Continuing the countdown of the Top 10 Korean Movies of all time, we present the Top 5. Check out which of your favorite films have made it on the list. You may be surprised….
Without further ado….
5) The Chaser
Writer: Hong Won-chan, Lee Shinho, Na Hong-jin
Genre: Crime, thriller, drama
Release Date: February 2008
One night, a man in his car makes a routine call to one of his girls…
But she doesn’t pick up…
Jung-ho knows something is going on. As a former police detective now turned pimp, his instinctual “cop radar” has gone off. Another one of his call girls from his “pleasure business” has gone missing and the numbers continue to decrease. Nearly penniless after paying these missing girls’ debts, Jung-ho realizes something has to be done; he’s got to get his money after all. He flips open his cell phone and notices the recent disappearances originated from client number 4885’s home. Min-jee, a mother and soon to be victim, is called to work. He instructs her to call him back once she arrives at the address. But it’s getting late in the night and when Jung-ho does not get a call back, he’s convinced he knows who’s behind the kidnappings and that Min-jee’s life is in grave danger: thus begins The Chase.
The unique twist on this crime thriller is that the viewers not only see what the protagonist – Jung-ho – does, but also what the villain does as well. But where’s the fun in seeing everything? While the movie lays everything out for the audience to see, the characters do not have the same privilege. What will Jung-ho do? Will he solve what we – the audience – already know? The viewer hinges on his every decision and empathize with Jung-ho from the get go.
At first, Jung-ho believes that this client 4885 is a rival pimp, stealing his call girls from his business. Nervously waiting for Min-Jee to come out, he camps outside the suspect’s house in his car, hoping that she turned down client 4885’s offer to become his call girl. But as the audience soon finds out, Yeong-min is not in the pleasure business; he’s a pure sadistic killer and Min-jee is soon to be the next victim.
As client 4885 abducts Jung-ho’s ladies one by one, the audience learns the shocking torture that is occurring. The ladies are thrown into a spacious bathroom, bound and chained by the hands and feet, and gagged with a bandage. Then, using a hammer and chisel, client 4885 slowly tortures his female victims by chiseling their heads until enough blood spills their eventual death. Min-jee is also subject to this disgusting act, as the sides and top of her once beautiful face is ripped with bloody gashes and deep scars. As she soon passes out, it seemed that this client claimed another of Jung-ho’s girls. Will Jung-ho solve what’s going on? Can he stop this sick pervert this time?
Jung-ho, still waiting outside the gated house, now suffers the same premonition as when his other girl disappeared the other night. As he polices the local neighborhood in his car, he damages another car from the side. Calm and collected, he goes to the other car and tells the other driver he will pay for their car damages. The driver rolls down his tinted window and is revealed to be a young male. He insists that he doesn’t require reprimands and impatiently waits for the blocking traffic to clear before driving off. Yet, when Jung-ho notices blood on the driver’s shirt, he suspects something wrong and calls client 4885, but the heist is up; the driver’s phone rings. As the suspect escapes through the side door, Jung-ho runs after him and The Chase is on.
After an intense chase scene, Jung-ho catches up to him and proceeds to pummel, kick, and stomp the suspect into bloody submission. Grabbing his ID, he finally discovers the suspect’s name: Je Yeong-min. Bringing Yeong-min in the police station, he soon realizes what the audience already knows: Yeong-min is not some rival pimp stealing his ladies, but a cold blooded killer. Now he suddenly asks himself, is Min-jee still alive?
First-time director Na Hong-jin’s 2008 hit is similar to “Memories of Murder”; it’s a crime thriller based on a true story. However, unlike most films of the genre where the killer is revealed in the final showdown, Na turns the genre on its head and presents the murderer within the first 20 minutes. But what’s the point of a crime movie if the killer is already found? If only it were that simple. Jung-ho has the cards stacked against him: Yeong-min is a psychopath, the police investigators reek of corruption, and there is no evidence. If Jung-ho cannot prove in 12 hours that Yeong-min was involved in the killings, he will be set free.
