Tag Archives: 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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Antarctic Journal (2005, Yim Phil-sung)

I guess this film has gotten some bad reviews. Or just excessively mediocre ones. It’s not quite populist enough–it sets itself up as a supernatural thriller set in Antarctica, but it’s all really about internal human conflicts and some creepiness sure. I’m trying to think of a good way to describe it and I suppose the best way is… imagine one of John Carpenter’s “horror” movies from the 1980s (They Live and Prince of Darkness). Now imagine it’s decent. Antarctic Journal is not bad. At some points, it could have gone either way. Respectably uncanny or human conflict. It didn’t need to have both and using the uncanny to fuel the human conflict, well, it’s cheap. I don’t if that’s why the film wasn’t successful. I doubt it. Emotional cheapness is highly rewarded by film-going audiences.

As a “box office failure,” Antarctic Journal is a bit of filmmaking achievement. It’s beautiful–snowy New Zealand fills in for Antarctica–it’s well-directed, the plotting isn’t bad, but the characters never gel. We don’t care enough about the ones who die first (it’s Korean, so it’s not Ernie Hudson) and we don’t worry enough to fuel that internal human conflict I mentioned early. The characters just aren’t full enough. They serve the filming location. The acting is good, even when you expect them to go overboard, the characters keep it under check.

I was fully expecting to turn Antarctic Journal off. I was going to watch the other night’s episode of “The Office,” maybe “Boston Legal” too, if I had time. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped a Korean movie. (The place isn’t called The Stop Button for nothing). That says a hell of a lot about a film industry….

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Yim Phil-sung; written by Yim and Bong Joon-ho; director of photography, Jeong Jeong-hun; edited by Kim Sun-min; music by Kawai Kenji; produced by Lim Heui-cheol; released by Showbox.

Starring Song Kang-ho (Choi Do-hyung), Yu Ji-tae (Kim Min-jae), Kim Kyeong-ik (Yang Geun-chan), Park Hee-soon (Lee Young-min), Yoon Jae-moon (Kim Sung-hoon), Choi Duek-mun (Seo Jae-kyung) and Kang Hye-jeong (Yoo-jin).