Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (2004) — Intense Korean War action

“Look at me. Trust me.”

Justin’s rating: The Forgotten War is remembered

Justin’s review: Not that I really heard of this movie much before renting it (I only found it because of a link from another war movie on Netflix I was looking at), but apparently this Korean flick had quite a bit of clout behind it, earning the growing distinction of being “The Korean War version of Saving Private Ryan.” I don’t care much to compare and contrast the two flicks, so I’ll let it rest to say that there are structural similarities, but the difference between the stories and characters are blazingly polar.

Other than M*A*S*H — the film and the TV show — our knowledge of the Korean War through pop culture is fairly lacking. Even history textbooks in high school fail to spend much time on what was essentially a leftover conflict from WWII where both China and the U.S. got invited to the party. Whereas WWII was an easily definable struggle between “Captain America” and “Vampire Nazis,” and Vietnam was a whole hunk of disillusionment and Tom Cruise in a wheelchair, the Korean War is essentially a fill-in-the-blank in our memories.

This is partially why I ended up loving Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War so much, as it gives us the inside feel for the war, not from the typical American perspective, but from the better view of the Koreans whose lives it affected so very much.

In 1950 and after a long Japanese occupation, South Korea is finally free to resume some semblance of normal life. Jin-tae and Jin-soek are two brothers in Seoul, and are about the best two buddies in the world. Quickly, we’re introduced to their equally lovable family (including Dead Dad and Mom Who Can’t Speak), and find out that the rest of the family is making enormous sacrifices so that Jin-soek can go off to college and succeed.

This is all ripped apart in a flash, as civil war breaks out: the North Koreans invade, refugees pack the streets streaming south, and the South Korean government forcibly drafts young men to serve — including Jin-soek. Brothers that they are, Jin-tae ends up on the same train to go off to war, to protect his little brother and get him home alive.

Thus begins a fairly lengthy trek through the Korean peninsula and the opening year of the conflict. Jin-tae and Jin-soek end up in the same platoon together, fighting increasingly difficult battles while seeing their friends bite it left and right. Desperate to save his brother, Jin-tae learns that if he earns a Medal of Honor, he could get a family member a ticket home. Therefore, Jin-tae begins to undertake the most riskiest missions to gain acclaim. It’s a noble act, but with tragic consequences. Jin-soek becomes more and more upset over his brother’s apparent suicidal actions, while Jin-tae finds that war suits him and begins to mold him into a dark, killing monster.

War also confuses everything. Just as the South Koreans think they’re winning, the Chinese join and suddenly they’re on the retreat again. South Koreans are accused — many times, many falsely — of being Communists and shot without trial. Some people end up on opposite sides of the line, due to imprisonment and desertion, and friends discover that they’re fighting friends in the trenches. And the brothers end up thinking that each other is dead, driving them to make serious choices.

While occasionally sappy, the human story of the brothers is one of the most gripping I’ve seen in just about any war film to date. These are immensely likable guys, who you’re rooting for through thick and thin. To see each of them sacrifice, struggle and fight to protect each other brought tears to my eyes not just a few times. There are exhilarating highs of victories and laughter, and crushing lows of separation and despair. It makes you think to all the people you love, and what you would do for them if you landed in an equally harsh situation.

And although it’s not quite acceptable to say that we watch war movies to be entertained by battles — the common thought is that it disrespects or downplays the actual suffering that real soldiers went through — I’m not going to pretend as if I didn’t get a kick out of the war scenes here.

The battles, many many battles, are extremely well-done and thrilling to behold. Gritty combat typically stays within small-scale action: soldiers with guns vs. other soldiers with guns. Only in a few spots do we see fighter jets or heavy armor, but since the story isn’t about Tommy the Tank or Petey the Plane, it’s okay. It’s also extremely bloody and graphic, so don’t partake unless you’ve stapled your stomach shut for the day.

Now up there with my favorite war movies, Tae Guk Gi is a stellar look into the savage civil conflict of a small nation that seemed to serve no good… at least until we see the smaller stories, the ones of brothers who show that love, loyalty and devotion are forces to be reckoned with as well.

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