As Korean cinema continues to rise in everyone’s estimation, movies about the Korean war – which still ‘officially’ continues to this day – will no doubt increase. From the epic sweep of Brotherhood, to the more intimate forbidden love of Joint Security Area, most of them seem to take a fairly obvious central message – that even while fighting each other, Koreans are family. Welcome to Dongmakgol is no different.
An American pilot crashlands in a remote mountain region, and is rescued by the friendly locals of the village of Dongmakgol. Days later, two South Korean soldiers come across the same village, after fleeing from their regiment. After a bloody battle, three North Korean soldiers flee the advancing South Korean forces across the mountains, stumbling into the very same place.
The villagers, insulated from the outside world by their remote setting, are wonderfully unable to grasp the significance of a war of Korean against Korean, and through their innocence the soldiers themselves gradually become reconciled to each other. But just when they seem to have found peace, the war once more intrudes on the villages quiet existance – threatening to finish it off for good…
The Korean movie industry is not yet big enough not to be incestuous, and while in the US you might need seven steps to get to Kevin Bacon, in Korea you usually need only one to get to Park Chan-Wook. Jae-yeong Jeong, Ha-kyun Shin and Hye-jeong Kang, who play the leads here, all featured heavily in installments of the trilogy that really put Seoul on the cinematic map – Park’s superb revenge series (which was crowned by Sympathy for Lady Vengeance last year). All turn in great performances.
Director Kwang-Hyun Park is a newcomer however, and this does show a little bit. Some of the pacing is uneven, and the climactic scenes in particular left me feeling fairly empty. A bizarre, balletic, slow-motion battle with a boar will also have many scratching their heads – in fact at many times the film seems caught uncomfortably between humour and tension.
It’s also let down by the none Korean support, which is woeful. Admittedly they are handed some clanging lines which clearly haven’t survived translation (“we must be prepared for the enemy to try and kill us violently!”) but even so they do little more than make up the numbers. Cinema in a different language is a hard experience to judge, and their suprisingly wooden turns in an otherwise solid cast raises interesting questions about how people interpret acting performed in a language foreign to them.
Welcome to Dongmakgol isn’t a stellar movie, but it is full of invention and quiet joy, and represents a fairly unique angle to come at the Korean war. It’s going to be a very limited release, but well worth a watch if you get the chance. If you don’t, however, I’m sure there will be plenty more of its like to come.