Korea (2019) Dir. Jo Ba-Reun

Perhaps you have heard the phrase “Offense is the best form of defence”, or in simple terms “Strike first”. This is a mindset dangerous people entering prison adopt by way of survival, seeking out the current “Daddy” and taking him out to establish their fearsome reputation. But to do this when transferring to a new school is a bit extreme.

Choi Ji-Hoon (Cha Ji-Hyuk), a cocky delinquent with a violent propensity is expelled from his current school and transferred to the disreputable Daehoon School. Ji-Hoon arrives with one goal in mind – to take over the school by beating the toughest boy there. Under the guidance of Yong-Sik (Ok Yoon-Joong), Ji-Hoon learns the school has a fight club which students and teachers alike bet on.

Sitting atop the mountain is Jung Dae-Ho (Jo Sun-Ki) but he is currently out with an injury. However, tournaments continue at the fight club which Ji-Hoon enters. He soon rises up the ranks to face the top three below Dae-Ho – judo master Park Gi-Tae (Kim Dae Han), taciturn Kwon Chang-Sik (Baek Jae-Min), and Hot Dog (Lee Jae Han). Then Dae-Ho returns and things become very dangerous.

Gang is the debut from writer-director Jo Ba-Reun although the title feels spurious since the central conceit is to be top singles fighter with gang’s not being much of a feature. His follow ups, 2020’s Slate and 2021’s Grotesque Mansion, I mildly enjoyed but found hugely problematic in the scripting and narrative which also blights this film, so it would seem Jo is nothing if not consistent in this area.

With a few shorts to his credit, one would think Jo should have been ready to make the leap to making a feature – alas, with the lacking characterisations and compelling story, the impression is Jo had an idea suitable for a short film but not for anything longer. When one looks at what are possible influences for Gang, namely Korea’s Volcano High or Takashi Miike’s Crows Zero films, the difference becomes apparent,

One major issue is Ji-Hoon is just not a likeable protagonist, remaining obnoxious and arrogant for the duration. He may predictably end up as the nominal hero of the hour, but the route to this showdown is essentially of his own making, so why should we care if he is beaten or not? Just because the others boss are more dangerous and uncaring than Ji-Hoon is irrelevant, they are all living for supremacy through mindless violence.

Ji-Hoon’s expulsion opens the film, which his ludicrously young-looking mother (or sister, it is never made clear) tries to dismiss as self-defence (he broke the other kid’s ribs and jaw!), setting us up for a dark comedy about bullying I suppose, but humour is mostly lacking hereafter. Mum’s temper hints at Ji-Hoon coming from a hotheaded family, later revealed as a drink problem stemming from Ji-Hoon’s father walking out on them.

This is all the backstory we get for Ji-Hoon, leaving us to assume the huge chip on his shoulder is from being an only child to single mother who prefers booze to her son. But not everyone raised in this environment becomes a sociopathic delinquent so there has to be more to it than that, not that we will ever know.

Basically, Ji-Hoon’s quest to be the top dog at school is become more ruthless than the others which isn’t necessarily an admirable quality – the only exception I can think of is Carlin in Scum, but that was set in a borstal not a high school. In fact, it seems rather redundant even to call Daehoon a school as no actual studying takes place there, just the fighting, and students graduate to college if they earn their teacher enough from the fight club.

Like his prior films, Jo has come up with an idea of some potential but for whatever reason, is unable to bring it all together satisfactorily, leaving gaping holes in the plotting, the world building, and crucially, in the intent behind the premise. If this were set in a dystopian world, it would make more sense; it might even have some legs if this was a darkly satirical swipe at a poor education system, but this film is none of those things.

At the risk of sounding reductive, the idea seems to be as simple as glamorising violence for the sake of it. Maybe that is harsh as Ji-Hoon does later on realise there needs to be a reason to go so far with the fighting but coming so late in the film, it comes across as shallow at best. This means the supposed redemption journey for Ji-Hoon lacks depth and sincerity since he remains arrogant to the end, and the stakes for fighting are flimsy at best.

Fortunately, the one thing Jo does get right is making the fights look good. Under the aegis of martial arts director Cho Seong-Gu, each battle is a bloody, hard hitting, often uncomfortable affair, closely coordinated and choreographed when necessary for that visceral sensation, but also reliant on wire-fu frippery. The latter is mostly employed for the occasional one vs. many fights Ji-Hoon gets involved in, proving unwelcome in the tournament bouts which needed to be grittier and more realistic.

I don’t know if Cha Ji-Hyuk or the rest of the cast are trained in martial arts but they are capable of looking convincing during the fights, and they certainly throw themselves into this aspect of their roles. Earlier, I mentioned how I couldn’t discern Ji-Hoon lived with his mother or sister – it wasn’t because the actress looks so young, the male actors playing the students were all in their mid to late 20s!

Regardless of how appealing the premise of Gang may sound, it only half pulls of what it aspires to. Whilst most the ingredients were there to achieve this, the substance to hold it all together was missing. Not terrible but could have been so much better.

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