Sunday, March 11, 2012

Discovering Korean Cinema: J.S.A. Joint Security Area

To continue on from my entry on how I discovered Korean cinema, I've decided to talk about another film that really changed the way I looked at Korean film and the different ideas in cinema. My previous entry highlighted my first Kim Ki-duk experience, and it was the beginning of what I am today.

I raved about 3-Iron (2004) and how much I loved it to Kieran not long after that. I had already, by then, heard about a few big names in the Korean film world. Bong Joon-ho, Kim something or rather, another Kim this and that, and then - Park Chan-wook. I heard much about Old Boy (2003) throughout film school, here and there in pockets throughout the interwebs and still did not rush to see it. It was kind of like the hype around Kill Bill (2003). It's awesome, It's epic, It's amazing. Or so I had heard. Kieran had a couple of Park's films in his gargantuam of a DVD collection, one of which was J.S.A.: Joing Security Area (2000), a film I had not heard about and had little interest to see at the time. The title alone was uninteresting - that and I had little concrete knowledge of the DMZ and the current situation between the North and South. I looked past all of this and decided to give it a go.

I'll be absolutely honest with you: I could not and did not get through the first 20 minutes of the film in my first viewing. It was all talk, no substance to me. I wasn't paying attention to the lengthy discussions between Lee Young-ae's character and Mr Tall Swiss man, who to me seemed like an excuse of a 'white' man in an Asian film. I fell asleep, and looked no further past the beginning. Kieran had told me what a great film it was, and I simply could not see it. And that was that.

Some few months later, I picked it up again. I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt. I had just heard it was a major box office success in Korea when it was first released, and was for a time the highest grossing film at the box office of all time in Korea. I kept at it, past the badly spoken English of Lee Young-ae's character (not knowing what a movie star she is) and strange B-grade film actor of Mr Tall Swiss man - and I was finally hooked. The plot was unexpected, and surprised me. I was blown away by its simple yet compelling story of a group of soldiers from the North and the South, and their 'forbidden' friendships built in a time of a cold, 59-year-old conflict.

What I thought was another suspenseful political thriller had turned out to be a compelling, heart-rending story of simple men parted by political indifference. Park chimes both humour and suspense so incredibly well, the suspense and feeling of the inevitable teeters throughout the film - even in scenes where the men play jokes on one another and make fun of their differences.

By the end of J.S.A: Joint Security Area, I was truly saddened by the fate of these characters. I was also upset and angry about having not had the patience to push through the lengthy interrogation scenes at the start of the film in my first viewing. The film had a powerful impact on me and it was clear to me that Korean film was a force to be reckoned with. I had never seen a film that explored two very different genres and at the same time intertwined them to create a completely different and wholesome experience for any viewer. To include humour and suspense (and politics!) into a film, especially one that covers a current issue and conflict, Park had created a masterpiece.

A great scene from J.S.A: Joint Security Area

It is only in Korean cinema that I have noticed this meshing of genres into films so incredibly well. And while it may not seem like the most seamless combination at times, the end result is almost always rewarding. I can think of many other films I have seen that exemplify this - Poongsan (2011), Sunny (2011), Thirst (2009), Breathless (2008), The Host (2006), Oasis (2002) and even My Sassy Girl (2001) is a perfect, quirky example of this.

Korean cinema continues to surprise me time after time. Just as 3-Iron did, J.S.A: Joint Security Area really opened my eyes to great filmmaking and stories that will stay with me for many weeks to follow. Just like J.S.A, I feel that many of these stories have a certain rawness to them, as if there is a real honesty to them. They are never quite fantastical, and even if they are, their worlds feel honest and true.

This is what I love about Korean cinema. This is why I am where I am today, two years down the road from the start of the first Korean Film Festival and now on to our third in 2012. Expanding to more cities by the year, Korean film should be shared with everyone across Australia, and onwards throughout the world. In a few years to come, Korean film will be bigger than contemporary Japanese film and I am certain of it.

I hope my two entries and the rest of what the Korean Film Blogathon have produced this year spark something within you. Perhaps a hunger for more Korean film, or perhaps piqued an interest in you for what Korean film has to offer. I urge you to take notice of Korean cinema today. It is more than what it looks, and you will not be left unsatisfied.

Raelene Loong

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