review by Seraph

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Not Just a War Movie!
Taegukgi is the new South Korean movie by Je-Gyu Kang who directed the 1999 action movie 'Shiri' which became the biggest South Korean blockbuster ever made when it was released. In fact, it was another two years until a film managed to gross more at the Korean box office. That movie being 2001's 'Friend.' This has once again been beaten by this years Taegukgi. A movie about two brothers who are conscripted to fight in the Korean war in 1950.

With a budget of $12 million 'Taegukgi' stars two of the biggest male actors in Korea, Won Bin plays Jin Seok, younger brother to Jang Dong-Kun's Jin Tae. Both brothers lead almost idyllic lives as a shoe shine boy and a college student respectively. When the Korean war breaks out they are forced to move away from their home with their mother and Jin-Tae's 'soon to be wife.' Things worsen when the south Korean army roll into town and literally bag any men between the ages of 18 and 30.

Cut to the chaos of the front line, and war. It comes to Jin Tae's attention that there is a way he can have his little brother sent home. If he can get a medal of honour he can request his brother to be discharged. So Jin Tae accepts every mission that gets thrown at him. Including those deemed 'suicidal.' A problem arises when Jin-Seok mistakes his brothers courage and sacrifice for a flat out obsession with fame and glory. This threatens to put a wedge between the brothers forever.

Firstly, this film looks 'amazing.' With a relatively large budget (although not by American standards) director Kang Je-Gyu has managed to create something epic and breathtaking to behold. This movie looks as good as many American movies and in most cases, even better. Whether it is depicting fights on snow covered mountains, run-down villages or the stunning battle at night, lit only by thousands of Molotov cocktails, you will be pinned to your sofa by the sheer size and grandeur of the whole thing. The sets are huge, the effects are good and the whole thing looks as slick as an $80 + movie, all on a budget of $12.

The acting, while not the greatest ever seen, is very appropriate for the movie. I've heard some people criticise it as overacting. Well, I think overacting in a war movie is a good thing. I think we'd all actually act that way if it were for real. Won Bin especially, seems to fit his part well. He's a quiet boy who, over the course of the film, learns to find his voice a little more. There are subtle moments between the brothers and these are played out the best. Their story is truly heartbreaking. Yes, I cried, more than once. Which brings me to another point people seem to criticise. That that the movie is too melodramatic. Well, maybe it is but to me that's a good thing. Anyone who has seen as much Korean Cinema as I have will know that each and every movie (bar a few exceptions) hinges on some kind of melodrama. It's a staple of Korean movies and, to a lesser extent their psyche. Sometimes it works well: 'Friend' sometimes it works only ok: 'Classic' and sometimes it fails miserably: 'Spy Girl.' Taegukgi falls in the same category as 'Friend' for me. You will cry. That's a promise.

The war scenes themselves are a mixed bag. They are shot employing the same kind of shaky, hand held work that Spielberg employed in Saving Private Ryan and while they are vast, epic, gritty, real and truly harrowing, they are also edited somewhat confusingly. Abruptly breaking out without warning, director Kang Je-Gyu thrusts you into battle after battle with little regard for bringing the audience up to date with the why and how. One minute the brothers are quietly chatting, the next... Chaos. This does, however, in my opinion work for this film. Wars such as this aren't fought with much planning and the movie does a good job of making this all seem very unstaged and also showing the confusion of what are no more than teenagers forced to fight with little or no training. I guess it's all down to personal taste here and for me, it worked.

I will not comment on accuracy, especially as the director has chosen to focus on the human/family/relationship aspect of a country at war. However, I must confess to having expected the Chinese to focus a little more prominently than they did. Especially given the nature of their involvement. Go figure!

All in all, I personally found this to be an epic, soaring, tragic and beautifully made movie experience. It may be overblown, that's fine by me. It may be melodramatic. I love that aspect too. The acting as I have said is good but not great. The effects are very nicely done and the whole thing just shows that America truly doesn't have the only great film-making industry.

I advise you to check it out. Just don't say I didn't warn you about the melodrama.

I rate it 8/10

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Genre: War, Drama
Director: Director: Je-Gyu Kang
Cast: Jin Seok | Jang Dong-Kun
Reviewed by Seraph (PaulJ), November 2004