DMZ (The) AKA Bimujang jidae
R0 - South Korea - Korean Film Archive/Blue Kino
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (26th May 2015).
The Film

Opening with still images of the Korean War and the map showing the division of Korea into two along the 38th Parallel North, also known as the Demilitarized Zone or "the DMZ", the film depicts two children: a young girl named Yong-ah (Ju Min-a), and a boy (played by Lee Yeong-gwan) a few years older than her. Taking place during the Korean War along the border of the North and South, the young boy rescues Yong-ah who tries to cross a stream. Yong-ah tells the boy that she is looking for her mother and the boy, sporting a found military helmet and uniform says he is looking for his mother also. Through conversing the two realize they are actually long-lost brother and sister separated during the conflict, and both hoping to find their mother by traveling toward the South. For food, they find some wild potatoes and some live frogs along a creek to cook, watermelon growing on an abandoned farm area, and whatever they could get their hands on. Danger lurks everywhere, as the area is riddled with landmines, wild dogs are hungry for food, and soldiers are around the area fighting. The only things the kids have for protection are an axe that the brother found and a jammed handgun that the brother carries.

Within a dangerous and tense environment, the children find a way to be children. Swimming in a lake, climbing on an abandoned train and pretending to be a conductor, climbing aboard a tank and pretending to be part of the fight are just some things the brother does to pass the time with his imagination and to have fun. Yong-ah is not so taken with his games. She is reluctant to go in the river and she does not have as much fun as him. Whenever she cries out for her mother, the brother makes sure to take care of her and calm her down, showing a protective side in his heart.

But how long will it take for the kids to get to safer ground? Will they ever reunite with their mother or has she already become a casualty? In such a bleak place, the only hope comes from the hearts of the two children struggling together.

Director Park Sang-ok envisioned the idea for “The DMZ” after traveling to Tokyo for the Asian Film Festival with his 1963 film “Tosuni: The Birth of Happiness”. He was constantly asked by people from Japan or other countries about what the DMZ was like, if the Panmumjeon was a good place for tourists, and what Korea was like after the war. In the 1960’s South Korean cinema was booming, and one of the more popular genres was the anti-communist war propaganda films. South Korean had a Motion Picture Law put in effect in the 1963, and one of the main focuses was to make sure no pro-communist messages were placed in South Korean films. South Korean war films showed intense combat scenes, the importance of brotherhood, and showing no mercy toward the North forces. Known for using realism in his films, Park decided to look at the war through the perspective of two young children, something unheard of.

The entire films in shouldered upon the performances of the two children. Neither were professional actors, and neither furthered continued in the film industry. It's hard to say how much better or worse the movie would have been with professional child actors involved, since the natural performances in the environment does seem genuine, with the boy being a typical 8-year old who is not afraid of anything and is like a little explorer. The girl around 5 years old gives a more restrained traumatized performance, with quite a few scenes of her crying her eyes out and calling for her mother.

Another thing that was unheard of was actually filming within the DMZ. Although it is named “The Demilitarized Zone”, the 250 kilometer-long and 4 kilometer-wide area is one of the most militarized areas in the world for the last 50 years. North and South Korea have not formally ended the Korean War, and the borderline is heavily patrolled, heavily manned, and heavily armed. Park and the company Jeil Films secured special permission to film within the DMZ with cooperation from the South Korean military and the US military forces, but areas able to be filmed were extremely limited. One of the biggest reasons was that there were numerous live landmines hidden in the area, and if an area was wanted for filming, it had to be carefully searched before anyone could set foot. If the director wanted an alternate shot that wasn’t checked, it was not able to be shot. Park has stated that there were times he looked around and suddenly found an excellent show for a scene, but the military advisors would immediately tell him “no” since he hadn’t requested for the area previously. Park has also stated that it almost seems crazy now that he let the two very young children run around in an area littered with such danger.

The tension that Park puts on screen is almost like Alfred Hitchcock in execution. Hitchcock’s WWII drama “Lifeboat” takes place within a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with the people stranded along with a rescued German soldier. But once the audience sees that the German soldier is hiding a compass, it gives chills, as the audience knows there is imminent danger right under their noses, but the characters have no clue. The scene with the children lighting a fire for cooking right where a landmine is placed is one that makes the audience cringe with horror, although the kids have no idea. What happens with the brother’s handgun is also one that builds to a tragic payoff, and brilliantly done.

