Tragedy of Korea inside the film: Welcome to Dongmakgol

By: Baek Jin Wook

Korean War, a biggest tragedy in Korean history until now stays with the 3.8 parallel line between South and North Korea, used in various ways by politicians and as a popular theme in film industry. Mr. Park Gwang Hyun one of famous film director in Korea created This “Welcome To Dongmakgol” trying to break down the ideology life through the plot where ideology still exists as the main theme of the film by reproducing the experienced world in the past.

Welcome to Dongmakgol, a film made in year 2005, awarded by more than 10 film festival was director Park Gwang Hyun’s first successful film. The theme of the film was based on true background and timeline, however, the story was based on the play written by Mr. Jang Jin. However after this successful film there was no successful film made by Director Park.

During Korean War, an opposition of South and North Korea living with different societies under different political systems which shows the real ideological situation at that time, the town of Dongmakgol, which is deeply hidden somewhere in the valley of Taebaek mountain in Gangwon province, suddenly starts to become crowded because not only the North and South Koreans but also allies of US forces, including coalition forces, have struck at Dongmakgol at once. Where no rules nor ideology exists but all of a sudden different people enters Dongmakgol who opposes each other’s ideology. The content of the film is not explicitly political, but it becomes so through by the form and the structure (Comolli & Narboni, Cinema/ideology/criticism, pp690). The theme of the film, based on the era of Korean War itself makes the idea of political since “war” starts by opposing group of people.

Going back to the basic idea of ideology, according to Karl Heinrich Marx, social hierarchy makes the ideology meaningful where this idea became a basic idea of ideology in film industry in year 1960’s. The meanings in the film and the ideas formulated eventually has the idea of ideology. Ideology was first used in the study in 18th century by Antonie Destutt de Tracy’s Projet d’Eléments d’Idéologie, 1801. Where ideology made people to believe in something and make them feel and think a certain way. Continuously, this idea was applied in the field of film. Films are believed to reflect the fundamental beliefs of a society – ideologies (Phillips, 2005) where it says that film deals with the society and the society has its ideologies.

In Welcome to Dongmakgol, it seems like that no rules nor ideology exists in the village, however, by applying and considering the idea of Karl Marx, it is able to notice that ideology still exists in the Dongmakgol village. The town chief, worker and the guard divided into different social class and position already has the idea of ideology. The culture itself is surely a part of the ideology in the village. The body of ideology reflects the social needs and aspirations of an individual, a group, a class, or a culture. Ideology is a system of ideas, opinions or viewpoints (Pearson & Simpson 2001, pp231-237). Even though director Park said that he tried to break the ideology in the film’s plot, still the film itself couldn’t remove the total idea of ideology. Dongmakgol is actually a non-existing place in Korea but their livings, culture and the situation at that time mirrors the reality of Korean War and during the Korea War, everything was related with politics which is ideology itself. It is partly true that Welcome to Dongmakgol ignored the ideology at that time by creating its own world and idea, opposing to the situation at that time. Here the director wanted to bring the audience to another ideology world created by “Dongmakgol”. Dongmakgol itself, the style and content is apolitical but looking into the film itself, it deals directly to the political subject (Korean War).

Korean film, relating with ideology, many of the film dealt with the topic of South and North Korea since this two different country totally has opposing ideology, society and image. However, Welcome to Dongmakgol dealt with the same issue but the way how this film lead the idea of ideology differed from other films.

To point out one specific scene in the film, where the South and North Korean soldiers put the guns against each other in Dongmakgol village, the main character “yeoil” pulls out the pin of the hand grenades by her own curiosity. The soldiers throws the grenades into the grain warehouse where the grenades explodes, all of a sudden the sky was filled with popcorn. In this scene when the opposing soldiers put the gun against each other, it directly showed the ideology and the director depicted the reality of the Korean War. Where the idea of film maker’s first task was simply shown and performed without a doubt. However, the director turned the serious ideologies of South and North Korea into a cheap comedy by exploiting the popcorn scene. This, however is not just a cheap comedy scene but has an idea that the people in the scene are confronted with their own ideologies (ideal for constructing ideal society) even though they are already within the ideal society they have sought which is Dongmakgol village. It shows the intention of Director Park that in this utopia, (Dongmakgol) neither ideology nor the mirrors of reality can possess its power. The merging of ideology and film has permitted the endorsement of the dominant values that society approves of, thus the marginalization of other alternatives (Barthes) which in Welcome to Dongmakgol somehow created its own utopia putting values and meanings. Still, it does not harm the idea of mirroring the reality through the film.

