Joint Security Area (Arrow Video blu-ray)

Major Sophie E. Jean ("Lady Vengeance" Young-ae Lee), the daughter of a Korean father and Swiss mother, has never been to Korea when she is called to the DMZ by the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission.  There has been an incident at the border where two North Korean soldiers were killed and a third injured within a North Korean guard station, but the stories of South Korean suspect, Sergeant Soo-hyeok Lee (Byung-hun Lee, "The Good, The Bad and the Weird"), and the injured North Korean, Sergeant Kyeong-pil Oh (Kang-ho Song, "Parasite"), don’t agree.  Maj. Gen. Bruno Botta (Christoph Hofrichter) tells Jean that her investigation will be like ‘a conversation in a very dry forest – one small spark could burn it all down’ in “Joint Security Area.”

Laura's Review: B+

Newly issued on a blu-ray packed with extras by Arrow Video, it is fascinating to regard the work of director Chan-wook Park ("Oldboy," "The Handmaiden") before his vengeance trilogy catapulted him to global recognition.  For those who saw Hitchcockian influences in his English language debut “Stoker,” it is surprising to find them thirteen years earlier here in cinematographer Kim Sung-bok’s camera moves and editor Kim Sang-beom’s flashier transitions.  Park’s reputation for lush, saturated imagery is also present here, a plot inciting scene in a wheat field haunting.

The film gets off on shaky footing, however, Young-ae Lee clearly struggling with initial scenes in English, Park’s narrative somewhat muddled.   There are chalk outlines of fallen bodies at the crime scene, 11 bullet wounds but only 10 retrieved bullets, a soldier’s girlfriend with an interesting family tree and a deposition apparently given and signed while its author was in a coma.  Things kick into high gear when the filmmaker abandons the present, where Lee claims kidnapping while Oh an attack, for the past, slowly building his often “Rashomon”-like tale via flashback.

The first event we see is the origin of a legend, investigators having been told by South Korean Private First Class Sung-shik Nam (Kim Tae-woo, "Thirst") that Lee had caught up to his unit after having defused a land mine he’d stepped on.  And indeed, in a field of grain, Lee does recognize that fatal click after taking a step, freezing in place as his eyes trace a wire.  A rustle catches his attention and what should emerge but a puppy, followed quickly by its owner, North Korean Soldier Woo-jin Jeong (Shin Ha-kyun), and Oh, chastising him for having brought it.  At first, there’s a scuffle, but when Lee informs his enemies he’s standing on a mine, they back away.  Then Oh returns, defuses it, hands the device to Lee, lights a cigar and leaves.  Later, the two will clandestinely recognize each other at the border and one night, Lee dares to arrive at Oh’s station.  Soon he’s convinced his subordinate, Nam, to come along and the four happily while away their evenings, political ideology be damned.

The film is often funny, but it’s driven by the underlying mystery of just what happened, which is, ultimately, tragic.  Guns, even in camaraderie, are always threateningly present, Sung-bok often using a 360 degree shot to capture his four subjects like the spinning chamber of a revolver.

In returning to the present, Jean’s mixed heritage is clearly meant to comment upon a nation divided, one where 76 post-Korean War prisoners who could not declare loyalty to either side were allowed to migrate around the globe, her father among them.  But it is the shattered brotherhood of the four men forged on the northern side of the DMZ that resonates here, Park’s closing shot powerful.

The new Arrow Video blu-ray streets on January 26, 2021 and includes a commentary track from critic Simon West, an isolated music track, several featurettes and two music videos.

Robin's Review: B

Late at night at a remote border post on the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Suddenly, shots ring out and an SK soldier, injured, flees the building. Troops from both sides mass at the border and a firefight breaks out. An inquiry by neutral nations is ordered to get to the bottom of the deadly incident in the “Joint Security Area.”
Early on in his long and colorful career, director Chan-wook Park took on the tense border situation between North and South Korea as the locale for his story that, at its core, is one of friendship and understanding.

Troops on both sides of the contested border at the 38th parallel take part in nighttime patrols designed to keep the other side on alert. One night during one such maneuver, South Korean Sgt. Lee (Yeong-ae Lee) stops to make a rest stop while his squad continues on. As he tries to rejoin his unit, he is trapped by a landmine and, for Lee, all hope is lost.
Then, two North Korean soldiers also on patrol, Sgt. Oh (Kang-ho Song) and Private Jeong (Ha-kyun Shin), find the doomed Lee and save his life and part as friends. The appreciative Lee continues to make contact with the “enemy” and, soon, he and his comrade, Private Nam (Tae-woo Kim), are paying visits to the other side. The trust grows between the enemies, despite the ideological differences of their two countries.

This hands-across-the-border story comes to an abrupt halt when the gang-of-four’s bonding is interrupted and the result is two dead and tensions between the countries mount. This is where the Neutral Nations Security Council members, including Major Sophie Jean (Yong-ae Lee), comes in to investigate the deaths. Park spends his time jumping back and forth in time and slowly, but surely, gives us the details of the border incident.

“Joint Security Area” is a good whodunit that keeps you thinking as politics mixes with humanity and friendship. I sat, intrigued, waiting for the story to play out and investing in the characters, especially Lee and Oh. If you like this one Park, you will love his later films. The Blu-ray restoration of the 2000 film is chock full of extras, too.

Arrow video releases "Joint Security Area" on blu-ray on 1/26/21.