(TAEGUKGI HWINALRIMYEO) (2004)
A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005
20th Century was very unkind to many nations of the world, but few saw its bad side as Korea did. If spending most of the first half under brutal Japanese yoke wasn't enough, the liberation only brought equally brutal division followed by indescribably cruel and destructive war that ended in the worst possible way - without winners and with traumas that continue to haunt Koreans to this day. Some of those frustrations served as an inspiration for SHIRI, 1999 film that would later introduce South Korean cinema to many nations of the world. In 2004 its author Kang Je-gyu explored the bloody source of current Korean division - the actual war - in his war epic TAEGUKGI. The film, one of the most expensive in South Korean history, turned out to be great box-office success.
The plot is relatively simple and starts with two brothers who live in post-WW2 Seoul, capital of South Korea and try to build better future. Jin-Tae (played by Jang Dong-gun), the older brother, dreams of marrying his sweetheart Young-shin (played by Lee Eun Ju), but first he must support the family, including ailing mother, with shoe shine business. The younger Jin-seok (played by Won Bin) is supposed to go to college. In June 1950 their plans for the future are shattered when Communists from the North invade South. In the ensuing chaos Jin-seok is drafted into the retreating South Korean army. Jin-tae also decides to join only in order to take care for his younger brother. After a while Jin-tae makes a deal with his superiors - he would volunteer for the hardest and riskiest missions, and if he survives long enough to win the highest medal, Jin-seok is going to be released from service. The fortunes of war, with American help, change and as Southern army advances northwards towards Chinese border, Jin-seok, unaware of the deal, begins to question his brother's suicidal bravery, which is often indistinguishable from mere bloodlust. Both brothers, however, are unaware that the fate intends to separate them in the cruellest way possible.
TAEGUKGI is often compared with Steven Spielberg's SAVING PRIVATE RYAN - film whose realistic portrayal of military conflict looked like shocking novelty to the audiences accustomed to PG-13 wars of Clinton's age. Two films share the same narrative device - prologue set in present-day - but the differences soon become very apparent. Unlike Spielberg, who reserved the naturalistic brutality of war only for the opening segments of film and later opted for more conventional story, Kang Je-Gyu maintains the brutal intensity of modern warfare until the very end. The ugliness of war depicted in TAEGUKGI is even more explicit and, as a result, this film makes SAVING PRIVATE RYAN look like kindergarten play. People are killed in various ways, most of them very unpleasant; all those bloody incidents are showed with disturbing amounts of detail. Even more disturbing is the depiction of effects war has on people, turning the noblest individuals into homicidal beasts.
Even more important element of TAEGUKGI is the good use of time gap between the film and the events it depicts. Half a century, together with the end of Cold War, allowed South Korean filmmakers to approach its greatest national trauma with a degree of objectivity or, at least, appearance of doing so. Although TAEGUKGI, naturally, sees war from Southern perspective and praises heroism of Southern soldiers, both sides in the film commit inhuman acts towards prisoners or innocent civilians. The war is seen less as a conflict between irreconcilable ideologies and more as a tragedy that literally splits families apart pits brother against brother. The troubled relationship between the brothers could be seen as symbolic depiction of current state of affairs on Korean Peninsula, while the near-symbolic ending suggests the ways in which those gaps could be bridged.
TAEGUKGI is impressive film, but it is far from being classic. The characters, although they serve symbolic purpose, are too simplistic. The plot is skeletal and serves only a frame for war scenes. The scenes dealing with Jin-tae and Jin-seok often contain pathos in amounts indigestible to those unaccustomed to Asian cinema. Realistic depiction of war is somewhat compromised with the conspicuous absence of Americans and Chinese. But the worst part of the film is the ending, which is all but telegraphed in the opening, thus taking away a lot of suspense.
TAEGUKGI, nevertheless, deserves praise as a film that deals with the past in an old-fashioned but effective way that would help audience comprehend certain unpleasant elements of the present.
RATING: 6/10 (++)