Wirework action movies are far more familiar to western audiences now, thanks mostly to the overrated Matrix trilogy and 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 and FX creators form beyond its shores. Until Volcano High came along that is.
The idea for the movie came about as the result of a script writing competition, and 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 and production values the equal of Hollywood. Set in an undisclosed place and 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!) and arriving at the mysterious Volcano High. Here he will unwittingly enter a battle for supremacy as warring factions of both teachers and pupils aim to discover the mysterious 'secret manuscript'. The plot thickens when the Headmaster is poisoned and as the film continues we find out the reasons for Kim's repressed and shy personality, and 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, and 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 and action and 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 and perfectly suited to the comic book style plot. It is at times a very broad affair with bizarre characters and events, the obvious influences being both anime and Hong Kong cinema there is also a spaghetti western flavour to some scenes. But these influences have been interpreted and filtered through Tae-gyuns own imagination; his visual style is nothing short of amazing with split screen shots and 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 and there is a distinct single vision displayed consistently throughout the movie with editing, directing and 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 and 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 and direction, unlike many blockbusters which pop their corks early the action in Volcano High builds in intensity and power. The opening conflicts are impressive but they just get better and better with each fight until the astounding full throttle climax, ending as the film began amidst a torrential downpour.
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 and 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.
Volcano High is highly recommended to Asian action fans but as usual the west have got their hands on it, with MTV reediting and redubbing it with the cream of the rap community. 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 characters, wonderful visuals and memorable action set pieces. Imagine a cross between Grange Hill and a manga comic directed by David Fincher and you may have some idea of what to expect. Volcano High truly brings comic book and pop culture sensibilities to the big screen and is without question one of the most visually striking movies in a long while. It more than holds its own against similar Hollywood fare and in many ways surpasses it on levels of imagination and audacity. With this being only his third movie, and first venture into the action genre, director Kim Tae-gyun is definitely one to watch.