Next year will see three of South Korea’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed directors present their English language debuts. Kim Jee Woon (THE LAST STAND), Park Chan Wook (STOKER), and Bong Joon Ho (SNOWPIERCER) have already proved themselves in their homeland, and here at THN we are taking a look back over their past efforts. Here’s our first look at the films of Park Chan Wook, join us each week over the course of the next few months as we explore The Land Of The Morning Calm.
Director: Park Chan Wook
Cast: Lee Byung Hyun, Song Kang Ho, Lee Yeong Ae, Kim Tae Woo, Shin Ha Kyun,
Plot: A member of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Committee arrives in Panmunjom, the town that houses the Joint Security Area between North and South Korea, where she must investigate the murder of two North Korean soldiers.
Park Chan Wook was two years away from starting his Vengeance Trilogy. A trilogy that would include one of South Korea’s new wave’s defining films, OLDBOY. However, before any of that Park directed a powerful film of intensity and great importance; a film that can be looked at in a multiple number of ways, and pretty much sums up exactly what is great about film. That film was JOINT SECURITY AREA or JSA. Granted, Park Chan Wook had previously directed two features, but neither was received very well, nor is easy to come by. In fact, he had put his filmmaking career on hold to focus on becoming a film critic. Luckily, JSA turned out to be a brilliant film which is mystery, action, a wonderful friendship, and quite the educational experience, at least as an introduction, into the complex history and conflict between North and South Korea.
One of the most impressive things about Park’s JSA is that you don’t need a history lesson to enjoy it. In saying that, some knowledge of the ins-and-outs of the countries will enhance the viewing no end. After the country was divided in two a demilitarized zone (DMZ) was set up along the 38th parallel, within this DMZ is the Joint Security Area (JSA), where North and South Korean soldiers stand face to face, and where diplomatic engagements between the two countries take place. To see the JSA is truly a site to behold, with just a strip of concrete being the line between the capitalist South and the totalitarian North. Whereas this information will certainly go some way to explaining the conflict between the two countries, that is obviously present in the film, the complexities are almost innumerable. Luckily Park boils this all down into a very personal and humane story.
It starts on a dark night where we hear (but at this point don’t see) a shooting. It is soon revealed that a South Korean soldier, Sgt. Lee Soo Hyeok (Lee Byung Hyun), has killed two North Korean soldiers in one of their border houses. A survivor, Sgt. Oh Kyeong Pil (Song Kang Ho) claims Soo Hyeok attacked them, whereas Soo Hyeok testifies that he was kidnapped and fought for his escape. Into this mess steps an NNSC officer, Maj. Sophie E. Jean (Lee Yeong Ae), a member of the Swiss Army who happens to be of Korean descent and harbours her own secrets. She’s the perfect character to guide us through this tale, and one of the reasons it works on an international basis. It also prevents the film from becoming one sided or leaning too heavily in one country’s favour, something I think is very important when trying to create a connection with the audience and the characters presented. After all, a lot of the western world’s main exposure to North Korea will be through the marionette of Kim Jong Il used in TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE and the coverage we see of North Korea at its most extravagant and bizarre, as that is what they want us to see. Park does an excellent job, thanks in no small part to the actors portraying North Korean soldiers, at representing them as humans with differing beliefs, and not the brainwashed robots North Korean’s are often betrayed as. Whether brainwashed or not is hardly the point, their beliefs are exactly that.
As the film works its way backwards, with obvious conflicting stories, Park does well not to pilfer a RASHOMON style narrative. Yes, there are clear discrepancies in stories, but when we do go into flashback mode, we are given pretty much a singular account of the events. The intensity of the film is obviously helped by the common knowledge of just exactly how different and at odds these two countries are, but Park uses powerful visual cues to enforce that sense of conflict. As the NNSC arrive at the JSA they must slalom through a series of blockades that never allow the car to gain any kind of momentum. As we are introduced to the supporting cast of neutral officers many native English speakers may be jarred by the delivery of certain lines. All the actors are speaking their lines in their second language but the discomfort goes a long way to suggest that these nations and characters could never really understand the true divide between these two nations. As one character suggests “Neutral has no place in this world”, reflecting certain peoples’ desire for action.
