Volcano High Review
Kim Kyung-soo (Jang Hyuk), an unruly student with extraordinary chi powers, is expelled for the ninth time in a row and sent to Volcano High. His new school proves to be filled with others with similarly extraordinary powers, all competing to become the school's number one fighter and gain access to a secret manuscript said to hold the key to ultimate power. At first reluctant to use his powers because of a promise to his father, Kim Kyung-soo is eventually persuaded by fellow student Yoo Chae-yi (Shin Min-ah) to fight against evil teachers that have been brought in to the school by the vice principal in order to control the students and uncover the location of the secret manuscript.
The wining entry in a script-writing competition, Volcano High was originally intended to be a Japanese-style animation. Instead, the Anime style action, plots and characters were turned into a live-action feature every bit as over-the-top as a manga comic. Anybody expecting subtle performances or displays of true martial arts skill will be disappointed, but anybody willing to accept fight scenes that have little to do with realism but a lot to do with what looks exciting on screen should find much to enjoy. Anime fans in particular will recognise that this is possibly the best attempt so far to translate the distinctive Japanese animated style into a live action film. The performances are as deliberately exaggerated as the action and as broad as the frequent diversions into comedy that permeate the film. The sense of hyper-reality is also enhanced by the use of digital technology to create a unique bleached-out look for the film.
There are no less than four different cuts of Volcano High - the original Korean theatrical and DVD release running for two hours, a shorter 100 minute version created for the Hong Kong market that has become known as the international cut, the Japanese release featuring a different score and changed special effects, and finally a version broadcast on MTV hacked down to 80 minutes that replaces the original soundtrack with hip-hop beats and dubbed voices from rap stars such as Snoop Dogg, Method Man and Mya.
For the UK DVD release, Premier Asia have opted for the so-called international cut. However, it should be noted that rather than being the product of studio butchery, the international cut was in fact supervised by the director himself, so any claims that the shorter version is not the director's vision are questionable. In fact, many prefer the shorter cut, as it has a faster pace more in keeping with the film's wild and energetic action. Arguably the only way in which the film really suffers is from the removal of a scene in which Kim Kyung-soo's chi vessels are blocked, limiting his abilities, as in the international cut the chi vessels are later unblocked with no explanation as to why or how they became blocked in the first place. While this would have been a major issue in a plot-driven film, Volcano High's storyline is little more than an excuse for a series of fights, so the plot lapse is more forgivable.
You can find a comparison with thoughts on the alternative cuts by Dave Foster in his review of the R3 Cinema Service DVD release.
The Premier Asia release of Volcano High is a two-disc special edition. Both discs are encoded for both Regions 2 and 4.
Although not as sharp and detailed as some previous Premier Asia releases, the anamorphic transfer of Volcano High is free from any noticeable print damage or other artefacts and nicely presents the film's unique, bleached-out colour palette and digitally-enhanced cinematography.
The soundtrack of choice is the Korean language DTS 6.1 track, which is as loud and full of bangs and crashes as anybody could hope for. The considerably quieter Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is also suitably noisy, but as ever lacks the punch of the DTS track.
The English dub features over-emoted voice acting of a style familiar from previous releases, and as ever is best avoided.
As with their previous releases, Premier Asia created their own English translation for the dialogue in Volcano High. Although, as explained in the commentary, one joke in particularly is inevitably lost in the translation, the subtitles are otherwise excellent and feature no Westernisation of names or other terms.
As with Premier Asia's previous Korean releases, namely Bichunmoo and The Warrior, Bey Logan is teamed with Mike Leeder to provide a feature-length audio commentary. The pair provide an entertaining commentary, but it lacks the focus and high-density of information of Bey Logan's solo outings on Hong Kong Legends titles. Although some background information is provided and the odd cultural reference is explained, neither of the contributors have the expertise or insider knowledge of the Korean film industry that informs Bey Logan's commentaries for Hong Kong action titles.
Twelve deleted and one extended scene, totalling thirty-nine minutes in length, contain all the material removed from the international cut. With the exception of the chi-blocking scene and an extended version of the final battle, most of the removed material is comedic and inessential.
Premier Asia filmed four interviews exclusively for this DVD release. The first is a twelve-minute interview with director Kim Tae-gyun in which he discusses his background and how he became involved in filmmaking before moving on to discuss Volcano High itself. The interviews with performers Jang Hyuk, Shin Min-ah and Kim Soo-roh, nineteen, twelve and fifteen minutes respectively, all follow a similar format, with all three discussing their background before describing their experiences working on Volcano High and their plans for the future. All four interviews are interspersed with on-set footage and clips from the film.
The main feature of note in the Promo Archive is a twelve-minute making-of documentary titled Under The Volcano. This contains much more worthwhile content than might be expected, with plenty of on-set footage and before-and-after footage demonstrating the digital cinematographic techniques used to achieve the desired look for the film.
An animated stills section is two minute's worth of panned and zoomed production stills, accompanied by music from the film soundtrack.
The Music Video, as usual with Korean films, is effectively just an extended trailer for the film with the soundtrack provided by an unidentified Korean group.
Finally, the Promo Archive contains the Korean theatrical, Korean teaser, and UK promotional trailers, the latter of which features the kind of voice-over narration familiar from trailers for bad 80s Hollywood action movies.
The Behind The Scenes section contains no less than five making-of featurettes. The eleven-minute segment Fight School compares footage filmed on-set during the making of the fight scenes with the finished footage. There is no narration, but Premier Asia thoughtfully provide subtitles for all the audible on-set speech.
The five-minute Schoolyard Rivalry takes the same approach, but this time examining the scene set in the school cafeteria.
Teacher's Pet is a six-and-a-half minute interview with Jang Hyuk in which he discusses his experiences making the film accompanied by relevant on-set footage.
The twelve-minute Girl Trouble again compares on-set footage to the finished product, this time focusing on the shower and bamboo forest scenes.
End-of-Term Review runs for seventeen minutes and features two unnamed commentators who discuss selected scenes from the film, focusing on the special effects.
Also within Behind The Scenes is a sub-section containing storyboard-to-film comparisons for seven scenes from the film.
Although the quality of the extras are variable, the sheer quantity ensures that there is a fair amount of worthwhile material, with plenty of on-set footage and reasonable insight into the making of the film from a technical viewpoint. All of the extras, with the exception of the commentary, include English subtitles.
Volcano High works if viewed as live-action Anime to be enjoyed purely for the sheer spectacle and over-the top action, but anybody expecting a display of genuine fighting skills, clever plotting or subtle characterisation will be disappointed.
The Premier Asia DVD release features a good transfer, an impressive DTS soundtrack, and a wealth of extras.
The international cut of Volcano High is also available with English subtitles on a Hong Kong Region 3 disc. The full-length cut of Volcano High has only ever been available with English subtitles on the Korean DVD release, but a forthcoming Australian release of the film promises to give the option of watching the international cut, or by the use of seamless branching, watching the longer version with the removed scenes re-instated.