A highly atmospheric mystery-drama set in the politically tense environs of Korea’s DMZ, “Joint Security Area” is a timely, accessible slice of quality mainstream cinema that further confirms the commercial maturity of the peninsula’s southern industry. Like last year’s action-thriller “Shiri,” pic looks set to repeat its brawny local success in other East Asian markets, consolidating South Korea’s new B.O. profile in the region. Business in the West, however, looks more fragile, because “JSA,” despite its merits, is neither an art movie nor an out-and-out, propulsive actioner like “Shiri.” Released Sept. 9, in its first four weeks “JSA” netted some 1.7 million admissions in Seoul alone (equivalent to about 3.5 million nationwide), with plenty of gas still left in its theatrical tank.
Movie looks unlikely to beat the 6 million record of Kan Je-gyu’s “Shiri” but has already easily recouped its $3 million budget locally. Though the idea of filming Park Sang-yeon’s novel “DMZ” began in December ’98, prior to the recent sudden thaw in North-South relations, “JSA” has hit the contemporary pulse with bull’s-eye accuracy.
Immaculate widescreen lensing — pic is the first Korean movie to employ the Super-35 format — gets things off to a gripping start as the first of many dateline captions announces “Oct. 28” and shots ring out in the empty nocturnal expanses of the DMZ. Story then flashes forward to Oct. 31, when Maj. Sophie Jang (Lee Yeong-ae) arrives to investigate a North-South dispute involving a South Korean sergeant, Lee Soo-hyeok (Lee Byeong-heon), accused of shooting a North Korean soldier (Shin Ha-kyun) on his guard post at the so-called Bridge of No Return border crossing.
Jang, born in Geneva to a Korean father and Swiss mother, has been selected by the DMZ’s Neutral Supervisory Commission (made up of Swiss and Swedish delegates) as an acceptable choice to both sides. On her first visit to Korea, however, she finds herself plunged into an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and hostility: The military on both sides are barely cooperative, and Lee himself won’t talk. As she’s reminded by an NSC guy, the peninsula remains a “tinderbox,” despite talks between the two sides; and the bridge, site of a famous slaying of two UN soldiers in ’76, is a highly charged location.
These early scenes contain a fair amount of English dialogue — between Jang and the NSC people — that is clumsy and urgently needs to be revoiced before exposure to Anglo auds: Actress Lee Yeong-ae’s English is sometimes barely comprehensible, and some of the Swiss-German characters are almost laughably stereotypical. In pure technique, however, the movie maintains its early tension by cutting back and forth between procedural scenes as Jang pieces together the mystery, and flashbacks to the night in question and events leading up to it. In an involving way, the viewer is fed information as sparingly and enticingly as Jang extracts it herself.
Flashbacks run the gamut of full-on, excitingly staged action sequences to tense, atmospherically staged sequences that highlight d.p. Kim Seong-bok’s widescreen lensing. Highlight of the latter is the first meeting, in a nocturnal landscape of susurrating white ferns, between Lee, who’s become separated from his unit and snagged on a bomb tripwire, and his North Korean counterpart, Oh Kyeong-pil (Song Kang-ho). Played with a fine sense of uneasy humor, as Oh helps to rescue Lee and then gives him the bomb as a souvenir, the sequence is a fine showcase for Song (better known for more comic roles in “No. 3” and “The Quiet Family”), as a North Korean with a finely developed sense of irony.
As Jang tries to question witnesses on both sides — one of whom (Kim Tae-woo) promptly commits suicide — and tries to interpret some conflicting forensic evidence involving bullet shells, the backstory evolves into one of a secret friendship with potentially embarrassing political implications for both sides. As Jang gets closer to the truth, even her bosses in the NSC seek to bump her from the investigation.
Though the film is rooted in commercial cinema, it’s one with considerably more depth than “Shiri,” especially in its North Korean characters. The screenplay reportedly humanizes Park’s original novel, giving it much more warmth, to the extent that the four male leads are treated as individuals rather than political stereotypes, with no favor shown to either side. The ridiculous posturing by both North and South during official negotiations is shown for what it is, giving the pic a nonpartisan feel that’s refreshing. In this respect, “JSA” is an advance even over Jang Jin’s “The Spy” (1999), an ironic drama about a North Korean agent stranded in the South, which traded in some cliches.
Song’s perf as the wily but warm Oh slowly dominates the picture, and Lee Byeong-heon (“Harmonium in My Memory”) struggles hard to match him in screen charisma. TV thesp Lee Yeong-ae is highly photogenic as Jang, and makes a brave stab at imbuing her role with authority, though at base it’s a performance in which her acting wheels are sometimes spinning too obviously.
Production design is outstanding in its realism, with the famous Panmunjeom truce-negotiation village totally re-created in an outdoor set (at $1 million, claimed to be the largest and most expensive in Korean pic history), and the wild mountainous regions of the DMZ evocatively suggested in d.p. Kim’s impressive compositions.