In a small North Korean security station at one of the borders between the North and the South, two North Korean officers are killed. A wounded South Korean officer, Sergeant Lee Soo Hyuk (Lee Byung Hun), manages to limp his way back to the Southern part of the border, when a troop of South Korean soldiers comes to aid and starts shooting at the other side. Another casualty that resulted from the incident is a North Korean officer, Sergeant Oh Kyung Pil (Song Kang Ho), who is shot in the arm.
The DMZ might as well be the tensest political border on earth and an incident like this doesn’t go overlooked. A special investigation is soon held under Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, led by Major Sophie Jean (Lee Young Ae), a Swiss-born who is half Korean. Both Sergeant Lee and Sergeant Oh have written their dispositions, accounting what happened on the night of the shooting of the two North Koreans, but of course their stories don’t match.
The film then moves back to months and months before the incident. In the beginning it seems like we are offered a political thriller, we are made to wonder about what actually happened that night. Was Sgt. Lee kidnapped and injured by the North Korean officers or the contrary—did he storm into the Northern side and start heartlessly killing the two officers? What the flashback provides is nothing like expected. This turns out not to be the political thriller it initially seems to be. At least, not exclusively. Rather than taking the expected suspenseful thriller approach, JSA puts human drama to the front instead—and an utterly heartbreaking one at that.
JSA is Park Chan Wook’s third feature film. This is Park Chan Wook before he became Park Chan Wook. So, people expecting blood (although there is that) and sick plot twists might be disappointed, but like in Park’s other movies, he makes it difficult for us to root for one good guy. We tend to sympathize with a protagonist and root for one particular character, but Park never allows you that favor. As the story unfolds, we witness how characters from both sides of the border can only act as far as their respective governments allow. How a sincere, harmless friendship eventually gets buried under political constraints. Each of the four main characters is given much space to breathe and develop, the outgoing and fun-loving Sgt. Lee and the quieter, more shy Private Nam Sung Sik (Kim Tae Woo) from the South, also the charismatic Sgt. Oh and comical Private Jung Woo Jin (Shin Ha Kyun) from the North. The weakest character might be Major Sophie Jean. Actress Lee Young Ae doesn’t look as tough as her character suggests, and her bad English can also be distracting at times. On the other hand, veteran Song Kang Ho effortlessly embodies Sgt. Oh with his calmness, warmth, charm and at the same time, authority.
Most South Koreans probably haven’t got much of an idea of how things are going on in the North. Most probably don’t really care. Books on North Korea that are easy for us to get are not exactly displayed conveniently in bookstores in Seoul. South Korean films that deal with the South-North issue are mostly thrillers, with North Koreans portrayed as spies, like in Secret Reunion (Jang Hun, 2010) or The Berlin File (Ryu Seung Wan, 2013). Or sometimes, when we’re lucky, we get to see a different portrayal, like Ha Jung Woo’s character in The Yellow Sea (Na Hong Jin, 2010), a North Korean defector in China. But basically, the number of South Korean films touching this issue is easily countable and the characters predictable, so it is quite surprising that one of the most distinct takes on the issue is a work from thirteen years ago. There are so many interesting narratives from real life North Korean defectors, and while wishing for more movies telling the extraordinary stories of those ordinary people might be a little too hopeful, considering how sensitive the issue is, I still hope the portrayals of North Koreans will be more varied and not limited to spies in espionage thrillers in the future.
In the movie’s most crucial scene, the night of the incident, the characters are listening to Letter of a Private, a Korean folk song made popular by beloved singer-songwriter Kim Kwang Seok in 1993. Written like a monologue of a newly enlisted soldier saying goodbye to his friends, the song makes the movie whole, with Kim Kwang Seok’s sentimental vocal perfectly embracing the movie with all its poignancy. At a glance, JSA might look like your usual blockbuster flick, but it offers so much more. Without a doubt, this movie sure deserves to be revisited and remembered.