While alone in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, a young South Korean policewoman (Joo Minha) steps on a mine in independent film director In-chun Oh’s latest thriller, The DMZ. Armed only with a Bluetooth headset, her gun, and bulletproof vest, she is rooted to the spot. Amidst the lush greenery of this unspoiled land that falls between two countries still technically at war, one false move could mean her death.
With close-ups of the protagonist’s face, Oh begins the story in medias res. The fact that there is very little set-up works to the film’s advantage.
Lietenant Kwon Min, “in charge of violent crimes from Seoul District National Police Agency,” has just one way of reaching the outside world: a Bluetooth device that only allows her to receive incoming calls, putting her at the mercy of others. Her phone lays at her feet—unreachable despite its close proximity.
The rich sound design enhances the thematic elements and adds to the tension. From the radio program left on in Min’s abandoned car to the buzzing of insects to the pounding, electronic soundtrack, diegetic and non-diegetic sound play an important role.
For a while, there is only silence and the sounds of insects, punctuated by occasional announcements broadcast over South Korean loudspeakers to the North Korean citizens: “Dear North Koreans, we have looked into how the privacy of South Korean citizens is being respected and protected. We sincerely wish for the day that North Korea’s citizens will live in liberty so that each individual’s privacy will not be violated as for our unified nation’s sake.” Totally exposed out in the open, Lieutenant Min has no privacy, no protection from her government, as her colleagues do not know exactly where she is.
This opinionated and strong young woman finds herself in this situation after trying to chase down escaped inmate Mr. Heo (Kim Joonseop). She is obviously a dedicated law enforcement officer, and her ever-increasing desperation becomes palpable as she tries to convince a strange Japanese-speaking woman (Masami Hirota) to hand her the phone using gestures. When Lieutenant Min and Mr. Heo finally meet again, it is an inevitable but satisfying turn of events. As the main antagonist, however, Mr. Heo comes off as a caricature. With his constant movie references and bumbling personality, he never comes across as a real threat. Poor acting makes it hard to believe he dismembered his victims.
Visually, the frenetic editing and camerawork fits with the chaos of the storyline, but some of it seems unpolished nonetheless. Narratively, some loose ends are never tied up. While there is interesting backstory between Min and a mysterious caller who clearly feels Min has wronged her, this relationship is never fully explored.
Still, Oh is able to continually ratchet up the tension in this movie, creating suspense throughout. Alfred Hitchcock described the difference between surprise and suspense thus: if the audience is watching a scene in which two people are talking in a café and then suddenly a bomb explodes, that’s surprise. It’s a fleeting emotion. But if the audience sees someone place a bomb under a café table and then see two people sit down at that table and begin chatting, that’s suspense. The audience wants to yell at the characters to stop chatting and get out of there before the bomb kills them! The bomb in this case is a literal minefield full of creative, quirky characters, all with their own hidden agendas.
With only a few actors and one location, Oh is able to craft a compelling, tense narrative that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. The DMZ is not without its flaws and has low production values, but the premise is brilliant, and its suspenseful narrative proves just how much can be accomplished on a low budget.