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cast: Jang Dong-dun, Won Bin, and Lee Eun-joo

director: Kang Je-gyu

142 minutes (15) 2004
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Premier Asia DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Brotherhood (aka: Taegukgi) has been billed as the Korean Saving Private Ryan and, at first glance, there's probably something to that comparison. Both films are book-ended by slices of sentimentality, designed to put the incessant and graphic violence into some form of human context. Both are long films and both take a perverse joy in showing you people having their limbs blown off, heads shot into pieces and people generally being burned, bombed, beaten and bludgeoned. However, where the comparison starts to fall apart is where it dawns on you that this film is not only better written and more dramatically satisfying, it is also technically superior to Spielberg's work and actually manages to have something new to say about war and the course of human events.

Jin-Seok and Jin-Tae are brothers who are drafted into the South Korean army at the outbreak of the Korean War. Worried for his younger brother's safety, Jin-tae brokers a deal with his commanding officer whereby his valour would be repaid with his brother's discharge. Jin-tae begins volunteering for every dangerous mission available and is quickly hailed as a war hero. The problem is that he gets a taste for it; medals and speeches and promotions go to his head and soon he's shoving enemy soldiers into burning buildings and sacrificing his own men. The brothers fall out and soon, Jin-tae, convinced that there is nothing left with him in the south defects and becomes a hero to the North Koreans. Jin-seok reacts to the news by pledging to bring his brother home through one of the most brutal and bloody battles of the Korean War.

Watching this film, one is reminded of Spielberg's emotional incontinence as a creator. Saving Private Ryan tried to suggest that all wars are horrible and that even supposedly heroic actions carry too high a cost. However, this is also the man who is responsible for the Nazis remaining, up until this day, such iconic movie bad guys. As Indy himself put it "Nazis... I hate those guys." For an artist to spend most of his career painting the Nazis as pure evil, it's a little rich to then turn round and try and play the sympathy card for dead Nazis who were just there doing their job like the Allied soldiers. Brotherhood evades this problem simply by virtue of the fact that apart from M*A*S*H, there haven't been any memorable cinematic examinations of the Korean War. So when writer and director Je-gyu Kang tries to argue that both sides were equally brutal and that ideals and ideology are quickly forgotten in war, you stand up and pay attention (which is why seeing this on DVD is a good idea... you don't want to be standing up in a cinema).

The action scenes are beautifully shot and lavishly produced. The climactic battle of Doo-Mil-Ryung boasted 3,000 extras and took three weeks to shoot, but even the smaller engagements feature brutal action and amazingly choreographed set pieces. The direction is, as is normal these days, kinetic with short jumpy editing but Brotherhood harnesses this overused technique for the powers of good in that it beautifully adds to the feeling that battle is little more than barely managed chaos. While the technology and gruesome nature of the fighting is mostly reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan, its incessant quality and sheer physical brutality is more reminiscent of the visceral Black Hawk Down.

Dramatically, Brotherhood is incredibly strong. The characters are well drawn and engaging with no stereotypes in sight and even bit-players are instantly recognisable despite the fact that the mud and uniforms ensure that everyone looks alike (compare this to something like Band Of Brothers where it's frequently tricky to keep track of who is who). The main plotline focussing on the brothers is beautifully crafted, as their true motivations are far more complex than one might think at first glance (there's more to it than 'he ain't heavy...'). Where the film does fall down is in the opening act where the sentimentality is laid on incredibly thickly in order to establish that the brothers are the heart of a truly loving family. This is disappointing as Jin-tae's relationship with his fianc´┐Że is much more believable and touching despite it being soft-pedalled and under-stated. Despite this, the final scene where Jin-soek comes face to face with his brother's remains is genuinely moving and entirely believable.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough. It is simply spellbinding and proves yet again quite how exciting and vibrant Korean cinema is. This film deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as Platoon or The Battle Of The Bulge when the all-time greatest war movies are discussed.

The DVD itself is also a pretty decent buy on two discs; it comes with loads of extras including both historical documentaries about the Korean War and very candid making-of featurettes. This is simply cracking stuff.

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