Today I watched Kim Sang-Jin’s Attack the Gas Station! (1999)
As the film opens, four street toughs dissatisfied with society trash a gas station and rob the hapless night shift. Some time later, the same four toughs are eating noodles at a convenience store and find themselves bored out of their skulls, so they decide to rob the gas station again. But this time the owner has stashed the money, so they take the night shift hostage while trying to figure things out. During the night things get crazy as our violent hoodlum protagonists seem incapable of meeting someone without picking a fight and soon the gas station becomes the focal point for a wild and riotous night none will soon forget.
On a basic level this film follows the formula of a heist gone wrong style of misadventure, just on an absurdly low scale. The sense of humour is very similar to the work that originally put the Coen Brothers on the map. Beneath that is a level of deep social satire that may go over the heads of many non-Korean viewers. There is general stuff about finding one’s place in society and other more general coming of age themes, but it is all framed by the South Korean economic downturn that was a symptom of a broader Asian financial crisis. There are also moments when the film notes the economic invasion that American brands perpetrate world wide.
While many films that portray this kind of misadventure have the audience laughing at the would be criminals, this film garners a lot of sympathy for them. The cast is absolutely on point in this matter and many of the young talent would go on to become big names in South Korean cinema. It also illustrates how social and economic oppression has led them to their situation as young toughs, they all had dreams and goals which, due to numerous faults of their own, blatant corruption, and disapproving parents, never came about.
All in all, Attack the Gas Station is a riot of entertainment backed up by deep and well considered themes. Much of it’s humour transcends the language barrier with over the top physicality and slapstick which all pairs beautifully with strong character moments. As a piece of pure entertainment it is endlessly engaging but the thought provoking themes really take it to the next level of cinematic mastery. 5/5