Gregory Kirschling
September 09, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War

Current Status
In Season
140 minutes
Won Bin, Jang Dong-gun
Samuel Goldwyn Films

We gave it a B

If ”Pearl Harbor” had been rated R and starred Koreans, it would’ve looked like Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, Korea’s highest-grossing film of all time. Titled after the South Korean flag (yes, apparently it has a name), the historical war epic ships out two brothers — an older, street-smart shoe shiner, Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun, who resembles Chow Yun-Fat), and the weakly constituted student Jin-seok (Won Bin) — to fight the North in the Korean War. Golden-colored early scenes establish that these guys are as tight as ”Pearl Harbor”’s Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, so when Jin-tae gets to the front, he hatches a plan to prove himself as a warrior in hopes of requesting a ticket home for Jin-seok. Soon Jin-tae is fearlessly setting mines, storming bunkers, gouging eyeballs, and — in the film’s richest twist — starting to enjoy it.

Not only is this cinematic take on the Korean War bloodier than ”M*A*S*H,” at times it makes another of its forebears, the famously graphic ”Saving Private Ryan,” look like South Pacific. Brains fly, bodies burn, maggots writhe in open wounds, limbs are shredded in uninterrupted shots, and artillery the size of spears whizzes across the screen. In its non-exploding patches, the drama reeks of button-punching sentimentality, especially in a final plot development that’s so preposterous it’s hard to believe a big-league studio head didn’t force it on the movie. All in all, though, the way director Kang Je-gyu blindly overreaches for tragedy in the end only cements his accomplishment as a rousing B-epic filmmaker. Thanks to its excess, and even at 140 minutes, ”Tae Guk Gi” always entertains, just like ”Pearl Harbor” and the rest of the best of Hollywood’s dumb war movies.

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