In the fall of 2001, South Korean moviegoers were inundated with a series of successful action comedies, many of which took the old standard of Asian cinema, the gangster, and dropped them into absurd 'fish out of water' situations, invoking hilarity out of what are usually mundane cinematic set pieces. "My Wife is a Gangster (Jopog manura)" featured a female crime boss getting in touch with her feminine side in order to find a husband. In "Hi, Dharma", a bunch of gangsters on the lam find refuge in a Buddhist monastery, while Kim Sang-jin's follow-up to "Attack the Gas Station (Chuyuso supgyuk sa keun)", "Kick the Moon (Shinlaui dalbam)", has a big boss and a schoolteacher vying for the affections of the same woman. In the case of the recent multi-region DVD import "My Boss, My Hero (Doosaboo ilchae)", a mob boss is sent back to high school, a place that ends up being far worse than life on the mean streets.
Kye Doo-sik (Jung Joon-ho, who is usually associated with more serious action fare, such as "The Siren" and "Last Witness") is the second-in-command of a mob gang. Though he has successfully expanded his boss' territory by defeating a rival gang, he is prevented from moving up in the criminal organization due to his lack of a high school diploma. It seems that all his contemporaries have at least a high school education, with some having even attended college, and Doo-sik's lack of formal education is downright embarrassing-- he is even oblivious to the existence of the Internet and has yet to discover what an e-mail address is. Thus, Doo-sik is given an ultimatum by his boss (Kim Sang-joong)-- he must go back to school and graduate if he wants to continue as a gangster.
With the help of his underlings Kim Sang-do (Jeong Wung-in of "The Foul King") and the dim-witted Dae Ka-ri (Jeong Un-taek of "Friend"), Doo-sik poses as a 20-year old student and enrolls at a privately run high school. Unfortunately, he quickly learns that high school life is far rougher and tougher than the life he has left behind. In addition to being beaten by his teachers and robbed by the school bully, Doo-sik quickly learns that the school is rife with corruption. The parents of rich students routinely bribe the school's principal, who in turn coerces the teaching staff into awarding good marks. The principal is also behind the school's problem in retaining female teachers, as he routinely sexual harasses them. Unfortunately, there is little anyone can do about this situation, as the principal is backed up by a local mob. Doo-sik also learns that the lure of getting into a top college is so strong that some students are willing to do anything, as with the case of Yoon-joo (Oh Seung-eun), a female student he befriends, who prostitutes herself after school to pay for her education. Fed up with the corruption and injustice all around him, Doo-sik decides to take matters into his own hands, which leads to an all-out battle on school grounds.
The first half of "My Boss, My Hero" is clearly a 'fish out of water' comedy, as Doo-sik is knocked to the bottom of the food chain at his new school. Coupled with the ineptness of Ka-ri, who consistently gives Doo-sik bad advice about how to fit into his new environment, there are more than a few well-earned chuckles to be had. In addition, the film makes some pointed comments about the brutality of the Korean education system, a sometimes-dangerous place where corporal punishment still exists and the pressure to perform leads to all sorts of abuses and criminal behavior (apparently, the story is loosely based on an actual incident at a Seoul high school). Unfortunately, there are a number of instances where the script strains credibility, such as Doo-sik being bullied by the local toughs, particularly since he easily stands a head taller than them and is almost a decade their senior. In addition, this first half also suffers from some choppy editing, which makes a number of the scene transitions particularly jarring.
However, the film really takes off in the second half, where the story sheds the laughs and presents Doo-sik's heart-wrenching struggle to help the teachers and students overthrow the school's corrupt administration. As the principal's underworld connections arrive to break up a peaceful protest, director Yun Je-gyun pulls no punches in showing the brutality that ensues. In addition, the film's second half also features a beautifully rendered fight sequence that takes place in a torrential downpour, reminiscent of the opening action sequence in "My Wife is a Gangster".
"My Boss, My Hero" was the last entry in the 'gangster comedy' genre from 2001. Though it is far from perfect, the combination of light-hearted laughs and genuine emotional weight make this satirical look at high school life a solid effort. And if the film's closing scene is any indication, I can't wait to see what the sequel has in store.