Na also takes a different approach in creating his film, where the suspense, action, and evidence gathering takes a back seat to the protagonist’s own development. Make no mistake, Kim Yuk-seok’s fantastic portrayal as the lead character, Jung-ho, is the focal point of this suspense thriller. In the beginning of the film, Jung-ho is shown as a bastard. Unsympathetic, heartless, and greedy, Jung-ho shows no remorse for his call girls’ well-being. After all, he was generous enough to clear every girl’s past debt in exchange for their “services” to clients. The bottom line is profit. Being sick for days, feeling scared of creepy customers, and spending time with their kids are all needless excuses – meaningless reasons that do not pay him, put food on the table, or clear the girls’ debts.
As the movie progresses, he slowly realizes he is greatly responsible for his own reputation and own deteriorating business. When one of his girls is threatened to be raped by two clients, Jung-ho comes in and roughs them up. But he doesn’t protect the girl for her well-being; he sees it as protecting his business assets. She sees Jung-ho for what he is – a greedy money-grubber—and finally leaves his harem. Many of his former cop co-workers now look at him in disdain, as a good cop turned into a shady man. Even Min-jee, sick and tired from balancing a motherly role to her daughter and as a call girl, sees his boss as nothing but “filth”. This begs the question, how did Jung-ho become like this? Wasn’t he a servant of justice before?
As described in the first couple paragraphs above, The Chaser will suck the viewer in from the start. It is a non-stop adventure of suspense, action, problem solving, and emotion. While “Memories of Murder” laid out an incredible murder story and calmly created a slow build up for the grand ending, “The Chaser” presents many obstacles from the get-go and never lets up. Jung-ho’s transformation from being slightly better than the killer to actually caring about the lives of others and serving justice is amazing. The acting that Ha Jung-woo portrays as the psychopathic killer, Yeong-min, is dead on, giving the audience a glimpse into a serial murder’s thought process. It’s a performance that you can’t help but love to hate.
Following the recent trend of other successful Korean movies, “The Chaser” will be getting remade on U.S. shores. This is faster than usual – even for Hollywood – as the film was only released last year in 2008. Warner Bros recently bought the rights and William Monahan – who had a hand with Martin Scorsese in remaking “The Departed”, based on Hong Kong’s “Infernal Affairs” – is the potential favorite to be heading the script. Let’s hope a remake of “The Chaser” captures the spirit of Na’s original vision.
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4)Welcome to Dongmakgol
Director: Park Kwang-hyun
Writer: Kim Joong, Park Kwang-hyun
Based on: Jang Jin (play)
Genre: Drama, War, Comedy
Release Date: August 2005
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3) A Tale of Two Sisters
Writer: Kim Ji-woon
Based on: Janghwa, Hongryeon (folktale)
Genre: Horror, Mystery, Drama, Psychological
Release Date: June 2003
“There’s something strange in this house.”
“There’s a girl under the kitchen sink!”
“You know what’s really scary? You want to forget something. Totally wipe it off your mind. But you never can.”
A loud noise is heard from the 1st floor. Footsteps scatter around the house at night. Strange noises haunt this home during the dark hours. A woman stares at a channel-less TV alone at night. Not a very welcoming home, is it? But what could be causing these strange occurrences? As the audience watches further, nothing seems to make sense. The clues are difficult to decipher, the events do not connect, and the flashbacks are seemingly random.
For an avid horror aficionado, this confusing storyline has been used time and time again. Nothing says cliché quite like a long haired, female ghost with greasy hair, a creepy sound, and a “Kayako” Grudge. Sadako from “The Ring” would be rolling in her TV screen if it wasn’t for one fact: “A Tale of Two Sisters” deviates from the normal rungs of Asian horror. Say goodbye to a predictable story and cheap thrills and hello to one of the deepest, complex, intriguing horror movies in years.
