TAE GUK GI

R
Reviews

A box-office smash in Korea, Tae Guk Gi depicts the 1950 Korean War from the point of view of a blue-collar Seoul family torn apart by the conflict. (The title refers to the South Korean flag.) Shot on a lavish scale, the film unfortunately suffers from maudlin plotting and severe overacting. Its reception in the U.S. will be muted at best.

Co-writer and director Kang Je-gyu (Shiri) spends a long time establishing an idyllic pre-war Seoul in which brothers Lee Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun) and Lee Jin-seok (Won Bin) are slowly pulling their family out of poverty. Jin-tae works as a cobbler so Jin-seok can finish school. Their mother operates a noodle stand with Jin-tae's orphaned fiance Young-shin (Lee Eun-joo). In Kang's nostalgic vision, their days are filled with hijinks and ice cream; at night the family frolics in a river. Neither brother is prepared when war is declared. Against their wishes they are drafted into the army.

Worried about his brother's weak heart, Jin-tae volunteers for every dangerous assignment, no matter how deadly. He is desperate to win a medal, convinced it would be enough to send Jin-seok home. But his brother suspects that Jin-tae enjoys fighting. As his fame spreads, Jin-tae becomes more reckless and bloodthirsty.

In the fall, the South Korean army marches relentlessly north, winning commanding battles against the Communists. With the United States joining in, the ebullient troops seem assured of victory. Then their officers order them to retreat. The collapse leads to chaos back home. On leave, Jin-tae and Jin-seok are both arrested trying to defend Young-shin from vigilante gangs. They will ultimately choose to fight on opposite sides.

Kang stages the frequent battle scenes as ferocious, pounding set-pieces. Individually, they have impressive moments; taken as a whole, they are exhausting. Kang dwells on shootings, dismemberments and other war horrors in such minute detail that they inevitably seem exploitative. At the same time, he fails to provide much of a political context to the events in the story. Even worse, his characters are threadbare stereotypes. Perhaps Kang probably thought he was being open-minded by showing that South Koreans were as capable of war crimes as their Communist neighbors, but the film ends up implying that there was no real reason to fight on either side-and thus no reason to care about his characters' choices. Kang's tendency to allow his actors to overact to an embarrassing degree makes it that much harder to take Tae Guk Gi seriously.

-Daniel Eagan