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Welcome to Dongmakgol
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Shin Ha-Kyun, Kang Hye-Jung, and Jung Jae-Young in Welcome to Dongmakgol.
  Korean: 웰컴 투 동막골
Year: 2005  
Director: Park Kwang-Hyeon  
  Cast: Jung Jae-Young, Shin Ha-Kyun, Kang Hye-Jung, Im Ha-Ryong, Ryoo Deok-Hwan, Seo Jae-Gyung, Steve Taschler
  The Skinny: This box office and critical success about soldiers escaping the horrors of war in an idyllic mountain village is a welcome breath of fresh air sure to elicit not only a genuine emotional response, but ample belly laughs as well, perhaps even from the most jaded filmgoer. It recalls the best of Kurosawa, Miyazaki, and even Stephen Chow, but still provides enough of its own identity to succeed as a film in its own right. A definite crowdpleaser.
Review by Calvin McMillin:

Korean cinema gets a much-needed shot in the arm with Welcome to Dongmakgol, an exhilarating, transcendent anti-war film that marks the impressive directorial debut of filmmaker Park Kwang Hyeon. Set amidst the backdrop of the Korean War, this box office and critical smash explores the converging paths of a group of bitter enemies, who find more than they bargained for in the peaceful mountain village of Dongmakgol.

This accidental "gathering" begins when a U.S. pilot named Smith (Steve Taschler) crash lands on the outskirts of Dongmakgol, and is taken in by the locals, who despite some hilarious language difficulties, try their best to make the American feel right at home. Smith is soon joined by the last surviving members of a doomed platoon of North Korean soldiers - Commander Lee Su-Hwa (Jung Jae-Young), Private Jang (Im Ha-Ryong), and patriotic teen soldier Taek-Ki (Ryoo Deok-Hwan), all of whom end up following a spaced out villager named Yeo Il (Kang Hye-Jung) back to the village. Of course, the North Koreans get a little hot under the collar when two South Korean soldiers - Lieutenant Pyo Hyun-Chul (Shin Ha-Kyun) and the comical medic Moon (Seo Jae-Gyung) - end up at the peaceful hamlet as well. The villagers, who don't have a clue that war is ravaging their country, are left wondering just what all the fuss is about.

After an intense standoff involving the soldiers that quickly turns hilarious thanks to the bewildered, matter-of-fact reactions of the villagers, a stray hand grenade ends up destroying the village's food stores in a popcorn-infused blaze of glory. Realizing the severity of their actions, the two sides form a tentative truce, agreeing to help the villagers restock the warehouse. Although puzzled by the villagers' way of life, the soldiers soon understand that they have found a kind of utopia, where ideology means nothing and the sins of the past can be left far, far behind. But just as they start to settle into this peaceful new world, outside forces threaten to destroy Dongmakgol. Yet even if the soldiers can join forces to protect their new friends, will they survive? Will Dongmakgol?

Based on the play by Jang Jin and featuring a score by Joe Hisaishi, Welcome to Dongmakgol is a total film experience - you'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll definitely be engaged, that's for sure. It's the kind of anti-war film that feels neither heavy-handed nor facile. Despite its setting, it's not so much a movie about Korean reunification, but instead focuses on the idea of peace in general, using the North and South conflict as a way to point out the absurdity of war. But again, it does so without preaching.

What is perhaps most striking about Welcome to Dongmakgol is its ample use of humor and magical realism to weave its charming little tale. Although "serious" in its message, the film balances its more sober aspects with a healthy dose of comedy. In some ways, the film feels like a successful gag-a-minute comedy, whose jokes are too numerous to mention here, but never seem to fall flat. One standout sequence in the film is the impromptu slow-motion boar hunt, which left this viewer, and perhaps the entire theater as well, laughing for the entirety of its duration. Again, it's something that has to be seen to be believed, and it's a credit to the filmmakers (and the actors too) that they would include such an over-the-top CGI-laden interlude (one that wouldn't look out of place in Kung Fu Hustle), yet still retain the overall realist bent. Part of the reason for this has to be because the scene serves a purpose beyond eliciting chuckles - it marks the beginning of true camaraderie between the rival soldiers. And besides, by that point, Welcome to Dongmakgol can do no wrong.

The performances are pitch-perfect, from the leads down to the supporting cast, with Jung Jae-Young's conflicted North Korean commander and Kang Hye-Jung's childlike Yeo-Il being the standouts. And while Americans are usually given the short shrift, even Steve Taschler's Smith (or "Su Mi Su" as the villagers call him) figures heavily into the narrative, becoming an active participant in the plot even though his character has no idea what anyone is saying. Within the time allotted, the filmmakers do their best to make the characters well-rounded, particularly the soldiers.

Although Park Kwang-Hyeon cites Miyazaki as an influence (a visible one in the film, to be sure), there's another Japanese filmmaker that he echoes, particularly in the rousing finale. When the men end up strapping on their weapons and fighting the good fight for the sake of the village, the sequence calls to mind The Seven Samurai. But instead of feeling perfunctory or contrived, there's a sense of true fellowship that comes right through the screen thanks not only to the performances of the actors involved, but all that has come before. It's a triumphant conclusion, even in its inevitably tragic outcome.

Ultimately, watching Welcome to Dongmakgol is an experience that mirrors the feelings of the characters it depicts. Like the soldiers in the film, the audience will likely find that they don't want their time in Dongmakgol to end. I certainly didn't, and am eagerly awaiting the next film from its talented young director. If it's even half as good as Welcome to Dongmakgol, then it'll be worth the wait. (Calvin McMillin, 2005)


26th Blue Dragon Awards
• Winner - Best Supporting Actor (Im Ha-Ryong)
• Winner - Best Supporting Actress (Kang Hye-Jung)

Availability: DVD (Korea)
Region 3 NTSC
KD Media
2-DVD Set
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Korean Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English subtitles
Various Extras
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

image courtesy of Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen