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Taegukgi: Brotherhood of War

Won Bin (left) and Jang Dong-Gun (right) are the brothers of Taegukgi.
AKA: Taegukgi: Brotherhood of War  
  Korean: 태극기 휘날리며
Year: 2004  
Director: Kang Je-Gyu  
  Cast: Jang Dong-Gun, Won Bin, Lee Eun-Joo, Jo Yoon-Hee, Gong Hyung-Jin, Lee Young-Rau, Choi Min-Sik (cameo)
  The Skinny: Too melodramatic to be considered high art, yet too unflinchingly gritty to be dismissed as fluff, Taegukgi offers a compelling narrative of the Korean War, exploring how the ordinary lives of two brothers are changed by the horrific realities of combat. The film amounts to excellent commercial material that is both visceral and emotionally-charged.
Review by Calvin McMillin:

Nearly five years after the release of his blockbuster hit Shiri, Kang Je-Gyu returns to the director's chair with Taegukgi, the big-budget war epic that took the Korean box office by storm in 2004. Taking its title from the South Korean flag, the film details the story of two brothers who find themselves swept up by the tide of war.

Believing that the future of the family lies with his younger sibling, simple cobbler Lee Jin-Tae (Jang Dong-Gun) works out a deal with his superior officer: if he wins the Medal of Honor, his brother Jin-Seok (Won Bin) gets sent home. But in order to take home the medal, he begins volunteering for increasingly dangerous missions, much to the confusion of his younger brother. Even worse, Jin-Tae's noble aim soon corrupts him, as he begins loving the idea of playing the hero a little too much. Eventually, his promotion to sergeant, the parties thrown in his honor, and the interviews with the media seem to go to Jin-Tae's head. And as a result of this newfound fame, he starts to exhibit an apparent lack of regard for the fiancée (Lee Eun-Joo) he left back home. This change in behavior causes a rift between the brothers, one that will have dramatic consequences for both their lives as history's "Forgotten War" heats up.

Shot in a style that is strongly reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, Taegukgi goes to great lengths to show the horrors of war in graphic fashion. Limbs get blown off, booby-trapped bodies explode, and surprise attacks abound, creating a strong sense that anyone (well, anyone except the leads, of course) can die at any moment. And while the jerky shooting style may put off some viewers, I found that the technique worked well in highlighting the chaotic nature of battle, effectively inserting the audiences into the frontlines right along with the protagonists.

Could the film have done some things better? Certainly. While the framing story involving scenes set in the present do add a touch of historical gravitas to the proceedings, I found that it worked against the suspense of the narrative. Basically, it would be nice to worry about who will die, not just why or how. And yes, there's a high melodrama quotient in the film, but fans of Korean Cinema will likely already be familiar with this convention and accept it as is.

And really, the film isn't a mindless affair, but a surprisingly nuanced, complicated picture of the Korean War. One could argue that depictions of the North Koreans and the Chinese are exceedingly unflattering, but the way in which the film's "heroes" are portrayed goes a long way in balancing things out. As we follow the South Korean forces, we watch their descent into darkness, as their brutality soon turns into out-and-out war crimes. In many ways Taegukgi is earmarked as a commercial crowd pleaser, but I found that it had a little more substance than most popcorn films in telling its tale of two warring ideologies and the common people destroyed by it. (Calvin McMillin, 2005)

Notes: • The candy bar shown in the film is an anachronism. Companies weren't required to list the "Nutrition Facts" until the 1990s.
Awards: 2004 Grand Bell Awards (South Korea)
• Winner - Best Cinematography (Hong Kyung-Pyo)
• Winner - Best Art Direction (Shin Bo-Kyeong)
• Winner - Best Sound Effects (Lee Taekyu, Kim Suk-Won)
Availability: DVD (USA)
Region 1 NTSC
Sony Home Entertainment
2-Disc Special Edition
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Korean and English Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and French Subtitles
Subtitled Featurettes, Multi-Angle Storyboard Comparisons, Photo Montage
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

image courtesy of Sony Classics Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen