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Sunday 4 November 2007

JSA: Joint Security Area (2000) Chan-wook Park

We're in the DMZ set up between North and South Korea after the end of the Korean War, monitored by the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission. The Joint Security Area in the village of Panmumjom was only 800 metres wide, but it's where the heart of our film takes place. Two North Korean soldiers are dead, shot by a South Korean soldier who crossed the border, did his work and then escaped back. To avoid the incident escalating into something even more serious, the NNSC need to investigate.

Of course the stories are different. The soldier himself, Lee Soo Hyuk, confesses to the deed, but believes that he was kidnapped, transported across the border where he escaped his bonds, shot dead two of his captors and amid hails of bullets from both sides managed to get back to his own side. At least that's his story. The opinion from the north from an eye witness is that he broke in of his own accord and killed both men execution style before escaping.

The person chose to conduct the investigation is Major Sophie Jean, Swiss born but to a Korean father, neutral but fluent in the language. What she finds isn't straightforward. Beyond the two stories conflicting, the number of bullets doesn't add up. Sergeant Lee's gun holds fifteen bullets. It had five left at the end but the corpses contained eleven bullet holes. As Lee doesn't load a bullet into the chamber, someone unknown fired an extra shot. As ten bullets were discovered on the scene, the extra bullet was policed with care.

Suddenly nobody's story adds up, but we soon find out what the real one is. It's bizarrely surreal yet completely believable. It's handled very well indeed, neatly addressing things from a personal scale up through the higher level political ramifications. And I don't know how I can talk any more about it without venturing into the dubious realm of issuing spoilers, which I really don't want to do.

What I will say is that it's a wonderful movie, but one which is doomed to at least one level of failure. The end of the film starts about five minutes in and the beginning starts about half an hour later. That means that what we watch in between is primarily the progression towards what we already know has happened, and there's though there are a few things left to discover at the finale that may not be enough. The last shot though is a peach. Visually and philosophically it's superb, but structurally it's a little confusing. The five lead actors (two southern soldiers, two northern soldiers and the Swiss investigator) are all excellent, especially Kang-ho Song, Byung-hun Lee and Yeong-ae Lee.

Most notable to my eyes though was the attention to detail, whether it be to the character development, the plot or the way the dead bodies were handled during their examination. I deliberately watched this one before a couple of other Chan-wook Park films I have recorded and I'm very much looking forward to them now. I've seen quite a lot of modern Japanese and Hong Kong films, both of which I'd read much about beforehand. I'm now getting the opportunity to see a growing number of modern Chinese and Korean films, which are impressing me more and more. This one is going to stick in the brain.

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