Brotherhood of War was the highest grossing film ever in Korea at the time of release and it is easy to see why. It’s is big. It has battle scenes of visceral intensity to rival Saving Private Ryan, soaring orchestral strings and seething crowd scenes that make Gone with the Wind look like an amateur, suburban theatre production. Even the steam coming off an idling locomotive looks epic.
The core of the film is the relationship of two brothers, Jin-tae and Jin-seok, press-ganged into service against the advancing Communist Army. With early scenes showing the brothers’ carefree life in Seoul, you just know that things are going to get ugly. And believe me they do. Brotherhood contains lots of explosions, visceral dismemberment and dying – pretty much in that order.
The older brother, Jin-tae, sets about getting his brother sent home. However, his methods bring him a little too close to the abyss, much to the disgust of his younger brother.
Jang Dong-geon (The Coast Guard) is outstanding as the older brother, Jin-tae, whose sacrifices for his younger sibling are corrupted by war. Call me old school, but he has all the bearing, charisma (and haircut) of a young Chow Yun Fat circa A Better Tomorrow. His brother, Jin-seok, is played by a somewhat blank-faced Won Bin. However, one can easily mark this down as a valid response to the horrors of war and his brother’s increasingly monstrous behaviour.
Writer-director Kang Je-gyu (Shiri) has created a visually stunning work. He uses the kind of desaturated tones and documentary, hand-held style work seen in Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down to show every clod of dirt thrown up by each explosion in extreme relief. He effectively uses the passing of the seasons from a parched summer, to monsoonal rain, to snow, to accentuate the soldiers’ hardship.
Unfortunately, in an attempt to set up a big finale, Brotherhood stumbles across the line into clumsy melodrama. It’s somewhat disappointing, as up until this point the film had developed a number of interesting themes, including the fact that political ideology is very low on the combatants’ list of reasons for fighting.
Brotherhood is truly a must see experience. Its production values rival anything Hollywood has to offer and it’s fascinating to see a Hollywood sensibility filtered through a Korean film. Brotherhood’s byline is, ‘15,000 bullets, 3000 extras, 500 stunt experts’. And believe me, you see every one.