By Chris Horn
You would be hard-pressed to find a more compelling and difficult to portray subject than war. Having successfully proven himself with his 1999 action film Shiri, director Kang Je-gyu once more took a look at the breakout of violence between North and South Korea in Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War. While comparisons to Saving Private Ryan (1998) are inevitable, Taegukgi cuts to the heart of a different kind of war with less clearly defined lines and much more personal stakes for its characters.
Taegukgi is a unique slice of the traumatic Korean War. Lee Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun) is an admirable older brother, son and fiancé who runs a shoeshine stand in order to put money away for his brother Jin-seok (Won Bin)’s education. His wife-to-be, Young-shin (Lee Eun-ju), is almost a perfect match for this kind-hearted and honest family. But as is always the case in dramatic war films, the good times never last long.
When war breaks out the whole family flees south to the presumed safety of their uncle’s home, but Jin-seok is picked up by a military unit combing for draftees among the crowd. Jin-tae tracks him down to a train heading towards the front and attempts a daring rescue, but it is all for naught and the two brothers both end up conscripts in the ROK Army. Once at the front line, it becomes clear they are on the losing side and might soon end up with nowhere to go but the ocean. When Jin-tae learns he can send his brother home to safety if he earns the highest level of commendation he begins to volunteer for risky missions in order to earn this merit. But both Jin-tae and Jin-seok don’t realize that their relationship too can become a casualty of war.
The most important part of Taegukgi—and possibly the element most likely to stir angry emotions among its audience—is its willingness to paint both sides in war as victims and aggressors. The film clearly depicts both North and South Korean citizens—and women in particular—as helpless victims of combat and the heightened bloodlust that soldiers felt as they went back and forth between advance and retreat. The city of Seoul itself is a victim as it is first captured by the Korean Peoples’ Army, then recovered by the ROK Army, and ultimately re-captured by the North before the armistice is signed. This suffering is only enhanced when South Korean paramilitary groups begin rounding up citizens suspected of collaboration and summarily executing them.
One of the most powerful scenes in the film depicts Jin-tae and Jin-seok’s unit happening upon a village abandoned by the retreating North Korean army. The villagers have all been massacred in cold-blood and with a bit more searching they find a bunch of North Korean soldiers hiding in a tunnel. Fueled by rage, Jin-tae intends to kill the lot of them even though one of them is actually an old friend of theirs from Seoul who was forced into the North Korean army. Jin-seok’s forceful intervention spares the prisoners, but we are left with two enduring developments: the breakdown of Jin-seok and Jin-tae’s brotherly relationship and the blurring of lines between friend and foe that is so particular to the Korean War.
Yet Jin-tae’s transformation, while compelling at first, becomes one of the main blemishes of Taegukgi. Before the war breaks out he is characterized as the slightly more standoffish yet protective older brother and son. He volunteers for seemingly suicidal missions in an attempt to win his medal and Jin-seok’s freedom. His love for his brother and his gradual desire for glory drives him to become increasingly callous and by the end of the film he undergoes a serious transformation that doesn’t feel entirely credible.
The Korean War, or any war in our violent collective history, is a difficult subject to study with an even hand, particularly in the relatively short period of a feature film. Kang clearly has a ton of ideas he wants to explore: the morality of vengeance killing, the justification of violence, the victimization of third parties in war, the mind-numbingly senseless loss of life for little or no gain and the effect of the highly politicized war on relationships. These themes run throughout the film to varying degrees of success and he did an admirable job with Taegukgi. That being said, however, I can’t help but wonder if Kang would have better served his material through a mini-series format such as Band of Brothers. He certainly would not want for compelling subjects.
Taegukgi is a commendable effort that shows each side of the war: the glory and the grief, the heroes and the victims. While not a perfect narrative, it might be the most critically and commercially successful Korean War film to date. Kang Je-kyu may have set an unfair standard for any future directors who wish to challenge his vision of the war.
This review also appeared on TheCineholic.com
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