Volcano High (Special Edition) Review
Kim Kyung-soo (Jang Hyuk) is the new boy at Volcano High, a Korean high-school found in a post-apocalyptic world that is overrun by warring student factions and faculty members. Having already been expelled from eight different schools due to his inability to control his natural telekinetic powers the blond spikey-haired Kyung-soo would appear to be right at home in a setting of this nature. As he follows the treacherous route to the teachers lounge we meet two other major players in the film, the first of which is Icy Jade (Shin Min-ah), the most beautiful girl in school and as the name suggests, the most difficult to attain.
Song Hak-rim (Kwon Sang-woo), the reigning school champion whose supernatural powers are unsurpassed is next to make the new boys acquaintance and is the first to recognise the power he holds, which is cause for concern given Hak-rim's status and good natured manner which sees him maintain a balance in the uneasy setting of Volcano High. Before long Kyung-soo is set upon by Jang Ryang (Kim Soo-roh), head of the schools Weightlifting team (aka, the bullies), and this is where that age-old martial arts cinema plot line kicks in that both frustrates and delights, as we learn Kyung-soo has promised his father that he will no longer use his powers, regardless of the situation.
The faculty members have their place too including the chicken wielding principal who employs a special 'cross-eyed' technique to faze his students, thus preventing them from asking difficult questions. In his possession is the very reason the school is split into factions which contest each others existence, the much lauded Secret Manuscript, a prize that can make its owner the most powerful member of Volcano High. When the principal is placed under a magical curse the Vice Principal imprisons Song Hak-rim, believing him to be responsible for the principal’s condition. However, this is nothing more than a way to exonerate himself so he can acquire the manuscript with no interjection from the two most powerful men in the school.
As a consequence of the Vice Principals actions and the fact he cannot locate the manuscript; the school is left without a master in both student and faculty capacities. This results in Jang Ryang running wild and defeating the opposing factions so he can take his place as champion, while also claiming Icy Jade as his prize. Furthermore the Vice Principal calls in the 'School of Five', a gang of ruthless teachers who are blessed with their own unique powers making them masters at suppressing schools, something which they go about achieving in an often brutal fashion. Familiar with their leader Kyung-soo does what all good heroes do in films of this ilk, sits back and slowly cracks as his friends feel betrayed by him for not using the power he is blessed with, until it all becomes too much and he flies into action for the final reel.
Despite hints of dark undercurrents and a deceptively complex story that throws a great many names and myths at you as you watch, Volcano High is nothing more than a slick action-comedy littered with two-dimensional characters and big budget special effects. Fortunately it does what is sets out to do with great aplomb, mostly thanks to the endearing main character and alluring visual style employed by the director who shares an affinity with extreme high and low camera angles, while the cinematographer basks the action in fully exposed sunlight which creates an almost metallic sheen, giving the action a beautifully surreal look.
Lead actor Jang Hyuk displays a great comic talent as he takes the good natured Kim Kyung-soo and turns him into a goofy hero more synonymous with anime series than live action efforts, and given Volcano High is based upon a Korean comic book I would assume this was quite intentional. From his walk to every single facial expression, pratt fall, reaction and jerky hand gesture Jang Hyuk has created a character you cannot help but love as he giggles and grins around Icy Jade, taking every opportunity to throw her a smile, wave hello or simply flash a Victory sign her way. This style of comedy is surely an acquired taste but if you find yourself howling with laughter when watching a series like Love Hina then you will most likely find you have a similar reaction to Volcano High, not just through Jang Hyuk's performance but many of the secondary characters who are equally exaggerated and all feature their own delightful quirks.
Much like the comedy styling the action sequences will be subjective, though here I would think more of you will be accepting of what is on offer. Deeply rooted in fantasy swordplay movies from Hong Kong with strong hints of anime and videogame influences the characters exude a physical energy that allows them to throw projectile based attacks at each other, while their abilities also extend to moving around their environments free of traditional restraints such as gravity. With some very well realised special effects and the aforementioned visual style employed by the director the action sequences (which are numerous in number, and bolstered by a wonderful final rain drenched showdown) look fantastic, perfectly combining some brief hand to hand combat sections with the special effects aided projectile attacks.
This Korean Region 3 DVD release from Cinema Service is a two-disc set packaged in an armaray case with an outer cardboard slipcase. It is currently the only way to own the original 121-minute cut of the movie, with all subsequent DVD releases outside of Korea featuring a shorter 100-minute International Cut or some variation thereof.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen the print sourced for this release is, other than a few specs of dirt here and there, in fine shape resulting in a detailed transfer that maintains film grain and recreates the delightful cinematography with ease. Compression too is very good with little to no signs of edge enhancement and only the occasional glitch such as moiré effect on a characters tie standing out.
Volcano High was the very first Korean DVD release to feature a DTS 6.1 ES mix, and though I cannot vouch for that extra channel (my setup does not allow it just yet) I can say this is a fantastic audio track that compliments the action packed main feature very well with a thoroughly dynamic use of the soundstage and quite earth shattering low frequency effects that will have the neighbours knocking on the walls. Also present is a Korean DD5.1 EX and DD2.0 Surround mix, the former is fairly close to the DTS offering while the latter caters for those who are still waiting to upgrade their ageing setups and want to get the most out of them while they can.
