Saving Private Lee: A Gory, Soapy Korean War Epic
Literalizing the phrase "band of brothers," Shiri director Kang Je-gyu's Asian box office smash Tae Guk Gi gives the Korean War the Saving Private Ryan treatment, vigorously blurring the line between splatter-flick prerogative and combat verisimilitude. In the rare moments when a rifle, grenade, howitzer, bayonet, dagger, fist, land mine, or flamethrower isn't being deployed, the film pushes its melodramatic plotline with soap operatic shamelessness. In 1950, semi-literate Seoul cobbler Lee Jin-tae (Nowhere to Hide's Jang Dong-gun, looking very Chow Yun-Fat) and college-bound beloved baby bro Jin-seok (Won Bin) have a hardscrabble but happy life, caring for their widowed mother, Jin-tae's noodle shopkeeper fiancée (Lee Eun-joo), and the latter's various little sibs. When war breaks out, Jin-seok is forcibly enlisted; Jin-tae begs the soldiers to let him goand gets sent to the front as well. He volunteers for the most dangerous missions, cutting a deal with his commander that if he wins a medal of honor, Jin-seok can go home and tend to the womenfolk.
But as the body count shoots through the roof, and his military fame intensifies, Jin-tae becomes a murder machine, and his more sensitive brother rejects his efforts to buy him an exemption. Korean filmdom has its share of notoriously violent offerings, but Tae Guk Gi is wall-to-wall slaughter (you have to admire a script that contains both the line "Where's my leg?" and, much later, "Where's my arm?"), with a sound design that ensures you'll hear every bullet and punch for days afterward. The savagery sometimes transcends overkill, as in a battle royal wherein Jin-tae forces two P.O.W.'sboys who switched to Communism not for ideology but at the barrel of a gunto knock each other senseless for the soldiers' entertainment. Though it's hard to imagine a more manipulative film, Tae Guk Gi has a formidable intensity, as if to burn the adjective off the last century's "forgotten" war.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.