“Once Upon a Time in High School” (말죽거리 잔혹사)

Once Upon a Time in High School 2

By Jae-Ha Kim
January 6, 2016

4 stars

Hyun-soo (played by Kwon Sang-woo)
Woo-shik (played Lee Jung-jin)
Eun-joo (played by Han Ga-in)
Jong-hoon (played by Lee Jong-hyuk)
Hamburger (played by Park Hyo-jun)

Note: Korean names denote the surname followed by the given name.

In the U.S., “Once Upon a Time in High School” was released as “Spirit of Jeet Kune Do: Once Upon a Time in High School.” While it has its share of fight scenes that incorporate taekwondo, the South Korean film is really more about a boy’s survival through one of the roughest years of his life.

Hyun-soo’s father is abusive to him at home. His mother, who moved the family to Gangnam (anticipating that it would become a coveted neighborhood in Seoul), is never shown. We can assume that she is working long hours. And he has to transfer to Jungmoon — an all-boys high school — that has earned a brutal reputation that turns out to be well earned.

Once Upon a Time in High School 3

———————————–Woo-shik (L) and Hyun-soo being disciplined in school.

Released in 2004, the film is set in 1978. During this time-frame, South Korea was ruled under the brutal dictatorship of Park Chung-hee (the father of Korea’s current president Park Geun-hye). The movie depicts a bleak period where students had few rights and teachers could beat them at will.

There’s a trickle down factor to that kind of abuse. The boys settle their differences not with words, but with fists, chairs and bats.

At Jungmoon, soft-spoken Hyun-soo is shocked by the behavior of his classmates. Jong-hoon and his gang of bullies rule the school.

Once Upon a Time in High School 1

Thanks to his height, speed and ability to play basketball, he is befriended by his class’s leader, Woo-shik. The son of a TV star, Woo-sik is handsome, charismatic and confident. The two bond over their love of Bruce Lee films. Woo-sik is a good martial artist who never backs down from a rumble. While Hyun-soo was trained in taekwondo by his grand master father and had long emulated the moves he saw Lee execute on screen, he is meek and is reticent to fight back.

Once_Upon_a_Time_in_High_School_movie_posterWhen Woo-sik starts dating Eun-joo, the girl Hyun-soo has been pining for, their friendship is fractured. Honestly, if Hyun-soo had told Woo-shik to back off, I believe he would’ve. He valued Hyun-soo’s friendship. Girls were just a game for him.

After watching Woo-shik get beaten up by Jong-hoon and seeing that the school did nothing about it, Hyun-soo can’t take it anymore. He contemplates suicide, but opts instead to train himself to hone his martial arts skills.

Armed with his nunchucks, Hyun-soo lives out his Bruce Lee fantasy, successfully taking on not only Jong-hoon, but also his cronies. While his father apologizes profusely in public for his son’s behavior, Hyun-soo says in the voiceover that his father never hit him again after that.

The takeaway from this movie isn’t that you must beat your opponents to earn their respect. Rather, it’s that when there’s no way to battle a corrupt system, you have to fight back to make your enemies fear you.

“Once Upon a Time in High School” isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a good one. Though the male leads all look too old to pass for high school juniors and seniors, they are convincing nonetheless.

The bromance between Hyun-soo and Woo-shik was much more interesting and layered than the love triangle. I would’ve liked to have seen how their friendship progressed through their collegiate years.

Release date: January 16, 2004.

Running time: 116 minutes.

© 2016 JAE-HA KIM | All Rights Reserved

Comments (15)

  1. Steven Norano says:

    Fantastic review. One of my favorite films of all time!

  2. Gail says:

    The girl kind of bothered me. I thought it was pretty obnious that Hyun-soon liked her. She and Woo-sik had nothing in common.

  3. Lauren Santiago says:

    I’ve never heard of this film. The trailer looked a little violent, but I am curious about seeing this film. I’m more into the rom-com K-dramas than the films, but I’m loving your reviews, Jae-Ha!

  4. Anna says:

    I’m so glad you’re reviewing Korean films and K-dramas! I love them so much! I’ve not seen this movie yet but have put it on my saved list to watch later. Happy new year!

  5. Mark Simpson says:

    My friends in Korea said that this kind of corporal punishment was pretty standard (for boys at least) when he was in high school in Korea. Bloody hell!

  6. Mary Ann says:

    I saw this a long time ago on a plane trip to Korea. It was fantastic! I loved this movie and thought that the two lead actors were so good. I had always hoped there would be a sequel. I always wondered what happened to Woo-sik.

  7. Sandra Collins says:

    One of the things that I really enjoy about watching older films in general is seeing how the actors progress in their older years. It’s really fun to see them in current roles and go, “Hey, I saw you playing a high school student” 15 years ago! 🙂

  8. I love Kwon Sang-woo… Haven’t seen this film… Will have to put it on the list.

    • Jae-Ha Kim says:

      He was wonderful in the role. I felt so bad for him throughout the movie…just a good kid trying to get through high school. When I saw Lee Jung-jin, I kept trying to figure out where I had last seen him…it was on the KBS sports reality series “Cool Kiz On The Block.” And I’m watching “One Sunny Day” and I recognized Lee Jong-hyuk in it playing So Ji-sub’s best friend! It’s fun! 🙂

  9. chipmnk says:

    Oh gosh, I looooove this movie! I love the way the kids watch action movies as a means of escaping the awfulness of school. Also, Kwon Sang Woo’s training montage is insane.

  10. meetmeatthewall says:

    I enjoyed this film too!

  11. Jimin Han says:

  12. tsek says:

    I can’t understand that Whoo sik and Eun Joo left together, or not?
    Please explain, Maybe they have married ?????

    • Jae-Ha Kim says:

      The two didn’t leave together or get married.

      After Woo-shik was beaten, he left school and they never heard from him again. Eun-joo was preparing for college. I believe at the end of the film, Hamburger tells Hyun-soo that he saw her around the hagwon.

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