A Review: Joint Security Area a.k.a JSA (2000)


This, a film that I should have watched long time ago. The one beautiful thing about Chungmuro that I never fail to appreciate (those done well of course), its endearing and dynamic approach towards the exploration of relationships of many kinds. Romance, friendship, bromance, the forbidden kind, you name it, there is a deepening and entrenching sense of boldness and audacity in its presentation and execution. Fueled and driven by motivations of all sorts, subdued by human weakness and frailty, relationships are put to the test, insecurities are exposed, explored and made for us to scrutinise, analyse and at times, bawl and cry over. Films where genuine heart and not mere flimsy plot drive the whole process, a lovely and endearing touch that is rare to be found elsewhere.

JSA, a film about friendship forged under the unusual or greyest of situations, a genuinely moving film which explores the kind of bittersweet endearment and relationship between friends who are not supposed to be, and that gets to me (all the time!), never fails.

The first Park Chan Wook movie I watched was Thirst, didn’t love it very much though admittedly it was an original concept that intrigued me. It was Old Boy that opened my eyes to the brilliance and originality of Chungmuro, it was daring, bold, unconventional and thrilling to watch, and the emotions that flowed right out, immense. I can still remember scenes that shocked my emotional senses and fried my brain, it was truly a masterpiece that took human dynamics and intimacy to a level next to none.

JSA came out a lil earlier, just before Old Boy. I’d heard about it ages ago, since forever. But being the youngun I was back then, I had no interest whatsoever on anything related war politics and anything NOT related to rom com chic flics, how shallow (but aren’t most of us when young?). After years of training with Korean dramas and film, I’ve learned that quality that moves and grips me comes from genuine storytelling with heart that reaches out into you, no matter what genre. Now I don’t need a full blown romance chic flic to make me all giggly, I don’t need a man and a woman to make out to feel the chemistry, I don’t even need an OTP if the genre and story genuinely calls for it. As long as the triggering element encapsulates me into the right emotions and feels, you’ve got me.


The bittersweet story between friends from the North and South was exquisitely told in here, with a genuine and emotionally driven plot coupled with an assured and unique direction by Director Park Chan Wook. It being one of his earliest and most acclaimed films, his austere style supposedly had begun to settle in then, a style encompassing lingering shots that made no sense in the beginning but came out full circle in the end, with weirdly emphasised scenes that only made perfect sense if one thought deeper. Park kept the mystery and thrill in tact, but without undermining the essence of the characters and their friendship with each other. Some scenes appeared to have jumped from one another, but no sense of disjointedness could be felt, the flow was perfect.

It never gets old, and never bores me, friendship tightened by situations with no other way to turn to, when such bond is affected and burdened by human insecurity and expectations from the outside. That’s why friendship can be viewed 2 ways – as something as simple as ABC, you expect nothing and get a whole lot from it, and also a relationship with someone that cannot be more complicated with reality and expectations to sever the bond as time passes.  JSA dealt with human weakness and emotional frailty in a restrained but genuinely honest way,  beautiful yet painful and bittersweet because you know things will end siding one way ultimately. Scenes of the North Korean and South Korean soldiers joking  and playing their way thru amidst the high-tensioned relationship between their nations, there were the best and most memorable for me, for even before I could smile and laugh wholeheartedly, my eyes were already filled brimmed with sadness and tears that cannot stop flowing. The sad beauty within, not just because these 4 men came together knowing the consequences that could befall them when the worse happens, but also because of the courage they took in dispelling everything else for the purity of their friendship.


Lee Young Ae‘s character Sophie Jean was a lovely addition to the whole thing, I didn’t mind the character’s English because it was audible and alright, not cringe-worth my usual snark towards the usual English speaking effort by Korean actors in general. I loved that her character grounded the whole film with more human touch, making the investigation into the alleged brawl between the North and South Korean soldiers (the 4 men involved) more relatable and realistic. Her neutral stance also served an interesting point to ponder in the film (though it might not have been delved into or explored in more depth) in defining whether such a stance could possibly be reached given her racial and cultural background that differed. It was a case of whether she could restrain herself from emotional distraction when faced with situations that would normally call for it. It was a nice touch from writer/director.

But the stars of the film, of course, none other than the North Koreans played by Song Kang Ho and Shin Ha Kyun, and the South Koreans played by Lee Byung Hun and Kim Tae Woo. They were all convincing in their characters if not already compelling and charismatic enough and had wonderful camaraderie together. All 4 men couldn’t have been more different, with traits and personalities that couldn’t have been more difficult to mesh together. But once they got over their “differences in ideology” and put their friendship before everything, then begun their exciting but unpredictable journey of friendship and understanding. I did think their dynamics during when things were alright were a bit too idealistic considering the tension-high relations between the divided nations, it could have been dealt with more grit and complexity, with more shades of grey and dilemma etc. But overall, I really appreciated the humanistic venture and dig into the characters, perhaps not as much as I’d expected, but still, a very commendable effort.

I think JSA can be classified as a mark and threshold for friendship films, maybe not the highest but definitely one of the most emotionally gratifying and gripping. It has the similar grey and heart of Friends, Our Legend (drama) but with a tad bit more of thrill and wit, more particularly displayed by the RL best of buddies Song Kang Ho and Shin Ha Kyun’s characters. The mystery and excitement surrounding Sophie’s investigation also gave the drama a good amount of edge and hook, making it a lil bit more interesting and unpredictable.

The ending was presented in a very interpret-your-own way, not truly confusing but with tid bits left that made you think twice and ponder, asking for a re-watch. I ended up with swollen eyes, but with emotional satisfaction next to none. Sad but beautiful, a must see film.

Rating: 9/10

Have an amazing MV (with MAJOR spoilers):

credits: pictures as tagged / SikoKthxbye @ youtube


2 thoughts on “A Review: Joint Security Area a.k.a JSA (2000)”

    1. It’s definitely subbed, since it’s been out since year 2000. I think youtube has the full movie too, won’t be too difficult to source a good copy.

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