It was around 2005 or ’06 when I finally managed to observe the work of director Park Chan-wook with an online buy of Oldboy. At this point, Park had already reveled in the ceremony of his previous work, notably with his 2000 film, Joint Security Area (JSA), which still stands on ceremony to this day with film fans as one of the most highly regarded of the last two decades.
Set against the backdrop of intense relations between the North and the South, Park’s tale of murder bodes as more of a multi-layered epic drama going about thirty minutes in; The film is set in Panmunjom where soldiers from both Koreas hold the fort on opposite ends of the ‘Bridge of No Return’, initially introducing Swiss-Korean army major Sophie Jean (Lee Young-ae) to the story as the pointwoman for the Neutral Nations Supervisory Committee in its investigation of what happened during one October evening when a South Korean guard is seen wounded, escaping from the North, in a firefight incident preceded by the deaths of two North Korean soldiers.
The drama unfolds to even more catastrophic degrees in the days after Jean begins interrogating both the prime suspect, South Korean Sgt. Lee Soo-hyuk (Lee Byung-hun), and an alleged witness, North Korean Sgt. Oh Kyung-pil (Song Kang-ho), as well as another alleged witness with whom Lee was stationed with, Pvt. First Class Nam Sung-shik (Kim Tae-woo). With Major Jean trying to get at the heart of the two conflicting written depositions at this point, the stakes are raised even higher when one witness attempts suicide, and it’s at this point the story is only just beginning to scratch the surface.
This where Park comes in for the film’s entrenching development, inviting a crucial, poignant tale of friendship, burgeoning brotherhood and tragedy between would-be political foes. It’s a heartwarming and captivating arc, and all the more heartbreaking for all the right reasons as the plot unravels. Major Jean’s arc is still very much salient to the narrative as it pertains to her own family’s history per her father, and though we don’t really go into the depths of that until the film’s third act, that Park saves this until right then is what establishes Jean’s palpability, as she comes to grips with the atmospheric mystique surrounding her, as she’s reminded by her Swiss superior, Major General Botta (Christoph Hofrichter).
Park crafts a story ripe with a mix of characters whose unraveling complexities reveal a simplistic, halcyon tale of men who, for a time, found humanity in each other in ways that seem almost tragically impossible in the real world. It is a story that casts a hauntingly realistic shadow, casting a daunting, fond spotlight on characters – carried with brilliant performaces, lithe and poetic cinematography, and adroit writing – that stay with you well into the end credits.
Joint Security Area (JSA) is now streaming on ARROW.