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Wednesday, June 13, 2001

Somewhere over the DMZ


Rating: * * * 1/2 Director: Park Chan Wook Running time: 110 minutes Language: Korean Now showing at Hibiya Scala-za and other theaters

Two types of Korean movies used to be released in Japan. One was the art film, usually something dark, raw and intense. The other was the erotic film, usually something dark, raw and intense, but with more rapes and bared breasts. Neither did particularly well at the box office, though the latter had a small, devoted following.

Song Kang Ho (far right) and Lee Byun Hun (center) in "JSA"

In recent years, however, the Korean movie business has come to resemble Hong Kong's. While still turning out art films, including good ones made by a new generation of talented directors, the industry has become much better at producing exportable commercial films. The first to hit big in Japan was "Shuri" (original Korean title "Shiri," renamed here because it means "bottom" in Japanese). This Kang Je Kyu action-romance about a North Korean agent who falls in love with one of her South Korean counterparts smashed box-office records in both Korea and Japan following its release in 1999, while making Japanese distributors and audiences aware that Korean films have a vitality, dynamism and sheer entertainment value too often missing in the local product.

One reason for this difference: Recent dramatic changes in Korean public life, notably the easing of tensions with the North, have been a stimulus to the film industry in a way no longer possible in Japan, where decades have drifted by in an LDP-induced torpor -- not exactly the stuff of rousing popcorn movies (though some enterprising producer may be developing "Mr. Koizumi Goes to Nagata-cho").

Last year, Park Chan Wook's "JSA (Joint Security Area)," another political drama with a North-South theme, broke the record "Shuri" set at the Korean box office. Now the Japanese distributors of "Shuri" -- Cine Quanon and Amuse Pictures -- have given "JSA" the biggest local release ever for a Korean film. Racking up large numbers after its May 26 release, it will probably rewrite the record book here as well.

All of which makes "JSA" sound like "Shuri Part 2." Not really. Though set on the North-South border and made with a big budget for a Korean film, nearly $4.5 million, "JSA" is more concerned with the vagaries of human nature under the stress of an unending Cold War than with its plot or explosions. As a drama, it works quite well, with strong performances from all four of its principals, though the machinations required to bring them together strain belief.

Watching "JSA" I was reminded of "The Bridge," a 1960 German film by Bernhard Wicki that made a huge impression on me when I saw it as a teenager in a Pennsylvania mill town. Set in Germany during the last, desperate days of World War II, this story about the hopeless defense of a bridge by a ragtag squad of boys and old men showed me a face of the Enemy that I'd never seen in a Hollywood war film, in which Germans were either caricatures or faceless, goose-stepping hordes.

"JSA," I think, is serving a similar purpose for a new generation of Koreans and Japanese, who may know North Korea only from photo ops with the Dear Leader or news stories about starving peasants. It is a film that would have been impossible to make not long ago, when any sympathetic portrayal of North Koreans on the screen would have called down the wrath of government censors.

The film's setup is standard thriller stuff: a shooting incident in the Joint Security Area -- a demilitarized zone dividing North and South near the Panmunjom Truce Village -- leaves a North Korean soldier (Shin Ha Kyun) dead and a South Korean soldier wounded. The North Koreans claim their man was murdered, while the South Koreans counter that theirs was kidnapped. To resolve this conflict, with its potential for explosive repercussions, both sides agree to call in an investigator from the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, a Korean-Swiss woman named Sophie Jean (Lee Yeong Ae).

A serious, methodical type, Sophie Jean decides to dig harder when the two soldiers involved in the incident, South Korean Sgt. Lee Soo Hyeok (Lee Byung Hun) and North Korean Sgt. Oh Kyeong Pil (Song Kang Ho), contradict each other in their testimony. Then, after she interrogates a witness to the incident, South Korean soldier Nam Sung Shik (Kim Tae Woo), he attempts suicide. Who is lying? Why did Nam pull the trigger on himself? Meanwhile, both sides are pressuring her to report "acceptable" findings that may or may not jibe with the truth.

She slogs on, however, and we begin to see that, instead of facing off across a no man's land, the four principals had been meeting at night at the North Korean guardhouse to shoot the bull, read porn magazines and deepen an uneasy friendship. That friendship, however, had turned to tragedy -- but why?

Though Sophie Jean is less a character than a plot construct, Lee Yeong Ae acquits herself with dignity and poise. Native English speakers, however, may wonder why, after a lifetime in Switzerland, this NNSC officer speaks their language with a strong Korean accent.

The strongest performance, though, is that of Song Kang Ho as the North Korean sergeant Lee. Bluff but good-natured, politically sophisticated after years of overseas duty, but touchy when provoked, Lee is a volatile, recognizably human mix. He gives credibility to the film's central premise -- that Northerners, including those stern-faced soldiers patrolling the world's oldest truce line, want much the same things as their Southern counterparts. Also excellent in the hit comedy "The Foul King," Song has the kind of range and presence that most Japanese actors of his generation can only wish for.

As the South Korean Sgt. Lee, Lee Byung Hun ably embodies average South Korean manhood after four decades of peace: resigned to his hitch in the military, but bored to tears with its routine -- and unconvinced that the guys on the other team wear horns.

None of this will surprise anyone who has studied the American Civil War, in which fraternization was rife, especially when the two sides had been eyeing each other over entrenchments for weeks. Enemies would begin by trading insults and end by getting together for games of cards or communal swims. We can only hope the standoff in Korea will lead to a similar conclusion -- not defeat and ruin for one side, but an erasure of borders -- and a meeting of brothers in arms, without threat of bloodshed.

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