This Korean high school/gangster genre mash-up had me laughing out loud, and that's saying summat. No wonder, then, that it was the most successful comedy of 2001, although if you're not Korean, or haven't seen a truckload of Korean films, you might be a little freaked out by all the violence -- I'd estimate around a thousand slaps, kicks, punches and whacks with a baseball bat in the tidy 98 minute run time. What's likely to throw the average Western viewer is which slaps are supposed to be funny, and which ones are just plain wrong. The key here is in determining who deserves to be slapped. It is a generally understood concept in Korean culture that there are some people who just need to be slapped. Repeatedly. However, there are those who don't, and in doing so you do them, and the society at large, a disservice, and deserve to be slapped. See how this can all spiral out of control? In My Boss, My Hero, that's exactly what happens.
So you've got mid-level mob boss Do-shik (Jeong Joon-ho), a youthful-looking guy, well-respected, but he never finished high school and his status-conscious boss wants him to go back and graduate -- a straight-up fish-out-of-water comedic premise. But during the course of the story, myriad themes and social issues are explored, extending to the proper application of corporal punishment, corruption in the educational system, school bullying, sexual harassment, teenage prostitution, homosexual persecution and bad karaoke. Oh, and did I mention all the slapping?
Bear in mind that teachers slapping their students around has long been the norm in Korean schools (maybe it's changed, but as of 2001 it was still S.O.P., even in the Gangnam high school where the story is set). As I've mentioned before, Korea has had a rough go of it over the last hundred years -- a brutal colonization by Japan, then the civil war and subsequently a series of dictatorships, both north and south. Institutional violence has been inculcated into the culture (and they were a tough lot even before the 20th century). It's important to keep all this in mind when watching a film like My Boss, My Hero; underneath it all, they're just people like us, with the same loves, lusts, allegiances, and sense of right and wrong. Maybe a little more slap-happy …
Much of the laughs come from the casting of very funny, and funny-looking, actors. Several guys in this flick, you start laughing just looking at them. It's refreshing! Get a goofy-looking guy to play a goofy guy -- go figure, it works. Then make the goofy guy do the human tripod thing (a traditional Korean discipline/torture in which one is forced to balance on two feet and forehead, hands behind back -- also employed in the films Friend and Attack the Gas Station).
I gotta get more into Asian comedies. I wasn't disappointed by Wakeful Nights and you won't be with My Boss, My Hero.
Carl Dreyer: Master of the Movie House
For those who are unaware of the history of this blog, the name is something of a parody on a column written by film historian Herman G. Weinberg for the Can...