philosophy, I think it is very apparent in the issue he tackles in this movie. Those issues being portraying North Korean soldiers in a lighter way than most of the world, as well as the unification of the two countries which for some is a grave thing to think. I think the use of Major Sophies character here was not only to bring a neutral party to look at this incidence but it also give us and impartial look into a friendship that should have never happened. The ending is very tragic. The four soldiers live in this amazing friendship that happens at night only to be broken up by the disruption of the reality that they live in. I’m looking forward to watching other South Korean films.

  • Sean McLennan

    First and foremost, I would like to thank you for choosing to show this film in our class. It could have been a slim chance that I ever hear of this film or director without your class or mention. Also, beautiful diction throughout this entire spotlight piece, as it certainly is a film deserving of the spotlight. Your attention to detail and ability to write events in the order you chose made this a very enjoyable and informative read.
    Touching first on the history aspect of this film, I may have been completely lost with the plot had you not briefed the class prior to showing this film. That is not to say I didn’t understand the conflict between North and South Korea, but the way you explained it made it much more clear and fresh to me.
    I thought Park Chan-wook created the perfect fictional narrative to illustrate the underlying compassion present between North and South Koreans. The main plot, the characters, and the way it was all pieced together, revealed the unspoken truths behind this pointless and tragic situation. As you mentioned in your text above, the people of Korea were “raised to hate thy neighbor” despite having so much in common and essentially being a part of the same land. It pained me to have to witness the circumstances the film explored these men fighting against.
    One part that really stuck out to me was when the four men were sitting around a table in the border house on the North Korean end and Jung Woo-Jin was explaining to Sgt. Oh that they should have the two South Koreans certified. I didn’t fully understand the meaning of what he meant, but it was right after the conversation of if they had to shoot each other came up (which shook them all with the fear of having to kill a friend). What really spoke to me was what Sgt. Oh responded with, basically saying that they were all pawns in these Yankee war games and if a war erupted at any moment, they would all be obliterated. This revealed such a cold truth to these soldiers and made it clear that they were just being used to fight against each other.
    On top of the density of the history within this story and the deep emotions tied to it, it was an all around suspenseful story that made the viewer want to see how it all unfolded. The film contains high intensity, blood, and violence. I love how each shot was meticulously calculated (reminiscent in my head of the great Claude Chabrol) and how Park did the scene of Private Nam jumping out of the window (playing with the camera and glass shards). I was very pleased with this film and thought it was an excellent choice to begin our journey through South Korean film.

  • Ryan Stillmaker

    J.S.A was a really good movie to start with because I am big into these type of history movies even though it was more of a understanding of the separation of N. and S. Korea borders. It was a little confusing at first because I didn’t know part of the movie were all flashbacks. But it was constructed very well and kept me engaged. When filming it you can see a lot how the censorship really played a key role in the movie since before they couldn’t get away with a lot of the parts they shot. I can see why too a lot military personal didn’t like this movie because I would think it would be an embarrassment to both sides.

  • Suanne Rayner

    J.S.A. is a great movie in so many ways: it lends itself to the French New Wave’s Left Bank group. This story tells the true story of the way it is in Korea with the real life situation that North and South Korea find themselves in presently. Then the way some of them want life to be enters into the picture in a whimsical way.
    The plot begins with beautiful scenery, homage to Korea, like Paris for the Nouveau. A soldier getting separated from his troop, finding himself in the tall grass of danger. He feels something under his shoe and realizing it is a landmine. Humor is infused throughout the film as Sgt. Oh and his comrade reminded me of the guards in the Wizard of Oz, as they offer a lifesaver to the opposing soldier, who is quick draw McGraw. another high point is when they were instructed to take the dog to the butcher. Some people eat any and everything.
    Some references to the pretty Demy movies with the downward rain and umbrella shots.The Hitchcock turns and twists making the truth finally squeezed out in the end through the aid of Sophie, the Korean born Swiss woman,who acts as an impartial investigator. Who done it? she says and figures out why.
    As if in a daze or unable to talk about the incident, he is mute. Like a hypnotist, our guy remembers the cigarette lighter and with a whistle he remembers these guys used to be his friends and he has shot him on his birthday. What a birthday gift. The ugly cat is out of the bag. Underlying hostilities seemed to come back to haunt him making it hard to forget and even harder to live with.
    This gives you something to think about especially the last scene. Death before dishonor, or the pain of wanting something so bad which was the freedom to speak to his brothers and live in a place united instead of separated by a zone.

