Volcano High (South Korea 2002)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 6/23/03
Director: Kim Tae-gyun
Cast: Hyuk Jang, Shin Min-a, Kong Hyo-jin

Wow. I haven't seen a film like this in ages. Imagine if "The Story Of Ricky" (1991) took place at a high school instead of a prison, with the execution and absurd sensibilities of "Versus" (2000), and a dash of "Fudoh: The New Generation" (1997) thrown in for good measure and you get something close to "Volcano High." Kim Kyung-soo (charismatic Hyuk Jang) is a rebellious young punk who has been kicked out of school eight times. His final chance to make it through high school awaits him at Volcano High, home to the roughest, toughest martial arts students in the world. When a devious plan to put the principal out of commision is hatched, the school becomes a free-for-all as the strongest students compete to find a mystical martial arts scripture. A ruthless disciplinary team is brought in to subdue the students, resulting in a fantastic showdown between Kyung-soo and the head disciplinarian. Truly a metaphor for the common man making a stand against the oppressive rule of the power-mad fools that run the world.

Very much in the vein of "Versus", this film is all about ultra-violence, bizarre quirkiness, looking cool, and who can strike the most awesome pose. Definitely cutting edge filmmaking, but like so many cutting edge films, it lacks the basic mechanics of concise storytelling and emotional attachment. Just what exactly is going on is this film? Who knows? But at the same time, who cares? It's essentially a two hour long music video full of outrageous characters, amazingly bad haircuts, and intricately choreographed fight scenes. Hyuk Jang is utterly amazing. He's a handsome young actor with the grace, agility, and intensity of Jet Li. (in fact, I think he's trying to do his best "Fist Of Legend" (1994) impersonation in the film) His innocent goofiness and naïve camera mugging nicely match his over-the-top character and perfectly fits within the absurd tone of the film. There's even some nice girl fu action courtesy of the girl's kendo club led by the top school beauty, Yoo Chae-yi (Shin Min-a). She gets in some excellent chops, but it's her adorable top student Soh Yo-sun (Kong Hyo-jin) who practically steals the show. She's extremely feisty, very pretty, and is always rushing to get into a fight. Unfortunately, she suffers from the very worst hair in the film, which is saying quite a bit considering all the coifs the film has to offer. But her radiance continues to shine through in spite of it all.

For the most part, the fight choreography and execution is superb, although there are some awkward and noticeably off wire effects here and there. But on the whole, the wire work is excellent, with the actors doing most (if not all) of their own stunts and performing very gracefully and naturally. That's what Hollywood stunt teams haven't picked up on yet - physical grace. The only way to incorporate wire stunts in contemporary action is to make the actors look graceful and natural, as if flying were second nature to them. Otherwise, it just looks like puppets being jerked around on strings. And it's clear that these actors suffered dearly for their results, with extremely demanding and punishing physical feats, working in freezing weather, and being subjected to lots of scenes with cold water. A good time is to be had while watching this film, as long as you make no attempt to understand what's going on and just appreciate it for its art and creativity.