Dongmakgol is a village in a remote mountain, isolated from the rest of the world and untouched by the ravages of the ongoing war in Korea. Fate brings the three fighting forces together: a U.S. fighter pilot whose plane crash-landed in the mountain, three retreating North Korean soldiers, and two South Korean soldiers who are lost. After a grenade destroys the food storage, they decide to stay and help the local farmers.In the process they slowly let go of their hatred for one another and build a sense of friendship. Meanwhile, the U.S. commanders believe there is a major North Korean military presence in the area where the plane went missing and plan a major air strike. In order to spare the village from complete destruction, the soldiers decide to work together to divert the attack, possibly sacrificing themselves in the process.
Cast & Credits
Simply described, Welcome to Dongmakgol leaves the impression of a Studio Ghibli animation sprung to life. The similarities are numerous, felt from the fanciful bones of the premise, right down to vivid ambiance set by the cinematography. Even music lends itself to the comparison, having been contributed by legendary Joe Hisashi. Little events (such as the incredible, now-famous, popcorn scene) might have been directed by Miyazaki himself. This is all intentional of course, a sure credit to Director Park Kwang Hyun (a self-proclaimed fan of the studio).
As one might glean from the information above, the story maintains elements of fantasy. North and South Korean soldiers, as well as one stranded American, end up meeting in an idyllic little village during the Korean War. They learn that the village, Dongmakgol, has been isolated for so long the inhabitants have no knowledge of the war, or modern technologies in general. From here, it develops into a story of friendship without borders, of innocence that brings happiness and peace, and reconciliation despite old wounds. Sprinkle in a little comedy and a heart-rending scene or two, and you've basically got Welcome to Dongmakgol.
The cast is phenomenal, as are the characters. Veteran actors Jung Jae Young (as North Korean officer Su Hwa) and Shin Ha Kyun (haunted South Korean Lieutenant Pyo) light up the screen. Being able to see both of these talents work together is such a treat, and their interactions with others are simply magnificent. Kang Hye Jung, best known from the Korean classic Oldboy, lands another iconic role here as the innocent and child-like Yeo Il. Together with Ryu Deok Hwan, she rounds up the memorable figures in the cast.
Unfortunately, the western actors were shakier. Steve Taschler doesn’t derail the film as Neil Smith, but his performance is obviously weaker than those around him. His character still manages to be somewhat interesting, despite these issues being combined with limited screen time.
Earlier I mentioned Joe Hisashi; fans of his work will automatically connect this name with quality. Those unfamiliar among you, don’t worry. This is music that has to be heard to be believed. Without his incredible compositions, the effect of the film would be nowhere as strong.
I don't know any of these actors well (I actually watched the Japanese dub of this film in one of my classes), but I thought the main actors in the Korean cast did a good job, carrying both the humor and the serious bits well. I was not impressed with actor who played Neil Smith, however. His acting was flat, and his accent was...a complete mystery.
The music was great! If you are familiar with Studio Ghibli films, this soundtrack was very reminiscent of Spirited Away. Beautiful, soaring score to match the luscious scenery of the mountains in Korea.
I will watch this again. It does not drag at all, it's visually aesthetic, I liked the music, it's funny, and very heartwarming. The artistic style and some of the acting reminded me of YMCA Baseball Team, the only other Korean movie I've ever seen, but that could also be due to my unfamiliarity with Korean film.
Do be warned that the ending is a little bittersweet, it is a war movie, but overall it left me feeling warm. Its best point was the viewer sympathy it created for all three sides presented, the Americans, the North Koreans, and the South Koreans, not to mention the villagers of Dongmakgol. The power of this film is all in the emotions it so vibrantly displays and instills.