Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (2004) / War-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for graphic violence, gore, and language
Running Time: 140 min.
Cast: Jang Dong-kun, Wong Bin, Lee Eun-Joo, Kong Hyeong-jin, Lee Yeong-ran, Jo Hun-hie, Kim Soo-roh
Director: Kang Je-gyu
Screenplay: Kang Je-gyu
Review published September 4, 2004
Perhaps it is a bit derivative in style to Steven Spielberg's war epic, Saving Private Ryan, but it's still compelling stuff nonetheless. Tae Guk Gi seeks to tell the tale of the Korean War through the lives of two brothers who are drafted into fighting for the South Korean Army against the Communist North in 1950. Just as the Civil War and Vietnam still continue to haunt Americans to this day, the Korean War is still very much a part of Korean culture, having elements of both traumatic wars. Its resonance in South Korea has catapulted Tae Guk Gi to be the highest grossing film in that nation's history -- a must-see movie that speaks volumes, even if you're unfamiliar with the events.
Tae Guk Gi starts off with two brothers, Jin-tae and Jin-seok, living a comfortable life in their small town in South Korea. Jin-tae is the eldest of the two, passing his days shining shoes to make money in order to provide for the family, and to make sure that his younger brother can study and earn an education. Through a series of circumstances, the two brothers end up both forced to go to war once fighting breaks out, although taking both males from the home was not ethical, so as to continue the family line. Jin-tae, still looking out for his younger brother, tries desperately to get him removed from fighting, which his captain consents to do if he can earn the Medal of Honor, for acts of heroic bravery. From then on, Jin-tae volunteers to do the most dangerous missions, trying to keep his younger brother out of harm's way, although Jin-seok thinks that the medal and accolades he is trying for has corrupted his altruistic intentions.
From the opening which shows you an elderly man looking back on his life, to the flashback to the simple, happy times, you know that Kang Je-gyu is setting us up for the shock of contrast. Saving Private Ryan is definitely an influence here, as unflinching, graphic violence is depicted throughout, with the ultimate message being that war is as close to Hell as one can ever get. The shaky camerawork of the heavy battle sequences are also very similar to that used by Spielberg in Ryan, although the main story of the two brothers and the changes that occur to their personalities and interests during the war keeps this from being just a carbon copy. It's still a unique story, even if the techniques employed to tell it are not.
It's a compelling and engaging story, and even at 2 hours and 20 minutes, it doesn't feel like a long film. The acting is exceptionally good, and Kang Je-gyu's direction keeps the action tight and the drama moving, although he does tend to employ a heavy amount of Hollywood clichés in his story development. The production value is also impressive, and if isn't the most expensive film ever made in South Korea, I'd be very surprised. This is a viscerally gut-wrenching and heartbreaking war film that definitely delivers an epic war story, but in a personal way.
As riveting as it often is, Tae Guk Gi just falls short of greatness due to Kang Je-Gyu's tendency to make the battle scenes feel like pieces you'd find in a standard action movie -- a little more First Blood than Platoon more often than not. The scenes of pre-war South Korea smack of idealized manipulation, and some of the more sentimental scenes dip a bit too deep to seem particularly real. Basically, Kang Je-gyu is at odds with himself, at the same time trying to portray a realistic sense of the war, while stuffing it in the middle of a conventional melodrama. One or the other would work fine, but together, the competing interests tend to cancel each other out.
Tae Guk Gi is a well-produced and nicely acted war epic that should impress most who view it, both for the depiction of the Korean War as we've never seen it before, as well as the story of two brothers trying to keep their bonds of family during a time when bigger events are taking place around them. How much this film moves you will probably depend on your tolerance for its use of convention, and I must admit, while my mind found much to be interested in, my heart remained mostly dormant during the climactic final scenes and the epilogue. Still, it's high points are strong enough for it to be one of the best films of 2004, and if you can stomach the sometimes grotesque battle injuries that take place, it is highly recommended for adults looking for a well-made film on the horrors of war.
©2004 Vince Leo