I remember a story from decades back about some guys who were going to rob a convenience store. Unfortunately they chose a moment to strike when the cash register was rather empty. Then the brains of this operation came up with a rather inspired idea. It was decided that they would lock up the store employees in the back, then put on their cute little jerseys and take in the money the customers would bring to the counter in the course of the day.
Putting it briefly they made out like . . . well, like bandits. The story even mentioned how a few policemen were among their customers.
I was remembering that story when I first caught the trailer for Kim Sang-jin's 1999 film "Attack the Gas Station" ("Juyuso seubgyuksageun"). At least eventually. My initial reaction to to the trailer was my mouth slowly opening and me going "What . . . the . . ."
Months later the opportunity arose and I purchased a copy of the film for myself.
As with so much of the Far East, Korea is enjoying something of a renaissance in cinema. Especially when it comes to being the torchbearers for genre films. Titles such as Bong Joon-ho's "The Host", Yoon Je-kyoon's "Tidal Wave" and Shim Hyung-rae's "D-War" have been among the highest grossing films to come out of South Korea. As with Japan, China and other countries in the region, the world is seeing a dynamic new generation of directors making films which not only entertain the populations within their borders, but is accomplishing the heretofore seemingly impossible by breaking through the provincialism of American consciousness, providing what is technically termed a "high-old time" for people in this country.
And speaking of high-old times . . .
"Attack the Gas Station" is Kim Sang-jin's fourth film, and serves as a fair illustration of his penchant for injecting comedy into the most serious situations. During the first few minutes of the film a street gang is seen robbing and vandalizing a gas station. Aimless and bored, the gang later on decides (for the sheer heck of it) to rob the exact same gas station. But this time the manager has taken the precaution of putting the till somewhere else and, when the gang arrives, they find the cupboard is bare. Frustrated they decide to take the manager and the employees hostage and run the station themselves, keeping the money the customers pay for gas.
Here's where the old line about having a tiger by the tail comes into play. The gang members are now de facto owners and operators of the gas station. which seems to become the target for every lowlife and dysfunctional person in South Korea. The gang's usual method of response is to toss them into an ever growing mix of hostages (fortunately the gas station is a large two-story affair, although one of the American models might've made for a more bizarre story). Eventually the situation devolves to the point where the original gang finds itself trapped by the situation they've created, forced to defend the very gas station they've taken over. What starts out as a heist film/social commentary has grown into a three-ring circus.
Audiences with long memories will think of films in a similar vein (e.g. Lloyd Bacon's "Larceny, Inc.". Howard Morris' "Who's Minding the Mint?"). Stories of capers which balloon far beyond their expected proportions. "Attack the Gas Station" is Kim's turn at bat. The movie isn't filled with drop-dead slapstick . . . at least not endlessly. Kim is taking the time to show the world the nature of South Korean urban life during rough economic times. His underlying philosophy, though, is why not have a few giggles along the way?
Of course one of the methods for accomplishing this is to allow the audience to begin sympathizing with the members of the gang. Rather than a bunch of marauding hardened criminals, the quartet is actually a collection of disenfranchised youths who have turned to crime because . . . well . . . they really had nothing better to do (and deuce little in the way of opportunity). The leader (Lee Sung-jae) struck out in his attempts to be a baseball player, another member (Yoo Ji-tae) had his artistic aspirations rejected by his father.
For the majority of laughs the person to watch in the film is Yu Oh-seong as the gang's strong-arm; spending most of the time in the film intimidating the hostages (or trying to) with an enormous stick. Think of Lou Costello as Luca Brasi and you'd have a fair idea what's happening with this performance. Kim worked with what was essentially a cast of unknowns, looking for (and getting) a sense of verisimilitude, and the film would provide welcome exposure and career boosts to many of the actors (as well as screenwriter Park Jeong-woo, who would later go on to be a director in his own right).
By concentrating the action in and around the gas station, Kim also demonstrated a clever eye for getting the most result out of very little material. The film almost takes on the aspect of a stage play and, along with the gang (and the hostages) the audience finds its world soon reduced to the immediate surroundings. The gas station becomes something similar to a campfire in the wilderness, and the gang members (who must remain in control of the station) soon cannot contemplate leaving the "safety" of the base they've had thrust onto them. Given a relatively simple concept, Kim weaves a complex and bizarre tale and, if the laughs don't roll over one after the other, "Attack the Gas Station" can still shake the audience just on the strength of its audacity.
Don't know about you people, but I rather Enjoyed the Film!