The Story: A murder has occurred at the extremely volatile Joint Security Area on the 38th Parallel between North and South Korea. Two North Korean soldiers lay dead and one wounded soldier, Sgt. Oh, survives, while the two South Korean officers have escaped back over the border, one nearly catatonic, the other, Sgt. Lee, is tight-lipped about what happened. Neither sides story adds up and a neutral Swiss arbitrator, Major Sophie Lang, has been assigned to investigate the killings and find out what really happened. The unlikely story that unfolds is of men from opposing sides of a notoriously divided country, who form a friendship, a bond that transcends the political ideologies that have kept their countries apart. But, how did such a unique relationship turn into a tragic bloodbath?
The Film: Over the past few years that the Korean film industry has opened up and begun a greater export. Allowing their films to trickle out, there comes an occasional gem, a film that wouldn't be quite as relevant if it were made in any other country. JSA is one such film, and in these times of opposing countries who are close enough to rub shoulders and intermingle, with no end to thier fighting in sight... well, its all too touching a tale.
Basically, told in two parts, the flashback tale of how the soldiers become friends which takes up the middle section of the film, bookended by the actual investigation and the final reveal of how it all went wrong. And it is during the tale of how these men become friends that the film really shines. Basically while on night maneuvers, Sgt. Lee's troupe gets lost and they find themselves on North Korean territory. The men fall back, except for Sgt. Lee, who has stepped on a land mine. He is unable to call out for help and risk alerting the North Koreans that he is there, but Sgt. Oh and Private Jeong appear anyway and find him stuck there. What ensues goes from tense to funny, as the contrasting soldiers first face off, only for Oh and Jeong to then walk off and Lee asks them to come back not leave him alone. It is a situation that both sides have been trained to treat as a conflict, a soldier on his enemies land, but each quickly realizes they have no desire to fight and instead lend a helping hand. What then unfolds is a very moving story of how the men become friends discovering what life is like on each side, and it is so well told, it makes the circumstances and the aftermath of the murder all the more heart wrenching.
The direction has some positively beautiful moments, a nice visual palette. The violence is gory, abrupt, and appropriately shocking. Likewise most of the film is in low light/nighttime conditions casting a pall over the proceedings which adds a nice counter to the whimsical scenes. Such moments include, a spitting contest during the day between the two soldiers as they are supposed to be stone faced, standing in font of each other on their respective sides, and the great scene when Sgt. Lee is trapped by the mine, standing in a field, wind sweeping through the tall grass. The conclusion of the film is incredibly bleak. Too bleak?, it is hard to say. The film was a smash, shattering the box office in Korea, leading one to assume it pinpoints how dire Koreans see their situation. The standout performances are by Byung-hun Lee as Sgt. Lee and Kang-ho Song as Sgt Oh. Byung-hun Lee gives Lee fitting a wide eyed, disillusioned, and easy going manner, while Kang-ho Song imbues Oh with a much more mature and stalwart appearance but a willingness, a charm, and open mindedness.
Unfortunatley all is not emotionally moving and perfect. In the English language scenes it is painfully obvious that English, or should I say 'Engrish', is not the actors strong suit. The film becomes a little too mired in the procedural investigation by including timecodes on the flashbacks, as if we need to be reminded that this is a flashback and a military investigation is underway. By far the films biggest drawback is Yeong-ae Lee as Major Sophie Lang. Her performance is wooden, and her character is given an unneeded backstory, a scene that although raises more political history (it even has stock footage), but it felt like an unnecessary addition to the narrative. The movie has enough message, that is at times hammered over our heads, without bringing up the fact that her father is an expatriate who refused to side with either Korean nation. And while it is a bit heavy-handed, bombastic, and preachy, it is a serious subject and the humanity of its characters far outweighs any overused symbolism, obvious foreshadowing, or plot clichés.
But, how may films can have a scene with two opposing armies on a hunt in a snow swept countryside bump into one another. The Communists in old standard, drab fatigues, carrying outdated AK-47's, the opposing independent army in military garb, snow fatigues, holding new, sleek M 16's. The two commanders walk over too each other, each breaking out a cigarette, the Communist fumbling with a match, his independent opposite taking out a wind resisant Zippo. There arent many countries that can produce that scene and it be so devastatingly relevant.
The DVD: Available in barebones or a 2 disc (with mainly Korean friendly extras) edition. This review is of the barebones. Coded for Region One and Region Three. Picture- Widescreen. One of the most expensive films made in Korea, and the first to use Super 35mm, the DVD image is not without its flaws. Much of the film takes place at night or in dimly lit surroundings which the contrast conveys nicely. Colors are strong, but the sharpness is a little lacking. There is some wear, minor spots, and two or three very brief scenes/shots where there is fading at the corners and top and bottom of the frame. Technical defects lie in some slight ghosting, artifacts ,and edge enhancement that will catch the eyes very observant DVD junkies, but overall the image does look okay and is acceptable. Sound- Three audio options, Korean Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and DTS 5.1 Surround with optional Chinese or English subtitles. Sound is one of Korean films strongest assets, and here JSA's mix proves this further. Great sound, from dialogue, to the music mix, to the fx. Extras- A standard DVD keepcase is stored in an additional slipcase cover.--- 12 Chapters--- Trailer--- Music video "Song for a Private"
Conclusion- Tremendously affective movie, with its share of flaws, but overall , tight, moving, and important enough in its statements to forgive its story stumbles and pretentiousness. Likewise the DVD isn't perfect and the image transfer could be better, but it is good enough to leave most viewers pleased.