Hot Young Bloods (Pikkeulneun Chungchoon)

Korea (2014) Dir. Lee Yeon-Woo

Korean comedies are often hard to appreciate since they largely follow the same blueprint of gag heavy opening followed by the semi-serious crisis set up and concluding with a dramatic final act. Sometimes they get the balance just right and one is left sufficiently entertained. The last comedy from Korea to truly fall in to this category was the magnificent Sunny in 2011 and while not attaining such mercurial heights, Hot Young Bloods is a worthy companion piece-cum-successor.

It’s 1982 and at the local high school in rural Heongseong Joong-Gil (Lee Jong-Suk) fancies himself as a ladies man, on a mission to date every girl in his year. He has almost succeeded with one exception – Young-Sook (Park Bo-Young), the fearsome leader of the school’s girl gang. Jong-Gil is avoiding her for the very good reason that the brutish leader of a rival school’s gang Gwang-Sik (Kim Young-Kwang) has laid claim to Young-Sook.

Despite forging an alliance with Gwang-Sik, Young-Sook has no romantic interest in him but she does in Joong-Gil. Competition arrives in the form of chaste transfer student So-Hee (Lee Se-Young), returning from Seoul. Joong-Gil naturally makes his move and for once encounters resistance which only spurs him on. As So-Hee’s defences begin to slowly melt, Young-Sook’s jealousy heats up, as does that of Gwang-Sik.

The 80’s setting for this tale is nothing more than a nostalgia trip for writer/director Lee Yeon-Woo – whose last film was the tense police drama Running Turtle back in 2009 – but gives an added charm to what is a fairly conventional and universal teenage romantic comedy drama. Aside from a few modern looking hairstyles and choices of attire (something Sunny got spot on) the aesthetic is convincing enough for those of us unfamiliar with the Korea of this period to buy into without complaint.

Bawdy humour is a natural key by product of exploring this period in a person’s life but this is more Grease than American Pie in tone, with nothing particularly boundary pushing. The daily trip to school involves a train trip where the pupils dominate the carriages and run riot as you may expect. One prank sees Joong-Gil’s pal Hwang-Kyu (Park Jung-Min of Bleak Night fame) strut down the aisle with a vegetable stuffed down his trousers succeeding is his aim of upset the prudish women in the carriage!

Much of the levity comes from the natural chemistry of the cast and their interactions with the trio of Joong-Gil, Hwang-Kyu and Man-Chul (Shin Hyun-Tak) the main offenders. Elsewhere Joong-Gil’s cheesy Casanova antics raise a giggle as shy girls fall for his dreadful hackneyed patter to add another tick on his list.

The twist here though is two fold – first, as the nominal bad girl who takes no guff from anyone, Young-Sook shouldn’t want to be wooed by Joong-Gil; instead we’d expect her to disapprove of him on the grounds of being a lothario in the name of sisterhood. Secondly through a series of flashbacks we understand the root of Young-Sook’s feelings and to a lesser extent those of Joong-Gil, but is it too late for the bad girl of the school to be a love interest when the new angelic good girl is already in the picture?

Love triangles, or more accurately a quadrangle with the menace of Gwang-Sik always looming, aren’t an easy theme to squeeze much originality from so it is important that the characters are able to win the audience over first. Admittedly the first twenty plus minutes of introductions is a little haphazard and it takes a while before the characters and their loyalties become fully established. This slightly hampers the other side of the story for our love struck leads: their family lives, which goes someway to explaining what impels them to behave as they do.

Young-Sook’s mother runs a small bar and Young-Sook is at the bottom of the totem pole, receiving no love or attention from her mother. As her feelings for Joong-Gil grows and her jealousy towards So-Hee rages Young-Sook is trapped in a world where she has no outlet or shoulder to cry on, which puts a rather familiar but effective question mark over her gang leader persona.

Similarly Joong-Gil’s father Dae-Pan (Kwon Hae-Hyo) is an alcoholic womaniser who shows little regard for his son, again creating a contrary personality to that of the confident skirt chaser out of this emotionally hurt and unappreciated teenage boy. Outside of the air of mystery surrounding So-Hee, the only main cast member who doesn’t seem to be hiding behind a facade is Gwang-Sik, the quaffed yob with seemingly no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  

The story takes a few complex turns and muddies the waters as to which direction the teens should take to find that happiness. With things no longer black and white the obvious is no longer so obvious and Lee Yeon-Woo effectively uses more flashbacks and congruent exposition to serve up some timely misdirection heading into the film’s denouement.

Hats are tipped to the young cast for bringing these interesting characters to life with such conviction and likeability. Heartthrob actor Lee Jong-Suk strikes the right balance of arrogant pretty boy and sensitive soul to get the male audience onside and clicks with each one of his co-stars. At the risk of seeming shallow Park Bo-Young is too pretty to be a thuggish bad girl yet she brings a credible emotional depth and fragility to Young-Sook’s multi-layered personality. In a similar vein Lee Se-Young elevates So-Hee beyond her superficial dream girl status with a nuanced turn that reveals more sides to her personality.  

If Hot Young Bloods is guilty of anything (aside from the excessive run time and using The Nolan Sisters on its soundtrack) it is following the teen romantic drama template a little too closely. But with a deceptively deep story, great performances and most of all, plenty of heart and genuine sentimentality it separates itself from its contemporaries by a considerable margin.

A joyous treat of a film.