  • Romeo Suarez

    Initially I believed that transitioning from the French New Wave into the S. Korean Wave was going to be very sudden, possibly a full 180. However, after watching J.S.A. I realized that the main essence of the French New Wave is sticking around a little longer. Mainly the idea of combining comedy and tragedy, resembling real life. J.S.A. exemplifies this by taking a real situation, the border between North and South Korea and the tension surrounding this, and showing how even those 24/7 guardians that appear rough, and emotionless are also partaking in life’s balance of comedy and tragedy. The S. Korean film moves away from daily life that the public could connect to, such as Antoine growing up in “The 400 Blows”, or following Cleo around as she waits for medical results in “Cleo from 5 to 7”, and instead focuses on a more specific section of life. It is distant from the public, the lives of officers at the border, but stays relevant and relatable, the tension between both areas with multiple opinions and methods of resolution. The film even ends with the photograph of all main characters in the same frame, which to the viewer, reminds them of the tragic that ensues afterward, but not without the comedy of their borderless friendship.

  • Tomasz Bereszynski

    The history between North Korea and South Korea are apparent, everyone knows the tension between the two countries. The dispute between both countries has been and still is a sensitive topic to talk about. There have been incidents, when army personnel from opposite countries, attempted to cross the boarder and have been shot and killed. The ongoing feud between the two countries is recurrent and no signs of the two compromising. The article brings up a good point of how the South Korean cinema filmmakers try to “express their desire for reunification and reconciliation with the North”, even though they are still at war. This was a sign of peace and tolerance from South Korea to North Korea.
    I enjoyed watching J.S.A. In the beginning of the movie, my perception was that it was going to be about the war between both sides, but I was wrong. This movie showed, that even if the two countries are in war, people could be civil from opposite sides. It was nice to see how the four soldiers from opposite sides became such close friends. However, I did not like how the movie ended with most of them dying. I wish the movie ended with all four soldiers surviving.
    After watching J.S.A, I am really thrilled to learn and watch more about South Korean Cinema. This movie was entertaining because it had a variety of different genres. The movie was a thriller but it also had some comedy and drama. The ending was unpredictable and very sad. This was definitely my favorite movie that we have seen in class.

  • Ghina

    I loved the movie!
    It is about the boarder between North and South Korea and the issues that going on,but still there was as real friendship, but sadly that friendship was not going to continue, even so it was so honest. I liked the idea that when the story was showed as flashback, and it all make sense at the end. It is also very interesting because they show the movie from each person point of view. However,the last scene was amazing that all four were together in one picture! and when the girl was kind of afraid to get her hat that flew near solider Oh, in my opinion that picture shows that they are in fact good people and not what other people think! I also liked the investigator Sofia a lot,her personality was so real and honest!
    The movie is one of my favorite I was really excited to watch more and more! usually i’m not a big fan of political and history but this was different and now I have more knowledge about the issue that was going on in Korea!

  • Sharon Kim

    JSA is now officially on my top 5 movies – along with Old Boy.
    When I first watched the movie, all I could think at the end was that it was very well made and that it was amazing how they could make a movie that is so unrealistic in a situation that is so real. The fact that they could make a movie regarding a war that is on going and really connect with the audience is amazing. That is really hard to see in a lot of movies these days especially here in America – unless it is a documentary.
    After reading your post, I have realized that there is actually really a deep meaning behind it. Yes, it may be about a friendship but the idea that you mentioned on how it talks about the border being manmade. That is so true.
    Due to the fact that they were friends, they were willing to risk it all. Over time, the border really no longer was existent to them; the bridge was not a bordering zone but rather a path to reconciliation and friendship. The JSA was rather the bridge that gapped their differences.
    I still cannot get over the fact that Park Chan-Wook could shift my emotions from one end of the spectrum to the other in a matter of minutes. Truly, it was a wonderfully done movie.

