JOINT SECURITY AREA (2000)
Park Chan-wook’s breakout hit is a touching buddy movie hidden in a military thriller as an incident on the North-South Korea border threatens to spark a war
As is often the case with Director Park, you start watching on the pretence a film is one thing, only to discover it is something else entirely. As you rubber neck at the action and violence, you look again to realise Park has led you down some other unexpected path.
After two unsuccessful films in the 1990s – The Moon is… the Sun’s Dream (1992) and Trio (1997) – Park set the tone for being the Korean filmmaker of the 2000s with this investigative thriller with enough emotional depth to swallow a continent.
At the demilitarized zone, two North Korean soldiers are killed at their border house and we then see Sergeant Lee Soo-hyeok (Lee Byung-hun) flee back to the South Korean side.
The incident fractures the delicate relationship between North and South, with a special investigation launched and headed-up by Swiss Army Major Sophie E. Jean (Lee Young-ae) on behalf of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission to discover what has happened to defuse the national tensions.
She speaks with Soo-hyeok, Southern witness Nam Sung-shik (Kim Tae-woo) and the North Korean survivor Sergeant Oh Kyeong-pil (Song Kang-ho), but there are conflicting accounts of the incident and a bullet count which suggests someone is lying.
These investigations are interspersed with seeing what really happened and how an unlikely friendship escalated to darker consequences.
“After hearing Comrade all the time, it is nice to be called Brother,” says Kyeong-pil, played by the peerless Song Kang-ho, who uses his natural acting style to provide a progressive view of a character from North Korea. This is a more relaxed and humorous North Korean than the brainwashed and stern portrayal that is often shown in South Korean cinema.
The film is startlingly ahead of its time, compare it to other similar outing from the same era and Park has created a genuinely modern thriller. Tense, stylish and tragic, the film barely contains a boring frame from start to finish. It is perfectly shot, ideally paced and masterfully edited throughout.
There is a wealth of emotional pull to the film, unpacking the heart-break of a divided country and the friendships that can be formed despite such stark political differences. There is also smattering of comedic relief, lightening the load on the more serious procedural elements of the film.
The non-linear structure is worth sticking with for the pay-off it provides by the end. The final shot, a picture where Director Park sweeps between the main characters, is one of the simplest but most beautifully effective closing images to a film you will see.
The highest-grossing film in Korean cinema history at the time, it also won Best Film at the 2000 Blue Dragon Film Awards and the 2001 Grand Bell Awards, establishing Director Park as the country’s new film-making superstar.