Joint Security Area

2000, Movie, NR, 100 mins


Provocateur Park Chan-wook, who subsequently wrote and directed the ferocious SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (2002) and OLDBOY (2003), finds the human tragedy beneath the familiar conventions of the military-investigation thriller. It begins in the middle of a dark, quiet night suddenly shattered by gunfire: The crime scene is a guardhouse on the northern side of the Demilitarized Zone at Panmumjon, a half-mile strip of land dividing the Northern Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Southern Republic of Korea. Two Northern border guards are dead and a third lies wounded in a North Korean hospital; a South Korean guard, sunk in a state of shock, is being held in custody on his side of the border. Tensions between the two nations are at a dangerous high, and representatives of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Committee who oversee the joint security area bring in a team led by Major Sophie E. Jean (Yeong-ae Lee), the Geneva-born daughter of a Korean expatriate and his Swiss wife, to conduct an independent and unbiased inquiry. The killer, Sgt. Lee Soo-hyuk (Byung-hun Lee), and wounded survivor Sgt. Oh Kyeong-pil (Kang-ho Song) have given contradictory depositions about what happened in the small guardhouse: Lee claims he was kidnapped, dragged across the notorious "Bridge of No Return" and that he shot two of his abductors while escaping. Oh says Lee sneaked across the line of demarcation voluntarily and opened fire on the three guards as they made innocent small talk. Officials from the South take Lee's statement as evidence of unprovoked aggression against one of their citizens, while the North Korean government sees a conspiracy to besmirch its reputation and justify South Korean hostility. The condition of the corpses lends more support to Oh's version than to Lee's, but the presence of an unexplained bullet wound suggests that there may have been another gunman on the scene that neither witness saw fit to mention. Jean's quest for the truth takes her deep into the rift between the two Koreas, her own divided identity and the devastation that ensues when human decency collides with unyielding ideology. A blockbuster hit in Korea, Park's feature debut is a beguiling mix of the generic and the unfamiliar, and it ends on a shot that's nothing short of heartbreaking. (In English and Korean with subtitles) leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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