leave a comment --Ethan Alter
You would be forgiven for thinking spending the first half-hour of this sweeping war epic wondering if you'd accidentally stumbled into a Korean remake of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), but while director Je-guy Kang liberally borrows from Hollywood's chest of combat movie cliches this tale of two brothers torn apart by the Korean War eventually overcomes formula and delivers a genuine emotional wallop. Following his father's death, carefree Seoul cobbler Jin-tae Lee (Jang Dong-gun) has become the man of the house, working hard to earn enough money to put his younger brother, Jin-seok (Won Bin), through college. When war breaks out and Jin-seok is forcibly enlisted in the army, Jin-tae volunteers for combat duty so he can keep an eye on his sickly brother. Jin-tae quickly strikes a deal with his commanding officer: If he earns a Medal of Honor, Jin-seok will be sent home. But seeking this reward requires Jin-tae to constantly put himself in danger on the battlefield, which at first frightens and then angers his brother, who can't help but wonder whether Jin-tae is doing this for his benefit or for his own personal glory. As the war drags on, Jin-tae grows more ruthless and trigger-happy. The breaking point comes when he almost executes a childhood friend who was forced to join the enemy. After that terrible moment, Jin-seok can no longer look at his brother the same way again. The stage is set for tragedy, with both men having to confront each other one last time on the battlefield. A smash hit when it was released in South Korea (it became both the country’s most expensive production and its highest-grossing film), TAE GUK GI opened internationally in the wake of two other high-profile Korean films: Kim Ki-Duk's SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER… AND SPRING (2003) and Cannes favorite OLDBOY (2003), directed by Chan-wook Park. It’s glossier than either of those movies though, and bears an unmistakable Hollywood imprint. Kang uses every convention in the book, from the ragtag squad of colorful misfits to the corny framing device that bookends the film. Still, the movie’s scope overcomes its generic narrative: The battle scenes are terrifically filmed, often reaching PRIVATE RYAN's level of intensity, and despite your better judgment, you do get caught up in the melodrama. Kang truly seems to believe in the story he’s telling and that makes the many contrivances feel almost fresh. It helps that he tones down the relentless jingoism that often plagues the genre; this is a grunt's eye view of the Korean War and Kang doesn't sugarcoat some of the less-than-heroic actions of the South Korean army. Indeed, it's easy to view the story of these brothers as a larger metaphor for the relationship between the two Koreas, which gives the film an added resonance that your typical Hollywood war movie wouldn't possess.