Won Bin, left, Lee Eun-joo and Jang Dong-gun star in the Korean War melodrama "Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War."

In war, dreams
also die

South Korea’s top film tells
of brothers’ love

The dreams of a better tomorrow shared by two brothers in war-torn Korea lies with the simple gift of a pen.

"Tae Guk Gi:
The Brotherhood
of War"

Rated R

Playing at Consolidated Pearlridge and Signature Dole Cannery

Star Star Star

In the melodrama "Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War," it's the rougher and uneducated older brother Lee Jin-tae who gives the pen to his young brother Jin-seok in hopes that he will continue on to college, and make himself and the family proud.

Unfortunately, this happens on June 25, 1950, a crucial date in Korean history, as communist North Korean armed forces invade its neighbor to the south.

And it will be the later discovery of that same pen near a skeleton burned black from a bombing that will bring the soldier brothers back together in a bloody and tragic reunion.

Writer-director Kang Je-gyu has already made a reputation as one of South Korea's most accomplished filmmakers. His 2002 North vs. South contemporary spy thriller "Shiri," was as polished as any Hollywood action flick, but it's his latest film that has connected with his home country's audience, who earlier this year made "Tae Guk Gi" South Korea's highest-grossing commercial movie of all time.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, when the film was originally released in February -- marking the 50th anniversary of the uneasy truce between North and South Korea -- it would hold the top position for six consecutive weeks, showing on a record 513 screens, and selling an unprecedented 10 million tickets in its first 40 days of release.

"Tae Guk Gi" is the most expensive Korean film ever made, costing 13 billion won ($12 million in U.S. dollars).

Its explicit, mammoth battle scenes took 10 months to shoot, requiring 25,000 extras, and a crew of about 200.

It is Kang's fervent hope, as well as that of American distributor Samuel Goldwyn Films, that his heartfelt film will do solid box-office business, starting this weekend in select U.S. cities, including Honolulu.

Since this was his first war movie, Kang watched the HBO series "Band of Brothers" (produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks) for ideas on how to film his script, Kang said, through an interpreter by phone from Los Angeles on Wednesday.

And the chaos, confusion and graphic, visceral horror caused by explosions, gunshots and hand-to-hand combat of the American series is certainly translated and even heightened by the violent emotions of the Korean characters unleashed in the heat of battle.

Inset, on the cover: A scene from "Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War."

Ably acted by former TV serial drama stars Jang Dong-gun and Won Bin in the lead roles of the conflicted brothers, the two personify the conflict that the two countries still face after these many years.

Since the older sibling has made it his duty to take care of his brother, and make sure he goes on to get a good education that will lead the family out of its simple surroundings, his mission becomes more complicated once the two are forced into military service.

Due to his almost reckless behavior in the heat of several battles, Jin-tae thinks, to the point of obsession, that if he wins a coveted Medal of Honor, that honor will give him the leverage to get Jin-seok discharged and back home to Seoul and care for the family and the woman he left behind (played by Lee Eun-joo).

The film, for the most part, is relentless and grim, and doesn't go out of its way to depict the South Korean soldiers as heroic. Kang said that he received some criticism from war veterans for that, but understood that it was natural to get such a reaction. But he emphasized that every different point of view was depicted in "Tae Guk Gi," no matter how unflattering. (He also said he received a lot of help and advice from his own father, who served during the war.)

While the film is bookended with a calmer if still emotionally intense contemporary story of the now-older Jin-seok valiantly attempting some sense of closure with his brother -- now just skeletal remains exhumed at an excavation site -- the bulk of it is filled with the relentless carnage the Koreans suffered during those terrible years.

Did Kang's film provide Korean audiences with the catharsis it still needs? That is yet to be decided, as there is still a divided nation. But with the wider release of "Tae Guk Gi," Kang hopes that American audiences will come away from the film with two things in mind.

"One, that since a lot of Americans took part in the Korean War, and suffered casualties of their own, that those still living will be remembered for the blood and suffering they went through.

"Also, in today's world in general, living with the combination of terrorism, how the tragedy of war can be brought onto other people."

Tae Guk Gi (Sony Pictures)

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