  • Ayush Syal

    JSA was an outstanding movie, I liked everything about it. I have never seen a South Korean movie; thank you for showing us this movie in the first place. It showed us the relationship North and South Korea had with each other because of the history they’ve had in the past. In the starting I thought that the movie would not have that much emotions but throughout the movie the characters in the movie had a strong bond with each other which kept me engaged. The ending was surprising because I didn’t except all the conflicts to happen to the soldiers in the story. This tells us that all humans are same, with some common interests, and mutuality we all can be positive to each other. I like how they combined tragedy and comedy, felt like it was real because the comedy was between the character and tragedy was between the two countries which split their friendship in the end as they die. I am pretty sure why the some of the military people don’t like the movie because it shows the weakness of the country’s side. Park Chan Wook used clever flashbacks in the movie which had the truth behind them, and then the clips throughout the movie shows how or why the things actually happened in the movie. I like when Sgt Lee was with sophie and he explains her what is important in a war situation with a gun, as he told her that its not about how fast you shoot but how accurate and calm you are with the gun; those were the words he knew from Sgt Oh. That was the moment I knew their friendship they had was strong. Overall I think the movie was well done, I didn’t really except such good content from a South Korean movie but after watching this movie I am starting to appreciate a lot of foreign movies.

  • Oyundari

    I agree with what you said about the late 90’s and early 00’s being considered the “golden age” of South Korean films. As someone from the Asian ethnic group I have witnessed the rise of Korean films in Eastern Asia. All throughout my life, I had the privilege of watching oriental films, everything ranging from films from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, Indian, Mongolian(yes, we have films) and South Korean. However, South Korean movies definitely started to dominate TV programs and movie theaters in the early 00s, I would say. I also remember being very “Korean culture influenced”, due to South Korean films being aired so much. It’s like you said, “Hong Kong was considered the Hollywood of the East, and supplied movies all over the continents of Asia”. In the late 90s and early 00s South Korean films have “supplied” movies not only in Korea but all over East Asia.
    However, I have never seen the film Joint Security Area by Park Chon Woo growing up, maybe because it came out just as I was starting to develop consciousness, nonetheless I enjoyed the film very much. It did seem to me, that “JSA” was somewhat more Hollywood influenced, than the other South Korean films I’ve watched late in the 00s.I also saw this film had some relevance to Claude Chabrol’s work, maybe because, both Chabrol and Park were admirers of Alfred Hitchcock’s work. Which maybe a reason why I also noticed some similarity between the French New Wave films and South Korean films. I feel like the South Korean film directors absorbed lessons from French New Wave films as well as Hollywood films and added their own style and touch and created a more enhanced work of art. Overall, the film JSA was educational, humorous at times, suspenseful and thrilling.

  • Graeme

    I found it very interesting how the portrayal of the four soldiers who serve as the main protagonists of the movie both deviate from and fit the expectations that you might have for soldiers posted at this warring border. Whenever they are in public they show the stoic and unintimidated appearance of hardened soldiers at war and ready to do battle. As we watch the two pairs of soldiers come to know each other more and more however, we see the facade fall away as they come to see fellow Koreans with much more in common than their respective governments would like them to believe. Even the characters seem surprised by this unmasking when the two soldiers from the North first meet Sgt. Lee and find him crying and begging for his life. As the four change from a group of soldiers sanctioned across from one another to a group of friends wasting the nights together, the soldierly stereotype we hold crumbles to reveal and almost childlike playfulness between the new friends.
    Some of the most striking moments for me were when expectations are reinforced in contrast to the general refutation that goes on through the movie. These moments would happen whenever the subject of the war or more serious political situation was broached among the friends. The casual friendly atmosphere would quickly give way to intense tension. The offer to defect for easier access to the Yankee Moon Pies, Zippo lighters, and other such luxuries available in the south (that the group had been enjoying in their nights together) immediately angers Sgt. Oh and suddenly they change back to warring soldiers from playing brothers.
    Overall I enjoyed the interplay of the moments of extreme tension and those of casual playfulness. I will certainly be looking into more of Park Chan-wook’s work in the future.

  • Leila Music

    J.S.A is a movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat. My eyes were glued to the screen as my brain was tangled in the story trying to understand what was going on. If I’m being honest, I was a little confused throughout the movie but, by the end I understood it and fell in love! The movie really shows the separation been the two countries which makes it a great Korean movie. To anybody who loves war and action movies I wouod highly recommendnthey watch this! (I told my father to watch it because he might like it..turns out, he loved it so much!!)

