The film, set among the military patrols who guard the border between North and South Korea, is anti-war in the truest sense: not just opposed to the devastating consequences of combat or the dehumanizing rhetoric of political antagonism, but convincingly supportive of their alternatives—of compassion, empathy, and pacifism in the name of mutual respect and unity—even as it recognizes their relative futility in today’s political environment. In general, Joint Security Area shows us just how easy it would be to build a brotherhood with our enemies if we only reconfigured the calloused ideologies of history that live deep in our souls.
Park, known later to the West for his disturbing, intricately plotted revenge tales (2002’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 2003’s Oldboy, 2005’s Lady Vengeance) and cerebral psychosexual thrillers (2009’s Thirst, 2013’s Stoker, 2016’sThe Handmaiden), made in his breakthrough with Joint Security Area (2000) a subversive war film that, true to the then-burgeoning movement of blockbuster spectacle-inspired Korean filmmakers, combines genres as diverse as the buddy comedy, the character drama, the detective procedural, and the political thriller.
However, as with all of Park’s work in this century, things aren’t exactly as they seem; Joint Security Area‘s provocative premise—a murder mystery in the demilitarized zone on the border involving both sides—is completely undermined about 20-minutes in, when it’s revealed that the film’s tension doesn’t come from a conflict between the North and South, but from an unlikely friendship between them.
In flashback, South Korean Sgt. Lee Soo-hyeok (Lee Byung-hun) mistakenly steps into Northern territory on a nightly patrol and nearly triggers the tripwire on a landmine. Unable to move until the mine is disarmed, Sgt. Lee waits until the North Korean Sgt. Oh Kyeong-pil (Song Kang-ho) and Pvt. Jung Woo-jin (Shin Ha-kyun) stumble upon him. Desperate, Sgt. Lee convinces Sgt. Oh to disarm the mine. Once he’s safely back over the border, Sgt. Lee begins writing letters to Sgt. Oh and Pvt. Jung, affixing them to rocks, and throwing them across to their guard station, which the Northerners reciprocate.
Their clandestine relationship eventually escalates to the point that Sgt. Lee and his colleague Pvt. Nam Sung-sik (Kim Tae-woo) start crossing the border and visiting Sgt. Oh and Pvt. Jung’s station in the dead of night. There, they discuss life in their countries, share their culture and food, and learn to live happily among each other—all in secret.
Where Joint Security Area actually begins, though, is with Maj. Sophie E. Jean (Lee Young-ae), a Swiss national assigned to investigate an incident at the border that has left Pvt. Jung and another Northern soldier dead in the North Korean guardhouse, and the two witnesses, Sgt. Lee and Sgt. Oh, refusing to talk. This mystery is the film’s main source of suspense, but as the viewer grows used to the unusual camaraderie between the four soldiers told in flashback, and the stakes become more personal, the tension deepens. In its expert climax, Joint Security Area reminds us that reconciliation is a difficult path fraught with dangers and disunity.
It goes without saying that those of us in the West aren’t used to tender or sympathetic portrayals of the North Korean people (or those of other nations we often think of in antagonistic terms), so Joint Security Area presents those viewers with a unique opportunity to see them humanized within the approachable space of a major media product. It says a lot about the film’s intentions that the most visible North Korean character, Sgt. Oh, is portrayed by South Korea’s most globally recognizable movie star, Song Kang-ho. And Sgt. Oh is neither the calculating nationalistic drone nor the terrified victim of an oppressive military order that we might see North Koreans portrayed as in American media; true to many of Song’s best characters, he’s a light-hearted, impossibly endearing goofball locked into a difficult social station beyond his control.
But he doesn’t hold it against his country. In one of the film’s best scenes, Sgt. Oh devours a South Korean sweet cake, and Sgt. Lee attempts to coax him over to the South with a promise of more. Sgt. Oh tells him sternly, “My dream is that one day our Republic makes the best damn sweets on this peninsula! Got that? Till then, all I can do is dream about these Choco Pies.”
From a Western perspective, Sgt. Oh’s reverence for his homeland is one of the most shocking elements of the film, specifically because it doesn’t conform to propagandized expectations of North Korea’s brainwashed masses. He talks of his country with pride and hope, but not blind devotion; if he weren’t talking about North Korea, many western viewers would describe his attitudes and behaviors as patriotic. There’s no doubt Park’s vision of North Korea is a polarizing one—some viewers will find it too generous to the country, others not nuanced enough—but there’s no denying the earnest intention behind it. At the very least, for those used to the single-dimensional caricature fed to us by an aggressively hostile media culture, it’s a valuable novelty.
For all its shock and violence—a characteristic ingredient of Park’s films—Joint Security Area is a film about what we share. Reflecting on shared histories and a shared identity that goes deeper than the surface, Sgt. Lee and Sgt. Oh manage to span the unthinkable gap between their historical sociopolitical environments. We’ve gotten used to the idea that the ideologies of competing nationalisms inhibit any unity between the people of long warring countries, and in a way, they do; soldiers are prepared only for war, never for peace. But there is an inherent tension in the shared border between North and South Korea because strife is always at the doorstep, but so is reconnection.
With that knowledge, why should empathy and understanding be so sensitive and fragile, but conflict so durable? Park seems to give us the answer: because that’s what we’ve trained for.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release of Joint Security Area is a robust edition that brings one of Park’s most underappreciated films in the West to a new audience. The audio and video presentation is satisfactory, but of course, it’s the special features that make it a crucial package for any fan of the director or modern Korean cinema (if the two could be separated).
Film critic Simon Ward, who previously featured on the audio commentary track for Arrow’s Oldboy release, here offers a new commentary track in which he discusses Joint Security Area in relation to Park’s other films, with a particular focus on recurring motifs and themes throughout the director’s filmography. Similarly, film critic Jasper Sharp is featured in a new program called “Stepping Over Boundaries”, in which he talks broadly about Park’s background, Korean cinema in the international market around the turn of the millennium, and Joint Security Area‘s impact.
Archival featurettes include behind-the-scenes footage, introductions to the film by the cast’s main members, two music videos, and a documentary program that gives context to the movie’s story. More featurettes giving perspective from the film’s cast and crew, especially Park, would have been welcome, but as is, there’s a wealth of content to go through.