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flick pick | Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War 2004
Directed + written by: Je-gyu Kang
Starring: Dong-Kun Jang, Bin Won, Eun-ju Lee
Language: Korean [with English subtitles]
Look for it at the video store under: foreign [Korean], drama, war
Watch it when you’re in the mood for something:  serious
The critic says: / 5 the rating system explained
Fun factor: /5 

Plot synopsis Growing up in South Korea, brothers Jin-Seok and Jin-Tae were always close, though the two couldn't have been more different in personality. Jin-Seok is the studious one -- tops in his class, more interested in books than in running around like most boys thanks to his bad lungs. Older brother Jin-Tae, on the other hand, is rougher around the edges -- big, strong and handsome, prone to trouble but with a good, kind heart. Though the brothers have had to deal with the loss of their father at an early age, their futures are looking promising. Jin-Seok seems set to gain entrance to the best university in the country; Jin-Tae, meanwhile, is learning to become a cobbler, and engaged to be married to the lovely Young-Shin. But in 1950, when the Communists of North Korea invade, the country is plunged into the Korean War, and the boys' formerly peaceful, quiet lives are turned upside-down. When Jin-Seok manages to get himself drafted by the army, Jin-Tae does his best to convince the higher-ups that Jin-Seok's too sickly to serve. When words fail, he turns to his fists; as a consequence, he ends up getting dragged into the army as well, despite the fact the official regulation is to draft only one son per family. Determined to look after his younger brother, Jin-Tae ensures that they get assigned to the same platoon, where he can make sure to protect him and make sure he gets home safe and sound. When he learns that he may be able to get Jin-Seok sent home if he performs sufficient feats of bravery for his country, Jin-Tae throws himself into the war efforts, and volunteers for increasingly risky missions. As it turns out, Jin-Tae's fearlessness and strength make him a natural on the field, and he begins to enjoy his hero status. Jin-Seok, meanwhile, finds himself growing increasingly distanced from his brother, who seems more and more a stranger with each passing day.

Review War movies, on the whole, have never been my favorite genre. It's not the blood and guts so much, which I recognize as part and parcel of the reality of the war experience; the gore is hard to watch, sure, but it's supposed to be, and I'm okay with the idea that there are important stories that need to be told, even if they're painful and ugly. No, there's just something about the large scale of the war genre that I've always had a hard time getting into. In many war movies, the soldiers just seem so anonymous, the names changing from one flick to the next, but the characters largely representative of stereotypes and ideals rather than real people. I can't connect to those sorts of movies; the violence just seems so removed from anything that I know. Tae Guk Gi isn't that sort of war movie. Though it's as epic as they come, the war that really rivets your attention isn't the one between the South Koreans and their communist neighbors, but between the two brothers, Jin-Seok and Jin-Tae. As horrifying as it is to see the mass carnage in the battle scenes, the real gut-wrenching comes from watching two brothers who love one another more than anything slowly torn apart, simply because each is trying to survive in the best way he knows how. Tae Guk Gi turns the war into something that feels personal. Complete with soaring music and nostalgic flashbacks, the movie teeters on the edge of schmaltz at times, but there's no denying: this movie made me feel the intensity and frustration and craziness of war in a way that most war movies I've seen really haven't. It used to be that if you wanted a big, sweeping Hollywood-style wartime melodrama you had to turn to, well, Hollywood. But with Hollywood these days seemingly focused more on special effects than ideas and characters, we're lucky that foreign movies like Tae Guk Gi are providing good old-fashioned storytelling, the sort that makes you think and smile and weep, and feel a part of something bigger than just your own tiny corner of the world. —reviewed by Yee-Fan Sun

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