TWO ASIAN WAR EPICS opening this weekend form a study in contrasts.
Both "Bang Rajan" (see capsule review on Page 38) and "Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War" depict intense, one might even say flamboyant, violence. Set during the Korean War and filmed with a "Saving Private Ryan" degree of bloody verisimilitude, "Tae Guk Gi" goes splatter-for-splatter with "Bang Rajan," a film that commemorates the violent resistance of a small but determined 18th-century Siamese village against the massing Burmese army.
Whereas "Bang Rajan," however, seeks to glorify the struggle it reenacts with one over-the-top on-screen clash after another -- so much so that the effect, after a while, is numbing -- "Tae Guk Gi's" equally horrific war scenes merely act as a crimson backdrop to the quieter, more intimate and ultimately more stirring main story. It is a story of two brothers and the toll war takes on their love. The point, in other words, is the emotion, never the violence itself.
When he is unwillingly drafted off the streets of Seoul into the South Korean army, 18-year-old student Jin-seok Lee (Won Bin) is immediately joined on the troop train by his protective older brother, Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun), who seeks to forcibly rescue his sibling. Unfortunately, Jin-tae ends up getting drafted himself, despite an official military policy discouraging the conscription of more than one son from each family. From that moment on, Jin-tae makes it his life's mission to keep his kid brother out of harm's way.
What this means is that, in order to curry favor with the brass, who have the power to send Jin-seok home on humanitarian grounds, Jin-tae must put himself in harm's way, volunteering for every risky mission that comes along. The problem is, this makes him a kind of hero. And he soon finds himself enjoying the adulation so much that his heroism becomes, in effect, monstrous. While capturing a fleeing North Korean officer, for example, Jin-tae allows a friend of his and Jin-seok's from Seoul to be killed.
This is just the beginning of the siblings' estrangement. As our "war hero" slowly morphs into a perpetrator of atrocities, the gulf between Jin-tae and Jin-seok threatens to become too wide to cross.
Echoing "The Deer Hunter" more than "Saving Private Ryan," with its emphasis on the moral ambiguity of war, "Tae Guk Gi" is a complex film about the minefield of loyalty and betrayal. Avoiding bombast and jingoism -- despite its unblinking gaze on carnage and scenes of ugly hostility between the communist North and democratic South -- the story of brothers rent asunder can be read as a metaphor for the Korean War itself. "Tae Guk Gi," in fact, is a name that refers to the South Korean national flag.
And yet, at heart, the film's subject is not political, but personal.
Its scale is grand, yet its subject is simple. Against the soul-altering drama of a nation at war with itself, two brothers try to save what matters most in the world: each other.
TAE GUK GI: THE BROTHERHOOD OF WAR (R, 140 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and hyper-realistic war scenes. In Korean with subtitles. At Loews Rio, Majestic Cinema and United Artists Fairfax Town Center.