Joint Security Area Review

Capitalising on their success in distributing Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and OldBoy, Tartan have now turned their attentions to director Park Chan-Wook’s prior work, 2001’s Joint Security Area (henceforth JSA), to date South Korea’s biggest ever success. Aiding its attempts at gaining an equally sizeable UK audience are the fact that it shares its leads with Mr. Vengeance, actors who also happen to have appeared in two of Tartan’s other Korean hits, Shiri and Save the Green Planet.

At its heart, JSA is a conventional thriller. Set in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, the film opens with a “nasty incident” which has left two North Koreans dead, another injured and one South Korean suspect, possibly the victim of a kidnapping. Owing to the tricky political situation of such a situation, a neutral party is brought in to investigate, namely the Swiss army as led by a Swiss-Korean female officer. As such much of JSA is occupied by the kind of army base thriller plotting that occupied the likes of A Few Good Men and The General’s Daughter, and in this respect it is easy to understand the film’s appeal. Moreover, Park directs in a slick, efficient manner without too much fuss; the only signs of a directorial voice come courtesy of his penchant towards the occasional tricksy camera angle and a tendency towards heavy handed symbolism.

There would, however, appear to be another aspect integral to JSA’s homeland success and that is its political dimension. Courtesy of its conventional thriller structure, the film gradually produces revelatory flashbacks leading up to an eventual explanation of the opening “incident” (initially seen in an ambiguous fashion, of course). Slowly we learn of the friendship which develops between four soldiers - two from the North, two the South - and in this respect western audiences may struggle as much of their dialogue is peppered with specifically Korean reference points (both political and pop cultural). That said, its central message is abundantly clear and decidedly basic; this is no Spike Lee-style investigation into Korea’s past and present, but a decidedly simple “Why can’t we all get along?” polemic. It is marginally veiled by the depth with which the leads embody their characters and Park’s ability to emulate the goofing off moments with which Takeshi Kitano would punctuate the likes of Kikujiro and Sonatine, yet this simplicity remains.

As such JSA stands up or falls down courtesy of its ability to balance the politicking with its more easily consumed thriller qualities. In this respect there are problems as the two are never allowed to fully correlate. The various flashbacks are more commonly motivated by Park’s need to further the narrative rather than the characters within and as such the film can never quite gel. The two strands understandably sit awkwardly together - when one begins to get interesting it is interrupted by the other - and whilst neither can therefore be successful, it soon becomes clear than the flashbacks are the more intriguing of the two. This then prompts the questions as to whether JSA’s framing thriller device is ultimately necessary and as to what purpose it therefore serving. Does Park merely want to bulk out his narrative? Or perhaps gain a wider audience by making his film more generic? Or is he simply masking its essential simplicity?

The Disc

JSA arrives on disc with a decent if not perfect presentation. The original Korean stereo soundtrack is present, as are DD5.1 and DTS remixes, and the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio has been transferred anamorphically. With regards to the former, the disc doesn’t disappoint with all three options being clear throughout, though there is little reason to go beyond the original recording (action is minimal with dialogue to the fore). As for the picture quality, the print presents little in the way of overt damage (tiny speckles here and there and little else), though the image is a touch too soft. Not that this is especially noticeable during the close-ups or even medium shots, though Park’s few long shots do appear a little too fuzzy. It's also worth noting that Tartan are issuing yet another NTSC to PAL transfer, though it must be said that this is easily one of the better examples and poses few overt problems.

As for the extras, JSA is released in the UK as a two-disc special edition with all of the supplementary material being held on the second disc. The main attraction is the 36-minute featurette ‘The JSA Story’ which traces the film’s production. Given its relative obscurity in the UK (straight to DVD, after all), this piece is especially interesting as it notes the difficulties in mounting such an overtly political work (the army refuses to cooperate, for example) and the reaction it produced. Moreover, it touches on all aspects of JSA’s filming and interviews all of the major players including Park and his five principle actors.

Two other featurettes also figure, both consisting of B-roll footage. The first is the lengthier of the two and concentrates on specific scenes, giving insights into Park’s working methods. The second is more hectic affair as should be expected from a piece edited to the sounds of Rage Against the Machine.

The remaining extras are less essential. A music video finds its way onto the disc (though the only information about it that we get amounts to its title) as do a series of trailers and scrolling biographies for Park and his leads. Oddly, this is one of the few Tartan discs without one of their trailer reels promoting other releases.

Unlike the main feature, the English subtitles present on these supplements are non-optional.

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