  • Joseph Vettom

    Park Chan-wook’s movie JSA humanizes the conflict between North and South Korea. The movie concerns a made-up event that occurred at the border, but the underlying emotions and ideas of reunification are authentic. Park Chan-wook directed the movie with a new perspective that focused on sympathetic characters from both sides of the conflict, which as mention in your article was a taboo. The use of flashbacks in his story structure mixed comedy and tragedy that had me in an anxious captivation. Part of the movie was a child-like story of friendship, but masterfully mixed with the bitter morbid reality of the conflict between the North and the South. Park Chan-wook did not focus on the politics or ideological foundations of each country, rather the people who are impacted by them. The North and South Korean’s government were sparingly used throughout but were the driving forces of the separation of the characters.

    JSA captured the emotional repercussions of the ongoing war between the North and South Korea. The Swiss Major Sophie Jang, the neutral main character that the audience was supposed to associate with, objectively views the case and discovers that friendship and peace among the people are possible, but not if there is a violent separation of ideologies using man-made borders with an antagonistic view of others. Park Chan-wook created a masterpiece that depicts the natural friendly and joyous nature of the Korean people, and the effects of the tragic conflict between them. This movie, like many of the others seen in class, lingered in my mind forcing me to think about real events and relationships with a new perspective.

  • Fiona Prieto

    Joint Security Area – JSA (2000)

    People may not realize it, but this movie is radical. The ideas behind it are progressive and it is clear what Park Chan-wook’s opinions are, when it comes to reunifying the two Koreas, just like Mr. Smith mentioned in his essay. The characters, two from South Korea and two from the North become unlikely friends. If this filmed was screened in theaters today, it would be interesting to see how soldiers from both sides react.
    One other point that Mr. Smith makes is that a central theme in the movie is that borders are manmade. The borders are often drawn by the countries and there oftentimes isn’t a wall or fence dividing them, and people find a way around it. The characters do become friends, but we also see Sgt. Oh remind Sgt. Lee and the others, as well as the audience, that he remains loyal to his country and their ideals. The idea of unification for Korea is possible but we must keep in mind that people have certain ideals and opinions and those can’t be changed. But peace can be at the top of the list. And of course we can see that in the movie and as Mr. Smith says, it resonates “far and wide in a country whose inhabitants have been raised to hate and fear a neighbor they know little about, despite sharing a common language and culture.

  • Shannon McHugh

    I found myself really enjoying this movie;however, it was heartbreaking! The whole idea of a group of men that end up creating almost an unbreakable bond to have it end so tragically was devastating. The whole story was beautiful in funny ways and of course in tragic ways which made he movie have great balance and suspense. It made you grow to love the characters and feel for their troubles that they all had to face.

  • Joseph Lee

    I’m impressed by this article, especially ” The movie’s plea for tolerance and peace was clearly a message that resonated far and wide in a country whose inhabitants have been raised to hate and fear a neighbor they know little about, despite sharing a common language and culture” part. After I read this, I remembered from the movie, there was a scene when sir Lee Soo-hyuk and Oh Kyung-pil meet again at Panmunjom. They lied to save each other, and Song Gang-ho, who eyes were filled with ears, kicked the table. It was sad, but they couldn’t do anything other than that in real life. What kind of sin is it that human beings meet as human beings? What is the crime of being smiled at the same people? I suddenly could not endure the question of watching movies. I also remembered when Lee Soo-hyuk said that “It would have been really fun if we did not like this and met differently in different places.” They may have been the closest friends, but it is sad because they had to pointing the gun each other in real life. Anyways, I think it is the best movie that shows North Korea no longer the enemy. It is a tragic movie created by the sadness of division, but I think it is a rare Korean masterpiece that is a mixture of comic and humanism.

  • Meagan McCarthy

    JSA (2000)

    This is a very interesting movie. The ideas that are portrayed within the movie propose the realistic events that occur within Korea. With an educated guess, the two characters from North Korea and the two characters from South Korea are not supposed to be friends, but risk everything in order to remain their friendship even after the fact that they got caught. If they were to get caught they would be either killed or imprisoned, which was the sad truth to the divide between the two Koreas.

    One point that Mr. Smith explains is that borders are manmade. There is supposed to be a border so that there is clear division between North Korea and South Korea, but there is always around it which is seen in the film. It starts off that South Koreans cross the border to North Korea because of previous event between a North Korean Soldier and South Korean Soldier. The South Korean Soldier crossed the border to see his “new” friend, who also saved his life previously. The North Korean was surprised to see the South Korean Soldiers in North Korea. Without ruining the film, the friendship remains even though it is to say the least, a tragedy.

