Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War (Kang Je-gyu, 2004) and the War Memorial of Korea — A Premise

“You have to give to your country before asking for something.” — Commander, Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War

“Freedom is not free.”/"자유는 거저 주어지지 않는다"/"자유는 거저 주어지는 것이 아니다" — The War Memorial of Korea

Scene 1

The film Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War (Kang Je-gyu, 2004) begins with the Korean War Excavation Task Unit (6.25참전용사 유해발굴사업단) as they carefully excavate bodies from a battlefield from the Korean War. The film begins with the dead — literally. The first shot of the film is that of darkness and then the darkness is brushed away by members of the excavation task unit. The next shot then reveals taht these excavation task unit members are uncovering bodies, objects, and weapons. For the first few seconds of the film, we, the viewers, take the place of the dead and as the dead are unveiled, the viewers are also entering into the story of the film and thus, we undergo our own re-discovery/re-covery/re-memory of the Korean War.

Figure 1: First Shot of Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War. Screenshot taken by author.

The film, beginning from the first-person perspective of the skeletons, then moves to the excavation task unit as they carefully brush the dirt off of the bones and place the bones and objects (guns, canteens, helmets, etc.) into different cases based on the category of item. The bodies are then placed in caskets draped with the taegukgi — the South Korean national flag — and the excavation task units salute the caskets under a banner labeled “Memorial Site for souls of the Korean War” (6.25 전사자 분향소).

Figure 2: Soldiers draping taegukgi over casket. Screenshot taken by author.

Setting itself apart from other popular South Korean films about the Korean War, Taegukgi presents the Korean War as flashback, as the film opens with the present day and specifically, with a commemoration ceremony.

Scene 1 (Revisited)

As I exited through the subway and walk along the walls that lead to the War Memorial of Korea, I notice the barbed wire and wonder what military apparatus or hidden fortress are behind those walls. These thoughts are soon forgotten though once I notice the main signaling icon of the War Memorial of Korea — the tall green and gold phallic statue that rises into the sky. I know that I have arrived.

I am soon distracted though — I am confronted with another statue that takes my attention away from me and that srikes me as familar. The Statue of Brothers looms large and I am drawn to it. This is my first encounter with the War Memorial of Korea.

Figure 3: Statue of Brothers at the War Memorial of Korea. Photo taken by author.

Another encounter begins when I enter the museum itself and specifically, its Korean War exhibition halls. Korean War Exhibition Hall I begins with a film that sets up the historical background of the Korean War, providing the overarching narrative and rhetoric for the remaining exhibits to come.

Most notably, the introductory exhibit video mirrors the beginning of Taegukgi — after presenting an overview of the Korean War, its ends with a 3D rendering of the UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan and 3D rain that splashes over the graves. This scene then cuts to video of what appears to be similar Korean War Excavation Task Units that are protrayed at the beginning of the film Taegukgi. The screen fades and the phrase “Freedom is not free”/“자유는 거저 주어지지 않는다" appears on the screen. After the floor is over, the floor lights up, revealing an open-view floor that is a replica of the excavation site, replete with bones and objects. This model presents another story of brothers as the exhibition plate reads: “The recovery site of the late Sergeant Lee’s remains is reconstructed under the floor.” These “remains were buried next to his brother’s in June 2011. The two brothers were reunited after 60 years.”

Another beginning with skeletons and the discovery of dead bodies. If one were to read the Korean exhibits at the War Memorial as text, then it can be argued that both Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War and the Korean War Exhibition Hall begins with the same premise — that of recovery, of rememory, and of reentering the past through the bodies of the dead.

Figure 4: Still from Introductory Video in Korean War Exhibition Hall I. Photo taken by author.
Figure 5: The floor lights up to reveal the body of the dead underneath. “Freedom is not free” is literally reflected onto the skeleton, driving home the emphasis on the sacrifices of Korean War veterans. Photo taken by author.

My research, throughout this year, is to examine these representations of the Korean War through looking at films, memorials, and museums. What can the dead tell us and which voices/narratives are privileged/left out of the stories told on film and in exhibition texts?

Like what you read? Give Kristen Sun a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.