South Korean writer-director Park Ki-hyung (“Whispering Corridors”) takes a break from psychodrama but comes up with horror of a different kind in “Gangster High.” An almost-return to form after the weak “Secret Tears” and “Acacia,” Park’s fourth feature starts like a regular Korean slugfest of brawling high-schoolers but slowly morphs into an increasingly powerful drama of gang warfare, with a bloody, coldly horrific finale. Helmer’s name could launch this into some fest spots, with some European sales to follow, though the market already has a sizable number of similar Korean outings.
Story is bookended by sequences in spring 1991, the opening one showing the wild-eyed Sang-ho (Jeong Gyeong-ho) being interrogated for three murders. Flashback then starts four weeks earlier, with Sang-ho standing up for a bullied friend at school and taking on the much bigger Hong-gyu (Jo Jin-woong) in a fight in a gymnasium.
The punch-up is interrupted by the entrance of Jae-gu (Lee Tae-seong) who calms the proceedings. Jae-gu, Sang-ho, Hong-gyu and the mild-looking Chang-bae (Lee Heng-seok) end up forming a school gang called the Tigers. When they come across a rival gang, East High, slapping around pretty student Su-heui (Jang Heui-jin), the two groups start to rumble.
Things aren’t helped by the fact that Sang-ho starts to take a liking to Su-heui and the leader of East High, a cocky young psycho called Jong-seok (Yeon Je-wook), considers her his ex. Even though Su-heui makes it quite plain to Jong-seok that he never came on her radar, latter uses it an excuse to declare war on the Tigers.
Events escalate when Chang-bae has his leg viciously broken by Jong-seok in one brawl. After one of the Tigers is accidentally killed during a subsequent set-to, Sang-ho plans a do-or-die assault on the East Highers in a pool hall one night.
Many South Korean brawlers use the setting of the recent past as a critique of the country’s military rule — with violence seen as an outlet for frustrated youth — and “Gangster High” is no exception. But writer-helmer Park doesn’t push the metaphor too hard: pic is also about the friendship between Sang-ho, who’s been raised in a military family, and Jae-gu, who is more into conciliation than fisticuffs. That friendship is given an ironic twist in pic’s final bookend.
Looker Jang (the crippled girl in K-horror “APT”) makes the most of the token girlfriend role, but the movie is almost exclusively set in a male universe, well drawn in all its diversity (and with occasional humor) by a good cast. Lee, who made a mark in the recent student-teacher love story, “Blossom Again,” is especially fine.
Though the movie is full of fighting with fists and clubs, Park doesn’t explore the psychology of brawling in the same way as fellow Korean director Ryu Seung-wan (“Arahan”). Tone is typically cold, with wintry colors and deep blacks, and the rough Busan setting of backstreets and alleys find a suitable apocalypse in the powerful, crimson-tinted finale.