I came at this all wrong. I knew it was the top-grossing film of 2000 in South Korea and it began with soldiers getting shot (i.e. their job), military investigations and so on. I thus assumed it was going to be hard-bitten action nonsense.
I was mistaken. In fact it's an intelligent, angry look at how the political situation of North and South Korea is stupid and destructive, with specific reference to the lives of soldiers on the ground. It's human, funny and in the end powerful. It's great and you should watch it. I owe South Korea an apology for having underestimated their taste in movies, with this film being something you'd go around recommending to people with brains.
Firstly, some history. I'm sure you know all this already, but we need to be on the same page. Korea was a single country from 668 AD up to the end of World War Two, after which it was split into the communist North and the democratic South. The former soon invaded the latter (1950-53) and the two of them now share the world's most heavily fortified border. The South has grown into one of the world's major economies, while the North is a military dictatorship that only survives because Kim Jong-Il is a vicious little son-of-a-bitch and because they're being propped up by China. Their jolly pranks include things like state-sponsored terrorism, blowing up civilian planes, kidnapping other country's nationals for decades and conducting an illegal nuclear weapons program.
Anyway, the Joint Security Area (also known as the Truce Village) is the one and only part of the Korean Demilitarised Zone where North and South Korean soldiers stand face-to-face. There's a line on the ground. The soldiers mustn't cross it. Technically, a North Korean soldier could be hanged for having any contact at all with a Southerner. However at the same time, they're all just Koreans. I get the impression that there isn't the bad blood you'll get between, say, India and Pakistan.
This film begins with a South Korean soldier on the wrong side of the border having shot some North Koreans. Both sides have their own version of what happened. Needless to say, the stories don't marry. An international group is called in to investigate and for a while it's all looking pretty formulaic. The foreigners (one of whom has a Korean parent) speak English in extraordinary accents to each other and get the runaround from both the North and South military. This bit was okay, but I didn't know what was going on and the film hadn't gripped me yet. However after a while we jump back in time without warning and suddenly we're no longer seeing multiple unreliable narrators' versions of what happened, but the real thing. It starts a long time earlier. There's a lot of history behind why these soldiers did what they did, but it's not what you think. They're just soldiers being soldiers. They're childish, silly and funny. They goof around and talk shit. They're entertaining. You like them.
And all the while, you know it's going to end in blood and bullets. That much was clear, but I hadn't expected it to play out as it does. What we actually get is more interesting and powerful than I'd have guessed.
There's some international-level talent involved in this, both behind and in front of the camera. The director is Park Chan-wook, who also did Thirst
and the Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy
, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). Meanwhile the actors include Byung-hun Lee and the always impressive Kang-ho Song, who between them are the Bad and the Weird from The Good The Bad The Weird
, not to mention having also been in The Host, Memories of Murder
and many more that I've heard come highly recommended. I think I'm becoming a fan of Kang-ho Song's. Anyway, this is a classy production, with nobody letting the side down.
The military thought it ridiculous, though. They called its central idea absurd (which might even be true) and a group of the JSA Veterans' Association stormed the Myung Film offices, breaking windows and physically threatening the company's employees.
Leaving aside the reaction of those losers, though, the film did gangbusters and deserved it. Admittedly its subject matter is going to resonate far more strongly in Korea itself, but even so we're talking about a film that put nearly half a million bums on seats just in Seoul in its first week. It set a one-day box office record on the following Saturday and for a few months (until Friend) it was the all-time best-selling film in Korea. It's thoughtful and fiercely humane, but it's also full of enough guns, death and soldiers to draw the Neanderthal crowd. Last year Quentin Tarantino called it one of his twenty favourite films since 1992. It's not a big movie, being intimate rather than splashy, but it's telling a story we can all identify with. It's excellent. Watch it.
My favourite anecdote: South Korea's president Roh Moo-hyun gave a copy of the DVD to Kim Jong-Il at the 2007 Korean summit. I bet Kim Jong-Il had already seen it, though. He's a film buff, as well as a mass-murdering dictator.