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Education with a big stick

It's easy to be misled by film titles, and one like Once Upon a Time in High School carries with it specific connotations, first to the epic works of Sergio Leone, and more specifically, given this film's Eastern origin, to Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China trilogy. This connection is emphasised by a poster (and subsequent DVD cover) featuring a uniformed young man in a kung-fu stance. Oh, did I mention that the original title was The Spirit of Jeet Kune Do? I'm sure there are few fans of martial arts cinema out there that need reminding that this was the martial art system practiced by the late, great Bruce Lee. Take another look at that cover. The school uniform the boy is wearing could almost be mistaken for the collarless jacket Bruce wore in Enter the Dragon. But Once Upon a Time in High School is no imitative Korean kung-fu knock-off, and despite the important role martial arts takes in the story, is not actually a martial arts film at all. Indeed, according to internet sources, the actual translation of the Korean title Maljukgeori janhoksa is 'Maljuk Street High School'. Not quite as catchy, but at least true to the storyline. (As it happens, were it not for the suggestive cinematic lineage of the 'Once Upon a Time...' label, the film's present title would work rather well.)

The overall thrust of the story – a young man's rite of passage through a difficult year at high school – may be familiar stuff, but its location and period can't help but distance it considerably from any number of Stateside takes on the subject. Certainly the 1978 Korean high school here will bear little resemblance to anything most Western (and even young Korean) audiences will recognise. The authority of the teachers is maintained through a cobination of verbal abuse and physical violence, while punishments dished out for even the slightest disobedience are on the level of those visited on the unfortunate Marine recruits by Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. Fail to solve a mathematical problem at the required speed and you'll be hit repeatedly with a stick, be improperly dressed and it's a baseball bat to the buttocks, get caught with pornography and you'll be paraded in your underpants, prodded aggressively in the goolies and squat-marched down the stairs. And that's just what the teachers dish out. There is also the hierarchy of bullies to contend with, who inflict verbal humiliation and serious beatings of their own.

For young Hyun-soo, these are hard but quickly learned lessons. His family has just moved to the district and he has been transferred to the Jungmoon High School, whose reputation as a problem establishment is widely known. Even before he reaches school on his very first day, he experiences a reality check on the overcrowded school bus, as girls are harassed, smokers hide their cigarettes in hollowed-out text books, and a senior pupil demands that Hyun-soo hand over his uniform collar, whose absence lands him in trouble even before he gets through the school gate and earns him his first official beating. At the school, he makes two very different and unlikely friends, the overweight Hamburger, who sells porn to the other students to fund his tuition, and Woo-sik, who shares with Hyun-soo a love of Bruce Lee films, but unlike the newcomer has developed his own fighting style. The real ray of light hits him on the journey home when he first sees and instantly falls for Eun-ju, a girl travelling on the same bus. Will he approach her? Not very likely. Hyun-soo is terminally shy, something his Tae Kwon Do instructor father aggressively berates him for. "Nothing is impossible if you're determined," he tells him after knocking him over in a practice session. "There's nothing you can't do if you focus."

The touchstones here are familiar and the subsequent narrative path would seem to be an obvious one – Hyun-soo will overcome his shyness, beat the bullies, get the girl, and become the man his father always wanted him to be. Well, yes and no. Although some expected narrative arcs are followed, the journey proves a fractured one and the course of both love and friendship rarely runs smoothly. When Hyun-soo sees Eun-ju being harassed by bullies on the school bus, for example, he politely stands up for her and the pair end up fleeing hand-in-hand and hiding from the pursuing aggressors, the perfect opportunity for their inevitable bonding. But when Eun-ju accidentally gives their hiding place away, it is the more confident Woo-sik who arrives to save the day and he who ends up dating Eun-ju. It is typical of the film's ability to undermine the expected that this relationship begins shortly after Hyun-soo believes he has made his first, timid moves towards dating Eun-ju, hanging around her school in the rain in the hope of faking a chance meeting (in a nice touch he bottles out and walks away, only to be spotted and pursued by her) and then sharing an umbrella that he insists she keep. This symbolic gift of affection becomes an almighty slap in the face when a few days later it is returned to him by Woo-sik as a casual announcement of his involvement with her.

The rest of the story plays out in similar fashion, with the expected presented in sometimes surprising ways. Martial arts combat does play its role, but has a rough and ready playground scrappiness to it, the only really devastating blow being delivered by a girl Hyun-soo is reluctantly paired with at a disco, a physical education instructor who stands up to a bully and provides a demonstration of just what Tae Kwon Do can do with a little practice. And when Hyun-soo finally, inevitably, prepares for violent confrontation, the almost stylised perfection of his training is undermined by the haphazard brutality of the fight itself, effectively de-glamorising kung-fu to the level of an angry, vicious brawl.

