Before The Handmaiden, before Stoker, even before the acclaimed Vengeance Trilogy, Park Chan-wook made himself known to the world as one of South Korea’s pre-eminent filmmakers with Joint Security Area.
Adapted from the novel DMZ by Park Sang-yeon, Chan-wook’s third feature may seem like somewhat of an outlier in his canon by being an openly and devoutly political work with a more grounded and significantly less dark-humoured approach to story than the films he would go on to make. But almost all of Chan-wook’s other trademark stylistic touches are here in some form. A zippy editing pace that makes two hours fly by and keeps the narrative in a constant state of forward momentum even when it has to circle back on itself. A predilection for Rashomon-esque non-chronological storytelling without pulling a Nolan and getting lodged up its own rectum. Compelling and soulful central performances, especially from the two men at the centre of the investigation. And a latent strain of homoeroticism to the main relationship that’s sincere whilst also playing a touch on the side of provocation.
Needless to say, despite the nascent stages of his filmic evolution at the time, it’s a Park Chan-wook film alright. A mystery thriller set on the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, our entry point into the story comes from Swiss Army Major Sophie Jean (Lee Young-ae). She’s been called into the two Koreas for the first time to resolve a potentially war-starting dispute when a shootout occurs at a North Korean border house, leaving several Northern officers dead and the Southern perpetrator injured.
Unsurprisingly, both sides have provided completely contradictory accounts of the situation, designed to make the other look more like a warmongering monster, and despite the injured Southern soldier Lee Soo-hyeok (Lee Byung-hun) having provided a confession, neither side’s key witnesses are being particularly communicative. Therefore, it’s up to Maj. Jean to decipher the truth of what happened that fateful night and hopefully defuse tensions between the two nations.
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This ends up being structured into three distinct sections, each titled in reverse from the film’s name. “Area” concerning the initial investigation which allows Chan-wook to bring his composed kinetic flair for camerawork, aided by Kim Seong-bok’s striking (though higher-lit than Chan-wook’s regular DP Chung Chung-hoon) cinematography and art design, to the procedural detective genre. “Security” rewinding the clock several months to reveal to the audience the “why” at the root of the investigation, and how a jaded North Korean Sergeant by the name of Oh Kyung-pil (the great Song Kang-ho) factors in, which is where Chan-wook’s fascination with tragic psychosexual-subtext character drama becomes most apparent. Finally, “Joint” brings us into the present as everyone tries to work around the truth in an effort to land on the least-worst possible outcome; being a Park Chan-wook film, this obviously doesn’t end well for anybody.
JSA is at its best during that middle stretch, when things are stripped back to follow just the central subjects of the investigation and the screenplay’s trenchant calls for unity and humanity in the face of a dangerous (occasionally foreign-influenced) trauma-resulted conflict are filtered through character interactions. There’s lots of Chan-wook’s usual inimitable style, he especially gets lots of mileage out of the painted paving line dividing the two Koreas and an inciting sequence involving a mine booby-trap is beautifully tense, but he deploys it in more reserved bursts here than the segments either side. Byung-hun and Kang-ho get to put on wonderful performances too, which only makes the gradual crawl towards the inevitable all the more heartbreaking and affecting.
The parts either side of those middle 40 minutes are more inconsistent; though never outright bad, just unrefined. An otherwise extremely strong procedural opening third is hobbled by some, quite frankly, garbage English-language performances. Young-ae is forgiven on account of having clearly learned her lines phonetically and being a damn-solid presence of authority when allowed to relax into her natural dialect, but no such excuses can levy at Christoph Hofrichter and Herbert Ulrich as her superiors; they garble flatly through their lines like the bad dub of an 80s Asian action flick, almost rendering many a scene silly.
Meanwhile, the last third maybe goes a little too far in its efforts to communicate its required but cynically-tempered-due-to-reality message. There’s a twist involving Maj. Jean’s past that unnecessarily complicates the otherwise unimportant ticking clock and lets the film’s worst actors do a brief monologued polemic about its themes, and some of the more violent outbursts come off as melodramatically gratuitous in the worst way. The shot that Chan-wook chooses to end on does a significantly better job at hauntingly communicating the central tragedy than adding some more bodies to the pile.
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But otherwise, JSA is a great and affecting little movie, a lot of its flaws coming more from good intentions and a director still in the middle of figuring out his style than wilfully sloppy filmmaking. For the most part, what was then South Korea’s highest-grossing film still holds up, whether you’re looking at it through the lens of seeing one of cinema’s all-time greatest slowly discovering his signatures or just as an engrossing and still-relevant tragic mystery on its own terms.
Unsurprisingly, Arrow Video have worked their usual restoration magic to do right by a film that’s been out of print for over a decade. The video transfer on standard Blu-ray is crisp and detailed without sacrificing the slight neo-noir aesthetics; the only major way it visually demonstrates its age is, as always the case with Blu-ray transfers of older movies, in the occasional ropey CGI style interjection, such as with a prominently-displayed owl taking flight in the movie’s opening. Audio is similarly strong and this release also includes an optional track consisting solely of the film’s score and ambient noises, entirely sans dialogue. Given how vital the film’s dialogue is, however, plus the fact that Chan-wook still isn’t completely there in ensuring every shot can clearly communicate the story involved on its own merits, I can’t see this as an ideal way to watch JSA. A nice experiment, but a somewhat misguided one for this film.
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When it come to bonus features though, things are a tad lacking. Many of the archived bonuses from Tartan Cinema’s 2005 DVD print return here – appearing as they did on that copy, no upscales or restorations, which is a minor problem when the audio on the music videos clips to almost unlistenable levels multiple times. In terms of newbies, there’s the aforementioned dialogue-free track, and a new audio commentary by critic Simon Ward, as well as a 35-minute interview-essay with Asian cinema expert Jasper Sharpe about JSA and Park Chan-wook’s career that’s… ok, I guess? He’s knowledgeable and brings some interesting insight about the status of South Korean cinema on the world stage at the time of JSA’s initial release, but the presentation is extremely bare-bones; just Sharp talking in a semi-rambling manner with no music and minimal intercuts of archival photos for over half an hour. It’s easy to lose focus, like attending a university lecture at 9am sans caffeine, and I expect more in this realm especially when I can just open up YouTube, type “Park Chan-wook” into the search bar, and get dozens of slickly edited almost as insightful video essays on the same subject that likely cost the same as this one featurette.
The re-release isn’t exactly barebones, especially since the archival featurette making ofs and the like are appreciated and bump up the runtime, but it still feels rather minor for Arrow’s standards. At least the restoration is great and it’s good to have a key part of Chan-wook and South Korean cinema back in Western circulation again.
Joint Security Area is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.