Thursday, July 12, 2007



Three days after a firefight that leaves two soldiers dead in the De-Militarized Zone that separates North Korea and South Korea, Sgt. Jean, a Korean who grew up in Switzerland and is now part of the Neutral Nations Security Council is sent to investigate and hopefully clear up a potentially devastating event. Within the DMZ, she meets survivors Sgt. Lee of the South and Sgt. Oh of the North. They both give RASHOMON-esque different tales of the events that transpired, and Jean realizes that she has a very tough job ahead of her. She begins to pour over the evidence for the truth, while the reality is that everyone just wants this brushed under the rug.

From here, time is flashbacked six months ago. Here it is learned that Lee and Oh, who both guard their nation's respective posts on opposite sides of a small river, have become friends, and secretly meet in the shadows of night as brothers and comrades. Along with them are North Korean soldier Jung and South Korean soldier Nam, who have joined in the intimate circle. They tell war stories, drink to unity, and in the wee hours, Korea becomes reunified once again. However, as the dates slip away, the unavoidable conflict comes closer and closer and the truth behind the events will finally be revealed.

Two years before director and writer Park Chan-Wook became an international name to be reckoned with upon the release of SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, this love letter to the people of the Korean peninsula became one of the highest grossing films for 2000. Even to Westerners, who may only have a fleeting knowledge of the two countries' history over the past fifty-odd years since it was divided in two, will be able to easily understand the pressure that is mounted on the main characters here. The closest hypothetical example that could be compared would be if two families on opposite sides of the Mason-Dixie line were to meet in the spirit of American brotherhood during the Civil War.

Through both symbolic cinematic framing, Park is able to convey how a simple line in the middle of the bridge can be a razor-sharp blade that has cut a country in two. Great pains are taken throughout the movie to show symmetric imagery, with half the screen representing the North and the other the South. And while it is obvious that the cut has been made, what is not always represented is which side is which. This is set up on purpose obviously, to show just how similar the two countries are, and that if they could only set aside their political differences, Korea could once again become whole.

Both Lee and Oh give monologues on brotherhood and how the same Korean blood runs through their veins. Lee presents gifts of music, sweets, and pornography to his Northern brethren, while Oh instills a sense of military honor and loyalty, and what it means to be a soldier that was somewhat lacking in Lee combat philosophy. The finest moment in JOINT SECURITY AREA, which wraps up the entire message of the film, is when a photograph is taken of the soldiers. They are in their respective uniforms, but have exchanged hats, and come closer and closer together within the frame until a photograph of Kim Jong-Il in the background is blocked by their heads. Let that image soak in for a moment.

Park Chan-Wook is not purely to thank for this message of ethnic unity. The conviction and professionalism of all the actors involved is what really sells the film. Lee Byung-Hun, who would later reunite with Park for his segment of THREE: EXTREMES, plays Sgt. Lee. Song Kang-Ho, who later takes of up the role of "Mr. Vengeance", is Sgt. Oh. Lee Young-Ae, would go on to take up the "Lady Vengeance" role, is Sgt. Jean. Together these three, who represent three factions of ideals, bring out emotional performances that verge on tear-jerking, as their characters attempt to deal with their ethnic division.

Even with the completion of the VENGEANCE TRILOGY and Park's now international recognition, JOINT SECURITY AREA seems to still elude the general populous as even existing. Though it appears that the film is available on Netflix, the film criminally has still not received a proper domestic release. Perhaps any potential distributor feels people will not be able to connect to the film? That foreign history and military policy will be too tough to understand? That the subtle and slight tinges against the American military within the film will turn off the viewer? It is a sad day indeed if these are the reasons to keep this film hidden away, for anyone with a heart and soul who is exposed to the film will find a connection, and be able to interpret the film's overriding message to coincide with basically any conflict they've dealt with, for it is conflict that paradoxly unites all humans.


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