But first, let’s go over what A Tale of Two Sisters has in common with the usual prerequisites to be an Asian horror film:
1) Creepy environment – Check
2) Story of revenge – Check
3) Scary scenes – Check
4) Blood – Check
5) Dark female ghost(s) with long hair – Check
6) The lead character thinks, “time to investigate” when alone – Check
7) Two girls having a period in the same day – Ummm… Check?
.8) Two females screaming at each other for half of the movie – Errr… Check.
9) A bloody hand coming from underneath a woman’s skirt – Okay, this is just now weird… Check!
The first six are universally in every Asian horror film with varying degrees of success. However, the last three – 7 through 9 – sound like they would belong more in a kinky college movie dealing with “naughty” gestures, such as the US series, “American Pie”, or the Korean collection, “Sex is Zero”. While the film shares common traits with its horror brethren – 1 through 6 – the similarities quickly end there.
Inspired by the Joseon Dynasty (1392 AD –1910 AD) folktale, “Janghwa Hongryeon” (rose flower, red lotus), “A Tale of Two Sisters” is the 6th iteration of this popular Korean story. As a modern take of the popular tale, the first scene of the film begins one afternoon in a hospital. The tale begins with a young female patient, Su-mi, as she is slowly ushered into a spacious white room by a hospital lady. Stooping down in a chair with her hair completely masking her face, a nearby doctor sits down across from her asks a series of questions. Yet, Su-mi does not say a word.
Later in the day, she and her younger sister, Su-yeon, are released from the hospital and welcomed back to their family’s lakeside house in the peaceful countryside. When the sisters step inside the Victorian-esque home, they are soon treated by their energetic stepmother, Eun-joo. Noticing the two are tightly holding hands and protective, Eun-joo attempts to “break the tension” with her friendly smile and quirky banter. Neither sister wants anything to do with this woman—the woman who recently replaced their beloved mom—and quickly move for the stairs. Eun-joo’s attempts at a friendly conversation amounts to nothing as the sisters climb the stairs with their backs turned against her. Again, Su-mi does not say a word.
As Su-mi and Su-yeon start re-familiarizing themselves in their old rooms, Su-mi notices an exact duplicate of her notepad and pen on her bedroom desk. But is that the only uncanny resemblance? Upon opening her clothing cabinet, she finds nothing but blue and green dresses.
The strange events continue to occur. Noises start emanating through the house during the first night and Su-yeon is the first recipient of this living nightmare, as she soon wakes up to someone or something slowly opening her bedroom door. Scared and frightened, she covers herself tightly with her blanket in hopes that her bedroom Boogeyman will disappear. Her blanket is slowly pulled off her inch by inch, and in terror, she quickly gets up to see… thankfully no one. Su-yeon runs quickly to her sister’s bedroom; only now does Su-mi speak. “There’s something in my room,” Su-yeon stutters nervously. “Everything is going to be okay,” Su-mi responds. The scares within the house have just started.
If the viewer does not watch the movie closely, they will not get the story. If the viewers enjoy a complex mystery, then the confusion becomes a facilitator for the story’s art. Unlike many other horror movies, “A Tale of Two Sisters” has no shame in taking its sweet time setting up its multi-layered story. The pacing is slow and the first 20 minutes are an unbearable wait for the rhythm to pick up. Yet, this tempts the viewer to become lazy. One may assume since the pacing is quite slow, they can take a jog, play chess, or hit on their hot neighbor. However, this is a disservice to the viewer, as the film is filled with incredible amounts of symbolism in the form of clues, dialogue, expressions, and flashbacks. As with 3-Iron, depending on one’s ears alone is not enough; both the human eyes and ears are needed. Missing one image will throw off the viewer’s understanding of the movie.
