Brothers in Arms

Two Koreans go to war in the masterful epic Tae Guk Gi.

Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War Cleveland Cinematheque
Kang Je-gyu's epic stands up to Hollywood's best.
Kang Je-gyu's epic stands up to Hollywood's best.
Already a monster hit in its native South Korea, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War has finally come to America, and chances are that everyone of Korean descent is already lining up to buy tickets. You should join them: Tae Guk Gi is not only one of the best films of the year; it may also be one of the best war movies ever made. Epic in scale yet poignant in story, it's a vast, sweeping tale of two brothers caught up in the Korean War. Chock-full of action, heroism, and realistic gore, the film never shies away from the destructive effects of combat on body, soul, and society. Some may complain that it gets a bit too sentimental at times, yet it comes by its sentiment honestly: from empathy with its main characters, rather than contrived circumstances.

Employing a time-honored template that's been used for war movies at least since 1927's Wings, Tae Guk Gi tells the story of two best friends who go to war together -- in this instance, they're also brothers. Like Wings, Pearl Harbor, and so on, it seems quite likely that one of the two will be dead by movie's end, especially since the story begins in the present day, with only one of them still around. That writer-director Kang Je-gyu manages nonetheless to create suspense about their fates is yet another testament to his skill.

That the two men, Lee Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun, who has the looks of a young Chow Yun-Fat) and Lee Jin-seok (Won Bin), are brothers is more crucial to this story than in some of the cinematic antecedents, as the Korean War frequently pitted brother against brother, often due to accidents of geography and circumstance rather than any heartfelt allegiance to either capitalism or communism. Jin-tae and Jin-seok begin on the same side, but before the war is over . . . well, no sense in ruining all the surprises. You'll see.

Jin-tae, a handsome but ill-educated cobbler, is the older of the two; along with the rest of the family, he has worked hard to ensure that Jin-seok will be able to afford college. When war breaks out and the family all become refugees, Jin-seok is drafted. Though one male per family is supposed to be left behind to take care of the women and children, Jin-tae follows Jin-seok aboard the army train to try and get him back, but both men end up being taken away.

There is one legitimate escape clause -- any man who wins the Medal of Honor can earn the right to send someone home. Without telling his brother, Jin-tae determines to ensure his brother's safety by earning that medal; he starts volunteering for every dangerous and near-suicidal mission that comes his way. Eventually, he's almost addicted to the danger.

Kang has explicitly cited Saving Private Ryan as an inspiration, and stylistically that's evident, from the graphic, large-scale combat scenes to the jerky hand-held-camera movement signifying chaos and uncertainty in the midst of battle. Kang even cribs Spielberg's wraparound device of an old man remembering his past and his losses, but in this case, he manages to make it not suck.

Narratively, though, the structure is totally different. Far from covering one mission, the story spans the entire war -- one that is often fought on home territory. No soldier here is as uncharacteristically paunchy as Tom "More Size" Sizemore was in Ryan. And for anyone getting tired of Nazis as the villains, here we get the much more timely specter of North Korea. In one of the most wrenching sequences, we learn that residents of occupied towns in the South were forced to sign communist oaths in order to obtain food; later, these oaths are dredged up by southern militias as proof of treason and grounds for mass execution. McCarthy-era blacklisting seems utterly tame by comparison.

Kang's previous directing hit was Shiri, a spy thriller about north-south tensions that was rather confusing to Western audiences (too many similarly dressed characters in it named Lee, for instance). With Tae Guk Gi, he has taken a giant leap forward, making the kind of big-screen opus that Michael Bay only wishes Pearl Harbor could have been. One hopes that Jerry Bruckheimer will attend and take copious notes -- foreign films often feature intellectual alternatives to homegrown cinema, but rare is the foreign blockbuster that can go toe-to-toe with the big American-studio action-franchise flicks and clobber them on their own terms. If Kang and/or actor Jang Dong-gun can speak English, they could have it made in Hollywood.

On the other hand, if they can make films this great on a regular basis, why not kick Hollywood's butt instead?

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