It’s New Year’s Day 2014, and we’re almost five years removed from Chris Bishop’s original presentation of Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, a 2004 South Korean film directed by Je-kyu Kang. At this point I have no recollection (and no notes) regarding whether a short film was shown, but given the near 2.5 hour running time, I’d guess we might have skipped a short this time around.
So that means it’s time to fire up the DVR and get on to the film!
The movie opens with some weepy music playing over the site of a modern-day Korean War excavation. One set of remains appeared to be identified as a veteran known to have survived. A call to the veteran confirms this, and when the old man (Jin-Seok) asks if it could possibly be his brother (Jin-Tae), the excavators instead put it off as a simple mistake. Nonetheless, the old man determines to set off to see if it might in fact be his brother’s remains.
Thus ends the bookend, and the movie jumps to Korea, 1950, and two brothers joyfully fighting in the street to more weepy music. The elder Jin-Tae is soon to be married and wants to be a shoemaker, Jin-Seok is a good student who wants to go off to university. And you know that both of their ambitions will be completely derailed by the Korean War. And here it begins, with megaphones and pamphlets in the streets and a hasty evacuation.
Shortly thereafter, both brothers are forcibly conscripted from the streets to fight the communists, leaving their family behind in the obligatory weepy-music running-beside-the-train scene. In no time, the brothers are off to the front and having their paltry meal of rice balls interrupted by incoming mortars. I did like the scene when after the first explosion, one soldier’s instinct was to quickly wipe the dirt off his rice ball as the bombs keep falling.
Then, it’s war scene after war scene, with Jin-Tae doing his best to take care of his younger brother. He volunteers for dangerous missions to build up enough “political capital” to get his brother left behind when most of their trapped and starving company goes out on a desperate and basically suicidal raid of the communist position. Jin-Tae heroically blows up a munitions bunker, which apparently – as in a video game – ends the level and the battle is won. As a result, Jin-Tae is promoted and things kind of go to his head a bit, which makes Jin-Seok sulky and bitter. He thinks his brother loves being a hero, which really is pretty uncharitable of him.
Marvels of translation: “You’ll die and I don’t want you to do that anymore.”
Really, the vast majority of this film is battle scenes – death from explosions, death from being shot, death from being a minor character that got introduced. That kind of thing doesn’t really translate well to a film review (heck, I’m not even sure it translates well to film). It looks, at a quick Wikipedia glance, that somewhere on the order of 1.5-2 million people (soldiers and civilians combined) died in the Korean war – this film seems to dutifully try to recreate every single one of those deaths. I’m telling you, it just keeps going.
Eventually, Jin-Tae’s actions become more and more ruthless, and he wins a medal of honor for capturing an enemy captain, which in principle means he can get his brother sent home. Before an order away from the front can go through, however, the company travels through their hometown, and the brothers find that the other soldiers are rounding up and executing civilians whose only crime was to attend communist rallies when the village was occupied in order to get food – including Jin-Tae’s fianceé Young-shin. The two Jins try to save her – Jin-Tae even shoots several “friendlies” in the operation – but fail and Young-shin dies in his arms. Despite this, Jin-Seok bitterly blames Jin-Tae, because he’s kind of stuck on being an asshole.
Following the insurrection, Jin-Tae mistakenly believes that Jin-Seok was killed by his own side amongst a large number of hostages. In revenge for the death of his girlfriend and his brother at the hands of his own army, he escapes custody and joins the communists, becoming a major hero for the North. Despite being on track to be discharged, the next year when he learns of his brother’s exploits for the north, Jin-Seok volunteers to go to the front, believing that he can redeem his brother. He escapes his unit and surrenders to the North to meet his brother face to face. Naturally, a battle intervenes, and intervenes, and intervenes. But in the midst of the bullets and bayonets Jin-Seok fights his way to his crazed brother and they have one more tearful battlefield parting before the new hero of the North turns on the North from a machine gun position to give Jin-Seok enough time to escape.
And…back to the bookend, where Jin-Seok sits over his brother’s exhumed bones and is weepily indignant – “You promised to come back, why didn’t you come back?” Umm, dude, because he kind of died making sure you got away, that’s why. So basically, Jin-Tae got what he wanted all along – he gave his life to save his brother’s – never mind that the whole thing ended up costing thousands upon thousands of Korean lives on both sides, right? We’ve got weepy music to make it OK.