웰컴 투 동막골 (Wel-keom tu dong-mak-gol)
Director: Park Kwang-hyun (박광현)
Runtime: 133 min.
Cast: JUNG Jae-young (정재영), SHIN Ha-kyun (신하균), KANG Hye-jung (강혜정), IM Ha-ryong (임하룡)
September 1950 in Korea: The landings of the UN Allied Forces at Incheon have turned the tide of the war and sent the North Korean army into a headlong retreat. The North Korean soldiers find themselves under heavy fire while one depleted unit tries to make its way through the mountainous terrain back to Pyeongyang.
The film begins with the young woman Yeo-il (KANG Hye-jung) standing in an almost impossible green field, surrounded by wildflowers. She wears pretty daffodils in her hair and looks up at the sky (read: the camera) and smiles, then waves at the sky – or the camera, again. At that moment, a plane zooms over her head, and the camera suddenly cuts to Navy pilot Neil Smith (Steve Taschler). He crash-lands his plane and is then taken in by the people living in the small village Dongmakgol, who tend to his wounds, and despite the apparent language barrier, try their best to make him feel right at home. (Hilarity ensues, of course.)
Somewhere close to the village, a squad of desperate North Korean soldiers is retreating through the mountains, only to be blundering into a South Korean ambush. Only Commander Lee Su-hwa (JUNG Jae-young), Private Jang Young-hee (IM Ha-ryong), and the young soldier called Seo Taek-gi (RYU Deok-hwan) are left alive and manage to escape into the forest. This is where they meet Yeo-il, who then leads them to Dongmakgol. Things soon get ‘a little’ heated at the village when the two South Korean soldiers – deserters no less – Lieutenant Pyo Hyun-chul (SHIN Ha-kyun) and Medic Moon Sang-sang (SEO Jae-kyung) end up at Dongmakgol as well.
After an ‘intense’ – it quickly turns hilarious thanks to the granny of the village and the villagers’ matter-of-fact reactions – stand-off involving the soldiers, a stray hand grenade ends up destroying the village’s food storage. The heat then causes a cascade of popcorn to rain down on everyone, a truly iconic scene that isn’t just fun to see but also evokes a feeling of wonder and even magic.
The soldiers realize the severity of their actions and form a tentative truce, agreeing to work together to restock Dongmakgol’s food storage. While harvesting crops together, the North Korean commander Lee sums it up best: “In different circumstances, we would’ve had the greatest fun together.” In Dongmakgol, where ideology means nothing and the villagers live peacefully, and in harmony with each other, the soldiers finally understand they have more in common than they would’ve thought. Friends are formed, and together the soldiers face their first foe: a wild boar (and the excessive use of slow-motion).
At over two hours, Welcome to Dongmakgol is by no means a short film, yet it’s entertaining, and the runtime does not feel needlessly bloated. The score, composed by no other than long-time Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi (Spirited Away 2001, My Neighbor Totoro 1998), sets the mood and adds just the right amount of magic and wonder to the film, without ever distracting from the story. The people of Dongmakgol are blissfully unaware of the war raging on the Korean peninsula, have no clue about technology, and also (probably) have never stumbled upon an outsider. When confronted with the soldiers’ machine guns, they merely point out the ‘rudeness of pointing weird sticks in other people’s faces.’
From a technical standpoint, the special effects are somewhat lacking, even for the year 2005. The use of green screens and CGI may seem excessive and even over-the-top at times, but somehow this only adds to the film’s charm. This begs the question of whether the goofy-looking effects might have been intentional after all. Either way, the production has a lot going for it and includes truly magical scenes.
JUNG Jae-young (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance 2002) brings life to the stoic North Korean commander Lee in his own way, making him both fun and engaging. SHIN Ha-kyun (Joint Security Area 2000) quite literally ‘on the other side,’ delivers an excellent performance as well. Another standout is KANG Hye-jung’s (Oldboy 2003) childlike Yeo-il, the innocent, always smiling ‘village idiot’ – the physical embodiment of the film, so to speak.
Director KIM’s debut film attracted more than eight million people when first released in 2005, making it a huge commercial and critical success. The film is not so much about the reunification of South and North Korea but instead focuses on peace, using the conflict on the Korean peninsula to point out the pointlessness of war. Welcome to Dongmakgol is not your average ‘War Is Bad’-movie. It is an Anti-War-Comedy-Drama, which will evoke strong emotions and make you wonder what’s really important in life.