Monday, February 23, 2015

Review: WELCOME TO DONGMAKGOL Is a Surreal Anti-War Drama

By Chris Horn

There is perhaps no region better suited to make a unique anti-war film than Korea, a country itself split and in a constant state of escalated threats of renewed warfare. Not quite content to make a film weighed down by excessive melodrama, new director Park Kwang-hyun made a splash in 2005 with his quirky, surreal adaptation of Jang Jin’s well-regarded play Welcome to Dongmakgol. Though imperfect, this feature film debut ultimately proves more memorable than most other anti-war films that pile on the misery.

Taking place in 1950 right in the midst of the Korean War after the UN landings at Incheon have turned the tide of the war, we are introduced to a disparate cast of characters. Captain Neil Smith (Steve Taschler) is a US Navy pilot who crash lands near a remote village. Meanwhile, North Korean stragglers try to find their way back north, including the fatherly sergeant Jang Young-hee (Im Ha-ryong) and the young, hot-headed Seo Taek-gi (Ryu Deok-hwan). The pair are led by Rhee Soo-hwa (Jung Jae-young), himself a man not fully confident in his ability to carry out orders that harm his soldiers. Finally we meet two South Korean deserters, Pyo Hyon-chul (Shin Ha-kyun) and Moon Sang-sang (Seo Jae-kyung).

All of these men, unwitting allies and fierce enemies, unknowingly follow paths or others to the remote village of Dongmakgol. The villagers of Dongmakgol live an idyllic life, wholly unaware of the raging war and the weapons used to fight it. The happily oblivious village is best personified by a strange girl named Yeo-il (Kang Hye-jeong) who floats from scene to scene like an odd butterfly. After an extended (and humorous) stand-off between the Korean soldiers ends in the accidental destruction of the village food stores, the unlikely bunch must work together to help replenish the food stocks. At the same time, US forces are still trying to track down their fallen comrade and their rescue mission might yield dire consequences for Dongmakgol.

Welcome to Dongmakgol’s greatest strength might be its commitment to building a surreal environment in which its characters can work out their feelings on the war. Yeo-il is the primary catalyst for the events of the film, witnessing both Smith’s plane crash and leading the North Korean soldiers to Dongmakgol. Her kind and at times other-worldly behavior (such as pulling the pin on a grenade thinking it is just a ring) not only brings them together in the same space, but forces them to work together and in turn become comrades.

And just like Yeo-il there is something just a little off with the quaint little village. Strange lanterns on the outskirts of Dongmakgol and swarms of butterflies in the skies above provide some indication that this town isn’t just a run-of-the-mill mountain village. War, violence, technology and hatred are conspicuously absent. Even when the grenade inadvertently explodes and destroys the food supplies, the resultant heat causes a cascade of popcorn to rain down on everyone. One might be forgiven for getting Hiyao Miyazaki-esque vibes from this film and sure enough long-time Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi scored this film as well. Everything combines excellently to provide an extraordinary place to break down prejudices, examine the war and come to terms with violence.

However, Park Kwang-hyun’s feature film debut is not without its faults. One major downside of the film is its rather ham-fisted portrayal of US forces, who primarily represent the threat of war and violence. This simplified comparison is made through various stilted scenes featuring actors angrily emoting about disregarding lives for the sake of a mission. It’s not a theme that is handled as skillfully as one might hope and this really could have been done with equal effect and less screen time. That may be the main flaw of Welcome to Dongmakgol: for all that this film says it could have been almost thirty minutes shorter. Alternatively, Park could have used some of that time to more deeply explore the characters and their evolving relationships. Either way, some scenes such as the standoff and the slow motion boar attack sequence really overstay their welcome and detract from the overall effect.

In the end Park Kwang-hyun leaves us with a very memorable anti-war comedic drama, an impressive feature film debut and a successful adaptation that deserves its status as a modern Korean classic. If for no other reason, Welcome to Dongmakgol earns its praise for injecting not only dreamlike surrealism but also lighthearted comedy into a genre that is predominantly dour.


This review also appeared on

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  1. I remember watching this movie in a theater when it first came out years ago.

    I thought that the rapprochement between the two Koreas that was going on at the time when the movie was made was a sham; and I found the anti-Americanism among Koreans at the time particularly despicable. So, colored with this perspective, when I saw the scene where the American servicemen were portrayed as savages who would willingly kill civilians, I walked out of the theater.

    It wasn't until a few years later when I watched the movie again - this time after the Sunshine Policy was dead and buried. A part of me felt vindicated, both for my political views and the ham-fisted portrayal. Another part of me enjoyed the movie, but there was a little voice at the back of my mind that kept saying "what a pity."

    I thought that it could have been great, but it allowed the politics of the day to prevent that.

  2. Thank you for your comment John!

    I also considered the time period of the film and the 2002 play it was adapted from. I think you're right that this film strong reflects the politics of the day and that the film was at its strongest before the American mission landed. I think a little less politics and a little more weirdness, especially more use of Yeo-il, could have made the film more effective.

  3. Just watched this and it's pretty amazingly anti-American, although the presence of benevolent Lt. Smith undercuts that somewhat.

    You know, of course some ugly things happened in the Korean War. Of course there were atrocities. But we saved South Korea from being under the thumb of the Kims, did we not?