Employing a time-honored template that's been used for war movies at least since 1927's Wings, Tae Guk Gi tells the story of two best friends who go to war together -- in this instance, they're also brothers. Like Wings, Pearl Harbor and so on, it seems quite likely that one of the two will be dead by movie's end, especially since the story begins in the present day with only one of them still around. That writer-director Kang Je-gyu manages to create suspense about their fates nonetheless is yet another testament to his skill.
That the two men, Lee Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun, who has the looks of a young Chow Yun-Fat) and Lee Jin-seok (Won Bin), are brothers is more crucial to this story than in some of the cinematic antecedents, as the Korean War frequently pitted brother against brother, often because of accidents of geography and circumstance rather than any heartfelt allegiance to either capitalism or communism. Jin-tae and Jin-seok begin on the same side, but before the war is over...well, no sense in ruining all the surprises. You'll see.
Jin-tae, a handsome but ill-educated cobbler, is the older of the two, who has worked hard along with the rest of the family to ensure that Jin-seok will be able to afford college. When war breaks out and the family members all become refugees, Jin-seok is drafted. Though one male per family is supposed to be left behind to take care of the women and children, Jin-tae follows Jin-seok aboard the army train to try to get him back, but both men end up being taken away.
There is one legitimate escape clause: Any man who wins the Medal of Honor can earn the right to send someone home. Without telling his brother, Jin-tae determines that he'll ensure his brother's safety if he gets that medal, and thus starts volunteering for every dangerous and near-suicidal mission that comes his way. Eventually, he's almost addicted to the danger.
Kang has explicitly cited Saving Private Ryan as an inspiration, and stylistically that's evident, from the graphic, large-scale combat scenes to the jerky handheld camera movement signifying the chaos and uncertainty of being in the midst of battle. Kang even cribs Spielberg's wraparound device of an old man remembering his past and his losses, but manages to make it not suck this time.
Narratively, though, the structure is totally different. Far from covering one mission, the story spans the entire war -- one that is often fought on home territory. No soldier here is as uncharacteristically paunchy as Tom "More Size" Sizemore was in Ryan. And for anyone getting tired of Nazis as the villains, here we get the much more timely specter of North Korea. In one of the most wrenching sequences, we learn that residents of occupied towns in the South were forced to sign communist oaths in order to obtain food; later, these oaths are dredged up by Southern militias as proof of treason and grounds for mass execution. McCarthy-era blacklisting seems utterly tame by comparison.
Kang's previous hit as a director was Shiri, a spy thriller about North-South tensions that was rather confusing to Western audiences (too many similarly dressed characters in it named Lee, for instance). With Tae Guk Gi, he has taken a giant leap forward, making the kind of big-screen opus that Michael Bay only wishes Pearl Harbor could have been. One hopes Jerry Bruckheimer will attend and take copious notes -- foreign films often feature intellectual alternatives to homegrown cinema, but rare is the foreign blockbuster that can go toe-to-toe with the big American studio action franchise flicks and clobber them on their own terms. If Kang and/or actor Jang Dong-gun can speak English, they could have it made in Hollywood.
On the other hand, if they can make films this great on a regular basis, why not kick Hollywood's butt instead?