When the subject of war movies is brought up, I’m usually that asshole that picks Tae Guk Gi (The Brotherhood of War) and then proceeds to judge the room based on who’s seen it. Tae Guk Gi is a hidden gem from Korea that tells the story of two South Korean brothers literally pulled from the streets to fight against the invading North. It is a rare treat to watch a horrific foreign war story that can compete visually with Hollywood’s giants.
Tae Guk Gi borrows from Saving Private Ryan, opening in modern times with an excavation near the 38th parallel when army scientists discover one of the bodies before them on the veterans’ list. When they call Jin-seok Lee he asks if it could be his brother Jin-tae. The army dismisses the notion; Jin-seok,
determined to find out if it really is Jin-tae, elects to travel to the site with his granddaughter. Travel back to the 1950’s. We meet young Jin-tae (Dong-gun Jang) selling shoe-shines and Jin-seok (Bin Won) as a young student. Both are drafted at the outbreak of hostilities. As the war rages Jin-tae does everything he can to protect his younger brother, and their rivalry is where the true drama unfolds. Even knowing that one of them may not survive the war doesn’t detract from the tension of the film’s gripping scenes.
Director Je-gyu Kang is surprisingly even-handed in his approach to the North-and-South divide. While the Northern troops are depicted as ruthless asshats
(at one point they slaughter a village and mine a pile of bodies), the tactics of the South aren’t exactly rosy. They shoot unarmed POWs and anybody from the South suspected of sympathizing with the North. Dong-gun Jang and Bin Won are spectacular as the Lee brothers. Both actors continue to impress in their dynamic roles. Jin-tae’s brutal obsession to become a better soldier could not be played better than Jang’s performance. Similarly, Won portrays Jin-seok’s struggles with his elder brother, morality, and asthma with conviction and strength as he grows to be equal to his brother. Make no mistake: this is a war epic with a long campaign and running time, allowing all of the actors to dig into their characters as the soldiers starve and fight together.
Action junkies need not worry, because most of the family drama in Tae Guk Gi plays out on the battlefield and in the trenches. The special effects are broadly impeccable as limbs are destroyed, heads explode, and all sorts of wartime carnage permeates the movie. There is trench warfare, urban warfare, surprise attacks, fistfights, field-surgery, and plenty of up close and personal fights with bayonets
. The camera doesn’t shy away from anything. At one point in a hospital tent a young soldier goes mad with fever and starts shooting other patients. Now, when most of the practical effects are so well done, the bad ones stand out. Early on there is one scene of a corpse pile burning with a close-up of a couple of very obvious mannequins, and later a couple of CGI fighter jets aren’t up to snuff, but these are small exceptions to what is otherwise a visual feast for the war film junkie.
As with many foreign films, the audience is given a choice between the dubbed and subtitled experience. In this case the subtitled is the definite way to go, as often the two leads are shouting so fast at each other that many changes to the dialogue were necessary to streamline the English version. If you are totally opposed to subtitles, the dubbed version is adequate, with convincing performances all around—an achievement on its own, as I find dubbed performances in foreign films
to be often lacking.
Tae Guk Gi is that rare kind of movie that depicts unspeakable horror while following an emotional family drama. Many movies attempt this tightrope walk, but few achieve the emotional and technical heights that Tae Guk Gi pulls off. It is a gritty wartime epic told with such brutal honesty that every brother that watches will relate to the feud between Jin-tae and Jin-seok, and it stages some of the most impressive battle scenes the silver screen has to offer.