Yeong-ho (played by Lee Seung-yong who looks way too old for the part) is a transfer student. There are bullies at his new high school who hustle money from weaker students via intimidation. There's a surprisingly complicated hierarchy at play here, such that I initially thought "Bullies" was going to be about the hierarchy. Alas, these dynamics are ultimately left unexplored as Yeong-ho instead runs up against mid-level enforcerer Gi-tae (played by Go Jin-soo). Long ago, these two were friends.
There's actually very little bad blood between Yeong-ho and Gi-tae in the past or present. They have no reason to fight each other, and Gi-tae even makes light entreaties to getting Yeong-ho to join the gang. But Yeong-ho just doesn't like Gi-tae anymore. Why? Well, because people change. Even if they think they're hot stuff, idiot teenagers carousing in a gazebo still look like idiot teenagers, and Yeong-ho just isn't interested in that kind of sub-culture.
Yeong-ho does like boxing though. No, "Bullies" is not a sports genre film, Yeong-ho is only barely a competent boxer and is easily beaten in the only serious boxing scene the movie has. Yeong-ho just thinks that he needs a hobby, so he hangs out at the training center. It turns out that even mediocre boxing skills are enough to let him wipe out Gi-tae and his gang of bullies, because that's the problem with bullies. They're so using to picking on people who aren't their own size, they don't know how to deal with the ones who can fight back.
This does rather muddle any attempt "Bullies" might make toward a moral point though. Because sure, Yeong-ho likes the little weenies that Gi-tae keeps extorting for money. But ultimately Yeong-ho, much like Gi-tae, likes violence for the sake of violence. I will admit that there's sort of an elegant wisdom to the idea of someone saying, you know what, forget it, peaceful conflict resolution is dumb. These guys are bullies, they don't deserve it, let's just beat them up.
Because no other alternatives are offered. Yeong-ho vacillates between sticking around and just walking away, frequently deciding to walk away for the sole purpose of being contrary. One of the odder subplots involves Hye-jin (played by Kim Min-II), a girl student who seems to be Yeong-ho's love interest, and who keeps making bad decisions in his absence. But then she decides to stand her ground, mostly because Yeong-ho has made it clear that he's sick of babysitting her.
That subplot, like the others, just sort of trails off and doesn't go anywhere. Even the main plot does this via the ending. The conflict between Yeong-ho and Gi-tae has been resolved, prompting a showdown with Gi-tae's superiors, and then the movie just ends with a long credits sequence specifically detailing who each character was. I kind of felt like I was watching a video resume, and I guess that's what "Bullies" really is. The movie is more about demonstrating the basic competence of its actors than about having an actual point.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Bullies""
by HanCinema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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