"Lieutenant Kwon, if you really want to be rescued you might want to think about asking more politely..."


Heo (Kim Joon-seob) is a career criminal convicted of multiple murders and dismemberments, but though he openly admits to cutting up corpses he is absolutely adamant that he is not a serial killer. When he finds a way to escape his incarceration he of course instantly goes on the run, heading to an area close to the DMZ quickly and hotly pursued by lieutenant Kwon Min-in (Joo Min-ha) - a no-nonsense female detective in charge of violent crimes at the Seoul District National Police Agency.
However, hot weather conditions have resulted in a proliferation of bees hovering around the area and in the midst of her ‘hunt’ while trying to avoid being stung, lieutenant Kwon inadvertently steps on an unexploded mine. Having dropped her phone in the process and unable to contact her superiors or colleagues, lieutenant Kwon has little option but to try not to move at all cost and wait in the hope that a random passer-by will be able to help in her rescue. The problem is, the ‘passers by' she is soon to come into contact with are as likely to want to see her harmed as helped...


The DMZ opens to show lieutenant Kwon already standing on the unexploded mine, trying to explain her situation on her phone via a Bluetooth earpiece and being met with only a reaction of confusion and indeed incredulity. Dropping us in at the deep end, so to speak, to this scene easily succeeds in drawing viewers in from the very outset and virtually guarantees the question of how lieutenant Kwon got herself into this predicament will spring almost instantly to mind; viewer interest secured, in the process.
No sooner does that thought pop into the mind, we are presented with a brief title screen and the narrative quickly jumps back in time to answer that very question; our full introduction to lieutenant Kwon and Heo in her frenetic pursuit of him (filmed with handheld camerawork) near the Demilitarized Zone setting up the full (at least initial) character hierarchy of hunter and hunted, as well as ensuring that later ‘cat and mouse’ elements and switches in power between the two are wholly successful and even striking by their very inversion and indeed toing and froing.

At this point, still only a few minutes of the film's running time have transpired and from the moment we see lieutenant Kwon take that fateful step on to the mine – an ominous 'click' sound alerting her to the danger she's suddenly in – until virtually the 30 minute mark only she and she alone is on screen, obviously rooted in place by necessity. It would be easy to (wrongly) assume that a film wholly centred on one character forced to stand stationary for this length of time, and indeed a large portion of the entire running time, might perhaps have difficulty holding in holding viewer attention, but in this case that really isn't an issue in any respect. The decision to have a single character as the only focus for such a period (her face often almost full frame) shows the confidence director Oh In-chun has in his art and actress Joo Min-ha's abilities and certainly in the case of The DMZ that confidence is well placed. Verbal interactions (often humorous, from a viewer perspective) such as a call to the Seoul District National Police Agency in which the person lieutenant Kwon is speaking to berates her for her rudeness and suggests that if she really wants to be rescued she should consider being a bit more polite, regardless of the fact she's standing on a mine; repeated tiny unfortunate events that are massive calamities to lieutenant Kwon in her situation; our heroine’s absolutely palpable, increasing frustration; and her confusion as to whether people she thinks she hears in the area should be beckoned to help or warned to stay away all combine with perfect pacing, brisk editing of often quickly changing camera angles (and indeed an impressive performance by actress Joo Min-ha) to ensure that not one second drags and not one moment of screen time is wasted.
Certainly by the time the first of two other characters that will interact with lieutenant Kwon in person appears, I was aware she had been alone on screen for a fairly long time but that thought really did only occur in hindsight, and my checking that we were at the 30 minute mark was only done for the purpose of this review. Long story short, if you want to see how a stationary actress can own every frame in which she appears; camerawork that wholly allows her to do so within a narrative that is entirely engaging, then The DMZ is close to the perfect example. Whether Oh In-chun's original decision to write a story and make a film set in one small area with a largely non-moving character was a result of budget worries or constraints is neither here nor there, for there is a huge amount to be said for a film that can truly be deemed an action thriller in which the main character is forced to be sedentary for the vast majority of the running time.

The final of the two in-person interactions lieutenant Kwon has is by far the strongest. That's not a criticism of the other, it's just that this last interaction is essentially where the narrative has been heading from the outset. There is a noticeable chemistry between the two characters involved, in spite of them loathing and utterly distrusting each other, and their cat and mouse game of hunter and hunted (and vice versa) ultimately feels like a tension-filled verbal game of poker.
The DMZ’s quiet to vicious and explosive coda ramps things up to the nth degree as well as giving context and closure to an earlier phone interaction left hanging and adding a little more depth to lieutenant Kwon’s back-story, in the process. While I should have perhaps seen it coming, the ultimate conclusion to the narrative was unpredicted, and that too speaks of The DMZ’s ability to both immerse and surprise.


With The DMZ, director Oh In-chun has created a highly engaging, even gripping action thriller, but it is his success in bringing ‘cat and mouse’ elements to a narrative wholly centred on one character forced to stand stationary for the vast majority of the running time – and entirely holding viewers’ attention throughout, in the process – that is truly deserving of praise and indeed accolades.

THE DMZ (데스트랩 / 2018)
Director: Oh In-chun
Starring: Joo Min-ha, Kim Joon-seob and Hirota Masami


All images © Kinema Factory, Little Big Pictures
Review © Paul Quinn