BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: Korean anarchy.

I’VE SEEN the brilliant Attack the Gas Station! twice in large crowds now, and have seen totally divergent reactions. Half the crowd walked out during the Film Society screening, perhaps put off the dubbed American accents which sounded positively Brechtian. The other time was in a class studying Korean cinema, and the audience were hooting and clapping along with the film – and perhaps to fully appreciate how pointed the film really is, an understanding of its targets, like the latter audience would have had, might assist.

The film’s plot is almost a perfect contender for a cult film. It’s at once ludicrous and strangely emotionally engaging. To alleviate their boredom, four disaffected punks decide to stick up a petrol station. However, after finding only a small amount of money, the punks decide to start running the petrol station themselves, and keeping whatever money comes their way. In the process, they interact with members of the highly stratified Korean society from poor to rich, and end up subverting the hierarchical social structure that chucked them at the bottom of the heap. Even the simple forcing of the boss and policemen to put their head on the ground carries such subversive connotations as this is a common punishment for children imposed by adults or teachers. If there’s a chink in the anarchy, it’s the pat credits sequence, but the film’s main narrative so joyously demolishes the ‘rules’ (e.g. a hierarchy that is created by age, occupation, money, parental background, gender, power, and physical strength) it’s hard not to get caught up in the fun.

But the four youth were also speaking to a disaffected Korea. When one of the punks smashes a sign which says “help build a better Korea”, it’s clear to see that there’s a lot of anger at the old way of doing things. Made slap–bang in the middle of the IMF crisis (where the Korean banks were on the verge of collapse and the IMF promised money to Korea if the government didn’t bail out the banks – a process which ruined the lives of many Koreans and formed an integral social context in many Korean films of the last decade), the gang’s contempt for capitalism’s rules and niceties would have struck a chord with audiences (it was the second biggest box office success of the year in Korea). Korea is portrayed as a highly globalised and technological society (e.g. one of the gang mistakes the Pepsi logo as the Korean flag) – but shows that this globalised and technological society in cahoots with the stratified society has contributed to Korea’s current misery.

But the cultural politics tend to mask what is a fun action film. Full of twists and turns, crazy camera angles, and the genre hybridity of some of the great Korean blockbusters of recent years (it’s at once a comedy, a thriller, an action film and social commentary), it is also a film that you’re able to switch your mind off and enjoy. And while perhaps, on a superficial reading it would easily justify the polarising reaction that most ostensibly silly movies tend to have – however, with its resonant social context and sharp, sharp satire, it might well join films like L’Age D’Or, Duck Soup and Dr. Strangelove as one of the best anarchic pieces of cinema ever made.