“A Tale of Two Sisters” differs from other Asian horror in how it presents the concept of horror itself. Whereas the vast majority of films in the horror genre depend heavily on a combination of: cheap scares, excessive gore, screaming, long haired ghosts, and unnecessary deaths, the movie relies on an application of a beautiful and familiar environment to create an unsettling feeling. Throughout the movie, the Victorian house slowly becomes scarier. Harrowing music and complete silence are used in juxtaposition with great effect to add to the fear. Sprinkled with a few shock scares, the viewer is always on edge, uneasy when the next scary scene is going to occur.
The acting deserves special mention in this film, since it blends in the movie’s psychological, creepy horror theme perfectly. Director Kim Ji-woon could not have asked for more talented actors: newcomer Lim Su-jeong as the older sister Su-Mi and Yeom Jung-ah as the wicked stepmom play the perfect foil to one another. During every meal, hallway conversation, and late night encounters, the viewer will see the constant tension, anger, and disgust for the other. Breaking expensive porcelain as Eun-joo pours tea, leaving the table early, and hurling insults at her father’s new wife, Lim Su-jeong channels an incredible aura of vindictiveness during the movie. Jung-ah, on the other hand, plays a very convincing evil stepmom in Eun-joo, as she makes Su-Mi’s life a living hell while under the same roof. Beginning by throwing barbs back at Su-Mi, she later goes on the offensive, physically asserting herself on the sisters behind their father’s back. Although in real life the actresses are best friends, you wouldn’t know it by watching this film.
The other two support characters also do a great job in playing their roles. A very young Moon Geun-young, the media dubbed “nation’s younger sister,” plays the painfully shy and innocent Su-yeon. Avoiding confrontation and always deferring to her older sister, Moon Geun-young plays the perfect complement to the more outspoken Su-jeong. Acting veteran Kim Kap-su rounds out the cast as the quiet, patient, and tempered father to the two daughters. His presence as both the concerned father and mediator between his eldest brash daughter and his new wife balances out the constant animosity within the home.
The surprise twists and thought-provoking ending, however, is what sets “A Tale of Two Sisters” apart from the vast majority of horror movies. Fans of the movie all have their unique impressions of the film’s key plot points and judging from which information Kim holds back in the end, many people’s takes are very believable. Kim provides just enough clues for the viewer to understand the story, yet still have many questions at the same time. A quick view on various Korean movie sites’ forums shows that A Tale of Two Sisters is one of the most discussed movies, in part due to its complex ending. The “re-playability” of the film is simply endless; there’s no shame in watching it again.
“A Tale of Two Sisters” is an incredible psychological thrill ride for horror virtuosos or even non-horror fans. With a talented cast, a gorgeous setting, well-orchestrated music, well-timed scares, and an engaging story, this movie stands as one of the best horror movies ever created. Both the Korean and foreign press agrees, as the movie currently stands upon 12 awards and 3 nominations in various film festivals and reviews. Actresses Lim Su-jeong and Yeom Jung-ah took home a number of acting awards and director Kim Ji-woon collected 6 awards himself.
An American remake by DreamWorks recently came out on January 2009 called, “The Uninvited” – no relation to the Korean movie with the same name. While the US version pays homage to the Korean film, movie watchers owe it to themselves to experience the original.
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2) My Sassy Girl
Director: Kwak Jae-young
Writer: Kwak Jae-young
Based on: Kim Ho-sik (a novel)
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Romance
Release Date: July 2001
(A group of nine female starlets approach the concert stage. Two of them take the lead.)
Tiffany: “Uh huh! Listen boy.”
“My first love story”
Jessica: “My angel and my girls.”
“My sunshine. Uh! Uh! Let’s go!”
— The opening to the 2009 song “Gee”
Girls Generation (SNSD)
The ever catchy, popular, and overplayed “Gee” tells about a girl who experiences her first crush, her first love. For many movie fans, “My Sassy Girl” is their first foray into Korean cinema, their first “movie love.” From seeing the studly, dorky Cha Tae-hyun to the beautiful, border-line abusive Jeon Ji-hyun, many of us knew their on screen romance was something special. Having a cute story to complement these two was just perfect. The entirety of South Korea had fallen in love.
