Hong Kong Digital
is a recurring series of movie reviews by John Charles -- associate
editor / film reviewer for Video Watchdog magazine and the author
of The Hong Kong Filmography.
Joint Security Area
North and South Korea find themselves on the brink of open warfare after two Northern soldiers are found shot to death inside their guard post, which is right on the border with the South. When officials from both sides are unable to turn up any answers, the matter is handed over to the U.N.s Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission. Born of a Korean father and a Swiss mother, Major Sophie Jean (ONE FINE SPRING DAY's Lee Yeong-ae) is chosen to arbitrate and is warned by her superior that showing the least bit of favoritism towards either side would be disastrous. The suspect, Sgt. Lee Soo-hyuk (Lee Byung-heon) is already in custody and, not surprisingly, his version of the event differs greatly from the deposition written by the North's witness, Sgt. Oh Kyung-pil (THE FOUL KING's Song Kang-ho). Although she faces a number of obstacles, Jean gradually begins to learn the truth and a flashback reveals the incidents leading up to the shooting.
Song Kang-ho. Image courtesy Modern.
This award-winning production is South Korea's biggest budget picture to date and it is all up on screen, with Kim Seung-ha's fluid, frequently resplendent cinematography and art director Kim Sang-man's detailed recreation of the Joint Security Area especially notable. However, the film's strength (and the reason for its huge box office success in both South Korea and Japan) lies in a balanced and often touching depiction of the central characters. The men on both sides of this interminable conflict are far more alike than their respective governments would ever like to acknowledge, a fact driven indelibly home when their political ideologies are cast aside. As a foreign officer notes, the irony of the whole case is that neither side really wants Jean to learn the facts as that would go against their doctrine that peace can only be maintained through the suppression of truth. The performances are right on-target (with Song the standout in a particulary rich role), and director Park Chan-wook aptly balances the suspense, humor, and mystery components. The final shot (involving a seemingly insignificant photograph) is an especially nice touch and provides a very satisfying close to a refreshingly humanistic film.