Director: Je-gyu Kang
Starring: Dong-Kun Jang, Bin Won
Why is it that every “serious” movie lately has to be told in flashback? Is there something I’m missing about the present tense that makes it inherently less weighty as a means of exploring a narrative? Like Saving Private Ryan before it, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War is bookended by present day scenes which add very little to the actual story. Fortunately, like Spielberg’s film, Tae Guk Gi is a strong enough effort overall that those present day scenes are just a minor annoyance rather than a major flaw.
The flashback begins in 1950 in a South Korean village near the North Korean border where two brothers, Jin-tae Lee (Dong-Kun Jang) and Jin-seok Lee (Bin Won), are shown living a life that seems to be overly romanticized and sentimentalized by the filmmakers. To be honest, the movie almost lost me in the first twenty or so minutes because it’s just so aggressively nostalgic. Jin-seok is a student who is being supported by Jin-tae, who works shining shoes, and their mother who runs a small shop with Jin-tae’s financee, Young-Shin (Eun-ju Lee). The family is also supporting Young-Shin’s three young siblings, which would suggest to me that there’s a pretty heavy burden on the three working members of the family and yet here are Jin-tae and Jin-seok, acting like they don’t have a care in the world and practically skipping down the street holding hands. I’m not arguing that they couldn’t or shouldn’t be happy, but the film doesn’t have to go to such great lengths to make it seem like they’re living in an Edenic paradise in order to convince me that much has been lost because of the war.
Anyway, this happy time is brief as soon the war starts and both brothers are drafted into the army. At this point the film really starts to flex its narrative muscle: the at war portion of the film makes everything that came before, and the little bit that comes after, entirely worth it. Jin-tae is determined to get his brother out of the army, back home and back in school where he belongs. He learns from his commanding officer that there have been cases where soldiers were able to barter for the discharge of a family member by taking on dangerous missions and earning a medal, and so that is what he becomes determined to do.
Jin-tae is a remarkably good soldier with the ability to think quickly on his feet and make snap strategic decisions. He performs many feats of bravery and gains the notice of the upper ranks, leading to a shower of praise which quickly starts to go to his head. As his notoriety within the army increases, he loses sight of what inspired him to take risks in the first place and his focus shifts to bolstering his image as a super soldier. It isn’t enough for him that the army gain ground; he has to be at the head of the pack, leading them to victory. The soldiers around him, who were once friends, become instead a means for him to gain recognition and he risks their lives without thought, leading to many deaths. He also, perhaps inevitably, gets caught up in rah-rah ideology which unleashes a streak of sadism in him as he becomes determined not just to beat the enemy but to slaughter them.
Jin-tae’s take no prisoners – even if they’re surrendering – stance doesn’t sit well with Jin-seok, who is disgusted by the change in his brother. When they come across a group of South Koreans who have been forced to fight for the North by threat of execution – one of whom is a friend from their village – Jin-seok finally stands up to his brother, who wants to execute them despite the fact that they’re unarmed. They become POWs, but that doesn’t stop Jin-tae from continuing to abuse his power, as he forces the POWs to box for the amusement of the troop, telling them that whoever loses won’t get food or will perhaps be shot. Not only does Jin-seok no longer recognize his brother, he now wants nothing to do with him and the relationship continues to deteriorate despite Jin-tae’s assertions that whatever he’s doing, he’s doing it for the family.
A lot of plot is packed into this story – I’ve actually only gone into about 2/3rds of it – but its well-paced and never feels overloaded. The progression of events seems natural and unforced and while a lot of war movie standbys make appearances as plot points, the film doesn’t feel riddled with clichés. I don’t know all that much about the Korean war, nor am I very familiar with the way that it has been portrayed in other films (off the top of my head I can name exactly one other film about this particular war: M*A*S*H* - but surely there must be others?), but I liked that this film didn’t fall into the trap of jingoistic posturing. This isn’t about “evil” North Korea and “good” South Korea – the North Koreans show up simply as a mass of uniforms either charging or retreating and though terms like “communist pig” get tossed around, the North Koreans aren’t really depicted in either a good or bad light. South Korea, on the other hand, is pretty firmly criticized, particularly for the treatment of South Koreans who were forced to cooperate with Northern occupiers. By the end of the film, it’s hard to tell which government is supposed to be “good” and which is supposed to be “bad.” The way that the film disconnects itself from taking sides in order to focus on the psychological effects of warfare is its greatest strength and the element that resonates the most clearly.