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Korean director Yoo Ha sets his most recent film in Jung Moon High, a public school in Seoul notorious in the '70s for its harsh corporal punishment and gangs.
Once Upon a Time in High School (Spirit of Jeet Kune Do)
Production Co.: Sidus Corp.
Director: Yoo Ha
This film certainly doesn't do anything to break down the stereotype of all Asians doing martial arts, I thought to myself, when a mild-mannered girl in Once Upon a Time in High School breaks out the tae kwon do moves to defend her friend in a disco.
Written and directed by Yoo Ha (and based on his own experiences in Seoul in the '70s), the film is "a tribute to Bruce Lee's fans." The film shows how pervasive Bruce Lee's influence was back in the day, and spins its own take on the martial arts film. Despite the dragging storyline particularly in the middle of the film (blame the love story), the film is funny and provides a thought provoking view of subjugation and obedience in Korean culture.
Hyun-soo, played by Kwon Sang-woo (Volcano High), is an A-student until he has to transfer to Jung Moon, where the teachers verbally abuse and beat their students, who are usually involved in gangs. Daily life for students under the militaristic regime of the '70s include caning, face slapping and general pushing around. At home, Hyun-soo's father beats him just like his teachers. His message to his son is: get good grades or else you'll wind up as a "surplus worker" (a manual labor temp worker). His father is a tae kwon do teacher, and Hyun-soo loves Bruce Lee, as do most of the students who stage elaborate Bruce Lee send ups at study hall. He's timid and gets pushed around but befriends Woo-sik (Lee Jung-jin), who's king pin of the high school after beating up a senior. Woo-sik has a bad temper but a sense of justice, and beats up other students for selling porn, stealing a school girl's bag, or bullying, though, ironically, he operates by the same kind of intimidation. Hyun-soo and Woo-sik's friendship is complicated when they both develop a crush on Eun-ju.
The story lags when we see the two in their respective courtships. It shows Hyun-soo to be a gentlemanly, if not melodramatic, teenager who ponders suicide when Eun-ju runs away with Woo-sik. Left on his own at school, Hyun-soo finally realizes a purpose in life when he decides to take on the student inspector Jong-hoon (Lee Jong-hyuk), who bullies his fellow students and abuses his power. Hyun-soo turns to his Bruce Lee books and starts training himself; at the big show down on the roof of the school, he takes on six students Bruce Lee style, whipping his num chucks and leaves his foes bleeding on the ground. When the administration arrives, Hyun-soo yells "[expletive] Korean schools!" - which happened to elicit a round of applause from the audience I was part of.
The casting is great, with strong performances from Kwon Sang-woo and Lee Jung-jin. Ha's depiction of the macho interactions of the boys is detailed, coming from a personal store of vignettes, and especially trenchant in his array of smarmy teachers, near despair at teaching kids who are trading porn and constantly fighting.
In the end, despite structural problems in the film (the running time of 114 minutes could easily have been abbreviated), what's most interesting about Ha's semi-memoir is the depiction of subjugation in all levels of society. The students are physically beaten down and intimidated by both parents and teachers. The teachers, in their turn are treated surprisingly similarly by the administration. While Hyun-soo transforms into an active hero, motivated by the injustices of the school, his beating of the fellow student doesn't do much more than establish his place in the pecking order (though he does drop out of school once this is established). The cycles of violence continue and are perhaps too pervasive throughout the society for any one person to make a mark (in fact, Ha says schools are not so different in present day Korea). In the production notes, Ha states that Bruce Lee's form of martial arts, Jeet June Do, was frowned upon by martial arts purists as evil, and that it is this "evil" form that Hyun-soo uses to defeat the evil of the school. But that might be a subtext undetectable to all but the most fervent Bruce Lee fans. As a middle of the road Bruce Lee fan, I have to say Once Upon a Time in High School is definitely worth the cost of a rental fee or matinee ticket.
Date Posted: 3/5/2004