By Michael Judd.
I recently decided to re-watch the Korean movie Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War for the second time. I first watched it a few years back during my MA degree, when I spent a good few months watching way too many Korean historical movies. (Some of which I will write about in future posts). Although this movie is over 15 years old, it remains in the top 15 grossing films in Korea. And I wanted to explain not only why it is so great but also why it deserves to be recognized more outside of Korea.
The name itself, Taegukgi, is the name of the Republic of Korea’s flag. And the movie does have a lot of nationalistic elements that typical Korean war movies contain. After all, they are a nation still at war, technically speaking. But the movie doesn’t always hide behind the traditional tropes of good vs evil, capitalism vs communism, or north vs south. Instead, it opts to highlight the reality of war. And more emotionally, how the war truly split brothers, families, and friends part. A division that remains today.
In very simple terms, the story stands up as the Korean version of Saving Private Ryan. Two brothers attempt to survive a brutal war, but the older brother is trying his best to ensure his younger sibling can get sent home. At the start of the movie, Jin-Tae is already trying to save up enough money through his shoe repair stand in Seoul to pay for his younger brother, Jin-Seok’s education. Movies never work out that way though, and we end up following the brothers’ right throughout the war. We even see the older brother lose all sense of himself as he finds no issue in an old family friend dying, as the family friend had been captured and forced to fight by the North Koreans. It ends up being an ironic foreshadowing, however, as it’s the ultimate fate that befalls him.
A particular scene stands out in the movie. When South Korean soldiers execute innocent Southern civilians. They were accused of being communists because during the North’s occupation they were only given food in return for attending meetings and writing their names on communist group lists. To hammer this home, the event kills one of the main characters, our hero’s fiance, Young-Shin. It also leads to his fall from grace of being a war hero, to being imprisoned by the exact same people who just 5 minutes earlier had given him medals. Being released in 2004, it was not long after Korea democratized and started not only admitting to but trying to reconcile with this horrific moment of their past. I have a personal story on that front from my time living in Ulsan.
I became friends with one of the elementary school teachers at the school I worked at, and I still visit her whenever I am in Korea. Her passion, like mine, is history. And one day in 2016 I accompanied her, some students, and their parents on a personal history tour of Kanazawa. Having seen the recreation of the old city hall, we walked past a major library named Jung-gu library. Underneath was a normal-looking parking lot. I walked past these parking entrances every day in Korea. But I was told that in that parking lot over 200 people were murdered. Naturally, I asked my friend if it was by the North Korean soldiers. They said no; it was the South. It was unexpected and quite a shock to hear of this event, and its location. I researched more and found out about the events of the Ulsan massacre. In fact, over 400 were killed. I also wondered how many Koreans even knew about this event when walking past this place or parking their cars in there every day. So seeing it being tackled head-on in such an emotional and raw scene was not only heartbreaking, but essential viewing when trying to fully understand what took place and what people went through. Watching this scene brought me right back to that library’s parking lot and made me wonder just how many people lost their lives this way.
The emotional rollercoaster comes to a head as the once hero of the South becomes a brainwashed heroic soldier for the North. While they are clearly attempting to portray the Northern soldiers as more senseless than the South, they spare no efforts in showing how Jin-Tae ended up captured by the North. Due to evil acts and betrayal by Southern soldiers. He only snaps out of the brainwashing when reunited with his brother in the battle and ends up sacrificing himself to save Jin-Seok.
Then begins the most emotional part of the movie that had me crying during my lunch break. I knew it was coming; I didn’t cry the first time I watched it, but the reality of the scene hits hard. We fade into modern-day, where the now old Jin-Seok is looking down on his brother’s skeleton in the same position he left him in. It is so raw because these scenes had truly been happening since the war ended and continue to happen even today. At museums such as the Korean War Memorial, you can see replicas of some skeletal remains of soldiers and you can visit graves such as the UN Cemetery in Busan. Perhaps all of this hit me all at once. It plays out a little like the end scene of Saving Private Ryan except the brotherly connection and the journey they went on throughout the movie adds so much more weight.
I hope I have convinced you to watch what I regard as one of the finest war movies ever made. If you wish to watch it you are in luck as the whole movie can be found on Youtube with English subtitles. Though I recommend renting it on DVD or another method as the quality is not great on Youtube. I have talked a lot about what happens in the movie, but in truth, it is only a snippet, and is more than worth spending the time and emotion watching!
And here is the link to the full movie on YouTube, though again I recommend buying or renting it:
Michael is an avid writer and historian. Since leaving South Korea, he has furthered his studies and completed a Master’s degree in East Asian history with a focus on Korean and Japanese historical relations.
” Korean Cultural popularity is at an all-time high and continues to increase. As a historian and writer, I hope to bring more attention to Korean history.”- Micheal Judd 2020.