For many in the western world Chan-wook Park’s name will forever be tied to Oldboy. However, in his native South Korea it was the film Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA (or simply J.S.A.) that first established his name. The end of the nineties into the year 2000 proved a booming time for Korea’s domestic industry. In 1999 Je-gyu Kang’s action based Shiri (or alternately Swiri) capitalised on tensions between North and South Korea and broke box office records. The very next year, again examining North/South relations, Chan-wook Park’s J.S.A. shattered that record. Not stopping there, only a few months later the gangster drama Chingoo (Friend) helmed by Kyung-taek Kwak achieved even higher returns. South Korean cinema wasn’t just making money; it was successfully matching Hollywood’s production quality, often without sacrificing content for spectacle. Although Park had two features and one short already behind him, it was this full-fledged production that paved the way for what is easily one of the most consistently impressive careers in contemporary cinema.
If J.S.A. takes a while to find its feet it’s largely because of the complex narrative structure it employs to deliver its message. Within the opening few minutes we’re treated to a large fire-fight as tensions flare within the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea- the most heavily fortified international border on Earth. In the aftermath we’re introduced to Major Sophie E. Jean (Yeong-ae Lee), a half-Korean and half-Swiss member of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Committee (NNSC) which polices disagreements occurring within the border. Major Jean’s job is to interview the men involved on both sides and work out some manner of resolution. This is made all the more difficult as the dust settles leaving two South Korean soldiers – Sgt. Lee Soo-hyeok (Byung-hun Lee) and his subordinate Sung-Shik Nam (Tae-woo Kim) – unwilling to co-operate and one North Korean – Sgt. Kyeong-pil Oh (Kang-ho Song) – who’s no more helpful. Meanwhile two other Northern soldiers lie dead within the DMZ, both sporting multiple gunshot wounds.
Beginning with this rather tricky puzzle, viewers couldn’t be blamed for expecting the film to follow the standard formula of a political mystery/thriller. Though the mystery is eventually unfolded through lengthy flashbacks, a more welcome human element is also introduced which gradually expands to overpower the rest of the film. It is this element that elevates J.S.A. above its contemporaries. While Min-sik Choi delivered a powerful monologue in Shiri about the harshness of life for North Koreans it was an isolated humanitarian plea set into a focused action vehicle. Park’s J.S.A. takes on all the vestiges of Shiri – subjective camera angles, ostentatious edits, an often pounding soundtrack, and plenty of the fetishising of military equipment and procedures that marks typical action cinema – but eventually peels it away to show something much more fragile and human beneath.
J.S.A. is then a counterpoint to Shiri. It depicts the servants of North Korean not as desperate men driven by some cultural disease, but, more troublingly, as normal men caught in the oppressive workings of a grander governmental machine. This conclusion is rendered all the more unsettling once we recognise that the men of “free” South Korea are no better off. This even-handedness when dealing with seemingly natural opposites goes beyond simple fair portrayal by recognising the core similarities that actually unite the factions. It also shows us that the topics that would concern Park’s cinema in the following years, that of vengeance and ‘justified’ violence, logically follow.
Though the men seem to be products of very different regimes, what is highlighted here and throughout much of Park’s later work is the all-powerful weight of perception in categorising the good and the bad- a habitual tendency brought forth by the audience that the director usually deftly undercuts. Our desire as the audience to see righteousness prevail is simply a desire to see our own viewpoints reinforced through the actions onscreen. For a native South Korean audience, the logic and simple humanity of the North Koreans may have come as something of a shock against social norms. As Major Jean digs deeper she discovers that, unknown to the two involved governments, the men share a secret- a friendship has developed across the forbidden line of demarcation. It is this most simple of interactions that lead to the tragic shooting. Tempering this revelation is the fact that such an incident could unhinge entirely the tense stalemate that both countries currently favour and, if need be to preserve the balance, the men caught in the middle won’t be spared.
By their division and military careers, the men of these different countries find they actually have a lot in common and as we’re given insight into the games they played with each other, silly schoolyard antics to wile away the countless hours, what emerges is a story that damns the stoic politics that drive this division. Even as the truth of that night when bullets were fired is revealed, the men on either side of the barrier can’t act as they wish. They are tied to their countries and to their respective regimes. The decision they can make, as one character puts it, is either “to go to jail or get a medal.”
Handling himself with more control, perhaps because of a longer time spent within military programs, the surviving North Korean soldier manages a brave face even as we find him afterwards watching an ant crawling across his hand. Ants recur throughout Park’s cinema for various different reasons, but the immediate intention seems more clear here than in subsequent pictures: the men that make up the military are powerless in the face of their countries’ grander schemes. Like a black hole from which no light can escape, the finale of J.S.A. further points towards the impossibility of simple individuals to break government-sponsored systems.
