Is Kang Je-Gyu becoming theMichael Bay of Korean cinema’ The director made a persuasive claim to the titlewith the slick conspiracy thriller Shiri (Swiri) which grabbedthe Korean box-office crown in 1999. Now, he moves into Pearl Harborterritory with Taegukgi, a sweeping wartime epic that combines graphic,impressively mounted battle sequences with heart-tugging human drama.
Taegukgi now stands as the all-timebox-office champion in Korea (it has taken $64.5m-plus and at one point was onan estimated 40% of the nation’s screens) and possesses the kind ofcrowd-pleasing ingredients and populist touch that could allow it to make aninternational impact. It has a potentially broader base of appeal than therecent macho, action-based Silmido although having experienced the likesof Saving Private Ryan, Enemy At The Gates, We Were Soldiersand HBO’s Band Of Brothers, some territories might regard it as justanother technically accomplished war film.
Comparisons with StevenSpielberg’s Oscar-winner are inevitable as Kang Je-Gyu appears to share thedirector’s fondness for sentimentality and his film employs a similar flashbackstructure.
A film that paints itscanvas with the broadest of brush strokes, Taegukgishows the fanaticismand injustice that existed on both sides of the Korean conflict and thereforehas an added resonance for Korean audiences similar to the sense of catharsisprovoked in America by The Deerhunter and other Vietnam films in thelate 1970s. This will not apply internationally but global audiences willcertainly identify with the way families are torn apart and lives changes ascompassion becomes an unaffordable luxury in the heat of battle.
The story begins at anarchaeological excavation site dedicated to the Korean War. The remains of onesoldier puzzle the authorities as he is not listed among those missing orkilled in action but appears to be very much alive. A call to an elderly,ailing man provokes a remembrance of the past and a flashback to the events of1950.
In 1950, Kang Je-Gyu paintsan idyllic portrait of family life and the fond affection that binds twobrothers together. Lee Jin-tae (Jang) has ambitions to become a cobbler whilsthis younger teenage brother Lee Jin-seok (Won) is the more academically giftedof the two. Then, war is declared, the state rounds up all men between 18 and30 and the two brothers are drafted into the army.
The subsequent film chartsJin-tae’s desperate efforts to protect his brother from harm and the way it slowlyerodes his humanity. The resentful Jin-seok grows to despise the unrecognisablekilling machine that his brother becomes. Further heartache and tragedy awaitsthem as the war with the Communist North intensifies and their personalconflict reaches a bitterly ironic conclusion in the muddy, blood-spatteredbattlefields.
The use of slow motion atkey emotional moments and the sweeping, heavenly chorus music of Lee Dong-junadd to the relentless assault on the tearducts. The graphic, hand-held scenesof whizzing bullets, severed limbs and crumpled bodies are very convincinglystaged and the film boasts charismatic performances from both Won Bin and JangDong-gun as the brothers whose lives are shaped and shattered by a war thatpermanently scarred a whole nation.
Prod co: KangJeGyu Films
S Kor dist: Showbox
Int’l sales: Kang Je-gyu Films
Exec prod: Kang Je-gyu
Prods: Choi Jin-wha, Kim Woo-teak
Scr: Han Hi-hoon, Kim Sang-don
Cine: Hong Gyung-pyo
Prod des: Shin Bo-gyung
Ed: Park Gok-ji, Chung Jin-hee
Music: Lee Dong-jun
Main cast: Jang Dong-gun, WonBin, Lee Eun-joo, Gong Hyung-jin, Jang Min-ho