I picked up this film at the Half-Price Books this past weekend and enjoyed it greatly. Perhaps “enjoyed” is the wrong word… it’s an incredibly brutal war movie. I should say that I appreciated its importance and scope greatly. It’s a magnificent film and is superlative as a war movie.
I watch war movies because of what they have to say about the human condition, both about the soldiers that fight and the people that make the films. I feel that war movies as a genre deserve a system of rating that considers them as war movies, to the possible exclusion of other elements.
The first consideration is how much stuff gets blown up. Wars are about destruction, and that has to be depicted strongly, or the film must deliver significantly in other areas. Even if a film is near-perfect in other areas, an absence of massive, cyclopean destruction will prevent it from being a consummate war film. In this regard, Tae Guk Gi delivers. Some would say that it over-delivers. The film has a strong advisory that is warranted for its stark, graphic, brutal depiction of what war can do to a human body. The film does not flinch from hand-to-hand combat with improvised weapons, shells rending bodies, or massacres of innocents. The violence makes it difficult to watch, but compelling as well. There is much to learn in that this is a true face of war, and it is ugly. 2 points for the blowing stuff up.
Next, I want to assess the honesty of the depiction of war. Every great war movie is also an antiwar movie. A movie that glorifies an aspect of the conflict is propaganda. Tae Guk Gi glorifies heroism, but on a personal, rather than national level. It questions so-called “national heroes” as fabrications of propaganda, with their actual deeds perhaps best left unknown. Tae Guk Gi is most certainly an anti-war movie. The war moves across Korea and devastates the whole of it. The characters are all complicated, regardless of their side, which aids the impact of the film. 2 points for honesty without propaganda.
Third for me is a question of veracity: does it ring true? I’m a military historian, and I cringe at ignorance of history. Ignorance of history leads directly into propaganda and mythology and glorification of war, which there should be none of. Tae Guk Gi is painstaking in its detail, down to the anti-communist brute squads that executed South Korean citizens in liberated areas for suspicion of collaboration with the Communists and the North Korean slaughtering of villagers in the path of the South Korean advance. The uniforms are impeccable and the equipment period- and theatre- accurate. I enjoyed seeing the North Koreans equipped with the proper USSR 1938-era war surplus, as happened historically, along with the evolving quality of equipment for the ROK forces. 2 points for veracity.
After veracity, I want to see empathy for the other side. Not sympathy, but an understanding of their motives – empathy. I don’t want the contending army to be simply “the bad guys.” I want them to be the enemy, but I want to see them act intelligently and not be a set of cardboard targets to blast apart. I don’t want to see a film that’s little more than a first-person shooter game. Again, Tae Guk Gi comes through on this count. The North Koreans aren’t idiots. They also aren’t a nameless mass. We see their soldiers, their officers, their prisoners of war, and each character has a memorable impact. There’s also a great Chinese mass charge scene that incorporates CGI and live action properly… unless the filmmakers really did hire 100,000 extras to charge up a hill for 20 seconds… but the scene conveys the idea of a mass charge more than any description I’ve read. I understand the Chinese style of fighting more now. 2 points for the empathy connection.
Finally, I need intensity of experience. I need to feel like I’m there, in the midst of the conflict. Tae Guk Gi is excellent in that regard. The cinematography uses a number of artistic touches that again and again put me directly in the trenches, bunkers, and city ruins. Blood, dirt, and bullet casings fly up into the lens, giving me more than a 3-D experience. I travel in time with those touches. 2 points for the intensity, 10 total.
Tae Guk Gi is what I would consider to be a consummate war film. It has it all, plus bonuses I did not need to consider because of its attainment of superlativeness without their consideration. This is not a romance. This is not a teenage angst vehicle. This is a WAR movie, and there is much to learn from watching it. If you like war movies, you owe it to yourself to see it.