-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
copyright © 2001 - 2005 VideoVista
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
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Brotherhood (aka: Taegukgi) has been billed as the Korean
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�e 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.