Taegukgi Hwinalrimyo (aka Brotherhood: Taegukgi and Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War) (2004)
Director: Je-gyu Kang.
Starring: Dong-Kun Jang (Jin-tae Lee), Bin Won (Jin-seok Lee), Eun-ju Lee (Young-shin Kim), Hyeong-jin Kong (Yong-man), Yeong-ran Lee (Mother).
two reluctant South Korean young brothers are torn apart by their experiences in the Korean War
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
Memorial Site for the Souls of the Korean War. They are digging up bodies of the dead from one of the battles in the Korean War. They are using the computer to register people. They have their own "Korean War Participants' List Search Engine."
A granddaughter calls to her grandfather that Army Headquarters is on the phone! A fellow is calling for the Korean excavation team. They are sure they have found the body of Lee Jin-seok, who fought at the Battle of Dumillyong. Grandfather says that is his name. He asks if the body could be that of Lee Jin-tae, his brother who also fought in the battle. The fellow says no. He reasons that perhaps there was another Lee Jin-seok at the battle.
Grandfather looks at the family photo album from the time of the Korean War. He takes a box with a pair of unfinished shoes in it. His brother was going to come home and finish them for him.
Flashback. Jong-Ro, Seoul, June 1950. Lee Jin-tae is a shoeshine man or young fellow. He sees his younger brother Lee Jin-seok on the street and they begin horsing around. He looks at shoes in the window and talks about making shoes one day. They go see their mother and Jin-tae's fiancée Young-shin. They both work in mother's noodle shop. They make noodles for soups and other things that they sell to the public.
At night at home Jin-tae and Jin-seok speak to the spirit of their dead father. Jin-tae says that younger brother got very high marks in school and wants to go to college. And Jin-tae himself is going to marry Young-shin in the fall. The family, including three young siblings of Jin-tae and Jin-seok, seems very happy as they work and play together.
Jin-seok asks his brother: ". . . haven't you heard:" War has broken out. This morning the puppet government of North Korea attacked South Korea. There are already many refugees on the roadways. The Lee family decides to pack and go to Uncle's house. Young-shin is upset that they will be leaving for their noodle counter was just starting to do well. They can see the lights and hear the sound of artillery shells exploding.
Dae-gu, July 1950. The railroad workers tell the people that the trains for civilians are not running. Only military people are allowed on. At home Jin-tae is not back yet from an errand. A truck full of military police jump out and announce that all men between the ages of 18 and 30 must step forward. Mother and future sister-in-law don't want eighteen year old Jin-seok to step forward. But the MPs grab him anyway. He and many other young men are placed in the train cars.
Jin-tae gets home and is told that the MPs took his brother. He runs down to the train station and looks until he finds his brother. He decides to pull him off the train, but the MPs stop them. And now they are going to keep both of the brothers and force them into the army. Jin-tae starts fighting the MPs so Jin-seok can make a run for freedom. But an MP grabs Jin-seok. Jin-tae is a hell of a fighter and hits the MPs many times, but they finally subdue him.
After some training the two brothers and their unit are brought to the battlefield. They are currently burning the bodies of the dead North Korean soldiers. One of the new recruits throws up at the sight. The officers are in a briefing. The Nakdong River (longest river through South Korea that goes through Busan) is their last line of defense. If it falls, the next to fall will be Busan (at the southeasternmost tip of the Korean Peninsula and facing the Korea Strait) and then they've got nowhere to go but into the sea.
The young soldiers introduce themselves to each other. When Yong-man learns there are two brothers from one family, he tells Jin-tae and Jin-seok that they are only supposed to take one brother from a family. As they talk an artillery shell lands nearby killing quite a few soldiers. Jin-seok is hit in the arm by a small piece of shrapnel. Then the shells really start hitting fast and furious and with great accuracy. The South Koreans are getting slaughtered. One soldier catches on fire. Soldiers are being blow apart. Jin-tae runs to get first aid supplies for his brother. When he returns he immediately starts working on Jin-seok.
A little while later Jin-tae is asking the officer in charge to send his brother home. The officer says he can't. He has a lot of other men who are just as physically hurt or more hurt than Jin-seok. Otherwise, who would be left to fight? He tells Jin-tae first do something big for the unit, then he will send his brother home.
All around them units are losing their positions. Areas 721 and 734 are in enemy hands and their supply lines have been cut-off. New arrives that areas 731 and 732 are gone. And now the Lee brothers' unit is next. Jin-tae, seeing an opportunity, volunteers to plant land mines on the road. Some of the men watch for the enemy while others dig holes and plant the mines. All of a sudden one of the guards is hit in the stomach area and down he goes. The whole hillside is filled with North Koreans descending upon the mine detail. One of the South Koreans steps on a recently planted mine and loses a leg. Jin-tae kills a lot of North Koreans with his rifle, but he doesn't stop firing when the officer tells him to. He wants to finish all of them off.
