[MOVIE REVIEW]Grittiness of war sweeps ‘Taegukgi’

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[MOVIE REVIEW]Grittiness of war sweeps ‘Taegukgi’

“Taegukgi,” one of the most anticipated Korean movies this year, may not hold up to intense scrutiny, but the sweeping tale of two brothers set against the outbreak of the Korean War is a visual feast and an emotionally stirring journey.
Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun) is thrust into a war he never wanted alongside his younger brother, Jin-seok (Won Bin). Their widowed and mute mother (Lee Young-ran), is left in the protection of Jin-tae’s fiance (Lee Eun-joo).
Jin-tae makes a deal with the captain of his platoon: If Jin-tae wins a medal of courage, his younger brother will be discharged. Jin-tae braves heroics to win that medal, but along the way, his intentions become questionable. Is it the medal and all the trappings of glory that come with it that propels him, or is it duty and love of family? Do they even matter when one is fighting a national battle and death is so near?
There’s a moment early on when Jin-tae is caught in battle and the North Korean soldier he is about to kill begs for life. When Jin-tae shows him mercy, the soldier turns around and tries to kill Jin-tae. That becomes for Jin-tae the only truth about battle. Kill, or be killed.
If Jin-tae is a public persona fighting big battles, Jin-seok is an internal one, fighting battles of morality. From an 18-year-old scholar with breathing problems, he develops into a man who tries to rescue his older brother.
The hype surrounding this movie was enormous, and with merit. Kang Je-gyu directs. His 1999 action flick, “Swiri,” about North Korean espionage, was heavily responsible for propelling Korean movies into the world market.
His debut, “The Ginko Bed,” in 1996, was also critically acclaimed. But his other movies nowhere matched the success of “Swiri.” “Taegukgi” is the first time in several years that Mr. Kang has taken the helm as a director, and the movie took almost three years to make.
In addition to the anticipation of a Kang Je-gyu film, the movie has two star actors and is a star vehicle for several of them. Not only are Jang and Won two of Korea’s top heartthrobs, both already have an international fan base, making this ideal for foreign markets. The world premiere on Tuesday attracted several foreign journalists and a movie distributor from Columbia Tristar.
Adding to the pressure to succeed is the $15 million production price tag, but the film is likely to be a box office success.
“Taegukgi” is more about brotherhood, but the war lends “Taegukgi” all the glamour and grittiness of a Hollywood film. Hong Kyung-pyo led the photography, and he captures the explosions and stunts with finesse. Those same stunts reportedly put at least three actors in the hospital a day during filming.
There are flaws, cliches and moments when you realize Mr. Kang has seen other war movies, like “Enemy at the Gates.” But this fictional tale set in history is created as a commercial film, not an art-house production. And the timing for another international Korean blockbuster, particularly one about the Korean War, is ripe.
At the world premiere, Kang said, “We hope the Korean flag, as this movie insinuates, will fly all over the world.”
Literal flags, perhaps not. But “Taegukgi” is sure to be another ambassador of Korean culture, both past and present.

War, Drama / 140 min. / Korean
Opens today. English subtitles at Cine Core Feb. 8-18 and CGV Myeong-dong Feb. 8-11. Call theaters for times.

by Joe Yong-hee
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