November 12, 2004

Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War

Directed by Kang Je-gyu Starring Jang Dong-gun

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The official South Korean entry to the 77th Academy Awards, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War is the first to receive a local run amongst the 49 films vying for the Best Foreign Language Film title. Boldly inviting comparisons to Saving Private Ryan from the get-go, this Korean War epic cinematically quotes its WWII counterpart by introducing an elderly veteran set to visit the war memorial site in the present day. Grittier, gorier, louder and more melodramatic, Tae Guk Gi eventually trounces that grossly overrated Spielberg flick in every possible contest.

When the war breaks out in July 1950, brothers Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun of Nowhere to Hide) and Jin-seok (Won Bin) both involuntarily join the Southern army and enter the battlefield. Before they even learn to stomach the sight of corpses, their band of brothers faces its first brush with the Northern enemy. Determined to obtain a discharge for his precious college-bound baby brother, the half-literate Jin-tae goes out of his way to earn a medal of honour despite Jin-seok's disapproval. He volunteers for the most dangerous missions and soon becomes a ferocious killing machine. Their differences gradually turn them into foes, and they will literally face off against each other in a fateful final battle.

With elaborate period sets, myriad extras, spectacular combat scenes and glorious scope composition, the film victoriously achieves anything expensive Hollywood blockbusters can afford. Shiri director Kang Je-gyu unleashes literally every weapon in the arsenal, and there is never a dull moment during the film's frantic 140-minute running time. When the bullets, grenades, mines, daggers and fists aren't bombarding the screen, Kang charges the film with treacly melodrama that is borderline kitsch.

In spite of the blatant Hollywood influence, Tae Guk Gi ultimately triumphs by exposing the foolishness and inhumanity of war when comrades, friends and family members suddenly turn into enemies over clashing ideologies. The film uncompromisingly depicts how easily those allegiances can shift once personal ramifications enter the combat zone, and it maintains an equally critical stance toward both sides of the front line for slaughtering innocent civilians. Ultimately no winner has emerged from the Korean War despite the monstrous amount of human sacrifice, and the two Koreas continue their uncomfortable coexistence. Tae Guk Gi reminds viewers of the extreme price of war more urgently than the year's exasperating parade of political documentaries.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.