Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/17/05 23:00:32

"A brutal, emotional, unforgettable war movie experience."
5 stars (Awesome)

“Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War” is South Korea’s answer to the modern Hollywood war epic. The film is in many ways a stylistic copycat, and yet it works as an improvement; its slo-mo shots and haunting choral music may make the movie feel like, say, “Windtalkers” or “Pearl Harbor” (two bad examples, but you get the idea), but writer/director Kang Je-gyu builds on this style, stretches it, fleshes it out just a tad more, breathes new life into the genre. This is a film that manages to feel familiar and fresh at the same time.

Of all the movies it feels like, the closest is “Saving Private Ryan,” thanks mostly to a framing device involving an aging veteran. But the old guy scenes in “Ryan” turned the movie maudlin with its overreaching sappiness - it’s hard to disagree with the notion that Spielberg’s movie would only improve with those scenes deleted, or at least remade with better actors. In “Tae Guk Gi,” however, these scenes work beautifully, with an excellent set of actors working off with impeccably written scene to add a heavy dose of sorrow to an already crushing story.

Following the present day opening, we flash back to Seoul, 1950, a time when older brother Jin-Tae (Jang Dong Gun), an aspiring shoemaker, is supporting his family and helping his younger brother Jin-Soek (Won Bin) through school. Then North Korea invades, and that’s the end of that happy life.

There’s a chaos that surrounds the film - this is a war movie that revels in the insanity and confusion of battle - but the chaos strikes hardest in the first half hour. It’s here that the locals, caught off guard by the invasion, are shuffled into refugee status in what plays, rightfully so, like a nightmare. The nightmare only grows when soldiers drop by and force all men of the proper age to enlist, no exceptions. The film grips us hard in these scenes, these terrifyingly real scenes, and our heart breaks as we remember that the army doing the forced draft is on our side. Just as American movies have at times reminded us of the dark pages in U.S. history, so now does “Tae Guk Gi” remind us of the darker actions of the Korean War.

From here, the plot places itself on the brink of meandering for two more hours, and yet while the movie pushes its epic length with no clear ending in sight, it’s a meandering that’s kept well in check; there’s not a scene here that drags. Even with the screenplay pushing out your usual war movie clichés - some unfortunate sap shares pictures of his family, never a good sign in such a film - there’s such a gusto behind the project that even the most familiar of characters holds steady. Yes, this is a story about two brothers sharing the experiences of war (a literal “band of brothers”), but the paths the plot takes stretch the limits of the formula in exciting, compelling directions.

Familiar territory, considering the trend started by “Ryan” (although many war pics of the 1980s put in their share, too), is seen not just in scripting but its unflinching examination of the horrors of war. This is the same type of screen violence that we’ve witnessed before, and yet “Tae Guk Gi” manages to raise the bar. And not just in battle sequences. Consider the sequence that finds Jin-Tae’s troops behind enemy lines, cut off from supplies, slowly starving to death. There are scenes here - medical issues, psychological issues, political issues - that horrify every bit as the battle sequences. Meanwhile, later scenes the demonstrate the evils perpetrated by both sides come off as a punch to the throat, every bit as angry as the village burning scene in “Platoon.”

(That said, the battle sequences are as excellent as one would hope; there’s a brutal honesty in these moments, combined with an overwhelming presentation. These bits are loud and hard, “unflinching” not being enough of a word to describe them.)

Carrying the film through are two dynamic performances. Jang Dong Gun (sharing more than a passing resemblance to a young Chow Yun Fat) is quite remarkable as Jin-Tae, the young man who grows colder as the war rages and he evolves into an exemplary soldier. And as Jin-Seok, Won Bin provides the right mixture of confused youth and troubled brother. Both leads are quite memorable, helping solidify the story, keeping the sheer weight of the movie from bearing down too hard on the viewer.

Behind the camera, writer/director Kang Je-gyu made waves a few years back with the memorable spy thriller “Shiri,” a major hit in South Korea that sadly (like “Tae Guk Gi”) went criminally overlooked in the States. His follow-up is a bigger, bolder, and more powerful effort, an improvement on an already promising career. With “Tae Guk Gi,” Kang went for big, winding up not only with the most expensive (and most successful) Korean film ever produced, but with a massive work of epic cinema. “Tae Guk Gi” joins the ranks of classic war epics, besting many of the Hollywood movies it aims to emulate. This is filmmaking on a large canvas, a glorious piece of storytelling. Don’t let this one go overlooked any more.

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