“Taegukgi” (known as “Brotherhood” in the West) is a war epic from Korean director Je-gyu Kang, who also penned the script. With previous experience on “Shiri” this director should produce an exciting depiction of the emotional turmoil and savagery that the Korean War created. “Taegukgi” picked up nine awards from various film festivals and was met with critical acclaim, taking the top spot at the Korean box office following its release. The main acting prowess in this movie is provided by Dong-Kun Jang (“Nowhere to Hide”) and Bin Won as we follow the two brothers that they portray, and witness their first hand experiences of war.
The movie opens (present day) with scenes depicting an archaeological dig, and following the excavation of battle worn skeletons, a call is made (by the Korean Army) to an elderly man who is willing to risk his ailing health to travel to the dig site located in the cold mountains of the North. His granddaughter asks him if this is news on what he has been searching for his whole life, the location of his brother's remains. We are then transported back in time to the idyllic setting of 1950's Seoul as we're introduced to our two brothers, Jin-tae Lee (Jang) and Jin-seok Lee (Won), who live a humble, but happy existence with their mother and Jin-tae's fiance , Young-shin Kim (Eun-ju Lee), and her brothers and sisters. Jin-tae, the elder brother, works as a shoe-shiner but has aspirations of one day becoming a great shoe maker. He looks after his younger brother, Jin-soek, often making sacrifices so that his sibling can attend college and have the best in life. Although not having much money, this extended family appreciate what little they have and live a meagre, but happy existence. Following the outbreak of war, conscription leads to both of these brothers involuntarily joining the South's Republic of Korea Army (ROK), and they are thrown headfirst into the brutal world of war. Jin-tae, who makes a couple of failed attempts to get his brother discharged, resigns himself to the fact that they are trapped in this hostile situation. Making a request that his brother remain under his watchful eye in his platoon, we see that this caring older brother has his younger brother's best interests at heart. With the situation worsening in the North, the two brothers find themselves on the battle front at the 38th Parallel following a push by the ROK. When a mission becomes available that requires a risky manoeuvre to plant mines on the North Korean People's Army (KPA) transport route, Jin-tae volunteers, striking a deal with the Commander to do anything as long as his brother gets sent home to safety.
During the mining mission things get out of control with the KPD ambushing the ROK and catching them unawares. Jin-tae stands strong and vanquishes the enemy's attempts to thwart their mission and, later on, single handily takes out the KPD's main stronghold in Nak-Dong. As the movie progresses, and with his prowess in battle gaining him notoriety and recognition from his superior officers, Jin-tae undergoes a transformation as he succumbs to the glory of war (earning a medal of bravery) and the joys of bloodshed. Dubiously still professing that he is risking his life not for his own gain but to bargain for the safe return of his brother Jin-tae volunteers for more dangerous missions. Jin-soek is horrified at his brother's progression from simple shoe shiner to killing machine and tries to make him see sense. All around them the horrors of war poisons minds with one of their platoon members going insane and attacking his fellow soldiers. Following the near death of a childhood friend (who has been conscripted by the opposing KPD), at the hand of Jin-tae, Jin-soek sees that his brother has been completely consumed by his bloodlust and elevated status. Receiving news that his ailing mother is in poor health, Jin-soek travels home, only to find Yong-shin falsely accused of communism and under investigation (with the death penalty a consequence for all traitors). Emulating his elder brother, Jin-soek attacks the ROK inquisitors and with the aid of Jin-tae, who has rushed home fearing for his brothers safety, the two seek to rescue Ying-shin but they are unsuccessful. Jin-soek is thrown in the stockade for attacking fellow officers and Jin-tae receives a rebuttal from his superiors. In an accurate representation of historical events, the KPD, with the assistance of their Chinese allies, overwhelm the ROK at the 38th Parallel and force them into retreat. The stockade containing Jin-soek is burned to the ground and Jin-tae, believing that his brother and wife-to-be have died at the hands of the ROK, descends into despair and defects to the KPD, becoming a member of the elite “Red Flag” platoon. Jin-soek in fact had escaped from the stockade prior to its incineration (unbeknown to his brother) and finally realises that Jin-tae, although losing his way under the strains of war, really had his best interest at heart all along. Following this revelation Jin-soek leaves the safety of the infirmary where he is stationed and returns one last time to the battlefield to seek out his brother.
With plenty of exciting battle sequences and fist fights there really isn't a dull moment throughout, as Je-gyu Kang paints a portrait of the young, idealistic volunteers from the South as they travel to the hostile north to battle their fellow countrymen in a country ravaged and divided by war. The acting is superlative during this presentation with strong performances from both Won and Jang, and their large supporting cast. There is no token humour in “Taegukgi” to ease the atmosphere, just the continual, brutal onslaught of war and the effect that it has on those who partake in its folly. The bleak and cold battlefields, with licks of flame adding pockets of light, look wholly unwelcoming and devoid of any human emotion other than raw hate. Coupled with the graphically intense battle sequences/shelling scenes with bodies burning, heads imploding/exploding, severed limbs and primal encounters where the soldiers resort to using their rifles as clubs; this movie accurately portrays the horrors of war in an inexorable fashion. Je-gyu Kang skilfully uses his two main characters to highlight how war changes people and makes them act in an almost frenzied and insane manner, killing friends and turning on family all in the name of victory. With scenes depicting the aftermath of battle, the war ravaged Seoul is scarred, barely recognisable and still smoking from the war that tore Korea apart. This is in stark contrast to the beginning of the movie as the villagers adorn their brave soldiers with flowers and kind words as they leave for war. The closing scenes are also very poignant as they show Jin-soek, now an elderly man, break down and finally mourn the brother who he lost, completely and wholly, to war. The prologue is equally effective as the young Jin-soek returns to his mother who is overjoyed that her youngest son has returned but also devastated at the loss of her eldest. A powerful movie that successfully harnesses the raw power and emotion of war coupled with a very human side that, in conjunction, produce a compelling end product.
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