Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Joint Security Area

I have to be honest, the first 20 or so minutes of this had me worried. It felt like A Few Good Men or any military procedural drama, but without the polish and tightness that usually makes that genre work. Particularly awkward are the early scenes with English dialogue; the lawyer is supposed to be Swiss but has a Korean accent? What is this, that Biola film about POWs?

By the time it switches gear into an extended flashback into the past, which recounts the crime scene and the events leading up to it, JSA gets very good and very compelling. On the North-South border of Korea, two soldiers from each side start a late night clandestine friendship that they envision as the beginning of a unified republic. We come to like these characters very much, partly because of the solid writing, but mostly due to the charismatic actors who give each soldier a unique personality. Director Chan-wook Park has used each of the four actors in other films, and they really work well with his mix of deadpan humor and high melodrama.

The second segment ends in a recreation of the fateful night, which is cut off right at the moment when the drama beings. We're jolted back into the investigation, where one of the men has attempted suicide. Playing around with narrative time has become old hat, but this is one of those films that reminds you how effective the technique can be. We are only given pieces of information at a time, until the end, when we see how things actually unfolded.

Every other review mentions the film's final shot, but how could they not? It takes a scene from earlier in the film, shoots its from a different angle, and then freezes the frame, simulating a snapshot from a tourist's camera. In the same take, the camera pans and zooms in and out, revealing each of the four soldiers. Such a brilliant and tragic way to end the film.

Although it's not Park's best film and feels like the work of a director who hasn't quite found his voice at parts, it's an effective drama and has some moments of brilliance that anticipate his more ambitious and assured Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Cut.


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