One of the greatest legacies of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is that not only did it infuse the war movie with a brutal new life force, but it also created a whole new cinematic language for any directors – no matter where they might hail from – the technology to start telling the stories of wars that an American studio might not feel the need to make.
With this in mind, a perfect example of this is Kang Je-gyu’s 2004, South Korean epic, Taegukgi, a dirt and blood streaked tale that tells the harrowing story of two brothers as they are swept up in the escalating chaos of the Korean War that smashed box office records in its native country with the force of an anti-tank gun.
But while it delivers something new to the war genre apart from the legion of WWII movies that already exist, how does the horrors of this particular war rank alongside some of the classics?
Brothers Lee Jin-tae and Lee Jin-seok lead an unfeasibly happy life, eating ice cream and running in and out of traffic with reckless abandon in 50’s Seoul and as the older sibling shines shoes for a living, the younger Jin-seok wirks hard at his studies at school.
However, when North Korea stages their fateful invasion, the brothers find themselves forcibly conscripted much to the horror of their mother and Jin-tae’s fiancée and the next thing you know, the two young men find themselves fighting at the Pusan Perimeter as mortars and body parts rain down upon them. However, Jin-tae finds he has a cause to fight for once he finds out that if he can earn himself the Taeguk Corden of the Order of Military Merit, he can have it arranged for Jin-seok to be sent back home; but how does one go about earning such an accolade I hear you ask? Well, in Jin-tae’s case it involves volunteering for every foolhardy and near-suicidal mission he can and the upside is that it turns out that he’s a natural soldier who can fight as fiercely as anyone in the South Korean army. The downside, however, is that his repeated and savage experiences eventually hardens him into a bloodthirsty killing machine who longs more for the slaps on the back for his bravery than the freedom of his brother although he adamantly still claims otherwise.
Jin-seok is horrified at his brother’s transformation, but worst still is on the horizon when Jin-tae finally earns his medal and the war forces the two brothers back to Seoul where the anti-communist militia commit a horrendous act of injustice that cause the relationship of the two men to unravel to the point where the pain and trauma is still keenly felt nearly 53 years later.
At the top of this review I mentioned how much of a influence Saving Private Ryan was on virtually every war film released in its wake, but if I’m being more exact, the movie Taegukgi resembles the most is John Woo’s awesomely depressing 1990 Vietnam epic, Bullet In The Head. Both begin with young men enjoying an almost cartoonishly picturesque youth and both sees the bond between them ruthlessly bombarded again and again by the cruel horrors of war until the two can barely recognize the men that they once were. Rest assured, this is no boy’s own, wartime romp as director Kang Je-gyu as he turn the dial on misery and anguish up to eleven and drags both his leads (and us) through the muck and the gore to make his point keenly felt.
It’s hardly what you would call starkly original stuff, but the sheer earnest nature of Taegukgi keeps you invested in it’s near endless outpouring of despair, peppering the trauma and death with a number of nastily memorable battle scenes that holds nothing back as countless men are reduced to screaming chutney by chattering machine gun fire or booming explosions. However, a couple of slight twists in proceadings keeps things feeling surpisingly fresh and admirably unpredictable – the first is that in these sort of films it’s usually the younger, more naive brother who is corrupted and worn down by the constant propaganda and the prospect of death at any moment, but here it interestingly the older sibling who’s repeated, foolhardy missions to slaughter the enemy with minimum restraint eventually leads him to forget his true mission and, in turn, his humanity.
In fact, his dedication to the cause is revealed to be merely skin deep after the tragic occurrences in Seoul leads Jin-tae to renounce the South entirely and join the communists of the North to launch his bloodthirsty attacks anew revealing that his ideals are as misplaced as his rage powered bayonet thrusts. It’s this late in the day plot machination that gives the film an impressive sense of balance; the North Koreans may be portrayed as a vicious, cruel force but they’re no more vicious than who Jin-tae becomes before he defects or the actions of the communist hunting methods of the militia of the South.
For all it’s great points, the movie isn’t perfect however and one may argue that the director’s unwavering dedication to unleash as much devastation as he can admittedly starts to get a fairly exhausting and more than a little samey by the film’s end as we’re emotionally battered by yet another hugely emotional, gargantuan battle sequence. Elsewhere, anyone stuck in the orbit of the two main characters doesn’t really have much of a chance to make much of a splash unless it’s because of a regrettably well aimed explosion. Most, if not all of the cast tend to fade into the background and many fall messily in battle without you ever realising who most of them were and the same treatment stretches to the brother’s family members and loved ones too, all feeling more like more potential misery fuel rather than three dimentional characters.
Still, the main bond between the leads, both ably played by Jang Dong-gun and Won Bin, more than make up for it and the battle scenes are hauntingly spectacular with each one carrying the same bludgeoning force as the manical firefight that ended the fourth Rambo flick.
Relentlessly emotional as it is stunningly ferocious, Taegukgi is a gripping war movie that pulls no punches when leaving no emotion (or stomach, thanks to that enormous bodycount) unturned.