April 3, 2002
Starring: Tae-gyun Kim, Starring: Hyuk Jang, Min-a Shin, Su-ro Kim, Sang-woo Kwon, Hyo-jin Kong, Sang-hun Jeong, Hyeong-jong Kim, Shi-ah Chae, André 3000, Big Boi, Snoop Dogg, Jun-ho Heo, Method Man, Tracy Morgan, Pat Morita, Mya, ,
Wirework action movies are far more familiar to western audiences now, thanks mostly to the overrated Matrix trilogy & its Hollywood progeny. But Korean cinema had yet to establish itself in this genre with its own 100% domestically made effort, having to employ the talents of stuntmen, wire teams & FX creators form beyond its shores. Until Volcano High came along! Released in 2001 this all action FX extravaganza gets the well deserved 2 DVD special edition treatment courtesy of Premier Asia.
The idea for the movie came about as the result of a script writing competition, & after initial plans to turn it into an animated feature were shelved director Kim Tae-gyun held onto the idea until it was technologically viable to make as a live action film. The five-year wait was worth it as the result is a benchmark in Korean cinema, with both FX & production values the equal of Hollywood. Set in an undisclosed place & time the movie begins with student Kim Kyung-soo facing expulsion from yet another school (this time for blasting his teacher into a wall with a piece of chi – energy enhanced chalk!) & arriving at the mysterious Volcano High. Here he will unwittingly enter a battle for supremacy as warring factions of both teachers & pupils aim to discover the mysterious ‘secret manuscript’. The plot thickens when the Headmaster is poisoned & as the film continues we find out the reasons for Kim’s repressed & shy personality, & why he tries to avoid combat. Of course we all know that by the final reel he will reluctantly have to answer the call to arms, & this is what he does in an amazing finale in which he goes up against the School 5. A mysterious group of super powered teachers led by maths lecturer Mr Ma who have been brought in to control the unruly pupils with their own style of corporal punishment!
The aim of this film is to entertain, to dazzle with both visuals & action & director Kim Tae-gyun, has succeeded on all counts. The first thing that hits you when the movie starts is the gorgeous visuals, the film stock has been digitally altered to bleach out the colour resulting in an almost monochromatic look, similar to films such as Fight Club & perfectly suited to the comic book style plot. It is at times a very broad affair with bizarre characters & events, the obvious influences being both anime & Hong Kong cinema there is also a spaghetti western flavour to some scenes. But these influences have been interpreted & filtered through Tae-gyuns own imagination; his visual style is nothing short of amazing with split screen shots & dynamic action set pieces. It is obvious that there has been a lot of collaboration between the various crews working on the movie. The costumes complement the characters, the sets complement the action & there is a distinct single vision displayed consistently throughout the movie with editing, directing & cinematography combining to create a unique cinematic experience.
On top of this is an impressive barrage of action. Rather than aim to compete with Hong Kong in terms of martial arts skill & expertise Volcano High instead goes for superhero style battles. The characters spin through the air assisted by extensive wirework as they unleash chi – energy blasts at one another. It is not only the style of the brawls that is first rate but their pacing & direction, unlike many blockbusters which pop their corks early the action in Volcano High builds in intensity & power, the opening conflicts are impressive but they just get better & better with each fight until the astounding full throttle climax! Ending as the film began, amidst a torrential downpour, it’s one of those moments the rewind button on your DVD player was invented for!
In terms of acting the cast are on the whole very good, particularly Shin Min-ah as the female lead in her first movie, she was still at school herself at the time. Jang Hyuk brings a goofy likeability to the lead role of Kyung-soo & Kim Soo-roh completes the trio of acting honours with his deliciously mad OTT performance as Jang Ryan. On the negative side the narrative sometimes suffers, the plot occasionally appearing a bit aimless. It is probably not unfair to suggest that Volcano High maybe a case of style over substance.
As this is a release from the sister label to Hong Kong Legends it is no surprise to find Bey Logan in the commentary box. He is not alone though, joined by Mike Leeder, an expert on Asian cinema. It’s a fact packed affair but unfortunately the duo occasionally fly off on tangents rather than concentrate on what is happening on the screen, whilst at other times they appear to be amusing each other rather than informing the viewer; watch out for the Sean Connery impressions! As mentioned in the commentary this Premier Asia release is the shorter international cut rather than the original Korean version. This may come as a disappointment to potential purchasers, but over half an hours worth of deleted scenes are available, including a longer version of the climactic rain soaked battle. Also included on the same disc as the main feature are trailers for other releases from both Hong Kong Legends & Premier Asia.
The majority of the extras are on the second disc, which is broken down into 3 sections. The first is an informative collection of interviews with the director & stars of the movie. Next up is a Promotional Gallery, not only consisting of a selection of trailers, a music video & the standard photo gallery there is also a short making of featurette, Under The Volcano. Narrated by Jang Hyuk it gives a brief overview of what to expect from the film & a short look at the digital grading process that was done during post production, visual comparisons between before & after shots are of interest here. The final choice on offer is a Behind The Scenes section; this is divided into short featurettes & a further subdivision of 8 storyboard comparisons. Taking the featurettes in order we have firstly Fight School. Looking mainly at the intense wirework involved it consists of behind the scenes footage comparisons with the final product. Schoolyard Rivalry continues in the same vein, as dose Teacher’s Pet & Girl Trouble. Of most interest is End Of Term Review; here we find the director & a member of the CGI team discussing their overall opinion of the FX in the finished film, from the opening credits to the climatic battle. This is a very honest & critical overview of the movie, some FX they feel worked whilst many they are still unhappy with. A minor quibble with the extras is that a lot of the onset footage is repeated throughout the different features, but despite the slight feeling of quantity over quality it’s all pretty interesting stuff & quite a good selection for a Korean movie.
Volcano High is a great addition to any Asian action fans DVD collection. As usual the west have got their hands on it, with MTV in the process of reediting & redubbing it with the cream of the rap communituy. Needless to say this cannot add anything to an already top notch Friday night film. Leaving aside the important fact that it has set a new standard in Korean cinema it is a perfect popcorn romp, full of bizarre OTT characters, wonderful visuals & memorable action set pieces.