Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood Of War
US Theatrical Release: September 10, 2004 (Sony Pictures)
US DVD Release: February 15, 2005
Running Time: 2:28:07 (28 chapter stops)
Rating: R (For Strong Graphic Sequences Of War Violence)
Video: 2.35:1 Anamorphic (Extra features: 1.33:1)
Audio: Korean DD5.1, English DD5.1 (Extra features: Korean DD2.0)
Subtitles: English, French (Extra features: English)
TV-Generated Closed Captions: None
Menus: Lightly animated, but may be skipped. Disc 2 menus are not animated.
Packaging: Standard dual-disc keepcase; insert has cover images of other titles on both sides.
THE WAY I FEEL ABOUT IT: 4.5/5
On June 25, 1950, the communist Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea (DPRK) invaded its neighbor to the south, the Republic Of Korea (ROK). Only five years earlier, these Chinese and US client states had together made up the single nation of Korea. In its 1300-year history, it was often occupied by foreign powers, but was never before split by civil war.
As with Germany, the end of World War II found both Soviet and American troops occupying the formerly Japanese-controlled country, and what was supposed to be a temporary situation became a permanent split between the communist north and the capitalist south. However, both governments coveted reunification on their own terms, and this led to the three years of devastation and chaos known as The Korean War.
At first, the surprise attack allowed the communists to overrun most of the South, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Within days, the United Nations (consisting mainly of U.S. troops, but with many nations represented) intervened, but were unable to stem the tide. With the ROK and its allies pinned at Pusan with their backs to the sea, General Douglas MacArthur led a daring amphibious invasion at the city of Inchon and cut the communists’ supply lines. This allowed the southern forces to regroup and drive the DPRK armies back north of the 38th Parallel, the original border.
Despite Chinese warnings, the U.N. and ROK continued their advance in hopes of reuniting the country. Fearing for its own interests in North Korea, China sent hundreds of thousands of its own soldiers across the Yalu river and into the fray, returning the battle lines to South Korean territory. Recovering from the initial Chinese onslaught, the U.N. and ROK were then able to fight their way back to the 38th Parallel. In less than one year, the entire Korean Peninsula, an area similar in size to the state of Utah, had been ravaged by a series of military campaigns.
Although the situation stabilized in the summer of 1951, it took two more years of sporadic fighting around the 38th Parallel for both sides to agree to a cease-fire. Millions were dead and immeasurable damage had been done to the infrastructure and economies of both Koreas, yet the border remained exactly where it had been. To this day, both armies stand poised at that border, in what some have called “the scariest place on Earth.”
Now, from South Korea comes Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood Of War, a powerful epic of the war and its effect on one family. In it, regular people struggle to survive and maintain their sanity as they are swept up in events on a grand scale. Scenes that most people have only read about in history books are brought vividly to life through the eyes of characters to whom most people can easily relate.
In the summer of 1950, brothers Jin-tae (Jang Dong-Kun) and Jin-Seok (Won Bin) are just entering manhood in bustling Seoul. Jin-tae shines shoes on the street so that his younger brother, a good student, can fulfill the dream of their late father by going to college. Their mother runs a noodle shop with Jin-tae’s fiancée, Young-shin (Lee Eun-ju). Along with Young-shin’s three very young siblings, they enjoy life as a close-knit family.
Everything changes when the North Korean army invades. As the fighting approaches Seoul, the city’s residents hastily pack up their belongings and hit the road as refugees. Before they can leave, however, Jin-tae and Jin-seok are conscripted into the army. The two women and three small children are left to fend for themselves, with no belongings beyond what they can carry on their backs.
The story follows the two brothers through the trials of the first year of the war. They experience smashing victories and crushing defeats, all the while witnessing the violent destruction of their country. They are not concerned with political ideologies or national borders – their only wish is to look after each other.
As the brothers fight their way across the hills and cities of Korea, they and their comrades are changed in ways they could never have imagined. Jin-tae, the happy-go-lucky street vendor, soon becomes a hardened and fearless warrior, while his brother, who has always been frail, overcomes his physical limitations despite his difficulty coming to grips with the nightmare around him. These characters are realistic, flawed people who don’t always do the right thing when confronted with difficult situations. Of course, the “right thing” is often nebulous at best in many of the situations in this film.
Tae Guk Gi features a number of thrilling, realistic battle sequences akin to those found in recent war films such as Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down. Director Kang Je-gyu (of Shiri fame) shows a flair for exciting action while pulling no punches in the bloody portrayal of war’s horrors. The FX, most of which do not use CGI, are generally very good and often quite disturbing.
The violence of the film, both physical and emotional, is astonishingly brutal on a number of levels. The gore is extreme, to say the least. A wide variety of shocking atrocities are depicted in gruesome detail. Families and friendships are torn apart as the innocence of millions is trampled under the boot of war. Tae Guk Gi is not for the faint of heart.
A film like this one often walks a fine line, as the inherently extreme drama of the setting magnifies the intensity of the story. Asian films in particular often lay on the melodrama more thickly than western audiences are accustomed to seeing. While some parts of Tae Guk Gi do push the envelope of believability, it manages to stop just shy of going over the top. This is no Titanic – it is almost impossible to not be affected by these characters’ travails, despite the occasional cliché.
