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"Tae Guk Gi (The Brotherhood of War)"

Directed idea.  I can't find a listing for this thing anywhere!
Starring Jang Dong-gun and Won Bin.
Release Year:  2004

Review Date:  9/6/04


I was leaving the theater this afternoon, a gloomy afternoon with skies so overcast they just screamed "Outer Sunset", and I had just finished up a fantastic war epic that left me with what all good war movies leave me with:


Admittedly, men and women both were wiping the tears away as this bad boy ended, a 140-minute trek through more body-littered, blood-soaked film moments than any other film I have seen this year, easy.  But, as I was ranking this one in my war movie hall of fame, I had to admit to myself that you don't see the greatness of "Tae Guk Gi" coming until that last reel.

It's 1950, and in Seoul, South Korea, two brothers, Young Jin-seok (Won Bin) and Young Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun) are unceremoniously drafted into the South Korean army to fight against their northern Communist bordermates.  Jin-seok, an 18-year-old student-to-be, is the lover, a soft man that only wants to go home again to take care of his mother and become a scholar that the family can be proud of.  Jin-tae is the fighter, a born leader that works a deal with his commanding officer:  win a medal for valor in combat, and the army will send the younger Jin-seok home.  That's all Jin-tae needs to hear, as he grows to become the most exemplary member of his platoon, much to the anger of his younger brother.  Battle after battle, the two brothers and their platoonmates grow more battle-hardened, often to the ill effect of their relationships.

There's more, of course, and add to this the prologue, where we meet the Jin-seok of the present day, as he receives a phone call from a Korean dig official that has found the remains of what might be his older brother from the Korean War.  So, right away we know that Jin-tae doesn't make it.  This only builds on the dramatic effect of our ending, and man, leading up to this is some of the most harrowing war footage I have ever seen, at times even rivaling the footage from my all-time favorite war flick, "Saving Private Ryan."  The best thing about the best war films is that they make you feel like you are right there, even if you have never picked up a rifle and fought for your country (or anything you really believe in, for that matter).  After the brothers are drafted, the fighting is almost non-stop, and the bloodshed gets out of hand at almost every turn.  The violence at times even feels like it did in "The Passion of the Christ"--just kind of orgiastic, almost celebratory, in its depiction, mostly due to the filmmaker's decision to just pound us over the head with the bloodshed to make the audience understand just how painful the suffering must have been for every soldier in that unit.

So, you can imagine my surprise coming into this flick--and, knowing just what the R rating was for--and seeing about two dozen Korean kids with their families walking up the aisles in the theater.  I almost wanted to pimp-slap the fathers in these families; what the fuck are you doing bringing your kids to this?  I don't remember seeing a ton of kids going to see "Saving Private Ryan" when I saw that in a theater; I would imagine not too many parents dragged the kids to see "Platoon" back in the day, either.  But, there they were, sitting back, watching one sequence where a group of soldiers tries to set up a mini minefield on a supply route and in short order one guy gets shot in the arm, his leg blown off by a misplaced mine and his guy blown in by machine gun fire; he spends the next three minutes of the scene screaming then we get the always-insane "let's try and get that bullet out with our outdated medical tools" sequence, full of splattering blood and soldiers throwing up.

Man, I'll never do that to my kids, making them suffer through scenes that most adults have trouble digesting, let alone a seven-year-old.  Fucking stupid parents.

Anyway, about that violence, it is so effective here that every time guys run from one point of cover to another, you almost can't watch, hoping that another South Korean doesn't have to eat hot lead, or get the bayonet in the gut, or get blown up by another grenade.  The violence almost takes you away for a minute, as you hope that in real life the draft never comes to your doorstep, or what it might be like to really fight alongside a sibling, or to never have to sleep in a trench where at any moment, a sneak attack might come and force you to wake up to constant mortar shelling.

Through all of this, the main storyline featuring the two brothers and their growing contempt (at least in the case of one of the brothers) drives everything forward.  You find yourself rooting for one or the other; you love it as the heroic efforts of Jin-tae bail out his comrades one skirmish after another.  The music is stirring; on many levels, the battle choreography is just spectacular, making recent efforts like "Windtalkers" that much more painful in the memory banks.  The acting by the main leads was quite good, at least as much as I could tell, since I had to spend so much time reading the subtitles of the Korean dialogue.

I loved "Tae Guk Gi"; you just have to find it, since this is not showing too many places.  Good stuff indeed. 

Rating:  Opening Weekend


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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The "fine print":
All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09