Ahh, the rites of passage movie, another classic genre. The tale of young people growing up at school. Fighting the system. Falling in love. Finding themselves.
I think you have the idea.
Back to the film. “Once Upon a Time in High School” or “The Spirit of Jeet Kune Do”, is just a quite brilliant tale of Hyeon-su (played by an impressive Kwone Sang-woo). He joins a new school, makes new friends, new enemies, meets a girl. Normal stuff I suppose.
At the core of the film is an indictment of the Korean School system in 1978, which is awfully violent and results driven. If the film was just about this, then it would probably make the list on that aspect alone.
The genius of this film is that we only every see events through the eyes of Hyeon-su. [Actually I can think of an exception, but it is literally 2 seconds]. We only learn about characters through their interactions with him. He makes friends, and even meets a wonderful girl. But they are only shown to us through his eyes, and their reactions with him.
The girl is a case in point. Eun-ju (played nicely by Han Ga-in in what criminally seems to be her only film role) appears to be a hard working student. She is obviously finding the pressures of school hard, but she is trying to be a good student. She appears to embark on a relationship with the “cool” friend, and through Hyeon-su’s eyes this obviously is not working. Eun-ju and Hyeon-su appear to connect and embark on one of those lovely relationships that the Korean films I have watched do so well.
Except she disappears. Runs off with the friend. But we only find out through rumour. Only later do we find she regrets this and starts again with her life. But Hyeon-su appears to have no idea.
This is what real life is like. We meet and interact with people every day – but we only see the sides of themselves that they want to present to us.
I know this is not unique or original in cinema (or any other story telling medium), but I found it to be fascinating.
The film is filled with fascinating and layered characters, and yes, it does have a fair bit of “Kung-fu” fighting in it – but in a natural, non-stylised way.
I’ll certainly be checking the director’s (Yu Ha) somewhat limited back catalogue.
Now this film was recommended to me by someone who said the film felt “real” and “true”. Now I may have been a tad sceptical. You see I did not go to an All-boys school in 1978 Korea. I did not have a particularly violent school life. I certainly did not train myself in Jeet Kune Do to fight back.
But I did find so many parallels with my own life when I was 17. I fell into a different group of friends. My grades dropped significantly. I fell in love with someone who after one moment of intimacy went off with one of my best friends. And I was able to rise above all this and improve my life. [There was a longer version of this paragraph, but this is not a confessional blog – but I hope you get the idea].
And for those reasons this film makes the list. Highly recommended