Volcano High

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

VOLCANO HIGH

6?/10

Whasango (also known as Hwasango / Hwasan High School / Whasan High School)
South Korea 2001 : Tae-Gyun Kim : 120 mins approx

Volcano High is an engagingly loopy, if overlong, South Korean twist on Harry Potter, throwing in dollops of Battle Royale and The Matrix for good measure. The story, which feels like scriptwriter Dong-hun Su is making it up as he goes along, takes place in what we’re told is “the 108th year of volcano, after the great Teachers’ Battle,” whatever that means.

Kim Kyung-Soo (Hyuk Jang) is a peroxided teenager who keeps getting expelled from various schools because of his magical powers of telekinesis. Eventually he arrives at Volcano High, where the kids are wizards at martial arts and the teachers are just plain wizards. Kim soon runs into Jang Ryang, aka Dark Ox – rugby captain and chief bully. Both Jang and Kim have their eye on the shapely Yu Cha-I (Min-a Shin), captain of the judo-like ‘kumdoi’ team, adding an extra edge to their explosive encounters.

As the kids feud in the classrooms and playgrounds, all sorts of weird occultry are unspooling in the staff quarters, mostly revolving around an mysteriously all-powerful ‘secret manuscript’. Events rapidly spiral out of control, leading to the emergency arrival of an education-ministry task force – a trio of gravity-defying heavies who look and act like Terence Stamp’s mob in Superman II. The stage is set for a no-holds-barred inter-generational showdown on the rain-soaked sports field.

Apart from the universal and timeless teachers-v-schoolkids angle, there’s probably a whole level of satirical detail which will be lost on non-Korean viewers – even with the extensive and unusually helpful English subtitles provided on the Berlin print. But worldwide audiences in search of the latest offbeat, cultish action treat will get plenty of kicks, especially if the distributors do the decent thing and trim, say, 20 or 25 minutes (a la Tears of the Black Tiger) then put together a crackerjack trailer out of the best remaining moments. Because two hours really is too much of a good thing here – the climactic showdown between Kim and the Kitano-type goes on forever, followed by a very confusing coda which may be a flashback, a flashforward, or just an outtake. And even within that generous timespan, far too much of the storyline remains bafflingly opaque.

Then again, it’s easy to ignore these flaws when we’ve got such larger-than-life characters to distract us – Su-ro Kim gleefully flies way over the top as Jang Ryang, who has the great movie-villain trait of erupting into spontaneous crazy laughter at the slightest opportunity. As the less-flashy Kim, Hyuk Jang reveals a weird blend of goofiness and outsider-rebel charisma that, among younger western actors, only Brendan Sexton III could possibly match.

Someone says that Kim “goes crazy in an instant, the next he’s blank like a sheet of paper” and the film is likewise a matter of fits and starts – while it never quite cuts as wildly loose as you hope, there’s more than enough sufficient zap on show, a freewheeling, larkishly hyperkinetic absurdity. The soundtrack is crammed full of swishes, zaps, ker-splats, the action often interrupted by the slam-bang arrival on the screen of futuristic captions that offer deadpan bits of crucial info.

Despite the obvious influence of other films (principally, of course, far-eastern action pictures) Volcano High has a deliberate video-game feel – the soundtrack drives along the action in poundingly propulsive style, but even in down-time there’s always a tinny music loop, just like in an arcade shoot-em-up. The stylised production design provides very few dull images, even with the restricted, drab palette of muddy browns, metallic greys and olive greens. The most vivid colour, in fact, is provided by the outlandish hairstyles which could easily inspire copycat crazes of their own. Indeed, the whole film seems more than ready for spin-off exploitation – it’s easy to imagine a series of tie-ins based around the kids’ very tribal ‘teams’. The possibilities are endless – and as Kim finds out, the sky isn’t necessarily the limit.