North Korea has been all over the news lately, with dictator Kim Jong-Il passing away and thereby handing over the torch to his son. All this coverage reminded me of a South Korean film I saw a while back. Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, a Korean film from 2004, is set during the Korean War, at the start of the conflict between North and South Korea that divides the peninsula to this day. I re-watched the film and this time I was even more excited about it than the first time I saw it, and I couldn’t wait to share my enthusiasm with my fellow nerds out there.
Minor spoilers ahead, be warned!
The film starts off in present day South Korea, where the army is excavating a battlefield of the war. A set of remains found on the site is identified as Lee Jin-seok. When the family is contacted, Jin-seok himself answers the phone, explaining he is still alive, and that the remains might in fact be of his brother Jin-tae. The elderly man then heads to the dig site.
The movie soon takes us back to the vibrant city center of 1950 Seoul, where Jin-tae is working as a shoe shiner to pay for his younger brother Jin-seok’s education. Jin-seok is smart, but young and naïve, and Jin-tae feels he needs to look out for his little brother. News arrives that war has broken out between the communist north and the capitalist south. Jin-seok is conscripted into the South Korean Army, and when Jin-tae tries to get him off the train that’s about to leave for the front, he is taken as well. When they reach the battlefield, the cheerful and bright atmosphere of Seoul is long gone. They’re surrounded by misery and death, and it’s clearly too much for Jin-seok to handle.
Jin-tae learns from one of his commanding officers that any soldier who gets decorated with the country’s most prestigious medal is allowed to select a family member to get sent home as reward. Desperate to send his brother home, Jin-tae goes out of his way to win the medal. He volunteers for the most risky missions and constantly endangers his own life so his brother can be spared. Jin-seok doesn’t realize Jin-tae is only interested in sending him home, and accuses him of risking his life for glory and attention. The bitterness that starts to arise between the brothers eventually has devastating consequences.
My only complaint about this movie is that it can be painfully cheesy at times. Especially the early parts where we get to know the brothers are very sappy, and the incredibly dramatic music only adds to the clichéd feeling. This minor flaw is easily forgiven though, because the other elements of the film more than make up for it. The overall story is very gripping and the battle scenes are amazing. Think of a cross between Saving Private Ryan and All Quiet on the Western Front, set in Korea.
While this is a South Korean production, it’s far from a propaganda piece against the north. Yes, the story is told from a South Korean perspective, and the North Koreans are obviously the bad guys, but it depicts acts of cruelty by both sides, and shows that individual Koreans are often not to blame for what side they end up on. More than anything, the film depicts the tragedy of the conflict for everyone involved. This explains the film’s name, Tae Guk Gi, which is the name of the historical flag of Korea, (as well as South Korea’s current flag). This film is an amazing depiction of a conflict that is still very relevant today, and a must see for anyone that calls him or herself a fan of war movies.