Welcome to Dongmakgol Review
“Welcome to Dongmakgol” was released in 2005 and was actually the Korean contender for best foreign movie at the 2006 Academy Awards - unfortunately it did not get nominated. As a movie fan I try and blinker myself from those annoying trailers that give the whole movie away and with this release I went one step further and did not do any research regarding the content of this movie at all - I simply knew that it was very well received following its release. I have to say that it was a wonderful experience to just watch this surprisingly beautiful movie without too much background knowledge.
The strong cast includes Jae-yeong Jeong (“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”); Hye-jeong Kang (“Oldboy”); Steve Taschler (obviously not Korean!) and Ha-kyun Shin (“Save the Green Planet”) who provide most of the “serious” acting. In support (although also prominent characters in the movie) are Ha-ryong Kim, Jae-kyeong Seo and Deok-Hwan Ryu with their own subplots (which are mostly trivial) and who generally add personality and humour to the proceedings. And finally an ensemble of supporting actors who do a fine job portraying the isolated villagers of “Dongmakgol”.
The movie is set during the Korean War with the battling raging for control of the country following the North Korean People's Army (KPA) invasion of the South on June 25th 1950. An American reconnaissance fighter plane crash lands around the mountainous 38th parallel (north) in Korea, which is the location of the original border between north and south prior to the introduction of the demilitarised zone. The pilot, Smith (Taschler), is badly injured but is mercifully rescued and nursed back to health by the kind villagers of Dongmakgol. Meanwhile, a short but explosive gunfight is taking place nearby between two rival factions from the North and South. Following this encounter the survivors scatter in retreat. Noble second lieutenant Pyo (Shin), who has deserted his post, and Medical officer Sang-sang (Jae-kyeong Seo), both from South Korea's Republic of Korea Army (ROK), meet in the aftermath of this battle and happen across a lone peasant who offers them refuge in his village. The surviving KPD contingent, lead by Chief Comrade Su-Hwa (Jeong) and including two loyal soldiers; Young-hee (Lim) and Taek-ki (Ryu), trek through the treacherous terrain of the 38th parallel, also completely lost. They're rescued following the appearance of a very strange and seemingly touched young woman by the name of Yeo-Il (Kang), who educates them on the dangers of snakes in the area and for their safety escorts them back to her idyllic mountain top village.
Of the course these two seemingly simple and innocent peasants live in the same village (Dongmakgol) and all hell breaks loose when the two opposite factions find themselves face to face with the hapless villagers stuck in the middle. The strange villagers of “Dongmakgol” are completely oblivious to the miniature war zone that their village has become and carry on with their normal tasks. With increasing frustration at their lack of compliance, or realisation of the danger that they face, the KPD High Comrade orders them to put their hands up and the bemused villagers comply obediently with his request. However, they remain completely unaware of the instantaneous death that the various instruments of war levelled in their direction could inflict upon them. Following an extended and amusing standoff resulting in a stalemate, the two rival camps put their differences aside and settle down to assist the villagers to replenish their food supplies, as their food storage hut was the only causality following the conflict between the KPD and ROK soldiers.
It transpires that the inhabitants of Dongmakgol are actually completely isolated from the outside world and have no idea that a war is raging to decide the fate of their divided country. With no concept of guns, war, hatred or politics these simple villagers live their life in harmony with each other and the bamboo forests that surround their secluded abode. With nothing but goodness in their soles they muse over the consequences of losing their entire food supply and with winter fast approaching calmly ponder the hunger that they will face. Even though the soldiers destroyed their food stocks, the villagers offer them the remainder of their dwindling supplies, exhibiting no anger towards these alien intruders. The Korean soldiers, with the help of Smith, assist the villagers to harvest their potato crops and rebuild an improved storage shed. The more time that these soldiers spend in the village, the more they envy the villager's simple way of life and become increasingly repulsed at the thoughts of returning to the harsh realities of the war. Even Smith falls in love with Dongmakgol (and her people) and forms a bond with his new Korean comrades. This clever situation allows the personalities of these soldiers to shine through and with the barriers of North and South (and indeed language) forgotten, they become equals and friends. As the movie progresses this ragtag bunch, who would have willingly slaughtered in each other on the battlefield, pull together and are gradually assimilated into the village, becoming part of the community.
