A scene from WELCOME TO DONGMAKGOL, directed by Park Kwang-hyun for Showbox.

Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005, Park Kwang-hyun)

Welcome to Dongmakgol is about an idyllic village in the midst of the Korean War. Two soldiers from the South, three from the North, and an American flyer end up there. Obviously, they learn people are just people and wars are a bad idea, but Dongmakgol revels in itself so much, it’s impossible to dismiss the film as commonplace. It starts strange, with the American crashing. Good CG has obviously made it to Korea and director Park Kwang-Hyun uses a lot of it in Dongmakgol, trying new things with it, fully utilizing it as a storytelling device. Even though the crash looks good, I was unsure of Dongmakgol, since I really didn’t know what it was about. Sometimes not knowing is good, sometimes it’s bad. Immediately following the crash, there’s a standard stand-off when the Communist officer proves himself a decent guy. Again, something else I was worried about. Then, horribly, a battle scene straight from Saving Private Ryan. It’s apparently become the standard for battle scenes.

But once they get the village–which isn’t a Shangri-La aware of its blissful isolation, just ignorant of world events–the film starts to get better and doesn’t stop improving. The Northern and Southern soldiers take time working out their differences, starting with their personal problems first. The pacing is methodical, which hurts the film scene-to-scene, but nurtures a more rewarding experience overall. Somewhere in the middle of the film, Park goes for broke with a three or four minute action sequence done in the studio. It’s a surrealistic CG scene and he pushes it too hard, making the proposition of the scene work better than the scene itself, but it’s done with so much enthusiasm, it’s impossible not to enjoy. Once the film gets back on a more predictable path–it veers again, of course–Park treats the audience to some more exuberance. The end sequence features some great CG and gives the film a great, unexpected, wrap-up.

However… the music, by Joe Hiaishi, almost does the film in. Park’s creating an audio and visual experience with Dongmakgol and Hiaishi recycles one theme over and over again (it sounds like a song from The Muppet Christmas Carol). Stylistically, the music’s out of an episode of “Magnum, p.i.” or “The Incredible Hulk.” It’s far from good enough and doesn’t even achieve a solid mediocrity.

The acting in the film is all high quality. Best is the Communist officer, played by Jeong Jae-yeong, as he’s got the most to do for most of the film. His Southern equivalent, played by Shin Ha-kyun, is good too, but his character’s internally conflicted so he mopes for a lot of it. Ryu Deok-Hwan’s character learns the most about himself in the film, so he’s probably the most interesting. The American, played by some guy named Steve Taschler, is okay. Taschler looks like a cross between Hugh Laurie and Michael O’Keefe, only young, and he’s fine in most of his scenes, especially when there are other people around. I’ve never seen an American actor incorporated so well into an Asian film before (the Godzilla films usually do it to great comedic success, but nothing else).

Dongmakgol is Park’s first film–something almost unbelievable given how well he uses that CG–and it sets him up for one heck of a sophomore slump. It’s an impressive film and Park’s a visual filmmaker, something rare (in quality anyway) these days. I’d probably be calling it one of the best films of last year if it wasn’t for that music.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Park Kwang-hyun; screenplay by Park and Kim Joong, from a play by Jang Jin; director of photography, Choi Sang-ho; edited by Steve M. Choe; music by Joe Hiaishi; produced by Choi, Jang, Ji Sang-yong and Lee Eun-ha; released by Showbox.

Starring Jeong Jae-yeong (Chief Comrade Lee Su-Hwa), Shin Ha-kyun (2nd Lt. Pyo Hyun-Chul), Kang Hye-jeong (Yeo-il), Lim Ha-ryong (Jang Young-hee), Seo Jae-kyeong (Army Medic Mun Sang-sang), Ryu Deok-Hwan (Seo Taek-ki) and Steve Taschler (Smith).


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