Welcome to Dongmakgol. by Kwang-Hyun Park. Review from the R3 Korean DVD.
Not keen on treading on toes here at Twitch, but X has thankfully let it be known that it's fine for other writers to put their thoughts up about any Korean film we happen to watch. For all those fans of X, it does seem he will get around to this one (he loves it, it seems) in due course, but for now expect 'Sympathy for Lady Vengeance' from him next. Nothing as extensive, detailed, or knowledgeable from me here today - just another collection of my thoughts bashed out for anyone interested.
Anyway, for now this is potentially an anti-war film, far more likely seen as a tale of innocent living and lust for life that tackles war along the way : simple pleasures, taking care of one another, hard work, and love. At times almost ultra-realistic, almost unnatural colors make this develop a fantasy feel. An escapist film firmly grounded in reality, and a very charming one at that.
A selection of soldiers, small groups form both North and South troops during the 1950's Korean conflict, as well as a lone UN / American Soldier, weary from battle and walking through the land manage to independently stumble into people from the eponymous village of the title. There are initial hints at their remoteness from the 'real world', but it's not until each small remaining group reaches the small households that it begins that feeling of stumbling upon a hidden paradise. Each person, the community in general, has little concept of the danger of weapons and the war that is going on in the country at large. Here they're immensely free from the worries of fighting, no signs of neighbours to squabble with, no weapons or army of their own. No need for protection, so there's an immense sense of innocence and care for others that aren’t presented in a way that is unrealistic.
The soldiers immediately clash in their automatic desire to continue the war. There's a three-way stand-off feel to it all initially, no clear dominant side throughout the story for any particular length of time. The villagers are also blissfully unaware of the influence of the weapons should be having over them, so they almost defeat war by sheer ignorance of it, and with such an ease that it's hard to then explain what purpose war actually has. It's an almost intentionally balanced story of their being no right or wrong, no definable winner or loser, and no better or worse either. As time progresses, each soldier makes their own leap into the world of Dongmakgol, becoming increasingly charmed by the lifestyle, absorbed into the village, the daily work, the lack of violence, and the general pleasures of being so remote and hidden from all the danger.
Initially it is very reluctantly that they work alongside one another, and in time all seems set to change. It's not a blind story, doesn't intend to ignore war by saying hide away from it, but approaches it head-on and shows just how ridiculous and unnecessary it is, but also how unavoidable it can be. Still, the narrative turns on its head somewhat during its course, manages to avoid being preachy, and finds a difficult to locate middle-ground through which we tread carefully, to make it a very well judged film. Any difficulties with the plausibility of the coming together of all parties are deftly handled.
Hidden away in here are beautifully judged sequences using CGI to bring this almost fantastical element to their life, making it grounded in reality but managing to vibrantly bring it to life and increase the charm. There's gritty realism in there too, relatively briefly, and it all blends together to mash a few genres in there and add to the variety, balance and depth that's to be found. It manages not to disappear into sickly-sweet territory, manages to keep down to earth but very escapist too, has some great humour, touching comradeship, dramatic / melodramatic moments, brief glimpses of romance and so on.
The landscape and woodlands are used to great effect, adding to the remoteness and creating the beautiful environment into which the soldiers disappear and from which the villagers feel little need to immerge. Shot with great confidence and consideration, solidly produced and edited as usual, it's a superbly uplifting and varied tale that leaves an impression. Performances, from a cast that's very unfamiliar to my eyes, are all superbly carried-out, very nicely fleshed and balanced pretty effectively. Yes, I was reminded of both the story elements of Studio Ghibli films, though it's not a complete a description of the style by any means, and it does have similar emotions and structure to a (for me) more heartbreaking story like that found in Takashi Miike's old 'Bird People in China' from 1998. The DVD presentation is really nicely done, coping well with the varied colors and action throughout the film, the menus are a little small and hard to read, the subtitles do have some small errors in there - now, looking forward to nosing through the extras too.