Martial arts maestros at an elite school go toe to head in “Volcano High,” the first South Korean extravaganza that really gives Hong Kong chopsocky classics a run for their money. Likely to appeal more to hip young general auds than East Asian specialists due to its kinetic wildness and “Matrix”-like look, this is perfect midnight fest fare with molto ancillary action to follow. In the hands of the right distrib, some theatrical play is also in the cards.
Version being sold is the re-cut “international” one that preemed in this year’s Cannes market. Twenty-two minutes shorter than the original Korean release, it’s also a vast improvement: Story, sheared of some digressions, is now tighter and more coherent, and the repetitive style of fighting no longer palls. Much-awaited third feature from director Kim Tae-gyun did OK but not socko business on local release the end of 2001.
Pic is entirely set in the high school of the title, which exists in some virtual, undatable universe but has the look of an early 20th-century establishment, down to its all-black, Japanese-style student uniforms and use of Chinese characters rather than local hangul script. All schools, we’re told, are in disarray after 17 years of feuding sparked by the Great Teachers Battle, and the person who discovers the Secret Manuscript will end the chaos. It’s the 108th year of Volcano High.
Shot in a bleached, almost monochrome style full of blacks, whites and steely grays, film kicks off in over-the-top fashion as transfer student Kim Kyeong-su (teen idol Jang Hyeok, with dyed blond locks) enters the co-ed establishment on a typically apocalyptic, rain-drenched day. With a history of vandalism and female harassment, Kim has already been expelled from eight schools, though from his slightly geeky look you’d never guess at his extraordinary powers.
In a rapid series of confrontations, Kim meets the main movers and shakers at Volcano High: ox-like weightlifting champ Jang Ryang (Kim Su-ro), aka “Dark Ox”; super-fighter Song Hak-rim (Gweon Sang-woo), aka “Elegant Crane”; the coolly elegant Yu Chae-yi (Shin Min-ah), aka “Icy Jade,” head of the women’s kendo team; and red-haired Shimma (Kim Hyung-jeong), the rugby team captain. Song, in particular, senses that Kim is deliberately holding back fearsome powers.
Mixing excellent f/x with slo-mo and accelerated action, the fight sequences are hardly traditional, with a deafening rock score and an in-your-face neo-techno look. Between segs, there’s also plenty of very Korean, mugging humor, which may be lost on most Western auds, but is enjoyable in a goofy way.
Plot basically boils down to Dark Ox wanting to get his mitts on the Secret Manuscript, which the school principal has hidden. When chaos breaks out at Volcano High, five super-fighters turn up to whip the students into line, climaxing in Kim — boosted by a power-transfer from Song — taking on the main man.
To a large extent, pic is all style and no real content, and the actual fights — heavy on jumping, rotating and palm-power waves — are not so much choreographed as put together by the f/x teams. But the pacing is smart and the visual invention, as in a shower room scene between Kim and Icy Jade which seals their attraction, is always eye-opening.