Park Chan Wook’s J.S.A.: Joint Security Area

JSA” is one of the films that inaugurated the new era in Korean cinema. In style, it was one of the first in the genre; in its cast, it established the careers of Park Chan-wook, Song Kang-ho and Lee Byung-hun; in attendance, it broke the previous box office record held by “Shiri”; and in technique, it was the first in the country shot with a Super 35 camera, which is commonly used in Hollywood blockbusters. Furthermore, the construction of an exact replica of the village Panmunjeom raised the realism of the film to unprecedented heights, as was the case with its budget ($3,000,000) an unheard of amount for the time (2000) and the country

The script is based on the novel “DMZ” by Park Sang-yeon and takes place in the demilitarized zone, on the border between the two Koreas.

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Two North Korean soldiers are killed in a guardhouse in the DMZ and moments later, a South Korean sergeant named Lee Soo-hyeok attempts to cross the bridge in the middle of the zone back to his country. The North Koreans open fire against him, but his compatriots manage to save him. However, the cease-fire is now hanging by a thread.Two days later, Major Sophie E. Jean of the Swiss Army arrives at the area to investigate the case for NNSC. The two sides have opposite theories about the facts, supported by Lee Soo-hyeok and Sergeant Oh Kyung-pil, respectively. The case is further complicated by the fact that Major Jean is the daughter of an expatriated Korean.

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Park Chan-wook used flashbacks splendidly to slowly reveal exactly what happened, keeping the tension all through the film. He presents the general atmosphere and the depiction of the conditions in one of the most unstable areas in the world with realism, but without failing to entertain in equal proportion, particularly through some comedic moments, as the scene where the two protagonists spit at each other across the line that separates the two countries.

The minor flaws of the film lie with the moments where the protagonists speak almost inconceivable English, and with the performances by the western actors.

Song Kang-ho as Oh Kyung-pil and Lee Byung-hun as Lee Soo-hyeok are both magnificent, to the point where the spectator cannot pick a side among them. The two of them, along with the direction and the cinematography, are the film’s biggest assets.

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Every aspect of the Korean society praised “JSA,” except for one: the Army. The majority of its members mocked the film as utterly unrealistic, based on an event that could have never happened in real life. Furthermore, in an extreme incident that occurred on September 26th, 2000. Twenty old members of the JSA union of veterans stormed into the offices of the production company, Myung Film, breaking windows and threatening the employees. They demanded that the company should offer its apologies to the army, and to include a note at the beginning and at the end of the film that would state that the events occurring in the movie are purely fictional. Despite protests from the majority of the industry, the company eventually concurred.

“JSA” is a very entertaining film that will satisfy both fans of crime films and thrillers. It is also a good step stone for anyone who wants to witness the progress of the contemporary Korean cinema that eventually led to the creation of many masterpieces, many of which can be found in this list.

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