Joint Security Area, or J.S.A for short, was the first film director Park Chan-wook made that gained any traction in the west. It came out just as the Tartan Asia Extreme label was becoming very popular—that label became synonymous with Asian genre cinema, to the extent that people who didn’t even grow up during the noughties still refer to “Asia Extreme” or “Tartan Asia Extreme” films. It’s one of the most successful marketing ploys from an art-house label I’ve ever seen. The company went into administration in 2008, but was bought by Palisades. However, the Sony/PIAS warehouse fire during the 2011 UK riots destroyed much of their stock, and they haven’t released a Blu-Ray since 2013. Palisades has since sold much of it pre-existing catalogue off, with Arrow picking up manyof their titles, as has 101 Films.
Joint Security Area itself is an interesting mystery thriller about relations between North and South Korea, and specifically the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a.k.a. the DMZ, which for those who don’t know is the border zone between the two countries. The basic plot is that two North Korean soldiers are shot and killed, and a neutral Swiss/Swedish team is sent to investigate exactly what happened. Initially a South Korean solider is suspected, but soon an extra bullet is found, and what seemed like a fairly clear-cut situation is not. The investigation, which is mostly in English, is fairly clunky and shot in a somewhat flat way, especially in the opening scenes. The majority of the film, however, is flashbacks from North and South Korean personnel, told in a style very much influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s Rashōmon.
The friendship and camaraderie between the men of these various countries and the cover-up that ensues is what really makes the film work. It’s the work of a director who is still learning his craft: Park Chan-wook was still working as a film critic to make a living (maybe I should write about film in South Korea?) but you see his style blossoming here, and his work would soon achieve big international crossover appeal with the release of Oldboy in 2003. It’s well made, even if it’s probably his weakest film to date. It’s also got an excellent cast, which includes actors that fans of Korean cinema will recognise, such as Lee Young-aem, Lee Byung-hun and Parasite‘s Song Kang-ho.
It’s a film that fans of Park Chan-wook should check out. It didn’t quite work for me in the same way that it has for others, but it’s ultimately a strong mediation on friendship. It’s a film that I feel certain that I will revisit at some point, which is always a good sign. The two big extras included by Arrow Video are a newly recorded commentary track by critic Simon Ward and an appreciation by Asian cinema expert Jasper Sharp. The rest of the extras were on the previous Tartan 2-Disc Special, which includes making-ofs, music videos, a TV spot and trailer. The booklet includes new writing on the film by Kieran Fisher.