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'Welcome to Dongmakgol' offers utopian place during Korean War

2005/08/03 Source

"Welcome to Dongmakgol", opening today nationwide, offers a utopian place in which soldiers from the two Koreas and the United States are intertwined in a happy-go-lucky fashion during the Korean War.

In November 1950, when the war was at its peak, a U.S. pilot named Smith crashes in Dongmakgol, a small village in the eastern part of the country. Lee Su-hwa (Jung Jae-young) and other North Korean soldiers end up staying at the village, while Pyo Hyun-chul (Shin Ha-kyun) and another South Korean soldier who broke away from the troops led by a villager, come to Dongmakgol.

Given that the six-party talks in Beijing are underway to defuse the North Korean nuclear crisis, the unlikely get-together in the movie provides an intriguing parallel. But the focus is not the hostility the soldiers hold toward each other but the friendliness of the villagers.

Since Dongmakgol is located in such a remote area, the villagers do not have any idea about the war that is ravaging the entire Korean Peninsular. What's more, they "welcome" any stranger regardless of their nationality, which confuses both South and North Korean soldiers. Confusion soon gives in to a sense of relief as the soldiers realize they are physically shielded from the brutal battlefields and the village is a safe place to hang around for a while.

At this point, it might be tempting to conclude prematurely that the film wants to preach about the value of peace that can clear the decades-long conflict that is still shrouding the peninsula.

But director Bae Jong, who makes his debut with "Dongmakgol", hasn't fallen into the boring and obvious formula. Instead, he gets the film to move forward by manipulating the pace of storytelling in a creative way.

The tension initially builds up when the soldiers confront each other. But the cinematic time stops when they happen to throw a hand grenade into a storage house in the village. The slow-motion technique depicts the explosion sending popcorn (a very unlikely product of the lethal grenade) all over the place, demonstrating a sense of humor that is pervasive throughout the film.

Another slow-motion sequence comes when the characters join forces to fight against a wild boar in the field. The computer-generated wild boar might seem a bit unrealistic but the premise of the movie is that this animal is part of a fantasy land, and, more important, the funny chase is designed to showcase what can be done when the soldiers from two Koreas learn American football techniques.

The final time-warping scene depicts a massive bombardment by the allied forces, which wrongly assumes their fighters were shot down by North Korean troops and decide to bomb Dongmakgol.

Meanwhile, the soldiers (now, they look pretty much like Dongmakgol villagers) gather up all the weapons and move to the mountain in order to direct the bombing elsewhere to save the village.

Slow-motion techniques aside, the movie bombards the viewers with funny lines that depend primarily on dialects. When the North Korean officer Lee Su-hwa notices the villagers seem quite happy about their lives, he throws a question to the village chief. "What is the secret of your 'great leadership'?" Lee says, using the well-known phrase used only for the late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. The village chief's reply: "Well, people should get fed enough".

Many of the humorous dialogue reflects the talent of Jang Jing, a drama director and filmmaker, as the film is based on Jang's hit drama of the same title.

Kang Hye-jung, who was catapulted to stardom for her role in director Park Chan-wook's "Old boy", plays an innocent girl named Yeo-il in the movie. The character moves freely on the screen, and it feels refreshing that she doesn't care about the threat of the war.

Jung Jae-young shows his strength as an actor who knows when to exaggerate his expression and when to subdue his emotions, absorbing the North Korean officer's character to the fullest.

The $8 million movie may not offer a satisfactory alterative to the six-party talks, but it can be a sure-fire place to cool down the heat wave that is currently hitting the peninsula.

By Yang Sung-jin

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