Tae Guk Gi

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Mention a movie about the Korean War to Americans and they probably think of M*A*S*H.  But while the most expensive film out of Korea is about the Korean war -its not about the experience of the US Army but the hardships of Korean fighting men and the civilian population.   For the almost 200,000 Korean Americans living in the New York area -the film is opening a crucial chapter in their history. WNYC's Judith Kampfner reports.


A brother grips a brother by the throat. A once handsome athletic soldier has become a bestial killer.

Once he had tried to make a deal with his South Korean general. He would volunteer for every military challenge if his brother was kept out of the fighting. The general betrays him. He goes over to the North Korean side and the day comes when he encounters his brother in a battle.


Like Saving Private Ryan - the film Tae Guk Gi is fiction but it illuminates history. The brothers are a metaphor for a civil war which got caught in the Cold war and divided Korea into the communist north and democratic south.

The director Kang Je - gyu said he wanted to show the impact of a conflict in which it is estimated two million Koreans died.  

Kang Je gyu

Previous films always tired to portray who was right and who started the war but I tried to show the tragic and emotional side and how it reflected peoples' lives today. I think that's what made the film successful


I in every 3 South Koreans have seen the film - the audiences ranged from ages 10 to 70.  The actors are South Korean soap opera stars and one is popular singer. That was a draw for young cinema goers. By the time it hit neighborhood cinemas in America , the reviews from Korea and Japan ensured that this would be a must see film within the Korean American community. Student Adrian Hong thought his contemporaries would be go to see Korean history delivered in the accessible form of an action movie


Well I think it helps Korean Americans to first see their own identity within a context they can understand.. whey you see people in western dress fighting just like in Saving Private Ryan they identify better it brings it home.. it legitimizes their identity.

Laura Kim

I actually watched the movie with my parents


Laura Kim is a first generation Korean American aged 23 living in New Jersey .

Laura Kim:

I sat in the middle of both of them and intermittently, they would keep nudging me saying this is where our family fled - this village and this is where your uncle so and so was enlisted.


There's a scene early in the film where the older brother starts a fist fight with soldiers who are trying to conscript his brother.

There were many moments in Tae Guk Gi which brought back the past and verified history said Laura's mother Insook Kim.   


While I was watching this movie I remember my brother telling me about this story, he was 21, at the time. One day the town council called 1200 college students to the school yard and none of them knew what that was about and there were slogans and posters everywhere and so then they knew they have to go to war. And they were not even trained so then they walk miles and miles and march to the North.


For director Kang Je-gyu, telling the story of the forced conscription meant making the film without the cooperation of the South Korean military. The graphic nature of the movie,  the visual details of the terrible medical conditions, chaos and the inclusion of  South Korean atrocities  has   shocked many movie goers including  Insook Kin's brother, a war veteran in South Korea . 


 He saw it but he didn't like it - he said it was too violent, he didn't want to have a memory that South Korea was doing bad things to North Korea .


The film is also pointedly controversial because it opts to leave out American soldiers. John Kim Insook's husband says that's OK for his generation. He lived through General Mc Carthur's landing at Inchon . That turned the war around and drove the communist forces back to the 38 th parallel. But Kim says the film doesn't make that clear for young audiences which means he feels a need to fill in the details for his daughter.

John Kim

 Today's younger generation they don't know what that means - America helped Korea .


South Koreans began to emigrate to America after the war because of the political and economic connections between the countries with many people like John Kim arriving in the seventies. The Korean war shaped the history of the country he left behind country and his life.


I am in my fifties - this is my history.


He was moved by the film to reveal emotional wounds which he had kept hidden.

John Kim

After that movie I asked my daughter, how do you feel and she said Daddy I think it is sad. But I told her sad is not enough, there is much more, that movie hurt me, hurt me from deep inside.


Laura knew he had been born in North Korea .  What she now discovered was that he had left behind a huge extended family that he has had no contact with. 

John Kim

We want to see them but we cannot see them. To me it still continues up to today.. it continues - war.


I have always considered N Koreans as part of my people but this definitely brings it closer to home considering that they are blood.


 Before seeing the movie Laura was apolitical about Korea -now she is upset and alarmed about a divided Korea .

Laura Kim

It gave me a more personal interest and more reason to become more active in the search for reunification and in being more political.


 Laura went to her first meeting about human rights in North Korea . It was organized by students from Rutgers , not far from her father's bagel store in New Brunswick .

She was excited to discuss the movie with a shy young woman, Nan Hee Pyon who had recently defected from North Korea .   

Nan Hee Pyon

When I saw it - it was a heartbreaking movie. The thought kept coming to me that even the North Koreans who leave - the escapees - they have to live separated from their families


Max Han who runs a website for fellow New York Koreans said there is more political discussion now on his site.  He said the movie has brought out that he cannot ignore events on the Korean peninsula.

Max Han

 In the movie you get a good grasp of human emotions.. it is an unfortunate part of our history but it is something that has made me more empathetic to the Korean cause and making it more unified and making it the one country it once was.


Many people are writing in reviews of the film says Han and say they cried throughout the movie. Some like 22 year old Michelle Lee are shocked and angry that they were taught nothing about the Korean war at school or at home. She didn't want her parents to shield her.

Michelle Lee

I asked them why we had never discussed what had had happened. I guess that's just part of Korean culture - not really articulating the painful memories of the past.


Tae Guk Gi had the highest grossing opening weekend for a Korean film in America and is running in neighborhood theaters.  But the cultural impact goes beyond the movie house. By shaking up a collective memory it has prompted the sharing of personal stories and a re-evalution of Korean history.    


» Visit the film website

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