JSA: Experiencing Korean National History through Pathos

Known as one of the best South Korean blockbusters and directed by renowned director Park Chan-wook, the mystery thriller JSA (2000) is THE first national film to uphold competition with contemporary Hollywood productions. Starring Lee Young-ae, Lee Byung-hun and the legendary Song Kang-ho, this film dramatizes the trauma of national division through the complex relationship of its main characters; namely, a couple of South Korean and North Korean soldiers patrolling the JSA (Joint Security Area) border. While today North and South relations are entering a new phase of peace and prosperity, and guard posts are being dismantled on the most heavily fortified border in the world, the film was shot during a time of incessant provocations between the two sides on the DMZ.

Modern day JSA border or Truce Village of Panmunjom. Image from Wikipedia
Border North-South as portrayed in the movie JSA

     The story kicks off through an expositional flashback showing the murder of two North Korean soldiers at their guard post, while moments later, a South Korean soldier named Sergeant Lee (Lee Byung-hun), is seen running for his life across the infamous “bridge of no return” back to his side of the demarcation line. After being saved by the Southern troops, a commission is formed to investigate the incident, and Swiss Army Major Sophie (Lee Young-ae) (an ethnically Korean woman adopted and brought up in Switzerland) is in charge of finding out the truth on behalf of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission. The plot progresses through a series of flashbacks that are reconstructed either by Sophie’s guesswork or the characters involved, such as Sergeant Lee. Predictably, the two sides hold opposite views on who is to blame for the killings, and finding out the “real truth” among the sea of testimonies will prove a real challenge for Sophie.

Flashback of the incident as reconstructed by sergeant Lee (left side)

    In this film, director Park Chan-wook deprives the audience of their typical omniscient knowledge over what is happening on the screen, plunging us into subjective reconstructions and never giving us the satisfaction of knowing what we may call the “objective” truth. Ultimately, we could argue, finding out the real culprit is not what Park wants from us; he neither wants us to turn into History savvy; rather, what he really is aiming at is our feelings. Certainly, knowing about the history between the now divided Koreas may help understand the dynamics of this film better, but empathizing with the characters and their carried trauma of national division requires no nationality to be understood! For instance, and without giving too much of the plot away, when the soldiers are cheerfully posing in front of the camera, we cannot but point our gaze at the portraits of the North Korean dictators hanging above their heads: a dramatic symbol of how the alliance to national ideologies (communism and democracy respectively) will always jeopardize the possibility of a true brotherhood between the protagonists.     

United by friendship and kinship, the soldiers take a photo to commemorate one of their moments of secret leisure together

In the end, despite its bitter sweetness, I highly recommend watching what has now become a Korean classic; because to understand the Korean “han” one may only need to tune in with the emotions evoked by Park Chan-wook’s work!

My final rating: 8/10 THUMBS UP MOVIE!

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