AsianMovieWeb logo
Original Title:
Maljukgeori janhoksa

South Korea 2004


Yu Ha

Kwon Sang-woo
Lee Jeong-jin
Han Ga-in
Park Hyo-jun
Kim Won-kwon
Lee Jong-hyeok
Seo Dong-won

Search AsianMovieWeb

Spirit of Jeet Kune Do

aka Once upon a Time in High School

Story: Hyun-su (Kwon Sang-woo) is sent to a new school. Although he is very shy and introverted he soon finds new friends. Among them is adult magazine selling "Hamburger" (Park Hyo-jun) and class representative Woo-sik (Lee Jeong-jin), who often gets into a fight. Together they have to get along with everyday life in school, getting beaten by their teachers and facing bullying schoolmates. While Hyun-su behaves very quite and patient as it is in his nature, Woo-sik defends himself, which gets the clique into trouble more than once.
However, the friendship between Hyun-su and Woo-sik has to face some hardships, too, as they meet Eun-ju (Han Ga-in). Hyun-su secretly falls in love with her, but doesn't have the courage to tell her his feelings. Woo-sik just goes the direct way and wins Eun-ju over.
His disappointment in love, along with the continuous tyranny at school, is the straw that breaks the camel's back. Hyun-su comes out of his shell and finally shouts his opinion out into the world...

Review: "Spirit of Jeet Kune Do" (I intentionally didn't go for the Korean spelling of the original title "Spirit of Jeet Keun Do") is not a movie that primarely deals with the martial art of the great master Bruce Lee. It's rather that the movie's focus lies upon Lee's concept of thinking, which accompanies the film in a subtle way.
Taking place in 1978 director Yu Ha tells the story of the Korean school system, that couldn't be much more violent and tyrannic. Based upon his own experience, Ha draws a picture of military drill and dictatorship at school. Unannounced inspections, teacher who physically educate/punish their pupils and bullying among pupils are a common everyday routine. One thing is for sure: In contrast to this, our own schooldays no matter how hard they might have been for some of us, were just a little picnic. However, for most of us it was an endless party, anyway...

Yu Ha's movie's strength definitely lies in its characters. At first one might have some problems to tell them apart (because of the same military haircut), but with time everyone develops an own personality. Even the at first glance stereotyped persons, like class clown Hamburger get enough time on screen to introduce us to their emotional life.
As the main actor Kwon Sang-woo ("My Tutor Friend") does give a convincing performance as the shy guy, who prefers to avoid any problems. Unfortunately, because of his reserved nature he oftentimes gets pushed into the backgroung by the other characters. Especially by Lee Jeong-jin, who plays Woo-sik. Luckily, there are enough scenes that Hyun-su has to master himself, so that the movie's focus doesn't get lost.
Han Ga-in has a nice debut as Eun-ju. Yet, her character and above all else her motivation somehow just remain unknown.

While as already said, the movie's focus lies on the characters and their relationships among each other in order to portray the situation at Korean schools, the movie doesn't do so without a standard love story, including a love triangle. Unfortunately, this sometimes becomes a nuisance, especially since Kwon's shy nature is nearly unbearable for the viewer. However, luckily it becomes clear that this story is in no way heading towards your typical Happy End, but is instead another important way point on Hyun-su's road of self-discovery.
Apart from the love story the violence above all else stands in the foreground. The situation at Korean schools are (well, most likely were) the exact opposite of what we see nowadays at american schools. There is violence among the pupils in "Spirit of Jeet Kune Do", but this is only a result of the violence the pupils have to experience from their teachers! The drill and the military management of the school is a nightmare for every man of freedom.

Despite the tension between the pupils there are also some funny moments. When the guys imitate their great idol Bruce Lee, recreating famous scenes of his movies, then it is a welcome albeit rare change to the violent and dramatic rest of the movie.
Although Yu Ha avoids telling his movie by using somber pictures, the violence and tension is always omnipresent. Especially, some nice brawls, that don't serve the purpose of delivering a nicely choreographed Martial-Arts-fight, manage to push up the viewer's adrenalin.

Anyway "Spirit of Jeet Kune Do" is not an action flick, but a genuine drama. There are a lot of quite moments, good dialogues and also some things you have to read between the lines. Sometimes the movie doesn't seem to know where it is heading, but this it shares with its main protagonist Hyun-su. Only at the end it all starts to make sense and we also get to know what Bruce Lee's role, who nearly has nothing to do with the movie, is supposed to mean. Hyun-su has finally build up his courage, found his way and managed to make his freedom with himself. Along his way Lee's legacy "Jeet Kune Do", which is not only a Martial Art, but also an attitude to life, helped him to get on the right track.
Even though it might be a little bit of a breach of style, it's really impressive when at the end we see Hyun-su train like crazy and Kwon Sang-woo shows us his skills with the Nunchakus.

Bruce Lee fans shouldn't get irritated because of the title. There is nothing like a Martial-Arts film to be found here. "Spirit of Jeet Kune Do" is an interesting drama about schools in Korea and tells its story with well drawn characters and a lot of heart, without becoming too melodramatic. The finale might be a bit disappointing for some viewers, for me it just perfectly fit in the rest of the movie.
The most moving scene surely is the one in which Hyun-su at the end of his physical and mental capabilities, cries out "Fuck all the schools in Korea!", cutting it right to the chase...
A movie you shouldn't miss!

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
Buy this movie:

Yesasia Logo