Attack the Gas Station!

Anarchic Korean hostage comedy liberally laced with slapstick slapping.

Released in 1999, certified HK-CAT2B. Reviewed on 06 Apr 2004 by Scott Morris
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Occasionally I'll buy things purely on aesthetic value and sometimes on things that just sound so good it'd be a crime to ignore them. Knowing, for instance, that a film called Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance exists is cause enough for me to reach for my wallet, and on seeing a film called Attack The Gas Station! a similar involuntary expenditure scenario came about. Both times it paid off in spades. Although sounding rather like a 30's science fiction film featuring aliens with low expectations of themselves, Attack The Gas Station! is an anarchic Korean comedy that plays something like The Young Ones go thieving.

No Mark (Sung-jae Lee), Bulldog (Oh-seong Yu), Ddan Dda-ra (Seong-jin Kang) and Paint (Ji-tae Yu) are four bored and rebellious youths who decide to rob a petrol station. They do so, and then like it so much they decide to do it again the next week. Why? Because it's fun, or so we're told in a lazily overlaid graphic that's forgivably charming. This time the wily gas station owner (Yeong-gyu Park) hides away most of the takings before the lads arrive on the scene, resulting in an unacceptably meagre haul for our anti-heroes. They arrive at a solution to this problem by following similar logic to HoneyBunny and Pumpkin from Pulp Fiction, deciding to lock up the staff in one of the backrooms and taking over the asylum themselves.

After a crash course in coerced petrol pumping by one of the hapless employees, Paint, Ddan Dda-ra and No Mark attend to prospective customers who will be getting a full tank regardless of their wishes while Bulldog keeps a watchful eye on the staff accompanied by his faithful hittin' stick. This wouldn't be too bad of a plan, were it not for the gang's somewhat short tempers leading to threats against the customers and in many cases bundling them in along with the staff. Whiling away the time, Bulldog organises small fight tournaments between is captives on the simple basis that he thinks it'll be fun. Strangely many of the captors undergo a Stockholm Syndrome, as it's clear from the get go that our anti-heroes aren't evil so much as they're naughty little scamps.

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After beating up a few local goons who demanded protection money, No Mark and co anger the local crime overlords who show up for a barney. They're met by a small force of pissed off moped wielding delivery boys, called in by Su-ro Kim (who you may recognise as Jang Ryang from Volcano High) after the gangs failure to pay for their take-away, one amongst many amusing transgressions. Taking a silly situation and by turns making it sillier, the ensuing brawl unsurprisingly attracts the attention of the cops leading to the only recorded instance of a Mexican standoff armed with only lighters and matches, which given the location could have combustible consequences.

On the basis of the few Korean films I've seen, I'm going to make the assumption that most of their comedy output is based around hitting people, preferably slapping. While Attack the Gas Station! contains disappointing few slappings there's more than enough beatings, occasionally with sticks, to cover the shortfall. By any token this film sounds as though it ought to be one of the more distastefully violent films to emerge from the area, but what's difficult (for me at least) to convey is the sheer lack of malice that accompanies the physicality. Even Bulldog smacking thugs with his Hacksaw Jim Duggan-esque two by four seems more on a level with Laurel and Hardy being clumsy with a ladder.

With its sound grounding in physical comedy, director Sang-Jin Kim has created one of the few slapstick based farces that I've actually found funny in any significant way. Clearly farcical in nature, there's also a smattering of sight gags (Ddan Ddra-ra mistaking the Pepsi logo for the Korean flag) to jolly things along. The charismatic anti-heroes make it easy to suspend moral judgments on their thieving nature and enjoy their criminal knockarounds, so much so that when each man is given a short flashback showing the cause of their current disaffection the effort seems both entirely in vain and particularly forced, breaking the flow of the piece for little gain.

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Kudos also goes to the translators of the subtitles, an area that's frequently dropped to the bottom of the priority queue in our experience. When Bulldog plays a word game with one of his female captives that's best described to U.K. readers of a certain age as "Strip Mallett's Mallet", either we're getting an exceptionally lucky literal translation or the subtitle creators have spent some care and attention finding comparable words such that the rules of the game can be deciphered even by non-native speakers.

Given that by a matter of plot necessity the action takes place in and around one location that's not generally renowned for it's photogenic attributes, it's even more vital that the leads provide colourful performances. While I'll have to profess a general ignorance of the actors in question of the kind that can only come from the lack of exposure the Korean market receives in Britain, I have it on mildly reliable information that Lee Sung Jae, Yoo Oh Sung and Yoo Ji Tae in particular were the hot properties of the moment on the film's 1999 creation, and on this basis they ought to be in demand still. While Sung-jae Lee remains calm, cool and collected as the group's reader, it's Oh-seong Yu's Bulldog that steals the show. With some top monologues and lines, a gift for physical comedy, reaction shots that Jim Carrey would sell his soul for and most importantly of all, a really big stick, Oh-seong cuts the most memorable character in a film that's not short of that particular attribute.

The only complaint of note I'll level at its general direction is that for a lighthearted little farce with intermittent beatings it's two hour running time is a good quarter hour overlong. While viewing in a less patient mood this hurts it, perhaps undeservedly so. It's most noticeable on a first viewing as unless you've had the foresight to read the back cover it's length might come as somewhat of a surprise. While it could do with a spot of judicious trimming, for the most part it remains a chucklesome diversion that I now find funnier on repeat viewing having had he pleasure of watching a few more Korean efforts (notably Bad Guy and the slap-tastic Public Enemy) in the intervening time. It's admittedly unlikely to show up anytime soon in your local Blockbuster, but it's well worth tracking down through alternate methods.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Sang-Jin Kim
Cast list:
Sung-jae Lee (No Mark)
Oh-seong Yu (Mu Dae-po (a.k.a. Bulldog))
Seong-jin Kang (Ddan Dda-ra)
Ji-tae Yu (Paint)
Yeong-gyu Park (Gas station owner)
Jun Jeong (Geon-Bbang)
Yu-won Lee (Ggal-chi)
Jeong-ho Lee (Meek man)
Su-ro Kim (Delivery boy)