Before South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook made an impact on the international stage with Oldboy and later masterpieces such as The Handmaiden, the filmmaker was simply a man trying to find his voice in his homeland. His first two films were a commercial disaster, but things changed around the time of his third feature directorial effort. The 2000 mystery-thriller Joint Security Area was his attempt to find the perfect marriage of mainstream appeal with his artistic sensibilities that would set him apart in future years. Based on the 1997 novel DMZ by Park Sang-yeon, the film tackled the hot-button issue of the boundary between North Korea and South Korea, along with all of the political and emotional baggage associated with it. The film theoretically could have landed Park in some legal hot water, but the film arrived at just the right time where understanding and curiosity of unification was in an upswing. This film is emotionally rich and complex, and it is a knockout pronouncement of the creativity Park has in store moving forward.
The film begins like many of the great Hollywood procedural thrillers of the 90s such as A Few Good Men or Courage Under Fire. The inciting conflict here is the killing of two North Korean soldiers in the Joint Security Area where members of both sides of the demarcation line can come face-to-face in the demilitarized zone (DMZ). The incident was supposedly carried out by a South Korean soldier, but the stories coming from each side are wildly different. As a way to prevent both sides from escalating to more violence and to find out the truth, a special investigation is launched by the Neutral Nations Supervisory Committee. Army Major Sophie E. Jean (Lee Young-ae), a Swiss woman with Korean parents, is brought in to serve as the lead investigator who is ordered to stay completely neutral in her approach. Lee Soo-hyeok (Lee Byung-hun, G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra) is the shooter who claims the attack was in self-defense from a kidnapping. North Korean survivor Sergeant Oh Kyeong-pil (Song Kang-ho, Parasite) claims he and his comrades were attacked without provocation. The truth will test Jean’s ability to stay neutral.
The film somewhat conjures up memories of Rashomon as you get conflicting points of view shown on screen as you go from individual to individual. Neither survivor on each side wants to cooperate with the investigation, but when they do agree neither story completely adds up. Add in the fact that both are backed by hot-blooded military officials either praising Lee for killing North Koreans in cold blood or chastising others for not shooting the enemy troops. There is no true neutral ground because the toxic ideology has been drilled into the minds of the people for decades. Yet, the film does not string you along until the end to get answers; the last hour or so shows you the unvarnished truth of what happened on that fateful night and all of the events that led up to it. It is a sobering truth and one that hits home as the dream of unification seems so close yet so far away. The narrative deftly handles the idea of the desire to kill someone purely for ideological reasons rather than any personal wrongdoing. There is an underlying sweetness to the film that you want to foster and embrace with everything you have.
The performances from the ensemble here will knock you sideways with how easily they navigate such emotionally complex material. While I know Lee Byung-hun could kick butt as Storm Shadow in the G.I. Joe movies, I now feel as if he was even more wasted in that franchise after seeing the depths he is willing to plunge here. If it was a just world, Song Kang-ho likely would have gotten an Oscar-nod for Parasite, but such a coup was not in the cards. You look back at performances such as this one and you see that he has been one of the strongest Korean actors for a very long time. Even Lee Young-ae is given more agency to her character outside of just being the person to unravel the mystery. She is the perfect audience surrogate to this story; you feel every ounce of heartbreak and conflict she is feeling in the moment. The world wants to be a place of finding commonalities and living in peace with one another, but powers greater than an individual often makes that an impossibility. Joint Security Area is a nearly flawless depiction of this concept told with incredible nuance by the genius Park Chan-wook.
Joint Security Area comes to Blu-Ray from Arrow Video with a gorgeous 1080p transfer sourced from a high definition master provided by Little Big Pictures. This presentation is quite pleasing as it preserves the filmic look with proper film grain and texture throughout. The level of clarity and detail on this release will make this feel like an entirely new film. The black levels are deep and allow for true detail to come through despite some minor issues with macroblocking and banding. Skin tones are natural and lend themselves to showcasing an amazing amount of detail. There are very subtle details in the production design that are visible here for the first time from tiny details in the meeting house to subtle makeup effects. Colors are nice and vibrant as certain moments really pop off the screen. Arrow Video has done an excellent job with this, as most of the print damage has been cleaned up without messing with the natural look of the film. Those who have been waiting for this should feel quite happy about this Arrow Video release.
Joint Security Area comes with DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 mixes in Korean that are quite excellent. The optional English subtitles are formatted clearly in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Dialogue comes through nice and clear, mostly focused on the center channel. The mix does a good job of balancing this information with the stunning score and sound effects so that nothing ever gets clipped. The music in the film sounds more fleshed out and richer in the surround sound mix. The track handles the chatter between soldiers and other environmental noises perfectly in the surround channels. The track has some interesting activity in the rear channels that properly conveys the mostly outdoor setting. The scenes where the two sides are trading gunfire offers a powerful showing all around. The low end really gets to show its strength with every shot vibrating through your bones. These tracks do a fantastic job of bringing this film to life.
The first-pressing of the Arrow Video Blu-Ray of Joint Security Area includes a booklet featuring the essay “The Politics Of Division In Joint Security Area” by writer Kieran Fisher. This essay provides great historical context to the film as well insights into the mind of the director and the themes of the story. The on-disc special features are as follows:
- Audio Commentary: Film Historian Simon Ward provides an informative and entertaining documentary in which he draws connection between Park Chan-wook’s work including various themes, offers background information on the performers, delves into some of the stylistic elements employed and much more that is of great value.
- Isolated Music and Effects Track: As described, you can watch this film with only the music and effects audible.
- Stepping Over Boundaries: A new 35-minute video essay from Jasper Sharp in which he discusses the career of Park Chan-wook and his position within Korean cinema. Sharp delves into many aspects of Korean cinema in a broader context including its international imprint, as well as analyzes the different adapted and original work from Park. This is a very informative piece.
- Archival Special Features
- The JSA Story: An archival 37-minute documentary which explores the story of the film, what the filmmakers wanted to accomplish, how the performers felt about tackling this material, the creation of these characters, and many more insights that are quite worthwhile.
- Making The Film: A 14-minute piece which provides some great interviews with the cast and crew in which they discuss the making of the film and the impact that it has with the audience.
- About JSA: A two-minute piece in which the actors “introduce” the film by providing a little context to the story and their involvement with it.
- Behind The Scenes Montage: A nearly 15-minute piece which collects various behind-the-scenes moments from filming.
- Opening Ceremony: A three-minute piece in which the movie set is “donated” to the production and a press conference is held.
- Music Videos: Music videos for “Letter From A Private” (4:50) and “Take The Power Back”(4:01) are provided here.
- Promotional Materials: There is a Theatrical Trailer (2:13), TV Spot (0:33) and an Image Gallery provided here.
Joint Security Area is a story about the political and emotional divides that separate Korea, but it is one that resonates internationally thanks to its message of unification and friendship. The mystery and thriller elements are deeply compelling, but the narrative provides something much more complex beyond that which allows the film to have more power in the long term. The direction from Park Chan-wook shows a master coming into his powers, and the impactful performances all around will leave you in an afterglow long after the credits have finished rolling. The new Blu-Ray from Arrow Video features a really great A/V presentation and a plentiful assortment of special features. This is a movie well worth seeking out. Highly Recommended
Joint Security Area is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Arrow Video has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.