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 go—and 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.’s—boys who switched to Communism not for ideology but at the barrel of a gun—to 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.

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