Cinema is possibly the greatest artform of the 20th century, created by a random coagulation of inventions at its very beginning. However, despite the inherently complex and resource-intensive nature of making movies, it is an artform that has been adopted extensively across the world. From the lush, glamorous hills of Hollywood to the small hamlets of Uganda, there is hardly a country in the world which does not produce and watch movies. The world of cinema is a rich, diverse, ocean of people trying to share their perspectives of humanity with each other. Sadly though, movies from Asia and the different Asian countries often become synonymous to the most popular exports from the individual nations. Hong Kong cinema becomes known for Jackie Chan and Martial Arts movies. Korean cinema is dismissed as K-Pop-music-video-fluffy-romantic-comedies. In reality, each of these industries is filled with brilliant artists who transcend language and cultural barriers to tell stories that resonate with all of us no matter where we come from.
When we look at all that we do as a species, nothing stands out in starker contrast than Art. Every other endeavour that we undertake — eating, sleeping, clothing, finding shelter — has a direct impact on our hardwired need to survive. But Art does not. Be it cave paintings or making music by banging sticks on tree stumps, Art is always done for Art’s sake. It is possibly the biggest difference between us and the millions of species that inhabit our planet, one that lets us lord over the other so called “animals”. It is, therefore, especially poignant when great Art is derived from one of our most animalistic enterprises — war. Joint Security Area (JSA, 2000) is a South Korean film that manages to do exactly that.
Jackie Chan in Police Story (1985)
JSA, directed by the legendary Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden), explores how a person can lead two starkly different lives, one as a regular person, and another as a soldier. When a North Korean soldier is killed in an apparent cease-fire violation at the heavily fortified DMZ (the severely militarized area between North and South Korea, called the Korean Demilitarized Zone), a UN representative of Korean descent is tasked with conducting an impartial investigation. However, when the account of events of the incident given by both sides does not match the evidence, she must dig deeper into the stories being told to uncover the truth. The movie explores all the things that make us similar as people, even though the Powers-That-Be would rather not have us realise this and keep us all hating each other.
I first came across the movie in a list created by Quentin Tarantino, where he listed 20 of his favourite movies made between the years 1992 and 2009 (a list I highly recommend you check out). JSA explores the unlikely friendship that is formed between soldiers on opposite sides of a border. At the end of the day, they are also humans who crave connection and brotherhood. In a beautiful scene, characters from both sides, unsure of the intentions of the other one, breach the topic of defection. But in a moment that separates the men from their uniforms, a mutual decision is made by both to just enjoy the camaraderie, without letting the politics of the situation malign it. Much of the movie is told in a flashback that traces the events in the months leading to the incident, which is a brilliant directorial decision. It allows us to see the characters grow closer over the course of the movie, the tragedy and gravity of the final incident weighs heavily on everyone watching the film. What seems at the beginning of the movie to be a senseless act of violence that peppers any area of conflict, is transformed into a heart-breaking tragedy where tremendous sacrifices are made selflessly by people in the end. In a cruel twist of fate, soldiers from warring countries show more concern for each other’s safety than their own brothers in arms. The movie manages to ask the important question to the viewer — how did love for one’s country trump the love for a fellow human?
Joint Security Area (2000); CJ Entertainment, KTB Network
As I write this in 2022, a war rages on in Ukraine, putting the entire world on the edge, wondering whether this is the start of the next (and maybe even, the last) World War. It is in these times that JSA becomes important, when I urge you to watch the movie. Not only is it a great film, but also, in the heat of the moment, we often forget that wars are fought not by armies and nations, but by men and women. Men and women who did not choose the violence, but had it thrust upon them. When we see soldiers marching in with their heavy boots, it is often easy to forget that no matter what side of the war they belong to, there is very little that is inherently evil about most of them. Most are young people trapped in a difficult job at an unfortunate time. Almost all would rather be back home with their loved ones than trudging along in unfamiliar territories, fearing for their lives. But such is the nature of War. Decisions are made over tea in far off capitals, and by the time they reach the person trembling in the trenches, all that is left of the original message is “Kill or be killed”.
In the face of such immeasurable human tragedy and suffering, is a mere film capable of doing any good at all?
Perhaps. JSA is a story that peels back the hatred that is assumed in a war, to show the potential of compassion all of us hold in our hearts. At the end of the day, there is more that unites us than that which separates us. We all crave the same things: friendships with people we care about and who care about us; to share a laugh with a loved one. A movie like JSA reminds you that if friendships can sprout even in a place like the DMZ, and between people from opposite sides of a war, maybe you too can find in yourself to reach out to the people around you. It is easy to hate someone, dismiss them as frivolous, unworthy of our time and attention, and simply not bother about what surrounds us. But if we care enough, maybe we will find something that we have in common with them after all. And maybe our lives will be richer because of it.
Joint Security Area (2000); CJ Entertainment, KTB Network
JSA is a beautifully shot film as well, with gorgeous camera work by Kim Seong-bok (Shiri, My Sassy Girl, Public Enemy). The performances are incredible. Readers who have seen and enjoyed Parasite (2019) will find the familiar face of Song Kang-ho giving an award-winning performance as a middle-aged military officer who assumes the role of the patriarch of the entire troupe. And I must also mention the haunting last shot of the movie. Just a slow pan over a photograph but it will undoubtedly break your heart. The background score is subtle and tastefully done, adding immensely to the tension of the second half of the film.
South Korean cinema, and popular culture at large, has a very interesting history of its own, but that’s for another article. The world might be taking note of it now, but it has been a revolution in the making for the last three decades. The industry had been written off by the country itself until as recently as the early 90s. But a new wave of fresh voices emerged towards the end of the century and since then, South Korea, and East Asian cinema in general, has been a powerhouse of media and entertainment. But that house has been built upon the rock that people like Park Chan-wook laid. Dangerously original movies like JSA, Infernal Affairs (which Martin Scorsese remade as The Departed), and Memories of Murder are what led to Parasite, Squid Games and All of Us Are Dead. Armed only with their imagination and their dedication towards telling a good story, some of the best movies in recent times have come out of this tiny island nation. If nothing else, just the consistency with which amazing cinema is churned out in this industry should impress us.
Go ahead and dip your toe into this fascinating pool of a mesmerizing cinematic world. You might be charmed. You might be thrilled. You might even be horrified (looking at you I Saw the Devil), but you will never be bored.