Shiri director Je-gyu Kang tackles an ambitious epic with Taeguki (2004, aka. Tae-Guk-Gi: The Brotherhood of War), a massive war film concerning the plight of two brothers during the Korean war and how those brothers would eventually find themselves divided like their nation.
The film begins in the present, with an excavation of a battleground stirring up the memories of one brother for the sibling he lost during the war... Cut to 1950. Lowly shoeshiner/shoemaker, Lee Jin-seok (Bin Won- Guns & Talks) is the eldest brother caring for his mother, his fiancee and her siblings, and most importantly, watching over his young brother Jin-tae (Dong-kun Jang- Friend), who is the families scholar and hope for a better life. While their lives are not exactly prosperous, things are looking up, ... and then the Communist front in the North begins to invade and war breaks out.
Despite a rule of not drafting two males from the same family or those with physical ailments (Jin-tae has a heart condition), the two find themselves consumed by the chaos and automatically enlisted. Jin-Seok takes it upon himself to protect his weaker brother, insisting that they stay close and searching for any way to get his brother out of service. A potential option is mentioned by his battalion commander, who suggests that if Jin-seok were to receive a Medal of Honor, such a request could be negotiated.
So, in order to save his younger brother and send him back home, Jin-seok begins to volunteer for all of the dangerous missions and sets out to distinguish himself in battle. Jin-tae, despite his passiveness and more fragile constitution, worries over his brothers callous choices and doesn't understand why Jin-seok is being so reckless. But, what was initially an attempt to save his brother, Jin-seok's valor gains him a fame and respect that he beings to revel in, becoming a propaganda poster boy for the very army that unjustly drafted him. The war quickly changes them, with Jin-tae trying to maintain a voice of sympathy and reason, while his brother becomes a cold killing machine still intent to send his sibling home.
While the film mainly deals with the brothers and their regimen of soldiers, it comes up with some interesting ways (that I won't spoil) to show the other side of the war, both in terms of those fighting for the communists and the zealotry of the anti-communists turning on their own people.
The battle scenes in Teagukgi owe much to Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. Bot visually and contentwise, Teagukgi has a similar gritty stark and gruesome realism that is almost punishing to watch. It reminds me of director Sam Fuller's comments in the documentary The Typerwriter, the Rifle, and the Movie Camera. In that doc, the energetic maverick talks of how his battle scenes take you down into the action. But, then the WW2 veteran does profess that his battle scenes lie by showing a man getting shot and just falling down, that he couldn't show the truth, that bodies are eviscerated, and when the dead are gathered, it is in pieces, fragments, trying to make a complete soldier out of various parts. But, since Fuller's era, sensibilities have changed and films don't have to sugarcoat as much. Taegukgi is proof of this. Heads explode. Limbs are severed. Bodies are shattered. The injured go mad and commit suicide rather than endure the pain. Maggots fester in wounds. The men are shell shocked, starving, thirsty, and tired. The trenches are a place of, dirt, mud, blood, viscera, and burning flesh.
Overall, Taegukgi has moments that are unflinchingly brutal, epic in emotion, and poetic, but, as great as those moments may be, there are a few aspects of the film that are a let down and keep it from being the colossal gem its aspires to be. Now, I don't mind a little melodrama in my epic films. Big film, big emotion, it can be a fitting combination, especially true in the classics. However, Taegukgi, at times, lays it a bit too thick. I found myself wishing for a better script or some naturalistic shades of Deer Hunter-worthy acting. It wasn't a problem until the last act, where, because of the opening narrative device (starting the film in present day, knowing which brother was dead), it felt like a long drive to get to a familiar place. Despite its intentions to deliver one final knockout, it is one of those epics full of sweep and grandeur, spending itself until it can spend no more, with nothing left to do but just teeter out.
The DVD: Asia Video (HK, Region 3)
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. The majority of the film is out in the battlefield, amongst the browns and grays of dirty trenches and bombed out cities, so there isn't really much of a color pallette. That is, until some blood is shed, or there is a beautiful snowbound scene, or an explosion, and the eruption of color becomes all the more striking. Intentionally stark and grim settings aside, flesh tones and general details like color and sharpness appear well rendered. Technically, the only real problem I could find was some slight pixellation in the contrast, that is, the darker elements suffering a bit from compression. It doesn't hurt the film that much, but it does make you realize why the Korean SE spreads the two and half hour film onto two discs in order to maximize the image.
Sound: Dolby Digital EX or DTS 6.1 Surround, Korean language, with optional English or Chinese subtitles. Wow. Aside from science fiction, there may be no better genre to give your sound system a workout other than a good war/action movie. From the sound of gunfire zipping through the air, the high ping of an ejected rifle shell casing, to a mortar digging into and then exploding the earth, get your surround system ready because you will feel the war all around you. Likewise, when the score drops in, it is given a generous swell to enrich the overall impact. Obviously, most people should know by now that the separation and range of the DTS track offers an extra punch, but even those that are not DTS capable will be amazed by the plain ol' DD EX sound mix. My only complaint is that I did notice a couple of flubs in the subtitles. Luckily, it wasn't a matter of a badly mangled sentences. There was just a misspelling here and there.
Extras: First, the packaging is nice, including a nice slipcase. A second disc contains the following extras: Trailer— Making of Featurette (41:00) No subs, general behind the scenes footage covering production meetings, scouting locations, makeup tests, rehearsal, and filming. — Five Interviews with the director, cast, and such, ranging from just over a minute to three minutes in length. English subbed.
Conclusion: The Korean and Japanese edition offer more extras, though unfortunately, those extras are not English friendly, so this edition becomes a more affordable importers option. Taegukgi is getting a R1 release from Columbia Tristar (under Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War), a full two disc treatment including storyboard comparisons and a couple of Korean War/Making Of featurettes from the Korean edition. So, most US buyers may want to check out that edition isntead of this one (though in terms of image/sound quality I don't know how it compares).
The film itself is a real winner. Not quite Bridge on the River Kwai or Saving Private Ryan but ten times better than Pearl Harbor. Despite a couple of storytelling stumbles, I'll mark it among the best war films I have seen and proudly put it on my DVD shelf next to Platoon, The Dirty Dozen, and The Thin Red Line.