BERLIN 2001 REVIEW: North and South; Korean Tension in "Joint Security Area"
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/02.21.01) — They say that all politics is local, and that’s clearly the rationale behind the Berlin Film Festival‘s selection of South Korea’s “Joint Security Area” as a competition film. It’s not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination — there are a few Korean films from the past few months more worthy of selection from an artistic standpoint — but it is an interesting one for the times, and Berliners certainly relate to it’s all-too familiar theme: reunification.
Clearly, the recent historic meeting between the leaders of the Koreas — South Korea’s Kim Dae-jung and North Korea’s Kim Jong II — have made reunification an obsession for South Koreans, at least. Two years ago there, “Titanic” was, as in many other countries, the all-time box office champ. But already two local products dealing with reunification have now broken that mark. Before “Joint Security Area” pulled in US$28 million in the last few months to reign supreme, “Shiri,” a late 1999 release that dealt with a plot by North Korean radicals to terrorize Seoul with highly lethal chemical bombs, broke the grip of James Cameron‘s epic.
But whereas “Shiri” was an action suspense-thriller (and a compelling one) that fed on fear, “Joint Security Area,” directed by Park Chan Wook, has more on its mind. Two North Korean soldiers manning a post along the demilitarized zone, or DMZ — that heavily guarded two-kilometer strip of land that divides North and South Korea — have been shot dead, and another is wounded. One South Korean soldier has confessed, and it is the job of a Swiss observer with the Neutral Nations Supervisory Committee, which has jurisdiction in this matter, to interrogate the confessor and the wounded man and determine what happened. Tensions are escalating between the two governments, so the observer’s reconstruction of events is crucial.
Borrowing its structure from “A Few Good Men,” “Joint Security Area” has a convoluted, rough beginning. In fact, the first 30 minutes is atrocious, as the complicated plot is introduced. The Swiss observer, Sophie Jean (Lee Young-ae) is supposed to be half-Korean, half-Swiss. Her English, as well as that of the two German actors who are her superiors, is badly dubbed. And despite it being her first time in Korea and having grown up in Europe with her Swiss mother, Jean speaks perfect Korean. There are rumors of a U.S. release; if so, the American distributor may want to redub the tedious English-language passages.
The other members of the NNSC are forced to speak awkward dialogue in a clumsy manner. Park does not speak English, and he clearly had trouble directing those scenes. In fact, when Sophie’s commander, who is played by an actor (Christoph Hofrichter) well-known to German audiences, pounds his fist on a desk in frustration and yells, “Schiess!!!”, it drew derisive laughter and applause from the Germans in the audience.
Fortunately, once the preliminaries are out of the way and the interrogations begin, “Joint Security Area” begins to take shape. Through conversation and flashbacks, we find that the confessed killer, Soo-hyuk (Lee Byung-heon), and the North Korean sergeant wounded in the incident, Kyung-pil (Song Kang-ho), are not being completely honest with Sophie. It seems Soo-hyuk got caught within the DMZ accidentally, having been stranded there when he steps on a mine. If he steps off, he’s history. When two North Koreans, Kyung-pil and Woo-jin (Shin Ha-kyun) happen upon him, they help him instead of shoot him.
Thus begins a friendship that in real life would be impossible, but for South Korean audiences at least, is a pleasant fantasy. Soo-hyuk and his pal, Sung-shik (Kim Tae-woo) steal away to visit their North Korean friends while they are on duty in their isolated guard house. They drink, play cards, show them pictures of their girlfriends and family.
The good times, naturally, can’t last in the restrictive political environment. Sophie begins to suspect the soldiers convened regularly, and she must cut through the reluctance of her witnesses and find out what went wrong — and where an extra bullet, one that did not come from Soo-hyuk’s gun, came from. As she finds out more, Sophie begins to question her purpose there, and to think back to her father, who was in the North Korean military.
“Joint Security Area,” which Park co-wrote based on a novel by Park Sang-yeon, is additionally interesting for its recreation of the DMZ. Of course, filming at one of the tensest locales in the world is not permitted, so the makers built the largest and most expensive set in Korean film history, costing US$800,000 and encompassing 26,000 square meters. It reproduces the central buildings of the truce city of Panmenjom, as well as the legendary “Bridge of No Return,” where much of the flashbacks take place and where in 1953 thousands of prisoners of war from both sides were repatriated.
The set has become a tourist attraction, and though a replica, it is reported that many Koreans approach the demarcation line with awe. Audiences there gasped in response to one scene in the movie, when the camera moves from one side of the line to the other, as in real life that movement would be impossible. That is something that Western viewers, of course, will not find as dramatic.
What works for broad audiences is that Park and cinematographer Kim Sung-bok, working in a widescreen format, generally approach the actual story well, overcoming some dramatic rough spots and keeping the focus on the reasons for what occurred instead of merely what happened. Park noted in his Berlin press conference that had he filmed the movie after the historic meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas, he would have changed the rather pessimistic ending, but nevertheless, “Joint Security Area” succeeds in providing hope for Korean reunification. Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and after a year of improved relations, it has never seemed more possible.