“Welcome to Dongmakgol” (also known as “Battle Ground 625” – don’t ask) is a South Korean movie that was released in 2005. It was based on a play and was the directorial debut for Park Kwang-hyun. The film was a commercial and critical success and received numerous awards including the Korean Award for Best Picture. It was South Korea’s submission for Best Foreign Picture for the Academy Awards.
The movie is set in South Korea in September, 1950. A background crawl relates that in the aftermath of Inchon many North Korean soldiers are hiding in the hills and the U.S.A.F. is indiscriminately bombing civilian areas. An American pilot named Smith (Steve Taschler) crashes through a blizzard of butterflies ( a recurring motif) and is brought to an idyllic village where the people are unaware of the war. They don’t even know what guns are. Meanwhile, he is joined by a trio of North Koreans who are escaping an ambush that left their entire unit decimated. They are led to the village by a strange girl named Yeo-Il (Kang Hye-jung). She is basically the village idiot. Arriving that same day are two ROK soldiers which results in a Mexican stand-off between the enemies. The hours-long confrontation ends when a grenade goes off turning the village’s corn supply into pop corn. It’s that kind of movie. An uneasy truce ensues and the soldiers bond over the hunt for a wild boar. The frenemies go native and everyone lives happily ever after. Not. An American unit is sent to rescue Smith before the village is scheduled to be bombed off the face of the Earth. How will the sextet save their paradise?
The critics were enamored with the symbolic aspects of the plot. I found the themes to be bludgeoning. The village represents the world if there were no war and weapons. We could all live in harmony and happily ever after. War corrupts, but if you can escape from it you can be reborn. War also makes humans hate other humans. If it were not for war we would all be brothers. Oh, brother! War speaks for itself as being terrible. That’s why almost all war movies are anti-war. I don’t need heavy-handed bull crap to show me this. Besides the heavy-handed themes, the film is also painfully predictable and bends over backwards to ensure the obligatory conclusion.
Director Park throws numerous paint filled balloons at his canvas. Broad humor, bizarre characters, melodrama, action, tragedy – you name it. Basically everything except what I love in Korean war movies – the outlandish battle scenes. The montage of elements wowed the critics and Korean audiences, but as a reviewer of war movies as war movies (not as entertainment), I was unimpressed and was left with a neck ache from all the head-shaking. The acting is poor and distracting. You don’t expect nuance in Korean actors, especially in their war movies, but the actors here are just second rate. To a large degree, your impression of the movie will depend on how you view the character of Yeo-Il. We used to call that kind of person retarded. I would never say that today. Let’s just say she is endearingly moronic. I could not tolerate her. But I did not like Forrest Gump (that’s right, I said it) either, so maybe it’s just me. By the way, the actress won the Korean Best Actress Award. Gah! The one American actor was not exactly a huge get by the casting director. He is terrible, but should thank his agent. The film is no great shakes technically either. The budget doubled during production, but it could not have been due to special effects. The CGI is cartoonish, especially the aircraft. The music is generic and simplistic.
I am a big fan of Korean war movies. They are always memorable and have such a bold style. Some of my favorites are: Taegukgi, The Front Line, My Way, and Joint Security Area. "Welcome to Dongmakgol" does not deserve to be included with those pictures. It is a dud. It eschews the balls to the wall action of the others to go in a surreal direction and be allegorical. It is difficult to like the others and find a spot for this film. Damn it, this movie broke my streak of good Korean war movies. Oh well, bring on “Silmado”!
GRADE = F