NOTE: Please be aware that this DVD is a Korean import and is coded for Region 3 DVD players. In order to view this DVD, you'll have to have either a Region 3 coded or Region Free DVD player. [Recommended Region Free Players] It will not play in standard Region 1 North American DVD players.
Towards the end of the Korean war in 1950, an American air force pilot named Kent Smith cash lands his plane in South Korea on the outskirts of a small village. In and around the same time a squadron of North Korean soldiers are in the wrong place at the wrong time and are subsequently slaughtered by the armed forces of their neighbors to the south save for four survivors who make their way up into the mountains where one of them falls to his death, leaving them with only three men left. While all of this is going on, a South Korean medical officer named Moon has himself become lost in the area. Purely by chance he meets up with another South Korean soldier who is just about to end it all by putting a bullet through his brain. Moon is able to stop him before he does the dirty deed and after a skirmish, the two decide to cooperate and head through the mountains together.
Cut back to the North Korean soldiers and we find the three of them surprised to stumble across a pretty young woman named Yeo-il who shows no fear towards their loaded guns or North Korean uniforms but instead only wants to warn them about the snack that soon makes an appearance. After the soldier empty their clips at the unfortunate serpent, Yeo-il convinces them that they should follow her to the small town of Dongmakgol. Along the way, as you'd expect ,the two South Korean soldiers run into Yeo-il and her three North Korean friends and the men automatically put up their guards and a bit of a fight ensues. Eventually, both sides agree to work together and soon, as luck would have it, they run into Kent Smith and soon he too joins up with the group. Though the manage to get along well enough and strike up a simple if fragile friendship along the way, soon the outside pressures of the war catch up with them and test their allegiances to their opposing sides in the conflict and to one another. When they get to Dongmakgol, the villagers who greet them are shocked to hear that there's a war going on in their country, let alone one with involvement from outside countries like America.
While Welcome To Dongmakgol starts off as a serious drama with some shocking and intense scenes depicting the horrors of war it soon turns into a warm comedy about the good in man and how everyone can get along if they really want to, just to turn back into a serious drama again at the end. This results in a very uneven film that works better as a series of interesting moments than as an entirely cohesive narrative. An example of this is the scene where it starts raining popcorn. Not only is the CGI rendering in this scene rather poor but it feels completely opposite to the tone that the director sets at the beginning of the movie and returns to towards the end. It pulls the movie out of a realistic setting and slaps the audience outside the head with a bizarre visual metaphor.
That isn't to say that Welcome To Dongmakgol is a bad film – it isn't at all, but it is wildly uneven and at times overly long. That being said, the film went on to become one of the highest grossing domestic releases of all time in its native land so obviously it worked for the Korean people. The film plays to the pain that the people of the North and the South must feel over the way that their country has been divided and in that regard it's an interesting experiment but western audiences might have trouble wrapping their heads around some of the political allegory.
The strength of the film comes from two main sources – the performances and the cinematography. While some of the characters are a little bit odd, the film does have a very good cast including Shin Ha-kyun from Sympathy For Lady Vengeance and J.S.A., and Kang Hye-jeong of Oldboy. Even in the absurdist situations that occur during the story, the performances feel 'right' even if the event itself doesn't and the pacing tends to lag in spots (the one glaring omission being Steve Taschler as Kent, who is stuck with some seriously bad dialogue in more than a few scenes). Likewise, the movie, with the exception of some glaringly obvious CGI that sticks out like a sore thumb, looks really good. Some fantastic shots of the rugged landscape give us a good idea of what it must be like to be wandering in a rather desolate area and at the same time the camera manages to capture the natural beauty that lies there as well.
In the end, the film despite its unusual touches is, story-wise, pretty predictable as is the transition that happens to the central characters. The acting is very solid and the movie looks gorgeous and it does get enough right that it is definitely worth a look for fans of foreign cinema, but it's also got its fair share of flaws that do hamper the experience a fair bit. It's an entertaining movie, but not much more than that.
Aside from some fairly heavy edge enhancement and a bit of shimmering, this 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer holds up very, very nicely. The colors are bright and vibrant save for some select scenes, the more 'military oriented ones,' that are intentionally muted and the black levels stay strong and deep from start to finish. Skin tones look lifelike and natural and there's a very nice level of both foreground and background detail present throughout the movie. Sharpness and contrast look pretty much dead on and there are no noticeable problems with mpeg compression artifacts present on the transfer.
You've got the option of watching the film in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound or in a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround Sound mix, both of which are in the film's native Korean language. Optional subtitles are available in Korean and in English.
Both mixes do a great job bringing the dialogue to the forefront of the mix where it should be. The clarity of all of the performers is fine and you won't have any trouble hearing them speak, even during some of the more intense of complicated moments of the film. The 5.1 mix does a fine job of using channel separation to enhance some of the more dramatic moments as well as some of the comedic bits too. The background score and sound effects rise up nicely behind it all and everything just builds into a wonderful crescendo during a few specific moments in the film. There's really not much to complain about here at all – both tracks are great – though obviously the true 5.1 surround sound mix gets the edge over the 2.0.
While there are plenty of extra features that have been compiled for this two disc set, sadly not a single one of them has English subtitles. While, given the fact that this release is intended for the Korean market, that makes sense, it makes evaluating the supplements for the purpose of this review rather tricky.
Aside from the menus, setup screens and chapter selection, the first disc also features a commentary track with the director of the film, Kwang Hyeon Park. Not speaking Korean, this reviewer cannot attest to the quality of the track but there is a lot of dialogue and skimming through it briefly showed that it didn't suffer from a lot of dead air space. If you speak Korean, it could be an interesting listen. A second commentary with multiple participants (Yes Asia credits this as a cast commentary) is also included, and again, there's plenty of dialogue and discussion here to dig into if you speak the language.
On the second disc we find a whole bunch more in terms of extra features, and while again, none of them are subtitled, some of them aren't quite so impenetrable. First up is a making of documentary that features some interviews with a few cast and crew members and which features some interesting behind the scenes and effects footage that should be of interest to some viewers. Also included are a handful of interviews with the director and with the main cast members from the feature. A couple of deleted scenes, a music video and a trailer for the film round out the extras on this release.
KD Media has done a nice job on the packaging for this set, as both discs are housed inside clear keepcase that fits inside a slick looking digipak. Inside, aside from the two DVDs, there's an insert with the chapter listing and a few notes, all in Korean, about the film.
While Welcome To Dongmakgol has a few flaws, it is an interesting blend of humor, drama, human interest, and war time tension all rolled into one. The CGI is more than a little distracting but the cinematography and performances are quite good throughout. This two disc import set isn't English friendly in the extra features department but the feature looks and sound good, making this a solid recommendation for fans of South Korean cinema and a solid rental for everyone else.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.