Starring: Lee Young-ae, Lee Byung-hun, Song Kang-ho
Director: Park Chan-wook
Running Time: 110 mins
Joint Security Area is a South Korean film about the events that unfold after a shootout on the North/South Korea border leaves two North Korean soldiers dead, supposedly shot by a South Korean. After an investigator from neutral Switzerland is hired onto the case, she begins to uncover the tragic story behind the mystery.
This is such an exciting film. Not only does it work on as a purely enthralling mystery, feeding you thrilling new details and twists bit by bit throughout, but also as a genuinely moving and often even politically charged drama, one that will go above and beyond the call of duty of its genre to provide an emotionally powerful story core that fits perfectly both with the mystery at hand, as well as the wider historical context.
But first, we’ll start with the performances, which are excellent from start to finish. The film mainly focuses on two scenarios, one being the Swiss investigator’s review of the incident, and the other being the story of the weeks and days in the lead-up to that very incident. So, on the one hand, Lee Young-ae, who plays the Swiss woman, is fantastic, bringing a good deal of gravtias to what is in effect still a supporting role, as well as proving strong enough on screen to make her character feel as deeply driven by the mystery at hand as you, the viewer, are.
On the other hand, the performances by Lee Byung-Hun and Song Kang-ho, who play the South Korean soldier held responsible and the North Korean soldier who survived the shootout respectively, are even more brilliant. Not only do they impress when it comes to bringing the thrilling story to life, but Lee and Song manage to bring real emotion to their characters, something that plays an enormously important role in the story when it emerges that their two characters, despite being enemies in the grand scheme of things, share so much in common.
And that’s where this film really hits home. Yes, it’s a brilliant mystery that will keep you guessing from start to finish, and the way in which it gradually reveals the clues to the event is so perfectly-paced, proving satisfying enough at each new revelation, and yet still vague enough to have you fully hooked on the mystery at hand.
However, the film goes further. Revolving around a story of North and South Korean soldiers coming together in the most unlikely of circumstances, there’s a beautiful sense of peace that forms the emotional core of the film. While set on the most militarised border in the world, and focusing on men from entirely different nations, the film emphasises that, on a human level, these soldiers can truly be one and the same, hoping for nothing more than to be reunited with their brothers that they still share so much with.
Of course, there are some that will see that theme as some sort of wishful thinking, or even South Korean propaganda, but the fact remains that it’s such a beautifully moving and calming central theme, to the extent that you’ll be even more touched by this film than thrilled by its mystery, which is undoubtedly the lasting impression that I will have of it.
Finally, huge credit has to go to director Park Chan-wook. His talent is known the world over for masterpieces like Oldboy and The Handmaiden, but even Joint Security Area, made back in 2000, showcases the best of his abilities. It’s a strange, tense and often intense watch, and yet Park manages to blend both the entertaining thrills of a big Hollywood blockbuster with brilliant intelligence and genuine heart and emotion, pacing the film perfectly from start to finish, and bringing together a masterful work that will undoubteldy grab you from the first moment, and not let you go right until the end, and that’s why I’m giving Joint Security Area an 8.2 overall.