At around 2am in the Joint Security Area of Panmunjom on the border of North and South Korea, shots were fired, the October rain washing away the blood as the armies on both sides scrambled to secure their territory. On the north, Private Jung Woo-jin and his superior officer are dead while Sergeant Oh Kyung-pil recovers in hospital; on the south, Sergeant Lee Soo-hyeok claims he was taken hostage and escaped, but his story and that of Private Nam Sung-shik do not tie with the northern account nor the forensic analysis.
A lawyer of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Committee, Swiss Army Major Sophie Jean is appointed to investigate, the daughter of a Korean national and fluent in the language but not the culture which is distrustful of outsiders, but with whichever side is found responsible standing to lose face it soon becomes apparent that the intention may not be for her to uncover answers, the preservation of peace between the fractious countries more important than the truth.
Based on the novel DMZ by Park Sang-yeon, JSA – Joint Security Area (공동경비구역) was the third film directed by Park Chan-wook but the first to receive wide international release and recognition, winning Best Film at the Blue Dragon and Grand Bell Awards and the Special Jury Prize at the Seattle International Film Festival, now presented on Blu-ray by Arrow with a plethora of supporting features.
Opening with the incident which precipitates the political crisis, JSA is initially the story of Major Jean (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance‘s Lee Young-ae), smart, capable and determined despite the attempts to block or derail her by hoping she will be shocked by the sight of a dead body, but the narrative unwinds to present the other players, taciturn Soo-hyuk and his more timid friend Sung-sik (Terminator Genisys‘ Lee Byung-hun and Kim Tae-woo) and their counterparts from the Communist north, the justifiably angry Kyung-pil and the late Woo-jin (Snowpiercer‘s Song Kang-ho and Shin Ha-kyun).
Moving through stages of mystery, thriller and drama, JSA is a dissection of a tragedy waiting to happen, a coming atonement which can only be paid in blood, but throughout it is lightened with moments of absurdity and the emphasis is always on the characters and their quirks, people whose lives are determined by policies and decisions in which they have no say but which they are expected to obey without deviation, less propaganda than a plea for humanity.
The archive features including the depressing moment the filmmakers were told their work was “rooted in cultural ignorance,” audiences disagreed, making JSA the highest grossing Korean film ever when it was released 2000, and there is also an audio commentary by critic Simon Ward and an appraisal of Park Chan-Wook’s career and the global migration of Korean cinema by Asian cinema expert Jasper Sharp.