Written by Oh In-chun, Park Ji-young
Directed by Oh In-chun
A geopolitical boundary that is one of the most tense and dangerous places on Earth, the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea runs 160 miles from shore-to-shore and is 2.5 miles wide. Meant to serve as a buffer between the two nations who have technically been at war since 1950, the DMZ is packed with countless landmines (one unconfirmed article boasts more than 3 million have been planted), laced throughout with barbed wire fences, and is patrolled on both sides by soldiers. It is a place where people to this day die in skirmishes and accidents. It is also the setting of Oh In-chun’s latest genre offering, appropriately titled The DMZ.
The film follows Lieutenant Kwon Min-in on the hunt for Mr. Heo, an escaped serial killer who has made it to the demilitarized zone border. As she pursues him through a dense overgrown field, she suddenly hears a click under her boot and her true nightmare begins: she has stepped on a landmine and is unable to move. Armed only with her gun, a bluetooth headset, and her wits, she must find a way to survive against the elements, a mysterious North Korean spy, and Mr. Heo himself.
A fascinating and tense concept, The DMZ is bolstered by strong performances throughout as well as a gorgeous location that feels as swelteringly hot as Min-in’s sweat-covered face conveys. A cloudless sky allows the sun to beat down relentlessly upon the police investigator, giving added concern as to how she’s going to manage to get out of her predicament. Couple that with her desperate attempts to make contact via her headset and the situation feels raw and unsettling. Where it goes astray is pretty much everywhere else.
Right away, the most unpleasant experience of the film is the camerawork, done by In-chun himself, whose insistence on doing nearly every single shot handheld results in a film that looks like it was shot by someone who just drank a coffee that was brewed using a combination of Red Bull and 5 Hour Energy instead of water. The constant shaking was rough enough but the attempts to go in and out of focus with some sort of style only results in a nauseating experience that makes the film truly unpleasant to watch. I legitimately got a headache and had to shield my eyes at more than a few points.
What makes that camerawork all the more frustrating is the brief moments when it stands still is when the movie looks and feels the best. The situation is chaotic and tense enough but the location is gorgeous and almost tranquil. The juxtaposition could have been wonderfully utilized but was instead squandered. Add in a lazy, uninspired score along with a seemingly unnecessary character (the North Korean spy) and you’ve got a film that is uncertain if it’s a dark comedy, a cat-and-mouse thriller, or a study in character manipulation. What it most certainly ends up being is an outright chore to endure.
The DMZ has a great concept but fails to capitalize on that while, at the same time, creating a film that is genuinely headache-inducing due to its poor technical choices. If you need to watch this, be sure to take some Dramamine beforehand.