GANGSTER HIGH (a.k.a. Riverbank Legends) at first impression may appear to be like another action comedy with its marvelous dvd cover/presentation. Directed by Park Ki-Hyung, who is also responsible for "Whispering Corridors"; sans the supernatural touch in favor of realistic fisticuffs and explores the consciousness of teen violence.
A group of young men, some old friends while some are new acquaintances decide to form a group to play soccer. The group elects Sang Do (Jung Kyung Ho) as their leader since they view him as the smartest, they take to calling themselves "Tigers". No long after, the new group has caught the attention of a rival gang from East end High. To make matters more complicated, Sang Do has developed feelings for Suhee (Jang Hee Jin) and she returns his feelings. It would have been good, except that she is the ex-girlfriend of the leader of the rival gang.
Sounds cliché, doesn't it? At first look, the film does look like typical teen flick. Except that the film is quite brutal and dark. It explores the experiences and potential complications of teen life that may include bullying and victimization. It also gives a bleak depiction of Korea's educational system. The plot of "Gangster High" is actually very simple and quite frankly, unoriginal. It is more a character-driven film as the direction by Park actually develops when characters are given their challenges and how they handle pressure. Each one is hinted a slight background while the lead characters get further developed in the 2nd act. As a result, the film's proceedings seem to stumble a bit in the middle, It did take me a bit longer to get into the film until the main antagonist actually shows up and the inevitable showdown is certainly something to look forward to.
I've mentioned that the film does have fisticuffs. Baseball bats, pipes, axes and knives all get used in the fight sequences with a very realistic touch. There are quite a lot of bones being broken and the fights do get bloody especially near the end. What I really appreciate with "Gangster High" is its realism with its fight scenes; while having the occasional martial arts touch, it doesn't look choreographed at all. True, the main protagonist doesn't look like they're highly skilled martial artists and to be honest; they don't pretend to be. Park does a great job portraying them as young men who are just doing the best they can to survive the fight they got themselves in. Sang Do is supposedly the most skilled in the group, and while he is, he is not invincible nor a highly trained fighter. (They're suppose to be teens after all) The fights may be a bit quick and brutal, so people who are expecting a visually kinetic action experience will be disappointed.
Despite the film's hints of masculinity and violence, the film is more about friendship and camaraderie; loyalty and trying to do right by your friends is the main focus of the film. The director subtly examines the psyche of teen violence, and I think on this aspect, the film truly shines. To its credit, it doesn't give an accusing eye at the protagonists nor give judgment for their actions. It allows us to decide for ourselves.
Gangster High is more about the CHOICES we make and the consequences when we make the wrong one. It also asks one singular question: What do you do when a choice makes its own decision for you?
Sometimes, our fate is our ultimate destiny, or is it?
RECOMMENDED! It is not a movie for everyone, rent it first. [3 Stars]