As Major Jean investigates, a woman in an undeniably masculine world, she’s constantly reminded that what matters in instances such as these is that procedure is seen to be followed. As if acknowledging the impotence of the NNSC, her superior advises her, “Here the peace is preserved by hiding the truth. What they both really want is that this investigation proves nothing after all.” As Jean’s quest to find the truth of what transpired that night becomes a personal one, she recognises that professionally she too should follow established party lines. Even the neutral third party has its own specific role to play.
Aside from Jean’s feminine perspective, one that clearly separates her much more than her role as a neutral observer, the behaviour of the men at the centre of the story also belies a certain tragedy. Hero-worship and macho salutations follow both Sgt. Lee Soo-hyeok and Sgt. Kyeong-pil Oh. Ironically, one of the central exploits that cemented Soo-hyeok’s reputation was his disarming of a landmine that he himself stepped upon; the truth is that Kyeong-pil did the disarming, and this was how the two men originally met. On the brink of tears, Soo-hyeok openly asked for help and it was received- the very breakdown in the usual stoic facade of the military-man is what opened the gates for friendship.
Of course Soo-hyeok is a fine soldier by the measures reserved for testing such things- he’s quick on the draw and keen to show it. Nonetheless, as the experienced Kyeong-pil, the only soldier of the four who has seen real combat, reminds his friends, “combat skills don’t matter” in the heat of battle. His words are proven right when the bullets invariably fly and the men’s training leaves them unprepared for the cost of their actions. Only Kyeong-pil remains tough and utterly assured, but even he realises his strength and composure, his life’s service to his country, has only brought him to the death of friends and the sullying of their memories.
What is so remarkable in J.S.A. is that this story of male friendship is not forged in the thick of combat, the romantic notion of so many war films, nor is it specifically destroyed by it, the reserve of that other type of war story. Instead, though they meet their ends through violence, what is pointedly asserted is that the patriotism, base dehumanisation, and otherness espoused by the military prevented anything from blooming from the seeds the men sowed. Their work was for nought while it destroyed them. Even as Major Jean discovers the truth, she recognises it must be obscured and buried. What greater tragedy could one imagine? Like seeing the Berlin Wall come toppling down only to see no one willing to step over the divide. This is, above all else, the great triumph of Park’s film. Far from glorifying or indulging military procedure the film breaks the structure to show a tale of human friendship that emerges despite the barriers put in place to prevent it. Of course those barriers were artificial and always will be. They are the work of people who strive to limit interaction and cater, in dark times, to the worst of mankind’s tendencies.
Though some might find it a cause for complaint Park is more concerned with drawing parallels between the two major factions than comparing their day-to-day workings. To this end the film could be criticised precisely because it does not dwell on the peculiarities and repression that outsiders can’t help but associate with North Korea. For its duration the film steps outside of the DMZ only a few times and these include brief visits both to the North and South. Our only vision of Kim Jong-il’s nation is a stretch of road cutting through a sparsely populated countryside. The only landmarks here are a series of billboards touting anti-western sentiment. As a counterpoint Major Jean’s visit to the South brings her to a garish amusement park filled with electronic lights and noise. There Jean’s interviewee hurriedly shoots off answers while climbing into a cartoon-animal costume so that she can partake in a dance number for the waiting crowd. If the North is bare-faced propaganda then the South is a vision of Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ replete with endless distractions but also innate dehumanisation.
The bulk of each country’s presence is instead projected onto the soldiers at the story’s centre. In this sense, special note must go to Kang-so Hong for a typically strong performance as the veteran Kyeong-pil. His rants against both North and South, his talk of combat and his carefully exposed sensitivity paint a fine picture of a man who knows he’s being unfairly torn between two goals. As he re-asserts his absolute faith in his North Korea, it’s not as a brainwashed puppet, but as a man who knows he has too much invested in the system to really cut loose. The rest of the film will assure us that the others, and likely the audience as well, have too much invested in personal comfort zones and countries to really complain when no one on screen changes anything.
All of this makes J.S.A. quite an exceptional ‘blockbuster.’ Unlike most films we’d associate with this term- those designed to sate the audience and simply entertain- J.S.A. carries a potent commentary. Its social interest to its native audience might have helped to draw people into the theatre, but Park’s flair for undercutting traditional, populist styles of filmmaking is evident here and continues to assert itself throughout his career. Though his later Vengeance Trilogy seemed more attuned to capture international audiences with its broader narrative frame, J.S.A. stands as a home-grown breakthrough and a superb piece of national cinema. It’s only once you strip away the surface that you realise this film is every bit as relevant to non-Koreans as his later works. This is the first uncomfortable truth Park will unveil for us as we move through his oeuvre.