YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


War's contrasts are seen in 'Tae Guk Gi'

Through the eyes of an average family, a Korean film looks back on a conflict that still splits the country.

September 03, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

If Americans think of the Korean War at all, it's often as a kind of half-forgotten placeholder between World War II and Vietnam, two armed struggles with much more active and vocal constituencies. In Korea itself, obviously, the view is very different.

For there was a Korean conflict before the U.S. and the U.N. got involved, and the war's aftereffects continue in a country where casualties were 10 times the American rate, a country that remains physically divided along ideological lines. But even given that, the extent to which Korea has embraced "Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War" has been a surprise.

It's not only the box-office numbers that are noteworthy, with "Tae Guk Gi" surpassing all other contenders, including Hollywood behemoths like "Titanic," to be the No. 1 film in that country's history. What makes it of more than ordinary interest is also the way the film successfully combines audience-friendly sentimentality with absolutely grueling combat footage and an unexpected but unmistakable hostility toward the entire notion of war.

"Tae Guk Gi" is very different from Korean art house affairs like "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring" that have become staples on the film festival circuit. As indicated by its title, which refers to the flag of South Korea the way "Stars and Stripes" refers to America's, this comes from a more commercial side of the Korean film world.

Though "Tae Guk Gi" opens and closes with brief framing sequences set in the present, almost all of its 2-hour, 20-minute length takes place between 1950 and 1953, the years of the conflict. As written and directed by Kang Je-Gyu, the film begins just before the war and presents -- with an unembarrassed sentimentality -- the lives of the two brothers who are its protagonists.

Younger brother Lee Jin-Seok (Won Bin) is the family pride, a brainy student of whom great things are expected. His widowed mother and his future sister-in-law, Young-Shin (Lee Eun-Joo), both toil in the Seoul family noodle shop to help pay for his education. Similarly, his older brother, Lee Jin-Tae (Jang Dong-Gun), has left whatever dreams he had behind and works as a shoemaker.

Still, a happier family you never will see, even on screen. When Young-Shin, bursting with contentment, says, "I wish every day were like this, no more, no less," it's an unmistakable movie sign that very bad times are about to begin. And sure enough, the Korean War breaks out almost immediately and the brothers are rousted at a train station and press-ganged into service in the South Korean army. Older brother Jin-Tae, always protective, is determined to do whatever he can to get his younger sibling sent home and decides that if he is reckless and heroic enough to win major medals, that should do the trick.

"Tae Guk Gi's" tone starts to change almost immediately after the fighting begins. Much of the film is taken up with graphic scenes of combat, including savage hand-to-hand fighting, withering automatic weapons exchanges, large-scale explosions and fires, and unflinching close-ups of bloody wounds.

Director Kang and his team have made the interesting choice to shoot all this carnage in a ragged, jittery style, almost as if someone had been close enough to take intense home movies of the combat. It's a choice that pays off, simultaneously deglamorizing the action while emphasizing the horrific chaos of it all. Seeing combat this way makes it understandable why many veterans who've gone through war never want to talk about it again.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of "Tae Guk Gi" is the impact all this has on the brothers. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we see the inevitable changes carnage makes in personality. Though older brother Jin-Tae is sincere in his desire to win medals to get his sibling home, we also see the blood lust rise in him, see him getting consumed body and soul by the butchery until killing becomes an end in itself.

Younger brother Jin-Seok goes through an equally compelling transformation, going from idealizing his brother to resenting his zeal for blood and glory to coming to share it himself. War, finally, is shown to be a kind of ultimate drug that allows people to act in ways that can't be forgiven. With killing as an end in itself, combatants lose sight of what they were supposed to be taking up arms for in the first place. It's a terrible lesson, and one that "Tae Guk Gi" teaches with unexpected confidence.


`Tae Guk Gi'

MPAA rating: R for strong graphic sequences of war violence

Times guidelines: Extremely graphic combat violence

Jang Dong-Gun...Lee Jin-Tae

Won Bin...Lee Jin-Seok

Lee Eun-Joo...Young-Shin

A Destination Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Director Kang Je-Gyu. Producer Kang Je-Gyu. Writer Kang Je-Gyu. Cinematographer Hong Gyung-Pyo. Editor Park Gok-Ji. Music Lee Dong-Jun. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

In limited release.

Los Angeles Times Articles