The first advance of the current Korean New Wave was led by films like Park Chan-wook's Joint Security Area (a.k.a. J.S.A.), which started wowing the film-festival and Asian-bootleg-video circuit shortly after the embargo on Korean cinema was lifted at the turn of the millennium. Park's subsequent features, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, have been cult hits as well, but not necessarily with the same people who originally talked up J.S.A. Before he became a pop avant-gardist with a coal-black sense of humor and a thick bloody streak, Park was, for one film at least, a maker of slick blockbusters. J.S.A. is a thoroughly mainstream thriller, with Lee Byeong-heon as a South Korean soldier accused by the North Koreans of crossing through the demilitarized zone and murdering two of their troops, and Song Kang-ho as a North Korean soldier accused by the South Koreans of kidnapping Lee (who allegedly only killed the enemy to escape). A Swiss investigator of Korean ancestry (Lee Yeong-ae) is called in to resolve the dispute and get the full conflicting accounts of the incident, neither of which seem to be even internally consistent.

There've been about a dozen recent moronic Hollywood military mysteries with just this kind of flashback structure, but Park, working from a novel by Park Sang-yeon, skips the obvious twist-and-shock approach and focuses most of his attention on the actual events, seen during a long sequence in the middle of the film. During that story, Park spends a lot of time showing the full variety of artificial boundaries that Koreans have erected—most vividly in an overhead shot of the line of demarcation splitting the DMZ, which a yahoo American tourist crosses at will.


Reviews of the Korean release of J.S.A. complained about the awkwardness of Lee Yeong-ae's English in two key scenes, which the American release solves by re-dubbing those lines, as well as, unfortunately, everyone else's. The new English track is predictably clumsy, but the story and images overcome it. Park has an eye for the unusual in his own backyard, from the grinning costumed characters at an amusement park to the South Korean Army rifle-range targets painted to look like North Korean soldiers. In J.S.A.'s crucial central bonding sequence, Park shows how an icy lack of trust melts into soldier-to-soldier camaraderie, then freezes up again under stress. As conventionally accessible as J.S.A. is, the film still relates an uncomfortable truth: Nearly everybody in the world spends a substantial portion of life hating a mirror.