Welcome to Dongmakgol Review
It’s September 1950 in Korea and a turning point in the Korean war with the landing of UN Allied Forces at Incheon. As isolated pockets of the Communist People’s Army find themselves under heavy bombardment, one depleted unit of the North Korean army tries to make their way through the dangerous mountainous terrain back to Pyongyang, but along the way they meet a strange girl dancing through the undergrowth.
A couple of stray soldiers from the opposing National Army meanwhile also find themselves separated from their units and lost, until they also encounter a villager in the same remote region. Both groups of errant troops are brought back to an unknown village at the top of the mountain, which has been cut off from the rest of the world, the villagers unaware of the war that has been raging across the country. A simple people, they are even unaware of the ways of behaviour in the outside world. The village is called Dongmakgol, which means “carefree life”, but with opposing sides of the Korean conflict about to meet in their village, the simple, carefree life isn’t going to be around for much longer...
With an American pilot having just crashed in the region and the opposing sides of the Korean War also having their “representatives” all meeting together in the village, the story, based on a popular play by Jang Jin, sets itself up like an allegory of the conflict being waged in the outside world. A beautiful and peaceful land is thrown into turmoil by three different factions, who each have different ways of thinking. All of these ideologies, when the larger picture is reduced to a smaller scale, seem ridiculous and incongruous to a purer, simpler way of living, and the film is consequently similarly reductive. The initial clash of these different factions in the small village of Dongmakgol creates a particularly tense if predictable situation that, being too simplified to make any serious points, can at best be played for the comedy it presents. Those routines however are fairly limited to the villagers being totally naïve and innocent of the ways of the outside world, constantly deflating the ideological illusions and authoritative stance of the troops and rendering their actions ridiculous. And there you have it – War is Stupid.
This kind of situation is funny enough for a little while, allowing for plenty of quirkiness and character acting – the village Crazy Girl being particularly diverting - but it’s a rather limited set up and the film has to move on. Predictably, they each soon put their differences aside and start bonding, making amends for the destruction their actions have caused by helping the villagers out in the fields. Soon they are all playing American football and singing songs together around the fire. The all-pulling-together is rather obviously laid out with a few acts of selfless courage, particularly through one scene of a wild boar attack, unnecessarily drawn out to tedious length with overblown CGI effects and slow-motion, all to let the viewer know that deep down underneath the opposing uniforms they wear and behind the differences of beliefs, there are the same human qualities of decency and fairness in everyone. Subtle this ain’t. Nor is what follows particularly original. Inevitably the nasty outside world raises its ugly head and threatens to destroy their little mountain paradise.
Welcome to Dongmakgol is not without a certain charm and doesn’t overdo the quirky elements or lay on the sentiment too thick. It is fortunate enough in this respect to have a typically well-judged, sensitive and delicate score from Joe Hisaishi, the regular composer for Hayao Miyazaki ( Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away), that will be resounding in your head long after the final credits have finished. However, it’s plot is all unfortunately tediously predictable, with standard, stereotypical character types that make it difficult for the viewer to relate meaningfully to them in their predicament, since their characteristics and fate are broadly defined from their first moments on the screen. While there is no doubting the effectiveness of the tension that is generated in film’s closing scenes, the long drawn-out and inevitable progression of the film (at two and a quarter hours) to the spectacular blaze of glory finale only further undercuts any real sense of a lesson learnt - the action heroics being somewhat at odds with the “lets all live together in peace and harmony” message. Or perhaps Welcome To Dongmakgol is saying that such an ideal is improbable in the real world, in which case, it really does say nothing new at all.
Welcome To Dongmakgol is released in Korea by KD Media, as an inevitable 2-disc Special Edition. The DVD is in NTSC format and is encoded for Region 3.
I’m going to be a bit picky here and complain that the image here is perhaps rather too clear, sharp and highly contrasted. If you aren’t as picky, you’ll find little to fault here – skin tones are excellent, colours are accurate and well-defined, even blacks show better definition and detail than is usual on Korean NTSC transfers. It’s so sharp though that you could cut your eyes on it, and edge-enhancement is inevitably an issue here. Other than one or two minor dustspots that pop up now and again, there are no other flaws in the image, which remains stable and free from any compression artefacts.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is clear and bright and packs quite a punch in the loud explosive and action scenes. Dialogue is clear and well-defined, while Joe Hisaishi’s score is very well mixed across the soundscape. It perhaps lacks a certain warmth and is a little too clinical, but technically there is not much wrong with this at all.
There are some minor errors in spelling – a stray letter gets in here and there - and there is an occasional line in broken English, but for the most part, it’s perfectly intelligible in proper English. There are a few scenes of English dialogue among the UN Allied Forces, and these are also subtitled in English. The subtitles are of course optional (in white font), so they can be switched on and off manually as required.
Disc One contains a director and cast Commentary for the film, which is of course in Korean without subtitles. The remainder of the extra features are on Disc Two, again, none of which have English subtitles. The Making Of (18:57) shows script rehearsals, action choreography and behind the scenes footage of the filming. Welcome to Dongmakgol (2:50) takes a look at the creation of the design and scripts for the film’s opening title sequence. Boogie Woogie (3:31) is another behind the scenes featurette on the recording and filming of the “hit song” sequence of the film. Thirteen selections from Joe Hsiaishi’s Original Soundtrack score can be directly accessed with the scene from which it is taken shown in letterboxed format. It is not an isolated score however, so I’m not sure what the purpose was in providing it this way. As another opportunity to sample the beautiful score though, it has some value and doesn’t need subtitles to enjoy. The Fellowship of the Dongmakgol (3:19) appears to be a screen/location test for the troops lost in the mountain scenes. Computer Graphic (5:23) is another extra feature requiring no explanation or subtitles, showing the before and after layering of computer effects on scenes. Poster Making Film (3:32) shows the photo session for the poster art and other promotional stills which are used extensively on the DVD packaging and menus. This is nice. The Theatrical Trailer (2:14) is included in non-anamorphic widescreen and is rather filled with spoilers. Likewise the Music Video (2:53), which is basically just an extended version of the trailer, set to Hsaishi’s score. There’s another chance to listen to the score (they certainly make the most of it) in the slideshow presentation of Photo Gallery (3:34), which shows a good selection of 16:9 images.
One of the biggest hits at the Korean box-office in 2005, Welcome To Dongmakgol is an entertaining, likeable and fairly undemanding film that has a certain quirky charm as long as you aren’t expecting it to have any deep or meaningful points to make about the Korean War or war in general. It does pile on the cliché’s and stereotypical characters who are all decent at heart, and it does have some dubious pacing and use of CGI - but as a first film it’s a solid debut effort from director Park Kwang-hyun, one that was well received in Korea, winning numerous awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best New Director, Best Writer, Best Music and Best Supporting Actress at the 2005 Korean Film Awards. The Korean R3 DVD presents the film very well, with a fine transfer and a selection of extra features which are worth looking through, even though they don’t contain English subtitles.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:19:04