Archaeologists excavating a Korean War battlefield contact a veteran whose dog-tags identify him as a casualty. Cut to 1950, two brothers are drafted into the South Korean army to fight the Chinese-backed communists. ‘Taegukgi Hwinallimyo’, also known as ‘The Brotherhood of War’ is the Korean war film directed by Kang Je-gyu.
Korean cinema is notoriously uncompromising and this is a tough watch, that makes closest comparisons Saving Private Ryan and Platoon look like The Simpsons. Extreme, extensive battle scenes include excessive violence, blood, gore and suffering, relieved only when the excesses tip over into stylised melodrama.
Brotherhood is held together by two excellent central performances by Dong-Kun Jang (Jin-tae) and Bin Won (Jin-seok) as the conscripted shoe-shine-boy and the student; the pragmatist and the optimist. As the campaign progresses, the ambitious Jin-Tae finds status in acts of extreme heroism, all committed on the pretext of obtaining a discharge for his brother. Jin-Tae relishes the role of hero, when previously he had sacrificed his future for the good of the family and getting his brother into university.
But as the war deteriorates into savage atrocities on both sides, Jin-tae loses his humanity, sacrificing comrades and murdering prisoners; the relationship with his brother breaks down. As the South resorts to paranoia and purges with summary executions, and the military command crumbles under pressure, the two are parted. A disillusioned Jin-tae changes sides to become a homicidal fanatic for the North.
This is a great story, illuminating period of history few outside Korea now know, but it is a difficult story to tell without descending into cliché, and Brotherhood goes there from the first frame of the idyllic, sunlit South before the war. The brothers are conscripted into a platoon of stock types including the worldly sergeant and the doomed family man with the picture of his wife and kids. The brothers divided motif and crossing the lines to find each other in the big action finale lays on the clichés thick and fast.
Brotherhood is not for the squeamish. The hyper-real battle scenes of trench warfare and street-to-street fighting are impressively staged, amidst mud, blood, shrapnel and tracer rounds. I lost count of the number of bloody head-shots, impalings and dismemberments. It is very violent and contains every type of death and maiming imaginable. After a while, parts of film become unrealistic.
Despite its’ flaws, the battle sequences make this one of the best war films ever made. The two leads hold your sympathy through to the end. Korean cinema at its best. RC
‘Taegukgi Hwinallimyo’- ‘The Brotherhood of War’
Director: Je-gyu Kang
Running time: 2 hr. 28 min.
Drama, Action & Adventure, Art House & International
Cast: Dong-Kun Jang, Bin Won, Eun-ju Lee