JSA: Joint Security Area Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: January 19, 2021
Audio: Korean DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0
Run Time: 109 minutes
Director: Park Chan-Wook
Gunfire breaks out in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, leaving two North Korean soldiers dead while a wounded South Korean soldier (Lee Byung-hun) flees to safety. With the tenuous peace between the two warring nations on a knife-edge, a neutral team of investigators, headed by Swiss Army Major Sophie Jean (Lee Young-ae), is dispatched to question both sides to determine what really happened under cover of darkness out in no-man’s land. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
At the close of the 1990s, South Korean cinema, television, and K-Pop music made a splash in the Western world. This era is generally referred to as the Korean Wave (K-Wave) or Hánliú. Still speaking generally, North American film fans took early notice of the area’s renaissance in filmmaking, either around the international releases of Kang Je-gyu’s spy thriller Shiri (1999) or Kwak Jae-yong's romantic comedy My Sassy Girl (which was a major hit in Japan, China, Hong Kong, and other Asian countries, 2001). The rest of us caught up quickly after, when unprecedented word-of-mouth propelled Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) into the pop culture stratosphere. Kang Je-gyu's war epic Taegukgi (aka: Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War, 2004) seemed to solidify the region’s must-watch status the following year, opening the door for Ryoo Seung-wan’s Crying Fist (2005), Jang Joon-hwan’s Save the Green Planet (2003), Park Kwang-hyun’s Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005), Kim Jee-woon’s (or Ji-woon) A Bittersweet Life (2005), and, of course, the international success of multi-Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho.
Oldboy was made possible in part due to Park’s 2000 breakthrough, JSA: Joint Security Area. Following two films that had nearly zero impact outside of Korea (and which Park himself doesn’t seem to want people to see), The Moon is... the Sun's Dream (1992) and Trio (1997), he was handed the helm on the pertinent, mainstream-friendly political thriller that drew upon the Rashomon tradition of a story being altered based on various characters’ points-of-view. After it grew into the biggest box office hit of its era (surpassing Shiri), Park had the clout to make more personal and esoteric movies. While it isn’t as offbeat as Lady Vengeance (2005) or Thirst (2009), JSA: Joint Security Area still bears some of the director’s signatures, such as its unreliable narrators, out-of-order narrative structure, and thematic use of color. There are even some patently surreal touches, though, more importantly, it’s sharply crafted and poignant enough to stand on its own, outside of comparisons to Oldboy or The Handmaiden (2016). Viewers don’t need the greater context of Park’s career, nor the greater K-Wave to enjoy its taut suspense or heartbreaking drama, assuming they have at least a passing awareness of the political atmosphere in contemporary, post-war Korea. You don’t need much more context to understand the weight of the situation, the stakes for the characters if their friendship is discovered, or the consequences if the Swiss officials don’t come up with an answer that satisfies both the North and South Korean governments. In fact, if JSA: Joint Security Area has one major problem, it is that it over-explains local politics to its international audience in its earliest scenes.
As many readers no doubt already know, South Korean culture has been colored by the threat of war with their Northern neighbors since the 1950s. I am by no means an expert in the field of the Korean War and its aftereffects, but, if the region’s most popular movies over the last two decades are any indication, this decades-long stalemate has contributed to a sense of public angst that is comparable to what we saw in America during the Cold War. As of 2020, 13 of South Korea’s top 100 grossing movies – including Yoon Je-kyoon’s Ode to My Father (2014), Yang Woo-suk’s The Attorney (2013), Kang Woo-suk’s Silmido (2003), Lee Hae-jun & Kim Byung-seo’s Ashfall (2019), Kim Sung-hoon’s Confidential Assignment (2017), John H. Lee Jae-han’s Operation Chromite (2016), Kim Hak-soon’s Northern Limit Line (2015), Jang Hoon’s Secret Reunion (2010), Yoon Jong-bin’s The Spy Gone North (2018), Yang Woo-suk’s Steel Rain (2017), the aforementioned Shiri and Welcome to Dongmakgol, and JSA: Joint Security Area – engage directly with the Korean War and the North/South divide. Naturally, some of these films take a reactionary slant, but, more often than not, they have an anti-war/anti-conflict message, if not a flat-out call for unity and peace. Because it was a hit, JSA: Joint Security Area’s sympathetic portrayal of North Koreans, aspirational message of unity/friendship, and tragic denouement paved the way for similarly complex examinations of the conflict.
