The Korean War is often referred to as "The Forgotten War". Certainly it has not really seeped into Western consciousness in the way that the two world wars, the Vietnam War and now the Iraq War have. Don’t expect this film to change that. Though set in the Korean War it offers little insight into the conflict, eschewing any political perspective. Instead it presents a full-blown melodrama clearly geared to its principal Korean audience, an audience already well-versed in the cold war politics behind the war. With plenty of bloody war action for male viewers and two handsome, heroic and yet sensitive male lead characters for the ladies in the audience, it’s an unashamed blockbuster that broke all box office records in Korea and is the most highly funded film in Korean cinema history. But for all that it’s really not very good.
The film focuses on the relationship between two brothers Jin-Tae (Jang Dong-gun) and Jin-Seok (Won Bin). Elder brother Jin-Tae is a handsome, self-sacrificing shoeshine boy who works so that his younger, pretty, sensitive brother Jin-Seok can study and go to university. He is also set to marry Young-shin (Lee Eun-joo). It’s all totally rhapsodic. Everyone is constantly smiling, buying each other ice-creams, chasing each other down the street and playing in the local stream. Just before you think you are about to vomit war breaks out to shatter this romantic idyll. The family tries to escape to the south to avoid the fighting but as young Korean men are rapidly all conscripted, before long the brothers are tricked into the South Korean army and sent to the front line.
Ever the dutiful elder brother, Jin-tae realises that the only way to keep his delicate younger brother safe is to excel in battle with a series of daredevil, bullet-dodging escapades whereby his bravery will earn a medal that in turn will mean his brother can be discharged. It’s an ultimately erroneous belief, with significant consequences for the plot, but Jin-Seok is also none too pleased with this arrangement. Both men become increasingly brutalised by the war, in particular Jin-Tae, whose cruelty to the enemy only serves to harden his brother’s heart. This is compounded when love interest Young-shin is executed, conveniently in front of the two brothers, for allegedly being a communist with Jin-Tae then ending up fighting for the communists himself, leading to a final climactic confrontation with his brother.
For all its plot twists the film is predictable with a sentimental script. The action is gripping but very bloody and throughout you never quite believe you are doing anything other than watching a well-orchestrated movie. The battle special effects are ostentatiously impressive rather than genuinely frightening and the moments of blood and gore may be realistic but often feel gratuitous. The music design is atrocious with swelling strings at key emotional moments worthy of the worst made-for-TV film. As a modern war film it comes nowhere near the likes of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down or Terrence Malik’s The Thin Red Line and even makes Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan seem subtle and sophisticated. But we are not really the intended audience here. This is a film for young Koreans, an audience segment that director Kang Jeg-yu clearly understands well, having already directed the smash hit thriller, Shiri.
This is about the impact of a war on an ordinary family: a family that shows all the proper Confucian qualities of duty, diligence and self-sacrifice. It removes deliberately all ideological debate from the war and posits that, for most Korean families, it was simply a case of fighting because they had to – either because they had been conscripted or because it was the only way to get fed. No doubt this was mostly true. Of the nearly 5 million killed in the war it’s difficult to imagine that any but a small minority was fired up by ideological zeal. But actually it makes for quite a bland film. It holds true to the Korean belief that no matter what side of the conflict people were, they were still the same Korean families underneath. Again, it’s difficult to argue with that but it doesn’t tell us anything new. War is awful and destroys lives in many horrendous ways but it always happens for a reason. The fact that the Korean peninsula is still divided over 50 years after the armistice is evidence enough of that.
Korean film has been something of a revelation in recent years, not least with the likes of Oldboy and Sympathy with Mr Vengeance. But watchable though this film is, it’s also instantly forgettable. An unfortunate and ironic tribute to a forgotten war.