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JSA - Joint Security Area (Special Edition)
Park Chan-wook has received a lot of critical acclaim not only in his homeland of South Korea but also on the international cinema circuit for his revenge dramas, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance but his star first really started to rise in 2000 with the military thriller JSA 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 led by Major Sophie E. Jean (Lee Yeong-ae), 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.
Joint Security Area arrives on Blu-ray from Arrow Video taken from a new 2k scan in AVC encoded 1080p high definition and framed at 2.35.1 widescreen with the feature taking up 31.8GBs of space on the 50GB disc. Generally speaking, the transfer looks good. There are some shots that show noticeably better detail than others but for the most part the picture is clean and has good depth to it. Colors are handled well, popping in the scenes where warmer, brighter colors are used and looking appropriately mute when the movie calls for it. Skin tones look nice and natural and there are no obvious issues with compression artifacts, edge enhancement or noise reduction issues. All in all, this offers quite a substantial upgrade over the previous DVD release.
Korean language options are provided in 24-bit DTS-HD 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo Master Audio tracks. Removable subtitles are offered up in English only. Both tracks sound good with the 5.1 mix getting the edge for offering up some nice surround activity during the action scenes and spreading out the score and effects into the rear channels from time to time. Levels are balanced well, the track is free of any hiss or distortion and the subtitles were devoid of any obvious typographical errors. No problems here at all.
Extras start off with a new audio commentary by writer and critic Simon Ward. This track covers his personal familiarity with Park's work, how the movie does and doesn't fit in with the rest of his filmography, the involvement of CJ Entertainment, the influence of the films of Tony Scott, the sense of immediacy that Park gets into the picture, the politics behind the movie, and why some of the cast members might look familiar to fans of his other pictures. He also covers the quality of the acting, offers biographical details of the cast and crew, how parts of the film toy with audience expectations, the importance of geography in this and other Park movies, the quality of the editing and quite a bit more. There are a few moments of dead air here and there but for the most part, Ward keeps the track moving at a good pace and offers up a good mix of trivia and analysis.
From there, we dig into a newly recorded video interview with Asian cinema expert Jasper Sharp entitled Stepping Over Boundaries. Here, over the span of thirty-five-minutes, Sharp covers Park's career and how the politics of the era he grew up in shaped his life and educational and then subsequently his filmmaking career. He then talks about some of Park's early efforts, the massive international success of Oldboy, Park's place in the rise of Korean cinema around the world, differences between the western and Asian markets, how Park's filmography is more than just the 'Vengeance Trilogy,' where JSA fits in with all of this and how it stands out from his other works, the influence of films like Rashomon on the movie, themes that the movie explores including that of masculinity and quite a bit more. It's interesting stuff, and Sharp definitely knows his stuff.
In the Archival Special Features section we get The JSA Story, a thirty-six-minute piece that offers some historical context on the idea behind the actual JSA by relaying a bit of a history lesson before then taking us behind the scenes and showing us what it was like on set. We also get a look at how Korean media reacted to the movie in addition to some cast and crew interviews, press conference footage and more. Making The Film is a fourteen-minute collection of interviews with the cast and the director that cover previews that were held for the film, how the film was received, the media buzz around the film, its box office success, how different political and military types reacted to the film and more. About JSA is a series of two-minutes' worth of quick archival introductions to the film by members of the cast, while the Behind The Scenes montage just under fifteen-minutes of footage shot on set during the making of the movie, presented fly-on-the-wall style without any real context. Opening ceremony footage is a three-minute clip showing what went down at a literal ribbon cutting ceremony when a donation was made after the film was completed.
Rounding out the extras are two music videos (Letter From A Private and Take The Power Back), an isolated music and effects track, a theatrical trailer, a TV spot, a still gallery, menus and chapter selection options. Arrow also provides a booklet of liner notes and credits for this release as well as some double-sided cover sleeve art and a nice slipcover.
Joint Security Area is a very solid military drama that gets a good Blu-ray release from Arrow video. The presentation and extras are solid and the movie itself is definitely well worth seeing. 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.
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