  • Patrick Hughes

    Something I think this movie touch on very well is the arbitrary nature of borders, but on a deeper level it focuses on the borders created in a war between the superpowers of the world. What I mean to say is that like many of the most conflicted borders in the world the line was drawn by someone foreign to the culture and people whose lives have become defined by it. JSA has a lot of themes of people being agents for an agenda of foreign design. The two pairs of soldiers are supposed to interact with each other based on what side of the compass points to them and if it weren’t for a few chance encounters their behavior wouldn’t change, but because they met and forged a relationship the line disappears and the years of viewing each other as other float away.
    The relationships forged in this movie mirror another one of the major themes of this movie, the controlling hand of foreign superpowers. The whole conflict that created the border in the first place was just another proxy war so Russia and the United States didn’t have to nuke each other and because of that once each puppet master had taken enough pot shots at the other to feel good about themselves they left but the effects of their control linger. The lives of the people of Korea have been changed ever since. An arbitrary line was used to divide to culturally identical peoples because the powers at be made it so. To this day foreign powers exert control over many aspects of Korean policy as we see with the trade agreement or China’s relationship with the North. These echoes of foreign pupeting are what or characters are defying in JSA. They are looking past the arbitrary line put up between people as well as the land and saying “who thought this made sense?”.

  • Isaac Choo

    As a student who were born and raised in S. Korea, J.S.A was movie that reminded me how tragic two same nation with similar culture and same language are divided, and they have view each others as enemies and can’t be changed. Park Chan-Wook did amazing job on portraying Korea’s political view on both side. Park built all those details of Pan Moon Jum for his movie. The actor Song Gang-Ho’s (Seg. Oh) performing was beautiful and powerful. There was one scene where he yells worshiping Kim Jun ill to cover his crime with his pal Seg. Lee. It portrayed how N. Korean are forced and brainwashed to worship their dictator Kim Jung ill.
    This movie shows its audience how two same nations are being enemy and that can’t be change. I think Park Chan-Wook was hoping for two Korea being united again when he was making this movie.

  • Anais Deac

    Reading your “Spotlight on South Korean Cinema” was a great review of what you talked about in class. If I wasn’t in your class, and I watched this film, I wouldn’t have understood the significance of the film. I’m really glad to have watched the film. I even watched it again with my family. Throughout the enter film I was on an emotional roller coaster ride. I think that because I was able to learn a little bit about Korea and the movie beforehand, made things more enjoyable.

  • Kai Jantsankhorol

    Back in Mongolia (my home country), Korean movies were very popular. It was like Korean movie era kind of like French New Wave. As I noticed JSA included very creative shots, and location shooting etc which are all from French new wave movies. The director of the movie tried to show us the life at DMZ by making a movie about it. The whole movie was about connection between divided country. Once you are connected to the other person it is really hard for them to be enemies. In the movie, they were bonded like brotherhood calling each others brothers, and shared their personal life. But when it comes to their country’s rivalry, it become very hard on which side to be on.

  • Julia Graehling

    I love reading all of your reading assignments because I learn new information I didn’t catch in the movie.This movie was very interesting in my opinion. It was my first South Korean movie ever and I never thought I would watch films like these, so thank you for opening my eyes to another side of the world. This film showed us the relationship between Northern and Southern Korea in the past. The movie started out pretty plain and I thought it lacked emotion and thrill. Two characters from North and two from South are supposed to be enemies yet choose to keep their friendship a secret.
    Sadly because of the divide between them, if they were to be caught they would either be arrested or killed.
    I love how they combined comedy and tragedy. The comedy made this film seem more realistic. The tragedy was between the two countries and their friendship. The bond of the friendships made it easy to relate to the characters. This film was heavily based on the problems and conflict in the military with the soldiers. The conflict between these two sides created border. The border was created by war. The border is supposed to be a clear division yet is the exact opposite.. South Koreans cross the border due to previous incident between a North Korean soldier. Southern character crossed border to see the friend who saved his life. This shocked both sides because no one was supposed to cross the border, nonetheless become friends. Because of the friendship, the border between them ceased to exist.
    Even though you would suspect this films theme to be about friendship, but with your article, I agree with you and how borders are manmade. I loved how we could see each characters perspective throughout the movie and it was clever to use flashbacks that eventually made sense in the end.
    I can not wait to watch more films! They did amazing on this

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