Welcome To Dongmakgol is a nice film. An extremely nice film. It couldn’t possibly be nicer even if you put the whole crew on morphine for the duration. And unlike so many of its genre colleagues, it’s a very well-made nice movie.
The odd thing is, though, that it’s a nice movie about the insanity of war. Let me clarify what I mean here. It’s not a movie about the pain and suffering of war, and how it traumatises people, as is, for example, Taegukgi (aka Brotherhood of War). Nor is it about the brutality that must be enacted on people to allow them to kill easily, as is Silmido. It’s a movie about the simple fact that war is a really stupid thing to do.
How, you may well ask, does it manage to contain both a lot of niceness and an anti-war message? Very skilfully, and in a very entertaining package. It’s funny, in a warm, we’re-all-human, sort of way. The message about the dumbness of war is subtle and never hammered: you never feel that you’re being preached at, or that the entertainment value is being sacrificed on the altar of politics. It’s done by setting a simple story in a war context, and populating it with engaging characters.
The setup is about as simple as it gets, and it’s been used before: soldiers from opposing sides meet up in a remote village. The war in this case is the Korean war, and the village is high in the mountains. So high, and so remote, that the villagers don’t know there’s a war on. They don’t even know what guns are.
This invariably leads to confusion and a humorous stand-off. There’s a noticeable contrast between the villagers, friendly but innocent, and the soldiers, whose sole job is to kill anyone wearing the wrong uniform. The villagers are understandably more concerned about the fact that wild boars are ripping up their fields than about the fact that some men are shouting a lot and pointing sticks and potatoes (as they see guns and grenades) at each other. And while at first we laugh at what we see as the naivete of the villagers, as the film progresses we begin to realise that it’s the soldiers who are acting strangely.
While it’s clear that skilful scripting and light-handed direction make this a polished product, what really lifts the film are the performances. Shin Ha-gyun, an enormously talented actor who’s given dazzling performances in Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, JSA, and Save The Green Planet, provides a solid centre for the film in his role as Lieutenant Pyo. I can’t rave about this man enough: the character that could have sunk the film like a lead weight, when animated by Shin becomes the very heart of the film.
Jung Jae-young, as Commander Lee of the North, performs a similar miracle. In the wrong hands, Lee could have become either a two-dimensional action hero or a shallow loser, but Jung fleshes out his character in unexpected ways. And, of course, there’s the luminously goofy Kang Hye-jeong, last seen in Old Boy, who turns her crazy girl role into a combination of Puckish sprite and ethereal butterfly.
There’s some fine visual work, too. The wild boar scene is a wonderful piece of semi-fantasy that teeters on the edge of parody but never quite drops over. The whole scene is conducted entirely in slow motion, alternating shots of the enormous CGI animal pursuing various soldiers, with shots of villagers looking frightened, or amazed, or giving directions (“take it that way”).
I could continue enthusing indefinitely, but I shan’t. I shall only say that Welcome To Dongmakgol was hugely successful in Korea for a reason. See it, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s warm and fuzzy, it’s a gem of cinema polished to a brilliant shine.