First we see Soo Hyeok’s rendition of events, where he is kidnapped when relieving himself in the bushes. Like all great mysteries, something just doesn’t seem right. Mainly the fact that as one of the corpses is riddled with 8 bullets, it seems as though Soo Hyeok was doing more than just trying to escape captors. As Maj. Jean arrives in North Korea we see ginormous paintings declaring “Rice Is Communism” and school children conveniently situated at the side of the road to wave at the visiting officials. Seong Pil is clearly not, what we may consider, an average North Korean soldier. When he meets Maj. Jean he is quick to boast about scars obtained in foreign countries. Immediately this opens up the character as someone quite worldly, and also hints at his acceptance of foreign products later in the film. During the autopsy Maj. Jean is confronted by the family of the victims, which she is told is a trick to manipulate her emotions, something the film manages to avoid. After an interrogation of a southern witness, Nam Sung Shik (Kim Tae Woo), ends in a suicide attempt, it is surmised that he too was at the scene during the shooting. In a blisteringly fantastic use of slow motion, Sung Shik floats past the room in which Soo Hyeok is being questioned in. This allows for a poetic moment in which the two share (impossible) eye-contact, which becomes a powerful moment upon a second viewing.
The next scene takes us back to long before the shooting took place. A group of tourists are being lead around the JSA by an American officer. A sudden gust of wind blows off a tourist’s baseball cap and it lands just over the line of the North and South divide. She considers it lost, but after Seong Pil picks up the cap he makes a gesture of offering it back. It’s perhaps a sign of how we’ve been conditioned to perceive North Koreans, but even upon a multiple viewing I almost expect this to be a trap. This action stuns the tourists who immediately try and take a picture of the North Korean officer, despite the soldiers of the south trying to prevent this. The American troop announces that had he been a South Korean soldier, he may be tried and hanged for what he just did. A playful boast or a terrifying truth?
What we are then treated to is a mesmerising series of events that lead to an extraordinary friendship. Political commentary this may be, but it’s also the best bromance version of Romeo & Juliet I’ve ever seen. A tragedy wrapped up within warm moments, with the sense that everything is going to turn to shit ever present. It all goes back to one night when Soo Hyeok found himself accidentally stepping upon a mine. Earlier in the film the heroic Soo Hyeok is said to have once disarmed a mine himself. We find out that is far from the truth. North Korean soldiers Seong Pil and later victim Jeong Woo Jin (Shin Ha Kyun) come across him, understandably distressed. The North Korean soldiers have some fun pretending they will leave the Southerner where he is, but they soon change their tune. Lee Byung Hyun gives an incredible performance throughout this scene (and many others) revealing to us the true weakness of the character which is in contrast to the strong persona he shows to his superiors. After the mine has been deactivated, the soldiers all go their separate ways, but the men have shared a moment that none of them will ever forget and as fate would have it Soo Hyeok and Seong Pil have a number of run ins.
Soo Hyeok’s curiosity gets the better of him, and he begins to throw notes over the divide and begins a correspondence with Seong Pil. One key thing that allows their relationship to grow is that they leave politics completely out of the situation. Their talks revolve around singers and other such topics. Once again Park removes the political partition and allows us into the mind of the characters. Soo Hyeok eventually steps over the line (literally and metaphorically) to visit his friends in the north. Eventually Soo Hyeok invites Sung Shik and the four become great friends. They smoke, show pictures of their girlfriends, and play childish games. Each moment is filled with warmth and charm, which makes the journey to the end even more painful, as we know how things will turn out. Most touching of all may be the scene that shows Sung Shik’s first excursion to the north. He is reluctant to shake the hand of Seong Pil, and is even more surprised when Seong Pil pulls him in for a hug. For a film with such powerful heart behind it, it’s easy to forget the tragic conflict that has brewed for so long. Seeing the southern soldiers struggle with shooting cardboard cut-outs of their enemies is a blatant reminder of what they expected to do in times of war, and it is jarring for both audiences and the characters alike.
Where it all goes wrong is a magnificently crafted scene. With a Korean ballad on the radio, the calming sound of rain beating down, one of the friends’ meetings is interrupted by a North Korean superior. The uncomfortable silence, the scrambling for guns, the futile pleading for negotiation. All brilliant tactics used to emphasise the tension in this Mexican standoff. It’s the first time the quad have had to consider their friendship along with their countries beliefs, and they have to do it with guns in faces. Unlike Romeo & Juliet, this is more than warring families, these men are having to face decades of what they have been taught. Park’s trademark handling of violence is shown here and it’s a painfully regrettable experience to see these characters go through it. There is no wonder as to why this film became the most watched film in South Korean history (at the time of its release), and even less surprising that former South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun gave a copy of the film to Kim Jong Il in 2007. This is a film that reaches the very pinnacle of intensity while also being a very important film. In a world that sees such violence surrounding politics and religion at our core we are all just human.
What To Take To STOKER? The foreboding sense of doom is the impression I got from the STOKER trailer, something Park did so well here. But to enhance that creeping sense of dread I’d also like to see the emotional connection between characters.
STOKER is released 1st March 2013. It stars Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, Dermot Mulroney, Matthew Goode, Lucas Till, Jacki Weaver, and Alden Ehrenreich.