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'Tae Guk Gi': War Brought Home

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2004; Page C05

If there's a war more forgotten than the Korean, then I've forgotten about it. Thus it's pleasing to note, as an antidote to failing memories (or dim educations), the arrival of "Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War," which commemorates the scope and horror (more than 2 million dead) of that particular madness.

It's a huge, sprawling, expensive film full of shocking battle violence, but at the same time not without its subtleties. Since the Korean War was essentially internecine -- the communist North Korean army invaded ostensibly democratic South Korea in June 1950; extremely bloody fighting raged up and down the Korean peninsula until a 1953 armistice restored the 1950 line between the two entities -- sibling rivalry is at its heart. It was brother against brother from start to finish, and that's how "Tae Guk Gi" organizes its story.

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It's also a tough and honest film, not at all interested in the Korean War as we Americans remember it. MacArthur is never mentioned, nor is Truman; no American forces are seen in battle and there's no sense of the war being anything but purely Korean, just as "Saving Private Ryan" found no room for the British or the Canadians. Although notes of patriotism ultimately are sounded, the film doesn't hesitate to mention that in the beginning the young South Koreans didn't want to fight it and violently resisted an emergency draft. It doesn't fail to note that they often went into battle underequipped, poorly led and sometimes even without food. It refuses to shy away from the reality that behind the lines, anti-communist extremists rounded up, and frequently executed without trial, suspected communist sympathizers, and the scenes of Koreans executing Koreans for imaginary crimes are among the film's most disturbing.

The movie tells of two South Korean brothers, Jin-Tae (Jang Dong-Gun) and Jin-Seok (Won Bin), "drafted" -- that is, grabbed off the street -- immediately after the invasion and sent to the front. The stronger, robust shoemaker Jin-Tae swears to protect his weaker baby brother, a student with a heart ailment. And, of course, Jin-Tae -- strong, aggressive, fearless, cunning -- makes a superb soldier, particularly when motivated by the promise from an officer that if he wins a Medal of Honor, his brother will be sent home.

The surprise is Jin-Seok: Initially the platoon weakling, he gradually acquires strength and self-confidence and himself becomes a superb young warrior. But Jin-Tae, who has always deferred to him, begins to enjoy the acclaim he is earning, while Jin-Seok begins to resent the celebrity of his older brother. So even as battles rage, hills are taken and lost, cities ruined, you can watch the subtle disaffection between two young men who once loved each other so much each would have died for the other in a heartbeat. You can see where this is going: nowhere good.

In the end, as did the two parts of Korea, the two brothers end up at severe odds and one of them mourns the bitterness forever. The director, Kang Je-gyu, had a world hit a few years back called "Shiri," a Hong Kong-style thriller set in Korea. But this film is far more ambitious and far more stirring: It portrays a human ordeal of the highest order. He's especially good -- nearly as good as Steven Spielberg in "Private Ryan" -- at re-creating the chaos and capriciousness of battle. You may find some of the story developments melodramatic -- I did -- but the film itself is quite powerful.

Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (140 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extreme combat violence.


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