The first moments of war on screen in Tae Guk Gi show bodies of dead soldiers being burned on a hill, another with his jaw completely torn off, and countless other injuries of staggering horror as two brothers walk through the trenches. This is before a bullet is even fired.
Once the action begins, the untrained South Korean soldiers accidentally discharge their weapons on their own squad-mates, fire rocket launchers incorrectly blowing themselves up, and make the unfortunate decision to let a 15-year old North Korean live in the midst of battle. Tae Guk Gi is unrelenting in its action. Explosions happens when none are expected, one edit suddenly puts the film in another sequence of intense war, and the amount of bodies scattering across the frame is unnerving.
The scale of the film is outstanding, yet remains focused on the family unit. Two brothers, Jin-Seok (Bin Won) and Jin-Tae (Dong-gun Jang) are inadvertently drafted into the Korean war, their character arcs drastically different and incredibly emotional. Tae Guk Gi does not shy away from any aspect of war, from that deep brotherly bond to the effects on the civilian population. You get the feeling of South Korea destroying itself as the war efforts become desperate, the declension amongst the troops great and the general population entering into mass executions with fears of spreading communism.
The multiple and always epic battle scenes are varied, taking place in a diverse selection of environments and times of day. A graphic melee brawl in the trenches during a sneak attack by the South Koreans is raw, vicious, and disturbingly violent. The film has flourishes, those somewhat “Hollywood” touches that tend to strain credibility, but have a story basis. Jin-tae is fighting for his brothers safe return, turning almost suicidal, sheer luck keeping him alive as he darts in the path of multiple machine guns fired by the enemy.
Where Tae Guk Gi leads is a dark, tragic path. The mental strain on the soldiers, near starvation and constantly forced to be on the move becomes too much. Jin-tae’s mental status deteriorates, leaving the film on a soul-crushing, emotional note that is directed to absolute perfection by Je-gyu Kang. If Saving Private Ryan ruined your day, Tae Guk Gi ruins your month. It is a memory that will not leave you, a film so touching yet horrific, its emotional drain is unforgettable. This is a sweeping drama that is both solitary and broad in focus, the best war film ever made about the tragedy and heartbreak conflict causes.
This import Blu-ray release comes from KD Media in a 1080i AVC encode, one unfortunately bit rate starved. While this does reach into the low 30 Mbps range, this transfer routinely finds itself in the single digits, and the results of that compression are blatantly evident on screen. A general layer of artifacting exists over almost every frame of the film, worse in areas of smoke or fog (watch in the background around 13:00). A search through a village at 1:16:00 carries a distinctly smooth look, robbing the visuals of their full impact. You can pick up on some limited smearing at 12:40, another artifact of this encode and likely its 1080i presentation.
Intentional noise, adding during a few scenes including the bunker struggle at 53:20, is not handled well. The weak encode adds to the noise in an unnatural way, causing it to stand out. Mid-range shots are robbed of their detail and definition. The dominate softness is a disappointment, leaving those extreme close-ups the only sources of distinct facial detail. Scenes at 3:49 and 1:32:25 exhibit high fidelity texture, some of the few shots that do. Grain is rarely notable or seen, the encode eliminating it from the frame.
Tae Guk Gi carries a number of distinct color palettes, from the bright and saturated modern day book-end sequences to the nearly completely faded battle scenes. Black levels hold regardless, delivering a finely rendered image that never distracts due to inconsistency. Contrast is likewise firm, adding to the intensity of the many explosions scattered throughout the film.
The opening scenes of the movie, shot on a dig site, are the best video moments on the disc. The dirt and remnants of the battlefield being dug up are fantastically defined, giving the viewer a bit of a false impression considering what is coming. That’s a shame.
A Korean DTS-HD (and Dolby Digital option) seems to suffer the same fate as the video, although on a lesser scale. The opening moments of the film contain a beautiful theme that runs throughout the film, but it suffers from a strained, treble-heavy quality. The music tends to run hot and slightly noisy on the high end, sadly ruining a bit of the impact on those crucial moments. The ending, where it matters the most, also falters, losing fidelity and ever-so-slightly taking away the impact.
The same goes for the explosions and action. A bunker explosion at 54:45 lacks any punch on the low-end, and the highs lack clarity. Gunfire can sound hollow with a few exceptions, one being a shoot-out in an open field at 38-minutes.
What this mix does well is remain aggressive. The intense amount of surround use is spectacular, if at times a bit overdone. This is a mix that loves to throw dirt around, picked up by the various grenades strewn about. Debris cleanly passes over the viewer, landing in the rears, although a bit louder than anything in the front. Everything tracks well, including chants on a train at 21:55. Fronts are well split, tracing motion accurately, especially apparent during an air assault at 2:06:50.
There are two commentary tracks on the disc, one with the director and crew, the other with the director and cast. Neither of them are subtitled, unlike the film itself which contains English subtitles with few errors. A low quality trailer is also on the disc. This is Region free, so it is import safe.