Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

South Korean Director Park Ki Hyung’s ‘Gangster High’ is the reason I watch so many movies, for the hope that every once in a while a film comes along that bolsters my reaffirmation in the medium. It’s not even that ‘Gangster High’ is a great film as there are some issues within its narrative which keep me from sitting it on such a lofty pedestal, but it is a very good film that has a story to tell and it recites this story with straight forward conviction, plus it is unflinching, brutal, sad and pulls absolutely no punches.

Our film starts with high school student Sang Ho (Jung Kyung Ho) bound and strapped to a chair, face bruised and being interrogated by a police officer. It would appear at the outset that this teenager is one bad seed since the police officer wants to know why he has killed three people and injured countless others as the leader of a brutal gang of street thugs known as the ‘Tigers’. When asked why he even formed the gang in the first place, Sang Ho softly says the word ‘soccer’.

Traverse back in time four weeks where Sang Ho and his good buddy Chang-Bae (Lee Heong Seok) are enjoying some after school soccer fun, this being the first day of school, when an altercation between Chang-Bae and another student leads to fight. Sang Ho breaks it all up, but the extra large Hong Gyu (Jo Jin Woon) escalates things a bit which leads to the decidedly smaller Sang Ho challenging the much larger kid to settle the argument. In the middle of the fight, which Sang Ho was getting the better of, another good friend in Jae Gu (Lee Tae Seong) breaks it up as he is the mutual friend of all of these warring teens and decides they need to shake and make up. After hanging out for a while and getting to know each other better, they also decide to form a soccer club called the Tigers, for the sole reason of playing soccer and cementing what they hope will be a lifelong friendship.

But unfortunately there’s always trouble because when one of the club members finds trouble, every body else feels the need to jump in, and because of the fighting skills of Sang Ho and Jae Gu, the tigers get a bit of a reputation. The turn towards a slippery slope occurs when a member of a squad from a rival school, known as the East Side Gang, slaps around the pretty Se Huie (Jang Heui Jin), a girl Sang Ho happens to sweet on, which leads to the East Siders getting kicked around pretty good. This raises the ire of the leader of this gang, the completely psychopathic Jong Seok (Yeon Je-wook) who rages war on the this Tigers to horrific and ultimately tragic results. It doesn’t help that Jong Seok assumes Se-huie to be his girlfriend, no matter how she doth protest. A point of no return has been crossed in which Sang Ho and the remaining members of his club of former altar boys and honor students, engage in one hell of a brutal, knock down, drag out brawl that will leave virtually no one standing.

One of the things that makes ‘Gangster High’ work so well is that Park has created a very believable narrative arc which leads to the bound and interrogated Sang Ho that we see in the opening scene. As the film started out it seemed that perhaps it was a bit too detailed and too plodding, and considering this really wasn’t a plot driven film one can begin wonder when the movie was actually going to begin. But through this seemingly mundane and pedestrian plotting you get a greater sense of these boys and what they are all about. Lee gives a very understated but effective performance as the leader of this ‘gang’, a good boy on life’s fast track from a good home whose only real crime, if any, was that of loyalty. Though his character of Sang ho is a good fighter, he certainly wasn’t presented as a superman or unstoppable badass, just a boy who happens to be a little better with his fists than the other boys. When it came to the big fight at the climax of the film, here again Director Park gives his viewers no easy way out since the choice given to Sang ho is either allow the death of a friend to go unpunished and live in self assumed shame or seek vengeance and throw the remainder of a life just starting away into the garbage. Difficult decisions indeed.

As I spoke of earlier, the start of the film was a bit pedestrian and did take some time for the viewer to get into the narrative. There was some confusion for me between a conflict between the characters of Sang-ho and Jae-gu that I didn’t quite understand the reasons behind, other than that of a plot device to keep them in one place as opposed to a location in the film they needed to be. Though actress Jang Heui jin is very attractive and she does the most that she can with the role she has, her character basically feels tacked on just to lighten the rather high testosterone level of this decidedly male driven film, and she also provided a somewhat contrived moral conscious near the end of the film.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Gangster High’ for its tough story line and unapologetic view of a very unfortunate series of tragic circumstances. Kinds of reminds of a South Korean version of ‘Cooley High’ in way.

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