WTF ASIA 38: Attack the Gas Station (1999)
So, which came first: the South Korean flag or the Pepsi logo?
Find it on youtube.
Four misfit boys rob a gas station. Not too long afterwards, they decide on a whim to rob it againâ€¦just for fun. I guess because they are too bored to even finish their dinner. Unfortunately, there is not enough money there this time around to make the attack worth it. The owner claims that he gave most of the money to his wife in response to getting robbed the first time around. After a couple fruitless attempts to get his wife on the phone, the robbers send the boss and the three teenage attendants up to the second floor of the station, where they will be harder to spot.
One of the delinquents decides to pump gas for the customers and take their money directly. This works for the most part, though a couple customers who get on their bad side get stuffed in the trunk of a car. Meanwhile, the authority of the gas station owner erodes further and further. As the night goes on, the gang ends up antagonizing multiple groups of people, leading to chaotic finale. Did I mention that this movie is a comedy?
While I would not necessarily classify this movie as a dark comedy, it is somewhat mean-spirited, and there are some moments that might make you feel uncomfortable laughing at. Some have called it â€œGuy Ritchieâ€ light, and I cannot really argue with that. On the other hand, the four leads are real thugs who get their way only through violent acts and threats of more violence. They are not really cool, and can sometimes be total goofs. They are not shown to be particularly smart, and whatever heart of gold that any of them may be hiding underneath manifests itself in the fact that none of them actually kill anyone in the movie. Whatever morality system that they may have is completely warped and if you are looking for redemption, this is not your movie.
So, what prevents them from being people undeserving of protagonist status? Well, the world that the movie gives pretty much makes them as close to heroes as can be. We find out late in the movie that each of them had been beaten down by a society that did not value them or downright hated them. Being nice got them nowhere, following their dreams got them punished, and following the orders of authorities got them punished as well. So why bother being nice? The inhabitants of this movie are all jerks and chumps. At the very least, these particular jerks allow a few of the chumps to have a moment of glory, if inadvertently.
One particularly amusing running gag, which does not really manifest itself clearly until later, is the constant power-shifting amongst the hostages. This movie seems to me to cynically suggests that Koreans respond only to force and fear of force. Given that the Republic of Korea had been under numerous dictators between 1948 and 1987 (some may claim that it kept going until 1992), my interpretation may not be so far off. Is twelve (or seven) years of democracy really enough to overcome institutionalized dictatorship? The four youths learned the answer the hard way, and now they are indirectly revealing it to the gas station workers. As the owner starts losing his authority, the loyalty of his employees starts to waver. This is not helped when he falsely accuses them of having helped the thugs rob the station. Through intimidation, violence, and all around stubbornness, the gang of four manage to wear down the egos of the high and mighty, expose the cowardice of tough guys, and upturn the hierarchies of miniature societies. And a few may actually discover potential for things that they never thought that they had.
There are times during the film when you might wonder why their hostages do not fight back. You may ask a little louder as the number of hostages starts going up. Indeed, there is usually only one thug watching over them at a time, hitting them with a wooden stick, and making death threats that he never carries out. He also makes them get into the Wonsan pok-gyeok position, which is putting the top of their heads on the floor, sticking the butts in the air, and putting their hands behind their backs. Their victims may resist and talk trash, but they eventually relent. Why? Well, this movie goes into goofy territory too many times to give sober answer, but it could be fear. It could also be the ultimate breakdown of egos and hierarchies makes it difficult for these people to organize. The hostages are too caught up in the idea that legitimacy of status has been broken at the whim of this one guy with a stick who plays them against each other for fun. The unbelievable nature of their situation practically renders them unable to fight back.
In the late 1990s, South Korea, previously on the rise, went through an economic crisis, leading to massive layoffs and numerous companies going bankrupt. Yes, other countries also were hurt badly, but South Korean hurt really badly, mainly because the huge family-owned, politically connected conglomerates had easy access to cheap debt that they were, ultimately, unable to pay off. South Korea was able to pay off its debt to the International Monetary Fund within a couple of years, so the country recovered pretty quickly, but it was definitely not the same as it was before. The sense of complete economic security was gone. And while unemployment rate is less than 4%, amongst youth, it is almost 8%. The crisis created a wealth gap that had not really existed to such an extent in the years before. A somewhat misguided, but effective strain of nationalism reemerged, which helped to keep most social unrest at bay. The complacency of the previous generation was replaced by the drive to survive from the start of the Cold War. At the same time, the youth became more politically minded, economically anxious, openly materialistic, and vocally angry. While little of this is brought up in the movie, the aftereffects are all over the narrative and the characters, with the implication that some of these changes are not so great.
Gas prices in South Korea have been nearly twice the price as in the United States for some suspicious reasons. I am not sure if that was the case back in 1999, but I would not be surprised. With South Korea going through hard times, it would be easy for audiences to feel some form of catharsis in seeing a gas station attacked. It may be more difficult to feel sympathy for the abused gas station owner who berates the delinquents for not contributing to this great society.
This movie was extremely successful in South Korea at the time. Perhaps it tapped into a segment of the Korean population who were not quite happy with how Korea got to where it was and where it was going. In any case, someone got the bright idea to make a sequel in 2010, during another economic crisis. Not a remake, a sequel, bringing back the gas station, the owner, and no one else. The movie isâ€¦ehâ€¦aside from making even less sense than the original, it lacks a certain sense of urgency and nihilistic malaise, replacing it with cool and sleek slapstick that kind of renders it rather forgettable. I do kind of have a soft spot for the girl who tags along with the robbers and cheerfully takes part in the vandalism. Her ridiculously chipper attitude might be annoying in any other context, but the disconnect kind of works here for me. Still, the movie does not really capture that mean-spirited charm that made the original so special. Also, that character might annoy you a lot.
Attack the Gas Station is a messy movie about messy characters during a messy time in South Korea, meant to cater to the messy emotions of the target audience. Some things deliberately do not make sense from a strictly narrative standpoint and I will admit that I have not picked up on some of the thematic significance of certain plot points. So, if you are looking for a movie that makes perfect sense without having to learn anything about the context that created the film, then this may not be for you. If you are looking for a movie that is cheeky, wild, irreverent, and hilarious, then this may be up your alley.
Next Time: Rang de Basanti (India: 2006, approx. 165 minutes).
Time After Next: Ong Bak: Muy Thai Warrior (Thailand: 2003, approx. 105 minutes).