A surprise hit of Korea’s Lunar New Year frame — sandwiched between blockbusters “Silmido” and “Taegukgi” — this coming-of-ager plays more like its handle (“Once Upon a Time in High School”) than as its invented English title (“Spirit of Jeet Kune Do”), which uses the name of the martial arts style patented by the late Bruce Lee. Third pic of essayist-writer Yoo Ha, following his sexy, acerbic “Marriage Is a Crazy Thing,” recycles familiar ingredients of teen school movies to fresh effect, though its qualities are not immediately apparent on a first viewing. Offshore, and outside Asia, this is one for Koreaphiles and specialist cable outlets.
Film is most remarkable for what it isn’t: neither a knockabout high school item centered on martial arts (a la “Conduct Zero” or “Volcano High”) nor a simple romance where the studious geek gets the girl, though Yoo’s script plays with elements from both genres. At base, “Spirit’s” a slow-burning critique of an abusive educational system shown through the filter of the recent past — a time, 25 years ago, when old-style Japanese school uniforms were still the norm and the country was coming to the end of almost two decades of ruthless military dictatorship under Gen. Park Chung-hee.
None of this is explained, as Korean viewers will immediately get the significance of the year in which the story starts — 1978, when Park was re-elected in a rigged poll prior to being assassinated the following year (when pic ends). For foreign viewers, an opening caption is needed for the film’s political metaphor to be understood, otherwise the movie appears to be just another high school comedy-drama.
Voiceover by Kim Hyeon-su (Gweon Sang-woo, from “My Tutor Friend” and “Volcano High”) recalls “an unforgettable year” in his life, when his family moved to Gangnam, then an undeveloped area of southern Seoul. Transferring to Jungmun High (motto: “Loyalty to the Nation Creates a New History”), a school known for lousy discipline and even lousier grades, Hyeon-su immediately excels.
He’s quickly befriended by tough, charismatic classmate Kim Woo-shik (Lee Jeong-jin) and likable fatty Hamburger (Park Hyo-jun), who peddles porn magazines. On the bus, Hyeon-su falls for the beautiful Kang Eun-ju (TV actress Han Ga-in) but she gravitates toward the more colorful Woo-shik. When Woo-shik is beaten to a pulp by school bully Cha Jeong-hun (Lee Jeong-hyeok) and goes AWOL, Hyeon-su brushes up on his Bruce Lee and makes a stand against the system.
The school is a microcosm of the country at the time: teachers drilling pupils with knowledge they’re not interested in, rebelliousness seething in the ranks, and authoritarian figures constantly subjecting students to (often comic) physical abuse. Yoo doesn’t emphasize the political parallels — they’re simply there for the taking — and the story works perfectly well on a human level. (Many characters are based on helmer’s own school memories.)
Only near the end, when Hyeon-su has gained a sense of self-esteem, is the script’s festering message made explicit, in a cry against authority that’s both shocking and powerful. A charming coda welcomes a new era, played out, comically, as an argument between Hyeon-su and Hamburger over the relative merits of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
This isn’t the first time that high school antics have been used to critique wider issues in South Korea’s make-up — “Whispering Corridors” being the best-known example to Western auds — but Yoo peoples the film with an interesting spread of characters. More could have been made of Hyeon-su’s father, a likeable authoritarian who’s shortchanged with only a handful of scenes.
Perfs are fine down the line, with Gweon, Lee and Park very good as the three student leads and Han bringing a slightly vague, spaced-out appeal to the girl of Hyeon-su’s dreams. Tech credits are very smooth, and the fight scenes have a scrappy realism. As of late February, film had racked up more than 3 million admissions (roughly $18 million).