If you only watched the first few minutes of Tae Guk Gi: The
Brotherhood of War, you'd be excused for thinking that it's a
clone of Saving Private Ryan. We get the same modern-day
framing device with the old character at a grave, the same sappy
music reminding us that it's an emotional moment, the same flashback
to the war with all its horrors. Fortunately, once Tae Guk Gi
settles into its stride, it becomes clear that it's very much its own
film. It's part of the genre of war films, to be sure, but it has its
own story to tell, and it tells it reasonably well.
Tae Guk Gi is the story of Jin-tae and Jin-seouk, two brothers
from South Korea who are drafted into the Korean War against their
will. Jin-tae is determined to protect his younger brother and get
him sent home, but as time goes on and the brothers deal with the
experience of the war in different ways, it becomes apparent that
nothing will turn out the way any of them expect or hope that it
What impressed me most about Tae Guk Gi is how it refuses to
take a simplistic approach to the subject matter. As the story opens
and the brothers are first thrust into the fighting, there's a
definite sense of the "good South Koreans" versus the "bad
North Koreans": after all, the former are fighting to defend
their country, preserve freedom, etc. The two brothers are cast as
innocents in a terrible situation out of their control, trusting to
their love for each other and their family to pull through. Sounds
like typical feel-good patriotic stuff, doesn't it? Just hold on.
As we follow Jin-tae and Jin-seouk through their experiences, it
becomes more and more apparent that the line between good and bad,
oppressed and oppressor, is not just blurred, but entirely
obliterated. Director Kang Je-Gyu is more daring in his clear-eyed
look at the horrors perpetuated by his countrymen than, I think, most
U.S. directors would be in handling material in the same
What's most effective about this critical look at the war is the
perspective we're given on it. The two brothers are affected by the
war in very different ways: while both start out as passive victims
of the draft, equally horrified by the mayhem around them, one of
them becomes increasingly seduced by the war machine while the other
remains keenly aware of the larger perspective of right and wrong.
Since we've come to see both brothers as decent people, and because
their relationship remains central to the story, it's disturbing (yet
all too plausible) to see how one of them gradually becomes more and
more brutal. While the graphic battle scenes hammer home the visceral
hellishness of the war in simply physical terms, it's in this
psychological dimension that Tae Guk Gi makes its stronger and
more frightening point. War crimes and atrocities aren't committed by
a select few, psychopathic individuals, but by ordinary people in
circumstances that twist them into behaving in ways they'd never have
While the chaotic battle scenes are an essential part of Tae Guk
Gi's main themes, at times the graphic violence and gore goes a
little over the line. There's a fine line between strongly
emphasizing a point so that the audience is deeply affected, and
overdoing it so that the audience becomes inured to the effect. For
the most part, Tae Guk Gi handles its material well, using it
to show how truly desperate the situation is, and to illustrate the
way the war affects the characters, but it's occasionally too much.
All in all, Tae Guk Gi is a solid and worthwhile film; it
tells an interesting story and effectively makes some important
points about the psychological effects of war. It's also a sharp
reminder that when it comes to violent conflict, intolerance, and
despotism, "democratic" nations are far from being the guys
in white hats; the savagery on both sides of the line has nothing to
do with the "right" ideology. It's particularly interesting
to see, in Tae Guk Gi, a Korean filmmaker's view of this
terrible era in his own nation; while the style undoubtedly owes a
lot to Hollywood war films, the perspective is much more interesting
than if a U.S. director had taken on the same subject. It's one thing
to be critical of how "that other country" conducts its
wars; it's another thing entirely – essential, but all too rare
– to turn that same critical gaze on the conduct of one's own
nation and fellow citizens.
Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War is a two-disc set, neatly
packaged in a single-wide keepcase.
Tae Guk Gi appears in an attractive anamorphic widescreen
transfer, at its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The
subtitles are optional (viewers have the choice of English, French,
or none), and they are handled well, with the text being placed
mainly in the black bar underneath the image. The result is that
there's minimal overlap of text and film image, so the subtitles are
easy to read without ever being distracting.
The image quality is quite good overall, with colors looking subdued
(as is stylistically appropriate for the film) but natural. The main
fault that's apparent is the prevalence of edge enhancement: wide
halos are visible around the edges of objects throughout the film.
The Korean 5.1 soundtrack does a respectable job of re-creating big
battle scenes while also handling quieter dialogue scenes competently
as well. While the overall sound isn't as rich as it could be, the
surround sound is moderately aggressive, with many scenes creating a
fairly complete audio environment for the viewer, though that
immersive feeling doesn't extend throughout every scene in the film.
Overall, it's a clean track that handles extremes of volume well.
Optional English and French subtitles are available. A
cringe-inducing dubbed English 5.1 track is included as well; it's on a par with the original Korean track in terms of sound quality, but I found the dubbing to be handled poorly.
The second disc contains a substantial amount of bonus material,
mainly in the form of six different featurettes. Each takes a
slightly different angle on the making of the film, and while I'm
sure that fans of the film will find a lot of interest here, the
overall effect is somewhat disjointed.
The first featurette, "6-25 and Us" (24 minutes) discusses
the historical background of the film. "Creation" (12
minutes), "War Project" (15 minutes), and "Preparing
for Tae Guk Gi" (18 minutes) offer different variations
on the making of the movie and what went into the overall production.
"The People Behind the Camera" (18 minutes) is fairly
self-explanatory, giving us interviews with various people on the
crew. The 44-minute "Making History" is a bit of a
disappointment; it's long but rather pointless, as all it does is
follow the making of the film from first shooting to wrapping up.
Various on-the-spot interviews are included, along with a lot of
behind-the-scenes footage, but the other featurettes have more to
offer in terms of insight into the making of the film.
Several minor special features are included as well. A ten-minute
multi-angle storyboard comparison runs through several scenes from
the film. A photo montage (10 minutes) and a set of trailers for Tae
Guk Gi, Steamboy, The House of Flying Daggers,
Warriors of Heaven and Earth, and Shiri finish off the
Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War has a few uneven spots, but
taken as a whole it's an effective and thoughtful war film... though
not one for the squeamish. With a solid transfer and a moderately
interesting set of special features, it's a respectable addition to
the ranks of modern war films. Recommended.