South Korea's "Tae Guk Gi" echoes "Saving Private Ryan"
Special to The Seattle Times
Director Kang Je-gyu helped redefine the South Korean film industry with 1999's "Shiri," a movie about a diabolical North Korean plot to unify Korea — one of the few countries left in the post-Cold War world (China/Taiwan is another) still divided by ideology. It was a huge hit across Asia not only because Kang brought Hollywood production values to the film but Hollywood gloss as well; the relentless pace helped obscure its many plot holes.
If "Shiri" was Kang's attempt at a Jerry Bruckheimer-style actioner, his latest, "Tae Guk Gi," indicates Spielbergian aspirations. It's his "Saving Private Ryan."
It begins, like "Ryan," in the present, at an excavation site near the 38th parallel, where, amid a grand, sweeping soundtrack, detritus of the Korean War is uncovered: helmets, rifles, skulls. A body is identified, and a distinguished grandfather phoned. It's a call he's spent 50 years waiting for; he's finally going to find out what happened to his long-lost brother.
Before leaving for the site, he takes down a pair of old leather shoes — and suddenly we're back in 1950 in Seoul, which is bathed in warm, nostalgic yellows, and where two brothers, Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun) and Jin-seok (Won Bin), frolic on the streets. Jin-tae shines shoes and looks out for his younger, more studious brother. They run, laugh, and eat their mother's noodles straight from the pot. Life is hectic, but they have energy.
Then on June 25, 1950, North Korea invades the South, and the people of Seoul are forced to flee. At a refugee train station in Daegu, all young men are suddenly commandeered into the South Korean army. When Jin-tae seeks to extract Jin-seok from the army's clutches, he, too, is commandeered, and the difference between the two brothers becomes apparent, for Jin-seok curls up like an insect while Jin-tae fights an entire train car of soldiers before being subdued.
Once in the army, Jin-tae makes a deal with his commanding officer — if he wins the Medal of Honor, his brother will be discharged — which is why, over his brother's objections, he begins volunteering for dangerous missions. Slowly the viewer realizes that Jin-tae is not simply interested in rescuing his brother; he may actually enjoy killing.
If the film had focused on this aspect — how a man, in defending family and country, can descend into savagery and lose his soul — and if the characters had been drawn with subtle rather than broad strokes, we might have been talking four stars here. As is, the characters careen from one histrionic extreme to the next. They switch sides, emotionally and ideologically, until you can't locate their character any more.
Kang's "Tae Guk Gi" (the name of the national flag of South Korea) is still reminiscent of a Steven Spielberg film in the following ways: The battle scenes are gripping and horrific, the special effects amazing, and the sentimentality overwhelming. Also in this way: The film is already the biggest box-office success in South Korea's history.
Erik Lundegaard: email@example.com
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