by guest contributor Volcan Kacar
Set in the 1970’s, our protagonist Hyun-Soo, finds himself in one of the most notoriously violent schools in Seoul. Being a Bruce Lee fanatic himself Hyun-Soo makes friends with other Bruce Lee fans Kim Woo-Shik and their overweight friend who they nicknamed, Hamburger. As all Bruce fans are apt to do, they re-enact, “Fist of Fury” and “The Way of The Dragon” and get themselves into class mischief! It was the best of times for Hyun-Soo but because of the harsh reality of a violent school life, it was truly the worst of times too! The constant bullying by the superior year, class patrol and a school system that seems to be a military style Junta with class inspections, beatings and public humiliations from teachers slowly takes its toll on the group of friends and their friendship is put to the test.
The very shy and nervous protagonist, Hyun-Soo (Kwon Sang-Woo), whose father was a gentle Taekwondo instructor to his students and peers but to his own son he was very strict father. He never wanted his son to focus on martial arts but rather on school work. Hyun-Soo’s best friend Woo-Shik (Jeong-Jin Lee), is known to be the hot-blooded yet cool tough guy in school always defending his group of friends from the gang of bullies. The overweight Hamburger (Hyo-jun Park), is known to be the sleazy friend that sells adult magazines to the other class mates. The main villain is a bully, Jong-Hun (Jong-Hyeok Lee), and though he is in the senior year and in student patrol, he and his other gang members terrorize their fellow class mates and school. Eun-Ju is the beautiful love interest that comes in between the friendship of Hyun-Soo and Woo-Shik.
We are first introduced to a very young Hyun-Soo who is entranced at the cinema screen with Bruce’s power and signature nose flick. Admittedly we all did the same thing. We are then forwarded to 1978 when Hyun-Soo moved to Seoul and is transferred to Jung Moon High. The story starts off with Hyun-Soo’s journey to his first day at high school but already on the bus, he discovers that the rumours about his new fierce school are true when one of the class gang bullies takes his uniform collar. His first day through the gates and one of the class patrol students spots that Hyun-Soo isn’t wearing his collar and is punished at the school playground. Not the best first day, however Hyun-Soo does impress his teachers by being very book smart and befriends Woo-Shik who, like him, has great admiration for Bruce Lee. Hamburger joins the group when he tries to sell them naughty magazines. And so the high school story sets off with three typical friends doing what all boys do in their school days; push each others’ buttons, chase girls and at times have their hilarious Bruce Lee re-enactment battles even taken as far as being shirtless in class…!
The violence in the school escalates causing the teachers to be more brutal. This begins to take its toll on the three friends. Hamburger decides to avoid the bullying and joins Jung-Hung’s gang. Woo-Shik has enough of Jung-Hung’s bullying and challenges him to fight on the school roof. After fierce fighting, Woo-Shik is beaten by Jung-Hung and drops out of Jung Moon High without contacting anyone including his friends. Rumours spread around Jung Moon high that he ran away with his sweetheart Eun-Ju leaving Hyun-Soo to fend for himself. The constant beating from teachers and the bullying of Jung-Hung and his gang slowly drives our shy and nervous star to rigorously train himself in Jeet Kune Do, just like his hero Bruce Lee. Hyun-Soo finally has enough of Jung-Hung and his gang and challenges them to a roof fight. After an intense and horrifying fight which ends with Hyun-Soo severely beaten, the gang members along with Jung-Hung including his nunchakus and Hyun-Soo, is expelled. The film ends with Hyun-Soo at a different school finding his old friend Hamburger. The two reconcile their friendship and outside the movie theatre of Jackie Chan’s “Drunken Master” both argue who is better and once again settle their differences by re-enacting a battle between Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.
What makes this such a refreshing film is the transgression from a drama into a martial arts film. It’s the similarly structured story as 1984’s The Karate Kid, except focused in Korea. However, the harsh reality of a brutal school as well as tyrannical bullies does make this film descend into a much darker story. Our hero started off as a shy, quiet student but the constant surrounding of violence drove Hyun-Soo to Jeet Kune Do. As the school fights gradually spiral into more chaos, we see at first grittily choreographed school fights with flying kicks and punches…then with Hyun-Soo deciding to train himself in JKD, we find the last fight scene savagely realistic -it’s almost as if this film transformed itself into a Bruce Lee flick with the traditional “1 VS. 10 WITH NUNCHAKUS” scenario!
The final showdown between Hyun-Soo, Jung-Hung and his gang, truly shows the spirit of JKD’s core technique -having a strong defence is having a strong offense. Watching Hyun-Soo stand against Hung’s gang is just like watching Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon when fighting the guards. They both wait for the enemy to strike and then they make their move. Hyun-Soo’s showdown is a decent textbook instruction of JKD. When there is no sense of feeling or thought, it is only then that there is no fear. No matter how violent and grim the climax rolled, Hyun-Soo remained fluid in order to obtain victory. Amongst Bruce Lee’s main beliefs was: “empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water”. The style and technique of JKD was not to possess a ‘style’, but to be free allowing one to adapt to any situation. The ability to flow and crash like water should translate in one’s movements consisting of punches and kicks and how you defend yourself. The motion of attack should be to hit the target in the least amount of time but with a devastating force. In the Bruce Lee fashioned last stand, Hyun-Soo wasn’t victorious because of his nunchukus, but because he followed the principle of JKD, moving gracefully without hesitation, whilst striking the shortest route with overwhelming power while guarding your centre line.
Once Upon a Time in High School is a gripping story of your traditional drama and the rough, severe world of Korean school life during the 70’s. It really does take you on a journey of friendship, love, callous teaching and bullies which often mark high school type dramas.
The film has many different titles, Once Upon a Time in High School, The Spirit of Jeet Kune Do, Once Upon a Time in High School: The Cruel History of Maljuk Street. This name was based on the location of the film.