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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, September 3, 2004

'Tae Guk Gi' buzz

 •  Director shows human aspect of war

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

If Charlie Park has to miss a night of his favorite Korean TV dramas, there had better be a good reason.

Won Bin, Lee Eun-joo and Jang Dong-gun play the key figures in director Kang Je-gyu's "Tae Guk Gi," set during the Korean War. The movie was wildly popular in South Korea and drew lots of attention at the Louis Vuitton Hawai'i International Film Festival on Tuesday.

Destination Films/Samuel Goldwyn Films photo

A sneak preview of "Tae Guk Gi," a new South Korean film that has become the largest-grossing film in that country's history, is a pretty good reason.

Park was one of about 200 people to attend the special screening, the first in a series of Tuesday-night offerings by the Louis Vuitton Hawai'i International Film Festival.

"I was coming home from golf when I heard about (the screening) on the radio," said Park, 75.

A few hours later, Park and his wife, Helen, both film-festival members, were sitting front and center at one of the most anticipated premieres of the year.

"I'm missing (the soap) 'Hearts in Bali,' " Park said. "But that's O.K. This is worth it."

"Tae Guk Gi," a big-budget, big-return war drama from critically acclaimed director Kang Je-gyu, attracted 12 million viewers in a record-shattering six-week run in South Korea during the summer. It was also one of the top summer films in Japan and other Asian markets.

The film was originally supposed to debut at the festival next month, but Sony Pictures moved up its U.S. release to today to get a head start on the film's DVD release later this month.

Thanks to the blooming popularity of Korean programming on local TV station KBFD, excitement about "Tae Guk Gi" has been running high for weeks in Hawai'i.

Community leader Jennifer Kim said she was inundated with calls asking for extra passes to the festival premiere. Callers to her radio show have been buzzing with queries about the film.

"It's been very exciting," Kim said. "A lot of people have heard about it. If it were out on DVD already, people would be running to the stores to get it."

Beatrice Arakaki, 76, of Hawai'i Kai, wasn't exactly sure what to expect from "Tae Guk Gi" when she came to the premiere on Tuesday, but years of watching Korean drama on KBFD had her feeling pretty confident that the film would be worthwhile.

"I watch all of them," Arakaki said of the nighttime TV dramas.

"I'm Japanese, but I think the storylines from the Korean shows are so much better than the Japanese ones. I'm addicted."

"Tae Guk Gi" is about two brothers swept up in the early days of the Korean War. The older brother, Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun) shined shoes to support his family and to help keep his younger brother, Jin-seok (Won Bin) in school.

When both are forced to serve in the South Korean army, Jin-tae commits himself to earning a medal of honor, a decoration he believes will give him the clout to have his brother sent home.

The film has been compared to "Saving Private Ryan," both in plot and in its horrific, unblinking violence.

Yet, the themes in "Tae Guk Gi" run deeper, and darker.

In Jin-tae, the seduction of heroism is as corruptive as the brutality of war.

As the film hurtles toward its bloody conclusion, the lines between right and wrong, good guys and bad guys are erased, and the resulting sense of chaos and moral disorder is devastating.

At Harry's Cafe on Waimanu Street, where the TV is always tuned to KBFD, employee Anna Hong said people in the Korean community were abuzz about the film.

"It's the first big Korean movie to open (in the United States) in a while," she said. "I read about it before. I looked at previews on the Internet.

And while Hong said she wasn't sure how the movie would play to U.S. audiences, given the divisions over the war in Iraq and the coming presidential election, she was certain of one thing.

"The actors are good," she said. "And Jang Dong-gun is very handsome."

Paul Ventura and his buddy Art Elefante are planning to see the film tonight.

Both are longtime fans of Korean TV drama — though they admit that they were hooked first by the attractive female leads, and only later by the characters and storylines — and both see in in the success of "Tae Guk Gi" a sort of renaissance of Korean cinema.

"My interest in Korean productions is at an all-time high,"said Elefante, a defense contractor who is in the process of moving to South Korea. "Recent film releases out of Korea are good and, in my opinion, getting better."

Ventura said "Tae Guk Gi" could find a niche.

"I think that with enough word of mouth over the long weekend, and considering the success of the Chinese martial-arts film 'Hero' last week, 'Tae Guk Gi' might do pretty well, at least in Hawai'i.

"Heck, I'd go for a Japanese, South Korean, or Chinese film release instead of some of these cookie-cutter Hollywood releases each week," Ventura said.

Ventura said it's encouraging that major American studios are distributing films like "Hero" and "Tae Guk Gi" — films that tell unique and compelling stories.

Ventura points to one of Kang's earlier works, "Shiri," as an example of how powerful films can result when a story told from a unique cultural perspective is made with Western film production standards.

"The action scenes are Hollywood-quality, make no mistake, but the overall subject (the divide between North and South Korea) is a sensitive one that Hollywood might have to 'translate' if they were to adapt it," he said.

Jeff Chung, general manager of KBFD and vice president of the festival board, said people who haven't been paying attention to Korean cinema will be happily enlightened by "Tae Guk Gi."

"I think people will realize how the quality of Korean movie production has been taken to another level," he said.