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It is always nice to see filmmakers trying to bridge the gab between two rival countries. As Jack Nicholson so eloquently put it, “why can’t we all just, get along?” There has been a rise in recent Far Eastern blockbusters, such as Joint Security Area and DMZ, with the intention of quenching the rivalry between the two Koreas. Granted, in reality it would take a lot more than 120 minutes to affect the minds of an entire nation but it is a step in the right direction. Studios have certainly taken advantage of demand but it has left the market vulnerable to over-saturation. First time director Park Kwang-Hyun tries his luck with Welcome to Dongmakgol, an adaptation of Jin Jang’s popular play.

Welcome to Dongmakgol
Feature
The story begins during the peak of the Korean War in the 50’s; a regiment of North Korean soldiers is under attack in the mountains, causing three of them to flee into the wilderness. Similarly, two members of the South Korean army lose track and seek refuge amongst the trees. After a little wandering, both enemies meet at Dongmakgol – a rural village completely oblivious to the war and violence. The soldiers’ priority is to protect the villages from their own personal vendettas, forcing them to cooperate and cease further violence. In addition, they also have to handle the angry rants of an American casualty, recovering in the village. The two sides must decide whether to cast away their differences and adapt to rural lifestyle or introduce the horrors of war to these people.

Director Park Kwang-Hyun is a brave man for wanting to churn yet another anti-war episode. Messages of peace and friendship have been regurgitated to an extent that even science-fictions and comedies are forced to carry the burden. For Welcome to Dongmakgol to survive, it would have to be a damn fine spectacle. The film instantly hits the audience with its grand visual splendour, literally leaving one breathless with its delightful use of filters and vanguard colour grading. Healthy dosages of computer generated imagery and digital backlot add volume but not at the expense of maintaining a wholesome, natural look.

Welcome to Dongmakgol can be labelled as a comedy, where much of the humour is used to illustrate the sweet innocence of a naïve community. The villagers have never even seen a gun before and therefore, do not know how to react when one is pointed at their faces. Even the US soldier is used as an additional comic relief, as nobody else understands English and cannot respond to his angry ramblings. Like a true professional, director Park is fully aware on how to play with the audiences’ emotions and has structured the film accordingly. So much of Welcome to Dongmakgol is focused on aesthetics and light-heartedness that the violent instances and emotional confrontations appear strikingly explicit. Unlike JSA, the journey into friendship is not a sudden transition but a gradual process. The turning point of the film would be the spectacular boar chase scene, where dialogue and sound effects are muted in favour of a music-only chapter. It is almost as if the film temporarily transcends into a near-death experience and focuses on natural survival instincts.

Welcome to Dongmakgol
The story is blessed with plenty of likable characters and the actors manage to seamlessly adapt to deliver amazingly convincing performances. Kang Hye-jeong ( Oldboy’s starring lady) is absolutely spellbinding and amusingly peculiar in her portrayal of the village simpleton. Her character’s charm is a contributing factor in persuading the soldiers to drop their firearms. However, some individuals take a little more time in absorbing the larger picture. Shin Ha-kyun, who incidentally was also in JSA, provides an incredibly aggressive interpretation of reluctance. His expressions paint a thousand pictures; Shin literally utilises every facial muscle to illustrate his frustration in a manner which is authentic and disturbing. In contrast, he is actually the most vulnerable character and carries a tremendous weight on his shoulders. It is rather astonishing to witness all that suppressed rage transform into guilt and fear.

To provide an indication of the production’s grand scale, the studios have managed to hire acclaimed musician, Joe Hisaishi, to compose the fabulous score for Welcome to Dongmakgol. He is the Hollywood equivalent of John Williams and has made a name for himself collaborating with Hayao Miyazaki and Takeshi Kitano. Hisaishi has written soft percussion parts to accompany the dreamlike treatments and has infused fully orchestral interludes to glorify the more extravagant chapters. Upon initial examination, it becomes apparent that the score is distinctively un-Korean in the sense that there is almost a complete absence of strings and piano ballads. Hisaishi’s works sustain a unique flavour which has been marinated into Welcome to Dongmakgol – one of the many reasons why this film is so great.

Park Kwang-Hyun’s directorial debut is not just another anti-war movie. Welcome to Dongmakgol is so much more; it is a study of pure humanity and its contrast with the brutality of the outside world. The closest title I can compare this to would be Takashi Miike’s The Bird People in China, which itself is another mesmerising journey of colossal proportions.

