The great thing about Netflix is that their selection of DVDs is truly impressive (not so their streaming service, however) so when I go on a kick for one particular director, actor, or genre, I can go deep. For most of a year now, I've been on a self-taught course in film studies focusing on war films, sparked by a paper I wrote on Joss Whedon's The Avengers (yes, it's a pretty classic American combat film piece), and reading Jeanine Basinger's excellent The World War Two Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre. Since last May (2012), I've watched a bunch of war films, beginning with American movies, which pretty much created the genre and still exert a heavy influence on the style of war films worldwide, but I've also been branching out into foreign war films as well. Which brings me to last night's DVD: Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War.
Directed by Kang Je-kyu and starring Jang Dong-gun and Won Bin Tae Guk Gi is a story about two brothers whose lives are are thrown into bloody chaos by the Korean War. This is "America's Forgotten War" as seen from the Korean perspective, and I get the sense that in South Korea, the war is anything but "forgotten." The film is not for the squeamish. Though the violence, blood, and gore are not gratuitous, they are highly realistic, and modern war is not kind to the human bodies which get caught up in its meatgrinder.
Jin-soek Lee (Won Bin)is the youngest child of his family, just 18 in 1950 when the film begins. He is the hope of his family, an excellent student, and college-bound. His elder brother Jin-tae Lee (Jang Dong-gun), became the man of the family as a teen when their father died. He works the streets of Seoul shining and repairing shoes while his mother, mute since his father's death, and fiance run a small noodle shop, with all of their efforts focused on enabling Jin-soek to complete his schooling and thus move out of the ranks of the working poor. Theirs is a very traditional Korean family knit together by bonds of duty, sacrifice, and deep and affectionate love.
When the war breaks out, Jin-soek Lee is swept up by an official conscription gang, and, unable to get his brother out, Jin-tae Lee joins up too and devotes his military career to protecting his brother. His appeals to his regimental commander result in Jin-tae being offered a deal: if he fights hard and bravely enough to win the Medal of Honor, then the commander will discharge Jin-soek and let him go back home. Fortunately Jin-tae discovers in himself a true talent for war, and becomes the stuff that Medal of Honor winners are made of by November of 1950, just as the Chinese People's Volunteer Army enters the war, ensuring that all deals are off. Unfortunately, along with that talent for war comes a hatred for the enemy that makes Jin-tae grow harder and colder as the war progresses.
Tae Guk Gi is a true masterpiece of the genre, and the story of the Lee brothers (only vaguely and incompletely outlined above - you should really see the film) is deeply moving. Kan Je-kyu refuses to flinch from showing the true horror of war and the damage it does to those fighting it and those caught in between. Nor does he ignore the madness that gripped the South Korean people as they informed on, imprisoned, and summarily executed many of their fellows, men, women, and children who were labelled as communists for the most spurious of reasons. Tae Guk Gi is a film about a nation gone mad, where both sides in the brutal conflict speak the same language, and slaughter each other en masse. Above all, Tae Guk Gi is a humanist piece, and never blinks at the realities of human beings caught up by deadly forces far beyond their control who only wish to survive and return to some semblance of normalcy. The Lee brothers are Everymen from every family, from every nation, in every war, and their love for one another leaves the viewer in tears by the end of the piece.
I've only given you the smallest of taste of this film here, and you should put it on your queue immediately. At two and a half hours long, be ready to settle in for the evening, but I promise you it is worth every minute. I fully intend to add some more of Kang Je-kyu's films to my own queue, especially any featuring the lead actors in Tae Guk Gi. In the final analysis, this film puts Saving Private Ryan in the shade, and for my money rates as one of the greatest war films ever made. Go forth and watch it!