Chan-wook Park has received a lot of critical acclaim lately not only in his homeland of South Korea but also on the international cinema circuit for his two latest revenge dramas, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and more recently Oldboy but his star first really started to rise with the military thriller J.S.A. or, Joint Security Area.
The film follows the investigation of a multiple homicide that took place in the Joint Security Area along the border of North and South Korea. Two North Korean soldiers were shot to death – a total of sixteen shots were fired but only fifteen bullets were found (the typical amount housed in the clip of the Beretta used to commit the assault). The only surviving witnesses are two South Korean soldiers and one North Korean officer – all three of whom were present in the building when the attack occurred, and none of whom are willing to open up and explain what really happened.
The Neutral Nations Security Council is called in to handle the investigation and it's lead by a woman of Korean descent who grew up in Switzerland. The more she uncovers about the events that took place that night on the border the thicker the mess she's trying to sort out becomes.
Joint Security Area is a taught and solid mystery with a bit of action thrown in and some very real human drama in spots that fleshes out the story very nicely. While some of the politics and nationalism that plays a big role in the film might be lost on the average North American viewer, the themes of loyalty and friendship that the film uses as a spring board are pretty much universal which makes the film a lot more accessible to international audiences that it might seem on the surface.
While the emphasis of the film is on the relationship that develops between the two pairs of soldiers on opposite sides of the dividing line, Park puts enough action and intrigue into the movie to ensure that the nearly two hour running time moves along at a fast enough pace to keep things interesting, rather than soap operatic. The movie was a huge commercial success in Korea and while it certainly is more accessible or, dare I say it, mainstream than some of the director's more recent films, it's no less a great film.
Park fills his film with a few interesting contrasts between the two sides showing that the North and the South have a lot more in common than either side wants to readily admit to. Something as simple as a cigarette lighter placed in the right context becomes a subtle reminder of the humanity that exists on both sides of the conflict, and a symbol of the unity that doesn't exist where it probably should.
With the morality of the film flying its flag so blatantly, you'd think that the film would come across as preachy but it never does, instead it pulls you into the four men involved in the fiasco and lets their story unfold without brow beating or flag waving of any kind. There are no clear good guys or bad guys in this movie, aside from a commanding officer supporting character or two that's painted in a less than positive light.
In the end, Joint Security Area is a human interest story or a character piece more than it is a thriller but the suspense elements are handled exceptionally well through some clever camera work, excellent performances, and interesting sets (filming in the actual JSA is forbidden so a full size replica was built on the studio lot). Park's film moves at a great pace, gets us inside the heads of those involved in the outcome of the film, and even makes you think a little bit when it's all said and done.
The image is presented at roughly 2.35.1 and for the most part, the anamorphic picture quality looks good, though there are a few flaws here and there. Edge enhancement is noticeable throughout the transfer and though it's never overpowering it is there none the less. There's also a bit more print damage than you'd expect for a film less than five years old – most of it is simply the odd speck here and there that you'll notice during the night time scenes but there is a scratch or two present as well if you keep an eye open for them. The black levels in the film are a little on the murky side as well, giving some of the darker scenes a bit of a strange look.
It's not all bad though – the colors come through looking very nice and the flesh tones are very natural and lifelike in their appearance. There's a pretty decent level of detail present in both the foreground and the background of the image and the framing looks very nice in terms of shot composition. This isn't a perfect transfer, but it isn't half bad.
You've got your choice of watching the film in a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track in the film's native Korean language with optional English subtitles or dubbed into English in either Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround or Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. There are no other subtitle options nor is there a closed captioning feature.
Why there's a 5.1 track in English and not in Korean is anyone's guess as the film sounds awkward when it's dubbed but the 2.0 Korean mix is quite solid with some nice channel separation during the more action intensive scenes and clean, clear dialogue reproduction. The score and sound effects don't bury the actors even once and the bass levels are solid as well. There is a typo or two in the English subtitles, but nothing so severe as to really distract much from the film itself.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix does sound good from a technical perspective but the voice acting really doesn't work so well with the rest of the film and it's a shame that a true surround mix wasn't included in the film's native language.
Extras include a Behind The Scenes featurette that runs roughly half an hour in length. This isn't narrated or really presented in any form of context at all but in fact is just an assortment of shots from various scenes as they were being made. There are some candid moments with a few of the performers and crew members scattered throughout and when there is dialogue, there are subtitles for it but aside from showing us how things were on the set, it doesn't do a particularly good job of telling us about the background of the film or how it was made.
Roughly twenty minutes of interviews with the four men who played the soldiers and Yeong-ae Lee who played Major Jean, as well as with Chan-wook Park. Each of the performers explains a bit of background on why they took the role, what their characters motivations were, and how they feel about the way that the film turned out and about how it was to work on the movie. Park talks about how it was brave of the performers to take the roles that they did and how he was happy with the performances that they give. These interviews are a little more specific and a little more involving than the Behind The Scenes segment and also put together in a much appealing manner although at times they do feel a little self congratulatory and border on coming across more as promotional pieces than as actual interviews. Regardless, they're definitely worth watching if you enjoyed the film and are interested in learning more about those who made it all happen.
Rounding out the extra features are a music video, the film's original Korean theatrical trailer, trailers for other PALM Pictures DVD releases, and a weblink.
J.S.A. - Joint Security Area is a very solid military drama that gets a good domestic release from PALM. The transfer is good though it could have been better and the lack of a 5.1 Korean track is a disappointment but the movie itself is definitely well worth seeing and the disc comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.