“Taegukgi” is the big-budget South Korean war film everyone has been waiting for, rumored to be the most expensive production in Korean movie history. No big surprise, considering writer/director Je-gyu Kang (“Shiri”) only knows how to do things two ways: big and bigger. “Taegukgi” is without a doubt a nationalistic movie (the film’s Korean title translates into something along the lines of “wave the Korean flag”), the kind of big-budget spectacle you’d find on the resume of one Michael Bay. Mind you, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Although one should be tempered to not expect anything too original or subtle. Je-gyu Kang just doesn’t work that way, as “Shiri” can certainly attest to.
“Taegukgi” opens in the present, but quickly flashes back to 1950 Seoul, with the Korean War about to fall on the heads of the film’s two main characters — brothers Jin-tae (Dong-Kun Jang), a shoeshine boy with aspirations of becoming a shoemaker, and Jin-seok (Bin Won), the bookworm highschooler. As the de facto head of the family, it’s Jin-tae’s responsibility to take care of his brother, a responsibility he cherishes. Together, they live with their ailing mother and Jin-tae’s fianc’e, Young-shin (Eun-ju Lee). Though they are poor and struggling, it’s nevertheless a very good life.
Alas, nothing good lasts forever. No sooner do we see the idyllic lifestyle of our heroes does the Korean War breaks out. The family is quickly separated and Jin-seok and Jin-tae find themselves forcibly conscripted to fight. In the battlefields, Jin-tae takes on the task of guardian angel, quickly adjusting to the squalid circumstances of trench life. To garner favors and save his brother, Jin-tae volunteers for dangerous missions, hoping to win the Medal of Honor so he can get Jin-seok sent home. This causes conflict between the brothers, as Jin-seok begins to (justly) take exception to Jin-tae’s treatment of him as a helpless child.
Without a doubt, “Taegukgi” is a visually impressive film, but that doesn’t negate the fact that you’ve seen it all before. In particular “Saving Private Ryan”, the movie that “Taegukgi” was heavily inspired by. One even suspects that Je-gyu Kang uses the same bookending technique similar to the one used by “Ryan” as an admission that without Spielberg’s movie his wouldn’t have been possible. Unfortunately it’s the script for “Taegukgi” that is the film’s weakest element. The movie is over two hours and 30 minutes long, with a massive second act and an equally arduous concluding act. It makes “Taegukgi” somewhat unwieldy, not to mention poorly paced.
Then again, I think it’s probably enough to say that “Taegukgi” does what it does extremely well, even if it has no real originality and is basically treading the same ground as countless other war films (“The Thin Red Line”, the 10-hour “Band of Brothers”, and the Finnish war film “Winter War” all come to mind.) As such, one could conclude that “Taegukgi” is about 5 years too late to the party. Then again, the action scenes alone are worth watching the film. The scenery is spectacular and properly epic in proportions, with limbs and blood flying with chaotic clockwork. Technically speaking, “Taegukgi” is excellent from beginning to end.
The film’s most harrowing moments are its first 40 minutes, when Jin-tae and Jin-seok arrive on the front lines fresh from the train they were forced on. It’s a bleak, muddy, dangerous, and fragile hill, but no more so than the men trying desperately to hold it. Later, the film’s aesthetics brighten up a bit as we follow the unit as they push into North Korea, through Pyongyang, and to the Chinese border. The film caps off with a massive military engagement on a hillside along the 38th parallel that ends with the two factions caught up in a bloody, brutal, alleyway-style gang fight. It’s all incredibly executed, not to mention utterly and completely insane.
But like all war movies, “Taegukgi” has too many characters and not enough time to get to know them. Thus, their deaths mean little to us, and the only reason we take their deaths as something significant is because the musical score has suddenly grown dramatically. And guess what? That guy that keeps showing his fellow soldiers a picture of his family? Yep. It’s the biggest War Movie cliche in the book. If you can’t figure out this guy is going to bite it, and that his precious picture will poetically flutter, fall, or come into view during his death, you haven’t seen nearly enough war movies.
The acting by the two leads is competent, although Dong-Kun Jang, who was excellent as a brooding cop in the average “2009: Lost Memories”, falls victim to a script that fails to give him very much complexity. Bin Won (“Guns and Talks”) does well enough, managing to be convincing as the naive schoolboy who grows up as the war churns on. Still, the character wavers from helpless schoolboy to uncompromising schoolboy too many times to be overly sympathetic. At fault is the script, which offers too broadly drawn characters that “grows” in Polaroid moments rather than arcs.
“Taegukgi” does deserve some of the hype it’s garnered, but it’s by no means a masterpiece. It’s a good film, even by the high standards of epic war films as set by “Saving Private Ryan”. Technically speaking, it’s rock solid from beginning to end, even though one does wish it could have curtailed the script to be less cumbersome. As a result, “Taegukgi” doesn’t sprint to the end as it should; instead, it lumbers, grunts, and finally limps home. Much like it’s main character, actually.
Je-gyu Kang (director) / Je-gyu Kang (screenplay)
CAST: Dong-Kun Jang …. Jin-tae
Bin Won …. Jin-seok
Eun-ju Lee …. Young-shin