Taegugki is a hot topic lately due not to the film itself, which is best described as a Korean Saving Private Ryan, or its long-awaited Region 1 NTSC release, which seems to have gone by unnoticed, but due to the tragic suicide of lead actress Eun-ju Lee on February 22nd, which is completely unrelated. It is also known for having been chosen over the likes of Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy and Kim Ki-duk’s Bin Jip for Oscar consideration, and rejected. One morbidly wonders whether Lee’s death would have been exploited had it happened during the selection process.
Jang Dong-kun and teen heartthrob Won Bin (“the Korean Takuya Kimura”, for you drama fans) star as brothers Jin-tae and Jin-seok respectively in this typical war epic which spans several months and details all the horror-glory you expect from any war film, as well as a bit of the ridiculous you expect from Asian action. When war breaks out at the 38th Parallel both boys are drafted to the front line, leaving behind a business and family without the chance to even say goodbye. This all told in flashback from the perspective of an old Jin-seok, who we learn lost contact with his brother in the war some fifty years ago. Taegukgiis, in more than one sense, an account of their separation.
Older brother Jin-tae from the very start proves that he has chops for war. His goal is clear: to protect Jin-seok, the favorite, the one on which the family pinned all its hopes and dreams. When the brothers hit the trenches, Jin-tae confronts an officer and ask that they be allowed to stay in the same unit. Shortly after, he begins a campaign to win the Medal of Honor, showing natural leadership and a kind of lunacy, volunteering for mission after deadly mission so that he can earn the right to send Jin-seok home. His heroism is rewarded with promotions, interviews and fame, which he accepts with the same pride any man would – any man who gave up his old life’s future for the sake of his brother’s education, something he says he has never regretted. Jin-seok, in the meantime, feels increasingly abandoned, and is forced to sit out battles as he watches Jin-tae drift further away.
By the time the brothers finally confront each other, neither is who they used to be. Sacrifice and honor turn into resentment and alienation. Does Jin-tae for one minute consider the value of his own life? Is Jin-seok’s not worth risking? Should either one be expected to go home and face the family while the other dies on the battlefield? Jin-tae’s future wife Young-shin (the late Eun-ju Lee) is waiting for Jin-tae’s return. If Jin-tae could think about her at all he would not be able to do what he’s doing.
The film does a convincing job of turning cracks into chasms, and makes you care about both boys’ decisions, although there are few moments when you feel emotion for the actual characters. Writer-director Kang Je-gyu also wisely treats their growth apart as a stage, not the full film, which keeps later scenes from stagnating. Once Jin-tae gets a taste of victory, he starts to slip, becoming blood thirsty and deranged. Jin-seok hits emotional bottom, estranged from someone he has never done without in a place where support is needed more than ever. Things get a bit saccharine at times, and even unrealistic, as when Jin-seok holds onto good old college boy ideals while he’s shooting, or being shot at, or when Jin-tae single-handedly wins long battles with nothing but a rifle and a grimace, but it’s all forgiveable.
Where the film goes wrong is in the final act, which nearly makes up the second half of the film due to its obscene length – a forty-minute climactic flip-flop hinging on Jin-tae’s belief that his brother has died. One cut, and we are transported to a future where Jin-tae leads ‘Red Flag’, the deadliest unit of the North Korean army. He’s gone Commie, you see, due to the trauma of his brother’s death. This absurd development reaches glory levels when a very alive Jin-seok fights his way through hordes of enemies to prove he’s still around, whilst Jin-tae froths mad like a bearded Klondike warrior, both boys oblivious to the Bay-Bruckheimer explosions and planes and guns around them.
Taegukgi broke box office records at home, and like many war films provides a sort of niche illustration of carnage, although there are enough films like it now that it’s getting hard to distinguish scenes. Worth seeing if you go by numbers or niches. Like many films it also finds ways to be historical without having to be accountable, usually by inserting dates of battles between setpieces, or putting characters in locations where famous things happened – just not to them. War buffs beware: this is a fictional film about people whose contributions to real history are none.
The R1 DVD is the Korean version of the film, with a second disc of features for your viewing enjoyment. The Japanese version boasts an ending theme song by BoA, and various online vendors offer a busty 3 DVD set, all of which may interest collectors. Generally speaking, though… Taegukgi is a regular story told with regular fanfare. It struck a massive chord with Korean audiences, but here, amid reports of Oscar pans and suicide, it may be more the sort of film worth knowing about than owning.
Taegukgi [Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo] (2004)
Dir. Je-gyu Kang
Stars: Dong-kun Jang, Bin Won, Eun-ju Lee
Genre: War, Drama