Tae Guk Gi
THE MOVIE: Populist, manipulative, melodramatic, and sweeping, director Je-gyu Kang’s 2004 Korean War epic Tae Guk Gi (The Brotherhood of War) is an old-fashioned war movie the likes of which even Hollywood doesn’t do anymore. Aspiring cobbler Jin-tae (Dong-Kun Jang, who so charmingly wears hangdog world-weariness that he could be Korea’s Chow Yun-Fat) works hard in Seoul caring for his speechless mother, fiancée Young-shin (Eun-ju Lee) and her siblings, and especially his younger brother Jin-seok (Bin Won), a nice 18-year-old and good student. Jin-seok is the hope for the family, the one who is going to get a good job so that their mother doesn’t have to run her noodle stand into old age. But it’s 1950, and soon the communist North attacking the democratic South disrupts their idyll. While fleeing to their uncle’s, the two brothers get conscripted into the South Korean army, and Jin-tae soon starts putting himself in combat danger hoping to win a medal and be able to bargain to have his brother sent home.
This rather formulaic war soap has reportedly become the highest-grossing movie of all time in Korea; saving it from cliché, dutiful Spielbergian remembrance is the fact that Tae Guk Gi is riddled with some of the most casual, banal war gruesomeness ever to hit a screen. Countries create their own national-identity myths in their war movies, and if Tae Guk Gi is to believed, South Korea has no clear idea as to how/why the Korean War started, only that it decimated a population that was less interested in vague dogmas such as democracy or communism than in being able to eat and trying to keep their families together. It’s a viscerally brutal onslaught countering the arch melodrama—the numbingly calm way a wounded soldier wonders, “Where’s my arm?,” is something the brain can’t shake—that makes Tae Guk Gi one of the odder, more searing war movies of recent memory.
THE DISC: This two-DVD set comes with ample resources for the latter-day American whose Korean War knowledge begins at the 38th Parallel and ends at M.A.S.H. Aside from the usual making-of featurettes and run-of-the-mill soldier-training for actor bits are two rather arresting extras. “6.25 and Us” is a PBS-style featurette of interviews with veterans and historians, and “War Project” addresses the difficulties of realizing the Korean War as a movie. Only while watching these two shorts do you realize how little we’ve seen the Korean War on screen, sandwiched as it is between the big bangs of Word War II and Vietnam for Americans, and how we’ve almost never seen it through the eyes of the people that it ravaged most.