“Welcome to Dongmakgol” proved to be the sleeper Korean hit of 2005, earning enough to become the fourth biggest grossing domestic film of all time, as well as being chosen as the country’s entry for the Oscars. However, the film’s success has not spread beyond its native shores, having been ignored by international festivals and failing to generate the same kind of interest as the likes of “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance”, which “Dongmakgol” far out-grossed at the box office. Perhaps the main reason for this is the fact that “Dongmakgol” is essentially a nationalistic piece, a cry for unity and a nostalgic look back at a highly idealised time of peaceful and prosperous rural existence.
Unfortunately for foreign viewers or those unfamiliar with Korean history, these factors do little to hide the film’s glaring faults, chief amongst which is an over reliance on predictable cliché and a plot whose conclusion is glaringly obvious from the first frame. Despite this, and some stunningly hideous Western acting from the film’s only major American character, “Welcome to Dongmakgol” remains an entertaining and genuinely heartfelt film, though one which fails to engage or ring true.
The film is set in the 1950s, following the U.S. landing at Incheon, when a group of fleeing communist soldiers led by Lee Su-hwa (Jeong Jae-yeong, also in the excellent “Silmido”) come across a strange girl named Yeo-il (played by Kang Hye-jeong, from “Oldboy”) in the mountain forests. Yeo-il leads the North Koreans to the titular village of Dongmakgol , a place seemingly untouched by the outside world and completely oblivious to the ongoing Korean War. On arrival, the soldiers are even more surprised to find South Korean soldiers Sgt. Pyo (Shin Ha-kyun, “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance”) and young medic Mun Sang-sang (Seo Jae-kyeong, “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring”), as well as injured American pilot Capt. Smith (the indescribable Steve Taschler) whose plane has crashed nearby.
The story then proceeds exactly as expected, with the soldiers overcoming their mistrust of each other, finding common ground, going through rituals of male bonding and slipping with unnatural ease into the farming life before taking arms once more to defend their newfound home against bomb-happy psychotic U.S. troops. This takes up the bulk of the woefully overlong film, and whilst the characters are likeable enough and their relationships sufficiently believable, there is simply no getting away from the fact that this is little more than plotting by numbers, and that every aspect of the film is inherently predictable.
While the villagers and their constant comedic misconceptions regarding the soldiers and their weapons make for some amusing gags, these tend to wear thin after the first half hour. Similarly, the film’s depiction of the village as a pre-industrial paradise and its preaching tone come to feel rather patronising. This is especially true in the case of poor, crazy Yeo-il, who acts as a sort of homespun symbol of carefree and innocent living, and whose wacky antics make the film at times resemble Park Chan-wook’s far superior “J.S.A.” crossed with “Forrest Gump”.
Special mention must go to the awful performance of Steve Taschler, whose atrocious acting in what is a fairly pivotal role manages to ruin a number of scenes. The script supplies him with some very odd dialogue (most of which is based around phrases starting or ending with “man” or “you guys”); on top of which, Taschler’s delivery is excruciatingly lifeless and robotic, as are all the Western members of the cast. Although it may seem unfair to criticise a Korean film in such a manner, this is a major problem, and one which severely detracts from its potential dramatic impact.
To be fair, there are a number of good things to be said about “Welcome to Dongmakgol”. The cinematography is quite beautiful and succeeds in creating an almost other-worldly atmosphere, really bringing the village and the lush surrounding countryside to life. The film as a whole has a polished, glossy look, with the exception of some sub-standard scenes of CGI, including a bizarre slow motion attack by a giant pig.
There is no doubting the sincerity of “Welcome to Dongmakgol”, or its genuinely warm heart. However, equally prominent are its lack of ambition or attempts to do anything new with a disappointingly formulaic plot. As such, though entertaining and likeable enough, at the end of the day Kwang-Hyun Park ‘s movie offers little more than an amusing, if rather saccharine diversion.
Kwang-Hyun Park (director) / Jin Jang (screenplay)
CAST: Ha-kyun Shin …. Pyo Hyun-Chul
Jae-yeong Jeong …. Lee Su-Hwa
Hye-jeong Kang …. Yeo-il
Leif Gantvoort …. Major
Ha-ryong Lim …. Jang Young-hee
Deok-Hwan Ryu …. Seo Taek-ki
Jae-kyeong Seo …. Mun Sang-sang
Steve Taschler …. Smith