A look back on the various movies that recall why I like movies any. This week, it’s a Chan-Wook Park movie

JSA is a movie that’s all about details. It took me finally watching at 1:00 AM to understand a few of the questions I had left: why exactly does this lie even exist? I had forgotten that Kang-ho Song was indeed the one who shot the North Korean guy. This is interesting too, and concretes the idea that nothing in the movie happens without reason, or setup. The rivalry between Kang-ho Song and his superior is established early on, and his treason is not only practical given the circumstances, but not unmotivated. The scene that introduces the character, where he kicks Kang-ho Song into the swamp serves to shake up our perceptions of both sides. We see this seemingly great soldier fed up with this shit, as he sits there, head down, in the water – totally defeated. This villainization of the superior character works because of the sympathy we feel for Kang-ho Song.
I had also wondered why Nam ran away from the base, leaving Soo-hyuk there, crippled and like, “what the hell?” At least, it seems like “what the hell?” but Kang-ho Song’s orders were that Nam was never at the base – he had to get away. Stuff like that always went over my head, and it might just be because of the shock of the previous scene. This is definitely a movie that gets better the more you see it, given you like the characters outright. Because I do, I was so swept along by the shooting scene that my mind couldn’t function properly – by the immediate scene following it I was scatterbrained, and that’s when the big action scene happens.
The first shooting scene, which happens inside the base, works because of the emotional investment, and I’ve always heard about movies where the dramatic events are eleveated because the audience cares about the characters. As a purveyor of science-fiction, I’ve only rarely seen this. 

Their culmination as brothers and comrades is depicted in an action that also destroys them; this is when I take kindly to allegory. Nam is taking a picture of the other three soldiers, and can’t seem to find the right angle. He finally gets it right – edges out the pictures of the big politcians on the wall over their shoulders. He snaps the picture, and we see the flash from the outside of the base, which makes the same light effect as the gunshots did in the deposition scenes. In those scenes, the light emanating from the base anticipated the arrival of trouble – that’s when the militarymen of both sides come and fight. In the flashback with the photo, we soon see the arrival of the superior dude, possibly summoned by the mysterious flash.This scene reflects on the theme in saying that their brotherhood edges out the politics and the ideologies, and this is what destroys them. This is so subtle that I only recently understood what was being said, but that isn’t a problem because the same philosophy is repeated in a sense in the Tarantino-style Mexican standoff. Though instead of being cool and collected like Kietel or Jackson in a QT movie, these guys could break at any moment, and their tenseness is reflected on the audience because we’re so commited to these characters.  Well, we might be. If the movie did work for you and you cared about the four characters, then expectations would be shattered – there’s no way this movie could be about the reunification of Korea, the scale of the movie has already been established. So we know ahead of time that this brotherhood has a time limit, and this is even further cemented by the rising tensions on both sides, “We shouldn’t go over anymore,” Soo-hyuk says to Nam during the explosion of the minefield. Things are getting worse, but we want to see them succeed anyway.The celebration of Ha-kyun Shin’s birthday is appropriately sombre, and the emotional shift that takes place – depressed, sad, recovering – works as a leadup to the invasion by the superior dude. The group reaches a sincere point of connection (not gay) before getting a bit more lighthearted. And the dude walks in and everything’s ruined, despite their best efforts to mitigate the melancholy.The character played by Young-Ae Lee, Maj. Sophie Jang, is deceptive in role; she appears to operate only as audience proxy, and to move the plot forward in that sneaky way films generally have to, but as a standalone character is interesting. Similar to the other Major (Ghost in the Shell), this character works not for her complexity or depth as most other good characters do, but in premise. She’s cold and calculating, driven by the case. As noted by her superior, her methods drove Private Nam to attempt suicide. She’s also got a mild temper on her, where initial frustration over the silence and noncompliance of Kang-ho Song and Byung-hun Lee prompts displays of impatience. Even some of her more subtle tactics come off as cold, “My you have a nice voice,” she says sort of sarcastically after Byung-hun Lee breaks his silence. Because of these characteristics she offers an antithesis to the soldiers’ warm brotherhood, which culminates in her deadly misunderstanding of it, and that’s what leads to Byung-hun Lee’s suicide. She doesn’t think that reminding Byung-hun Lee that it was he who actually killed Ha-kyun Shin could be damaging, and finally shows emotion by shedding a tear upon realization of what she’s done. Roll credits… 

I’ve heard JSA described before as a political thriller, and while this seems to be accurate, it’s a bit of a misnomer. Chan Wook Park and the other screenwriters and novelist who wrote the film/original story worked to tell a human story first, and while the political stuff is integral to the identity of the movie, it could be swapped out for something else, much like a lot of science-fiction worlds. There’s also no political agenda behind this movie, unlike The Host, which is laden with allegory and anger (Agent Yellow… tee hee). It’s not necessarily pro-South Korea or pro-North Korea – that would be adverse to the themes of the movie. In the beginning we’re told by a South Korean higher up that there are commie bastards and commie bastards’ enemies – he looks down on Sophie’s Neutral Nations Supervisory, thinking it doesn’t have a place in a country that mandates side-taking. Side-taking is what leaves four people dead and one guy injured by the end – it’s what breaks up the four brothers.

Let’s also compare this movie to another Korean film, this time of similar subject nature: Shiri, starring the beautiful Yunjin Kim of Lost fame. Shiri also told the story of people whose bond is torn by the Korean divide, but descended into melodrama, though it didn’t exactly start much higher to begin with. Had a great cast though. JSA is much more genuine, forgoing what Koreans percieve as Hollywood romance and writing a much more difficult relationship. Not only that, it’s a movie that doesn’t otherwise fall on cliches – Shiri is a shootemup in the Hong Kong variety, with the budget aspiring to the level of Hollywood actioners. The visuals pop with the exploding glass and the equally exploding bodies, but the draw of the movie then becomes a bit shallow in retrospect. On a visual level, JSA’s opulence comes from masterful cinematography of beautifully lit fields at night, snowy forests, and even more mundane things like a rainy rooftop.

Even if Shiri represents an average-to-okay level of quality in Korean New Wave cinema, that’s pretty good. Sky Blue and Natural City are kind of at the bottom, Memories of Muder and Lady Vengeance higher up. The future is exciting!

So basically, I think I discovered my new favorite movie, and it struck me as beyond odd that I could never really articulate why I liked it so much; it appears to be a by-the-numbers drama. But there’s a lot more there. What exactly is this post for? Is it for me or you? I don’t know. But until I figure out at least you have some analysis, and people like that, maybe.