Putting this movie down in sweet words is as difficult as confessing your love for the first time, but – as the movie’s theme sings – I Believe that even if one stumbles across their words, the first time is the moment you always come back to. It’s a time of nostalgia, and it’s always in the back of your mind. That’s essentially “My Sassy Girl,” a movie based on Kim Ho-sik’s real life adventures. Go out anywhere in South Korea—in fact, in most of Asia—and ask what’s the number one romance comedy, and you will most certainly get Kwak Jae-young’s movie.
For the My Sassy virgins, this is a story about the loveable pushover, Gyun-woo, and his fateful encounter that would change his life forever. Escaping his aunt’s most recent attempt to hook him up with a blind date, he goes to the subway station to head home. Unexpectedly, he meets an intoxicated and beautiful girl who is stooped over the yellow borderline and is about to fall onto the tracks. The train whistles, and before the wind of the locomotive passes by, Gyun-woo catches her before she falls. He enters the same train as the drunken girl all the while making sure to keep his distance.
The word, “honey,” is something every guy would like to hear, especially from a beautiful woman, but when these words come from a girl who just hurled her dinner at an elder, the words lose their appeal. As if that’s not enough of an indicator, just before she faints, she points towards Gyun-woo. Now Gyun-woo is forced to carry much more than just a girl on his back; he is forced to carry a problem. Not knowing what to do with this stranger, he moans, “How did I get into all of this?” Thus marks the beginning of “My Sassy Girl”.
What makes “My Sassy Girl” different from many other romantic dramas/comedies is director Kwak Jae-young’s well-spaced melodrama. He does not force the viewer’s emotion—to cry to his every whim—or overuse sarang he (“I love you”) every five minutes to the point where it loses its meaning. Kwak knows better. While any movie in the genre is expected to have its share of crying, sad moments, and love, he makes sure these themes have meaning. As the main leads become more rounded and deep, the movie becomes more liberal with its serious tones. Since the viewer becomes more attached to the actors, they start caring for them – feeling their pain, excitement, happiness, and loss.
If this film teaches you one new word, it’s “sassy.” The Asian stereotype for women is a reserved, demure, and loving individual. Get ready for a sassy ride, as Gyun-woo goes through the craziest relationship with this nameless girl (yes, she has no name). From the get-go, the viewer will empathize with Gyun-woo; when ordering anything other than coffee gets a “Do you wanna die?”, playing fun games gets Gyun-woo bitch-slapped, and refusing to read horrible movie scripts is returned with a petrifying stare, even the most apathetic of viewers will be moved.
“My Sassy Girl” has plenty of depth, going beyond a one-dimensional story of cute love. For a romantic comedy, “My Sassy Girl” has plenty of depth, an uncharacteristic quality of the genre. The vast majority follows the typical “guy likes girl” formula, where the only focus is “how do the main leads hook up?” This movie, however, goes much deeper than that, presenting sub themes such as: living in the moment, living in the future, contemplating the meaning of love, and, of course, dealing with love’s pain. Blending all these sub themes in this genre well is no easy feat; without a balance, the film goes off too many tangents and loses its identity – such as Kwak’s 2004 follow up, “Windstruck”.
The biggest draw to seeing this film has to be the amazing performances by its leading stars. Jeon Ji-jyun easily steals the show for her role as the girl and single-handedly redefines the meaning of sassy. From her facial expressions: quirky smiles, angry lipped growls, annoyed frowns, and sweet blushes, to bullying her co-star, she plays the unnamed heroine perfectly. Throughout the movie, the audience will see her growth from the drunkard subway female to the aggressive, vicious girl he dates to the Juliet of Korea. Her evolution from drunkard to Shakespearean status comes in the latter half of the movie, where both main characters start to see one another at their worst and their best. Cha Tae-hyun, playing Jeon’s opposite as the comedic Gyun-woo, displays an incredible acting job as the male lead. His counter expressions, when confronted with the girl’s bipolar-induced mood swings, are justified and understandable. Any guy would react that way. But not every guy would stick with the girl. Gyun-woo develops alongside the girl, and although he initially just goes with her antics and adventures, he finds himself slowly wanting to heal her sorrow.