THE WAY I SEE IT: 4/5
Tae Guk Gi looks very nice. Colors (mainly skin, blood, grass, dirt, blood, metal and more blood) are rich and lifelike, and black levels are deep. The picture generally shows a lot of detail. Considering the film’s length, the compression worked pretty well, with evenly-reproduced grain and a minimum of artifacting. The source print is in very good shape.
The only real issue with the image is the edge enhancement, which is a bit worse than usual. Due to the fact that most of the movie involves a lot of movement, it’s sometimes not that noticeable, but it often stands out enough to be distracting.
THE WAY I HEAR IT: 4/5
The front soundfield is top-notch, with clear dialogue, a powerful score, and FX that take the listener to the middle of the battlefield. There are plenty of loud bangs to be heard here, and the LFE doesn’t disappoint. However, the surround levels in the Korean track are a little low. The English track, which overall is a hair louder than the Korean track, has a better front-rear balance. Still, the original-language track is fine for those who don’t like watching dubbed movies. (The inferior dub script and constant ADR voice quality of the English track are two good reasons to stick with the original audio here.)
THE SWAG: 4/5 (rating combines quality and quantity)
The extra features are all contained on disc 2. With the exception of the making-of doc Making History, the featurettes are all talking-head pieces, embellished with a few behind-the-scenes clips and some actual wartime footage. They are non-anamorphic, but on the plus side, they include very few actual clips from the movie.
6.25 And Us: (24:49)
The title of this doc refers to June 25, 1950, the date on which North Korea launched a surprise attack on the South. The first 17-odd minutes features actual veterans of the Korean War talking about their experiences in the war, along with some period film footage. Some historians weigh in as well. This is easily the most interesting section of the disc. Unfortunately, the last 7 minutes or so consists of the cast and crew talking about how horrible they heard the war was.
Director Kang Je-Gyu and the producers discuss the genesis of the project, from its inspiration (a documentary on the war) to the meetings where the story and production were planned. They also talk about their motivations and goals for the film.
War Project: (15:09)
The director and producers go into more details of the production, including the budget (which was, incredibly, less than US$14 million – had this been an American production, it would have cost ten times that) and the difficulties of getting the film financed. A 2.5-minute trailer that was shown at Cannes in order to secure financing when the film was 30% complete, as well as comments from the financier who provided the needed funds, are included. Some other hurdles faced by the film’s 23(!) producers are covered in this piece, including the acquisition of equipment like trains and tanks. (Not being an expert on the equipment used in the war, I can't comment on the accuracy of the hardware.)
Preparing For Tae Guk Gi: (17:46)
This featurette mainly covers the actors and their performances. It often veers into EPK territory, but on the whole isn’t bad. Judging from this, some apparently big-name Korean actors took bit parts in order to be involved with the production.
The People Behind The Camera: (18:20)
Various members of the crew, including the cinematographer, production designer, composer, and FX guys, go into more detail about the production and how they each became involved. I can’t help but wonder whether the cinematographer realizes that the English word prominently featured on his t-shirt is extremely vulgar.
Making History: (44:34)
A somewhat random assortment of behind-the-scenes footage with occasional commentary from cast and crew. No actual film clips are included, which allows this lengthy featurette to cover a lot of ground. As fly-on-the-wall docs go, it’s very good.
Multi-Angle Storyboard Comparison: (10:47)
Via the menu or by using the Angle button on the remote, six different scene fragments can be viewed as storyboards, final versions, or storyboards plus final versions in top/ bottom split-screen. The scenes are not selectable separately – they all play sequentially. English subtitles are included.
Photo Montage: (10:32)
A series of stills set to music from the film. Almost all are just shots from the movie or possibly on-set publicity photos, with a handful of production photos included. Some of the stills are in black and white.
Five trailers are included. When disc 2 is first loaded, the trailers for Steamboy, House Of Flying Daggers, and Warriors Of Heaven And Earth play automatically. They may be skipped.
- Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood Of War (2:03) (DD2.0 1.78:1 anamorphic)
- Steamboy (1:28) (DD2.0 1.33:1 non-anamorphic)
- House Of Flying Daggers (0:46) (DD5.1 2.35:1 anamorphic)
- Warriors Of Heaven And Earth (1:55) (DD2.0 2.35:1 anamorphic)
- Shiri (1:40) (DD2.0 1.85:1 non-anamorphic)
The Way I Feel About It: 4.5/5
The Way I See It: 4/5
The Way I Hear It: 4/5
The Swag: 4/5
Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood Of War is a powerful statement about a major historical event that has not gotten much coverage from Hollywood. Only a handful of films have been produced on the Korean War, and those have mainly used an American point of view. This new film will shed a lot of light on the conflict for both western and Asian audiences. At the same time, it masterfully blends action, adventure and drama in a rousing cinematic epic. Comparisons are bound to be made with Saving Private Ryan, due to both the modern-day frame story and the hyper-realistic violence, but Tae Guk Gi actually surpasses its predecessor, which relied too much on stock characters and traditional war movie conventions. The Korean piece develops characters who feel real and who evoke strong emotions as they face traumas beyond the imagining of most folks. The solid presentation of this brilliant film, coupled with over 2.5 hours of generally good extra features, earn Tae Guk Gi a very firm RECOMMENDED badge. Only its extreme brutality, which will be too much for some viewers to handle, holds it back from being HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.