Attack the Gas Station! (1999)

Attack the Gas Station! is an effective show case for 4 young stars and goes some way to prove that the newly revitalised Korean cinema has a lot to offer. Anarchic, briskly staged and with some genuinely funny moments, it is a film which could be remade to good effect in the West (I can see Kevin Spacey as the beleagued station owner, for instance) although I doubt that all of the verve could be recaptured, for this is a young man’s film, angry and alert to wider issues.

“If they move, kill them” is a running joke through the film as the number of hostages increases and, whether or not a deliberate reference to Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, its still funny.

The least convincing aspect of the film is the flashbacks. While useful in providing some background and character motivation for the main characters, their previous lives seems sketched in too cursorily and in result the young men lose dramatic weight. It’s as if that, once away from the scene of their most important and direct influence, they are morally enervated. Their stature is only significant, the film seems to suggest, as the principals go on and take direct, group action. Part of this is deliberate, as their past frustration undoubtedly feeds their current boredom and anger, yet one feels that much of the same ground could have been covered by some relevant interaction between the four, who leave their personal demons resolutely undiscussed.

More interesting is what the Gas Station represents: this viewer feels that, to some extent, it is Korea in microcosm. Just as Japanese cinema has repeatedly reworked the trauma of nuclear holocaust into its science fiction and fantasy films, so the peculiar nature of the local North-South Korean standoff and mutual hostility is echoed in this film, in which the ending threatens a peculiarly lunatic and mutually achieved apocalypse through petrol and lighters. Clearly, continued tension plays a part in the national psyche, and the repeated requests to ‘fix it'(the phone) has wider implications as far as national communication or understanding is concerned.

The contempt poured upon the glib national slogans hanging in the wall is one explicit political disaffection. As the film proceeds and the shiny new gas station (a manifestation in itself of the hitherto ‘economic miracle’ of the east) is increasingly the scene of mini power struggles, escalating standoffs, and threats of destruction. This is a Korea in which changes are demanded, or annihilation surely follows, and in which no one it appears wants to be ‘boss’ or take responsibility, as the station owner’s ready relinquishment of authority suggests. A country in which one might as well balance upside down on one’s head, pointlessly and endlessly, as achieve any dialogue. And as the final scene shows, a forecourt packed with Koreans ready to destroy themselves is both bitterly ironic and ruthlessly apt.