Tae Guk Gi is the name of the South Korean flag. (Or so your reviewer has been told.) It is also the name of a sprawling, spectacular movie from South Korea about two brothers caught up in the tragedy of the Korean war.
Written and directed by Kang Je-gyu, Tae Guk Gi, subtitled The Brotherhood of War, begins in the present, with the excavation of an old Korean war battlefield. An aged veteran of the war receives a call asking information to help identify the bones of a fallen soldier. The old man immediately sets out for the site, hoping to learn the fate of the brother he lost in the war. Tae Guk Gi has been compared to Saving Private Ryan, in part because both are structured like long flashbacks - memories of survivors who lived through something that their children and grandchildren canâ€™t begin to comprehend.
As with Saving Private Ryan, the movie really gets underway when the old man reaches the grave site. We are taken back to 1950, and introduced to two brothers. Lee Jin-seok (Won Bin) is a promising high school student who hopes to be admitted to a university. His brother Lee Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun) is a shoemaker. Though uneducated, Jin-tae is proud of his brotherâ€™s accomplishments, and works hard to support him and their mother. (Lee Yeong-ran)
The prewar scenes are both idyllic and fairly brief. Soon the North Koreans attack, and the Lees are forced to flee south, along with Jin-taeâ€™s fiancĂ© Young-shin (Lee Eun-joo) While the family tries frantically to board a train south, Jin-seok is drafted by South Korean soldiers. Jin-tae tries to get his brother off the train carrying the conscripts, only to be drafted himself. Both brothers, with no prior training, are then thrust into the desperate defense of Pusan.
After that, the battle action is virtually nonstop for the rest of the movie. It is here that Tae Guk Gi shows a second similarity to Saving Private Ryan. The combat is brutal, visceral, and intense. A scene in which a patrol laying mines suddenly comes under attack is particularly well done. The feeling of being ambushed is certainly there, with the special effects department adding lots of tracer rounds whizzing by for good measure. The soldiers endure poor rations, frequent (And appropriately frightening) artillery bombardments, and medical care that looks like something out of the American Civil War. (A scene of an unfortunate soldier with maggots infesting his wounds is quite gross. This movie earns its R rating.)
Once in combat, Jin-tae decides to protect his brother at all costs. He volunteers for hazardous missions in order to spare his brother from the same duty. He also decides, based on a promise by his commander, to somehow win the Korean medal of honor. If Jin-tae can distinguish himself sufficiently on the battlefield to earn Koreaâ€™s highest decoration, then Jin-seok will be allowed to go home.
As the UN forces fling the North Koreans back from Pusan and begin to fight their way up the peninsula, Jin-tae becomes a deeply courageous soldier, but he also becomes more callous and unfeeling as well. Eventually, he becomes estranged from Jin-seok, who resents being protected, and canâ€™t understand the ruthless killer his brother is becoming. After Jin-tae risks himself and others to capture a North Korean General, Jin-soek asks him how he can ever face his mother again if Jin-tae has faced nearly all of the dangers, and points out that the capture of the General also cost the life of another soldier who was their friend.
It is here that Mr Kangâ€™s epic begins to really show its flaws. As the Chinese enter the war, the conflict between the two brothers intensifies as well. Increasingly, Jin-seok questions whether his brotherâ€™s heroism is worth the changes the war is wreaking on him, and whether anything is worth the enormous human cost to the whole country. Watching the documentary on the making of Tae Guk Gi that accompanies the DVD, one gets the impression that many of the people involved in the project saw themselves as making an antiwar film. And yet the movie can be viewed in more than one way. It is a fact that war often changes those who fight in it. It is also a fact that those whom soldiers protect, often at great cost, simply canâ€™t understand the soldiers, or their experiences of war, or why it is that they must do some of what they do. As the war in Tae Guk Gi becomes one of brother against brother, the conflict between the sensitive, intellectual Jin-seok and the simple, tough, and increasingly brutal Jin-tae starts to look a bit like the clashes between soldiers and their critics in our own time. If Tae Guk Gi is an antiwar movie, it must be reckoned a flawed one.
It has other flaws as well. The plot relies way too much on fantastic coincidences. It is highly melodramatic as well, with occasional large helpings of good old fashioned corn. The performance at times seem overwrought and too emotional, although perhaps Koreans do at times talk to one another in this way. The performances are good if one allows for the histrionics. Jang Dong-gun in particular is charismatic and watchable. One suspects he could give the current crop of action stars in Hollywood a run for their money.
Your reviewer has no idea what the budget for this movie was, but it looks like someone spent a fortune. Uniforms and infantry weapons are authentic, although the producers apparently could get no Sherman or Pershing tanks and had to cobble together mockups. Though the result is acceptable, military history buffs will easily spot them as fakes. The scenes frequently seem overcrowded as well. Well trained infantry shouldnâ€™t bunch up like this, although it could be argued that most South Korean infantry in 1950 wasnâ€™t especially well trained. Mr Kang makes liberal use of explosions as well, and whether the explosive in question is a bomb, a shell, a grenade, or a Molotov cocktail, they all make about the same sized explosion, frequently with an extravagant amount of flames. For all itâ€™s antiwar pot of message, Tae Guk Gi also shows Communist atrocities, something basically unheard of in Hollywood.
Tae Guk Gi has its flaws, but boredom is never one of them. It holds the viewerâ€™s attention from beginning to end. It has more battle action than any three Hollywood war movies, and the action is intense, looks authentic, and is very well filmed. At itâ€™s worst, this film is melodrama with a confused and sometimes unconvincing message with which many viewers will disagree. At itâ€™s best, Tae Guk Gi is an entertaining, good looking epic that will have the viewer fanning the gunsmoke out of his living room.