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Tae Guk Gi - Brotherhood of War  (2003)


Rating: R

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release Date: February 15, 2005
Review posted: February 21, 2005


Reviewed by Dylan Grant




Jin-tae, a shoemaker, has worked tirelessly to provide money for Jin-seok, his younger brother, to go to college.  But each of their hopes and dreams are shattered when both are forced to join the army against their will.  Torn away from their home and family, Jin-tae vows to protect Jin-seok despite the dangers – and the cost.  In the searing crucible of battle, fate intervenes, forcing their bonds of faith, love and trust to be tested time and again.




This film has been compared over and over again to Saving Private Ryan, a comparison that is not unfair.  The tone of both films is similar, as is the gritty, bloody mud on the camera style of shooting.  Saving Private Ryan opens with a trip to a cemetery, where a World War II veteran is overcome with memories of the war.  Tae Guk Gi opens on a cemetery of a different kind.  A group of South Korean archeologists is excavating an old battlefield, and they come across some remains they believe to belong to Jin-seok.  Jin-seok, still living, believes they might be the remains of his brother, missing since the end of the war.  He quickly packs his bags and sets out with his granddaughter to see for himself.


From there the film flashes back to a time just before the North crossed the 38th Parallel.  The main strength of this film is its recreation of the time, the confusion and insanity.  High tension and high tempers dominated as the South was caught completely off guard by the surprise invasion.  Men between the ages of 18 and 30 were taken off the streets and conscripted into the South Korean army, a ragtag force of inexperienced, ill-trained soldiers who learned as they went along.  In the early stages, they had no food, they were losing battle after battle, and their supply lines were cut.  It is easy to forget how perilously close North Korea came to uniting the country; they were within a victory or two before things turned around.


It is in this environment that Jin-tae (Jang Dong-Gun) changes from the innocent shoeshine boy into the embittered, hardcore killer he becomes.  When it is learned that Jin-tae and Jin-seok are brothers, their commanding officer can hardly believe it.  “I thought they were only supposed to take one per family,” he says.  Jin-tae immediately wants to know how he can send his brother home.  His commander tells him that he has to give to get, and that if he distinguishes himself, Jin-seok can go home.  Jin-tae goes all out, putting his soul into the war.


The battle scenes in this film, and there are many, are like a brutal punch to the gut.  The filmmakers spared no amount of gore in depicting gunshot wounds, booby-trapped bodies, land mines, and other battle ordinance.  What lacked in training was made up for in the pitched, bitter fighting that made up this war.  Everything is face-to-face, dirty, hand to hand combat.  They did not have the luxury of air support or artillery, so they had to do it all themselves, often under the worst battlefield conditions.  This film depicts those scenes with a kind of stark realism that can become hard to watch after a while.


Tae Guk Gi has many strengths, but it also has some glaring weaknesses.  At roughly two-and-a-half hours, the film really shows its length; the pacing could have been better.  Saving Private Ryan, which runs almost the same length, does not feel half as long as Tae Guk Gi.  The film also loses focus as it goes on, and devolves into such over sentimentality that it becomes hard to take seriously.  There is a scene where the two brothers come to the aid of Jin-tae’s girlfriend, who is believed to be a communist sympathizer.  The scene feels too long and too out of place that late in the film.  The sentimentality in the film is almost impossible to take seriously, especially as we get deeper into the film, so painfully melodramatic that it is hard to watch.  It is as if the filmmakers were not sure we would get it, so they had to beat us over the head with how the characters were feeling.  The biggest problem is one of focus.  Trying to fit the entire Korean War into one film is a massive undertaking.  Perhaps a more narrow focus would have given us a bigger picture.




Tae Guk Gi is presented in the original 2.35:1 shooting ratio.  The transfer is pristine, and all of the film’s gritty photography is expertly rendered.  From the blood-on-the-camera battlefield shots to the more epic victory shots, all the colors are well translated, and the overall picture is sharp.




This DVD is presented in Korean and English, both languages in 5.1 Dolby Digital.  The presentation is solid, with all levels coming through crisply.  The sounds of war make this film, and they are rendered well here.




6.25 and Us: Historians and Korean war veterans talk about how the war broke out, what the fighting conditions were like, and the long march home.


Creation: Focuses on the early stages of the film, the inspiration and very early pre-production.  The filmmakers talk about what brought them to the project and what they were working on before.


War Project: Talks about the budgeting and marketing challenges inherent in making the most expensive Korean film of all time.  There was a preconception at the time that big budget films did not work at the box office, and the producer of the film talks about overcoming that and other challenges.


Preparing For Tae Guk Gi: A look at the training and preparation for the film that the actors went through.  We look at everything from casting to costumes.


The People Behind the Camera: The film’s director of photography, production designer, and visual effects supervisor all talk about what brought them to the project, what kind of tests they performed leading up to the shoot, and what their working process was like.


Making History: A behind-the-scenes featurette that shows mostly the first day of shooting and the impressions of the cast and crew once they have started filming.


Multi-Angle Storyboard Comparison: A look at a key scene from the film, with the option to view the film, the storyboard, or both together.


Photo Montage: Production stills from throughout the film.


Theatrical Trailer: The original theatrical trailer.




Tae Guk Gi is a solid film, and one of the best war movies to come out recently.  The bonus material here gives us a detailed look at the making of the film, and the audio-video presentation is superb.  While the film has been slightly over praised, it is still quite well done and worth seeing.




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