A border post with two dead Northern Korean soldiers is being investigated by a neutral team of Swedish and Swiss. The South attempts to put a lid on things by directing the investigators to endorse the South Korean conclusions. The investigators, played by Lee Yeong-Ae and Christoph Hofrichter, quickly ascertain that there are conflicting accounts and the remaining soldiers are not talking.
Park Chan-Wook flashes back to reveal how these men, who are conditioned to ignore and despise each other, had begun a dangerous nocturnal friendship away from hostile daytime eyes. A rescue from a minefield has led the bored and curious men to start hanging out and exchanging stories about their lives and generally enjoying each other’s company, whilst sharing some sweets and playing games. Park is keen to emphasise the importance of the physical contact involved in these illicit encounters, which mimic greatly the homoerotic subtext amongst individuals within a restrictive ideological regime.
The always reliable Song Kang-Ho plays Sergeant Oh-Kyeong-Pil, the North Korean soldier accused of kidnapping his opposite number. Providing a contrasting tone, Lee Byung-Hun acquits himself well as the younger opposite number accused of murdering the two soldiers. Of the two, Byung-Hun has the more difficult task of portraying the less sympathetic and slightly more hesitant soldier, whereas Seargeant Pil eagerly accepts all offers of gifts and friendship from his neighbours.
This is a well-observed and acted drama about the blossoming yet illicit relationships between border soldiers, and is strongest when portraying the relationships between men who should never meet or communicate. It is apparent that the story is more interested in the human relationships, since it presents the North-South divide in a surprisingly glib fashion. If this was a film about the troubles in Northern Ireland that suggested that all the two sides needed was a dialogue removed from the military infrastructure and apparatus of state, it would be rightly criticised for its simplification of a socio-political, ethnocultural conflagration.
It is a shame that it is overshadowed, unfairly somewhat, by Oldboy and the Vengeance saga. The awkward title and recent abbreviation go some way to explaining the lack of love, since the poster art promises some sort of international action; but aside from the initial investigation, the story is concerned with the relationships between individuals exploring new personal freedoms. The story remains fresh and with the recent interest in and success of South Korean cinema, the time is right for it to be celebrated by an audience eager for new stories, taking new perspectives on age-old conflicts.
Available on Bluray from Arrow Film from Jan 18 2021