Much-longer cut of a movie review in the Friday, Oct. 29 Oregonian....
"Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War" is a difficult movie to describe -- for the simple reason that this South Korean war epic mixes violence and melodrama in quantities no sane American director would attempt.
Directed by Je-gyu Kang, a man described in the New York Times as "the Steven Spielberg of East Asia," "Tae Guk Gi" is the most expensive and highest-grossing film in its nation's history. It's about two brothers torn apart by the Korean War -- but calling it a simple indictment of war's horrors doesn't even begin to convey the hysterically pitched 140 minutes that follow.
Yes, "Tae Guk Gi" explores the brother-versus-brother themes you'd expect to find in a movie where North versus South. But it's not a political film; ideologies are barely hinted at, with representatives of both sides committing atrocities by film's end. Kang is far more interested in war's effect on family and the psyche, and he cranks the emotional volume up into the Douglas Sirk register -- with everyone howling in anguish or ecstasy for much of the movie's running time, backed by a orchestral score that makes John Williams' work for Spielberg seem subtle by comparison.
When shoemaker Jin-tae (Dong-Kun Jang) and his college-bound brother Jin-seok (Bin Won) are happy, they're laughing and hugging and buying each other ice cream and pens and having water fights with their peasant South Korean family. When they're forcibly conscripted to repel the invading North, they say goodbye to their mother from a rolling train -- a cliché that would make Michael Bay blush. (Actually, maybe it wouldn't.) And when the cruelties of both North and South turn Jin-tae into a killing machine who squares off against his more fragile sibling, the brothers devolve into crazed abstractions of rage and love, capable of little more than crying, howling and killing.
And yes, there's also graphic combat footage -- shot in the strobing, limb-flinging style that's pretty much de rigeur in the wake of "Saving Private Ryan." For a while, this seems like a simple use of in-your-face violence to impeach violence. But where Mr. Spielberg might have shown one person ripped apart by a land mine or grenade, Mr. Kang shows it dozens of times -- the film's body count may well be in the thousands -- and he also gives his lead characters a superhuman ability to rain blows upon their enemies without bruising their fists.
The effect is strange and cumulative: "Tae Guk Gi"'s violence takes a journey that parallels its emotional content, crossing the line from war-torn realism to over-the-top action photography to some kind of hyperreal horror splatter over the course of its two hours and change. By film's end, we're traveling in the realm of what John Woo has called "poetic violence" -- mass killing used to underscore peak emotion, a specialty of Woo's in movies like "Bullet in the Head" and "The Killer."
In other words, it's not for everyone -- "Tae Guk Gi" is frenzied, exhausting or emotionally profound, depending on the person (or the person's mood that day). But for fans of New Korean Cinema with strong stomachs for violence and melodrama, there's a lot to love. Mr. Kang is a superb film craftsman, with a knack for staging vast, overpowering scenes of bloodshed, and Dong-Kun Jang runs an athletic circuit of insanity, grit, charisma and tenderness with the assurance of a young Chow Yun-Fat.
The film begs comparison to "Saving Private Ryan" -- thanks to its parroting of "Ryan"'s combat photography and its present-day framing story, in which an older veteran visits the graves of his comrades. But where Spielberg wanted to make a definitive statement about a moment in history, Kang seems more interested in telling a universal story of brothers in arms -- and wringing his dramatic sponge so tightly that that story takes on the operatic tones of myth.
(140 minutes; rated R for strong graphic sequences of war violence) Grade: B-minus
'Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War' (The Oregonian, Friday, Oct. 29, 2004)