Joint Security Area or Gongdonggyeongbiguyeok JSA or 공동경비구역 JSA (2000)
Based on the novel DMZ by Park Sang-Yeon, Joint Security Area or Gongdonggyeongbiguyeok JSA or 공동경비구역 JSA (2000) takes us into a rather strange version of contemporary reality in which the mutual antagonism between North and South Korea mutually reinforces group standards of behaviour. The norm is a set of rules for engagement in Panmunjom. The armed forces of the two sides may literally face each other across a line drawn on the ground at the Joint Security Area, but may never interact directly. That’s left to senior officers and government officials, often working through the agency of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC). At the so-called Bridge of No Return, the Military Demarcation Line has a blockhouse on each side where two members of the North and South Korean forces stand guard twenty-four hours a day. At other points along the border, troops patrol but are not allowed contact. In bad weather and through lack of care, some patrols do accidentally cross over. From North to South is not a problem. The North has mined parts of the border and this can lead to fatal consequences. In such a hothouse, national values are taken for granted and the status of a continuing war is drilled into the troops who practice shooting at each other so that, should there be a real emergency, hostilities can resume without delay. However, the greater the rigidity in any social system, the more individuals may chafe at the lack of any opportunity for self-expression or the exercise of discretion. If the wrong person is in the wrong place, this can lead to what the sociologists call anomie: a kind of mismatch between the prevailing social norms and the behaviour of one or more people. In extreme cases, the widening gulf between the prevailing systems and the individual can lead to suicide.
As a contrast, it’s interesting to note the behaviour of some of the troops along the Western Front during World War I on Christmas Day 1914. Unofficially, the troops fraternised, giving each other presents, singing carols and playing football matches. Sadly this moment of peace was quickly snuffed out by the officers and war resumed almost immediately with later attempts at truces largely unsuccessful. The book and this film detail the slow building of friendship first between three and then of the four soldiers guarding the Bridge of No Return. When the two South Koreans are caught drinking with their opposite numbers in the north blockhouse by a North Korean officer, the outcome is rather unfortunate. However, both sides are quickly to impose their interpretation on what happened. According to the South, a commando attack from the North abducted one of their soldiers and, only by great heroism did he manage to shoot himself free and return wounded to the South. According to the North, a rogue South Korean soldier crossed into the North, assassinated two soldiers and wounded a third. The NNSC is tasked with establishing the truth and the investigation is handed over to Maj. Sophie E. Jean (Lee Yeong-Ae) a Swiss national whose parents left the North in 1953.
The two soldiers from the South are Sgt. Lee Soo-Hyuk (Lee Byung-Hun) and Nam Sung-Shik (Kim Tae-Woo); from the North we have Sgt. Oh Kyeong-Pil (Song Kang-Ho) and Jung Woo-Jin (Shin Ha-Kyun). Suffice it to say, none of the survivors have any interest in telling the truth. If disclosed, their fraternisation would be so profoundly shocking, life imprisonment or simple execution would follow. Unfortunately, our intrepid investigator notices a discrepancy in the physical evidence. It seems one more bullet was fired than has been accounted for. This would suggest the “official” statements given by the survivors are untrue. We then have a careful retelling of what actually happened and watch the political and practical outcomes.
In every way, Joint Security Area or Gongdonggyeongbiguyeok JSA or 공동경비구역 JSA is a tragedy in the sense the characters suffer losses and some die. But instead of dealing with the larger picture of the state of war between North and South, we have it scaled down to the relationship between the four men who metaphorically and literally cross the line, and pay the price for being discovered. The two sergeants, Lee Byung-Hun and Song Kang-Ho, are outstanding while Lee Yeong-Ae is somewhat underused. Director Park Chan-Wook is to be congratulated on constructing so elegant a film for exploring how the anomie first established itself and then grew. That the two countries nominally remain at war and continue to reinforce the hostility is one of the sadder scenarios currently playing out on the world stage. This is a thoughtful contribution to the wider debate wondering just how long the war would continue if it could be left to the people to decide. It’s well worth watching.