Taegukgi [Blu-ray]

(aka "Tae Guk Gi" or "Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War " or "Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo")

(Kang Je-Gyu, 2004)



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Review by Leonard Norwitz



Theatrical: Showbox & Kangjegyufilms

Blu-ray: KD Media (disc made in Japan)



Region: A

Runtime: 148 min

Chapters: 24

Size: 50 GB

Case: Standard Blu-ray case

Release date: June 20, 2008



Aspect ratio: 2.35:1

Resolution: 1080i

Video codec: AVC



Korean 5.1 DTS HD, Korean 5.1 DD



Korean, English, Japanese, none



• Actor's Commentary with the Director

• Staff's Commentary with the Director

• Theatrical Trailer



The Film:

Two major Korean films, The Host and Oldboy, have already been released on Blu-ray by Magnolia and Tartan Asia Extreme but, unless I am mistaken, Taegukgi and Welcome to Dongmakgol mark the first purely Asian efforts at Blu-ray for a Korean film. I took a look at them this week and compared them to their excellent 480i Region 3 incarnations. But before getting into the details, I want to warmly recommend both titles from KD Media, even if their transitions in every respect were not all that we might have hoped for, or expected. Both Taegukgi and Welcome to Dongmakgol take place during the Korean War and examine the effects of that war from the points of view of both sides of the conflict as well as the non-combatants. However, the tone of these films couldn't be much different from one another. Taegukgi is relentlessly gritty and gets grimmer as it proceeds. Despite its alternate title, The Brotherhood of War, Taegukgi should not be considered as a paean to the glory of war, or to the comraderie that is often depicted as emerging from it. Far from it. Welcome to Dongmakgol is a modern fairy tale and, in its way, still a powerful antiwar film.


Here's Kenneth Turan on the film: taken from his review in the L.A. Times, Sept. 3, 2004:

"If Americans think of the Korean War at all, it's often as a kind of half-forgotten placeholder between World War II and Vietnam, two armed struggles with much more active and vocal constituencies. In Korea itself, obviously, the view is very different.

For there was a Korean conflict before the U.S. and the U.N. got involved, and the war's aftereffects continue in a country where casualties were 10 times the American rate, a country that remains physically divided along ideological lines. But even given that, the extent to which Korea has embraced "Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War" has been a surprise. It's not only the box-office numbers that are noteworthy, with "Tae Guk Gi" surpassing all other contenders, including Hollywood behemoths like "Titanic," to be the No. 1 film in that country's history. What makes it of more than ordinary interest is also the way the film successfully combines audience-friendly sentimentality with absolutely grueling combat footage and an unexpected but unmistakable hostility toward the entire notion of war. . .


Perhaps the most interesting aspect of "Tae Guk Gi" is the impact all this has on the brothers. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we see the inevitable changes carnage makes in personality. Though older brother Jin-Tae is sincere in his desire to win medals to get his sibling home, we also see the blood lust rise in him, see him getting consumed body and soul by the butchery until killing becomes an end in itself.

Younger brother Jin-Seok goes through an equally compelling transformation, going from idealizing his brother to resenting his zeal for blood and glory to coming to share it himself. War, finally, is shown to be a kind of ultimate drug that allows people to act in ways that can't be forgiven. With killing as an end in itself, combatants lose sight of what they were supposed to be taking up arms for in the first place. It's a terrible lesson, and one that "Tae Guk Gi" teaches with unexpected confidence."      - KT (L.A. Times)

Excerpt of review from L.A. Times located HERE


Image: 6.5/8
The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray DVDs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVDs, including SD 480i.

NOTE: This transfer is 1080i

The movie as seen in the theatre moves from naturalistic photography, such as the opening scene where modern "archeologists" uncover the battle sites from the war in order to gather effects and remains and obtain a clearer picture of who was involved and to inform the families about their missing loved ones, to a deliberately antiqued look in towns and villages around 1950, to the grit of combat. It would be a mistake to think the variations in contrast and color are mistakes that should be corrected on video. That said, especially in the early scenes of civilian life where much of the color is drained away leaving an overexposed print, like an old photograph, the transfer to Blu-ray captures the intent of the director, even though it could hardly be viewed a of demonstration material for your high definition system. Battle scenes are another matter entirely: sometimes lit by the stars or by explosions; at times the color is monochromatic, like mud; sometimes the image is crisp, at other times, murky with smoke. It's a war, after all.



