The mid-70s saw a small youth movie craze in South Korea as the boomers came of age and teenagers became a key demographic. It was also a time of increasing prosperity as the economic policies of the repressive Park Chung-hee regime began to bear fruit, but at the same time such films perhaps had a certain responsibility in addition to conforming to the era’s strict censorship requirements. Yalkae, A Joker in High School (高校 얄개 / 고교얄개, Gogyo-yalgae) is a remake of Jeong Seung-moon’s A Legend of Urchins from 1965 which was itself adapted from a serialised novel published in 1954. As such it presents a kind of awakening in a goofy privileged teen after he realises that the prank he played on another boy for fun has had much more serious consequences than he could have imagined partly because he had no idea that his classmate lived in such different conditions to himself.
We first meet the “yalkae” or joker of the title during a religious assembly at his strict missionary school. While his friend Yong-ho (Jin Yoo-young) snatches crunchy snacks from another boy and sneakily chomps them down, Doo-soo (Lee Seung-hyeon) is caught napping and tries to talk his way out of it by claiming he was merely at prayer before reciting bits of the bible only forget all the names and replace them with those of his own family members. A montage sequence sees him play tricks on his friend in chemistry and set off an alarm clock in class to make the teacher think the lesson’s over. Like many young boys Doo-soo is a class clown. His pranks may be mildly disruptive, but they are never malicious and meant only in fun.
Nevertheless, he’s got himself a reputation as a troublemaker. Doo-soo’s dad is also a teacher at the school, which is mildly embarrassing for him, and perhaps why he’s given a job to a sympathetic young man, Mr. Baek (Ha Myeong-joong), who was once his own student and will now be teaching Doo-soo. Doo-soo finds this all a bit awkward, especially as it’s quite obvious to him that Mr. Baek has a crush on his grown-up sister Doo-joo (Jeong Yoon-Hee). Meanwhile, Mr. Baek’s errand to fetch something from his room above a greengrocer’s introduces him to the earnest In-sook (Kang Joo-hee), a student at the girls’ high school who works in her family’s shop, with whom he is instantly smitten.
The major antagonist in his school life, however, is Ho-cheol (Kim Jeong-hoon), a bit of a swot with a tendency to tell tales to teachers. To teach him a lesson, Doo-soo pulls one of his elaborate pranks, colouring the lenses in his glasses red while he sleeps and then waking him up shouting “fire”. Ho-cheol inevitably panics and his glasses get broken in the chaos. Doo-soo pulls another prank on the headmaster which loses him Mr. Baek’s sympathy and nearly gets him expelled, which might be why he ignores Ho-cheol’s small apology for being a tattletale and plea for him to pay for the broken specs. Ho-cheol stops coming to school and a guilty Doo-soo eventually finds out that he’s broken his leg after coming off his bike during his part-time job delivering milk because he didn’t have his glasses and wasn’t able to see.
Tracking Ho-cheol down takes Dal-soo to an unfamiliar environment on the outskirts of the city where the boy lives in a tiny rooftop room with his older sister who has a job in the factory. To pay for school and help with expenses, Ho-cheol gets up early to deliver milk every morning before classes. A strange but cheerful sort of boy he isn’t afraid of Doo-soo and is actually quite excited to receive a visit, blaming himself for talking too much and apologising for his habit of tattling to the teachers. Up til now, everyone has been trying to “reform” Doo-soo by instilling in him the urge for order and discipline, which he has always resisted. Discovering how Ho-cheol lives and how his silly prank has affected him brings about a real humbling, finally encouraging Doo-soo to start growing up and accepting responsibility which he does by taking over Ho-cheol’s part-time job to raise money for his medical treatment while diligently taking notes in class to bring back to him so he won’t fall too far behind.
Grateful for the notes, Ho-cheol is perplexed when he tries to ask Dal-soo a question about the lesson only for him to reply that he only wrote down what he heard. Ho-cheol’s confusion prompts him into a reconsideration of his schooling as he asks sensible questions on behalf of his friend and accidentally becomes an earnest student more out of kindness than curiosity. Mr. Baek, with whom he’d fallen out, had asked In-sook to ignore Doo-soo because his crush was getting in the way of his studies so she ended up telling him she didn’t want to hang out with someone who’d been held back, further fuelling his sense of embarrassment in being an educational slacker when education is, according to Ho-cheol who dreams of a top job in one of the many gleaming spires now lining the city, the way forward.
The “yalkae” is reformed, not quite as serious as the slightly ridiculous pastor, but returned to religion in furiously praying for Ho-cheol’s recovery and pushed towards earnestness in his pure hearted determination to help his friend by working hard in his place. Everyone suddenly sees his goodness rather than his mischief, In-sook starts talking to him again, and the family is repaired with Doo-soo now recognised as a “good son” rather than a problem child. The message is less that being a goof off in class is bad than it is that studying hard for a better future is part of being a good guy, as is being kind and developing an awareness of your social responsibility in acknowledging the consequences of your actions on those around you while remaining aware that not everyone is quite as fortunate as oneself.
Yalkae, a Joker in High School is available on DVD from the Korean Film Archive in a set which also includes a bilingual booklet featuring essays by film critics Kim Jong-won and Park Yoo-hee.