I 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.
According to 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 clich’d 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 are settled.
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”, “My 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 shame.
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.
Ha Yu (director) / Ha Yu (screenplay)
CAST: Sang-woo Kwon …. Hyun-soo
Jeong-jin Lee …. Woo-sik
Ga-in Han …. Eun-ju
Hyo-jun Park …. Hamburger
Won-kwon Kim …. Jiksae