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  • 15
  • Comedy, Drama
  • 2005
  • 133 mins

Welcome To Dongmakgol

Welcome To Dongmakgol

Synopsis

A magical realist debut film from Kwang-Hyun Park imagines a haven of peace in the midst of the Korean War

About

Though the violent conflict between the North and South Koreans may have dissolved into a fragile ceasefire in 1953, it has never been officially declared over, but continues to this day as a cold war dividing the peninsula.

Over the last decade, South Korean cinema has begun to prod at this open wound in the national consciousness. First Jang Jin's The Spy (1999), Kang Je-Gyu's Shiri (1999), Chan-Wook Park's JSA (2000) and Kim Ki-Duk's The Coast Guard (2002) all explored contemporary North/South tensions; and then along came Kang Je-Gyu's sweeping civil war epic Taegukgi (2004), which addressed with an unprecedented directness the bloody 1950-1953 period. It went on to become the Republic's highest grossing film of all time. Now Kwang-Hyun Park's feature debut Welcome To Dongmakgol treats the same period, but moves from Taegukgi's harsh realism into altogether more allegorical terrain.

During the chaos of the US-led assault on Inchon in September 1950, fate conspires to bring three fleeing Communists soldiers (Jeong, Im, Ryu), two men gone AWOL from the Southern forces (Shin, Seo) and a downed American pilot (Taschler) to the isolated mountain village of Dongmakgol, whose inhabitants live in blissful ignorance of the war around them.

The soldiers quickly engage in a tense Mexican stand-off, but after one of their grenades accidentally destroys the community's food storehouse, they agree to help rebuild and restock it, shamed into an uneasy truce by the generosity and decency of their hosts. As they work together in the fields and gradually assimilate to village life, the six men's affection both for the community and for each other grows, until an unexpected threat from outside leads them to make a last stand for what they have come to value.

If the brutalities of war with which Welcome To Dongmakgol begins and ends seem real enough, Dongmakgol itself is a place of fantasy, where idealism, nostalgia and unadulterated innocence have created a heaven on earth. This quiet retreat from the rigours of combat, whose cheery denizens mistake guns for sticks and grenades for potatoes, is an agrarian utopia, offering an alternative vision of Korean brotherhood and peace amidst so much strife. It is a fragile repository for a nation's dreams of a better life - and while its inhabitants are naïve to the point of madness, this is no more absurd, yet far more salutary, than the mad bloodlust of their fellow countrymen, and of the outside forces (the US, China) that play both sides like puppets.

So Welcome To Dongmakgol is an unapologetically sentimental work, reminiscent of Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937) or Aleksandr Rogozhkin's The Cuckoo (2003) in the way that it dresses up a humanist, anti-war message in the guise of magical realist fable. Park has accentuated the hyper reality of his Shangri-la by subtly tweaking its colours, and adding a host of computer-generated butterflies (whose significance only becomes clear towards the end). The director has an eye for memorable images, whether it is the slow-motion shower of popcorn that follows the storehouse's explosion, or the half-glimpsed onslaught of an otherworldly boar whose arrival foreshadows another external peril that will rally the soldiers in defence of the village.

Welcome To Dongmakgol features fine performances, especially from Jeong as the battle-weary 'High Comrade', and Hye-Jeong Kang (Oldboy) as crazy local girl Yeo-Il. Really the only disappointment, apart from some ropey CGI in the climactic battle sequence, is the overwhelming emotionalism of Joe Hisaishi's full orchestral soundtrack, driving an already pathos-laden film to near intolerable levels of mawkishness. Still, it is a beautiful, at times funny, and deeply affecting piece of cinema.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Ha-kyun Shin, Hye-Jeong Kang, Ha-Ryong Lim, Jae-Kyeong Seo, Deok-Hwan Ryu, Jae-Yeong Jeong, Steve Taschler
  • Director: Kwang-Hyun Park
  • Screen Writer: Joong Kim, Kwang-Hyun Park, Jin Jang
  • Writer (Play): Jin Jang
  • Producer: Sang-Jun Ma, Jin Jang, Sang-Ho Choi, Seng-Yong Ji, Eun-Ha Lee
  • Photographer: Sang-Ho Choi
  • Composer: Joe Hisaishi

In a nutshell

Korea's answer to Shangri-la is well worth a visit.

by Anton Bitel

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