As mentioned earlier, Welcome to Dongmakgol is not explicitly political but becomes through the form and structure. Also this film broke down the traditional way of depicting reality. Talking about depicting reality, to mainly focus on the Korean film industry of traditional way of depicting reality, traditional Korean film mainly focused on the tragedy reality of South and North Korea and political issues since it increases the emotional aspects which provided the chance of making big profit from the audience. It dealt with serious topics and based on true story and themes, to make the audience feel the presence of the given time (최동훈 영화의 사회반영성/ 이민호, 이효인, 한국콘텐츠학회논문지, vol. 13 no.6 (2013), pp.125-136).

Welcome to Dongmakgol promotes an idea that “Based on the 6.25 Korean War, dive into the naiveness of people living in Dongmakgol”. However it is highly criticized by many people that the real meaning of this theme is “Remove America, reunite Korea”. People say it is just creating ideology through screen to make people believe and follow the intention of the film. Here the way cinema makes people to believe and make them think as if they are ruling, feeling and living inside the screen, Cinematic apparatus is also applied in Welcome to Dongmakgol. Especially films like having background based on the history of a certain country, Louis Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatuses essay (Althusser’s ISA, 1971) states that ISA are private domains which are functioned by ideology of the ruling class, and those ISA are religious, education, family, legal, political, trade union and communication which in Welcome to Dongmakgol’s background is based on history and that history is shown by the soldiers of North and South Koreans and the ideologies are show by their own characteristic. Also the war itself is political as mentioned previously. Welcome to Dongmakgol signified historical background by placing different elements such as costume, language, Class struggle, custom and the environmental aspects as well. By implying those different elements inside the film and showing it by screen to the audience, it makes people and gives them a position of superior inside the cinema. This Cinematic apparatus theory is derived from Marxist theory where it shows that semiotics and psychoanalysis actually influenced apparatus theory. Welcome to Dongmakgol used different language dialects which made the audience to imagine and feel the film even more realistic. Lacan (1989) mentioned that rather along with semiotics and other elements, language itself creates the world and through the meaning of the language, the viewers will imagine and believe that the story they are watching is the story that happens in real life.

Baudry (2009) mentioned that cinematic apparatus as a simulation of unconscious phenomena where he interpreted that cinematic apparatus in film replicates the most significant condition of dreaming. Fulfilling one’s instinctual desire, satisfies the desire of the unconscious. Like in one the scene of Welcome to Dongmakgol, the last scene where North and South Korean soldiers fights against the American & South Korean ally force, they knew that they are going to die and sit down together and watch the bomb explodes. In this scene, director Park mirrored the explosion of bombs in a shape of fireworks where audiences might think that it is going to the path of comedy again. However, in that particular effect, it replicated the desire of people at that time where the bomb explosion shape was in aesthetic firework shape fulfilled the desire of people (both audience and the people back in the history) which was stop of the war. However, this film is criticized by people in the way that it was not serious at all, dealing with the sadness and tragedy of history, it only wanted to show the comedic aspects which the director thinks it can replace the reality tragedy which is on-going in Korea.
Aside from theories and ideas in the film, Welcome to Dongmakgol shows perfect cinematographic elements which mirrored life of the people at that time. Dongmakgol, the place is a non-existing place in Korea however its elements inside Dongmakgol showed the reality of Korea during the Korean War. From clothing, makeup and usage of prop, perfect reality was shown.

All of this idea of ideology and cinematic apparatus theory, Apparatus theory maintains that cinema is by nature ideological because its mechanics of representation are ideological and because the films are created to represent. Film is made by film makers through usage of mechanics which is the Camera. Through Camera it is recorded and through screen it is shown to the audiences which where it is said that mechanical Apparatus- cinematic apparatus has an idea of ideology (Rosen, ). Welcome to Dongmakgol, the cinematographic aspects and its main theme and applied theory was well shown in the film. However lack of its story line and quality made some vague points in understanding the intention of the film. Also aside from this film Welcome to Dongmakgol, director had no significant recognized film in his filmography which makes the audience to understand the style of the director which is highly related with understanding the film as well. However after this film went successful and well known to the people, distinct style of Director Park was revealed. Until now, its uniqueness of style in showing the traditional theme (Korean War) in Korean film industry is recognized by people in film industry.

Tragedy in to cheap comedy? Reveal the hidden meaning inside the village “Dongmakgol”


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