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March 28, 2011 | by  | in Arts Film |
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It should come as no surprise that South Korean films often mine the omnipresent North-South divide for sweet, sweet cinematic gold. From the “why can’t we all just get along” attitude of star vehicle Secret Reunion to the violent antagonism of action blockbuster Shiri, there’s a sense in all South Korean films that the divide isn’t a necessity—rather, it’s a human creation, designed to reflect a series of outmoded attitudes that perpetuate themselves among the citizens of the divided peninsula. Welcome to Dongmakgol is one of the most nuanced—and oddly, one of the most optimistic—examinations of this divide.

Set during the Korean War, the film takes place in a mountain village isolated from the hellish violence until three lots of soldiers, Northern, Southern and American, crash-land into their lives. Despite initial misgivings—misgivings that result in a stand-off in the town square between the Northern and Southern troops, the town’s citizens indifferent to the (cannily metaphoric) situation they’ve become hostages in—they learn that, hey, maybe they aren’t so different after all, but when the War drops back into their lives, they find themselves confronted with the barbarism that’s expected of them as opposing forces—their disgust at their old attitudes, wrought large and violent in front of them, is palpable.
Dongmakgol isn’t just an exceptional and smart presentation of communities clashing over thinly-spread and ill-defined ideological lines—it’s also a fantastic portrait of a community in a far more localised sense. The village of Dongmakgol is an immediately endearing environment full of rich, entertaining characters, be it resident ‘crazy person’ Yeo-il or the unlucky villager whose wife keeps showing an interest in Northern soldier Jang Young-hee.

Their naïve, pastoral ways of living may bear the superficial hallmarks of every groan-inducing bucolic British comedy, but there’s a lot more heart and realism to their depiction—their ‘storeshed’ economy and their awkward pleasantness in the face of immense hostility (in one scene, a trio of villagers discuss whether they should greet an angry American soldier after meeting his eye; deciding to greet him, their gesture is repaid with a gun butt to the face) both marks for and against their existence in a new, divided Korea. Dongmakgol is a hilarious and sweet film, but it’s also poignant and essential in its depiction of an outdated community forced to come to terms with and make sacrifices for its political irrelevance.

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