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Film / Once Upon a Time in High School

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Once Upon a Time in High School: The Spirit of Jeet Kune Do is a 2004 South Korean action drama film. Set in Seoul in 1978, the film is about a teenager named Kim Hyun-soo who is transferred to a new school, which he has heard a lot of terrible things about. He confirms all the things said about the school when on his first day experiences violence and strict authoritarian brutality from the teachers as well as Jong-Hoon and his gang. Inspired by his hero Bruce Lee, whose movies he watched as a child, he starts training himself in Jeet Kune Do with nunchucks to deal with Jong-Hoon and his gang's reign of terror himself.

Aside from that, he also shares a romance with Eun-joo in which he and his friend Woo-sik have a conflict over, and struggles to meet his father's high expectations in his academic performance.


Tropes in Once Upon a Time in High School include:

  • The '70s: The movie is set in 1978.
  • Abusive Parents: Hyun-soo's father, who runs a Taekwondo gym, is known to be very prone to violence, especially when it came to education, as shown when he berates him, beats him, then kicks him out of the house over bad grades.
  • Adults Are Useless: All of the teachers fail to instill proper discipline and are oblivious to the bullying among the students.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Eun-joo can't help but feel attracted to tough and charismatic Woo-sik, but their relationship becomes strained when he cheats on her.
  • Asshole Victim: Hyun-soo's homeroom teacher gets slapped in the face by the principal for failing to keep his students' behavior in check after Stabber stabs another student with a pen during class over a prior gambling disagreement. Sure, he's not exactly the nicest teacher in the area, but you can't help but still feel sorry for him having to get physically attacked by his superior.
    • Stabber, after his poor treatement of Hyun-soo gets beat up by Jung-hoon after he got caught gambling in class.
  • Ax-Crazy: Stabber. Oh, boy. Viciously stabs Sung-hoon (The son of a general) with a pen because he reported him and later trying to choked the security because he caught and scolded him for missing the morning ceremony.
  • Advertisement:
  • Berserk Button: Don't bring up Woo-sik's mother to his face.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Even before his training, Hyun-Soo seems stronger than people gave him credit for. This is evident in his and Woo-Sik's all out brawl against the seniors where he manage to knock a couple of guys out. Later, he also manage to hold his own against Woo-Sik, who is said to be the best fighter in the school.
  • Big Fun: Hamburger provides most of the comedy scenes in the film.
  • Big Man on Campus: Woo-sik is popular in school and the one guy Jong-hoon doesn't pick fights with (at first). His reputation suffers when the students learn his mom plays a maid in TV dramas.
  • Blood-Splattered Warrior: Hyun-soo in the final fight after a window is broken over his head.
  • The Bully: While Jung-hoon and his gang are the prime there are others shown in the film.
    • The bastard senior and his class who rudely take Hyun-soo's collar, harassing Eun Ju,and later beats up both Woo-sik and Hyun-soo, before they fight back.
    • Stabber, the failed-a-grade asshole who likes to take people's lunch money. He attacks Hyun-soo just because of a little scolding and later stab Sung-hoon with a pen because he reported him to security (after he got beat up by Jung-hoon).
    • Woo-sik himself later becomes this after he Took A Level In Jerk Ass. His harrasment toward Hamburg can comes across as abused, from mocking him selling porn, slapping him around, and later beats him senseless after Hamburg's has had enough and tried to throw chemicals at him.
  • Character Development: Hyun-soo initially starts off as a quiet and shy boy, until he starts training himself in Jeet Kune Do and even develops a six-pack. When he sees Jong-hoon savagely brutalizing his best friend Hamburger, he confronts him to settle a fight on the rooftop, something his former self wouldn't do.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Hamburger and Sung-hoon. Both are perverted men, but are good friends of Hyun-soo. Hamburger frequently protects him, while Sung-hoon tries to break up Hyun-soo's fight with Woo-sik.
  • Combat Breakdown: As Hyun-soo tires out and takes hits from Jung-hoon's gang, his strikes become more desperate and brutal. After it's finally over, he ends in a Post-Victory Collapse
  • Commonality Connection: Hyun-soo and Woo-sik first bond over their mutual love of basketball and Bruce Lee movies. He and Eun-joo bond over their love of music.
  • Completely Different Title: The original Korean title (말죽거리 잔혹사) means "cruel history of Maljuk street", where Hyun-soo's school is located.
  • Covers Always Lie: The covers to promote this film usually shows Hyun-Soo looking badass with long hair, Woo-Sik, and finally Eun Ju, making people believe that the plot will revolve around them and that Hyun-Soo is a badass students. In the film however, Hyun-Soo is an awfully shy introvert who (at first) let people pick on him, while Woo-Sik and Eun Ju got their fair share of screen time, both dissapears half way into the climax (Eun Ju did appear near the end, reuniting with Hyun-Soo).
  • Defrosting Ice King: We don't see it happen, but it's still suggested so when Hyun-soo's father calmly reassures him that he can just take the GED to catch up on his academics and never hits him again.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Hyun-soo's relationship with Eun-joo sadly doesn't last long, but he took it pretty well.
  • Dirty Coward: Jong-hoon finally goads Woo-sik into a fight after Hamburger stabs him in the leg. Woo-sik still manages to get the upper hand despite this handicap, until one of Jong-hoon's friends kicks him from behind.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Hamburger is fed up with Woo-sik's abuse and behavior and throws acid in his facenote , then stabs him with a pen as he gets beaten up by him.
