Cult Cinema: Joint Security Area

Andrew reviews the 2000 film, Joint Security Area. 

"You're the bastard that stole
my lunch sack. Give me back
my sammiches!!!"
In the wake of world headlines concerning the unprecedented North Korean cyberattack on Sony Pictures in an effort to ultimately thwart the release of the forthcoming (hopefully) Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy The Interview, I immediately thought of Oldboy director Park Chan-wook’s 2000 military thriller Joint Security Area.  Named by Quentin Tarantino as one of his twenty favorite films since 1992, the film tells the story of a fatal shooting incident within the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea that nearly triggers World War III.  

Appearing to be an open and shut case, the film takes on a Rashomon quality as conflicting stories and evidence suggest there’s more to the outbreak than meets the eye.  Less of a political action thriller than a crime scene investigation human drama told through flashback as Sophie E. Jean digs deep through the varying testimonies leading to the incident, Joint Security Area is as much about the ongoing Mexican standoff between North and South Korea as well as a poignant tale of friends separated by their devotion to their respective countries. 

The first film in South Korea to be shot in the Super 35 widescreen format, Park Chan-wook’s first foray into mainstream cinema broke box office records in South Korea shows the intensely visual director at an early stage of his career.  Chan-wook’s trademark visual precision, green tinting ala David Fincher, bird’s eye-view shots and dynamic camera movement, will be immediately familiar to fans of Oldboy and most recently the director’s first English language feature Stoker with Nicole Kidman.  Chan-wook’s penchant for surreal, theatrical transitions can be spotted in key scenes, notably a suicide attempt in which a South Korean soldier tries to leap to his death through a glass window.  Instead of showing him simply jumping through the window, the soldier and broken glass are held in suspended animation as the camera rotates upside down before allowing both to drop, a cartoonish effect Chan-wook would accelerate further in his Vengeance trilogy as well as the wacky romantic comedy I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay. 

"Stop right there. Hand over your freedom!!!"
Also present is Chan-wook’s attention to production design, with painstaking effort behind authentically recreating the demilitarized zone as a detailed film set.  Refused permission to shoot within the actual demilitarized zone, Chan-wook’s production team built one of the largest film sets ever constructed, costing $800,000 and amassing 26,000 square feet.  Watching the film, you wouldn’t know this isn’t the real thing.  Many of the actors in it, notably South Korean megastars Song Kang-ho (recently in Snowpiercer) and Shin Ha-kyun (Save the Green Planet) as North Korean soldiers would find themselves in nearly every Park Chan-wook film that followed Joint Security Area. 

That said, as an earlier effort by one of cinema’s most revered modern masters, Joint Security Area is not without its shortcomings either.  A battle sequence near the end of the film is nearly sunk by a Korean pop song on the soundtrack, unbecoming of the cool distance of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance or Oldboy.  For those like myself who were introduced to Chan-wook’s work through Oldboy, Joint Security Area can be somewhat underwhelming and nowhere near as emotionally or visually enthralling as the heights reached by his Vengeance pictures.  Still, for a first time mainstream picture, Joint Security Area is a solid effort with fine acting across the board and innovative visual compositions indicating the emergence of one of the world’s greatest film directors.  The commercial success of the film granted Chan-wook the Carte Blanche to make whatever film he wanted, and thus emerged my personal favorites of his, the jet-black Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and the astonishing emotional breakthrough Oldboy.  South Korea would eventually produce more films surrounding the still unresolved conflict, such as Silmido and Tae-Guk-Gi: The Brotherhood of War, some of which most certainly better Joint Security Area in their own right.  Despite the film’s weaknesses, Joint Security Area is something to be cherished for those interested in the birth of an eclectic, sophisticated artist in the process of finding his wings.  

-Andrew Kotwicki