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[Movie Review] `Taegukgi' an Emotional Look at the Realities of Korean War

2004/02/05 Source

By Joon Soh

The long-awaited domestic film "Taegukgi" has finally arrived in theaters, and in many ways it doesn't disappoint. Costing nearly 15 billion won to make, the film, about two brothers caught up in the Korean War, is visually as spectacular an achievement as any domestic film ever made. Gang Je-kyu, whose last movie "Shiri" gave birth to the term "Korean blockbuster", has achieved the look and feel of "Saving Private Ryan" or "The Thin Red Line", but with about a fifth of their budgets.

Equal to the scale of "Taegukgi" (the name of the South Korean flag) is the story's unabashed sentimentality. Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun) is an uneducated shoeshine man living in Seoul just prior to the Korean War. His dreams are small and simple: To one day open up his own shoe store, marry the woman he loves (Lee Eun-joo), and see that his younger brother Jin-sok (Won Bin) gets into a good university.

But the simplicity of their lives lie in sharp contrast to the chaos of war, which falls over the two brothers suddenly. Forced to fight on the South Korean side, the brothers find themselves huddled in the frontline trenches with the barest of arms and equipment, surrounded by others as confused as they are.

In these early combat scenes, the film paints a vivid portrait of war's grim brutality. By using camera techniques and varied film speeds similar to "Saving Private Ryan", Kang captures the nightmarish panic that would pervade an actual battlefield.

Complementing the gritty and visceral realism of these scenes is the intense human drama that develops between the two brothers, revolving around Jin-tae's decision to do anything in his power to keep his younger brother from harm. Jang and Won take on roles that could have been cliched, and put on stunning performances as siblings whose relationship turns more ambiguous and complex as the film, and the war, wears on.

For a majority of its 140 minutes, "Taegukgi" lives up to its pre-release hype and the grandness of its title. The soldiers' growing proficiency as killers and their increasing willingness to go to extremes are fascinating and agonizing to watch, both as a narrative about the human condition and as a metaphor for the authoritarianism that later overtakes the two Koreas.

It is only in the latter stages, when Kang reaches for a grander symbolism, that the film begins to falter. But due to the strength of the rest of the film, "Taegukgi" survives its highly melodramatic and unconvincing ending and remains an impressive balance of grit and sentimentality.

'Taegukgi' With English Subtitles
Seoul Selection, a company that specializes in books, music CDs and DVDs about Korea for English speakers, has organized English-subtitled screenings of the new film "Taegukgi" in four theaters in Seoul.

Cine Core Theater in Chongno will show the film four times a day between Feb. 8 and 18, while CGV theater in Myongdong plans to screen the film six times a day between Feb. 8 and 11.

Two other theaters ZOOOZ in Kangnam and Hollywood in Insa-dong will screen the film with subtitles for a limited time.

For more details about the screening and the location of the theaters, go to

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