Joint Security Area is the first film of our Korean Cold War trifecta. In 2000 when it debuted it was the highest grossing Korean film of all time. It was shot on location at the demilitarized zone or DMZ (the heavily patrolled border dividing North and South Korea). The film is explained through a series of flashbacks, flashbacks that show low level North and South Korean soldiers becoming friends, drinking together and sharing pictures and gifts. This is of course taboo between the two countries which are still technically at war.
Two North Korean soldiers are found dead by gunshot wound while a lone South Korean soldier heads back toward his side of the DMZ. The South Korean troops get their man however a firefight erupts and two days later the fragile relationship between the two countries is on the verge of war. An international peace agency sends in a Swiss Korean Army officer who attempts to sort through the evidence and discover what actually happened. She is warned at the beginning by the ranking General in charge of the DMZ that the outcome of this proceeding is not the point, but that the process be totally neutral—a warning she ignores to her own peril.
Explained through flashbacks it is shown that Soo-hyeok (a South Korean) was on patrol with other soldiers, only to get lost on the North Korean side of the DMZ and to partially trip a mine; found by Kyeong-pil and Woo-jin, (both North Koreans) who deactivate the mine, which later prompts Soo-hyeok to throw written messages over the border to maintain contact. Eventually inviting Soo-hyeok across the border, the three become a group of friends that soon includes Sung-shik, with the four agreeing to leave politics out of their friendship so to remain loyal to their own country.
As tensions rise between the North and South, Soo-hyeok and Sung-shik return to the North to say goodbye and celebrate Woo-jin’s birthday, only to be discovered by a commanding officer from the North and resulting in a Mexican Standoff. Despite Woo-jin panicking and betraying his friends, Kyeong-pil convinces Woo-jin, Soo-hyeok and the officer to lower their weapons, only for Sung-shik to panic and shoot the commanding officer when he reaches for his radio; when Woo-jin draws his gun again, Sung-shik kills him, before shooting his corpse several times out of anger. Kyeong-pil persuades Sung-shik to lay down the gun and for the two to flee with a false alibi of being kidnapped, before throwing away the evidence that he and Woo-jin were fraternizing with Southern soldiers. After shooting Kyeong-pil to complete his alibi, Sung-shik and Soo-hyeok flee across the border, with the former getting past unseen; since Soo-hyeok has a wounded leg from the firefight, he is the only soldier seen.
As the investigator starts piecing this together (using the only real clue a missing bullet) and confronts the soldiers one South Korean throws himself out of a window putting him into a coma. After that horrific incident, her family’s past is uncovered and it turns out that her father was a general for the North Korean army tainting any neutrality she may have brought to the proceedings. Because the missing bullet which all of her theories hinged on was intentionally thrown away she cannot figure out who really shot Woo-jin due to a remaining inconsistency in their stories. Sophie (the investigator) hugs Soo-hyeok and wishes him well, only for Soo-hyeok to steal an officer’s pistol before committing suicide as he is escorted to a waiting car. It is revealed Soo-hyeok shot Woo-jin, and he committed suicide out of guilt for Woo-jin’s death and Sung-shik’s suicide attempt.
The film magnificently concludes with a photograph of the joint security area that accidentally contains all four soldiers.
This film is the perfect kickoff for our Cold War series. It has all the elements of a Cold War movie: you’ve got two sides with opposing ideologies – and in fact it’s communism versus capitalism, and as in the West, capitalism has shown its economic might over basically an ideology which in North Korea happens to be called juche instead of communism. Juche means independence or self-reliance, but in North Korea juche is simply Orwellian doublespeak for totalitarianism run horrifically amuck. But the fact of the matter is that the people of these two countries are no different from each other, and what separates them is a fence. A big fence, yes. A fence I wouldn’t want to cross, yes. A 100% jones fest, yes. The fact of the matter is that at the heart of it, in the DMZ where they all meet, in the last scene in the picture together, they are not fighting. One of them is even smiling for the camera. But that’s not the real reason this is a good movie. The real reason this is a good movie is because of the Cold War aspects of it: the spies, the electrified fences, the constant threat of total war. The stakes are high. And we see these individuals who are caught up as pawns in this very high stakes game – who really just want to go home. It’s all there for the writing – but think of how many different ways this could have been played out. It could have gone to total war. Those guys could have been court-martialed.
What parallel do we have to this situation in the United States right now? Nothing. We have some disorganized group of terrorists, who have no united front so to speak, who are intentionally walled off as cells so that one group can’t affect the other if they are caught. Moreover, in the U.S. right now our real enemies are within: the government, corrupt politicians, police brutality, big corporations and banks. There aren’t the clear sides that you have in a Cold War situation. We keep trying to manufacture wars, as if we were nostalgic for the Cold War: the war on drugs, the war on terrorism. But we find it hard to make that work when the real enemy is us: our own corruption, our own consumerism, our own fiscal irresponsibility as a country, our own fanaticism and arrogance in the face of poverty. Our own political correctness that we have let hogtie us into an inability to do anything about the “isms” that we claim to care so much about eradicating. The only good movie to come out of Hollywood to address such issues is V for Vendetta. Otherwise, Hollywood has been left as bankrupt of ideas as Lehman Brothers.