Thicker than water – I had thought that maybe I would write a journal entry sometime this weekend, and I was debating about what to take as my subject. I had a fascinating dream last weekend, and I’ve also been thinking a lot about translation lately (surprise), so it was either going to be a dream analysis or yet another discussion of translation. This was all before I went out with my wife on Friday morning to see a movie.
The movie that we had planned on seeing was called Silmido, and from what I hear it is about a group of convicts that were sent by the government to an uninhabited island (Silmido Island) to be trained as commandoes/spies and sent into North Korea. I say “from what I hear” because we didn’t actually see the movie. The previous week it had been showing in two theaters, and thus there were two matinees. When we showed up for the second matinee, though, we discovered that it was now only being shown in one theater, and we had just missed the only matinee.
I was already in a bit of a sour mood, and I wanted to just turn around and go home, but my wife suggested we at least see what else was playing. A movie entitled Taegeukgi Hwinallimyeo (roughly translated, “(as) the Korean flag waves,” and inexplicably titled in English “Taegukgi”) had just opened the day before, so we (my wife, that is) decided to see that.
The movie is a story of two brothers who fought in the Korean War, one who made it back, and one who didn’t. I’m not giving away anything here, since the fact that the elder brother didn’t make it back is presented right up front at the beginning of the movie. And yes, I’m deliberately not going to give anything away, because I would recommend this movie to anyone who reads this website (after it comes out with English subtitles or dubbing, of course).
I’ve seen many alleged Korean “blockbusters” before, and have been left feeling a bit empty. Shiri and Volcano High are two movies that come to mind (and two movies that I know have made it to the States). So when I heard that the director of Shiri had also directed Taegukgi, and that it was expected to be a “hit,” I had my doubts. When the movie started I noted with an almost gleeful disappointment that it borrowed verbatim the framing device used in Titanic, where an old person gets/makes a telephone call and then goes on a journey down memory lane. I was impatient with what I thought to be the slow unfolding of the story. I tried to maintain my composure and frown at the obvious influences of Saving Private Ryan on the battle cinematography.
I tried, but failed, because by that time the movie had already sucked me in. I felt a lump growing in my throat as the movie progressed, and I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I’ll admit it—I’m not a very macho guy. I sometimes get emotional at movies, and there are times when the screen gets a little blurry because of the tears that I have to hold back. There was no holding back the tears this time—they were streaming down my face at the end, and it took everything in me not to sob openly. Not sniffle, not cry, but sob. I don’t know, maybe that makes me a pansy. I do know this—I have never been moved by a film the way I was moved by Taegukgi. I just went to the site a few minutes ago to check on the English title and I had to turn off the sound because when the music started to play I felt the tears welling up again. Yeah, it was that emotional.
A big part of it was the tragedy of it all. Seeing a nation divided turning on itself, countrymen killing their fellow countrymen on mere suspicion of sympathizing with the enemy, just the immense loss of human life that war entails. But I think a lot of it had to do with the brother relationship that was portrayed in the film. In Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks and crew were on a mission to save the lone surviving brother after his three older brothers had been killed in combat. The brothers, though, were just names on a piece of paper—they never figured into the movie. Sure, I thought it was a great movie, and a great cinematic achievement, but story-wise Taegukgi hit me a lot harder.
As anyone who regularly reads this site will know (since pretty much everyone who regularly reads this site is either already family or at least a close friend), I have two younger brothers. Brian is three years younger than me, and Matthew is eleven years younger than me. My relationship with each of them is very different. Brian and I grew up together and went through a lot together. With Matthew I was more of a guardian figure, and by the time he got around to his formative teenage years I was gone (he was seven when I went to away to university, and eleven when I left for Korea). I love both of them the same, but I just experienced a lot more of life with Brian.
It was Brian who was on my mind as I watched the movie. Just seeing the devotion that Jintae, the older brother, had for Jinseok, the younger brother, and seeing how he was willing to do whatever it took to see that Jinseok was safe and survived the war to go home again, made me think of how I felt about Brian. I don’t know if he knows this, and I don’t think I ever told him directly, but it has torn me up inside that I haven’t been able to be there for him. I pray for him all the time here, and it pains me to think that that’s really all I can do.
We didn’t have a very peaceful relationship when we were young. We fought like wolverines, which generally meant that I beat him silly. But as we grew older we fought less, and we grew closer. Brian did not have an easy childhood, but I always tried to be there for him. Even if it seemed like the rest of the world was against him, I wanted to be there at his side, protecting him. I remember the neighborhood kids would often come by in a big gang, saying they were going to kill Brian for something that he did to them. Never mind that half the time (at least) he probably deserved it—no one ever got through me to Brian.
A strange thing happened once at church when we were young, and it has stuck with me throughout the years. I know I generally don’t talk about this sort of thing on liminality, so a bit of background: I attended a Pentecostal church when I was young, where things like prophecies, speaking in tongues, and people falling down in the aisles was fairly commonplace. So it wasn’t anything terribly out of the ordinary when a prophetess came to our church one day.
