Director Yu Ha's new film a heartbreaking story of life back in 1978
The new film "Once Upon a Time in High School" opening this Friday begins with a line from "The Tao of Jeet Kune Do" by Bruce Lee: "A true fighter never looks back but only goes forward".
Poet-turned-director Yu Ha is no true fighter then. After introducing this line from his hero of youth, he looks back at his high school days when innocence was buried alive and pain was swallowed whole to craft a heartbreaking story that reveals him to be a true artist instead.
The impulse to recreate the past, particularly the 1970s and '80s, has fueled a series of lighthearted hits such as "Bet on My Disco" and "Conduct Zero" in recent years, feeding nostalgia for an age when "life was bad but people were good".
Yu, who took aim at the institution of marriage in his previous work "Marriage Is a Crazy Thing
", bears in mind that life was neither as beautiful nor as romantic as we now remember healed by the passage of time. "Once Upon a Time in High School" is one part nostalgia for two parts criticism and hesitates between the two poles to create an anguishing experience.
The film revolves around the fading scars of Hyun-soo (Kwon Sang-woo
), who goes to high school near Maljuk Street, the area around Yangjae Station in Gangnam in the 1970 and '80s before the development boom. (The Korean title directly translates into "The Cruel History of Maljuk Street".)
The year is 1978 and the worst excesses of "Yusin education" are rampant. Dressed alike in black uniforms and sporting the same short haircuts, the students are routinely beat forced to run around the campus. Drill instructors in military fatigues patrol the grounds with sticks.
The boundary between the military and the civilian becomes blurred as all of society is militarized. The students learn to submit to injustice as part of life and become spiritually impoverished. Forced to build up their "masculinity" to survive, their humanity comes crashing down.
To make matters worse, Hyun-soo falls in love. He finds a savior in Eun-joo (Han Ga-in
), whom he sees on a bus, but she prefers the confident Woo-sik (Lee Jung-jin) to the shy Hyun-soo. "What I worked so hard to get, he got so easily", Hyun-soo says with a tear as Woo-sik and Eun-joo kiss at a dance hall.
An interesting aspect of the film is the way Yu balances his literary and cinematic instincts. He dredges up a rich roster of supporting characters and fleshes them out to be more than mere caricatures. No "fat guy" for comic effect here. Such literary stubbornness pushes the running time to 116 minutes but constructs a stronger narrative.
Yet Yu also generates a cinematic payoff by staging a rooftop fight worthy of Bruce Lee. The film winds toward its climax when Hyun-soo finds his purpose in life in beating a bully. (The climax may come a little earlier for female viewers when Kwon decides to shuck off his shirt and show off his muscles for the training.)
Perhaps a sign of the passage of time is the maturity to avoid pat conclusions. In the film, Hyun-soo attacks the bully from behind like a coward. Woo-sik disappears one day, and we never hear from him again. An encounter on a bus is the last that we see of Eun-joo. Left with a complicated feeling, we can only hope that more poets and novelists become directors.
Those who were second-year high school students in 1978 would have been born in 1961. They would be 43 today. If film is a form of communication, for those in their teens and 20s who comprise the majority of film audiences today, "Once Upon a Time in High School" is a chance to understand members of the 386 generation that seem so authoritarian, irrational and no better than those they fought against.
In a film so full of distress, the most memorable moments are the small traces of beauty such as sending a postcard to a radio program or boarding a train bound for Chuncheon with an acoustic guitar. Yu called the film a "last dedication to the 386 generation". It is a moving ode full of innocence, pain and beauty that never flowered.
By Kim Jin