Judge Erick Harper was shocked to learn that not everyone in the Korean War was a wisecracking American doctor.
Tae Guk Gi was made to show the desire to return to daily living was the most important value in the midst of war.—Director Kang Je-Gyu
The Korean War has been largely forgotten by most people living outside the Korean Peninsula. For Americans in particular, the Korean War followed too close on the heels of World War II and was then overshadowed by the great national drama and tragedy of Vietnam.
In Korea, where the war has still not officially ended, the conflict between the democratic South and communist North remains an ever-present source of pain and tension. Surprisingly, the Korean film industry has traditionally been hesitant to deal with the war, even though it stands as one of the defining events of twentieth century Korean history. In 2004, director Kang Je-Gyu (Shiri) tackled this monumental issue in his film, Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo, which translates roughly to Wave the Korean Flag, or Korean Flag Flying High, in either case a statement intended more as ironic than strictly patriotic. For its western release, the film became known as Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War.
Facts of the Case
Brothers Lee Jin-Seok (Won Bin) and Lee Jin-Tae (Jang Dong-Gun) live in the idyllic world of 1950 Seoul. World War II is over, and with it over three decades of Japanese occupation. The country is happy and prosperous, even though it remains divided at the 38th Parallel between the two opposing camps of the victorious Allies. Jin-Seok is a diligent student with his eye on a university education; his older, more practical brother Jin-Tae works as a shoeshine boy and looks to perfect the art of shoemaking and open his own shoe shop. Jin-Tae's girlfriend Young-Shin (Lee Eun-Joo) is almost a part of the family, working in the noodle stand run by the boys' mother.
On June 25, 1950, their world changes when the communist North invades the democratic South, intent on reunifying the country by force. The two brothers find themselves wrenched from their home and drafted into the South Korean army. Jin-Tae, the elder and wiser brother, desperately searches for a way to save his younger brother. He finds that it has happened before, in special cases, that a man who demonstrates extreme heroism and wins the Medal of Honor may have enough pull to request that a family member be sent home to safety. Soon, Jin-Tae is volunteering for every possible dangerous mission, while making sure the company commanders keep Jin-Seok as safe as possible. Jin-Seok resents his brother's meddling. More troubling is the change that comes over Jin-Tae as he develops a reputation for heroism based on his daredevil exploits. He appears to enjoy the killing and mayhem and resultant accolades; he no longer does these things merely to save Jin-Seok, but because he is developing a taste for violence, adventure, and acclaim.
The chaos of war eventually separates the two brothers, each thinking the other has been killed. They are destined to meet again in a confrontation that will test the bonds of their brotherhood.
Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War has been compared to Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. They bear obvious similarities, being graphically violent war films from roughly the same era. The films even open similarly, with present-day framing stories of old veterans seeking to put to rest the ghosts of the past. Where both films excel is in the examination of their respective conflicts through small, intensely personal stories of duty and loyalty. Of the two, Saving Private Ryan is the more technically accomplished film. On the other hand, Tae Guk Gi does a better job of addressing the broader societal context of the Korean War; the audience gets a sense of the war's meaning for the whole country as well as the personal meaning for the characters on screen.
A film like Tae Guk Gi, with its idyllic images of pre-war life in Seoul, its harrowing action sequences, and its horrifying images of war requires considerable versatility on the part of the director. Kang Je-Gyu delivers the Lee family's good times and the Lee brothers' war times with equal aplomb. In this, as in most war movies, the battle scenes have received the bulk of the popular attention, and they stand up well to scrutiny. There is perhaps a bit too much Saving Private Ryan- and Black Hawk Down-inspired shaky-cam work, but overall the feel of the battle sequences is appropriately chaotic and dangerous. If Jin-Tae's exploits take on a bit of an unrealistic, Rambo-esque feel from time to time, such things can be forgiven in the context of the story Kang is trying to tell. He relies from time to time on the most ancient of war movie clichés, such as the scene where everyone in the platoon sits in a circle to introduce himself and tell a bit about his background, or the moment at the Nakdong River battle where Jin-Tae all too conveniently overhears essential dialogue coming from a North Korean bunker, but for the most part the storytelling here is efficient and realistic.
