Over the past decade, South Korean cinema has undergone a remarkable transformation, with the traditional staid melodramas and exploitation movies having giving way to a 'new wave' of filmmakers who have revitalized the industry with their bold arthouse productions, big-budget actioners, and subversive satires. In some circles, South Korea is being likened to the new 'Hong Kong', with a homegrown film industry on the verge of exploding onto the world stage, similar to how the 'Hong Kong New Wave' of the late Seventies and Eighties catapulted the former British colony and its groundbreaking directors (including Tsui Hark, John Woo, Ringo Lam, and Wong Kar-wai) into the international spotlight.
The seeds for this dramatic evolution were sown back in 1988, when two important pieces of legislation were passed. The first was South Korea's new constitution, which eased the country's strict political censorship laws, providing filmmakers a more liberal venue for political expression. The second was the easing of import restrictions on foreign films, which forced Korean filmmakers to compete directly against Hollywood and Hong Kong productions. Unfortunately, the film industry was slow in adapting to this new operating environment, and the market share of homegrown product shrank in the face of increased competition, reaching an all-time low of 16% in 1993.
Fortunately, and ironically enough, South Korea was hit by a recession, which convinced many of the large industry conglomerates (chaebols), such as Daewoo and Samsung, to divest their investments in the movie industry. The funding shortfall was eagerly picked up by the private sector, which eschewed the conservatism of the past in favor of films that were more daring and in tune to audience tastes. In addition, this renewed entrepreneurial zeal provided many opportunities for first-time directors, whose unique worldview married their upbringing in Korean society with their exposure to Western education and filmmaking techniques.
As a result of these legislative and economic shifts, the South Korean film industry has gained considerable visibility in the past few years, buoyed by better production values and a more iconoclastic attitude. In 1999, with its decidedly Jerry Bruckheimer-style execution, espionage thriller "Swiri" became the highest grossing film in Korean history, besting the record box office set by "Titanic". Last year, "Chunhyang", an epic historical drama about forbidden love, was the first Korean film to ever compete in the Cannes Film Festival, and subsequently found distribution in North America.
"Attack the Gas Station! (Chuyuso supgyuk sa keun)" is one of the more interesting films to come out of the 'Korean New Wave'. Directed by Kim Sang-jin, this film went on to become a national phenomenon among South Korean students in 1999, making it the second-highest grossing film at the box office that year. With its subversive script brought to life by Kim's giddy and exuberant direction, "Attack the Gas Station!" is a wonderfully absurd take on modern life in South Korea.
The story begins with four juvenile delinquents trashing and robbing a gas station, leaving the manager and his teenage staff shaken. Out of sheer boredom, they return to the gas station the following night, only to find themselves thwarted by the manager, who has given the money to his wife to deposit in the bank. Without a clue about what to do next, the four youths decide to hold the gas station employees hostage, and under the direction of their leader (up-and-coming star Yoo Oh-seong), they start running the gas station themselves, collecting the cash from the customers who stop in.
However, over the course of the night, the quartet gradually finds themselves in increasingly absurd situations as the social order of this microcosm is increasingly turned on its ear. The requests of the gas station manager for preferential treatment (simply because of his status as a 'manager') falls on deaf ears with the hostage-takers, and he is quick to accuse his high school employees for instigating the siege. The high schoolers, recognizing that their boss is no longer the voice of authority, subsequently turn on him. Meanwhile, the delinquents have a field day insulting and overcharging the well-heeled customers that drop in through the night-- those who don't pay up are either locked in their trunks or thrown in with the rest of the hostages. When some local toughs come to extort money from one of the gas station employees, they also find themselves taken hostage. And when the would-be hostage-takers refuse to pay for some Chinese take-out, they evoke the ire of a delivery boy who decides to teach them a lesson. This then sets off a chain-reaction that results in a full-scale riot involving local gangsters, a cadre of delivery boys, and the police, a conflagration that threatens to destroy the entire neighborhood.
Filmed with the exuberance of "Go" and "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels", "Attack the Gas Station!" gleefully pokes fun at the social and political mores of contemporary South Korean society. Similar to the point made by "Cabaret Balkan", which condensed the dynamics of the Balkan wars into one night in Belgrade, "Attack the Gas Station!" satirizes how the rigid social strata of modern South Korea has contributed to the country's recent turmoil. True to recent history, the most volatile elements in the film are the students and the blue-collar workers (represented by the delivery boy), who have traditionally been the most active and fanatical proponents of reform in Korean society. Another interesting aspect is how the film illustrates the dynamics of power in the country's troubled history, as allegiances and power bases among the hostages and their captors shift as different characters enter and leave the room.
Though "Attack the Gas Station!" hasn't been seen very much outside of its native South Korea and Hong Kong (with the exception of a few film festivals), you can get your hands on this comic gem via the import Hong Kong VCD released last week, which contains the original Korean soundtrack with English subtitles. So if your DVD player or laptop supports VCDs, this is one to definitely add to your collection. With its surprise-filled script, off-the-wall black humor, terrific production values, and top-notch comic performances from its cast, "Attack the Gas Station!" is a film that will get you pumped.