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Brother Act: Won Bin (left) and Jang Dong-gun head off to war in the new Korean epic 'Taegukgi.'

Patriotic Gore

'Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War' commemorates the dead of the Korean War, and you'll think you saw every one of them fall by the end of the movie

By Richard von Busack

TWO BROTHERS are sucked into the Korean War of 1950-51: the frail, bookish younger brother Jin-seok Lee (Won Bin) and his older sibling, Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun), a shoemaker who works hard so that Jin-seok can go to school. When the war breaks out, both are drafted into the South Korean side. The elder brother makes himself a good soldier, in hopes of getting the younger kid out. But the plan backfires: the elder becomes a tiger, a medal winner and eventually a war lover on the edge of a breakdown. He's a danger to everyone.

All through its length, the Korean hit Taegukgi wavers back and forth between deploring the horror of war and getting a kick out of it. This ambivalence may be nothing new in war movies, but it's rare that you'll get such a complete alternating between the poles. The Korean War—"World War 2 1/2," quipped comedian Mort Sahl—is a part of history most Americans have disremembered. Yet the war is still under way; the two Koreas are still at the wall. In his wisdom, President Bush keeps this long-running cold war on ice, with typically diplomatic comments such as his speech claiming that North Korea is part of the "axis of evil." And Taegukgi heaps violins over the graphically realistic carnage: limbs liquefying, faces burned off, maggots breeding in wounds.

But the film is named after the South Korean flag, and Taegukgi is as loaded with commie atrocities as any movie since Ike was alive. Even in the placement of the characters' scars, you can see the movie's prejudices. Jin-tae, the humble shoemaker who turns into a mad Rambo of a fighter, goes on a one-man Army raid and comes back with a handsome little cut on his cheekbone—right exactly the same place where Hasbro's GI Joe doll got his red badge of courage. A Communist officer, however, has a nasty-looking forked scar on his cheek; "It's the Mark of Cain!" says a little caption underneath it. Or it should, anyway.

See, it's hard to imagine any reaction to a movie like Taegukgi except revulsion. However, there's always an overlay of history that slightly justifies the bloodiness. Does the history matter much to the pent-up men—particularly pent-up young men—who love these violently graphic war movies? Will they care about how poorly staged and written the peacetime scenes are? To these fans, you have to say Taegukgi is their kind of movie: the bombs exploding, the limbs flying, a whole munitions plant's worth of ammo going off every minute. Here are clearly defined good guys and bad guys, and a camera style that could give Ridley Scott lessons. Director Kang Ke-gyu makes this bloody epic as relentless as the best of Asian action cinema. And Kang has a conscience. For example, he restages one of the Anti-Communist Federation massacres, a purge of civilians by an armed South Korean militia. War is hell, but civil wars are the most hellish of all.

Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War (R; 140 min.), directed and written by Kang Ke-gyu, Kyung-Pyo Hong and starring Jang Dong-gun and Won Bin, plays at selected theaters.

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From the September 8-14, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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