- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

It was easy to see the influence of John Woo on “Shiri,” a deliriously overstimulated political thriller from South Korean director Kang Je-gyu that enjoyed blockbuster success in Asia five years ago. Channeling both the Steven Spielberg of “Saving Private Ryan” and the Sam Peckinpah of “The Wild Bunch,” the director seems to shoot for double or nothing in the Korean War epic “Tae Guk Gi,” which opens today at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

A promising prologue, set in the present, depicts a battlefield site of 1950-51 being excavated. Before long, the promise is buried in the din of simulated combat spectacle and the rubble of hysterical sibling estrangement.

The wreckage accumulates during an extended flashback chronicle. Fraternal inseparability proves a corrosive obsession with the Korean filmmaker, who depicts older brother Lee Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun) and kid brother Lee Jin-seok (Won Bin) as fatherless but close-knit youths residing in Seoul on the eve of war in June 1950. Their mother survives as a nominally revered fixture, along with younger siblings and a treasure called Young-shin (Lee Eun-joo), understood to be Jin-tae’s eventual bride. In the shock of the North Korean invasion, the boys are drafted off the street, vehemently against their will, during an army sweep of refugees.

Once in uniform, Jin-tae fights like a human tsunami in the vain hope of securing a discharge for the gentler, brainier Jin-seok, who remains in the same squad through battles that range from the far south to the far north. No one in authority seems to be denying Jin-tae a deal. He overcompensates prodigiously while misconstruing army policy. It would be a farcical plot element if the casualty rate and the historical setting could be ignored.

For the convenience of the agonized siblings, the army does keep Jin-soek within protective reach of his older brother, an arrangement that embitters the beneficiary. He never seems to be shirking his duty but stands little chance of competing as the Korean Achilles.

The rivalry becomes so stupefying at a climactic point that Jin-tae defects to the communist side in a fit of rage. This amazing reversal obliges war-hating Jin-seok to wade through scores of North Korean soldiers during another pitched battle in order to find his brother, engage him in hand-to-hand struggle and shake a semblance of recognition back into his fractured psyche.

As preposterous showdowns go, this is certainly one for the books. By the time Kang Je-gyu dares spring it, you’re a little too punch-drunk from incessant, stylistically identical fight footage to care about witnessing a brotherly reconciliation in the nuttiest of ear-splitting, life-threatening and downright distracting circumstances.

A decisive cry of “uncle” goes up several sequences earlier, while Jin-tae is polishing off yet another cohort of overmatched North Koreans. Only one title could redeem all this strife: “Oh, brother.”

*

TITLE: “Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War”

RATING: R (Frequent and graphic scenes of wartime combat and carnage)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Kang Je-gyu. Cinematography by Hong Kyung-Pyo. Second-unit direction: Jung Doo-hong. Music by Lee Dong-jun. In Korean with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 148 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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