Recent developments in inter-Korean relations have brought the Korean War back into the limelight, and major progress seems to be on the horizon. The armistice signed in 1953 could be replaced by an official peace treaty and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) could become a thing of the past. The Korean War is a fresh piece of history for Koreans that only adds a chapter each day. As such, this 65-year-old frozen conflict has been the subject of various forms of media, with the film industry carving out an entire genre for itself.
One of my favorite Korean films is Welcome to Dongmakgol, released in 2005. Directed by Kwang-hyun Park in his directorial debut and written by Jin Jang, who adapted it from his original play of the same name, the film approaches the Korean War in a unique way; deviating from the more common action-oriented battles, this film introduces comedy and lightheartedness to an overall tragic war story. The initial scenes of the movie are funny yet serious at the same time, with special effects and slow-motion used perfectly to elevate the atmosphere to an almost surreal, dream-like quality.
While Dongmakgol may not represent all contemporary Korean War films, the underlying themes of friendship, love, family, community, and the meaninglessness and bitterness of war can be found in any Korean War film of the 21st century. These core attributes are presented through the dynamics of a small idyllic village that unfortunately crosses paths with the ongoing war. The cozy and warm villagers embrace the American, North Korean, and South Korean soldiers and humanizes all of them. Each main character is written with a clearly defined and distinct personality that plays off of one another well and drives home the message of the film: all Koreans, no matter the dialect, are just people. In fact, the film chooses to incorporate most of the “good” character traits commonly found in the main protagonist of a movie into the North Korean squad leader (chief comrade). He initially proposes to maintain the peace in the village and eventually becomes the de facto leader of the North-South group. Of course, Dongmakgol is by no means the first Korean War film to depict North Koreans in a good light; even Piagol, released in 1955, subtly humanized North Korean soldiers and most, if not all, modern films show North Koreans as humans with the same flaws South Koreans have.
The standoff scene between the villagers and the US rescue team towards the end of the film captures the message that war is extremely foolish. A US command center nearly wipes out a peaceful village by accident due to the tense, paranoid, chaotic, and aggressive nature of war. The resulting scuffle takes the life of a young girl, which leads to one of the most emotionally turbulent scenes in the film, and it eventually takes the rather absurd and meaningless sacrifice of five friends — the main protagonists — to barely rectify the misunderstanding. This clearly delineates how the film feels about the war and how we, the viewing audience, are supposed to feel about the war as well.
Shifting gears to pure harrowing grief and horror in A Little Pond, released in 2009, this small-scale passion project of director Sang-woo Lee combines an ensemble cast with a true incident from history to create a semi-documentary fictional film. A Little Pond tells the story of the No Gun Ri Massacre that took place in South Korea a month into the Korean War. This incident involved a group of US soldiers indiscriminately gunning down a few hundred civilian refugees, killing the men, women, children, and elderly of a small village. The movie draws from personal accounts from victims as well as the book The Bridge at No Gun Ri, which was written by Associated Press journalists who first broke the story of this massacre to the world.
As a film that directly targets the US for a war crime that it still has not properly acknowledged and has attempted to cover-up in the past, A Little Pond is an important film with a crucial theme and message. As far as I know, it is the only major Korean film to blatantly deal with a war crime, especially one that was committed by an ally. The scenes waste no time in delivering the carnage and bloodshed, with the happy, peaceful, and harmonious children, families, and friends introduced in the opening scenes of the village violently murdered for absolutely nothing.
On the surface, Welcome to Dongmakgol and A Little Pond are very different films; the former is a bittersweet comic take on the war while the latter is a straightforward dramatization of a blood-soaked real-life massacre taken from the pages of history. But both films share many similar attributes; they both focus on a small, idyllic village that is initially outside the conflict, they depict US soldiers in a generally negative light, they are strongly anti-war, and they both feature the deaths of protagonists for absurd, meaningless, and unjust reasons. This goes hand-in-hand with the way contemporary Korean society views the Korean War; we did not grow up on the anti-communist, anti-North propaganda and thus see the war as not a direct conflict between North and South, but a political conflict between American and Soviet ideologies and its subsequent mechanisms that laid waste to our people, both North and South.