When they get back to camp the officer tells Jin-tae that one more minute and the man who lost his leg would have died. He will court-martial Jin-tae if he disobeys another one of his orders. When the officer finishes with Jin-tae, Jin-seok starts in on him. He is mad that Jin-tae volunteered for the dangerous mission in the first place. He forces his brother to promise that he won't do that again.
In the Medic tent one of the soldiers goes crazy and starts shooting the wounded and then anyone standing up. He finally shoots himself in the head. Many of the young soldiers are scared. They adiscuss different options, including surrendering. One who wants to surrender fights with a man who wants to fight it out with the North Koreans. It's a while before the other men step in to stop them. Then Jin-tae comes up with a different idea. He wants their unit to attack the North Koreans because they won't be expecting an attack. Most of the guys decide they also want to attack. Many figure it's better to attack than to keep being cut to pieces by the North Korean attacks.
Jin-tae asks the officer to have Jin-seok sit out the attack. They sneak up on the sentries and eliminate them. Then they use hundreds of Molotov cocktails to announce the attack. It really lights up the place. The North Koreans are caught by surprise. Soon the South Koreans reach the trenches and it's really bloody hand-to-hand fighting. A fellow in a machine gun nest really starts killing a great many South Korean soldiers. Jin-tae makes his way to the ammo bunker and kills a number of North Koreans there. Then he comes up behind the machine gunner and kills him. Then he gets a gasoline can and pours the gasoline onto the ammunition and sets it ablaze. The ammunition dump explodes sky high. The South Koraens win a big skirmish. The fellows shout hurray!
Jin-seok, who ignored the officer who told him to stay behind, starts searching for Jin-tae. When he finds him, Jin-seok asks Jin-tae if he is risking his life just so he can send his little brother home? He also asks if his brother thinks he (Jin-seok) would be happy to go home leaving his big brother dead? Then he tells Jin-tae not to ask the officer to sit him out again. He says as brothers they should be together. "We live and die together."
The good news of the day is that the United States Marines have made a successful landing at Inchon well behind enemy lines. The officer says: "We'll push in as they make the second attack into Inchon." Jin-tae is singled out for his bravery. The officer in commmand gives him a South Korean flag and tells him to raise it on Mount Baekdu by the Chinese border. The other soldiers give him a big round of applause. They then grab him and throw him up and down into the air.
Seoul, September 1950. Jin-tae gets his photo taken. The journalists ask him why there were two brothers in the same battle? Jin-tae says all the right things pleasing everybody. Back at the unit the soldiers talk about their hero, but now one has to say Sgt. Lee. Jin-tae comes back from all the festivities a bit drunk. He gives his brother a big Hershey chocolate bar and some to the men too. Jin-seok, however, is not happy with his brother. When Jin-tae sobers up, his brother tells him to think of all their family, not just him (Jin-seok).
Pyongyang, North Korea, October 1950. The unit is supposed to capture the North Korean captain so he can be interrogated. A machine gunner on a roof is really killing a lot of South Korean soldiers. Jin-tae runs inside the building and climbs the steps. He is about to be shot when a tank saves his life by blasting the building and killing the prospective shooter. Jin-tae gets to the top of the building and now uses the machine gun to kill North Korean soldiers. He's a regular one man killing machine. From the roof he sees the captain running away. He goes down and tells Yong-man and Kim to come with him. They go after the captain. The captain and a couple of men with him jump into a jeep and the driver starts driving away. Jin-tae is able to get himself in front of the jeep. He keeps shooting at the driver until he kills him. The jeep overturns. The captain is bloody but able to get up. Yong-man comes up on the captain and the captain shoots him with his pistol. Jin-tae and the captain start fighting and it goes back and forth until Jin-tae comes out on top.
There are lots of planes in the sky. Yong-man is buried. The unit will continue over to the Aprok River near the Chinese border. The soldiers see a lot of weeping families looking over the many dead bodies. Jin-seok has another confrontation with his brother. He tells Jin-tae that he loves being a hero. But because of him Yong-man's son will grow up without a father and bear a grudge against Jin-tae forever. Jin-tae says very little.
The soldiers come across a village where all the civilians have been killed by the communists. They have to bury the bodies. One of the bodies is booby-trapped and when it is moved there is a big explosion which injures three or four of the soldiers. Now Jin-tae and the other fellows are really mad at the North Korean soldiers. When they reengage the enemy they are like mad men and the killing really begins in a big way. Jin-tae throws one soldier into a house on fire. And he is taking no prisoners. They force a group of North Korean soldiers up against a wall and then just gun them all down.