I remember feeling intimidated. I’m not sure if she was a big woman, but I remember her as a big woman, most likely because she had a large presence, if that makes any sense. She wandered back and forth, pointing out people and giving prophecies, but I don’t remember what any of them were. I only remember when she stopped in front of our family, brandished her finger at me and shouted, “You!” I nearly jumped out of my seat, and I think all I managed in reply was a finger to my chest and two raised eyebrows.
“You two are brothers,” she said, wagging her finger back and forth between Brian and me. I frowned slightly—if this was her prophecy, I was going to be sorely disappointed.
Her finger stopped wagging and pointed at me. “You,” she said again. “You will be like Jacob, nipping at your brother’s heels.”
And that was it. She might have said something to Brian, she might not have, but that’s all I remember. I wanted to stand up and say, “Excuse me, but I am the older brother. He’s the younger brother.” After all, Jacob was the younger, the usurper (the story of Jacob can be found in Genesis 25 and 27). She had obviously gotten it all wrong—it didn’t make any sense. I already had the “birthright” as the eldest, I didn’t need to steal it away from my brother through deception.
For years this gnawed at me, and I believe it fueled nearly a decade of righteous indignation. I would never nip at my brother’s heels. I was the oldest, I would be successful, I would lead the way. And this is what I thought for a number of years, until I grew up and realized that she had been right. I have come to realize that I love Brian, and he means more to me than pride or success. The day I finally realized this I was talking with a friend, and I told him that I would do whatever it took to protect my brother, to be there for him, even to the point of giving up my own life, should it ever come to that. That may sound excessive, but I knew then that it was true, and I know that it is still true today.
I remember one night during my senior year of university at Binghamton. I got a phone call from my mother shortly before two in the morning (being a university student, I was, of course, awake at the time). “Call Brian,” she said. “I think he’s in trouble.” I called him immediately, and he was in trouble. The details are not important, but suffice it to say that he told me he needed to be picked up from school, that he needed to get away from that situation.
Brian was a freshman at Potsdam at the time. Binghamton is an hour south of Syracuse, near the Pennsylvania border. Potsdam is in the northernmost part of New York, not too far from the Canadian border. It’s at least a four-hour drive between the two. By two o’clock I was in the car with a friend and on my way.
The ride actually took five hours, because I got a flat tire somewhere outside of Watertown, miles from any sign of civilization. It was the middle of winter, and the temperature was well below freezing. I took out the spare tire, and then took out the tire jack, but I couldn’t find the metal rod that was supposed to fit into the jack so you could actually turn it and jack up the car. I told my friend to stay in the car, since there was no sense both of us freezing, so she did. Meanwhile, I searched around for something I could fit into the little hole to turn the jack. After breaking a few sticks trying to turn it I realized that nothing but a metal rod would do.
I remember trying to think about what to do. There were no houses, let alone gas stations, for miles, so walking was out of the question. It was also the middle of the night, and we hadn’t seen a car pass by since we had stopped. I debated putting out a hazard sign and just climbing into the back of the car and trying to sleep until morning, but I knew that Brian was waiting, and he needed me. So I reached down, grabbed the tiny, flat screw bit, and started turning it with my bare hands. I could only get it to move a little at a time, and it took a half hour to get the car jacked up to the point where I could change the tire. Shortly thereafter we were back on the road, and we arrived in Potsdam at seven o’clock in the morning.
The next five hours or so were spent packing up Brian’s stuff and going through all the procedures necessary in withdrawing him from school. Then we drove all the way back to Binghamton, getting there just in time for me to drop Brian off at my apartment and run off to my Japanese class, where I promptly fell asleep.
The point of the story is that, when I heard Brian say he needed to be picked up, there was no question in my mind whether or not I would go, or even whether I would leave immediately or wait until morning. I simply said, “OK, start packing. I’m coming to get you.” It was only natural, and anyone with a brother or sister will know what I’m talking about. When your family needs you, you’re there for them no matter what.
I think this is why Taegukgi affected me like it did—because of the relationship I have with my brother. In the movie, the older brother said something along the lines of: “Of course I want both of us to survive this, but if only one of us is going to make it, I want it to be you.” If I had been in that situation, I would have said the same thing. It’s not that I don’t value my own life, but nobody is going to get to my brother while I’m still standing.
Of course, my brothers are now on the other side of the world, at the end of a sixteen-hour plane flight. Realistically speaking, I can’t be there for them. And that’s why I couldn’t hold back the tears while watching the movie. It was without a doubt the best movie I have ever seen that I’m not sure if I would want to see again. I don’t know if I could handle it again—I could barely handle it the first time.
This may now be the longest journal entry I have written since launching the site, and I could probably keep going if I wanted to. But I don’t think any amount of words is going to express what I want to say any better. I’ve just never been moved so much by a film in my entire life. I can’t get it out of my head. It’s now been three days since I’ve seen the movie, and it is still playing in my mind. I don’t know what to do, so I guess I’ll just close this with what I’ve been trying to say all along...
Brian, Matthew: your big brother loves you.
Update: I just heard that the movie I mentioned above, Taegukgi, is now in the process of being exported. The English title of the movie is “Brotherhood.” Can’t say I really agree with the choice of titles, but there you have it. Lame title or no, I still wholeheartedly recommend it.