I hadn’t previously known much about the Korean Demilitarized Zone beyond the fact that there was one neutral area where North Korea and South Korea could meet occasionally for negotiations. The DMZ is a heavily-guarded buffer zone, a no-man’s land, that creates the boundary between North and South, and the Joint Security Area is the only spot where the two states come together. According to Wikipedia, the Joint Security Area is only 2600 feet wide, and once upon a time, the agents of both North and South were allowed to move freely within this neutral area. However, the Military Demarcation Line (the real border) was eventually enforced even within the JSA. There is an actual line on the ground where North Korea and South Korea meet, and representatives from each side are not allowed to step over the line.
Park Chan-wook’s 2000 film J.S.A. (Joint Security Area) comments on the strangeness of this arrangement and the humanitarian conundrum it presents. Soldiers in charge of guarding the area live in the border houses on each side, living, working, and sleeping within mere feet of their enemies but never able to breach the line. Day after day, they stare at each other across the concrete slab on the ground that separates the states. There isn’t even a wall or a fence, just a line that is, almost literally, drawn in the sand. When representatives of each state need to speak to each other, they sit at opposite sides of a table – one half in North Korea, the other half in the South. The only people allowed to straddle the line and move from one side of the table to the other hail from neutral Switzerland. In one of the movie’s more affecting scenes, a soldier who attempts to cross over actually trips on the line as if it is a real, physical barrier. Such is the power of symbolism.
In the beginning of the film, Swiss agents of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission are called in to investigate a shooting at the North Korean border house that left two soldiers from the North dead and another wounded. They already know who did it — a South Korean border soldier named Soo-hyeok – but they want to understand how and why the incident occurred. Both sides claim a grievance against the other: according to the survivor from the North, Kyeong-pil (played by the excellent Song Kang-ho), Soo-hyeok broke into the border house and shot the other soldiers without provocation, but according to Soo-hyeok, the Northern soldiers abducted him and he was forced to defend himself.
(SPOILERS AHEAD — scroll down to skip)
But Park doesn’t drag out the ambiguity over who is telling the truth; the middle of the film focuses on the real story, shown through an extended flashback sequence. As it turns out, two of the North Korean soldiers involved in the shooting had become friends with Soo-hyeok after they rescued him from a mine-field. The South Korean solider, along with his friend and fellow guard Sung-shik, would sneak over the border at night for some extreme male bonding time with their frenemies. The developing friendship among the four men is shown in a touching and funny montage: they drink, play cards, arm-wrestle, share photos of their girlfriends, and teach each other how to shine their shoes. The nighttime becomes a neutral zone where national loyalty is trumped by bromance. One of the soldiers wonders aloud why the conflict between the two states should separate men from their own blood. They call each other “comrade” and “brother.” During the work day, they stand toe-to-toe and pretend to glare, spitting at each other across the line in a silly contest of one-upsmanship.
As we already know, this idyllic arrangement soon comes to a bloody end. A commanding officer discovers the two South Korean soldiers in the North Korean border house and in a moment of confusion, betrayal, and panic, a shootout leaves the commanding officer and one of the friendly soldiers dead. Sung-shik escapes and manages to keep his involvement a secret from the investigation for a little while, but Soo-hyeok, who was wounded in the shooting, is captured and taken into custody by the South.
J.S.A. is the kind of movie that would be called Oscar-bait in America (and it would probably be directed by Steven Spielberg). The way it depicts soldiers overcoming their ideological and political differences to become friends, risking their jobs and possibly their lives for treasonous actions, is the kind of emotionally manipulative filmmaking that wins awards. And indeed, J.S.A. at the time was one of the most popular films in Korea and won lots and lots of awards. This is also the film that solidified Park’s credentials as a director to watch. J.S.A. doesn’t have the same kind of visual panache that he would cultivate in his later films, but the movie is still technically strong; every frame is beautifully composed and the violence, although it occurs less frequently than in his Vengeance Trilogy, is rendered with unflinching brutality.
