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Once Upon A Time In High School
cast: Kwon Sang-woo, Lee Jung-jin, Park Hyo-jun, and Han Ga-in

writer and director: Ha Yu

116 minutes (15) 2005
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Premier Asia DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
Set in a Korean high school under military rule in 1978, this film portrays the dehumanising effects of bullying and how a culture of achievement and conformity backed up by the violence of corporal punishment damages the kids involved. That said, this is a brilliant film, well acted by a young cast, and able to convey the gut-churning embarrassment of teenage love and the gut-wrenching reality of violence.

Hyeon-su (Kwon Sang-woo) son of a martial arts gym owner and avid fan of Bruce Lee transfers to a new high school where, by his prowess on the basketball court, and by sticking up for Yu-jin (Han Ga-in) when she is intimidated on the school bus, he falls under the spell of charismatic tough-kid Woo-shik (Lee Jung-jin). Hyeon-su falls for Yu-jin but inevitably she is drawn to the older Woo-shik.

What follows is the grim cataloguing of the oppressive regime within the school, bullying by the seniors, violent intervention by the military representatives and the frustration of the teaching staff, which manifests in casual violence against the kids. Against this Hyeon-su discovers drink and fags, the trade in pornography within the school managed by his friend Hamburger (Park Hyo-jun), and an abortive seduction at the hands of the owner of a local noodle bar. Inevitably his grades suffer, and after Woo-shik has a violent confrontation with the gang run by the seniors, Hyeon-su turns to his idol Bruce Lee to give his life a purpose.

Despite the alien facets of Korean culture it isn't difficult to empathise with the characters in this film, bullying and young love are universal themes; the explosion into violence at the end of the film is shocking despite being anticipated and the eventual movement in Hyeon-su's life rings true as does the bittersweet ending where he is briefly reunited with Yu-jin. The final sequence outside the movie theatre, showing Jackie Chan's Drunken Master, with Hyeon-su and Hamburger sparring as Lee and Chan, seems to indicate the beginning of a new phase in Korean culture. After a diet of Korean kick-em-up movies this feature was an intelligent and thoughtful revelation.

DVD extras: interviews with the cast, an interview with the action director, and a making-of the action sequences.

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