Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Blu-ray debut for Park Chan-wook's early South Korean hit, JSA--JOINT SECURITY AREA

What a treasure is this movie from 2000 -- a huge success in its home country of South Korea but not even seen in the USA until June of 2005 (in a very limited number of art houses, followed by a DVD release the next month). 

I first caught up with it on DVD maybe 15 years ago, when my knowledge of South Korea and its cinema was a great deal more limited. Seeing it again now is even further eye-, mind- and heart-opening. JSA--JOINT SECURITY AREA is certainly one of the most moving South Korean films so far, especially for anyone who cares about Korea's heritage as a single and probably-should-never-have-been-divided nation.

Directed and co-written (based on the novel DMZ by Park Sang-yeon) by noted Korean director Park Chan-wook (shown at left), the film takes off from an incident -- bullets whiz, bodies fall -- that happens in a North Korean military house located in that titular JSA, a kind of demilitarized zone that marks the border between the Koreas of the north and south. 

Exactly what happened, and more importantly why, form the meat of the movie, which takes us back in time to a point at which the main characters -- a couple of soldiers from North Korea meet one (Lee Byung-hun, below, left) and then two of their military "brothers" from the south.

In order to somehow "play fair" toward both north and south, special investigators -- one of whom is a Swiss woman born of a Korean father (Lee Yeong-ae, above, right) are called in to determine what happened, and this beautifully crafted (as are all of Mr. Park's films that TrustMovies has seen) piece of filmmaking then toggles between the current investigation and back to, piece by piece, what actually occurred in that bullet-ridden house. 

It is little wonder that the film took South Korea by storm, since for decades the north and the south had been considering each other as practically alien life forms. The bond that forms between these four soldiers, along with how this happens, is so believable and moving, filled with detail that both Koreans and outsiders can appreciate, that JSA takes its place among the great anti-war (and anti-division) films without even including any actual "war," save the one single shooting incident and its immediate aftermath.

Both Ms Lee and Mr. Lee (not related) are first-rate, but the third important actor in the film is also one of the best in the world right now: the great Song Kang-ho (shown center, above, and atop the poster image at the start of this post), who at this point in his career had yet to appear in Memories of Murder, The Host, Secret Sunshine, Snowpiercer and last year's Oscar champ, Parasite. Mr Song so nails his conflicted-but-caring character that he, as usual, walks away with the movie without even trying.

Among the Bonus Features is a splendid 35-minute assessment by writer/critic Jasper Sharp of JSA and the career of Mr. Park (which has these days been eclipsed by that of Bong Joon-ho's), while the Blu-ray transfer of this beautiful -- in so many ways -- film is quite good. If you have never seen JSA, now's your chance. After 21 years, it already has stood (and I believe it will continue to stand) the test of time quite well. Maybe even until the two Koreas are again united -- if the world lasts long enough.

From Arrow Video (distributed here in the USA via MVD Entertainment Group), in Korean and some English, with English subtitles, and running 109 minutes, JSA--Joint Security Area became available last week on Blu-ray -- for purchase and I hope also somewhere for rental, too. Click here for more information.

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