Lest We Forget: Taegukgi Movie Review

A movie review on the Korean movie “Taegukgi” about the Korean War

Ashley Park, Body Copy Editor

Trigger Warning: descriptions of murder, blood, injuries of soldiers from battle, R-rated movie

War is a lit match. Starting as a small flame, a slip of the hand can burn forests down to ash. Much like the characteristics of war, fire destroys everything in its path, yet salvages and rekindles the hope and compassion we have in our hearts. Though movies will never be able to capture the essence of the bloodshed, it sets a similar spark of emotions off inside, allowing us to connect to the film.

This past Saturday, June 25 was the 72nd anniversary of the start of the Korean War. The Korean War was fought between North and South Korea from 1950 to 1953, in an effort to unify the once united nations as well as political ideologies. China and the Soviet Union supported North Korea, and South Korea was supported by the United Nations, including 21 countries, most notably the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. The Korean War never officially ended as there was no peace treaty signed, leaving the two countries frozen in conflict.

In remembrance of this event, I watched a Korean movie revolving around the tragedies of the war. Directed by Je-kyu Kang, “Taegukgi” was released in 2004 and follows the story of two brothers who were conscripted into the South Korean military. However, the younger brother, Jin-seok, is a high school student. Because of this, Jin-tae, the older brother, is willing to do anything to allow his brother to be discharged and return home, including sacrificing himself. As time goes on, Jin-seok watches in horror as his brother slowly transitions into a cold-blooded killer. Jin-seok was played by Won Bin, a popular Korean actor, known nationwide despite the lack of film releases in the past decade. Jin-tae was played by Dong-gun Jang, one of the highest-paid and veteran actors of South Korea since the early 90s, loved by many in Eastern Asia. This film was released at the peaks of both the actors’ careers, making it one of the most legendary movies released by Kang, grossing nearly ₩64.8 billion in South Korea, $1.1 million in the United States, and $68.7 million worldwide. The title of this film, “Taegukgi”, holds significance because the flag of the once united Korea was the Taegukgi, which is currently the official flag of South Korea. This ties back to the unsuccessful attempt to reunite the separated nations that occurred in the Korean War.

The movie starts with an older Jin-seok but no Jin-tae, so when the scenes shift from 2003(present time) to 1950, the audience can assume that there was an unfortunate event that separated the two brothers. Because Jin-tae needed Jin-seok to get discharged, he did everything you probably should not do on the battlefield. Most notably, running head-on towards his enemies, although he miraculously does not get shot by the machine guns or the grenades going off. He took every single opportunity he could to become a hero. Knowing that Jin-tae was not with Jin-seok in the present time made these scenes a lot more suspenseful and anxiety-inducing because Jin-tae was always at high risk of dying. Many may believe that knowing Jin-tae’s anticipated death may take away from the film. I would argue that within the violence, there was a heartfelt portrayal of how people would lay down their own lives to protect their families, showing Jin-tae starting as a recruit to becoming a sergeant. However, this does not take away from the fact that Jin-tae being invincible and flying through the rankings was unrealistic.

Though the main plot revolves around the brothers, the film was about more than just their relationship, but how the war affected the soldiers. In the middle of the story, the troops come across a village that the North Korean soldiers had massacred, not leaving a single living soul behind, including children. However, this village turned out to be a trap, as the North Korean soldiers started attacking without warning. At first, the North Korean soldiers seemed to have the upper hand. They were soon overwhelmed with terror as the fury-driven South Korean soldiers brutally slaughtered every soldier in the most torturous ways possible. The North Korean soldiers were begging, pleading for mercy. People were thrown into fires and restrained to ensure a slow and painful death. Young recruits screaming for their lives are rounded up and shot to death. Jin-tae and Jin-seok were not innocent of these horrific events, as they participated in the brutality. The pure insanity and anger in the eyes of these soldiers were terrifying to witness, especially alongside the screams of terror from the North Korean soldiers. I found it interesting how a South Korean movie showed the reality of the barbarity and savagery that both sides inflicted on one another, which made the audience question: Who were the real villains of this war?

While watching the film, there were many scenes that I couldn’t bring myself to watch or listen to. The battles were horrific. I walked into this thinking I could handle the blood and gore. I couldn’t. I can watch surgeries, dissect animals and watch all the fight scenes in modern action films, but I still couldn’t handle the violence of war. It was completely different from what I had expected. Even though the visual effects weren’t well done because it was before significant advancements in technology, hearing the screams and cries of the injured soldiers was hard to listen to. It’s almost impossible to describe how genuine they sounded, how traumatizing it was to listen. I felt as if I were in the midst of combat, hearing comrades fall and screaming in pain. The injuries shown were extremely graphic and realistic. There was footage on top of footage that contained soldiers who had blown up, limbs blown off or bodies pinned up against the dirt with a bayonet. Nearly every scene contained gushing blood and terrified screams of younger recruits who were not too much older than I. The violence and cruelty of the battles were hard to watch, but as the movie progressed, a realization struck me: this wasn’t even a fraction of what the soldiers had experienced.

This movie was definitely a handful to process. It leaves the viewers contemplating the real meaning of war and whether it’s worth the costs of the lives of boys who’re no different from many of us. Though there were aspects of this movie that was painful to get through, I believe that the message transcends the blood and gore to be heard by the audience. However, I do not blindly recommend this film to everyone due to the high Motion Picture Association rating of R. Please take precautions and don’t watch this before you go to bed. Trust me on this. 

After years of listening to teachers and documentaries describe the horrific aspects of war, it was an eye-opening experience to be placed in the shoes of a soldier, fearing for their life. “Taegukgi” shows the true colors of humanity revealed through the violence and mercilessness of war. The film leaves the audience with a question: If I were in the face of death and destruction, would I let the fire of war burn with compassion and love or anger and hate?