Once Upon A Time In High School Review

Once Upon a Time in High School may not embrace genre filmmaking quite like so many Hong Kong Legends/Premier Asia releases (martial arts, J-horror, cop thrillers...) but that isn’t to say that it’s not familiar. A coming of age tale set in late seventies Korea, it touches on numerous teen movie archetypes. For all its violence – at a level which, interestingly, makes it a strange bedfellow to Evil, that equally schematic and excessive Swedish boarding school drama – this is a film which happily conforms to clichés. Alternately populist, cutesy and nostalgic when it wants to be, Once Upon a Time in High School literally engulfs us in teen movie standards. Indeed, whereas female Korean high school movies have a tendency towards horror, so this male counterpart has found its own sub-genre, purloining from everything from National Lampoon’s Animal House to Diner, albeit with less laughs and martial arts in their place.

The film’s major crime is to be so unerringly rose-tinted, not so much when it comes to the recreation of its time, but rather in the creation of its lead. Written and directed by Yoo Ha, it’s difficult not to see Once Upon a Time in High School as a thinly-veiled autobiography, although in this case we find the hero/director surrogate viewed in a wholly favourable light. He’s sweet and sensitive, charming and in possession of flawless integrity, gets to play out a cutesy yet plain romantic subplot, indulge in energetic martial arts montages and prove his worth in violent encounters. He’s too squeaky clean and thus too ‘untouchable’ to serve as a point of reference – a cipher as opposed to a genuine character and as such endemic of one of the film’s main failings.

Indeed, our lead isn’t the sole problem. This facile, one-dimensional character building is rife through the entire picture. As you’d expect from your average teen movie, the guy name Hamburger is the stereotypical fat kid, Stabber is the psycho, and so on. Meanwhile, the female participants are given even less to deal with being mere plot functions and nothing more. And so whilst the performances are generally okay – agreeable, enthusiastic, a little rough around the edges (though this latter element serves as a welcome counterpoint to the blandishments elsewhere) – they’ve got too little to go on, too much to transcend.

Once Upon a Time in High School as a whole faces this problem of trying to overcome the merely functional. It’s easy to accept the film and its goings-on on a basic level, but then it’s also extremely difficult to find either excitement or surprise. One of the few points of potential interest is the excessive final act which plays out like a tortured parody of one of Fist of Fury’s more famous scenes. (Bruce Lee is glimpsed at the beginning, incidentally, once again highlighting the nostalgic glow.) Initially it feels slightly out of character, a little too much within this environment, and yet at the same time it fits the mood perfectly: it’s another play for ‘cool’, however you define it. It sadly is that facile, though we do perhaps empathise with the final “smash the system” sentiment against Korean high schools. After all, if they’re populated by so many clichés then why shouldn’t we bring them down?

The Disc

Though light on worthy extras, Premier Asia have done a decent job of handling Once Upon a Time in High School for its UK release. The film comes in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced and with DD5.1 Korean soundtrack. Furthermore, the print is spotless and the English subtitles are optional. As for the transfer, once again complaints aren’t to be had. The image is crisp and clear, technical defects are kept to a minimum (edge enhancement does occasionally raise its head) and the soundtrack likewise.

The extras, however, are somewhat limited. We get an interview with the action director which is basically of EPK-standard (talk of a “heart warming” experience and other such guff); a soundbite-heavy featurette with one of the most over the top titles ever in ‘The World of the Supporting Role’; plus a gallery and outtakes of the expected quality. Nothing essential, in fact, a bit like the main event itself.

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Last updated: 18/04/2018 23:16:36

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