Before I begin here, I want to thank Mr. Coffin Jon of Varied Celluloid (a weekly genre-centric videocast on Livestream) and Large William of The Gentlemen's Guide to Midnite Cinema for helping me out with Korean name structure (?) this week. I honestly had no clue which name was first or last, and was calling people by their first names instead of last simply out of confusion.
So Mr. SONG, this is your theme month.
And Jon and Will, this review is dedicated to you both!
Original Title: Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA
Director: Chan-wook Park
Writer: Seong-san Jeong, Hyeon-seok Kim, Mu-yeong Lee, Chan-wook Park, Sang-yeon Park (novel "DMZ")
In the DMZ separating North and South Korea, two North Korean soldiers have been killed, supposedly by one South Korean soldier. But the 11 bullets found in the bodies, together with the 5 remaining bullets in the assassin's magazine clip, amount to 16 bullets for a gun that should normally hold 15 bullets. The investigating Swiss/Swedish team from the neutral countries overseeing the DMZ suspects that another, unknown party was involved - all of which points to some sort of cover up. The truth is much simpler and much more tragic.
I'm also afraid my ramblings will not do the film justice. How about this; if you run into some BS of mine that you just can't get past... just go watch this now.
It is worth your time.
JSA is still part of my Kang-ho Song theme I have running here, and he appears playing a North Korean soldier and one of the three individuals in the middle of an investigation of what exactly happened the one night when two North Korean soldiers are mysteriously killed. If for some odd reason I wasn't a Song fan before, I definitely would be after this role. He is simply phenomenal as Sgt. Oh Kyeong-pil, at the same time fiery and dedicated/loyal. You can see the wide range of emotions he goes through, but at the same time manages to still keep the character private and emotionally even for the most part.
Sgt. Oh is a very interesting character who is older and more experienced than the rest of the major players. He seems to be torn unlike the others in the strength of his contradicting loyalties, but he handles the contradictory emotions more maturely than the others might. You really get the sense through how the character is constructed and through Song's performance that Sgt. Oh is a realist where those around him are quite a bit more ideal. Oh's experience and perspective coming from an oppressive regime shapes his outlook on things.
Byung-hun Lee's Sgt. Soo-hyeok Lee. (He played The Bad in The Good, The Bad, and the Weird.)
Sgt. Lee is one of those approaching-idealist characters I just spoke of. That might not really be a fair description, as no one in the film really is an idealist. Sgt. Lee just has a more innocent and optimistic view of how things could be.
He is the other main player in the drama that unfolds after the shooting of the North Korean soldiers, and throughout the film you learn that he is much less experienced in life and in the military than Sgt. Oh is. Where Oh knows what is possible and what is not, Sgt. Lee looks at things more as a child would. Or maybe it is as someone who is from a free society instead of an oppressed one.
Byung-hun does a great job with this role as well, and gives quite a touching performance. I associate it more with his performance from A Bittersweet Life, although this is still different as he wears his heart on his sleeve so to speak here. He deals with real, raw emotions, and you really feel for the character in what he is going through.
Ultimately the story is simple, but it is presented in a deep and complex way. It unfolds gradually and as a result, I felt a bond with those involved. It was a story where after it was over, I found myself wanting to know what happened to certain characters as if they live on outside of the film.
The filmmaking is never flashy, (I think that could have been problematic with how the story was meant to unfold, so subtle is best) but there are little touches here and there... things you will notice once and then again... nuances in setting or whatever that just add perfectly to a scene. It all shows the great amount of care that went into the film's creation.
The film is divided into three distinct acts. The first act will have you feeling like you're watching a military set murder mystery. The neutral team from Sweden is investigating this murder that has increased tensions between two countries who are always seemingly on the brink of physical conflict. The Joint Security Area is impossibly small. I had no idea it was this way, but the military forces from North and South Korea are shown here as divided by a simple line... not a grey neutral area. They keep constant watch over one another, and Maj. Sophie E. Jean (Yeong-ae Lee) is told to be 100% subjective in her investigation as to not raise tension any further.
The second act is largely flashback and builds what truly happened that night. This is when the audience grows close to the characters and everything begins to be seen under a different light. Then obviously the third act is the resolution.
The first act in a way feels like a different movie... especially at first. It lasts awhile, and in hindsight I wish the second act flashbacks just happened a bit sooner. But when things shift in perspective and tone, the change is surprising and I think hits home even more, so my criticism here is probably just silly.
Throughout it all, Park keeps the tension high, makes the characters very endearing and complex, and does an A+ job of showing how so much can balance on one single bullet.
Thinking about this film right now, and while writing this review, I get a little choked up. It is touching and a complexly constructed simple story that still manages to carry a much larger message. The young men here are part of something much bigger, and I could feel their struggle at times. That to me is a successful film.
I feel like male viewers may be able to get into this film more than female because of the type of relationships that are built, but really it can be appreciated by anyone into great filmmaking.
Highly recommended. One of the best films I have seen in a long time.
Score: 9 / 10