  • Foreign Culture Fetish: Eun-joo enjoys Western pop music and her favorite artists are Elton John and Agnetha Fältskog.
  • Fat Best Friend: Ham Jye-bok or "Hamburger" to Hyun-soo, who sells pornography to the other students to pay his tuition. Both would enter GED together and remain close by the end of the film.
  • Gang of Bullies: Cha Jong-hoon and his gang, who are also the school's disciplinarians.
  • Gentle Giant: Hyun-soo is taller than most of the other students and even his own father. At first he mostly keeps to himself instead of getting into fights.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Stabber has a bad temper and gets his nickname from his tendency of stabbing people who piss him off. This is what he did to another student in his classroom (who happens to be the son of a general of the army) over a prior gambling disagreement.
  • Hate Sink: Jong-hoon has absolutely no redeeming qualities and relishes in making life miserable for all the other students who hate him back.
  • Heroic BSoD: After the thrashing he got from his father over his bad report card, Hyun-soo runs away and stands at the edge of the rooftop he usually frequents, on the verge of suicide. Not because of the thrashing itself, but because he was doomed to fail school and be unable to enter college, forever living the rest of his life as a 'surplus man', a term to describe someone who can never make a living for himself.
  • Irony: Despote being The Bully and one of the worst characters in the film, Jung-hoon is a member of the School patrol and is actually committed to his job.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Hyun-soo's father isn't exactly the kindest parent, but he had good reason to scold his son for falling behind on academics and telling him what would happen if he's unable to enter college. (Although to be fair, hitting him and kicking him out of the house was taking it too far)
    • Keep in mind that this movie is set in a completely different time period, back when Korea wasn't the economically prosperous country you see today. College may not actually be that necessary to succeed in life in the present daynote , but at the time, especially in Korea, college was pretty much your only hope of being somebody.
    • Jung-hoon himself gets this, after seeing Hyun-soo defending Stabber. Saying how stupid Hyun-soo is to actually care for a piece of trash like him. Considering that Jung-hoon is just doing his job as school discipline patrol, while a stabber is a no good asshole who even beats Hyun-soo up at one point, Jung-Hoon's got a point.
  • Just You and Me and My GUARDS!: Both times when Jong-hoon fights, his friends come back him up when the fight starts going against him, which is how Woo-sik ends up losing. Hyun-soo anticipates this and brings another nunchaku when he challenges Jong-hoon.
  • Love Triangle: Hyun-soo and Woo-sik are attracted to Eun-joo and go out with her at different points in the story. This leads to their friendship breaking down and in the end, neither of them get together with her.
  • Missing Mom: Hyun-soo's mother is mentioned in the opening narration, as it was her idea to move the family to the Gangnam district as she foresaw real estate prices skyrocketing in the area. However she never appears in the movie.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Hyun-soo realizes that violence is not all that it's cracked up to be.
  • The Neidermeyer: Puppet soldier.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Woo-sik gets one from Jung-hoon. Hyun-soo later returns the favor.
  • Pet the Dog: There are a few moments where an incredible jerkass actually done something nice (or atleast not being a jerk at all).
    • Jung-hoon pats the back of one of the students in Hyun-soo's class after sitting next to him (who clearly is scared or anxious)
    • Hyun-soo's father assuring him that he will go to college through GED rather than hitting him. Mind you, this happen after Hyun-soo got expelled.
  • Precision F-Strike: "Fuck all the schools in Korea!"
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: Hyun-soo and Hamburger both drop out from high school and Eun-joo, having left Woo-sik, has to repeat her senior year. Hyun-soo and Hamburger plan to study for the GED and go to college, hopeful for their futures.
  • Rooftop Confrontation: Both fights with Jung-hoon are on the school roof.
  • Sadist Teacher: The teachers at Hyun-soo's school are extremely strict, brutal and authoritarian, and beat and insult students over the slightest screw-ups. This was typical of Korean high-school teachers in the 1970s.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: Woo-sik's mother turns out to be a famous TV actress, which is why the school board goes easy on him despite him getting into fights. Though her Typecasting as a maid leads to him being ridiculed by the other students.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Hyun-soo is the meek, sensitive guy (before his Character Development) to tough guy Woo-sik.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Sucky School: Jung-mun high school, the school Hyun-soo gets transferred to at the beginning. He explains that he heard a lot of bad stuff about it and hoped they weren't true. Unfortunately, they are.
  • Training Montage: In preparation for his confrontation against Jong-hoon, Hyun-soo devotes his time to working out, toughening his fists on a punching bag and practicing nunchaku techniques.
  • Unskilled, but Strong: Jung-hoon often shows that his punches do hurt. However, during both of his fights against Woo-sik and the now trained Hyun-soo, both men manage to get the upperhand and would have beaten him then and there if it weren't for his gang.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: After Woo-sik loses a fight with Jong-hoon on the rooftop, he leaves the school without a word and presumably drops out. He is never seen or heard from again by anyone.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Hamburg slaps a girl a few times during their altercation in the club. Her friend who's a karate champion knocks him out with one kick.