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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
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   Volcano High  


Volcano High

Reviewed by Soh Yun-Huei

Korean Title: Whasango
Director: Kim Tae-gyun
Writing credits: Kim Tae-gyun, Seo Dong-heon, Chul Jung Yoon
Cast: Hyuk Jang, Shin Min-a, Kim Su-ro
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Genre: Action
Year Released: 2001
Runtime: 99 min
Rating: ** (out of four stars)

How does one go about reviewing a movie that is incoherent? The fault is not entirely due to the director and the screenwriter. Volcano High (Whasango) is a film that presents this problem. Despite being produced in part by Singapore’s own Raintree Productions, the film is screened in Singapore in a truncated version that was shown in the Toronto Film Festival, instead of the original Korean cut of the film. The difference? A whopping 20 minutes of footage deleted, and possibly the largest reason why I found myself wondering what in the world was going on half the time. Of course, the director (Kim Tae-gyun) and the scribe (Seo Dong-heon) aren’t entirely blameless, but one wonders whether the film would be better if it were left intact.

Kyeong-su (Jang Hyuk) has just joined the cohort at Volcano High, his ninth school after being expelled from the previous eight. It isn’t entirely his fault, however. Kyeong-su is blessed/cursed with special powers that has caused him to be harassed since young. Volcano High, unfortunately, isn’t exactly the best school for Kyeong-su to be in. The teachers and students are a competitive lot, and some of them even have superpowers similar to his own. Even more unfortunate is the fact that Kyeong-su has joined the school smack in the middle of a power struggle, not just between the various martial arts student clubs, but also between the students and the teachers. The item that they are all after? The Secret Manuscript, purportedly a martial arts manuscript that will give the wielder powers of unimaginable magnitude.

Heading this conflict is the brash, cocky Jang Ryang (Kim Su-ro), head of the boxing team, who not only wants to reign supreme in the school, but also wants to win the hand of icy maiden Chai-yi (Shin Min-a), head of the Kendo team. Kyeong-su doesn’t want to get involved in the battle, but he also has the hots for Chai-yi. Then, the principal of Volcano High is almost assassinated, and the Vice Principal sends for some really nasty teachers who are intent on beating down the students. Kyeong-su finally decides to come into the equation, but can he defeat the five new teachers who are all seemingly almost as powerful as he is?

It may seem like a pretty decent plot from the synopsis, but in reality the screenplay of Volcano High is in shambles. I seriously had a lot of trouble trying to keep track of the storyline, especially since the subtitles aren’t of stellar quality either. This feeling of confusion was exacerbated with the denouement that left almost everything hanging in mid air, and even the short clips in the credits sequence gave no closure to the film. Arguably, of course, the point about Volcano High is not the story but the effects, but even the effects aren’t that visually impressive. There are several high-octane action sequences, but most of the action feels rote and uninspired.

However, the comedy in Volcano High, and the performances of the leads, helps to keep the film interesting sporadically. There is a lot of offbeat humour to be found in the movie, and it’s particularly funny when Jang Hyuk looks severe and solemn one moment, only to flash a corny grin and a V sign the next. Although Jang Hyuk’s looks aren’t terribly dashing, he has an endearing charm about him that makes the film more palatable. Some of his thunder is stolen by Kim Su-ro, who expertly hams it up to an eye-boggling degree, and is the key person in one of the funniest sequences in the entire film. The rest of the cast is relegated to the background, and despite some interesting costume designs, remain pretty much one-dimensional characters.

Volcano High falls prey to another unfortunate Asian film trap - because we finally have the ability to do special effects, let’s throw everything we have into creating special effects! Trap. Tsui Hark’s Legend of Zu fell prey to it, and Volcano High unfortunately follows in its footsteps. Although visual effects are good, without a coherent plot, it will not matter how aesthetically pleasing the film is. This is particularly true in Asian cinema, because despite the leap in technology, visual effects still aren’t comparable to what is found in Hollywood films. Perhaps the 2-hour version of Volcano High would change my opinions of the film, but I have my doubts about how much better the film could become.

Final Word: Hard to pass real judgment without viewing the actual uncut release of the film, but as it is, Volcano High does not impress.