Volcano High (2001) Movie Review

“Volcano High” (or “Volcano High School”) is a South Korean action/comedy picture that utilizes a lot of the special effects pioneered by their American counterparts, and employs elements of Hong Kong farce comedy and stylized Asian martial arts moves that relies more on posing and looking good (i.e. cool) rather than doing actual martial arts. In a word, “Volcano High” is all about flash and style without any hint of substance anywhere to be found in its nearly 2 hours running time.

Not that all style is bad, because “Volcano High” is certainly a fascinating, if mostly unfocused, film. It’s about Kyeong-su (Hyuk Jang), a troubled student with spiked blonde hair who transfers to a new school (the Volcano High of the title) for the 8th time in his schooling career (much to his parents’ heartache) and finds himself in a battle between various superpowered groups, cliques, and faculty members — all for supreme leadership of the school. Or something like that. The point is that plot is a relative thing in “Volcano High,” since it only matters for the immediate occasion when plot is necessary to move the film. Otherwise “Volcano High” resembles a silly juvenile action comedy that goes for pranks and laughs with its goofy faces and pratfalls. It does all that quite well, I might add.

The characters in “Volcano High” seem to all live, eat, sleep, and fight in and around the school, which is located somewhere in the South Korean countryside. (Don’t ask for specifics because I doubt if screenwriter Dong-heon Seo bothered to write something as mundane and boring as details such as: Where do the kids go after school? Do they have a home? Where are their families? Is this a boarding school?) What’s important is that the school is in constant turmoil as the various students and their respective school clubs fight for the right to say, “My kung fu is better than your kung fu!” Of course no one actually utters those lines, but it’s essentially what the entire hubbub is about.

Among those vying for power is the wrestling team led by tough guy and resident loudmouth Jang Ryang (Su-ro Kim, who steals much of the show), and the kendo team led by the icy but beautiful Chai-I (Min-a Shin), who new-kid-in-school Kyeong-su of course immediately falls for. How could he not? Although she hardly ever smiles, those lips are mighty tempting.

And along the way some evil teachers show up after the principal is almost assassinated (don’t ask). The new teachers end up beating on the students, which is a bad thing since the superpowered Kyeong-su, the only one who can beat the newly arrived black trenchcoat-wearing faculty, refuses to fight because he doesn’t want to get kick out of yet another school, thus forcing his parents to move yet again. And there’s also a running subplot about a Secret Manuscript that’s supposed to give the reader even more superpowers. Or something.

Who really cares about plot with this film? The filmmakers don’t, and the audience certainly won’t, either. The movie is almost all special effects, since almost all of the characters possess some kind of super power that allows them to open doors with their mind and throw each other around like bouncing babies, all without breaking a sweat. Speaking of which, it’s a little odd to see effects pioneered and used to death by American filmmakers finally making it to Asia. Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark’s “Legend of Zu” was equally almost all special effects, and now South Korea has their own sfx-extravaganza with “Volcano High,” a film that relies heavily on an sfx technique used extensively in Alex Proyas’ visually brilliant “Dark City.”

The film will no doubt be considered another “Matrix”-rip-off by kids who thinks the “Matrix” was the first film ever made by modern civilization. But if you look closely, “Volcano High” is more of an adaptation of Proyas’ “Dark City” than the latter film by the Wachowski brothers. In fact, “Volcano High”‘s ending sequence, where two characters square off while afloat in the air, is almost a scene-by-scene translation of the final battle sequence in Proyas’ film. I hasten to call it “theft,” but perhaps “unabashed homage” seems appropriate enough.

There are no big stars in “Volcano High,” which is probably for the best, since it means the filmmakers can put all their money into the visual effects rather than spend it on high star wages. The film also has some nice visual flairs, with cinematographer Yeong-taek Choi and director Tae-gyun using a bleached-out style reminiscent of David O’Russell’s “Three Kings.” The film looks good and camerawork by Choi is appropriately wacky and loose, meaning the camera climbs up walls and does wild maneuvers right alongside the characters. If it hasn’t been made clear yet, gravity doesn’t exist in “Volcano High.”

In a backhanded sort of way, I am impressed with “Volcano High”‘s ability to be completely without any substantial merit, and I laughed at many of its jokes. Star Hyuk Jang’s “I look mentally deficient, but I’m really not” acting style is quite off-putting at first, but becomes endearing. Min-a Shin, as the love interest is appropriately pretty, although she is mostly relegated to background status. Su-ro Kim steals much of the show as the loudmouth Jang Ryang, who seeks to wrest power from the faculty and be named “top fighter” of the school. There’s also a supporting character name Song Hak-lim who was not used enough, which is a shame because the character was very interesting.

“Volcano High” is “Fight Club” without that other movie’s insights on manhood; it is “Dark City” without the breathtaking visual treats; and it’s “The Matrix” without the “Wow I’ve never seen that before” vibe. In the end, “Volcano High” is what it is — a mishmash of genres, other movies, and nothing to call its own.

But it was a heck of a crazy ride; I’ll give it that.

Tae-gyun Kim (director) / Dong-heon Seo (screenplay)
CAST: Hyuk Jang …. Kim Kyeong-su
Min-a Shin …. Yu Cha-i
Su-ro Kim …. Jang Ryang
Sang-woo Kwon …. Song Hak-lim

Buy Volcano High on DVD