Set in a magical alternate universe, Volcano High opens with a semi-confusing crawl that vaguely describes a series of battles between warring teachers, and the promise or prophecy of one who will bring order from chaos (an astute viewer will catch the multiple borrowings and references The Matrix and Dark City). Kyeong-su Kim (Hyuk Jang), the teenage protagonist in Volcano High, is supernaturally gifted, but his mercurial nature has led to expulsion from eight other high schools. We're tipped off to his rebellious nature by his dyed-blond hair. He arrives at Volcano High just as a power struggle is erupting between various factions, including Ryang Jang (Su-ro Kim), the captain of the weightlifting team and leader of the Dark Ox gang, and Hak-rim Song (Sang-woo Kwon), the most powerful student at Volcano High. Kyeong-su meets Hak-rim inside the school, but an accidental bump leads to the first action scene, with both characters leaping, twisting, and flying through the air, testing each other. Kyeong-su will face major difficulties in order to avoid another expulsion. The conflict spreads between and among generations, as the principal (nick-name: "Cold-Blooded Venom"), the keeper and protector of the Secret Manuscript, and vice-principal vie for control of the school, and, of course, ultimate power. After the principal is mysteriously poisoned and left in a trance-like state, Hak-rim is arrested on suspicion of conspiring to murder the principal, effectively removing him as a rival to the various power seekers. Kyeong-su has other things on his mind, including romancing Chae-i Yu (Min-a Shin), the captain of the kendo fencing team.
With the Secret Manuscript still missing, the vice-principal invites five traveling instructors, all deadly martial artists ("The School 5: Masters of Suppressing School Wrongdoing," per the subtitles), to restore order at the school. The most powerful, the black trench-coated Mr. Ma (Hyeong-jong Kim), can harness energy waves, turning them into long-distance weapons. Mr. Ma and Kyeong-su, it seems, have met before. Kyeong-su is coded as the archetypical hero, reluctant to test or use his extraordinary powers (due to a promise to his father). After a series of complications and reversals where Kyeong-su either refuses to fight or fight back, even when his friends or Chae-i Yu are endangered, Kyeong-su finally rises to the challenge and enters the arena (actually the school auditorium and soccer field) against Mr. Ma. The final confrontation is suitably spectacular, a near perfect blend of wire-fu and CGI, with the characters floating, flying and twisting in the air, turning themselves into human missiles, throwing energy waves at each other. When the massed waves of energy miss, the ground explodes in mud and water. When the waves hit their target, characters and objects are thrown across great distances. Sound familiar? It should. It’s The Matrix via earlier influences closer to home, including Dragon Ball Z, a Saturday morning animated series that originated in Japan, as well as countless Hong Kong action films.
Volcano High, however, isn’t notable for its original ideas (there's even a Matrix-like training sequence inside Kyeong-su's mind). Instead, the execution of those ideas, as derivative as they might be, is what makes Volcano High a highly entertaining, if uneven, experience. Character development? Next to done. Character ambiguity? None. Once a character is introduced, the audience can immediately guess their role and function in the film. Plotting? Predictable, if somewhat confusing, from the moment Kyeong-su and the setting are introduced to the audience. The pacing is also, at times, with some scenes lasting a beat too long, and others superfluous to the main storyline. In addition, the fight scenes, at least until the final twenty minutes, are all too brief, promising more than they deliver (probably due to budgetary constraints).
Audiences, however, are more than likely to look beyond Volcano High's flaws, and simply enjoy the film’s many pleasures, from its sullen, underappreciated teenage protagonist turned action hero, to the production design (especially of the school’s textured interiors), energetic camerawork (again, with nods to The Matrix), and fight choreography. To Volcano High's credit, it has little of the philosophizing pretension that undermined The Matrix and irredeemably sank the sequels that followed commercial and critical success. Here, thankfully, the film’s director, Tae-gyun Kim, preferred to lighten the occasional attempts at navel-gazing with humor.
© Mel Valentin, 5th February, 2005
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