But key to why Once Upon a Time in High School works so damned well is in its confidently charismatic performances (In-kwon Kim as the explosive Stabber is particularly good) and the skill with which the story is told. There is an exuberance and brisk economy to director Ha Yu's storytelling that is instantly engaging; in a few short opening minutes he introduces us to the school, its reputation, its brutality, and many of the main characters, all of whom are very clearly and believably defined. Yu's way with narrative and scene structure is bang on, timing the pain and rewards handed out to characters to maximise our involvement with their plight in a way I've rarely encountered in teen movies from the West. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that I recognised more from my own less-than-happy schooldays in this film than any similarly set drama from either the UK or the US, and found Hyun-soo's life experiences disarmingly easy to relate to. Even the more idealised moments do not feel artificial or forced, which is saying something given that Hyun-soo first proves himself to his classmates through his skills on the basketball court, almost a US teen movie cliché in itself.

The brutality dished out by the teachers here may seem a bit hard to swallow for younger Western audiences, but older Korean commentators have testified to the film's authenticity on this score, and Hu Ya himself has admitted to drawing on his own high school experiences. Although relieved I did not attend such a school myself, I still took my share of authority sanctioned beatings in a day when corporal punishment was regarded as a legitimate method of student control. Except that it didn't work – we didn't learn to behave, just not to get caught misbehaving. It's a similar story here, as despite the violence dished out to the students, they continue to get poor grades, break the rules and bully their peers. Here violence breeds only violence, and the one lesson that seems clear is that if you dish it out for long enough, then sooner or later the recipient will react and fight back. And he may just prove to be angrier, more desperate and more determined than you.

The verbal abuse handed out at Jungmoon also falls on deaf ears, and a subject does not become easier to understand because you are hit on the head while you do it. In a brief but telling later scene, a college class is shown enjoying the process of studying and understanding mathematics because it is taught with almost insane passion, something that the students both comprehend and enthusiastically respond to. It's a touching and effective moment in a film that is riddled with them. Don't be tricked by the title or the DVD cover – this is an involving, intelligent and hugely enjoyable high school drama that captures perfectly the emotional battleground that school days can represent, and deserves to find a far wider audience that it probably, sadly will.

sound and vision

Premiere Asia have once again delivered the goods with a very fine anamorphic transfer that displays a very good level of detail, while the colour palette and contrast balance are close to perfect. Black levels are fine throughout, and the print, as you'd expect of more recent films, is pretty much spotless.

The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is bright and clear, though is mainly front based, despite occasional (and sometimes very specific) use of the rears.

The subtitles should get a mention just for being UK specific – at one point a teacher contemptuously refers to his class as "stupid wankers."

extra features

Almost all of the extras here appear to have been ported over from a Korean DVD, so it's a real shame we don't get the cast and crew commentary from the CJ Entertainment Korean special edition. Ah well.

What we do have is The World of the Supporting Role: Interview with Supporting Cast Members (16:41), in which members of the supporting cast talk about the characters they play and their experiences on the film. The Korean captions introducing the actors and characters are not translated, but it's easy to recognise most of them. The twee backing music is a bit much, but a common feature on Far East DVD extras, and the interviews themselves are certainly engaging enough.

Leaning again towards the martial arts thrust of the advertising is A Martial Arts Textbook: Interview with Action Director Shin Jae-myung (10:10). This is less enthralling, with Jae-myung detailing the process of preparation for the fight scenes, which is pretty much what you'd expect it to be. It livens up a bit when he starts talking about director Ha Yu, saying "sometimes I get confused, was he a poet or a gangster?" and expressing concern about the amount he smokes.

The Promotional Gallery contains two trailers, which are revealing in their respective approaches. The UK Promotional Trailer, (1:49) takes the martial arts angle to the limit, excluding just about everything not action relation and really selling the film as a kung fu beat-em-up. If you come to the film based on this trailer you are in for BIG surprise. Far more accurate is the Original Promotional Trailer (1:56), which captures the mood and tone of the film very nicely.

There are six (actually seven – one is divided into two) Out-Takes (12:49) of existing scenes. They're not particularly funny or that different to the final versions, but they do emphasise just how much actual physical punishment the young cast had to do through in the process of making this film.

There are also trailers for six other Premiere Asia releases.


It's a shame that this film is being pushed so heavily as a martial arts actioner, as it could too easily end up being missed by the very audience that would most appreciate it, and possibly even piss off hardened action fans looking for a Korean Ong-Bak. I would hope that those who do stumble across it through promotional misdirection give it a go on its own terms, as internet feedback suggests that when this has happened, the response has been very positive. Others should ignore the Bruce Lee pose on the DVD cover and check out this small gem of modern Korean cinema, and one whose character and experiences many will recognise as their own.

This Premier Asia DVD doesn't exactly shine in the extras department (I'd love to have that commentary), but the transfer is first rate and that's good enough for me. Whether you chose to buy or rent, do give the film a look. It may well surprise you.

Once Upon a Time in High School
[Maljukgeori janhoksa]

South Korea 2004
112 mins
Ha Yu
Sang-woo Kwone
Jeong-jin Lee
Ga-in Han
Hyo-jun Park
In-kwon Kim
Jong-hyeok Lee
Dong-won Seo

DVD details
region 2
1.85:1 anamorphic
Dolby 5.1 surround
subtitles .
Supporting cast featurette
Fight director interview

Premier Asia
release date
17 April 2006
review posted
16 April 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews