WELCOME TO DONGMAKGOL (2005)
Hilarious and bizarre yet tense and meaningful, soldiers from the North and South stumble into a secluded village during the Korean war
Cinema has a patchy record of translating stage shows into successful films, but when Jang Jin’s long-running play made the big screen it surpassed expectations, becoming one of Korea’s biggest ever grossing films.
Having Jang Jin as a producer would not have hurt while Park Kwang-hyun's debut feature seemed to bring in a new directorial dawn, but it would be over a decade before he returned with The Fist (2016).
Welcome to Dongmakgol relies on many of the ingredients which sets Korean cinema apart. Firstly, it is a uniquely Korean story, playing on both the historical event of the Korean War and the tensions between the two nations, one that is often built on propaganda-fueled suspicions.
Secondly, and perhaps most familiarly, is that ability to fuse comedy with drama, to blend laughs with tension. This is all achieved by bringing together these opposing bands of soldiers in a village of naive and loveable characters.
Further to this, there is a US Navy pilot, Neil Smith (Steve Taschler), who first crashes his plane in a mountainous expanse of Korea and is found by the villagers of Dongmakgol – a remote outpost full of inhabitants cut off from the contemporary world and unaware of the conflict which rages in the country.
Meanwhile, a North Korean platoon is ambushed by a South Korean unit, leaving the Northern unit decimated, with just a few survivors making it to a mountain passage.
The North Korean soldiers – Rhee Soo-hwa (Jung Jae-young), Jang Young-hee (Im Ha-ryong) and Seo Taek-gi (Ryu Deok-hwan) are found by the day-dreaming Yeo-il (Kang Hye-jung) from Dongmakgol, as two South Korean soldiers are also led to the village.
When the opposing soldiers meet in the village, it creates a Mexican stand-off and one of the most tense and amusing scenes in Korean cinema history. The villagers themselves can only look on in bemusement.
Despite their indoctrinated hatred of each other, the soldiers must learn to work together, while the affable and kind villagers grow on both side. Among the horrors of war, both sides have found an isolated haven removed from the conflicts of the more developed world.
The real genius of the film is that it manages to juggle the various tones and themes so well – to be funny and quirky yet convey serious anti-war messages and unpack the issues of Korean unification. And to show the kindness of the villagers of Dongmakgol in a non-patronising manner.
The film maintains some of the undertones of the stage version and it has a sentimentality which it proudly displays throughout. Cinema has churned out anti-war films over the years, yet Welcome to Dongmakgol has the emotional pull to feel fresh, important and impactful.
Altogether, we are served a visually stunning outing, propped up with a superb cast, and an ending that will lead the most weathered war film fan to claim something got in their eye.