Optional English subtitles are available, translating all spoken and written language seen in the film presented to us in an easy to read white font. In general the quality of these subtitles is decent enough with only some minor issues to quibble about including stray spaces following punctuation and occasional timing issues that see the first word of some sentences appear at the tail end of the last. Anyone used to Korean or Hong Kong DVD releases will not find any real problems here, but those used to American or English DVDs may find things a little hard to follow.
All of the extra material is housed on the bonus disc, but sadly the large majority of Korean DVD releases do not offer English subtitles for any extras, and this is no exception. A featurette and eight-part documentary offer extensive behind-the-scenes footage and on-set interviews with cast and crew while a CG Commentary and Storyboards section offer further insight to the films creation (the latter is actually quite accessible to non-Korean speakers). On the promotional side you will find a Music Video and Trailers for both Volcano High and other movies while the extras are rounded off by Cast & Crew Biographies and Production Notes.
Premier Asia have released Volcano High here in the UK as a two-disc special edition set. You can find a full review of this release by our very own Barry Woodcock here, while I have compared the R2 Premier Asia offering with the R3 Cinema Service release below.
The Premier Asia DVD features the International Cut of the movie which, after PAL speed-up, clocks in at 95-minutes. The scenes lost include some of my favourite aspects of the movie, the comedy, including small cuts removing Kyung-soo's goofy reactions to events and the principal’s toilet humour moments. Entire scenes have also been excised including Kyung-soo's comical meeting with the bizarre principal, the Rugby captain's flirtatious cousin who attempts to woo Kyung-soo on to the Rugby team by flashing her panties at him (amongst other things), and more examples of the School of Five's brutal methods. On the face of it these scenes are not important to the movie (though some do detract slightly from the already minimal character development) and certainly do no harm to your chances of coming back to the movie for repeat viewings as they essentially tighten up the pace, while those who dislike the comedy will certainly be thankful for the cuts. For me personally, I prefer the full Korean cut of the movie complete with extended goofball moments but this is one film where the different cuts are not clearly superior to the other.
The actual presentation is something of a mixed bag when compared to the Cinema Service effort. Audio-wise there is little difference with both Korean DD5.1 and DTS 6.1 ES audio tracks on offer, a laudable English DD5.1 track is also present for those with an aversion to reading, and for those who do not a superior subtitle track is available to accompany the preferred Korean language options.
Unfortunately the transfer is not so easy to describe. On first impressions you might be forgiven for thinking this was a quality effort, and while the print sourced is free of dirt and the detail level initially seems to be very high anyone who has seen the Cinema Service release will soon notice a major problem with the contrast levels on the Premier Asia DVD. The warmth present in the cinematography has been sucked out in favour of a cold appearance that has boosted black and white levels to their extremes. This has resulted in a general loss of detail with the school uniforms offering a fine example, for at times they are simply devoid of detail in favour of a jet black look when in reality they should boast the textured appearance offered by the Cinema Service release. To a certain extent you can account for these issues by tweaking your own setup, but in most cases the detail is simply lost resulting in a very bleak looking picture.
Framing is another issue, as the transfer on the Premier Asia release has been cropped slightly on the sides, though in its favour the vertical framing is occasionally superior with better placement allowing for more detail in areas that require it. Click on the following images for pop-up comparison shots with the R3 Cinema Service captures on top, and R2 Premier Asia captures below...
In terms of bonus material the Premier Asia release wipes the floor with the Cinema Service offering by including the majority of material found on the latter, only fully subtitled, while also adding in a few welcome extras of its own. Despite only covering the International Cut of the film an audio commentary with Bey Logan and Mike Leeder makes for interesting listening, though its a far cry from the detailed and well informed efforts found on Logan's HKL efforts due to the fact neither he or Leeder are particularly knowledgeable on Korean cinema (Leeder supposedly is but seems reluctant to share).
The bonus disc of the Premier Asia release features the CG Commentary, Storyboards, Music Video and Trailers from the Cinema Service offering whilst also compiling the extensive behind-the-scenes footage found on that release into several making-of-featurettes that do away with any excess baggage, though by adding in far too many film clips they detract from the good work done. Best of all the Premier Asia release features specially recorded interviews with the director and three leading cast members that again feature far too many film clips, but are worthy additions to the set.
Capturing the spirit of many a Japanese anime series Volcano High is an exhilarating ride from start to finish full of comic capers and wonderfully exaggerated characters and action set-pieces. The only way you will not enjoy this is if you expect something more, be it an in-depth story or even the presence of traditional martial arts, but go in with an open mind and a view to enjoying yourself and Volcano High delivers.
In an ideal world there would be a DVD bringing together the movie disc of the Cinema Service release with the subtitles and bonus disc of the Premier Asia offering, but this is not a perfect world. As such I can only recommend the DVD which gives you the best (and only) presentation of the full length original Korean cut, the main DVD on review here, the R3 Cinema Service release.