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CD Reviews: Joint Security Area and Great Science Fiction Blockbusters

Joint Security Area *** 1/2



Joint Security Area (2000) broke the domestic box office record in South Korea and greatly contributed to the emergence of Korean cinema as the next "Asian wave," (following the decline of Hong Kong cinema in late- '90s). The film's title refers to a narrow strip of lands inside the demilitarized zone jointly patrolled by North and South Korean soldiers. The story concerns a South Korean soldier accused of infiltrating the border and killing two North Koreans -- this event naturally threatens to become an international security risk. A female officer from Switzerland is sent to discreetly investigate the incident. However, she soon discovers that the accused soldier harbors a grave secret. Framed as a murder-mystery, Joint Security Area combines a polished, sophisticated exterior with a passionate narrative that asks the true meaning of friendship and hatred, and deals with the ultimate cost of living under the constant threat of warfare.

The score for Joint Security Area is a similarly sophisticated effort. Until recently, most Korean films were almost exclusively scored with endlessly recyclable "romantic" music, dripping with saccharine sentiments. "Film soundtrack" invariably meant "compilation of pop tunes." JSA goes firmly against this trend. The supremely talented director Park Chan-wook (who also directed Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, possibly the most extreme revenge drama in movie history -- it makes Se7en look like The Sound of Music) decided to forego grandiloquence or monumentalism of a symphonic score and instead went for the composer Bang Jun-seok's fascinating blend of ethnic music; intimate adaptations of classical and folk pieces; and tense, spare incidental cues that zero on the emotional turmoil of the main characters. The main title, "Barricade," "Reed Forest" and other cues are predominantly ethnic in flavor, with Sufi-like chanting and percussion -- these represent the "murder-mystery" angle. The core identity of the score, however, is found in the simple but haunting cues adapted from the existing music: the beautiful, heartbreaking solo piano that accompanies scenes of the Korean soldiers frolicking like children is from Henry Purcell's minuet ("Story of the Soldiers"; the unforgettable "snapshot" that ends the film is scored with a Russian folk song arranged for an orchestra ("Those Who Are Forgotten"). Bookending these diverse choices are two terrific folk-style songs ("The Song of a Private" and "An Unsent Letter") by Kim Kwang-seok, whose suicide and cult status among the conscripted soldiers in South Korea serve as a plot point. Even though lyrics are in Korean, Kim Kwang-seok's songs are highly accessible.
Although not really a showcase for an epic score, Joint Security Area is mounted with a sophisticated musical design that effectively addresses various genre-specific elements of the movie. The only component of the score that's missing from the CD is the snare-drum-based, military-on-the-move material.

The "enhanced" JSA album comes with a preview trailer and music video for "The Song of a Private" that can be played in a CD-ROM drive. Both give away far too much about the film and are not recommended viewing unless you've already seen the actual movie. CJ Entertainment has put together a fabulous Superbit presentation of the movie with excellent English subtitles on DVD, region coded for 1 and 3: it can be ordered from and (not to be confused with the Hong Kong-produced version, which is cheaper but has an inferior transfer). The CD itself may be purchased through a specialty store, or from internet venues such as or    -- Kyu Hyun Kim

Great Science Fiction Blockbusters **


Varèse Sarabande 302 066 399

12 tracks - 53:00

Remember the early days when "sampler" discs appeared like unwanted weeds? Varèse put together some of these (remember Hollywood Backlot?) and in 1994 began on a more ambitious series of re-recordings. The Seattle Symphony began the series and was later replaced with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Indeed, Varèse seemed to have all but given up on the sampler format after 1998, though there was the combination of newly-recorded and OST tracks for their The Phantom Menace and Other Film Hits release. This past fall, however the label turned up several samplers, one of which is Great Science Fiction Blockbusters.

Of the 12 tracks included, five are from the original soundtracks (The Matrix, Total Recall, Aliens, Starship Troopers and The Abyss). "Main Title/Trinity Infinity" from The Matrix was on the Phantom Menace compilation, and it's one of the better cues from the score. The other disc excerpts have appeared on other sci-fi compilations, but these choices are a bit less common. There are samples from Varèse's Star Trek, Back to the Future and Battlestar Galactica CDs. The last time the latter appeared on a sci-fi disc was on a Boston Pops disc on Phillips, unless one counts the numerous Silva incarnations. In addition, there's the "Space Station Docking" from Goldsmith's re-recording of Alex North's 2001. The other tracks have been lifted from the yearly Hollywood series. If this is supposed to compete with Silva's sci-fi compilations, it will only do so as far as price goes, and in most cases with its slightly better performances.

The programming of the album is at times neither chronological nor comprehensible. Was Judge Dredd really a blockbuster? In some ways (and knowing the Varèse catalog), these choices are a bit strange. Most FSM readers could probably burn this same disc using their own collection, and even add another 20-25 minutes of appropriate music to boot. Then again, we're probably not the true target audience of this kind of release. Hopefully, if this is a series that is to continue, Varèse will be a bit more bold and generous in its choices.  -- Steven A. Kennedy

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