“There are two kinds of people in this world: Commie bastards, and the Commie bastards’ enemies. Neutral has no place here. You have to choose sides.”
Park Chan-wook films are anything but neutral, so General Pyo (Ki Joo-Bong) writes a bad check with his parting shot to Sophie Jean (Lee Yeong-ae), a Major in the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission. Pyo’s pulling rank on Jean, condescending to her the way macho nationalist xenophobes tend to when anyone wanders into their orbit with an outsider’s perspective: Nuance is anathema to men like Pyo, but it’s a feature, not a bug, for members of neutral nations that didn’t participate in the Korean War, so if Jean takes offense or feels threatened by his attempts at intimidation, she doesn’t let it show.
Nuance is a feature of Park’s work, too, which by now most people likely associate with the righting of wrongs done at the business end of hammers, knives, ornately decorated custom pistols, and mercury-laced cigarettes. Vengeance is Park’s brand. His popularity in the U.S. almost assuredly stems from the same-named trilogy of films he made starting with 2002’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, continuing with 2003’s Oldboy, and concluding with 2005’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance: They’re slick, richly made movies fixated on a topic that’s arguably more beloved in America than anywhere else on the planet—we here in the States do love comeuppance served with generous helping of red meat—sourced from a cinema that, at the time, wasn’t part of our specific international film lexicon. The series’ appeal to U.S. movie buffs was immediate.
But Park’s popularity at home in South Korea is the singular responsibility of Joint Security Area, his first commercial and critical success following two duds, his debut feature The Moon is … the Sun’s Dream and his sophomore effort, Trio. Imagine starting out your career as a movie director by flopping not once, but twice. Imagine flopping so badly that your alternative for supporting yourself is working as a film critic. If there’s a stronger definition for “commercial failure,” then nobody’s commercially failed hard enough yet to find it. When Joint Security Area opened in South Korea to a box office outpacing the box office of Shiri, at the time the most watched movie in the country’s history, Park’s fortunes immediately reversed, and he took his clout and ran with it right into Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. From there, his filmography is well-established, and Joint Security Area mere history.
The film’s place in Park’s cinema is essential, though, despite the lack of consideration given it more than two decades after its release: Obvious surface-level discrepancies between it and his future projects aside, Joint Security Area lays the groundwork for Park’s interests, obsessions and aesthetics, wrapped up in a more straightforwardly tragic package. If the Vengeance trilogy—Oldboy in particular—play like Greek tragedies, Joint Security Area plays like a down-to-earth human tragedy outside the realm of divine providence. That’s the effect of the film’s setting and history. Telling a story of men stationed on opposite sides of the DMZ naturally grounds the plot in reality and Korean history, which is painful in ways Park’s subsequent hits simply cannot aspire to be.
Joint Security Area takes the procedural route as Jean tries to piece together the “why” behind a fatal shooting at a North Korean border house that left two North Korean officers, Private Jeong Woo-jin (Shin Ha-kyun) and Choi (Kim Myoeng-su), dead, and two other soldiers, North Korean Sergeant Oh Kyeong-pil (Song Kang-ho) and South Korean Sergeant Lee Soo-hyuk (Lee Byung-hun), wounded. According to Kyeong-pil, Soo-hyuk stormed their outpost singlehandedly and shot all three before retreating. According to Soo-hyuk, those dastardly North Koreans nicked him while he was pinching a loaf in the woods, and he escaped their clutches with guns blazing. Jean, of course, doesn’t buy what they’re selling, in part because the math doesn’t add up, in part because South Korean Private Nam Sung-shik (Kim Tae-woo) self-defenestrates under questioning, and in part because when Soo-hyuk and Kyeong-pil see each other on neutral ground, they react in big, emotional ways unexpected from even bitter enemies. The alibis don’t wash.
They’re all pals, of course, save for Choi, the unfortunate partisan schmuck who walks in on the quartet in the middle of celebrating Woo-jin’s birthday. The relationship starts out strained. Woo-jin and Kyeong-pil save Soo-hyuk from a mine partially tripped after his squad patrol accidentally left him behind in a North Korean field. Soo-hyuk, feeling a tad guilty for not saying “thanks,” hucks a written expression of his gratitude over the border, which Kyeong-pil responds to with his own scribblings: No longer content with being called “comrade,” he leaps at the chance to be called “brother” instead. When the three bond, Soo-hyuk takes the risky step of bringing Sung-shik in on their camaraderie, and he’s welcomed with open arms. So begin nights of gambling, drinking, munching on tasty sugary snacks, smoking cigarettes, peeking at nudie mags, and playing outdoor games like boys at recess.
Allegiances remain, if not intact, exactly, then undoubtedly ingrained. That’s not the kind of thing one sheds overnight. Even chocolate pies provide a point of admittedly mild contention: Kyeong-pil’s greatest wish is for North Korea to one day be known as the purveyor of the world’s finest confections, a declaration he makes while in mid-chew on a Choco Pie, after Soo-hyuk invites him to the South to feast on Choco Pies for the rest of his life. But Joint Security Area creates space for these men to each approach old hatreds that function as a Korean birthright, to examine them, to realize that the hatreds aren’t theirs but their countries’. They’re victims of systems of power set in place to prevent them from meeting, and in preventing them from meeting those systems snuff out all hope of reunification (or let’s aim lower and just wish for reconciliation instead).
That makes Soo-hyuk’s first message to Kyeong-pil and Woo-jin downright revolutionary. “After half a century of division,” proclaims Kyeong-pil, “you have breached our tragic history of agony and disgrace, broken the dam to reunify our country.” A purple speech, but an honest one. They’re all too aware of that history as well as the consequences of being caught staging reunification on their own. This isn’t about avenging historical division. It’s about justice, plain and simple, and common values between literal opposing sides. Vengeance rears its head, but only as conjecture. “Shot him again after he was already down,” notes Jean during Woo-jin and Choi’s dual autopsy. “The murder was carried out execution style. It’s usually done when revenge is the motive.”
In a way she’s not wrong. She’s referring to Choi specifically, dead of a double tap to the chest and the face courtesy of Kyeong-pil, who kills him to cover their tracks and, perhaps, as payment for destroying the peace he, Woo-jin, Sung-shik and Soo-hyuk so carefully built together in the unlikeliest of places. But the murder is never explicitly framed as vengeance. It’s an act of necessity, echoing the way Park’s characters in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance “need” revenge to go on with their lives without functioning the same way. This plan always ends in tears, of course, as it does in Joint Security Area; the final shot may be the most heartbreaking image Park’s ever produced, though certainly not the most unsettling. (That honor goes to Oldboy.)
The movie works best in the gang’s company, though it still works very well when focused on Jean, thanks largely to the way her interjections heighten tension by putting on hold the inevitable violence that annihilates the film’s central amelioration. We all know where her investigation will end up. We don’t really want it to end at all, because if it doesn’t, we can hang onto the beautiful dream these men get to live out in one of the most precarious regions on the planet. But no sooner does Park give us that dream than he takes it away from us, and without giving us the illusory relief found in the pursuit of revenge: No such fantasy exists at the DMZ, only the concrete understanding that nothing’s going to be alright. Joint Security Area isn’t the most graphic movie in Park’s body of work, but it’s the most soul-crushing, and the most informative of who Park is, or would go on to become. Watching a man endure amateur dentistry or take a screwdriver to the neck is viscerally brutal. Watching the sparks of amity snuffed out in a burst of gunfire, on the other hand, is spiritually brutal, and the worst kind of brutality of all.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.