In helming South Korea's priciest film production to date, Je-gyu Kang emphasizes crafty action sequences which strive valiantly to meet a Spielbergian standard. The Band of Brothers kineticism meets a Saving Private Ryan-esque plot laced with Casualties of War-style moral quandaries. It's a shame that Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War doesn't feel more distinctive in its own right (John Woo's Bullet in the Head also comes to mind), but the film's fearless extremity helps to sustain interest over the film's needlessly protracted 149-minute running time.
Like Saving Private Ryan, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War opens on a war veteran in the present-day. Called by Korean War site excavators, the elderly Lee Jin-seok excitedly returns to the battlefield in search of evidence of his haunted past. In 1950, the young Jin-seok (Won Bin) and his older brother Jin-tae (Chow Yun-Fat lookalike Jan Dong-gun) enjoy the freedom and promise of their youth. A series of gawkily sentimental scenes establishes their easy bond, Jin-Tae's shoe-shining craft and impending marriage to a young beauty named Young-shin (Eun-ju Lee), and the brothers' devotion to their loving mother and her ill-fated noodle house (sacrificed as the outbreak of war spurs villagers to abandon homes and shops). When an impromptu draft blindsides the siblings (cue the requisite tearful goodbye alongside a departing train), there'll be "war is hell" to pay.
At this point, disillusionment intrudes, and it's there to stay. Desperate hardship plagues the wartorn soldiers and their families: starving is commonplace at the front and on the homestead. The horrors of inadequate medical treatment and despairing madness match the unfathomable violence of the battles (depicted with relish by the director). War turns out to inspire dishonorable behavior as often as heroism; though most of the soldiers fret openly about covering their own asses, the exceptional brothers inspire courageous acts in each other and their countrymen. In particular, Jin-Tae plots to win a medal and, with it, the reward of having his little brother sent home. Jin-seok, increasingly appalled by his brother's slide into reckless psychoses, will have none of it, arguing against his brother playing the hero.
Je-gyu Kang admirably allots time to argue whether or not the ideology rending the Communist North from the US-backed South is worth the carnage. Friendly fire and internal brawling (including that of the brothers) further dramatize the absurdity of the divided nation, and the director pulls out all the stops for the final battle. Melodramatic circumstances lead to numerous operatic confrontations between the brothers, but none more so than when a grief-blinded Jin-Tae climactically fails to recognize his own flesh and blood. Brotherhood finally coalesces into an inescapable metaphor illustrating the madness of civil war.