This month we begin our 2013 screenings with a presentation of Park Chan-wook’s JSA: Joint Security Area. Minicine member Kieron Casey has kindly written some words on Park’s work and how his films, including JSA, weave into the fabric of Korean cinema and national history:
South Korean cinema introduced itself to many cinephiles across the world with the bloody, violent, visceral and twisted Old Boy; a film which instantly exalted it’s auteur, Park Chan-wook, to the status of one of the most celebrated active directors in the entire movie industry. Taking Cannes film festival by storm, the powerfully kinetic 2003 feature won an array of fans ranging from Steven Spielberg through to Quentin Tarantino due to its impossibly inventive, highly stylised action sequences which blended slick hyper-violence with an impossibly dark, Shakespearean narrative. The success of the film, in terms of both critical and cinematic achievement, granted it instantly iconic status and provided a launch-pad for movie fans to explore Korean cinema looking to discover similarly dark, masochistically driven pieces (of which Breathless, I Saw The Devil, Save The Green Planet, Bittersweet Life and Memories of Murder are prime examples).
Yet, although for many people South Korean cinema and insanely gruesome violence will always be inextricably linked, the majority of the country’s filmic history has its roots placed firmly within the much softer melodrama genre – an area in which much of its highest quality output is found and, indeed, where Park Chan-wook himself made his career breakthrough with the profound and moving JSA: Joint Security Area. The film, which became the highest attended movie in Korean history upon its release and still remains the feature Park is best known for in his homeland, is an elegiac and intricate tragedy; a sentimental piece of movie-making which shares much more common ground with highly successful Korean features such as The Classic, Christmas In August, Failan, Friend, Wedding Dress and Oasis which, perhaps in part due to their lack of bombast, have failed to cross-over into Western markets with the success of their more violent contemporaries.
JSA deals with a theme that is familiar to many fans of Korean cinema, or indeed world politics, and that is the physical, and ideological, divide which separates the highly consumerist South with their communist neighbours North of the border. In Park’s award winning film, a serious shooting has taken place in the DMZ (demilitarised zone) at a remote border crossing which both Northern and Southern soldiers patrol. With neither country’s soldiers willing to speak truthfully about what happened, the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission are flown in to try and make sense of the occurrences and to stop a tense situation escalating even further. When the truth begins to eventually pour out, in a Rashomon-esque fashion, a tragedy greater than the shooting soon comes into view as friendships and brotherhoods are torn apart, real human bonds destroyed by futile and overbearing politics.
Starring the brilliant Song Kang-ho (The Host) and Lee Byung-hun (The Good, The Bad, The Weird), Park’s film is a suspenseful piece of cinema, and mature to the degree that when South Korea’s President Roo Moo-hyun met North’s then dictator Kim Jong-il, it seemed more like a peaceful gesture than an antagonistic one when the former presented a copy of the movie on DVD to the latter. In many ways its muted, sincere heart seems the very antithesis of the sensationalist, hyper-stylised and aesthetically challenging gruesome nature of which much of the Korean cinema which finds a popular audience in the West is based. Those expecting JSA to be a carbon copy of Park’s Vengeance films will be disappointed as the film, superficially, has very little in common with the graphic violence Korean cinema often has bursting from its pours. Studying Old Boy and JSA back-to-back it is possible to see the two apparently polemic strands which Korean cinema often fits: the melodramatic and the violent.
Yet, despite the seemingly large gulf between the two strands of film-making, the two apparently polemic styles both have much in common aside from their unprecedented uniqueness and sheer world class quality of invention. Park Chan-wook and his filmography provide a perfect example of how the gaps between the two strands are not so far apart after all and his oeuvre can also be used as a perfect illustration of how Korean cinema ended up where it is today – a medium used to artistically convey extreme expressions of extreme emotion pushed to the limits.
As a country, Korea has suffered centuries of mistreatment (by invaders such as the Manchurians and Japanese amongst countless others) and injustices, which has led to their belief that every Korean is born with the culturally specific emotion “Han” in their hearts: an incurable pain caused through their country’s many wrongs never put right. Post-civil war, and the splitting of the country in two, this feeling has grown stronger and can, partially, be attributable to the two extreme emotions that are most often expressed in Korean cinema – rage and sorrow. Whilst Park’s Vengeance trilogy deals almost exclusively with the first of these emotions, JSA is steeped in an unrelenting sorrow which is almost too hard for us to understand and is as viscerally disturbing as the hyper-violence of the aforementioned series. Whilst Oh Dae-su in Old Boy has to deal with the injustice of being kidnapped and mentally tortured, the soldiers in JSA feel a similar pain in their heart by being inhumanely separated from their brothers and fellow men. Both films are about the futility and injustices that stem from society and, whilst superficially different, both are uniquely Korean in nature and represent, in their own ways, a highly stylised take on what it is to be Korean in character.
Park’s practical filmic education begun, not unsurprisingly, on the set of a melodrama, rather than an action feature (he worked as an assistant director for the feature Watercolour Painting in a Rainy Day, a feature helmed by a man who went on to become the most influential director in Eastern cinema’s romantic melodrama genre, Kwak Jae-yong, the mind behind My Sassy Girl). Yet, like most of his contemporaries of the Korean cinema boom, throughout his work there is a real focus on hybridization of splicing traditional Korean film influences (not least the tropes created by the original master of Korean cinema, The Housemaid director Kim Ki-young) with the cinema of the West, a process which begun in the early 1990s and helped shaped the country’s film industry and creative landscape.
As the incredibly capitalist driven side of Korea saw the astronomical profits of Hollywood movies (the government noting that one film like Jurassic Park made more money than the combined total of thousands of car sales), film censorship, which was heavily stringent up until the 1980s, was relaxed and commercial investment was made into cinema as part of a successful drive to make the industry the best in the world. Able to express themselves freely and with commercial, non-governmental backing available for films for the first time from 1992 onwards, Korean film-makers began splicing together their style. The two key components here were their own country’s cinematic history (largely melodramatic as it was considered a “safe” genre by censors) and the influence left by the excesses of Western cinema. These provided the groundwork for the two strands which make up the majority of Koreas filmic output and which continue to feed into one another. So, whilst films such as JSA and Old Boy may seem miles apart in terms on content, they both grew from the same uniquely Korean roots and, in turn, have left behind a host of seeds as a legacy. And whilst JSA may seem, to those only familiar with the darker side of Korean cinema, an anomaly it is in fact another perfect example of the thing that binds the country’s film industry together – a beautifully woven expression of extreme emotion.
- Kieron Casey, Minicine member
We’ll be screening JSA: Joint Security Area at The Palace Picturehouse in Armley Mills Industrial Museum on Thursday 24th January at 7PM. For tickets and more details of the screening please visit our online box office here.