JSA: Joint Security Area was a breakthrough for Park, as well as members of its now all star cast, most of whom went on to play leads in Park’s other films. Song Kang-ho was already established prior to appearing here as the older brother/father figure of the group, North Korean sergeant Oh Kyung-pil, thanks to Shiri and Kim Jee-woon’s The Quiet Family (1998). He is arguably the most recognizable South Korean actor alive. His continued collaborations with Kim Jee-woon, including Snowpiercer (2013) and Parasite (2019), have kept him in the international filmgoing eye and acted as lead in Park’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (the first part of the Vengeance Trilogy, 2002) and Thirst (2009). Shin Ha-kyun won several awards for his portrayal of North Korean private Jung Woo-jin and went on to play similar characters in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Save the Green Planet, and Welcome to Dongmakgol. Lee Young-ae, who plays a neutral Swiss Army special investigator (it should also be noted outside intervention into South Korean political matters is another common theme throughout Hánliú age cinema, much of it built upon decades of resentment towards the United States’ continued interference), went on to be the title character of Lady Vengeance (which includes cameos from Song and Shin) and a massive television star. Lee Byung-hun appeared in Park’s section of the horror anthology Three... Extremes (2004) and has since made the leap to English-language Hollywood blockbusters, like the G.I. Joe movies (2009, 2013), Terminator Genisys (2015), and The Magnificent Seven (2016).
JSA: Joint Security Area hasn’t had a great home video history in North America. The only official DVD was a mediocre effort from Palm Pictures. I personally imported Tartan’s R2 UK collection for the extras and was greeted by a NTSC to PAL (back to NTSC) mess. South Korea’s Nova Media released the only English-friendly Blu-ray, but it was an expensive limited edition. An okay HD streaming version, seemingly derived from the Nova transfer, has made the rounds over the years, but it keeps disappearing and moving around (it’s currently on Criterion Channel and Mubi as of this writing). With all of this in mind, Arrow Video’s Blu-ray, which marks the film’s HD disc debut in North America and the UK, has a low bar to clear. Arrow is, like Criterion, very good at describing the processes behind mastering their discs in the included booklets. Unfortunately, this is one of those rarer cases where they don’t have much to say. Basically, they were handed a finished product and have faithfully transferred it to disc. I don’t have access to the Nova Media disc, but some wonderful soul has uploaded comparisons to caps-a-holic.com, so I’m able to make basic comparisons. The two transfers appear basically identical in terms of clarity, texture, and even color quality, but differ slightly in framing and gamma levels. Arrow’s transfer features slightly more information on all four sides of the frame, which is an obvious advantage, and is darker, which hurts dynamic range a tad, but makes it appear less flat than the Korean transfer. My most substantial issue with the transfer (one shared by the Criterion stream and I believe the Nova disc) is a common one to Korean transfers from the era: that of oversharpened edges along purposefully soft shapes. I suspect it’s just something about the way these movies were scanned for digital. There’s also a shred of excess noise in some of the brighter reds.
Arrow has included two uncompressed Korean audio options – DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0. From what I understand, both mixes count as original tracks, because the film was originally released in both digital and analogue theatrical formats. I opted to watch most of the movie while listening to the 5.1 mix, but both are perfectly clean and consistent. The mix isn’t super fancy and is largely a combination of centered dialogue and incidental effects with stereo enhanced music and occasional directional effects to set the mood or during gunfire. Very typical of an early-ish Asian digital master. Jo Yeong-wook & Bang Jun-seok’s original score has never been one of the film’s strong points (to his credit, Jo continued working with Park as the music in his films became more interesting), but both tracks accurately reproduce the music’s synthesized tone.
The disc also contains an isolated music and effects track.
Commentary with writer and critic Simon Ward – Ward focuses largely on how JSA fits Park’s greater career and his research is far more extensive than my own. I suppose some viewers/listeners might prefer a brass tacks approach to the film’s production history and Ward occasionally falls into the trap of narrating the onscreen action, but I quite enjoyed this more critical approach.
Stepping over Boundaries (35:14, HD) – A 2020 video appreciation with Asian cinema expert Jasper Sharp, the author of Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema (Scarecrow Press, 2011) and co-editor of Midnight Eye. This is a good companion piece to the commentary track, because Sharp offers up a fast-moving, fact-filled retrospective of Park’s career and how his rise to prominence paralleled South Korean cinema’s international acclaim.
The JSA Story (36:47, SD) – The first of two archival behind-the-scenes featurette that have been included on various DVDs over the years. It is fluffy, but interesting due to occasional focus on the actual North/South conflict and deleted scene discussion/storyboards.
Making the Film (14:00, SD) – The second archival featurette is a more traditional EPK type thing.
Behind-the-scenes footage montage (14:35, SD)
Footage from the film’s opening ceremony (3:04, SD)
Two music videos – Kim Kwang Seok’s Letter from a Private (4:50, SD) and Rage Against the Machine’s Take the Power Back (4:01, SD)
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.