It is not certain whether Park had watched Rene Clemet’s 1952 film “Forbidden Games” which also deals with a young girl and a slightly older boy within a war torn environment, but the similarities are there. Both are stories that deal with the harsh reality of war though the innocence of children’s eyes. The 1988 Japanese film “Grave of the Fireflies” also has the similar theme of a brother taking care of a younger sister in a war torn environment. It shows that whether in France, Japan, Korea, or any other country, the loss of childhood innocence in war is tragic wherever and whenever.

The film won numerous awards internationally, including the Good Young Actor award at the 2nd Korean Theater and Film Awards, the Best Documentary award at the 1966 Asian Film Festival, Best Documentary, Best Black and White Cinematography, and the Young Actress Special Award at the 4th Blue Dragon Film Awards, and Best Film at the 3rd Film Art Awards. It is unusual that a film with a narrative script and actors involved could with a “documentary” prize, but the bookends and the occasional documentary footage made it possible to qualify as a “documentary”.

Note this is a region free NTSC DVD and can be played on any DVD player worldwide.

Video

With many Korean film studios gone bankrupt, films were abandoned and forgotten over time, which is a terrible shame that much of Korea film history is lost. The Korean Film Archive was established in 1976 to save the legacy of Korean cinema.

The image is in the 2.70:1 anamorphic widescreen ratio in NTSC. The print was sourced from an analog Beta-SP tape, and it looks pretty awful. The tape was donated to the Korean Film Archive from the KTV archive, and was a transfer from a 16mm print. The original ratio was 2.35:1 but the top and bottom of the frame were cropped when transferred to 16mm. There are scratches, dust, and dirt inherent to the original film transfer, and there are chroma problems with the Beta-SP videotape image. It is not ideal, but this is currently the only version available, until a new film transfer is done. But more on that later.

There were two versions of “The DMZ” made:
The original version was 12 reels long, and the re-edited version was 6 reels long. With help from director Shin Shang-ok, who helped Park earlier in his career, Park re-edited the 90 minute film down for international festival distribution. This cut scenes with a few other characters and only left the film with the viewpoint of the children.

The original negative of the 12 reel film was taken to Hong Kong with Shin Sang-ok’s production office. After Shin and his wife were abducted by North Koreans, the production office was shut down and the negatives were lost. Only the 6-reel re-edited version survives, and this is what is presented on the DVD.















Audio

There is only one soundtrack:

Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 dual mono

It was common for Korean films to be dubbed in post-production rather than using sound from the original shooting environment. The soundtrack has much less problems compared to the picture. Dialogue sounds fine and there are minimal hisses and cracks in the sound. The background music also sounds good considering the source.

As stated before the re-edited version of the film was primarily for export to foreign film festivals, and so there are burned-in English subtitles on the picture, which have some grammar and spelling errors.

There are optional English and Korean subtitles available, which appear below the frame. The new English subtitles are a better translation of the film, but there are still a few grammar and spelling errors.

Extras

The extras presented on disc are:

"Filmmakers Documentary Series: Park Sang-ho" documentary (44:57)
Produced by the Korean Film Archive, the documentary traces director Park Sang-ho’s directing career, from how he entered the film industry, working with Shin Sang-ok, his directorial style, and changes the Korean film industry went through in the 1960’s. It features interviews with Park himself, Shin Sang-ok, actresses he had worked with, and film critics. The documentary also features clips of many of his films, and extensively looks at the making of “Tosuni”, “The DMZ”, and the 1967 film “A Child Who Was Born in the Year of Liberation”, among others.
In 1.33:1 non-anamorphic, in Korean with optional English and Korean subtitles.

Image Gallery
Stills from the film
In 1.33:1

32-page Book
The book is half in English and half in Korean featuring film notes, information on the source material, a synopsis, contemporary reviews, the director's notes on the making of the film, and an essay by critic Kim Jong-won. The booklet includes a wealth of information although there seems to be a translation error on the part of the 2 versions of the film. It should be clear that only the shorter version survives.

Packaging

The disc is packaged in a keep case with an outer slipcase. In the slipcase is the 32-page book.

Overall

“The DMZ” is an important film within the genre of Korean War films which was sadly forgotten and neglected over time, as were many other Korean films in the 1960’s. Even with the awards and accolades, it was not a hit in its native country, which did not want to see such a bleak look at the war, but its reputation with critics was strong at the time.

Apparently within the Korean Film Archive, a 35mm print of the re-edit version of “The DMZ” is stored, but has not been digitally transferred. Instead they decided to use the existing Beta-SP tape master which is a terrible shame. I hope Korean Film Archive goes back to do a new digital transfer, even if it’s not the original longer version.

The Film: A- Video: D+ Audio: C+ Extras: B Overall: B-

 


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