Unfortunately the American Allies (assisting the ROK) are on the hunt for Smith and suspect that an enemy aircraft base is located in the area where they lost contact with their fighter pilot (having previously lost three fighter jets in the area). They decide to locate Smith, who had sent out a distress call prior to his acceptance of his new way of life, and send in a rescue team with plans to bomb the entire location after twenty four hours. As the rescue team parachute in they are swarmed upon by the prevalent butterflies who reside in Dongmakgol, causing many to fall to their death. The butterflies are part of the mysticism that appears to have protected the villagers, and the village itself, from harm through eternity. The survivors make their way to Smith's location and brutally interrogate the innocent villagers who act to conceal their newest members. Thwarting the rescue teams progression and realising that the sanctuary of their new found family under threat the KPA, ROK and American additions to Dongmakgol cast off their village garb, don their army colours once more and leave the village. Creating a decoy that Rambo would be proud of, this handful of brave soldiers, who were once sworn enemies, fight together to repel the fleet of bombers in a stunningly explosive finale.
With some of the most impressive cinematography I have witnessed since “House of Flying Daggers”, in conjunction with Park's ability to create an enchanting atmosphere, “Dongmakgol” is an absolutely beautiful movie. There are hints of “Spirited Away” type wonder at times, which is a compliment to this production, and one can clearly see that Park has drawn inspiration from the other movies directed by Hayao Miyazaki. From the scenic mountain-scapes to the lush bamboo forests, there is plenty of eye candy on display. In stark contrast to this beauty are the war sequences, with even the soldiers' weapons and uniforms appearing ugly and harsh when compared to the tranquil village setting. The score is superb and really adds to the mystical nature of this presentation and can also evoke emotion when required. The score actually sounded very familiar and initially I thought that it was from “Platoon” or another similar American war effort. After some research I discovered that the composer for “Dongmakgol” also penned the score for “Howl's Moving Castle” and I have to admit that the two are very similar in parts. This is not a complaint though, merely an observation. The cast are also particularly strong, especially Jae-yeong Jeong and Ha-kyun Shin, who give very impressive performances and portray the tension between their two characters extremely well. The village contingent are also convincing as the innocent and isolated people who literally have war dropped on their doorstep. As is the case with most Korean movies the almost slapstick comedy from Young-hee, Taek-ki and Sang-sang can be a little silly at times but doesn't detract from the overall experience. Aside from these infrequent instances of ham, this movie is surprisingly funny, and I mean laugh out loud funny, with the hapless villagers and warring soldiers providing plenty of instances of humour. The acting from the American soldiers and their English speaking Korean allies can push the boundaries of acceptability at times but thankfully they don't feature too often in the movie.
“Dongmakgol” is an absolutely charming movie and was one of the most enjoyable Asian releases that I have seen in a long time. The magical nature of the eponymous, timeless village (and the villagers interaction with their visitors) is incredibly well constructed by first time director Kwang-Hyun Park, who utilises a clever mix of visual flourishes (such as point of view camerawork) and a suitable score that really serve to enhance the almost fairytale nature of this movie. The entire presentation is supported by a unique and compelling plot. With a strong anti-war theme running throughout the message that Park is trying to get across is obvious. There are also elements depicting the folly of war, with some of the Northern contingent not even realising who invaded who first. The KPA has the fourth largest army in the world today and with the possible threat of nuclear mobilisation, this movie serves as a grim reminder of the heartache and tragedy that war can produce, more often than not irreversibly destroying innocence and ruining lives.