The movie Joint Security Area was a successful blockbuster that showed the commercial growth and mainstream success of South Korean cinema at its release. It is mystery thriller that captured the realism of political tensions on the Korean peninsula while creating a highly emotional and dramatic story told through the eyes of soldiers experiencing everyday life on the brink of war.
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The film is an exploration of national and political identity. The Cold War tensions that have pitted the two Koreas against each other were not declining. Both people and soldiers were taught that the other side is the enemy without a clear understanding of the true nature of the ideological conflict. “The ideological training they had received to hate and to kill the enemy loses its legitimacy in the face of reality — the kind of reality that gets created when people meet and talk to one another” (Seo, 2006, par. 12).
The ridiculousness of the DMZ is portrayed from the very beginning as the tourist’s hat gets blown across the border and requires a strict procedure of handing it over to border patrol officers. The tone of divisiveness and helplessness to fix the situation resounded with the South Korean audience which was worn out from the geopolitical pressures of the crisis.
Joint Security Area finds its depth in the emotional bond formed between the four soldiers. As the film’s protagonists became close, they became like brothers. It was an accurate sentiment considering that many families were divided by the Korean war decades earlier. Their relationship is portrayed to be vastly different when secretly spending time together in comparison to official duty. However, despite all odds and apparent ideological differences, they connect as men would in any fraternal situation. The film seems to show that playing games, sharing meals, and talking about their girlfriends is something that both sides share. Despite political divisiveness, Korea is still unified in culture and through its people.
The film’s character development is complicated and does not fall within traditional guidelines of blockbusters with a clearly defined divide between protagonists and their enemies. The plot attempts and succeeds in creating thought-provoking moments that could be contemplated by the audience and applied to the real-life situation. The director did not attempt to take the direction of glorifying conflict but focused on creating the sense of closeness and warmth in the scenes of interaction amongst the protagonists. This was a unique approach to cinematography in a film about the Korean tensions.
The film’s bold theme of portraying North Koreans as victims of repression and Cold War politics humanized the people of a secretive state. “North Koreans become people with whom South Koreans can possibly fall in love or build friendships” (Choi, 2010, p.36). Coincidentally, the film’s release was preceded by a conference between the political leaders of the two Koreas. The blockbusters released at this time significantly challenged the ideology of militaristic nationalism that had been actively promoted by the government for decades. Joint Security Area became a film in a new socio-political era of relaxed censorship and accepting attitudes about the tense relationship at the 38th parallel.
Choi, J. (2010). The South Korean film renaissance: Local hitmakers, global provocateurs. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Seo, B. (2006). Reunifying identities: North and south in contemporary South Korean cinema. Web.