November 4, 2013

Movie Review: Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo (Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War) (2004)

I wish this was all just a dream. I want to wake up in my bed, and over breakfast, I'd tell you that I had a strange dream. Then I would go to school, and you and mom would go to work. - Lee Jin-Seok (Won Bin)

Director: Kang Je-Gyu

Writer: Kang Je-Gyu

Producer: Lee Seong-Hun

Studio: Showbox Ent. (South Korea), Columbia TriStar (USA DVD)

Major Stars: Jang Dong-Kun, Bon Win, Lee Eun-Ju, Kong Hyeong-jin

Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War blew me away. It’s a remarkable film, a war film that holds it’s own with the best of its Western counterparts. It’s a testament to the talent and quality that can be found in Korean cinema.

The film follows the Lee brothers, Jin-Tae (Jang Dong-Kun) and Jin-Seok (Bon Win), who live in Seoul with their family as the Korean War erupts in early 1950. Jin-Tae works as a shoemaker to put his brother through school. When the North Koreans invade, and Jin-Seok is forcibly enlisted into the Republic of Korea Army (RoK), Jin-Tae joins him to watch over him and try to get him home.

The only way to get Jin-Seok out of the RoK is for Jin-Tae to win the Taeguk Cordon of the Order of Military Merit, the Korean equivalent of the Medal of Honor. He volunteers for dangerous missions. By succeeding he gains attention from the staff officers and the adulation of his fellow soldiers. And Jin-Tae volunteers for more exceedingly difficult missions. But Jin-Seok sees this as changing his brother, who becomes more violent. And so Jin-Seok grows more distant from his brother.

That is what makes Tae Guk Gi so effective. It marries the dynamic of a deteriorating relationship between brothers to some remarkable war scenes. This is where war films go from good to great.

And the scenes are amazing. The first major battle sequence occurs in the early weeks of the Korean War when the North Koreans have all but taken the South. The Lee brothers and their unit are surrounded by the Nakdong River and are being starved to death. They decide to launch a desperation attack against the North Koreans to break out.

This battle is as visceral and jarring as any scene in Saving Private Ryan. More so in some ways, as this is a blood feud in every sense of the phrase. Soldiers are beaten to death with fists and rifle butts. The filming is done with the shaking camera style Spielberg used for Omaha Beach and it works. You are dragged along and feel the desperation of the RoK soldiers who are fighting for their lives.

There are urban combat scenes that look like they were ripped out of documentary reels. The moment when 600,000 Chinese counterattack across the border is a stunning visual to behold. The work of Hong Kyung-Pyo as cinematographer on this film is absolutely fantastic. Not only in the moments of war but in the moments of peace at the beginning of the film.

What also makes Tae Guk Gi a great film is that it doesn’t pull punches with atrocities committed on both sides. We see the crimes of the North Koreans, with villagers slaughtered and people forced to fight for them. We already know about these. What we see and may be unfamiliar with are the South Korean atrocities. North Korean POWs are forced to fight to the death for RoK soldiers. In Seoul the Anti-Communist Federation executes suspected Communists without evidence as the Chinese approach to take the city for the North once again. This latter atrocity affects the Lee brothers in a personal way and drives the climax of the film. Hats off to Kang Je-Gyu for not holding back in his depiction of the war.

If there is anything negative to say about the film, it would be problems that are common to these types of films. Secondary characters tend to be caricatures to some degree. The plot gets rushed at points as Kang tries to cover an extensive period of time. But that does not detract in a major way from the overall success of this film.

I really cannot say enough good things about Tae Guk Gi. And it earns a really high spot on the current list. I’m placing it a hair behind Letters From Iwo Jima. I think Eastwood’s film was better, but not by much. And yes, I am telling you this movie is better than Braveheart or Where Eagles Dare. It's the simple truth. And this should prove that a great war film doesn't need big names or big bucks. Tae Guk Gi was made for $12.8 million. It looks like it cost 10 times that much.

You must have this film in your collection. I promise you that you will not be disappointed. One word of advice; watch it in Korean with the English subtitles. The DVD has an English-dubbed option and it just looks wrong. Besides, films should be listened to in the language they were shot in...with the exception of kung-fu films from the 1970s and 80s.


Post a Comment


Site of Future Awesomeness

Coming soon.

Site of Future Awesomeness

Coming soon