must confess that in middle school I got into too many fights and in
high school I spent most of my time sleeping in class or reading the
history of Jesse James and Billy the Kid. But at least no one ever
tried to stab me with a pen, and the teachers certainly never shaved
my head or beat me with a baseball bat because I couldn't tell the
difference between a noun and an adjective. If their movies are any
indication, being a high school student in South Korea is akin to
being trapped in one of Dante's levels of hell.
writer/director Ha Yu ("Marriage
is a Crazy Thing"), the events in his "Spirit of Jeet Keun Do"
(aka "Once Upon a Time in High School") are based on his own
personal experiences. The film takes place in 1978 and follows the
misadventures of passive introvert Hyun-soo (Sang-woo Kwon), a new
transfer who finds his new school to be one of ill repute. His
fellow students consist of Stabber, a student so named for his
proficiency with a pen; Hamburger (Hyo-jun Park), the class smut
dealer; and Woo-sik (Jeong-jin Lee), the reigning class kingpin.
Although Hyun-soo and Woo-sik
become fast friends, the appearance of Eun-ju (Ga-in Han) creates a
Yoko Ono effect. Needles to say, the love triangle inserts a clichéd
vibe into what was up to now a relatively refreshing take on high
school (albeit an insanely violent one). While Hyun-soo holds a
fierce torch for Eun-ju, it's the aggressive Woo-sik who "goes for
the gold", so to speak. Also, confrontations between various
classmates slowly spiral out of control, ending up with more than
one challenge to "take it to the roof" -- the spot where all grudges
Despite being set in 1978,
"Spirit's" plots could easily be transplanted to a 2004 Korean film.
All the usual conventions of the high school genre are present:
teachers that assaults students with impunity; bullying; and the
clashing of personal freedom versus stagnant traditional hierarchy.
We've seen all this before in films like "Beat",
Boss, My Hero", and a dozen other movies. Although the
conventions of Korean society are magnified in a high school
setting, the structure is earnestly maintained in adulthood, albeit
in a more subtle interpretation.
To be truly original, "Spirit"
needed to be about the characters struggling to survive the Korean
school system. It's the interplay between the various students that
is the film's main strength, not an inconsequential love triangle
between three students, one of whom acts like he's never seen a girl
before. What little we do learn about the students makes "Spirit"
stand out. There's Hamburger, who sells smut to pay his tuition; the
student whose father is a General, and thus gets to skate by; and
Woo-sik, whose mother is a semi-famous actress, much to the boy's
Surprisingly, we know very little
about Hyun-soo's background except that his father is an abusive Tae
kwon do instructor and his mother is involved in real estates. Also,
Sang-woo Kwon ("My
Tutor Friend") doesn't quite work in the lead role. The actor is
much too handsome to play someone so shy around women. To watch
Hyun-soo around Eun-ju is to see a puppy dog hiding behind its big
flapping ears. Not only does Hyun-soo seem to lose about 50 IQ
points when around Eun-ju, he actually does -- in school, that is.
With love, comes faltering grades.
Silly high school love stories
aside, "Spirit of Jeet Keun Do" offers an oftentimes fascinating
look at life in a South Korean high school. The violence is quite
brutal and graphic, although Ha Yu's script is always careful to
temper things with a measure of childishness. Whenever the students
confront each other, one never gets the feeling that things might
progress beyond the bullying stage. But things change in the Third
Act, when the script takes a surprisingly dark and unpredictable
turn, starting with someone getting stabbed in the head with a pen.
Although the movie's international
title is "Spirit of Jeet Keun Do" (notice the misspelling), the
better title would have been the alternate "Once Upon a Time in High
School". The title implies too much of a relation to Bruce Lee, who
only shows up in short spurts. The only real appearance of Bruce
Lee's "spirit" is toward the end, when Hyun-soo, fed up with life,
love, and school, cracks open the martial arts master's manual and
goes to town on some school bullies with bloody results. Not
surprisingly, it's when the love triangle disappears completely with
30 minutes left that the film fully hits its stride.
Like most South Korean filmmakers,
Ha Yu seems uninterested in offering up a satisfying ending. In this
case the lack of a satisfying resolution works, only because the
movie's narrative has been so erratic from the very beginning that
we have little trouble accepting the film's awkward coda.