Volcano High

Stylish but ultimately average wire-fu based mayhem. Needs more fighting. Must try harder, B-.

Released in 2001, certified HK-CAT2B. Reviewed on 03 Aug 2003 by Scott Morris
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Known as Whasango to the Korean speakers out there, this is an interesting oddity that in some ways reminds me of Ang Lee's recent Hulk in that the story itself is somewhat sub-standard, but it's dripping with so much style that you can't help but appreciate it on some level.

It's also a comic book adaptation, and similar techniques have been used regarding the framing of shots although it doesn't take it to the glorious extremes that Lee did, although it's more obviously comic-book like than X2 or Spider-man. It's a tale of a school where many of the students have strange powers and an intimate knowledge of violence. After school clubs such as the weight lifting society and the kendo club form the same kind of antagonistic cliques generally found in high schools, but open warfare is prevented by the steady guiding hand of the schools strongest fighter, Song Hak-rim (Sang-woo Kwon) and the principles' vague threats / promises regarding a secret scroll.

Into this melting pot steps Kim Kyeong-su (Hyuk Jang), a troubled teenager drummed out of eight schools previously due to his inability to control his fearsome powers. Not that it's entirely his fault, he does seem to pick up more than his fair share of antagonism. On entering Volcano High it's made clear that he's drinking at the last chance saloon. While he's picked on from his first day there, he restrains himself from retaliating and tries to keep his nose clean.

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Things become less clear once the principle is found frozen by some mysterious spell. The vice-principle takes over and immediately starts searching for the mysterious scroll, and throws Song Hak-rim in to the schools' prison on grounds of general suspicion. With the schools' alpha male out of the way the rival gangs immediately start jockeying for position with main rivalry between the largely female Kendo club, lead by the school beauty Yu Cha-i and the weight lifting society headed by Jang Ryang (Su-ro Kim). Yu Cha-i is regarded as a bit of a cold hearted lass, keeping her distance from most people earning her the nickname Icy Jade. That she's handy with a kendo stick should be obvious. Jang Ryang is a hot-headed bull, and immediately goes on the offensive to become top dog in the school, aided by a alliance with the dodgy vice-principle.

Despite his best efforts, Kim can't help but get mixed up in the middle of this having shown some of his powers fighting Jang Ryang, who has continued his campaign of torment on the poor lad. Kim always holds back, not wanting to be slung out of school. Despite his attraction to Yu Cha-i, he refuses the kendo teams somewhat overzealous attempt to induce him to join, and to prevent all out warfare Yu Cha-i calls a halt to their battles and recognises Jang Ryang as the ruler of the place. His motives for his single-minded pursuit of his goal becomes clear when he declares his love for Yu Cha-i, saying he could not act on it before as Song Hak-rim was regarded as stronger.

There remains antagonism between Kim and Jang, but this almost becomes a secondary consideration once the vice-principle decides that the school is getting two out of control and enlists the help of five 'special needs' teachers, their needs mainly being to beat up students with their powers. Jang takes offence at this slight to his skills and eventually challenges the teachers, headed by the imposing Mr. Ma (Jun-ho Heo) to a battle. He looses handily. Kim remains on the sidelines having had a previous run-in with these enforcers / teachers, but eventually breaks and goes on the offensive. He would seem to be beaten handily, but in a tale of solidarity he is aided by Jang Ryang and Yu Cha-i in the set piece closing battle in the rain.

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The director, Tae-gyun Kim clearly has an eye for framing and his inspiration surely comes from the comic books it's based on. While difficult to do for the action scenes, during the plot expositions everything is framed so carefully and the composition so delicate you can almost see the frames and speech bubbles. Stylistically it's impossible to pick fault with Volcano High. Like Hulk and Hero, every frame could be printed out and hung in any gallery. The look of the film is spellbinding.

Look at the screenshots, if you don't believe me. To me it was faintly reminiscent of Spielberg's Minority Report either through photochemical trickery or by harsh lighting, the play of contrasts and light creates one of the most distinctive styles I've seen in a film, and it's a great effect.

It's a crying shame I can't be so glowing with praise for the meat of the film. The plot simply isn't that great. It's solid enough, I suppose, but despite the supernatural powers ultimately too conventional. That said, for action movies the plot is almost entirely dispensable which begs the question; How are the fights?

They're not that great is the answer, I'm afraid. The various combatants supernatural powers allow for all kinds of super kicks and people flying across rooms in a wire-fu fashion, but we've seen so much of this in recent years not only from the Far East but from the bandwagon jumpers of Hollywood that some fairly impressive stuff has to be pulled from the chop-sockey bag to make any kind of significant impact, and Volcano High fails to do so. The fights aren't of jaw-dropping quality, and the quantity part of the equation is unfortunately rather low as well.

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Perhaps this is being harsh. Perhaps it's not intended as an out-and-out actioner. I had no real idea what to expect from this film having heard little in the way of specifics before watching it, yet somehow it managed not to deliver what I was expecting. It deals with fairly universal themes of Kim's growing pains, assuming we take his supernatural abilities as metaphorical, so I can't think it's a tale that would hold any special significance for a Korean teenager over any other locale. In this respect Volcano High doesn't deal with any theme not covered in any number of telemovies, although admittedly it has far more class. And wire-work.

One bright spot is Hyuk Jang, who looks to be an actor to keep any eye on over the coming years. Amid a sea of adequate performances he stands out as something that could well be spectacular. His fighting is graceful and elegant. For the most part he can looks as calm and calculating while in action, yet he can convey the rage filled attacks with equal aplomb. His delivery of the dialogue (as well as someone who doesn't speak Korean can tell) is more than decent, and when he's called on to do a few set piece gurning moments in the comedy sequences he manages to look more charming than goofy, always a difficult trick. There's one other person that fits the above description, and his name is Jet Li. At least before he started doing comparatively awful Hollywood clunkers. Hyuk Jang looks like he could easily have fit directly into The Legend Of Fong Sai Yuk or any of Li's early work that I'd still consider to be his best. Hopefully Jang will mature into an action star to follow in an era where they're becoming thin on the ground.

Oh yeah, the comedy. There are a few stretches that I'd assume to be their mainly for comic relief, and they don't seem to have translated too well. Between this, the more dramatic plot elements and the action, it results in a film that hits the 100 minute mark, which seems to be a good quarter of an hour too long for the actual content of the movie. It's not too obvious on initial viewing, but thinking back it's difficult to see exactly how they managed to fill the time with the fairly simple story.

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Like Hulk, I always end up returning to the style over substance conundrum and in the case of Volcano High it's sliding a little too far towards style. The story is in no way offensively awful, but it is rather pedestrian and there's not enough in the way of action to gloss over the cracks in the film as Hulk could. I'd almost break out the same 'highly recommended for it's style' recommendation as I did for the big green fella, but in the absence of a cinematic run in this country Volcano High can't have the same impact on a TV.

I think I can only recommend this to the die hard chop-sockey fans amongst us. I'd almost consider myself part of that group and I have severe reservations about it, so there's no chance in hell that this will have the same crossover audience that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did. It's an average beat-em-up experience; no more, no less.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.

Tae-gyun Kim
Cast list:
Hyuk Jang (Kim Kyeong-su)
Min-a Shin (Yu Cha-i)
Su-ro Kim (Jang Ryang)
Sang-woo Kwon (Song Hak-rim)
Hyo-jin Kong (So Yo-seon)
Hyeong-jong Kim (Shim Ma)
Jun-ho Heo (Mr. Ma)