Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Film Review : Taegukgi (Brotherhood)****

Once every few years, the mass market Hollywood movie industry manages to release a film that is both pretty good and appeals to me, Korean director Kang Je-Gyu seems to feel the same way about Saving Private Ryan (or perhaps Band Of Brothers), because he has taken the scope and style of that film and transferred it to the Korean Civil War in Tae Guk Gi.

The style is very much SPR/BoB, the big sweeping, tear inducing classical score that swells up when one of the brothers, as an old man, looks upon the war time photograph of his family, the hugely violent cast of thousands battle scenes, the heroes and the ordinary men in extraordinary situations, it is SPR remade in Korea.

The two lead actors Jang Dong-gun and Bin Won play brothers Jin-tae and Jin-seok, who are forcibly conscripted into the South Korean army at the outbreak of hostilities. Jin-tae, the elder and less educated brother, has high hopes for his younger sibling, and tries to strike a deal with their commanding officer, if Jin-tae excels on the field of battle then Jin-seok will be sent home to live with their family. Jin-tae does become a warrior, whereas most of the conscripts fight because that is the only choice, Jin-tae seems born for war, he is fearless and brave, a risk taker and a natural killer.

As Jin-tae fights, he changes from the peaceable loving elder brother and begins to live for the violence of war and the respect it brings him from his fellow men, after witnessing a Communist massacre of civilians, Jin-tae leads a similar massacre of unarmed prisoners and it is only Jin-soek's horrified intervention that prevents him from murdering a childhood friend who has been taken into the Communist army.

Jin-tae's character explores the darkness of war in a style familiar to Platoon, where once normal men become the very thing they are seeking to eradicate, where the end always justifies the means. The expression on Jin-tae's face when the (unfortunately false) declaration of victory comes speaks volumes, he has become a fighting machine, a killer of men, and with the end of the war in sight he can no longer see his own purpose in life. Jin-soek tries to be his mirror and conscience, to show Jin-tae what he has become, and in a harrowing scene when Jin-tae's fiancee is arrested by the anti-Communist police the elder brother seems briefly to come to his senses.

There are faults with this film, I found that some of the battle scenes became rather Conan like, especially towards the end when both brothers hack their way through a veritable horde of unfortunate extras to meet each other on the battlefield. Other critics have said that Jin-tae's defection to the Communists is unbelievable, but I'm not so sure, here is a man not only inured to the horrors of war, but utterly betrayed by the side he has been fighting for, he thinks his brother and family are dead and in his madness seeks to destroy those who have killed them. Some of the extras are also a little frenetic, but this may be that I can't pick up nuances in a language I cannot speak and a culture I do not know.

There is an English soundtrack option, but I cannot abide dubbing, no matter how well it is done, the film stands up much better when heard in Korean with English sub-titles.

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