Like many fans of South East Asian cinema, I'm more than impressed with director Park Chan-Wook's 'vengeance trilogy' — Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2004) and Lady Vengeance (2005). So while I’m waiting to see his next film Cyborg OK, I watched his earlier Joint Security Area, the success of which enabled him to embark on the trilogy that has made him internationally famous.
Joint Security Area isn't as outrageous stylistically or narratively as Oldboy or Lady Vengeance, being a fairly straightforward murder mystery. But there are directorial flourishes and an offbeat dark humor that point to the extremes he would soon take. Also it’s an unusual setting — the neutral no-go area between North and South Korea.
A shooting incident leaves two soldiers dead and two wounded survivors, one from each country. A Dutch investigating officer, fluent in Korean, is brought in by the neutral peace-keeping forces to determine exactly what happened. In prolonged flashbacks, we learn about the lives of the men in the months leading up to the fateful night, a scenario the authorities hadn't anticipated.
Director Chan-Wook manages to play to both sides of the audience here, delivering a violent, occasionally bloody, wartime thriller while demonstrating an anti-violence theme. The film also attempts to counter the demonization of North Koreans as seen by the South. After recent real-life events though, this may becoming an increasingly tough job.
For an international audience, there's enough exposition to get everyone up to speed, with a brief history of the country's post-WW2 division. Other Korean films that have braved the subject, like Kim Ki-Duk's The Coast Guard (2002), expected the audience to already know their recent history.
The main strength of the film is the performances — the leading members of the cast all returned to appear in Chan-Wook's subsequent films. The investigating officer in Joint Security Area is played by Lady Vengeance herself, Yeong-ae Lee. She’s a strong presence here, but she doesn’t get to shine here as she did in Lady Vengeance, as she’s only expected to serve as a listening post.