Love or hate it, the 2001 success of “My Sassy Girl” revitalized the romantic comedy genre in Korea. Before its breakout performance in theaters, the genre was largely ignored, as producers would release serious melodramas instead. This film showed skeptics that a love story could be a mixture of lightheartedness, funny, and serious at the same time. Like the infectious Girls Generation“Gee” song that spread like wildfire earlier this year – where singing about the 7th letter in the English alphabet could be so addicting – this movie also spread like an epidemic around Asia. Other Asian countries, intrigued by the sassy concept, also produced their own versions: the 2008 Japanese TV drama” Ryokiteki no Kanojo” and the 2008 Indian movie “Ugly Aur Pagli”. While countless Korean romantic comedies were churned out after 2001 – such as the 2003 “My Tutor Friend” or 2004 “My Little Bride” – few are able to capture the magic that “My Sassy Girl” did.
As with many movies on this list, a “My Sassy Girl” American remake came out last year in 2008. While the movie tries to replicate the sassy feel, unfortunately, the movie is missing the atmosphere and setting; after all, they are different cultures. The chemistry between the US actors Elisha Cuthbert and Jesse Bradford is not the same. Again, watch the original.
It has been 8 long years since this movie came out. As mentioned earlier, for many fans, this film is their “first love.” My Sassy Girl has it all: a charming love story, incredible acting, multi-layered themes, and memorable soundtrack. What a great “first love” indeed. While these fans still consider this Korean classic as their favorite, the POPSEOUL list, like former lovers, has moved on; this film stands as #2 on our list.
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1) Tae Guk Gi
Director: Kang Je-kyu
Writer: Kang Je-kyu
Genre: War, Drama, Action, Historical
Release Date: February 2004
Quotes from famous people during the Korean War (1950 –1953).
“The most important thing in our war preparations is to teach all our people to hate U.S. imperialism.”
— Kim Il-sung
North Korean leader
“We will defeat the Reds, the Communists!”
— Syngman Rhee
South Korean leader
“Never before has this nation been engaged in mortal combat with a hostile power without military objective, without policy other than restrictions governing operations, or indeed without even formally recognizing a state of war.”
Supreme Allied Commander of the Pacific
“[Korea is] the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”
— Omar Bradley
General of the Army, United States
“If we allow the United States to occupy all of Korea, Korean revolutionary power will suffer a fundamental defeat, and the American invaders will run more rampant, and have negative effects for the entire Far East.”
— Mao Zedong
Chairman of the People’s Republic of China
Near the 38th parallel dividing the two Koreas, a big movement towards the south is occurring. Soldiers are heard marching step-by-step, with their rifles swaying and grenades attached to their belts. Rumbling engines echo loudly nearby, as armored tanks slowly drive through narrow roads. Supply trucks are heard going over bumpy tread marks. Grunts and signs of fatigue are heard from mortar teams pushing heavy artillery guns over steep hills. Fighters and bombers are heard from above, flying at incredible speeds in formation. North Korean propaganda is heard from loudspeakers, proclaiming that Communism will prevail over Capitalism. As onlookers see this advancing army approaching from the north, calamity is thrown out the window and panic ensues; the entirety of South Korea is in chaos. Dressed in light brown and red uniforms, the invading army conquers, pillages, and destroys any towns in its wake. Their target: all of Korea – the reunification of the Korean peninsula. The date: June 25th, 1950 – the Korean War has just started.