Now there is snow on the ground. Three civilians are found hanging from ropes overhead. The unit catches six North Korean soldiers hiding in a mine. Jin-seok recognizes one of the fellows as his friend from childhood. He tells Jin-tae that it's Yong-seok from their neighborhood. He was forced to join the North Korean army or be executed. But Jin-tae doesn't care. He wants to kill all six of the prisoners. Jin-seok is shocked and says that he will report the unit if they kill the prisoners. He also says that if they kill the prisoners, they will be no better than the communists who killed all those civilians in the town.
Hye-San-Jin, far northern Korea, November 1950. Jin-seok goes to see Yong-seok. He brings him some food and they sit for awhile. Yong-seok says that Jin-tae has really changed. He also tells Jin-seok that Young-shin is having a hard time caring for everyone. His mother is not doing well.
Jin-seok sees two North Koreans being forced to fight each other for the enjoyment of the South Korean soldiers. Jin-tae is running the whole show and this makes Jin-seok angry. So he goes in the ring and starts fighting one of the pair of fighters. Jin-tae just watches without saying a word. Jin-seok takes his share of wallops until he finally comes out on top.
Over the radio the men hear that the war will soon end in victory for the South Koreans. The shout goes up: "Victory is ours!" The thinking is that they will be going home soon. Jin-tae, however, does not celebrate. He hears that China will back North Korea. It is announced that Jin-tae will be getting the medal of honor for catching the North Korean captain and for his bravery and courage in battle. The commander is said to be very pleased with Jin-tae.
Jin-tae goes over to his brother and tells him that he can go home soon and back to school. He finally admits to Jin-seok that he needed a medal to send him home and he doesn't understand why Jin-seok is not the slightest bit grateful. Jin-seok only says: "I didn't ask you to!" Jin-tae says he wants his brother to go home because he is the family's dream, their hope. He adds: "I don't care what you think as long as you go home."
A siren goes off. The order has arrived that the units are retreating. They learn that for Woon-san City alone, at least 100,000 Chinese troops have descended upon them. The Chinese will be opening fire on the unit any minute now. The troops pack and are starting to move out. It seems to be a total reversal of fortune and many of the South Korean soldiers can't understand what's going on. They can't understand why they are retreating without a fight. Jin-tae takes the order very badly. He starts kicking the hell out of a garbage can. But now artillery shells start landing and men start dying.
In the confusion and death a North Korean gets a pistol and starts shooting his captives. This really makes the men angry and they kill all their prisoners, including Yong-seok. Jin-seok holds Yong-seok as he dies. Then Jin-seok attacks his brother. After a pretty long time the other soldiers finally separate the two of them. The retreat is total with a sea of humanity (soldiers and refugees) trying to get out of the area.
Jang-Dan, near the 38th parallel, December 1950. Civilians are desperately trying to get on a departing train. Many sit on top of the train cars.
December 1, 1950. Jin-tae is given his medal of honor, which is a huge medal. On the radio is some news about South Korean President Ruyee Syng-man. The soldiers are told to disperse and return to the assigned rendezvous sites where they will be reorganized. Jin-tae asks his officer about his brother and the officer tells him that he will make the official request with the division commander. The medal of honor winner asks some of the men where is his brother. They say that he went home on his way to the rendezvous point. Their mother is said not to be in good health. Jin-tae goes to find his brother.
Jin-seok reaches home. The only person at home is Young-shin. She finds it hard to believe that Jin-seok is back. They have not talk long before Young-shin is grabbed under suspicion of being a communist. They are going to shoot Young-shin along with a number of people identified as communists. Jin-tae shows up and see what's about to happen to Young-shin and he puts his rifle in the face of one of the anti-communist federation executioners. The executioner says that Young-shin signed up with the Communist Party On June 23. Young-shin says she didn't know what she was signing. The executioner says that she worked for the Communist Party thirty-five times and participated in numerous rallies. Young-shin says she did it for the food for the children. The executioner says that she was also with a North Korean officer. Jin-seok shows up to support his brother and Young-shin.
A fight breaks out. Those "communists" about to be killed join in on the fight. A number of people are killed on both sides. The executioner shoots Young-shin mortally wounding her. Jin-tae holds her as she dies. She says: "I didn't do anything shameful. . . . I can't die now. I can't leave my loved ones now." She dies. The brothers turn their attention to the executioner of Young-shin. He is shot several times and dies.
Jin-seok and Jin-tae are taken away. Young-shin's body is thrown into the mass grave of the executed. Now both brothers sit in a huge jail cell. Jin-seok tells Jin-tae that it was he (Jin-tae) who killed Young-shin. Again Jin-tae doesn't really defend himself.
