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Tai Guk Gi Director Reminds a New Generation of a Forgotten War

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The threat of weapons of mass destruction, ones that we definitely know exist, has raised the profile of North Korea, but the Korean peninsula remains a miniscule blip in the everyday consciousness of Americans. The TV series “M*A*S*H” raised American awareness, but it still is largely a forgotten war, even in South Korea.

Korean director Kang Je-gyu, whose “Tae Guk Gi” broke South Korean box office records, doesn’t want Koreans to forget.

Answering questions via email and through a translator, Kang commented, “I had a chance to watch a documentary about the Korean War and then I realized how badly forgotten the war was. The Korean War was a very unique civil war because at the end, it somehow developed into an international war, yet it’s forgotten.”

At the end of World War II in 1945, the US and the Soviet Union agreed to have two separate governments for North and South Korea to replace Japanese colonial rule. But on June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. UN troops joined the war and pushed the North Koreans back to the border of China. Then China entered the war; and in 1953, a truce divided North and South Korea at the 38th parallel.

Tae Guk Gi is the name of South Korea’s national flag. In Kang’s film, the tragedy of Korea is shown through the relationship between two brothers. The older brother, Jin-Tae (Jang Dong-Gun), works as a shoeshine to help put his younger brother, Jin-Seok (Won-Bin) through school. Their widowed mother runs a noodle shop along with Jin-Tai’s fiancÈe, Young-Shin (Lee Eun-Joo). When Jin-Seok is drafted, Jin-Tae joins to protect him.

“My initial intentions were not about sending out a message of anti-war or anything political,” Kang stated. “I just wanted to tell a story about how people are affected through a course of a war. I wanted to show [that] although war starts out by a few people’s decisions, people who struggle in the middle of it are not the ones who made the decisions, but people who don’t even know what they are fighting for. Parents, brothers and sisters and sons and daughters who have to sacrifice themselves for the thought and goals they are not very sure about. I think that’s the truth of a war for many people.”

But the 41-year-old Kang doesn’t draw parallels with the Gulf War.

“Iraq is experiencing quite a different situation from what Korea experienced. I think the Iraq situation is much more similar to Vietnam rather than Korea,” Kang wrote.

On North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il Kang wrote, “I don’t want to get too political on these kind of matters, but all I can say is that I don’t think any life should be sacrificed for the sake of countries’ international intervention.” If Kang seems a bit cagey, perhaps the chill comes from the reality of two Koreas. Kang wrote, “The fall of USSR ended the Cold War between the USSR and the USA. As far as the Korean peninsula is concerned, the war is still going on. We may not be shooting at each other physically, but North Korea is still the land we can’t go to.”

And while “M*A*S*H” may have been popular in America, Kang hasn’t seen either the movie or the television series. He did comment on the James Bond flick, “Die Another Day,” which proposed both a multi-national corporation and North Korea as new enemies. Kang wrote, “I think it’s [the movie’s portrayal of North Korea] definitely misleading because nobody really knows the real side of North Korea. What we know is just the tip of the iceberg. I suppose it may be the fault of North Korea for keeping their country closed to the outside world, but I think it’s quite dangerous making a story based only on limited information.”

Kang made his own 1999 espionage film, “Shiri,” about the ill-fated love affair between modern-day Korean enemy agents. “Tae Guk Gi,” however, casts a more critical eye toward the violence of war. Kang, whose father fought in the Korean War, might have portrayed North Korea more sympathetically than in “Die Another Day,” but he stated, “I don’t really think it was a notion of sympathy. What I portrayed is ‘truth’ as much as I knew at that time.”

As a result of the Korean War Kang feels that “what was driven by ideology now has formed two different political environments.” He explained that North Korea has strong ties with China while South Korea has strong ties with the US, “and these have resulted in a way of forming our culture in a great way. We’ve absorbed different types of culture, making us differ on the appearance as in the clothes we wear, food we eat, films we watch, etc.”

“Tae Guk Gi” hasn’t been shown in North Korea, but Kang feels its popularity in South Korea has given “an opportunity for many people to rethink the Korean War.” Now Americans can reflect on this forgotten war as well. Kang commented, “Other than some cultural differences shown on the film such as paying respect to elders and so on, I don’t think what’s shown on the screen is very ethnic of strongly culture based.”

For Kang, reunification is a definite possibility in the next decade, but as a director he still emphasized the personal over the political.

“I want many people to ask themselves after watching the movie how good they have been to their family.”

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