What if tensions between Japan and North Korea could be decided with a rumble between high school delinquent boys? 2005's Break Through! (パッチギ!) presents something close to this solution, the film imagines two high schools in 1968 Kyoto, a Japanese school and a school of North Korean emigrants. A sincere drama that nonetheless skews reality a little bit, this occasionally over the top in sentiment teenage gang film has a great deal of charm.
The film opens with the entire class of the North Korean school taking revenge on the Japanese school for one of the Japanese students spilling ink on a North Korean girl's clothes. The North Koreans retaliate by tipping over a bus full of Japanese students.
No adult authorities would apparently think of interfering in this battle. Which sets the tone of the film which depicts two worlds coexisting in one reality, a world of adults where tensions between North Koreans and the Japanese are based on very real resentments regarding the past, and a world of teenage hooligans who routinely commit acts of extreme violence to satisfy pride.
This is a Japanese movie, which makes it somewhat surprising that the tale's sympathy mostly resides with the North Korean students, particularly with their brash leader, Lee An-Son (Sosuke Takaoka). We still kind of sympathise with him even after he and his guys beat the shit out of a the Japanese school's martial arts club in a bowling alley and force them to eat marbles.
The film also follows Kosuke (Shun Shioya), an awkward, idealistic young man who wants to form a folk group in the hopes of bringing peace between the two groups after he falls for Lee An-Son's sister (Erika Sawajiri). She's so adorable, when she cries, she makes you want to find the punk responsible and make him sorry.
In the end, the film buckles a bit under some over the top emotion but a lot of it, particularly the conflicts between the violent and insecure youths, has the appeal of a 1950s Hollywood teenage misfit film like Rebel Without a Cause or The Wild One. As for how well all this speaks to feelings between the Japanese and North Korean emigrants in Japan I can't say. The film seems to side step questions of communism with the smoke screen absurdity of a Mao worshipping Japanese teacher in love with a Russian prostitute.