Judge Joel Pearce examines this edge-of-your-seat political thriller from Korean new waver Chan-wook Park.
JSA is one of the best thrillers I have ever seen. Equally personal and political, it is a tightly wound and stunningly crafted piece of film entertainment. The Korean new wave is finally hitting North American shores on DVD in full force, and this is one of the best titles released yet. The DVD leaves something to be desired, but that shouldn't keep you from checking out this powerhouse film.
Facts of the Case
Military forces from both North and South Korea guard the narrow Joint Security Area between the two nations. There is a delicate peace between the two countries, upheld by a neutral UN commission that investigates incidents along the border. Any small slip could mean another war breaking out.
When several North Korean soldiers are found murdered at an outpost, South Korean Soo-hyeok Lee (Byung-hun Lee, 3-Iron) is taken into custody. Sophie Jean (Yeong-ae Lee, One Fine Spring Day), young Swiss investigator of Korean heritage, is brought in. Her job isn't to figure out who murdered the soldiers. Instead, she needs to find out exactly what happened that night, singlehandedly keeping the military on both sides of the border happy. When she uncovers some inconsistencies in the stories of Soo-hyeok and North Korean survivor Kyeong-pil Oh (Kang-ho Song, Memories of Murder), she needs to choose how much she is willing to risk to discover the whole truth.
In some ways, JSA is a typical political thriller. A young, unproven investigator is brought in to uncover the truth of a corrupt situation that could explode into violence and war at any time. She questions the parties involved, gradually bringing more details to light. What makes JSA unique is the unique political situation in Korea, and the heartfelt way the film approaches characters from both sides. Few other nations in the world are still divided down the middle in this way, with people who used to be part of the same families living under such different conditions. They are separated by two kilometers, with armed soldiers on both sides.
In Hollywood, we are treated to few true mysteries anymore. Most thrillers morph partway through into either horror or action, on the false presumption that audiences can't follow a complex plot for a full two hours. The purity of the form in JSA is one of the things that makes it stand out. Sophie is an interesting character, a woman who is tough enough to stand up against her male counterparts. She remains an investigator, though, never stepping out of her role to become a dual-gun-wielding juggernaut. The climax of the film comes in flashes back to the incident. Although there are some action sequences, do not expect it to be an action movie. Director Chan-wook Park (Oldboy) is much more interested in human relationships and politics than he is in blowing up the world. This focus on the mystery and investigation makes the few moments of violence a lot more vivid and powerful, because they resonate and involve characters that we care about.
I would love to talk about the brilliance of JSA's plot twists and surprises, but it's a film that works best cold. The less you know about the truth ahead of time, the more riveting it is. That said, the characters and performances are deep and complex enough that I have enjoyed returning to the film, watching it all play out. The story is told in a very subjective way, retelling bits and pieces of the story through the eyes of certain characters. These pieces come together and gradually form one story, with just the right amount of explanation from Sophie. It's complicated enough to keep an audience intellectually engaged without becoming so convoluted that you feel like you need to become a forensics investigator to keep on top of things.
The best praise I can give JSA is that it manages to be this riveting and suspenseful throughout without resorting to clear good guy/bad guy delineations. It creates meaningful conflict between a group of well-performed characters that are all believable and likable. The film begins as a mystery and ends as a tragedy, but I will say nothing more. Go explore it for yourself.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The presentation of JSA is a mix between satisfying and frustrating. The video transfer is great, representing one of the studio's best efforts to date. There's a bit of grain in the darker scenes, but there are few print or transfer flaws. My real complaint is with the sound. The only 5.1 option is the (horrendous) English dub, meaning the original Korean language track is in stereo. The Korean DVD has both Dolby 5.1 and DTS as options, so I know there is a full 5.1 mix available. This means one of two things. If Palm used the Korean surround mix to create their English mix, they neglected to include the 5.1 Korean track even though they could have. If they didn't have access to that mix, it means they built the English track from a stereo source, even though there was a better existing mix. Either way, we're getting ripped off. This disc was going to replace my import copy because of the anamorphic transfer, but I miss the roaring DTS track too much. There are some errors in the subtitles as well, and some massive flubs in the opening explanation of the Joint Security Area (though I'm sure Koreans are very happy to have escaped "Japaness rules")
There are a few extras on the disc. There's some behind the scenes footage, showing how a variety of the effects were created. There are also some interviews, as well as a music video. None of these features are especially insightful, but it's nice to hear the cast and crew discuss the film.
If you have yet to experience the emotional intensity of JSA, don't pass up on this opportunity. It's a touching, valuable, entertaining, and surprising thriller. If you already own an import copy, the audio transfer on this disc makes it an unnecessary upgrade. Chan-wook Park has been getting a lot of attention lately because of Oldboy, but JSA is every bit as deserving.
Palm is held in contempt of the court for the sound transfer, but everyone else is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
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