At the guarded border between North and South Korea, gunshots shatter the nighttime silence. Two North Korean soldiers lay dead in their guardhouse, as a South Korean soldier, bloodied and wounded, limps toward the south. Both sides mobilize troops and exchange gunfire. The next morning, accusations fly. South Korea claims the North abducted the soldier. North Korea claims the South Korean guard crossed the border and committed a massacre. The Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission calls in a Swiss investigator to discover the truth.
Not being Korean, I suspect there’s nuance and context I’m missing, but I found this Rashomon-style mystery solid. Director Park Chan-wook maximizes the charismatic performances from Lee Byung-hun as the wounded South Korean soldier and Song Kang-ho as the lone North Korean survivor. Park overcomes the flashback structure, maintaining narrative tension and modulating the tone with apparent ease. Consider a scene where Byung-hun finds himself trapped on a landmine. We know he survives as he’s telling the story via flashback. Yet the scene overflows with tension and—at times—humor. My lone complaint lies with Park’s willingness to indulge in emotion. Characters cry, whine, and bemoan their lot. Less overt emotion would make the closing shot even more of a gut punch.
Or maybe I’m being too harsh because I’m reading a book on Howard Hawks. Still, I can’t help thinking a bit more Hawksian restraint could have elevated this film to a powerhouse.