Dir: Kim Tae-gyun. Korea. 2001. 99mins
A manic, manga-style mixture of frenzied fight sequences and hysterical comedy, Volcano High makes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon seem like a sedate stroll in the park by comparison. Downplaying narrative cohesion in favour of spectacular martial arts moves, it should find an eager audience among hardcore action fans, especially on video or DVD. Too extreme and exhausting for more mainstream tastes, it still possesses substantial cult potential. In Korea, where it opened on 70 screens late last year, it took $8.8m (1.7m admissions): after Edinburgh the film heads for the Midnight Madness sidebar at Toronto.
A gloomy, storm-tossed, gothic pile, Volcano High represents the last chance at a decent education for gormless, peroxide hero Kim Kyung-soo (Jang Hyuk). Expelled from countless schools for vandalism, assault and harassment, he has now decided to play the dutiful student and earn his diploma - always assuming his fellow students will leave him in peace. The school itself is in the grip of 17 years of chaos in which "self-indulgence disguised as self-control has gripped the student body". The only way to end the chaos is to acquire a Secret Manuscript supposedly endowed with magical powers that will bring forward calm from the chaos. Or something like that.
The quest to find the manuscript involves a good deal of internecine conflict between competing groups within the school, a devious deputy principal and countless clashes involving judo, swordplay, telekinetic powers, shattered glass, gushing water and the kind of wire work and nifty, breathlessly choreographed moves established in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger. Kyung-soo may be the one chosen to save the school, but his reluctance to unleash the powers within himself accounts for much of the delay in arriving at the final showdown. In that respect, he's like a timid, James Stewart-style cowboy who finally finds the backbone to strap on his six-shooters and put the bad guys in their place.
The third feature from director Kim Tae-gyun may require a road map rather than a simple synopsis to navigate its crowded narrative but the film's raison d'etre is the highly stylised baroque look of the piece and the sheer adrenaline rush of the fisticuffs.
Nobody sleeps when this film is around as Tae-gyun uses every trick in the book to buttonhole the viewer and command their attention with extreme close-ups, odd angles, slow-motion moments of punctuation, speeded up action and cackling, over-the-top performances that wouldn't seem out of place in the average children's pantomime. Fortunately, it doesn't even pretend to take itself seriously.
The absence of a straightforward, easily digestible plot and the sheer energy of the piece is initially quite exhilarating and there are many memorable visual touches. They include a teacher's chalk flying through the air like a speeding bullet towards an inattentive student; and a torrential shower room sequence in which the naked Kim Kyung-soo takes the water pressure to bursting point and beyond as he harnesses the magical powers that are part of his destiny. Eventually though the unrelenting pace becomes too much - the last half hour is virtually non-stop combat - and the combination of violence and velocity becomes a little headache-inducing for all but the most wired of computer game addicts.
Prod co: Sidus
Kor dist: Cinema Service
Int'l sales: Cinema Service
Prod: Tcha Sung-jae
Exec prod: Kang Woo-suk
Scr: Jung Ahn-chul, Kim Tae-gyun, Park Heon-soo, Huh Gyun based on the story by Suh Dong-heon
Cinematography: Choi Young-taek
Prod des: Jang Keun-young
Ed: Goh Im-pyo
Music: Park Young
Main cast: Jang Hyuk, Shin Min-ah, Kim Soo-roh, Kwon Sang-woo, Gong Hyo-jin