Taegukgi, Brotherhood, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War
Running Time: 148 minutes
US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15
Country: Korea (South)
Seoul, 1950. Described as “a little rough [with] a heart of gold”, Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun) has left school and happily shines shoes to pay for the education of his promising younger brother Jin-suk (Won Bin), while looking forward to his own marriage to Young-shin (Lee Eun-joo). Yet their hopes for the future are dashed when war breaks out, and as they are fleeing Seoul with their family, both brothers are forcibly drafted into the Southern army. From that moment on, Jin-tae stops at nothing, volunteering for ever more dangerous missions and readily putting the lives of others at risk, in order to secure Jin-suk’s safe return home. Yet even as Jin-tae becomes a decorated war hero, his ruthlessness and recklessness drive a wedge between his beloved brother and himself, until several cruel twists of fate lead them to meet on the battlefield one last time as enemies rather than kin.
Near the beginning of ‘Taegukgi’, a soldier gravely wounded by a landmine goes mad in the army hospital, shooting the other patients around him before turning the gun on himself. The scene encapsulates the self-destructive insanity of civil war, when citizen fights fellow citizen and one aggrieved victim fights another. In the topsy-turvy logic of a conflict between North and South that, technically, is still waging today over fifty years after it began, Jin-tae’s all-consuming love of his family, his country, and above all of Jin-suk sees the cobbler repeatedly turning his gun on his fellow countrymen, his old friends, his own men, and ultimately even on his own brother (whom, in a compelling piece of symbolism, he is no longer able to recognise).
One might imagine that in choosing to name his film ‘Taegukgi’ after the national flag of South Korea, director/co-writer Kang (Shiri) Je-gyu is flying his colours for one side only – but in fact, although he focusses on two brothers from the South, the film uses the emotionally fraught relationship between them – the rivalry, jealousy, love and hate – to crystalise the internecine struggles that have divided Korea into North and South. Like his two main characters, Je-gyu shows little interest in ideology, and bears equal witness to the atrocities committed by both sides of the conflict, so that ‘Taegukgi’, far from being a jingoistic rallying cry for the people of South Korea, is a tragic lament for the fates of both halves of the peninsula. The red, blue and black designs of the ‘Taegukgi’ represent male, female and earth respectively, and it is with earth that the film begins and ends – but not earth as a place of fertility and sustenance for a nation, but rather as a mass grave.
The most expensive South Korean film to date, ‘Taegukgi’ is set on an epic scale, with years of meticulous research ensuring that the political background is accurate, and with the vast sets and cast of over 25,000 extras bringing a brutal reality to the battle sequences. At the same time, by showing all these events through the eyes of two essentially apolitical brothers, Je-gyu never allows himself to abstract away from the human dimension, and human cost, of so much explosive mayhem, and so keeps the story engaging on an emotional level. Only Lee Dong-jun’s over-manipulative score risks shifting the tone from melancholic restraint to maudlin melodrama, in a film which otherwise balances perfectly the spectacular with the personal in its account of one of the most violent and pointless clashes of the last century.
It's Got: Spectacular (if entirely unglamorised) battle sequences, in trenches, fields and even in the streets of Pyongyang; a nations divisions allegorized through the difficult relationship between two brothers; a careful balancing of epic scale and personal drama.
It Needs: A more subtle soundtrack the films actions are tragic enough in themselves, without further requiring this over-the-top score to wrench away at the heartstrings.
This Korean epic is a grim requiem for a war not yet over.