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Of all the silly premises, Korea's surprise hit Welcome to Dongmakgol's may be hard to top. Which may be why the final product is all the more satisfying...
A comedy about the Korean War sprinkled with fantasy sounds like a joke made in very dubious taste. A disaster waiting to happen. The most impressive thing about Welcome to Dongmakgol, then, is how it flirts with becoming a really, truly awful movie and yet manages to come away from it all not only being a watchable film, but in many ways a remarkable one.
The whole concept sounds loopy: Two South Korean soldiers, three North Korean soldiers, and one American pilot all end up in the same tiny village in the remote mountains of Kangwon Province during the height of the Korean War. The naive townsfolk donít quite seem to understand that thereís a civil war going on, but their quaint hamlet is sitting smack in the middle of the hotly contested line between the allied and communist forces. The soldiersí attempts to continue their hostilities are constantly undermined by both the villagers and by their own personal demons that demand resolution once away from the overt action of the front lines.
The first and stronger half of the film works almost like a surreal sitcom as the large ensemble cast is introduced and the village explored. There are strong performances all around, but three in particular stand out: Shin Ha-gyun (JSA, Sympathy for Mr. Vengance) stands out as a swaggering, suffering suicidal deserter, while Jeong Jae-yeong (Shilmido, Someone Special) puts in his usual solid work as the leader of the North Koreans. Kang Hye-jeong tackles her difficult role as an innocent and slightly lunatic village girl and manages to keep her both sweet and gutsy where a less talented actress would have tried to make her either tragic or cutesy. Her character is the very heart of the film, and her dexterous performance is almost symbolic of the tightrope walk the whole film must do to stay successful. The one off-note is that the English-language performances are not quite on the same level as the Korean ones, which is a common problem. Steve Taschler seems to be making a good effort but canít seem to overcome the clumsiness of his lines, always seeming a beat off.
The portrayal of foreigners, frequently a weak spot in Korean cinema, is a mixed bag. The English dialogue is usually intelligible, and even a source of humor in many early scenes between Taschler and the villagers, but not anywhere near as subtle and finessed as the Korean dialogue. Furthermore, while the film does allow for the pilot to become a fully developed character, it's there that the nuanced examination of the various participants in the war ends and the warmongering begins. The second half of Welcome to Dongmakgol -- when war threatens the soldiersí new lives and the villagersí peace -- canít quite build enough tension after the exhilarating goofiness of the first, although when it succeeds, the shift in tone is both disconcerting and effective. Here, the surreal and extensive special effects and CGI are most valuable, as they help sustain our belief in the world of the first half even as that world is following apart. In other words, the outside world of violence and the life of the village are bridged by the unique visuals.
Welcome to Dongmakgol has been a tremendous critical and commercial success at home, and it looks to be the Korean entry for the American Academy Awards this year. This may give Americans a chance to see one of the most creative and interesting efforts by Korean filmmakers this year. Jang Jinís original stage play was brilliant but would have failed utterly without the deft touch of director Park Gwang-hyeon. However, it is a risky choice to send to America, where the problems with the English-language acting and the lack of nuance in the portrayal of American forces (albeit far more sympathetic than many depictions in Korean cinema) will be more apparent to audiences. Finally, the historical context and the emotional resonance that are so strong for Korean audiences may not carry over for foreign ones. Will Americans learn to love a comedy about the Korean War without Hawkeye Pierce?
Date Posted: 10/6/2005