Take a Drink: every time Sergeant Lars Prettyface mangle a line-reading
Take a Drink: for threats
Take a Drink: for each version of events we hear
Take a Drink: for every Korean character actor you see
Take a Drink: for the moon
Take a Drink: for Chocopies
Take a Drink: for cigarettes (blurred in Korea!)
Do a Shot: for pancake butt
By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
I visited the DMZ separating North and South Korea a few years ago, and it was a sobering and somewhat bizarre situation. Everything was dealt with in utmost seriousness with waivers and safety lectures galore, but in the end it was a strangely sedate experience. Remove the barbed wire, the stonefaced guards, and the displays of one-upmanship like comically massive flagpoles, and this is just another quiet stretch of hilly Korean countryside.
With landmines. So many landmines.
JSA dramatizes this thin strip of land in perpetual Cold War with a flash of violence. A UN investigator (Lee Young-ae) is called in to investigate an incident in which a South Korean soldier (Lee Byung-hyun) killed two North Koreans and wounded another (Song Kang-ho) on the North Korean side of the Joint Security Area in what he claims was an escape after being captured. She must uncover the truth of the matter before tensions potentially escalate into all-out war.
This was the highest grossing film in South Korean history for some time, and Roh Moo-hyun, its president at the time, even presented a copy to Kim Jong-il. A large factor in why both of these things came to pass is how JSA presents both South and North Korean characters in an equal, sympathetic light, and establishes almost a camaraderie in some cases between them. This isn’t a black and white/good guys vs. bad guys story, but one that operates in various shades of grey, which is infinitely more captivating, and as more and more of the mystery is revealed, heartbreaking.
The screenwriters devise an ingenious Russian nesting doll of a plot, with each successive flashback representing a particular point of view or story, with each scene’s reliability tied to that of its narrator. This just compounds the questions leading to, and the ultimate tragedy of, the finale. Each revision yields new depths, and JSA presents the rare case of a mystery that becomes even more layered and compelling the more it unspools.
As opposed to more complicated and less satisfying…
JSA was Park Chan-wook’s blank check-writer, and while this first major success of his is a little more constrained and studio-friendly, he imbues it with some nice touches of the style that would make him a world cinema icon. He uses an interesting array of closeups and wide shots, with some almost fisheye wide, and a few inventively staged sequences, like a slow-motion suicide attempt. He also expertly employs frequent collaborator Jo Young-wook’s score and some beautiful, melancholy songs from the late, great Kim Gwang-seok, and ends the film on a pitch-perfect note.
Acting-wise, all of the Korean principals do well, with Lee Young-ae (hey, look, Lady Vengeance!) playing a Clarice Starling role to Lee Byung-hyun’s unstable killer. Song Kang-ho is guarded in the main storyline, but the flashbacks reveal this North Korean soldier to be a charismatic, funny, and personable kinda guy. Kim Tae-woo and Shin Ha-kyun are also good (and quite tragic) in different ways.
I said Korean principals, because the actors playing the impartial Swiss and Swedish peacekeepers are just terrible. There’s a healthy amount of English dialogue, but it’s clearly crafted and delivered by non-English speakers, and come s off extraordinarily stilted. Also, that plot might as well be sci-fi for how ridiculously impossible it is, but you have to (and it’s easy to) take it for granted. Lastly, some of the effects work (why did you need a CGI owl?) has also aged poorly, although that’s to be expected.
Enjoy Guardians now cause your kid is going to laugh so hard at how shitty the effects are
JSA is the rare film that only gets better as it progresses, both an engaging mystery and a poignant story of friendship and division which offers a peek at the psyche of one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.