Kang is aided in his storytelling by some noteworthy special effects. The graphic violence of war is shown faithfully but never exaggerated and never played just for an audience reaction. Kang's camera doesn't shy away from the realities of war; along the way he provides some great visual moments, like a hail of tracer rounds flying directly at and past the camera. There are some weak, obviously CGI moments, such as the crash of an American Corsair fighter plane at a crucial moment in the film, but these glitches are minor and fleeting.
The acting performances from the leads are solid and realistic, with Won and Jang making a very believable pairing as brothers. I found Lee Eun-Joo especially captivating and charming as Young-Shin, Jin-Tae's fiancée. In what was for me a sad and poignant coincidence, she committed suicide in February, 2005, just weeks before I saw this film for the first time.
This two-disc special edition DVD from Sony gives Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War a far more complete examination than most foreign films receive. Disc Two contains over two hours of supplements dealing with the development and production of Tae Guk Gi, as well as the effects of the war on Korean society. The featurette "6.25 and Us" features veterans and historians talking about the experience, costs, and ongoing consequences of the Korean War. Actors and filmmakers also get a chance to share their observations on the meaning of the war and the meaning of this film within that context. The other five featurettes deal specifically with the making of Tae Guk Gi, from its inception, through the challenges of making such a costly and complex film, and its eventual reception both in Korea and abroad. Also included are multi-angle storyboard comparisons and a photo montage, neither of which is as cool as it sounds. Completing the collection of special features are trailers for Tae Guk Gi, House of Flying Daggers, Warriors of Heaven and Earth, Steamboy, and Kang Je-Gyu's earlier hit, Shiri. The only special feature really missing is a commentary track. Perhaps the film's creators don't speak English well enough to provide one for the North American market, but surely a historian or Korean cultural expert could have been found to help illuminate the importance of the war and the significance of the film.
The image and audio quality on this release are outstanding. Hong Gyung-Pyo's gorgeous cinematography comes through crisp and clear, with little evidence of transfer complications or digital artifacts, apart from some minor apparent aliasing and possible edge enhancement. Colors are rich and lifelike. Black levels are among the best I've seen on Sony releases, and fine details like hair are excellent. The audio is a truly impressive Dolby 5.1 mix. It makes great use of the surround channels for the sounds of battle, or for distant gunfire encroaching on the tranquility of pre-war Seoul. The disc includes an English dub as well, for you heathens out there who can't handle subtitles, and I have to admit that it is surprisingly well done.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Melodrama is an unfortunate tendency in Korean films in general, and Tae Guk Gi is no exception. Director Kang clearly wants to make some important points about his country and about the war, but he undercuts his message through his lack of subtlety. The family scenes in pre-war Seoul are just a little too perfect to believe. Kang clearly intends to contrast the Korean sense of optimism in 1950 and the hell the next three years would bring, but his approach lacks any hint of nuance. Magnifying this flaw is a sequence later in the film, when, after considerable combat experience, Jin-Seok reminisces about the good times back home. Kang chooses to flash back to the most manipulatively saccharine pre-war moments. Not only are these memories too perfect to be effective, but Kang also fails to allow sufficient running time between the events and the flashbacks. As a result, the audience is not yet sufficiently removed from seeing these scenes the first time, and they feel repetitive rather than nostalgic. The flashback is simply too much, too heavy handed, to be effective.
I'll avoid spoilers, but a larger problem occurs later on, when some considerable plot gymnastics become necessary in order to bring about the film's major plot twist. Finally, the last sequence in the film seems unnecessary and tacked-on, and undercuts the strong emotions of the sequence just prior, which should have marked the true ending.
Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War should strike a chord with U.S. audiences, perhaps more so than those in most other western countries. Our own Civil War, so often billed as a conflict of "brother against brother," continues to impact our culture and society to this day, 140 years after the fact. Good movies, like good literature, help us understand ourselves at least as much as they help us understand the people who created them; Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War certainly accomplishes both. In this tale of one family, Kang Je-Gyu tells the tale of how such a conflict can turn countryman against countryman, friend against friend, and ultimately brother against brother.
Not guilty! An impressive effort all around. The South Korean film industry is clearly becoming a force to watch on the international stage. Sony is to be commended for recognizing the value of this film and giving it the fully-loaded DVD it deserves.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• "6.25 and Us" Featurette
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