Fast forward to modern times in 2004; archaeologists are excavating the remains of fallen soldiers in preparation for a Korean memorial. An elderly man receives a phone call from the South Korean army. They claim one body found is Lee Jin-seok, but upon confirming that he is alive, the aged man suspects the body is actually his brother’s. He travels to China in hopes of finding his brother’s remains—no luck—and heads to the excavation site; there, he opens a shoebox containing vanilla colored shoes. As a flood of memories start coming back, tears swell up in his eyes. Fifty-four years ago may sound like an eternity for many, but for the survivors of war, they can relive the struggles like it happened yesterday. The pain, repressed memories, war wounds, bitterness, and brutal experiences are things any former soldier wants to forget. This begs the questions: how did the other brother die? What happened to Lee Jin-seok during the war? The movie shifts back to 1950 and the story of “Taegukgi” begins.
Director Kang Je-kyu’s film follows two brothers – Lee Jin-tae and Lee Jin-seok – and their family during the Korean War. Living in Seoul, life was peaceful for the Lee family following World War II. The older brother, Jin-tae works as a shoeshine boy during the day, foregoing his higher education to support his younger brother’s. Since his father passed away, he has taken the mantle as male figurehead in the family household. His fiancée, Young-shin, helps out at the family noodle shop in the afternoon with his mother. Jin-seok, the younger brother, dutifully studies and excels in academics in hopes of getting into a good university. Yong-seok, the brother’s childhood friend, spends time with the two on the streets of Seoul. With a loving family, food on the table, and clean clothes, the Lee family lived carefree in the newly established South Korea, looking towards a promising future. However, their peaceful world is shattered when the North invades. While the Lee family travels further south to escape the ensuing battles, the South Korean army drafts males between the ages of 18 to 30 in preparation for the South Korean war machine. Both brothers are thus drafted and must survive this hell together.
Shortly after, Jin-tae and Jin-seok find themselves in the muddy trenches with other scared and new recruits. Mortar fire and pounding artillery pepper the recruits’ first battlefield and Jin-seok immediately becomes shell-shocked, unaccustomed to the horrors of real combat. Worrying that his younger brother might not survive another battle, Jin-tae knew he had to do something fast; he had to save his family.
Jin-tae knows that their family’s future lays in Jin-seok and his promising future. If one of them can return home, it has to be his younger brother. Knowing this, he attempts to persuade his commanding officer to discharge his brother from the war. However, it comes with a condition: his superior tells him he has to get an Order of Military Merit medal, South Korea’s highest military honor. Agreeing to this secret deal, he starts volunteering for near suicidal missions, ranging from placing land mines during enemy fire to leading reckless assaults. Jin-seok starts wondering why his older brother is doing this. However, despite Jin-tae’s heroic and insane deeds, the South Korean army is in a terrible bind; they are surrounded and nearly annihilated.
Their regiment has little sleep, food, ammunition, and morale; the soldiers are beginning to go crazy. The sounds of suicide, amputated body parts, and screaming become the lullaby of their camp. Contemplating a last stand, many soldiers write their wills, ready for their inevitable fate. Jin-tae, however, has other plans; he suggests going on the offensive. After all, to him, the more suicidal the odds are, the better. Taking the North Koreans by complete surprise, the South Korean regiment makes rapid headway. Leading a one man charge, Jin-tae begins to braves the danger and lucks through. Eventually, his efforts pay off: he conquers the enemy headquarters on a mountain. As the North Koreans start a full retreat, he returns to see cheers and celebrations; it was the squad’s first victory.
However, as victory after glorious victory continued to pile up, Jin-tae becomes infatuated with the proposition. No longer is it about his brother’s safety; it’s about fame. He receives all the adulteration: promotions, mass cheering, awards, and even an appearance at the United Nations press conference. He sees the world in two shades: Communism and Capitalism. As a result, he becomes desensitized to murder—he becomes the perfect soldier. After another battle, he sees a childhood friend forced to fight for the North …yet, he has no compassion for his life; he sees nothing but an enemy. Soon, he barely recognizes his own younger brother, the very same he promised to protect. As Jin-seok begins to resent his older brother and his motives, their brotherhood starts to fall apart. Can they reconcile their differences? Will they ever see their family again? Does Jin-tae even see a different between Capitalism and Communism?
