In a tiny border outpost on the tensest frontier in the world, an incident happens which leaves two men dead and two more injured. The outpost is in North Korea, and the two dead men are both North Korean, an officer and a private. The two injured men are both sergeants – one a North Korean, the other a Southerner. Everyone agrees that it was the Southerner who killed the two North Koreans and injured the third. But what was he doing in the border outpost – and what was the reason behind the shooting?
This beautiful film is one of the most affecting I’ve seen in a long time – a film set in what is officially still a war, between two countries of the same people, sharing the same language, culture, and both aching to be united; albeit under radically different and incompatible socio-political systems.
Officially, this is a mystery thriller about the death of the two North Korean soldiers in a border outpost; but, like two novels I could mention (Umberto Eco’s “The Name Of The Rose” and Orhan Pamuk’s “”My Name Is Red”) the “mystery” is merely the framework around which the story is hung; and the story is that of the tragic and deeply affecting tale of the separation of the two Koreas.
On patrol one night, a South Korean military unit accidentally crosses into North Korea. One soldier is left behind as the unit hurriedly withdraws, and he gets tangled in the tripwire of a land mine. A couple of North Korean border guards find him and disarm the mine. This leads to an increasing and affecting friendship between the three, who meet in the Northern border post for cards and gossip – later between the four, because the South Korean soldier brings along a sidekick.
In this kind of film it’s not possible to really give spoilers, because the facts are already known; who is going to end up dead, who will be injured, and who did what to whom. The one surviving North Korean soldier, and the South Korean soldier who admits to the shooting, give radically opposite and incompatible accounts of what happened, though both agree the South Korean soldier killed the two Northerners. One of them, it seems, has to be lying. The detective story here is the search for a motive; just who is lying about what happened, the South Korean or the North? Or maybe they are both lying; and if that’s so, why are they? What is it that both sides are so eager to hide?
It is to find out this that a female Swiss officer of Korean ethnic origin arrives at the border between the Koreas. Let me just summarise her role in a sentence or two, because in my opinion all she does is act as an irrelevant distraction in the plot, and by the end is reduced to an observer with nothing whatever to contribute. The film would have been shorter, but otherwise completely unharmed, if she’d been left out altogether. This isn’t the kind of film where one needs eye candy to hold the plot together.
As an Indian, myself, I know the yearning of separation; between the peoples of India and Pakistan, separated by politicians and entirely artificial borders, condemned to enmity not of our doing and indoctrinated from childhood to hate the other. That hatred is really only possible if we don’t meet and mingle, because when we do we discover that the “other” is just like us. That’s why nations divided against themselves detest the idea of the people being able to meet freely. It makes hatred impossible.
And so it is in JSA. The truth the two sides are desperate to hide, even at the cost of lying through their collective teeth, is the simple and tragic friendship between the border guards on both sides, men thrown apart and together out of no fault of their own, and finding a little warmth and pleasure where they can. By day they posture at the de facto border at Panmunjom, pretending they don’t know each other. By night they smoke, play cards, admire photos of each other's girlfriends, and scoff down cupcakes together, and play children’s games in the woods. One only wishes it could go on forever, but one knows – because the facts are laid out at the start – that it will end badly, and how. In the end, there is nobody who comes out undamaged – not even the Swiss officer, whose career goes down the drain.
Though this is a South Korean film, there’s absolutely nothing biased about it. The South Korean military is just as obtrusive and bullying as the Northern, the ordinary soldiers just as eager and at the same time fearful of the “other side”, both deeply human and as deeply conflicted. The tragedy is that so much potential happiness can be turned so easily into unending tragedy.
About the acting, I’ll disregard the Swiss detective and her Swedish superior officer, who chews a pipe and speaks English with a wince-inducing accent (“Your chop is do...”). The film belongs to the four soldiers, and most especially to Song Kang-ho who plays North Korean sergeant Oh Kyeong-Pil and Lee Byung-Hun who plays South Korean sergeant Lee Soo-Hyeok. The entire film is structured around the friendship of these two men, and the final tragedy is more theirs than anyone else’s.
According to Wikipedia, Kim Jong Il was given a copy of this by then South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in 2007. I wonder what Kim thought of it.
The film can be viewed online here.