Jin-tae is brought to headquarters and questioned. The officer asks him if he is out of his mind? Jin-tae shot members of the Anti-communist Federation. Jin-tae's only concern is that his brother be released and sent home. He takes a pistol and tells the officer to give the command to release Jin-seok. The officer, however, gives the command to burn the building with all the prisoners inside. Then the officer gives the command to arrest Jin-tae. But once again Jin-tae is saved. An artillery shell lands on the building and knocks out the officer and the guards. Jin-tae rushes to save his brother, but it is already too late. The POW building is already burning. When the fire is out Jin-tae goes in to find his brother. He finds the pen that he had given his brother and figures this must be his skeleton.
The Chinese communists take the town. Jin-tae sees the officer that gave the order to burn his brother in line with other South Korean prisoners of war. He grabs a brick, jumps on the officer and beats his head to a bloody pulp. The Chinese have to force him off the dead officer.
Military Hospital, Tae-Jeon, South Korea, July 1951. Jin-seok is still alive. He was saved by one of his soldier buddies. There is still fighting at the 38th parallel. The friend shows up at the hospital to see how Jin-seok is doing. He's very good. In fact, he's about to be released. The friend who saved him gives Jin-seok a letter from Jin-tae to his mother that was not delivered. Jin-seok says that he doesn't want to know about his brother. He says: "I don't care."
Jin-seok learns that his brother is now fighting for the communists. He is the leader of the infamous Flag Unit and he is now Lieutenant Lee Jin-tae. Jin-seok says he doesn't care. Alone Jin-seok reads his brother's letter to their mother. It's a very touching letter and now Jin-seok feels a bit guilty. Now he decides to save his brother. He makes the decision to go look for his brother. He travels up to the 38th parallel where the fighting is taking place.
The South Korean officers say they will attack up the middle of hills 931 and 85, dividing them and then the hills will be attacked on the respective flanks. They all agree that they have to take out Flag Unit at all costs. Jin-seok has talked to the officers and they have agreed to let him read a script over the loud speaker with the goal of communicating with Lt. Jin-tae. But the script has not been delivered yet. So Jin-seok runs into enemy territory. He is, of course, captured. Jin-seok is taken to the security unit. While moving him, the air attack begins and his guard is killed. Jin-seok starts running to find the Flag Unit. As he runs, the Americans and South Koreans reach the top of the hill and once again it is hand-to-hand fighting. The Allies are doing well, but then Flag Unit descends on them like banshees out of hell. Jin-seok has to fight for his life, all the while glancing around for his brother. But it is his brother who finds Jin-seok. He doesn't recognize him and is determined to kill him. The two fight hand-to-hand while Jin-seok keeps trying to reach through his anger to get him to see that he is trying to kill his own brother. After many attempts, Jin-seok gets through to his brother and the fight stops. Jin-tae tells his brother to go. He will surrender after the war and will later come back home. Jin-seok wants him to go with him, but Jin-tae insists. So Jin-seok limps down the hill. To delay the progress of the Flag Unit Jin-tae grabs a machine gun and starts killing many Flag Unit soldiers. But the Flag Unit finally kills Jin-tae. He is buried where he fell by the machine gun.
Back to the present. With his granddaughter Jin-seok goes to the excavation site. He sees his brother's skeleton still lying where Jin-tae lay when he was killed. He says to Jin-tae: "You promised to come back and finish the shoes. But what are you doing here?" He has been waiting for Jin-tae for fifty years. He cries out: "Jin-tae! Jin-tae!" His granddaughter is now crying.
Flashback. Jin-seok comes home to his mother and siblings. His mother cries and hugs him closely.
Good movie. And very good action war film. Lots of blood and realism and vicious hand-to-hand fighting. (War is hell and finally so on screen.) There are a great many battle scenes. The script itself has some weaknesses. Rather than contact the authorities to get his brother out of fighting and let the army take him instead, Jin-tae just tries to release his brother by using his fists on the military police. And why didn't his mother write to the authorities that the military has both her sons and she wants one back for the welfare of the whole family?
And why does Jin-seok give Jin-tae such a hard time? Why was Jin-tae guilty of the death of one of his men when he was on an official mission to capture the North Korean captain alive and needed someone to help him? In order to get the captain, someone would probably have to give their life for their country. It could have been Jin-tae, but it wasn't. And then Jin-seok blames his brother for the execution of his future sister-in-law. Why was Jin-tae guilty of her death? It doesn't make sense. Jin-seok comes across as a big cry baby. He only redeems himself at the end, but even then he is the one who should feel the most guilty, helping to drive his brother to the other side with all the guilt trips Jin-seok tried to lay on his brother.
I guess Jin-seok felt that if his brother just did sub-normal soldiering, fewer of his men would have been killed. That's probably right, but someone's else's soldiers would have died instead. What kind of attitude is that to have? An army can't encourage its soldiers to under-perform in the hopes that fewer will be killed. Probably under-performance would lead to more deaths in the unit because the men would be such lousy soldiers.
But I was still moved by the ending in spite of Jin-seok's failings.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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