The biggest-grossing and the most expensive Korean film to date is a slickly directed but conventional war movie of limited appeal to Western markets. "Taegukgi" follows two brothers through the conflagration of the 1950-53 Korean War. Somewhere the movie forgot to pack any genuine emotion along with its ordnance and K rations.
The biggest-grossing and — at a reported $12.5 million — the most expensive Korean film to date is a slickly directed but surprisingly conventional war movie of limited appeal to Western markets. The much-ballyhooed return to directing of Kang Je-gyu (formerly known as Jacky Kang) almost five years after his socko spy thriller “Shiri,” “Taegukgi” follows two brothers through the conflagration of the 1950-53 Korean War, to largely unengaging dramatic effect across almost two-and-a-half hours. Kang remains a superb technician, but somewhere the movie forgot to pack any genuine emotion along with its ordnance and K rations.
Released Feb. 5 on a record 440 prints (some 35% of the country’s screens), pic went on to haul in 11.7 million admissions (some $70 million) — almost a quarter of the population and close to double the admissions of “Shiri.” In its well-publicized battle with another local blockbuster, Kang Woo-seok’s Cold War military drama “Silmido,” pic fractionally emerged the B.O. champ; but for all its several faults, “Silmido” is the more involving movie.
With its focus on two siblings who paths stay (unlikely) conjoined during an unending series of battles, “Taegukgi” undoubtedly tapped into a reservoir of feeling among local auds in the still-divided country. (Other movies, such as last year’s “Rain Man”-like comedy “Oh! Brothers,” have also profited from the same emotional wellspring.)
To foreign eyes, however, there’s a lack of originality here, partly due to an unshaded perf by co-lead Jang Dong-geon as the elder, protective brother and partly due to Kang’s unmodulated helming.
There isn’t a modern Hollywood cliche or technique (from “Saving Private Ryan” to “Band of Brothers”) that Kang doesn’t try to copy or outdo, and as a portrait of men in war, pic doesn’t come close to U.S. classics like “A Walk in the Sun” or “Attack.” In Korean cinema, Jeong Ji-yeong’s 1992 “White Badge,” set during the Vietnam War, remains a modern touchstone of the genre.
Story is told as one big flashback, triggered by a modern-day excavation of a famous battle site in which the remains of a soldier, Lee Jin-seok, are found. But Jin-seok is still alive, aged, in Seoul; he insists the remains are of his brother, Jin-tae, and the flashback finally explains the confusion.
Starting in 1950, with a whole Seoul street re-created in loving (but backlot-looking) detail, film sketches the close-knit Lee family, with Jin-seok (Weon Bin), 18, a studious high-schooler, and the elder Jin-tae (Jang) a more physical, live-wire type, shining shoes to help send his bro to college. When the North invades in July and, though Jin-tae tries to prevent Jin-seok being drafted, the two brothers end up carted off together.
These early scenes are among the best in the movie. But any expectations the script is going to follow the pair through training are dashed, as pic cuts straight to the brothers at the front.
As the troops sit around grumbling about rations, a mortar attack starts — and Kang switches to a jerky, handheld, slightly shuttered visual style that’s used in every battle sequence for the next two hours. As the South’s forces gradually push back northwards toward the 38th Parallel — accompanied by regular datelines — Jin-tae distinguishes himself as a soldier but becomes increasingly unhinged, with a dangerous mix of patriotism and fraternal caring.
When the brothers fall out over the death of a girl (Lee Eun-su), Jin-seok is hospitalized. Finally, in the anti-Communist hysteria of 1951, Jin-tae goes AWOL and is reported to have gone over to the other side. So Jin-seok sets off to cross the front line and find him, just as the South launches a massive land-and-air assault.
Film deliberately avoids any backgrounding of the war and its progress as the focus is kept tight on the two brothers. North Koreans are simply anonymous cannon-fodder or political fanatics, and events like the landing of U.S. troops at Incheon are only referred to in passing. Despite its title — “Taegukgi” is the name of South Korea’s national flag — pic is basically an old-fashioned, family-themed war movie. More’s the pity, then, that it doesn’t function effectively at this level.
Weon proves the more varied actor as the quiet, bookish Jin-seok; but in the major role, and with little help from the script, the permanently bright-eyed Jang doesn’t make a convincing case for Jin-tae’s fanatical protectiveness of his younger bro. Dialogue throughout is utilitarian.
Action sequences are initially impressive, and effects work likewise; but Kang fails to give each battle a character of its own beyond the geographical, and the jittery style soon loses its freshness.
Lee Dong-jun’s heroic-emotional score is bland and predictable, and Hong Gyeong-pyo’s widescreen lensing, though well-composed, further flattens emotion with its unalloyed ochre-and-camouflage-green palette.