“Taegukgi” shows that war is hell. Like the critically acclaimed American war movie, “Saving Private Ryan”, this film does not hold back the brutal reality – arms are separated, legs are blown off — blood is used in great amounts. The battle scenes are intense: machines guns, tanks, airplanes, and artillery are all shown; bodies, shattered homes, and dreams ornament this battlefield. There is no peace in hell—no haven even in one’s house. War doesn’t discriminate and battles can be fought anywhere. War crimes, needless to say, were rampant by both sides during the war. Vicious propaganda was used to portray the other side as “evil”, framing the enemy with lies and atrocities. Surrendering to the enemy was frowned upon and even doing so did not guarantee survival. Prisoners weighed down advancing armies, so rather than keep them, commanders ordered captured prisoners to be shot. For every handful that benefits from war, there are millions more that are devastated by it.
With the success of his 1999 movie, “Shiri”, director Kang Je-kyu had the leeway to go for some big name actors for Taegukgi. Kang decided to go for some of the best, enlisting skilled actor Jang Dong-gun as Jin-tae and pretty boy Won Bin as Jin-seok. Jang plays a brilliant Jin-tae that evolves (or devolves) from a protective brother that places family first to a ruthless murderer. From his facial expressions to his dialogue, the audience will see how the rigors of war can change a person. Although slow, his transformation is believable because of his atrocities. His decision to weigh awards over his brother’s safety is, in itself, a result of his transformation. Won’s performance as the younger Jin-seok, however, steals the show. Since his role required the most radical change, his part was incredibly challenging. However, Won does not disappoint at all. This role required a transformation from passive intellectual to rookie soldier to a strong, determined man that opposes his brother’s motives. The audience will empathize with Won’s character and grown alongside with him throughout the war.
Korean beauty, Lee Eun-joo, played the fiancée of Jin-tae admirably in the few scenes she is in. Unfortunately, this was one of her last films she acted in, as she took her life on February 2005. If there is a knock in the film’s cast, it has to be the supporting characters. While the film focuses on the two main leads’ struggles, the supporting cast, compared to war movies like “Welcome to Dongmakgol”, pales in comparison. The movie, sadly, does not spend the time to develop their characters and most of them play extremely minor parts in the brothers’ journey. Although, not to take away from what they did, these characters still played their parts quite well, considering the time.
“Taegukgi” elicits poignant memories for South Koreans. The film name itself – “Taegukgi” – is symbolic; it represents the South Korean national flag. Like the American Civil War or the schism of Western and Eastern Germany after World War II, this film presents the viewer a greater understanding on the turmoil post division. When heartthrob Won Bin was asked to do a movie about the Korean War, he did not hesitate. “How could you not want to act in a movie about the Korean War … I would be honored,” Bin said. Thousands of extras also heeded the call in recreating this bloody conflict; many did their roles for little or no money. The North-South division still hurts to this day for Koreans and this movie provides a glimpse to seeing that very pain.
This film is one not to be missed by movie fans. While one may dismiss the movie as the Korean “Saving Private Ryan” – other than some inspired scenes from the American classic – they are both vastly different story wise. With slick battle cinematography, incredible scripting, deep main leads, a non-biased look at war, and a tale of brotherhood, the film’s scope is breathtaking. Crying “man-tears” during or at the end is acceptable, because the movie’s final message is powerful: family blood runs deeper than any sort of ideology or government. And for that, “Taegukgi” deserves the top slot.
If you have missed it, check out the Top 10 to 6 movies that have made an impact on Korean cinema.