It could be reasonably argued that one of the worst tendencies of films set in the world of the military is the temptation to glorify the soldiers, to make them heroes or martyrs whether it be because of or in spite of their surroundings. It is thus truly impressive that Joint Security Area avoids this trap and many more. Part mystery, part political rumination, and quite unexpectedly, part ensemble comedy, the film is accordingly divided into three sections, complete with admittedly ostentatious segment titles in the form of the reverse of the movie’s title (Area, Security, Joint).
Joint Security Area‘s main pleasures lie in its central and best section, but even before the reveal, Park does a fine job of crafting the world of the DMZ. One of his most brilliant gambits is in his choice of investigator, a Korean that has never set foot in either Korea before. This amount of ambiguity is further compounded by the continually shifting actions (though not motivations) of each side. As the Major looks closer, the stories only seem to become more and more divergent, until one of the characters reaches a breaking point.
At this moment, Joint Security Area takes an altogether unexpected turn, and devotes almost half of its running time not to the mystery-thriller that one might expect from the setting, but to a four-hand flashback that, though it takes place over several months, is situated primarily in a North Korean border house. Most of the time, it is practically comedic, first in the way that the people first meet, and then as it observes these four men from different sides of the stalemate getting to know each other through games, drink, and relaxed conversation. However, there is an unmistakably melancholy that runs throughout, as a result of both the viewer’s knowledge that this will end in the deaths of at least two and the Romeo and Juliet-esque division that divides the two groups. On the one occasion that this topic is broached, the mood quickly becomes contentious, and though it dissipates, the idea still lingers, and is emphasized by various training exercises and potential attacks that recur throughout the segment.
When Joint Security Area returns to the present, the mood still persists, as both the soldiers’ and the investigator’s efforts seem to be stymied. But all comes to light in the cleanest and most efficient way possible, and if the conclusion of the investigation seems a bit too clean, the conclusion of the film itself is anything but. It evokes the all too human traumas that are caused by the politics of war, where the symbol of shared cigarettes can be obliterated by a single misstep. Park’s style reflects this, using both 360 degree pans and an astonishing amount of striking close-ups where the subjects look into the camera to heighten the subconscious intensity of the film’s most crucial moments, to either link or break apart the two factions. (The bold transitions and camera angles are an extension of this.) Joint Security Area ensures there are no heroes, only young men trying to be themselves in perilous circumstances; with one gunshot things will never be the same.