Wednesday, March 02, 2005

DVD REVIEW: Taegukgi: Brotherhood of War

Let's try something new. I won't be reviewing every DVD I see, but when one comes along worth talking about it I'll do one of these. There's got to be more to blog about than new releases and FCC politics, right?


"Taegukgi" is a Korean "Saving Private Ryan." Normally I wouldn't be so crass as to describe a movie as simply being another movie in a new location, but here I find it appropriate because it's hard to see the film and not discren that "Korean Private Ryan" is exactly what the filmmakers were hoping to achieve. "Ryan's" combat sequences rewrote the definition of what a "serious" war movie is supposed to look like, and ever since it's release the International Cinema landscape has been overflowing with films who's makers are doing their darndest to graft the "Ryan" asthetic onto their country's unique experiences in war, and "Taegukgi" gives no indication that it's inception was any different: It exists firstly to give Korea a "Ryan" to call it's own, and secondly to be an engaging film in it's own right.

Opening amidst the unearthing of remains from a Korean War battlefield in which some artifacts are found seeming to belong to a still-living elderly veteran named Jin-Seok, the film flashes back to the war itself where Jin-Seok finds himself drafted into the South Korean resistance army against his will. His older, rough-hewn brother Jintao follows him into the army to keep him safe, and becomes convinced that if he throws himself into "above-and-beyond" battlefield heroics he can earn the clout to petition the generals to send his younger brother home. But as Jintao plows ahead into ever-more-harrowing and risky situations, and becomes a Medal of Honor contender, he earns Jin-Seok's resentment and begins to lose grip first on his sanity and, eventually, on his humanity.

There's no doubt that the films looks great, another in Korea's recent slew of entries proving their intent and ability to become major players in the big-budget World Cinema stage. And when the story is focusing on the story of Jintao's inner-conflict between his vauge mission to earn his brother's discharge and the sudden status of hero it confers upon him it has all the drama and suspense of a classic war film in the making. It's middle-act, a long and punishing chronicle of important battles in the pre-Chinese-involvement era of the war, is a marvel of military-genre filmmaking.

Unfortunately, the film eventually shows signs of having the same problems as most of the other "Ryan"-progeny: It piles on too many battles and "we can do this, too!" scenes of thousands of people in period costumes, shaky-cam battlefield clashes and jittery montages of flying mud, clattering bayonets and air-mortars sending stuntmen and props into the air; the film proves that it can hang with the big-boys in terms of war scenes after about 40 minutes, but then it doesn't stop trying to prove it and soon comes off as trying too hard. Also, the filmmakers seem too eager to touch on every major idea and event associated with the war, and the plot contorts itself into an increasingly soap-operatic shape in order for Jintao and Jin-Seok to encounter old friends conscripted into the Northen enemy army, civilians suspected of communist-sympathies being murdered, POWs, defection, attrocities on both sides and just about anything else you can think of; and by the last act the film starts to play more like a time-compressed miniseries than a single epic.

This is a good film, but a flawed one. It's hard to criticize a movie for trying too hard, but overall "Taegukgi" doesn't quite rise from being "SPR' in the Korean War" to being an important Korean War story in it's own right. Still, it's a well-made war movie and it's hard not to be moved by the scenes that really do work, and there are plenty of them. War movie afficionados should definately give it a look:



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