Judge Joel Pearce is glad this film comes from South Korea, or else it might have been entitled "People's Glorious Teen-Related Fun Time Entertaiment Comedy Product."
He's tough. He's stupid. He's in love.
Conduct Zero, like many contemporary Korean films, blends together a wide range of elements. The result is a giddy, loud, foul-mouthed, and ultimately touching comedy that feels both familiar and completely unique. Set in the '80s, and with a relationship between a tough guy and innocent girl, it feels just a bit like a John Hughes movie. At the same time, though, the tough edge of the gang elements in Conduct Zero really affect the overall tone of the film, and the continually raw language separates it from that lighter domestic Hughes tradition. To prevent the gang elements from overshadowing the comedy, most of the action is really silly and over-the-top, a parody of some of the style of recent martial arts films. Somehow, through all of this, the relationship between Joong-Pil and Ming-Hee is remarkably tender and real, in a way that I would never expect in this type of comedy. The end was a surprise as well, but I am certainly not going to wreck that for anyone.
Facts of the Case
Like so many teen comedies, Conduct Zero is centered around a boy and a girl. In this case the boy is Joong-Pil (Seung-beom Ryu), the toughest and most popular guy in school, who asserts his authority by stealing lunch money and threatening the younger students with violence. He has become the stuff of legend in town, and the stories of his fighting prowess have gotten out of hand. In reality, he is not especially bright, but certainly appreciates the benefits that his power afford him. The girl is Ming-Hee (Eun-kyeong Lim), a dedicated student who tries to stay out of trouble, but who proves to be feisty when cornered. She is an excellent student, and her interests don't really connect her to the popular crowd.
It should be pointed out that Joong-Pil and Ming-Hee don't get together because of a bet, as they inevitably would in an American comedy. Instead, they truly fall in love with each other, which is what drives the conflict in the film. Sparks fly when Joong-Pil's old flame Na-Young (Hyo-jin Kong) catches wind of the relationship, and fears that his interest in this new girl will soften him and cause him to lose his position. This becomes a more serious possibility when Sung-Mahn, a new tough guy in town, starts to move in on Joong-Pil's territory without any real resistance. Will Joong-Pil be able to walk away from his old life to be with Ming-Hee, or will he become a laughing stock when Sung-Mahn pounds him into the ground? One thing is certain: most North American viewers will be surprised by how it all turns out.
Trying to balance a diverse range of styles in a single film is always risky, and some of the Korean films I have seen in the past few years haven't really pulled it off well. Conduct Zero has several things that hold it all together, though. The first of these is a competent script, which uses some creative ideas in order to connect some of the more disparate elements of the film. The other is a collection of great actors who are able to handle the range of tasks that are thrown at them.
In the opening scene of the film, a group of boys tell each other stories of Joong-Pil's exploits. The main story, in which he uses his super-powers to defeat a whole school of martial arts experts, is so ridiculously overblown that we know from the very beginning that there has to be more to him than what they are saying. The broader moments of comedy are always placed in this context, where the rules of reality are replaced with the rules of expanding gossip. This is how Joong-Pil stays in power, and how the hierarchy of the students stays in place. Joong-Pil's new relationship, though, is not the stuff of legend; and it is this truth that threatens to bring it all crashing down. At the end, though, even when we get to see the truth, the other students are never able to see each other as they really are. The gossip and legend are the only ways they have to order themselves. The one exception to this is the romance between Joong-Pil and Ming-Hee. It is as subtle and tender as the rest of the movie is loud and crude, and there is something about it that feels refreshingly true-to-life.
All of the performances are excellent. Seung-beom Ryu is especially good as Joong-Pil. He is enough of a fop that we know immediately that he's not the superstar his peers seem to think he is. He is stupid and cruel and vain, with little regard for the people around him. As the same time, he has the charisma required for us to believe that he has gained this kind of position in his school. His transition when he becomes interested in Ming-Hee is completely believable as well. Eun-kyeong Lim's performance is every bit as good. So often, teen comedies are about girls who have a near-magical transformation from being nerdy to being cute and cool. Ming-Hee is such an effective character because she is, from the very beginning, both nerdy and cute. She hangs with an unpopular crowd and can't really stand up to the cooler girls. But even with the massive glasses that she wears, it's not hard to see how Joong-Pil could be (and is) immediately drawn to her. The conflict in the story, then, does not arise from Joong-Pil trying to change her into the girl he wants to be with, but rather from his trying to change his own life so that she will want to be with him. It's a subtle difference, perhaps; but one that makes the whole film a lot more appealing. The supporting cast is also spot-on, delivering hilarious performances without ever getting in the way of the main story.
ADV has done a generally good job with the transfer. The video looks clean and bright, handling the bold color palate with ease. Being a recent movie, there aren't any signs of print damage, so I have nothing to complain about there. The cover says that the film is presented full-frame, but the transfer on the disc is actually anamorphic, in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The subtitles are all placed in the black area at the bottom, and are consistently accurate and easy to read. The sound transfer is a bit puzzling. There is an English Dolby 5.1 track, created with the aid of the usual ADV dubbing crew. Much better is the original Korean track, but it is only available in stereo. Just as a reference, I looked at the specs of the Korean DVD—which had both Dolby 5.1 and DTS Korean tracks. I'm puzzled. Did ADV not get the rights to the Korean surround tracks? I would have loved to have heard this film with the original sound mix. That said, both the Korean stereo track and the English track sound fine, though I would definitely recommend the Korean track, as many of the dub actors don't seem to fit their roles.
While it couldn't be considered a full-blown special edition, ADV has also included a number of special features, which are more impressive in quantity than quality. As with some other recent ADV-released shows, there is a series of dialogue outtakes in which the voice actors say rude and childish things. In addition, there's a picture gallery of production photos, with the same annoying song from the menu playing under it. There is also a music video, featuring the same song yet again. Yay. More interesting is the Movie Highlights segment, which intersperses sequences from the film with behind-the-scenes footage of how each was made. It's a slightly different approach, and it works well. Beyond that, there is a section with student files featuring information about the major characters. All of the special features are, like the film itself, pleasant but light.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm probably digging far deeper than I should into Conduct Zero. Bottom line, it's a boundary-pushing teen comedy that can compete with films like Road Trip and American Pie, but doesn't make you feel like you've lost a bunch of brain cells after you've watched it. And, to be fair, it isn't completely perfect all the time. Some of the jokes fall flat, and I'm not sure how I feel about the tone of the ending. I like that it wasn't at all what I was expecting, but I'm not sure that this direction was the right one in which to go. It tends to be repetitive as well, especially with the '80s inspired light K-pop soundtrack. These are all minor complaints, though, for a film that I think edges out most Hollywood teen comedies in quality and entertainment value. It also has the slight problem of missing its true target audience—with some changes to the coarse language (which is continual and excessive), it would have been a great movie for kids in their early- to mid-teens. I'm not saying that all films should be PG-13, but a film's intended target audience is something that always needs to be taken into account. I suspect that ADV probably had some translation problems with Conduct Zero, replacing milder words in Korean with what are quite strong words in English in order to have the dialogue make sense.
Yeah, Conduct Zero isn't destined to become the next Casablanca, or even the next When Harry Met Sally. I'm not sure it's even comparable to Ferris Bueller's Day Off. In the overall wasteland of teen comedy, though, this is definitely a gem that's worth checking out. The delightful mix of conventional comedy and zany off-the-wall humor is just right, and most comedy fans will find it at least worth a rental.
Not guilty, even though that theme song is still stuck in my head.
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