Review for JSA - Joint Security Area

9 / 10


Believe it or not, this was actually my introduction to the films of Park Chan-wook. Like most everyone else, I had heard of Oldboy; who hadn’t at the time? But it would be another year before Tartan Video would release the Vengeance Trilogy on DVD. Yet in 2005, a couple of unsolicited review discs showed up that demanded my attention. All I knew about JSA: Joint Security Area was that it was a film set on that tense border between North and South Korea, and that it was one of the first Korean language films I had watched. What followed were two hours that opened my eyes to the potential of Korean cinema that has stayed with me to this day. Towards the end of 2019, Arrow Video released The Vengeance Trilogy on Blu-ray, having picked up the old Tartan licence. I suppose it should have been inevitable, given how boutique labels love to curate director catalogues, that JSA would eventually turn up too, but it actually came as quite a surprise to me when it was announced. I suppose we should keep an eye out for I’m A Cyborg as well.

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The border between the two Koreas has been a flashpoint for decades, but when an incident results in the death of two North Korean officers at a border outpost, and a South Korean officer is implicated, the flashpoint threatens to turn into a full explosion. Both sides will only accept the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission investigating the incident, and Swiss citizen Sophie Jean, herself with Korean ancestry is assigned the case. It’s unsurprising that both sides give drastically differing testimony, but the more she investigates, the more she realises that neither side is telling the truth.

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The Disc

JSA gets a 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p transfer with the choice of DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround and PCM 2.0 Stereo Korean with English subtitles. The transfer is excellent, a significant improvement over the original DVD release. Colours are consistent and rich, detail levels are outstanding, and there are no signs of compression or significant banding. One issue might be that black levels aren’t quite deep enough in the darkest of scenes, but it still felt like a whole new experience compared to the DVD. The audio too is fine, the action and ambience is immersive while keeping the dialogue clear. The subtitles are free of typos and accurately timed, but the release once again misses a trick by not subtitling the English dialogue, still the film’s one weakness.

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The disc boots to an animated menu.

There is an isolated music and effects track presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo.

New to this release are the following.
The audio commentary is supplied by Simon Ward.
Stepping Over Boundaries, an appreciation by Jasper Sharp lasts 35:14
There are two Music Videos running to 8:51.
There are Trailers and an Image Gallery in Promotional Materials.

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Familiar from the DVD release are the Archival Special Features
The JSA Story (36:47)
Making the Film (14:00)
About JSA (2:18)
Behind the Scenes Montage (14:35)
Opening Ceremony (3:04)

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War is abhorrent in all its forms, but there is something particularly heart-rending about civil wars. In all such conflicts through history, brothers have been pitted against one another over matters of ideology and belief, yet when it comes to culture and ethnicity, there is nothing to distinguish them. In that situation, it is far easier to empathise, to imagine oneself in the enemy’s place. In contrast, the feelings that separate both sides will be far more intense, hatreds more personal. It’s ideal material for a film, and done well can entertain as well as challenge preconceptions. Joint Security Area captures the ironies and tragedies of a divided nation, like no other film I have seen. It’s no surprise that Joint Security Area was well received at the Berlin Film Festival, a city that not too long ago was as bitterly divided as Korea is today.

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This is a film that relies on the traditional device of the flashback to tell its story, but does so assuredly and without hint of cliché. We are presented with the incident at face value, two dead North Korean officers, one survivor, and a South Korean Sergeant who has confessed. The stories told by both sides differ, but as investigator Sophie Jean picks at the inconsistencies, the truth begins to be uncovered. But Jean is no simple narrative device to solve the mystery, as she herself is half Korean, and trying to stay neutral as she learns of her divided heritage causes problems. Where JSA could be an opportunity for bombast and a political statement or two, Park avoids this by focusing on the characters involved. It makes the film intensely personal, as we get to know the people involved on both sides, people who have so much in common they could be friends, but are separated by a few yards of bridge. I was drawn into the personal dramas and the characters involved, and found that the message took care of itself.

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JSA has flaws though, most prominent being the English language dialogue. Of course this wouldn’t be a problem for Korean audiences, but Western audiences would be a little thrown by the English language scenes, necessary when the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, under the auspices of the UN have been called in to mediate. Fortunately this is mostly exposition and dramatic scenes are few, but that doesn’t stop the English dialogue from being quite bad, and the delivery worse.

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These are minor nitpicks though, in a powerful film that entertains, challenges and thrills. The characters that drive the narrative are well rounded and richly observed. The cast performances contribute mightily to this. It’s the feelings that the film evokes that carry a strong hopeful message, despite the bloody incident and the aftermath that is at the narrative heart of the film. Once again, I find that I’ve become a lot more fickle and shallow when it comes to format. You’d expect a good film on DVD to be a good film on Blu-ray, that format shouldn’t matter. But it really did feel like I was watching JSA: Joint Security Area for the first time, such a difference the improved AV made.

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