Joint Security Area Blu-ray Review: Friendship and Murder in the DMZ

Cinema Sentries

I first came to Park Chan-wook’s films, like I suspect a lot of other Americans did, through Oldboy, his 2003 masterwork about a man imprisoned inside a strange hotel room for 15 years without an arrest, a trial, or even knowing why he’s there.  It is a fiercely violent, stylish, and meticulously crafted film.  It won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival plus a slew of other awards and put Chan-wook on the international map as a filmmaker.  Oldboy is the middle part of what became known as The Vengeance Trilogy (the other two films being Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance).  All three are excellent are have developed quite the cult following in the English-speaking, western parts of the world.

But it was Joint Security Area that made him a star in his homeland of South Korea.  Made in 2000, it was his third film as a director (his first two films, The Moon Is… the Sun’s Dream and Trio were low-budget affairs that were hardly seen in South Korea and are still nearly impossible to find in any format here in the USA). The film became a smash hit in South Korea and even held the all-time box office record there for a time.  It has been available in the States for some time, but with Arrow Video’s new release of the film, there has never been a better time to own it.

Set within the DMZ, the heavily fortified border between North and South Korea, the film follows an investigation over a confrontation that left two North Korean soldiers dead and a South Korean, Sergeant Lee Soo-hyeok (Lee Byung-hun), limping his way back across the bridge that leads to his side of the country.

Swiss Army Major Sophie E. Jean (Lee Young-ae) is asked to lead the investigation. She is from Sweden, which should make her neutral.  Her father was Korean, which gives her some understanding of the cultural situation, and she speaks Korean, which makes her the perfect investigator for a very delicate situation. What she finds is an interesting peek into the two Koreas, the war that divides them, and the bonds that could unite them once more.

She begins by interviewing Soo-hyeok, who has admitted to the shootings.  His version of the events claims that three North Korean soldiers kidnapped him while he was relieving himself, taking him to a nearby border house.  There he managed to commandeer a weapon and shot his way out, killing two of the North Koreans and injuring one.  The surviving North Korean soldier, Sergeant Oh Kyeong-pil (Song Kang-ho), tells a different story. In his version, Soo-hyeok busted into the border house shooting everyone before retreating, leaving only Kyeong-pil alive but wounded. 

What actually happened is slowly revealed in a series of flashbacks.  Guarding the border between the two countries is an important task for both sides, but also a rather dull one for the soldiers on the ground. They each take patrols within the DMZ but rarely does anything of interest happen.  On one such patrol, the South Koreans suddenly realize they have ventured into the North Korean side and take an immediate retreat, accidentally leaving Soo-hyeok behind.  Before he realizes what has happened, he steps on a land mine and cannot move for fear of setting it off.  Kyeong-pil and his comrade Jeong Woo-jin (Shin Ha-kyun) find Soo-heok and after a short but tense moment, Kyeon-pil decides to rescue his enemy from the mine then walk away.

Kyeong-pil and Soo-hyeok begin writing each other short letters and sharing them by tying them to rocks and throwing them over the border.  Soon enough, Soo-hyeok sneaks across the line to the border house and speaks directly with Kyeong-pil and Woo-jin.  A friendship forms and eventually Soo-hyeok invites his fellow soldier Private Nam Sung-shik (Kim Tae-woo) to join in the fun. The film does a remarkable job of showing how such a friendship could form and grow.  The soldiers are tentative towards one another at first, but they are eventually chatting amicably and playing games together.  There is a comradeship between them all as they are all young men and soldiers, even if they are on different sides of the border.  But it also allows them to keep their ideologies intact.  The North Koreans are amazed at all the wonderful things the South Koreans bring over.  A cassette deck allows them to share pop music, and the men delight in a girlie magazine and delicious sweets. Yet when Soo-hyeok asks if Kyeong-pil would like to defect, his answer is stern.  He says he longs for the day when his country can produce such wonderful things, but he’d never leave his homeland.

It isn’t all peace and fun times of course. All of this leads to a heartbreaking conclusion with two of the men dead, and the others severely wounded.  I found the middle section, consisting mostly of these four men bonding together, much more interesting than the actual investigation.  I kept wishing the investigation sections would pull back a little more, showing us the tensions forming between the two nations due to the central skirmish.  There were no newsreels showing an increasing number of tanks or bombers forming around the borders, or politicians railing against the other side.  Admittedly, I’m an outsider and my Korean history isn’t up to snuff.  I know there was a war and the country split apart.  I know both sides consider each other great enemies, but the details aren’t in my memory banks.  I imagine any Koreans watching the film understood the enormous danger such an event would cause and would feel that tension without it being explicitly shown on the screen.

The performances in the investigations feel a bit wooden as well.  This is partially due to many of those scenes taking place in English.  Major Jean is supposed to be a Swiss soldier with Korean heritage.  She speaks in English with another investigator.  Wikipedia tells me Lee Young-ae is from South Korea and so presumably English is not her first language. It certainly sounds like it, which is not a knock on the actress as any attempt I make at speaking anything other than English sounds like a drunken child with marbles in his mouth, but it does seem to affect her performance.  When she’s speaking to the soldiers in Korean, she seems much more natural.  The investigation doesn’t ruin the movie by any means, but I found myself much more enthralled when it was just the soldiers becoming friends.

Again, I’m not an expert on Korean history but it is easy to see why this was such a hit in its native country.  I imagine tensions remain high between the two countries, and yet I suspect there is at least some connection to the other side and a wish, on at least some level, for reconciliation.  Joint Security Area nicely shows how soldiers from both sides can find common ground and enjoy a brotherhood despite being enemies.

Joint Security Area is obviously an early film in Park Chan-wook’s filmography.  The budget was clearly low and it lacks the assuredness of his later films.  Some of his stylistic flourishes can be seen here, especially in the fantastic closing scene, but he hasn’t quite solidified it just yet. It is a film well worth seeing if you are a fan of the director or South Korean cinema in general.  There is a lot to love here and it is a fascinating glimpse into the early work of a director who has become one of the most famous filmmakers coming out of the country.

Arrow Video has done its usual marvelous job with this release.  It comes with a new HD print and original lossless Korean soundtrack. Extras include an audio commentary by critic Simon Ward, a nice interview with Asian cinema expert Jasper Sharp, archival making-of featurettes, an isolated music and effects track, a behind-the-scenes montage, trailers, image galleries, and more.  The booklet contains a nice essay on the film by Kieran Fisher.

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Mat Brewster

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