Jonathan Brun

Taegukgi, Film, Civil War and the Human Mind

Tae Guk Gi is an epic Korean War movie that I believe is one of the greatest war movies ever. It tells the story of two brothers who are sent off to the Korean War. The older brother takes the riskiest missions available in the vain hope that he will be able to send his younger brother home. The war destroys their family and their country. This film is one of the goriest war movies I have seen and a large portion of it is devoted to battle scenes. This begs the question, how much violence in a war movie is too much and how much is too little.

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A war movie is a war movie because it concerns war. Despite the obvious redundancy of that comment, there is little doubt that battle should be the main thrust of the film, but we must concern ourselves with two aspects of the depictions of battle scenes: 1. Their length vis-à-vis the film’s length and 2. Their depth, meaning the goriness and proximity to a true battle scene. I firmly believe that both elements must be adhered to to the point of the audience thinking it may be slightly too much. If there is any hope of conveying the horrors of war to a popcorn munching audience, the audience must at the very least be made to feel uncomfortable. If the battle scenes are too ‘light’ then the audience may come across with a sugar coated version of the front lines. At the same time, overly gruesome scenes can turn an audience off the more human aspects of war – broken minds, broken families and broken lives.

The next thing that this film does, which I believe is very important, is its presentation of the war for what it was: a terrible civil war backed by foreign powers. Fighting on home soil is something that all North Americans and some Europeans are out of touch with. I have always maintained that it is entirely different to send your armies off to a foreign land as opposed to having the mortars and bullets landing near your childhood home. In civil war, it is the civilians who suffer the most. Families are torn apart, homes are destroyed and friends turn on each other. This film is probably the first one that really shows a civil war.

After watching it for a second time, there is an important scene at the beginning, which foreshadows all that is to come. The soon-to-be wife of one of the brothers shows a bag of barley, which she obtained at a communist rally. She states that it is impossible to get good food and that “she would kill for food like this”. That’s what civil war is. Rarely is it about political ideology or great injustice, more often than not, people switch sides, turn on neighbors and commit unthinkable crimes for food and land. Ideologies and racial tension are the symptoms of resource shortages, not the other way around. A closer look at Rwanda, Sudan, and other conflicts often demonstrate how a few evil people take advantage of a weakened country to manipulate it to their ends.

Another main reason that this film remains so powerful is due to its two main characters. The film revolves around their love and hate for each other. The human mind cannot conceptualize large-scale events very well. We cannot imagine the size of the planet, the atmosphere, the universe, war or genocide. Of course, when we are told for the first time that six million Jews were gazed by the Nazis, we sit back and realize what evil humanity is capable of. However, try and imagine six million unique faces, their families, their fear and innocence and we simply draw a blank. Just as computers have technical limitations, so too does the human brain. We have a limited capacity to imagine and place unique items. Numerous studies confirm this truth; notably, the vast majority of the population can only place six musical tones in order, above six tones, we begin to mess them up and cannot properly arrange them.

This of course does not apply to the musically inclined, but it does apply to most people. On the same note, the majority of the population has difficulty seeing large events on their full scale. For that reason, a story that follows the plight of one person or a single family is much more powerful than a documentary about the entire conflict. On a personal level, I was much more deeply touched when I visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam than when I visited the concentration camps in Germany. This film conveys to the full extent the sacrifices that one family member makes to the other in the context of a large conflict and the consequent destruction of his humanity.

One last point that is worthy to be retained from this film is how far we, and the Koreans, have come. In a little of fifty years, South Korea has become a top technological and economic power. The atrocities of this war are unthinkable to today’s youth and we should be thankful for our ignorance. War is perhaps the worst aspect of humanity’s power and must be avoided. Appeasement is not the solution, but education, communication and cooperation is. Communist China has become an international powerhouse out of its own will, full-blow war was not needed to destroy Soviet Russia, India slowly developed its own potential, South Korea is exactly the same geographic dimensions as before the war and the few African countries that are doing okay are the ones which were not privy to colonialism or foreign aid. Political change can only be brought about from the inside and foreign intervention has never worked. For that reason, the Iraq war cannot and will not be brought to a promising conclusion anytime soon. The people of the country are the ones with the keys to success and no foreign power, no matter their might, can overcome that.

This film remains very important because it demonstrates the particular atrocities of a civil war from the perspective of the people who lived it, not the foreign saviors or criminals.

Published on July 3, 2006