Welcome to Dongmakgol
Video
Welcome to Dongmakgol is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format, maintaining an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The image quality is in absolute pristine condition and it needs to be in order to justify the film’s visual driven approach. Foreground and landscape details are remarkably distinct, detecting sweat beads and blood droplets without compromising the glorious rural features. Blades of grass, strips of tree bark and dusty paths are confidently illustrated with pinpoint accuracy. Even hair and fabric textures possess immaculate pattern recreation. Colours play a pivotal role in preserving the film’s exquisite pictorial beauty, employing a vivid pallet comprising of appetising greens and blues. The visual theme alters depending on situation, as opposed to location. For instance, an exciting chapter may release a vibrant array of shades compared to a tragic moment, which may opt for more subdued tones.

The only detrimental aspect of the transfer is that it suffers from minor edge-enhancement, which was only detectable after a thorough frame by frame analysis. Nevertheless, halos still surround the actors, props and secondary objects. Ultimately, it is doubtful that Welcome to Dongmakgol will look better on any other DVD release.

Audio
There are two audio options available in either Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround or Dolby Digital 5.1. Korean is the predominant language; however there is a fair amount of English dialogue as well. As far as surround mixes go, the 2.0 offering is certainly a reasonable effort. Dialogue remains focused in the frontal array, whilst basic ambient effects make their way to the rears. However, the action segments sound undeniably hollow and one realises that current standards should be able to offer so much more. This is where the 5.1 upgrade helps uplift an already exhilarating viewing experience. There is considerably more push, especially with Joe Hisashi’s wonderful score, where the instrumental arrangement is nicely distributed amongst the five channels. Ambient noise is rich and plentiful, ranging from subtle footsteps and rainfall to fully coordinated explosions and shrapnel. The LFE contribution is also much appreciated, adding a thunderous sub-layer and nourishing bass to the action and musical segments respectively.

The optional English subtitles are nicely paced and easy to read. There are perhaps one or two grammatical mishaps but the overall quality is excellent.

Welcome to Dongmakgol
Extras
On the first disc, there is a director’s and actors’ audio commentary.

Switching over to the second disc reveals a lovely range of supplementary materials. Starting things off is a 19m documentary called Making Film, which is a thorough insight into Welcome to Dongmakgol’s pre-production and filming process. We get to see principal costume and makeup tests, listen to table readings and meet US actor Steve Taschler at the airport. Furthermore, there is a wealth of behind the scenes footage and interviews. The highlight is definitely the strange contraption built to capture the sledge scene on the hillside, where poor Shin Ha-kyun is almost crushed under the weight the cameraman and his equipment.

There is a small 3m featurette called Welcome to Dongmakgol, which examines the calligraphy used to capture the film’s beautiful opening title sequence. Key members of the crew are also interviewed during this process.

Another short featurette, lasting approximately 3m30s, follows next and is called Boogie Woogie. Seo Jae-kyeong is interviewed here to discuss the small musical number inserted in the film. He also reveals how the scene was coordinated and captured.

The OST menu allows the viewer to select a track from Joe Hisaishi’s sublime theatrical score. However instead of playing the track on its own, the actual scene is played along with dialogue and full sound effects.

The Fellowship of the Dongmakgol is a peculiar 3m20s spoof of Lord of the Rings, combining rehearsal and actual footage with the crew and cast respectively. Bizarrely, this is played at high speed so everyone has high pitched voices.

Next we have a 5m20s CG featurette, which offers fascinating comparisons of the film’s key technical chapters. These are played in its entirety, followed by the various post-production stages that make up the finished product. It is astonishing to realise just how much of the film is not only artificially generated but is also incredibly convincing. This particular supplement is music-only and can therefore be universally appreciated.

Poster Making Film is yet another short featurette, clocking in at around 3m30s. This is basically a behind the scenes look at the photo-shoot used for creating the film’s posters. The actors had to maintain their smiles and poses for quite a long period of time; everyone must have had a sore jaw by the end. The photographer is also interviewed to provide his thoughts and intentions.

The music video is simply a music-only trailer for the film, comprising of behind the scenes and actual footage. To finish things off is a photo gallery and trailer. There are sadly no English subtitles for any of the supplementary materials.

Welcome to Dongmakgol
Overall
Welcome to Dongmakgol is an outstanding achievement for first time director Park Kwang-Hyun and a valuable contribution to the South Korean film industry. This landmark title simply oozes with hypnotic beauty thanks to its luscious use of colours and wind-blown backgrounds. Moreover, it is also blessed by Joe Hisaishi’s involvement; he has once again composed a magnum opus. This extraordinary journey will make you laugh and cry, as it contrasts the sheer goodwill of mankind against its grotesque lust for bloodshed. KD Media’s finest have ensured splendid audio and video transfers, with a lovely array of informative supplements. I cannot emphasise enough, how essential it is for K-cinema enthusiasts to own a copy of this film.


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