“Brotherhood of War”

Tae Guk Gi - The Brotherhood of War

Tae Guk Gi: The Broth­er­hood of War

One of the great things about Net­flix, is it can allow us to exper­i­ment with movies. Oh, sure, we could do that at the big blue & yel­low video store down the street. How­ev­er, they would nev­er car­ry a film like “Tae Guk Gi: The Broth­er­hood of War” (also at Net­flix). Nev­er­mind that it was the sin­gle most suc­cess­ful film in the his­to­ry of Kore­an cin­e­ma, it isn’t going to rent much here in the states. How­ev­er, Net­flix has that whole long tail thing going, so it can afford to car­ry the low vol­ume discs in addi­tion to your Hol­ly­wood bank­busters.

I had read some good things about the Broth­er­hood and I thought that it might be inter­est­ing and edu­ca­tion­al for Angela and I to watch a film about the Kore­an War as told from a Kore­an per­spec­tive. Well, a South Kore­an per­spec­tive, at least. Before you start think­ing way off track here, any Kore­an-Amer­i­can pol­i­tics are left out of the film com­plete­ly. The char­ac­ters seem to be thank­ful, by almost indif­fer­ent to the Amer­i­cans. One scene in the film con­tains some Amer­i­can mil­i­tary big-wigs who remain name­less. No, it focus­es far more on how the Kore­an war was forced on the peo­ple liv­ing south of the 38th par­al­lel in 1950. If you believe the film, and I’d say it gets this right, no one in the coun­try went with­out being deeply and for­ev­er affect­ed by their civ­il war.

So many review­ers keep com­par­ing this film to Speil­berg’s “Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan,” the soar­ing WWII epic which begins with a mar­velous and hor­ren­dous sequence depict­ing the inva­sion of Nor­mandy. I can under­stand why, but the films quick­ly set them­selves apart. Where Ryan is a soar­ing war epic with ensem­ble casts, Broth­er­hood is the inti­mate sto­ry of two broth­ers try­ing to stay close while every­thing they know is being torn apart. Ryan has all the traits the we west­ern­ers love in our heroes: strength, com­pas­sion, and val­or. Broth­er­hood allows it’s hero to sink into dark­ness, allow­ing the sense­less­ness of war eat away at his mind. This film is told with the oper­at­ic style typ­i­cal of Kore­an cin­e­ma and tele­vi­sion. The char­ac­ters seem like raw nerves com­pared to Tom Hank’s cool and col­lect­ed Cap­tain Miller; they cry and wail in a way that seems unseem­ly to west­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties. How­ev­er, this over-the-top emo­tion­al expres­sion also allows the view­er to become attached to the char­ac­ters where their back sto­ry itself leaves us want­i­ng to know more1.

Cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly, the film is won­der­ful. The bat­tle scenes, while some­times hard to fol­low, are bru­tal­ly real (except the CG air­plane crash, that was­n’t too con­vinc­ing). The vast land­scapes of Korea that serve as back­grounds show us just how amaz­ing this moun­tain­ous penin­su­la is. One scene of the younger broth­er chat­ting up a boy­hood friend on a moun­tain side, while snow flur­ries all around them, could be slowed into a series of 24 post­cards per sec­ond.

One aspect of the film which I had not count­ed on, was the polit­i­cal com­men­tary on the ide­ol­o­gy of the war. Many Kore­ans were sim­ple vil­lagers dur­ing this time, insu­lat­ed by their work and small lives. They new lit­tle to noth­ing of gov­ern­men­tal ide­ol­o­gy and polit­i­cal par­ties. When offered favors or goods for sign­ing papers or show­ing up at ral­lies, they glad­ful­ly accept­ed. Why not? The film touch­es on this in a major sto­ry arc that I won’t get into here, oth­er than to say that one of the char­ac­ters meets their end because of their unwit­ting align­ment with the “wrong” par­ty.

My wife’s mater­nal grand­fa­ther was con­sid­ered to be one of the wis­est men in his small vil­lage. He had gone across the East­ern Sea to study at a uni­ver­si­ty in Japan, which was remark­ably rare in those days for a Kore­an. He was rou­tine­ly asked to help local vil­lages and peo­ple, since he could read and write and pro­vide aid in legal mat­ters. He had left instruc­tion with his fam­i­ly to nev­er affix his seal or sign his name while he was away, know­ing that unscrupu­lous peo­ple rep­re­sent­ing both com­mu­nist and demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties could take advan­tage of his name and influ­ence. How­ev­er, in exchange for some­thing (know one seems to know what) or at the lie that he had asked his fam­i­ly to do so, a fam­i­ly mem­ber did just that one day while he was away. Not long after his return, the rival polit­i­cal fac­tion mur­dered him as a trai­tor upon learn­ing of his new-found “align­ment.” This result­ed in my moth­er-in-law and her fam­i­ly being forced to flee for their lives.

So now you can under­stand just how dif­fi­cult it must have been for Angela to watch as sim­i­lar events unfold­ed in this film. So often we watch, with detached con­cern, as the trag­ic events in a movie unfold. How­ev­er, when the char­ac­ters fate is the same as one of your very own fam­i­ly mem­bers, it becomes impos­si­ble to think to one’s self that it’s only a sto­ry. Angela watched the film, in tears and vis­i­bly shak­ing with hurt and rage. I nev­er imag­ined that a film could tru­ly hurt any­one, but I now know that some things are too painful to see real­ized like this. I had heard of sim­i­lar sto­ries of for­mer GI’s break­ing down and sob­bing through­out “Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan.&qout; I can now under­stand a lit­tle more about what they must have felt, reliv­ing the most hor­ren­dous moments of their lives. Moments that even the strongest of peo­ple can bare­ly make it through and ever wish to see anoth­er day. I think that is what these two films have the most in com­mon: the abil­i­ty to give us all a small glimpse at what these peo­ple sur­vived, even if told in two dis­sim­i­lar ways.

Angela did make it through the film, although she did describe it as the sin­gle sad­dest film she’s ever seen. I’d tend to agree with her2. We also agreed that I owed her a num­ber of roman­tic come­dies to make up for it. I hon­est­ly can’t say that I enjoyed this film at all, although I did find it to be a great movie. I would rec­om­mend it to any­one who want­ed to know more about what the Kore­an war must have been like for the peo­ple of that coun­try (now two coun­tries, still tech­ni­cal­ly at war with­out ever hav­ing signed a for­mal peace treaty). It also helps to under­stand Kore­an cul­ture and her­itage some, both from the char­ac­ters as writ­ten and the very for­eign (to west­ern­ers) way in which they are por­trayed. I think I under­stand my moth­er-in-law a bit bet­ter now, and I know that I have even more respect for her than even before, which is to say a lot.

  1. We only meet them days before war breaks out, and the flash­backs of broth­er­ly love show us one after­noons events. I’d like to think that in remem­ber­ing my own broth­ers, more than one fun after­noon would occur to me. []
  2. With Shad­ow­lands, the sto­ry of C.S. Lewis and his wife, run­ning a close sec­ond. It wins in the love sto­ry cat­e­go­ry. []