Tuesday, November 17, 2009


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
Year: 2000
Director: Chan-wook Park
Writer: Seong-san Jeong, Hyeon-seok Kim, Mu-yeong Lee, Chan-wook Park, Sang-yeon Park (novel "DMZ")
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0260991/
Genre: Drama

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 want to be very careful with this review as not to give away the delicate story that unfolds here. This slow reveal of elements of this tale made this truly great to me, and one of the best films I have seen in a long, long time. So at the same time I am wanting to go on and on about it.

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.

The other role I want to discuss is another repeat performer on Assorted Loaf here as well: 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.

The direction of the film, as with Good, Bad, Weird, was the true highlight for me, and that's not to take away one ounce of anything from the performances of Song and Lee. Chan-wook Park is masterful here in my opinion.

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.

Not only do we get endearing characters, and wonderful (and nostalgic in a way) relationships that form, Park creates an anti-war message in the film that never beats you over the head. It becomes a much larger story of brotherhood, innocence, and how trivial certain conflicts can seem when all it takes is a couple people to start a change.

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.

One element in particular I really liked was the ever-present signs of conflict even between people who are on the outside close friends. They play games not with dice but with live ammunition. They arm wrestle and push one another around. It's boyish and innocent, but at the same time telling of an underlying tension that goes way beyond themselves and the room they are in.

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


Mob said...

Wow man, high praise, I've had this thing on the DVR forever, I really need to get off my ass and give it a look.

Great review!

Matt-suzaka said...

It really is a fantastic film and quite different from most of his other films. Definitely more subdued stylistically, but still brilliantly crafted. The story and the characters are what stand out with this one and without spoiling too much myself, the last photo you posted says it all for me.

Great review!

The Gentlemens Guide To Midnite Cinema said...

Thanks for the dedication Monsieur Loaf; that last shot is great. An All-time favorite. Shin Ha-Kyun is also a fantastic actor...


Emily said...

Great review Loaf. I've had this one on my queue for a while, so I may bump it up a few notches thanks to you.

I visited the DMZ a few years ago and even from the tourist day trip, you could get the sense of how strange and sad it was. You heard all sorts of stories, like how, when South and North Korean soldiers would have to prepare a meeting room, they would form human chains with their respective sides for fear of being grabbed and dragged onto the other side.

pickleloaf said...

Shin Ha-Kyun played one of the north korean soldiers, yes? i really thought all the soldier roles were very well played... the other two just stuck out for me

thanks for the comments all

emily, why were you at the DMZ? there's a scene with tourists at the line there - that's where the final shot in the blog comes from

Emily said...

I lived in Korea for a year teaching English. The DMZ does run day trips for tourists. You get to watch a video, see a brand new railway station completely unused but waiting for the day of reunification, minefields, and stand at a high cliff that overlooks North Korea. Very strange field day.

Rach555 said...

This film had me in tears. I could see the end coming and I couldn't stop it. I was a wreck!
The storytelling was absolutely superb. This film cemented Chan-wook Park in my list of favourite directors.
Cheers for the review. Really well done :)