The film takes its title from the name of the South Korean flag, an intended symbol of unity that meant anything but during the savage civil war that decimated the Korean peninsula between 1950 and 1953. In this unabashedly melodramatic tale, two brothers find themselves conscripted into the South Korean army upon news that the communist north has launched a full-scale invasion. The eldest, Jin-tae Lee (Jang Dong-gun), is an uneducated shoemaker who has already made considerable sacrifices so his frailer younger brother, Jin-seok Lee (Won Bin), might gain a proper education. It's a devotion he carries even to the battlefield, secretly cutting a deal with his superiors to secure an early discharge for Jin-seok through an accumulation of heroic acts. But as the war drags on and Jin-tae earns a reputation for valor, the relationship between the brothers grows fractious as Jin-seok increasingly questions Jin-tae's motives and morality.
Soapy wartime melodramas about shattered family relationships are clearly nothing new--such tales were once a mainstay of Hollywood studio filmmaking. What's unusual is to see the genre transported so effectively into a foreign context, particularly at a time when audiences, mainly Americans, have shown little tolerance for it. In terms of raw narrative and dramatic structure, "Tae Guk Gi" resembles any number of American Civil War films, something that is noteworthy in view of the fact that the so-called "Forgotten War" is typically viewed by Americans (whose knowledge of the conflict rarely goes much deeper than what they've seen in "M*A*S*H") as little more than just another 20th-century foreign engagement. But by placing viewers inside the Korean point of view--even dropping them dead-center into the tempestuous relationships of a single Korean family--Kang is able to tap a stirring wellspring of universal feeling. At times he lays it on rather thick, with swooping crane shots and soaring orchestral crescendos, but never as a means to create or bolster fraudulent emotions. Blessed with the participation of two of his industry's most talented actors--Won and Jang--Kang has constructed what is very much a Korean "Gone With the Wind."
Despite its grandiose intentions, it's worth noting that "Tae Guk Gi" avoids the facile moralizing common to so many American war pictures, tempering its negative view of Northern communist aggressors with an equally negative view of South Korean political and military officials, painting many of them as fanatical neo-fascists not all that far removed from their Northern counterparts.
Comparisons to films like "Saving Private Ryan," with which it shares a similar flashback frame story, or "Paths of Glory," which it resembles from a certain moral standpoint, are inevitable but limiting. Thematically and technically, "Tae Guk Gi" goes where no American war picture has dared go in decades. Featuring battle scenes and production value that would probably have pushed a Hollywood budget well north of $300 million, it's an achievement that deserves to stand on its own merits, comparable perhaps only to Finnish director Pekka Parikka's 1989 film "Talvisota," which also centered on the wartime relationship of two brothers during the grueling 1939 Winter War against invading Soviet forces. But while Parikka's magnificent epic was never properly released in the U.S., Kang's is getting a royal push. And if there's any justice at all, that push will lead straight to the Oscar podium. Starring Jang Dong-gun, Won Bin and Lee Eun-joo. Directed by Kang Je-gyu. Written by Kang Je-gyu. Produced by Seong-hun Lee. A Goldwyn release. War epic. Korean-language; subtitled. Rated R for strong graphic sequences of war violence. Running time: 148 min