A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 317 – Volcano High

Volcano High – January 11th, 2011

My first exposure to this movie was through MTV. For some reason they decided to do a recut of the movie, altering the plot and dubbing new lines in with the voice acting done by American rappers. They played it several times back when they first did it and eventually I saw the whole thing. And I liked it, but found it a little choppy. Only when I went looking for a copy to buy did I find out that it had been so very heavily edited. And so we got the regular version, in Korean, with English subtitles. And I liked it even more. I’ve heard it described as a polarizing movie that people either love or hate and I definitely fall under the former category.

I’m not sure what it is about this movie that makes me love it so, but love it I do. It’s utterly ridiculous, but that’s the point. It’s supposed to be this outrageous martial arts magic fest, full of over the top characters and tropes and plenty of fight scenes. There is no doubt in my mind that the folks who made this movie did so with their tongues firmly in their cheeks. Which is fantastic. It’s got a sort of serious mystical plot to it, but it’s also got a hell of a sense of humor running through everything. And while I did enjoy the strange MTV adaptation of the story, I like the more complete version better.

The movie takes place at Volcano High, an elite school where many of the students are extremely skilled martial artists. The thing is, they’re not studying martial arts. They’re mostly just high school students. And while there is a judo team and a kendo team and so on, there’s also a weightlifting team and a rugby team. And the main characters are spread out in a variety of after school activity groups. Sure, they’re kickass martial artists, but that’s sort of made out to be a matter of course. The various activity groups have a bit of a rivalry, with the weightlifting team – the Dark Oxen, led by the minor baddie Jang Ryang – being the de facto bullies. But all seems fairly even keeled, if a little uneasy, under the watchful eye of Song Hak-Rim, the best martial artist in the school.

It all comes crashing down the day our hero, super powerful but also super dorky Kim Kyeong-Su, shows up. He’s been expelled from eight schools already thanks to a total lack of control over his powers, and he’s determined not to blow this last chance, even if it means letting all sorts of chaos go on. Jang Ryang and the vice principal of the school set up Song Hak-Rim to be framed for the poisoning of the principal, who is also the keeper of an ultra powerful secret manuscript. The vice principal turns on Jang Ryang almost immediately, bringing in five sinister teachers who quickly take control of the school by means of their own martial arts skills and mystical powers. Realizing that he’s been abandoned, Jang Ryang throws in his lot with the other students and eventually there’s a big showdown in the schoolyard (in the rain) between Jang Ryang, Kim Kyeong-Su and the captain of the Kendo team, Yu Chae-i and the teachers.

Throughout the movie Yu Chae-i and her co-captain, Shim Ma, try to enlist Kim Kyeong-Su’s help. They know he’s got major skills and they know if he joined them they’d have the strength they need to rescue Song Hak-Rim and overthrow the vice principal and his cadre of evil teachers. But Kim-Kyeong-Su won’t do it. Ever since he got his mystical powers during a lightning storm when he accidentally fell into a tank of eels (yes, really) he’s been unable to control them and it’s caused him nothing but grief. So no, even though the school is in chaos and the new teachers are threatening students and his crush, Yu Chae-i, wants his help? Nope. He’s just going to do his thing and get by. It’s so outrageous it has to have been written to make fun of the concept. By the time the big climactic battle hits you know damn well what’s coming. It’s just funny.

The movie has this bizarre mix of thoroughly serious and utter parody. I mean, it’s not just slapstick or done for giggles. It’s done as homage, so there’s some care put into it all. But then the names are all presented seriously and the teachers are too and it’s all so very serious that it’s not serious at all anymore. Unfortunately for me, I think there’s likely a whole other level of humor and parody and homage going on but I’m not familiar enough with the source genre to catch it. I also don’t understand Korean and I don’t know the culture well enough to catch referenced and linguistic tricks. There’s a lot of what sounds like nonsense sometimes. Non sequitors that might still be disconnected to the plot in the original version but I have no way of knowing. I can say that the romantic subplot is a little oddly shoehorned in, but not enough so to turn me off the movie. And I like how Jang Ryang joins the other students and the whole idea of the students coming together against a common enemy after spending much of the beginning of the movie bickering. So I’m willing to put up with some missing scenes and things I don’t get because it’s so very much fun anyhow.

January 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Volcano High

January 11, 2011

Volcano High

We needed an antidote to the overblown pretension of the Matrix sequels, and both Amanda and I thought that this movie would be just the thing. The Matrix movies share some of the same visuals with this Korean effects-laden martial arts movie, but Volcano High is much more light hearted in nature.

This movie is all about a troubled teen named Kim Kyung-soo who has been kicked out of every high school he’s ever attended. As the movie starts he is coming to a school of last resort – Volcano High. Here he must keep his head down and find a way to fit in with the rambunctious student body that pretty much run the school. There’s the kendo team (entirely made up of badass girls) with their captain “Icy Jade” Yoo Chae-yi. There’s the weight-lifting team headed by “Dark Ox” Jang Ryang. There’s a rugby team and I’m pretty sure I saw students with field hockey sticks as well. All of these rival gangs are held in check by the most powerful member of the student body, the wise and aloof “Elegant Crane in a Pine Forest” Song Hak-rim and the kindly old principal of the school who has in his possession a legendary Secret Manuscript which brings great power to anybody who possesses it.

Things start to go wrong when Jang Ryang enacts a scheme to poison the principal and frame Song Hak-rim for it so that he can take over the school. If he can prove himself to be the most powerful student he hopes that his partner in crime – the vice principal – will give him the Secret Manuscript. So Jang beats down all the heads of all the other clubs and declares his love for Yoo Chae-yi, and there is only one person who can possibly stand in his way. Kim Kyung-soo has enormous hidden power, but he’s desperate to remain in the background.

We soon realize that Kim is not a bad guy. Maybe a little accident prone. He has been expelled from nine schools before Volcano High though because he has trouble containing his power. When it flares up people get hurt. So although he’d like to win the favor of Yoo Chae-yi and stop the violence that has overtaken the school he does not dare let himself go.

Then things get really bad. The vice principal, frustrated by the chaos overtaking the student body and his inability to contain it, brings in five unstoppable new teachers. Very soon these five teachers have taken complete control of the school using their dark martial arts mastery. There are also hints that the leader of the five teachers, Mr. Ma, has some history with Kyung-soo.

The entire movie is played for laughs. Everybody mugs delightfully for the camera and there are plenty of lighthearted bits mixed in with all the wire-work and CGI. There’s a decidedly anime influence throughout as well, from the extreme hair styles to the camera angles and editing techniques. It’s just a treat to watch.

My one complaint would be that the pacing and the way it is put together make it hard for a big dumb American like me to keep up sometimes. The subtitles hint at clever word-play and such that go completely over the head of anybody watching the film who doesn’t know Korean. Which I clearly do not. I feel like there’s a lot of subtlety that I’m missing, which is kind of sad.

Then again, subtlety is not really what this movie is about. It’s about pure unadulterated cool. From the effortless relaxes saunter of ice-cold Yoo Chae-yi to the wintery glare of the sinister Mr. Ma this movie is packed with awesome. How can it be goofy and awesome at the same time? Well, that’s part of its charm and part of what makes it such a treasure.

January 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment