The film Attack the Gas Station! is an excellent representation of South Korean cinema at the end of the 20th century, portraying a rapidly changing time for the society. The film represents a cultural shift in South Korea as well as the chaos that was ongoing in society and people’s personal lives as contemporary values began to collide with traditional aspects of the country’s heritage. This time in South Korea’s history represented the liberation of artistic and creative freedom that could be used as a medium of social criticism.
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The stylistic elements of the film are much bolder, ambitious, and controversial (influenced by pop genres of Western cinema) than most films following traditional formats to the date of the release, making this film a cornerstone for new beginnings in Korean cinematography.
The film provides numerous instances of social commentary. Despite the protagonists committing a crime, the film helps to sympathize with the youth. Their life and dreams were broken by social and familial pressures, resulting in the rebellious behavior. The critical question of “why are they robbing the gas station?” and the sarcastic response that follows, “just because” are indicators of the film’s tone. The young people engage in such behavior due to supposed boredom.
However, based on subtle hints throughout the film, it is obvious that unemployment, economic turmoil, and class division are ravaging South Korean society. The audience realizes, after being presented with the personal stories of the protagonists, that the youth probably has little opportunity for work or education in the current setting of the film.
Socio-economic devastation portrayed in the film is an accurate reflection of desperation that South Korea faced in the midst of the IMF crisis. As government controls were relaxed, foreign products and influences began to flow into the country in the form of cars, electronics, and even soft drinks which diverted profits from domestic products. An interesting scene in the film occurs when a gang member drinks a can of Pepsi thinking it is a Korean soft beverage since the logo is similar to the national flag.
This is a subtle reference to the influences of foreign economic imperialism which has permeated Korean society to the point of becoming a part of national identity. However, it can be argued that it symbolized the elimination of national identity since the young man only selected the drink due to a distant resemblance, which suggests an overall lack of education or social understanding about the cultural or political forces at influence in South Korea at the time.
A major theme in the film is class division. It is the basis of the conflict that occurs as the protagonists attempt to rob the gas station. When it is evident the robbery has failed the second time, the gang attempts to seize control of the establishment, collecting all the profits from gas sales. While it is understandably a plot device to maintain a narrative, this somewhat unusual turn of events is a metaphor for the poor seeking to overthrow the rich from power.
The economic crisis which closed thousands of companies and resulted in layoffs hit the working-class population the hardest despite being caused by the irresponsibility in the financial sector. It is evident that the film suggests that someone can only make a difference through drastic and symbolic actions. Corruption in society has grown to the point of police failing to enforce laws and openly violating them. Similar to the chaotic standoff in the finale, all sides of South Korean society were actively heading towards a deadly and violent conflict.