Lead Ryu Seung-beom, best known for playing pugnacious young punks (“Die Bad,” “No Blood No Tears”), is the main reason for watching “Conduct Zero,” his first starring role. The high school action-comedy, heavy on attitude and celebrating losers rather than winners, was a solid local hit last winter (opening Dec. 27, and racking up 1.6 admissions) and has already been bought for Stateside remake. It’s a goofy, enjoyable movie that could prove an audience-pleaser at broad-minded fests.
Though it’s never stated directly, the setting is the ’80s, when South Korea was still under a military dictatorship. Jung-pil (Ryu), legendary hero of Mundeok High, is reputed to have taken on and beaten the whole taekwondo team of a rival school (shown in a CGI-heavy spoof sequence, a la Bruce Lee).
In fact, Jung-pil is a hard-up working-class kid who’s as thick as two short planks and gets by on braggadocio. Ryu’s handling of the character’s sheepish-aggressive demeanor is one of the delights of the picture, and seems tailor-made for the young thesp (who’s the brother of Ryu Seung-wan, helmer of slugfest “Die Bad”).
When a girl from a nearby school, Min-heui (Im Eun-gyeong), falls for him, a shy courtship develops, with Jung-pil hanging round outside a music shop where Min-heui studies classical guitar. The time finally arrives, however, when Jung-pil has to prove his fighting skills in public, against a tough rival from another school.
Pic has no particular visual style, and works entirely through the audience becoming increasingly familiar with the characters. Auds not used to the casual and/or organized bullying that’s endemic to Korean high school movies may find “Conduct Zero” hard to get into during the opening reels, though there’s considerable charm that peeks through the cracks.
Ryu’s Jung-pil sets the standard here, whether aping Bruce Lee (to whom the actor bears some facial resemblance) or cautiously planting a chaste kiss on the first girl in his life. Im, the winsome lead in “Resurrection of the Little Match Girl,” is surprisingly forceful here as Min-heui, especially when standing up to her own school’s girl-gang leader (Gong Hyo-jin, also good).
Climax contains a disconcerting surprise, but pic recovers its original insouciant tone in a coda that describes what happened to the characters afterward.