Written and directed by Ha Yoo, The Spirit of Jeet Kune Do: Once Upon a Time in High School (2004) is a Korean film set in the 1970’s with our protagonist Hyun-Soo (Kwon Sang-Woo) who finds himself in one of the most notoriously violent schools in Seoul. Being a Bruce Lee fanatic himself Hyun-Soo makes friends with other Bruce Lee fans Kim Woo-Shik (Jeong-Jin Lee) and their overweight friend who they nicknamed Hamburger (Hyo-jun Park). Like most Lee fans, they spend their time re-enacting “Fist of Fury” and “The Way of The Dragon” and getting themselves into class mischief. It was the best of times for Hyun-Soo but because of the harsh reality of a violent school life it was truly the worst of times. The constant bullying by the superior year, class patrol and a school system that seems to be a military style Junta with class inspections, beatings and public humiliations from teachers slowly takes its strain on the group of friends and their friendship is put to the test.
What makes this such a fantastic film is the transgression from a drama into a martial arts film. Just like The Karate Kid (1984) but focused in Korea, the harsh reality of a violent school as well as violent bullies does make this film descend into a much darker and realistic story. Our protagonist started off as a shy and recluse student but the constant surrounding of violence drove Hyun-Soo to violence. As the school fights slowly spiralled into more chaos and the schools harsh discipline seems to backfiring. The school fights become more grittily choreographed with wild flying kicks and punches. When Hyun-Soo decides to train himself in Jeet June Kune Do, the last fight scene is brutal and realistic depiction of a Bruce Lee film with the traditional Lee films 1 against 10 with nunchuks.
Once Upon a Time in High School is truly a gripping story of your traditional drama in a harsh gritty reality of the everyday life of the Korean school educational system and life during the 70’s. It really does take you on a journey of friendship, love and harsh teaching and bullies which truly is the foundations of any high school film.