Well, our grand Sundance counter-programming pronouncements didn’t pan out quite as we’d planned…follow-through is so late-90s. Still, before the festival ate us, we had planned to post a series of reviews of undistributed films. Here’s the first, late, but as they say, better that than never…
Thanks to Park Chan-wook‘s (and Kim Ki-duk‘s) rise to international prominence/infamy, Korean cinema has gained both a reputation as one of the world’s most significant and a general association with baroque violence, sexual sadism and live animal consumption. But when "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" (which makes its way to US theaters in April) opened in Korea last summer, it was ultimately trounced by the tonally opposite "Welcome to Dongmakgol" at the box office, with the latter winning over the critics and eventually being chosen as Korea’s submission for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award.
Park Kwang-Hyun‘s "Welcome to Dongmakgol" is the charming (sometimes overly so) story of how three North Korean, two South Korean, and one bewildered American soldier end up stranded in and ultimately seduced by a backwater mountain town during the Korean War. The film starts off on a note of tremulous naturalism, as a unit of Northern soldiers, cut off from the main army by the Americans landing in Incheon, are abruptly slaughtered by Southern troops, leaving three survivors scrambling into the wilderness, and, not very long after, into CGI-enhanced magical realism.
High in the mountains, nestled amidst the kind of brilliantly green fields generally reserved for the filming of music videos, Dongmakgol is a peaceful town cut off from the rest of the world. The cheery residents are the definition of naive (none more so than the town’s madwoman-cum-mascot, Yeo-il, played by Kang Hye-jeong of "Oldboy") â€” they’ve never seen guns before, and they had no idea there was a war going on. When the Northern soldiers discover the two Southern deserters who’d arrived at Dongmakgol shortly before, the five end up in a prolonged standoff involving an unpinned grenade and a lack of any idea of what to do next, while the villagers quickly tire of the dramatics and get on with their daily lives.
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever seen a movie that the five Korean men, once they accidentally blow up the village’s winter food store and are obligated to stay and help the locals refill it, begin to see each other as comrades, and then as friends, softening to idyllic rural life. They even take to Smith, the wounded American pilot who crashed his plane in the area (Steve Taschler, who, like the other English-speaking actors in the film, gives pretty strong indications that he was a random foreigner they hired off the street), and each member of the group begins to find a place in the village, abetted by scenes of romance, bonding with fatherless children, teaching football, potato-picking, and, in the film’s hilarious turning point, slaying the giant, wobbly wild boar that had been plaguing the fields.
Such shameless sentimentality may sound hard to take, but Park’s determined heartwarming is so disingenuous that it more often than not works. What’s less satisfying are the way that the film’s hints at a more complex critique of the Korean War (the two youngest soldiers argue about whose side invaded first, with no understanding of why they’re fighting at all) fade in the inevitable approach of heedless, ridiculously one-dimensional American forces. Still, "Welcome to Dongmakgol" comes full circle with an eerily beautiful image of bombs dropping that echoes an earlier, much more benign scene of destruction, and makes us realize that the blissful visual enchantment of the village has infused the depictions of war, rather than the other way around. It’s beyond a bittersweet ending, but the film earns its final moment of unmoored peace.