J.S.A. or Joint Security Area is a movie I’ve heard a lot about over the years. Made in 2000 by Park Chan-wook, this is the movie that first brought him to the world’s attention, way before his ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ really made him a name to be reckoned with. And I finally watched it over the weekend.
The film is a master-class in building up an intimate story to enlarge its scale, purely by setting it against a volatile backdrop. The basic plot is terrifyingly simple – two men are dead, two men are wounded. There is no question of determining who did it because most of the players are already known. What remains to be understood is why.
What adds genuine heft to the investigation of this incident is that this particular killing occurred in the DMZ (de-militarized zone) between North and South Korea. And if this incident in any way leads to the conclusion that hostilities have resumed between the two sides, it could lead to the breakout of war. Again.
See? Small setting, big implications.
Almost all of the action in this movie takes place on one patch of land. So this wouldn’t have to be a very expensive movie to make which means it should have been a no-brainer (in retrospect) for any producer looking to get involved. And because it tells a story with such large ramifications, that story could translate to any reality where the possibility exists that border conflict could escalate into all out war.
The storytelling is very confident and we are only ever shown enough to take us a few steps closer to understanding what really happened but we are never shown the whole true picture until the final moments of the film.
Which adds immeasurably to the power of the experience.
J.S.A. is not really a film for everyone. It is not your average lazy Sunday fare. It is not a fun time in front of a television screen. But it is a very good movie.
And that final image is a heartbreaker in more ways than one.