One of the great things about boutique distributors like Criterion, Arrow, Vinegar Syndrome, and others is that whether a film is lost or beloved, they find new life via a new release. Even though the major studios are starting to move into the market (looking at you, Paramount Presents), there’s really no challenging the niche distributors. Why? Because these boutique distributors don’t just work with films considered classics (Brute Force), they also seek out films beloved by a niche audience that are ripe for expansion. In this case, we’re looking at Park Chan-wook’s adaptation of Park Sang-yeon’s novel DMZ retitled to JSA: Joint Security Area (Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA), an earlier film in the director’s catalogue featuring Lee Young-ae (Lady Vengeance) and Song Kang-ho (Parasite) in their first collaboration with the always creative director. Though JSA is before the Vengeance trilogy or The Handmaiden (2016), it bears all the hallmarks of a Park picture: mystery, deception, and a glimpse at the complex nature of relationships. Packed with archived materials from a prior release, as well as a few new ones, the HD restoration of JSA is sure to be a sought after addition to anyone’s Park collection.
On a random October night in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, two bodies are found in the North Korean security post while a third, wounded South Korean solider Sgt. Lee Soo-hyeck (Lee Byung-hun), was found trying to cross the Bridge of No Return located between the two security posts. With tensions high between the two countries, the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission sends in Major Sophie Jean (Lee Young-ae) to discover what happened. With each side closing ranks, the truth is a loaded weapon which may send the world back into war.
My experience with Park is limited yet my admiration is the opposite. Oldboy (2003) is a terrifying bit of cinema before it gets close to its infamous climax and The Handmaiden (2016) lives rent-free in my mind. My frustration that it’s not as well-known in the zeitgeist as Park’s other films a continued frustration. He’s been directing films since 1992’s The Moon Is … The Sun’s Dream and just about every project leaves an impact. One does not need to have seen Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) or Stoker (2013) to understand the conversation and admiration for Park’s work, though it certainly does help. If, like me, your experience is more narrow, then you’re going to enjoy the 35 minute exploration of Park’s career in the newly recorded interview with Asian cinema expert Jasper Sharp. Where one might expect a featurette to focus solely on JSA (you’ve got the new feature-length audio commentary from writer/critic Simon Ward for that), Sharp’s exploration is detailed and all-encompassing, looking at Park’s schooling, creative partners, and approach to cinema. For instance, Sharp explores the differences in visual style present in JSA versus The Handmaiden because of Park’s shift from working with cinematographer Kim Sung-Bok to Chung Chung-hoon. These little tidbits really sharpen one’s view on Park’s entire catalogue. In addition to these bonus features, the Arrow Video restoration includes materials like a theatrical trailer and TV spots, an image gallery, a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and PCM 2.0 stereo soundtrack for the feature, and an isolated music and effect track, if you’d like to experience the film without the dialogue. While it may disappoint some that JSA is not a 2K or 4K restoration, what is on the disc is absolutely pristine and shares more in common with recent releases in terms of visual quality than most restorations. Color is not a significant factor in JSA, but there is nothing about the images which look over 21 years old. The content possesses obvious dating of the historical period in which it was shot (modern 2000), yet the restoration is so clean as it could just as easily be a period film shot recently.
If you’re lucky enough to get a hold of JSA during its first pressing, you’ll be gifted with a booklet featuring a new essay by writer Kieran Fisher. In his essay, he not only offers a historical explanation of the conflict between North and South Korea, but context that may be lost by viewers unfamiliar with the schism which continues to this day. Where so many of Park’s films rely on mystery to keep the audience engaged, JSA lets you know who the players are fairly quickly and lets the mystery become “why” not “who” with the “why” of things becoming the most tragic thing about the film as it explores how the similarities between the warring peoples are greater than one may expect but that the trauma of decades of war cannot be healed via mere commonality. This is what makes JSA such a powerful watch, lingering in your headspace after the conclusion. In fact, it’s why the film is worthy of revisiting because, with the mystery gone, the significant exploration of interpersonal connection is easier to probe.
There’s a line in the film that cuts to the heart of any conflict, though it specifically refers to the one between North and South Korea. To summarize, it states that the truth isn’t what matters, the peace does. Even as JSA heads toward the bloody end audience’s expect from Park, this line notion reverberates. The cost of peace is the burial of truth, a trauma in and of itself. When unable to speak openly about what unites us, the only possibility is suffering. In the case of the characters of JSA, this means that there can be no friendship greater than country, no kinship stronger than the chosen side. Choosing sides in any conflict is only going to breed resentment and pain, and no neutral party can quell a perceived slight. In light of current tensions on U.S. soil, Park’s adaptation takes on a whole new level of prescience, offering a look at what may come should we focus on the trauma, instead of on the healing.
JSA: Joint Security Area New Special Features
- Newly recorded video interview with Asian cinema expert Jasper Sharp (35:14)
- New audio commentary by writer and critic Simon Ward
- Two music videos: Letter from a Private and Take the Power Back
- High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentation
- Original lossless Korean DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 stereo soundtracks
- Optional English subtitles
- Isolated music and effects track
- Theatrical trailer
- TV spot
- Image gallery
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Colin Murdoch
- Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Kieran Fisher – FIRST PRESSING ONLY
JSA: Joint Security Area Previously Available Special Features
- The JSA Story, archival featurette on the film’s production
- Making the Film, archival featurette on the film’s production
- About JSA, a series of archival introductions to the film by members of the cast
- Opening ceremony footage
- Behind the scenes montage
Available on Blu-ray January 19th, 2021.
To purchase, head to MVD Entertainment.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.