The movie also features a couple of great actors, the very handsome Lee Byung-hun (who plays Soo-hyeok) and Song Kang-ho, who have both gone on to be big stars in other films. More recently, I’ve seen Lee in 2010’s I Saw the Devil and in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, where he stars alongside Song again. Song, one of the most successful actors in South Korean cinema, has quickly become a favorite for me. I like it when I’ve seen enough of a foreign country’s films to start recognizing familiar faces and Song’s presence is always welcome. He’s a versatile performer who excels at both comedy and drama, bringing a sliver of warmth to the cruelest characters (Antarctic Journal) and bringing dignity to the silliest buffoons (Secret Sunshine). It’s easy to see why he’s become such a staple for two of Korea’s leading directors, Park (in addition to J.S.A., Song appears in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Thirst) and Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host, and the upcoming Snow Piercer). In J.S.A., his character appears menacing at first, a gruff bad-guy “commie bastard” North Korean, but he is slowly revealed to be cool-headed (not cold-hearted), thoughtful, affable, and steadfast.
Alas, until Stoker is released next year, I’m out of Park Chan-wook films to watch. And it will be a sad day when I’ve run out of movies starring Song. That day is approaching way too fast.
Director Park Chan-wook makes films that are stylish, brutal, funny and surprisingly touching. He is best known for his 2003 cult classic Oldboy, which is part of a thematically (but not narratively) connected “Vengeance Trilogy,” alongside Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance. More recently, he used his bloody aesthetic to put a new twist on the vampire genre with Thirst in 2009.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, which was released after the trilogy but before Thirst, is a kinder, gentler affair, but still has Park’s characteristic bite underneath the candy-coated exterior. The story follows Young-goon, a girl in a mental institution who refuses to eat because she believes she is a cyborg. She talks to vending machines, meditates on the simple pragmatism of a boiler, and “recharges” with a battery between her index fingers. I’m a Cyborg would rest comfortably beside the work of Michel Gondry, with its romance between two damaged souls, quirky peripheral characters, and brightly-colored fantasy sequences with flying and singing.
If this all sounds a little too cute, you should know that the film opens with Young-goon slitting open her wrist so that she can insert wires into the wound; in the moments that follow, she gets electrocuted when she tries to plug herself in. Park lets us know right away that, even though this movie is whimsical, he’s not fucking around.
The movie focuses on another inhabitant of the hospital, Il-sun, a young man who wears masks, hops around like a bunny, believes he is vanishing, and proclaims himself anti-social. Although he claims to have no sympathy or care for anyone – and he does seem adept at manipulating the other patients’ delusions – he develops an interest in Young-goon and works desperately to convince her to eat before she dies of starvation.
(Tangent: I just learned that the actor who plays Il-sun is a very popular Korean pop star. That’s so exciting! He’s called Rain! And apparently he was also in Ninja Assassin, which I have not seen. But he is kind of fucking adorable in I’m a Cyborg, so I can see why all the girls would swoon for him.)
The way the film deals with mental illness is interesting, but potentially exploitative. The patients all seem to be relatively harmless (Young-goon’s violent revenge fantasies notwithstanding) and mostly happy, making hospitals seems like quirk-fests full of zany and colorful characters. We have the woman who believes her “magic socks” can make her fly, the girl who yodels in her von Trapp fantasy, and a guy who walks backwards and apologizes for everything. For each person in this film, insanity is not so much a defect, but simply a world of his or her own making that happens to be at odds with the “normal” world. I’m kind of okay with the “quirkiness” of mental illness as presented here because, even though a lot of scenes are played for comedy, the the film presents the characters as they want to see themselves; Park treats them with sympathy and takes their desires seriously.
Il-sun may be the least crazy of them all because he seems to understand that the craziness, including his own, all comes down to world-building – which is why he’s so good at infiltrating everyone else’s world. He can make other people believe what he wants them to believe through the power of suggestion, and in the case of saving Young-goon from starvation, he convinces her to believe what she needs to believe in order to survive.
Verdict: CHARMING AS FUCK