Friday, October 21, 2005

Chan-wook Park

After watching J.S.A. last night, I can now say I’m officially “excited” about South Korean director Chan-wook Park. A bit leery of the buzz on Park’s Oldboy after its Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last year, I dragged myself across town to see it way after the fact at the Nu Art earlier this year. It was my first introduction to his work, and I found it quite good, with brilliant sequences no doubt, but a little long and overindulgent for what boils down to a standard revenge movie. I was not yet converted.

But with J.S.A., I’m ready to cross the line into fandom. I was so riveted after the first few minutes that even the hanging subtitles (you know, the type that linger long after the person has moved on to the next sentence) didn’t bother me. Other than a tiny bit of stiff acting at the beginning by the female investigator Yeong-ae Lee, I can find no fault in this movie. And give her a break, she had to deliver lines in something other than her native tongue -- English, with a Swedish accent no less -- always hard to make convincing.
J.S.A.'s setup is deceptively simple, yet the issues and emotions stirred up by its premise are complex, central to the North Korea / South Korea conflict. The story puts us at Ground Zero in the titular Joint Security Area between North and South where armed guards keep watch over posts within feet of their mortal enemies. It’s the ultimate stalemate point, the tensions so high here a pin drop could set off WWIII. When a guard post full of North Korean guards are found dead by the gun of one South Korean guard who’s still alive, that pin is about to drop, until a “neutral” investigator from Sweden (a Korean woman raised in Sweden) is called in to investigate.
Both sides are sticking to their official versions of what happened -- the North Koreans calling it an attack on their guard post and the South claiming their man was kidnapped and brought to the Northern post only to escape with his life. Of course, once the investigation gets underway, we soon find that neither of these versions are the truth. But our investigator is not concerned with the Who’s and What’s -- she already knows whose bullets came from who’s guns, etc. She’s concerned with the Why of the case. How did this line so firmly drawn in the sand ever get crossed?
And that’s where the movie takes a very interesting turn, departing from what we think will be a standard Rashomon-like closed-quarters investigation (ala the jumbled hum-drum of movies like The Usual Suspects or Basic) and opening up into one extended flashback that puts us at Ground Zero with the North and South Korean guards themselves. I won’t detail what actually goes down. But I will say that this is where the movie really comes alive in a number of fascinatingly detailed sequences that are suspenseful while remaining truly human.
Unlike lesser movies, the characters here are not simply shadowy functions of a twist-filled plot. There are no lame "Keyser Soze" deux ex machinas to be found. Park uses this Ground Zero vantage to give us a story that is personal, universal, and very specific to the Korean conflict all at the same time. It’s an incredible balancing act, and Park handles it like the finest of narrative tight-rope walkers, imbuing the film with steady tone that gets increasingly intense without ever seeming exploitative. He doesn’t need to milk it. The tension is right there in real life.
There’s a great moment of dread in which an American / South Korean tour group are being led through the JSA area. One of the group’s hats fly off and land just across the line at the foot of one of the armed North Korean guards. Everyone holds their breath as the stone face guard stares ahead and then slowly bends down to retrieve it, toss it back over. If the line can be crossed for a silly floppy hat, then why not for peace?

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