I have included comparative crops of full resolution captures of the same frame from the blu-ray and 480i that show the extent to which greater resolution allows us to see into the picture. It's not just that we can see more and see it more clearly, but that the experience is less fatiguing as a result.

KD Media's 480i 3-disc SD spread the movie's 148 minutes over two discs, maintaining a high bit rate throughout. Others have reported some edge enhancement on the SD, but I don't see that on the 3 disc set. As expected, given that KD Media prepared both the SD and the BRD, the new disc is much the same in color, but offers more density to the too translucent, overexposed frames and more bite to the scenes of battle. The blacks are deeper without sacrificing detail where appropriate. Skin texture is more palpable, though there wasn't much to complexions in the SD to start with. In comparison to the SD, though I believe I observe in the Blu-ray a certain amount of noise/grain reduction that sometimes gives a hint of waxiness to faces. And all this with bit rates that wander all over the map from below 10 (truly!) to the mid 30's, often at the lower end.



Zoomed-in: SD TOP , Blu-ray BOTTOM




 More Blu-ray captures












Audio & Music: 6/8
You would think that Taegukgi would benefit from an uncompressed audio track and give this video a leg up toward realism. I found it not so. The DTS HD mix comes off curiously flat, the dialogue often lacking focus. Except for the surrounding presence of ordinance and city noises like passing busses and the like, the channel mix on the SD has more punch – at least when heard through my, admittedly, better D/A conversion. The music score by Lee Dong Jun (Shiri) is strongly derivative of similarly themed Western films - James Horner's Glory came immediately to mind – effective and heartfelt, if not particularly original.

Operations: 9
I very much like the menu backgrounds on this Blu-ray and the easy navigation it presents to us. And we get right to them after only a brief acknowledgement of a few seconds to KD Media.

Subtitles: 7
Despite that the subtitles are clearer and crisper on the Blu-ray, as they always are, they appear in the frame, rather than under it. Not my preference, at all. At least they are smaller and less obtrusive than on KD Media's own SD. Checking several scenes for both the BRD and the SD, the translations appear to be identical. I never took issue with the SD in this regard, so ditto for the Blu-ray.



Extras: 3
The big disappointment is that there are no Special Features with English subtitles. There are two audio commentaries, but, alas, no subs. I suspect there may an English-friendly edition in high definition someday – after all, Taegukgi is an important movie. But, for now – bupkis, for us non Korean-speakers. There were extras on KD Media's stunning 3-disc DVD box set – which, by no small way, makes me wonder once again if we will ever see the kind of box presentations that SD DVD offers on occasion, and which the Koreans have been particularly good at – which were, of course, all in Korean without subtitles as well. However, if you want to see them in English, you can always rent the bonus feature disc of the Columbia Tristar release of the movie.



Bottom line: 8
I haven't much to add to Mr. Turan's review and perspective on the film, war and Korea's history. I did, however, find that the reliance on hand-held camera work to have something of mixed results for me. While this faux-combat documentary technique certainly coveys a sense of confusion and anarchy, it also feels like the sort effect used for its own sake, much as cinematographers did with the zoom lens in the early 1970s, like a newfound toy. This, and the impression of dropped frames to speed up action on occasion, were effects that, for me, marred an otherwise compelling experience.

Taegukgi is a dynamite, moving experience, not to be missed. Despite its mediocre audio track and the absence of bonus features on this Blu-ray, if you don't already own this movie on DVD, you owe it to yourself to see it. The upgrade is really better than I make it out to be, and it is likely that your experience of the audio will not be as questionable as mine for the reasons stated above. Warmly recommended.


Leonard Norwitz
July 20th, 2008



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