When war breaks out between North and South Korea in 1950, two brothers from the South find themselves drafted into the army. The older, more confident Jin-Tae (Dong-Kun Jang) is determined to get his brother Jin-seok (Bin Won) sent back home to look after their aging widowed mother and his finance, but the only way he can do this to win a Medal of Honour, given for uncommon bravery on the battlefield.
Je-gyu Kang’s 1999 action thriller Shiri was the most successful South Korean film ever made, and its success meant that the director could pretty much name his budget for its follow-up. The result was Brotherhood – five years in the making and the most expensive film ever shot in his country. It’s a war epic heavily indebted to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, with both the battlefield carnage and the melodrama cranked up to 10.
This is a long, sprawling film that begins in happier times, as the brothers enjoy life in rural Korea. Jin-Tae shines shoes to help play for Jin-seok’s college education and looks forward to his impending marriage to Young-shin, who runs a lucrative noodle bar; in fact, things are going so well for the pair that there can be little doubt that death and misery await round the corner. In his attempt to stop his brother being carted off to war, Jin-seok is also drafted and almost immediately the pair are thrust into the middle of horrific fighting against the Communist invaders.
Once he’s past these handsome, nostalgic opening scenes, Kang sets about trying to outdo all those who have come before him in terms of intense wartime violence. Perhaps it’s the sheer number of battle scenes, or the graphic gore – limbs and heads are blown off, guts spill from ruptured torsos, corpses are packed with explosives – but the impact of the action is gripping, upsetting and ultimately numbing. Even when we’re not in the middle of a bloody skirmish, Kang finds ways to illustrate the insanity of war – scenes of South Korean soldiers (supposedly the heroes) mistreating North Korean prisoners are just as disturbing as the larger scale carnage.
Throughout all this, Kang weaves the narrative about the two brothers, trying to keep their humanity hundreds of miles from home. Knowing it’s the only way he can get his younger sibling out of the war, Jin-Tae volunteers for every dangerous mission going and soon his successes on the battlefield are bringing him glory and promotion, much to abhorrence of Jin-seok. Dong-Kun Jang is a strong leading man, and his transformation from protective older brother to ruthless killing machine is well handled. Bin Won has the less showy role, but is suitably empathetic, and the rest of their unit are the usual collection of mismatched, shit-scared innocents.
For two hours, Kang does an admirable job of keeping several balls in the air at once – history lesson, action movie, sensitive drama, political discourse. But in trying to tie together the story of the brothers with a final statement on the pointlessness of war, the film becomes a bit unstuck – the director lumps tragedy after tragedy upon our poor heroes, and by the end the film has wandered uncertainly into the realm of the ridiculous. And like Saving Private Ryan, there is a redundant, mawkish present-day framing device featuring one the surviving characters as a tearful old man. Nevertheless, there is little denying the savage power of Brotherhood. It condemns war just as powerfully as any of its Hollywood peers – Ryan, Full Metal Jacket, The Thin Red Line – and even if they are ultimately superior films, it is a harrowing reminder of a conflict too quickly forgotten in the West.
Aka: Taegukgi Hwinalrimyeo
[Premiere Asia’s Region 2 double-disc set comes crammed with extras, including a commentary from Asian cinema buffs Bey Logan and Mike Leeder, a variety of featurettes both on the film and the Korean War itself, interviews, on-set footage, storyboards and photo galleries.]
South Korean writer/director responsible for two of his country’s most successful films, the action thriller Shiri and the harrowing war drama Brotherhood. Also made the ghost story Gingko Bed, and owns the production company KJG Films.