Volcano High (Whasango) (South Korea, 2001)

Volcano High is a Korean action-comedy-special effects extravaganza set in a high school in which all the kids and teachers have psychic powers and spend more time dueling than studying.

With a premise like that, Volcano High can’t help but be entertaining. And it is. Intermittently.

The plot is, to put it politely, slight. Kim Kyeung-Su is an annoying goofball kid who has been repeatedly kicked out of school, either for misusing his powers to make trouble or for freaking out everyone by having powers until they frame him for troublemaking -- it's not clear which.

(One of the many other things which is unclear in this movie is whether the world outside of Volcano High is aware of the existence of psychic powers. Others include whether the powers are psychic or an expression of martial skill, whether or not Volcano High is a boarding school, why the only likable character gets locked in jail early on and stays there for the entire film (and why there appears to be a jail on school premises), and whether Kim got his powers by falling into a tank of electric eels when he was a toddler, or if that was a joke. Also why his father had a tank of electric eels in the living room.)

Anyway, goofball Kim arrives at Volcano High. The teachers are all secretly searching for the Secret Manuscript (which presumably conveys even more power, though no one ever actually says so), and one of them gives the principal magical smallpox and takes over. Elegant Crane, the school’s most powerful kid fighter, is falsely accused of afflicting the principal and locked up. Inexplicably, he does not use his powers to escape.

Meanwhile, Jang Ryang, aka Dark Ox, keeps challenging Kim to a fight. In what I can only assume is untranslatable Korean humor, Jang Ryang also keeps insisting that his name is Jang Ryang and he does not like bean paste soup. The all-girl kendo team periodically rushes out and attacks people with bamboo swords. The teacher who cursed the principal fights all the kids, apparently at random. Elegant Crane unblocks Kim’s chi from his jail cell, and STILL doesn’t escape.

More stuff happens, more-or-less at random.

Director Tae-gyun Kim did his best to make a live-action film that looks and feels just like, not even anime, but manga. This translates into intriguing visuals, with black-clad figures tumbling through the air, words scrolling in the background, and more unusual camera angles than a film festival. The characters even look like manga characters, with spiky hair and big eyes.

Unfortunately, he also directed the actors to reproduce the exaggerated facial expressions and bodily contortions of cartoon characters. The result is that every character mugs so constantly and frantically that none of them are funny, none of them are sympathetic, and all of them are incredibly annoying.

And for a film with such a slim plot, it’s remarkably hard to follow. At any given moment, while it’s easy to see what is happening (fighting, usually) it’s almost impossible to tell why anyone is doing anything. Few moments have any clear relationship to any other moments.

What’s left? Fighting. Punching, kicking, weightless leaping, and lots and lots of energy beams, shattered glass, and explosions. Some of this is filmed quite cleverly, and the shattered glass and water drops make pretty patterns in the air. But none of the actors look like martial artists, or even like actors with some martial arts training. They look like you or I would if, with no warning or instructions, we were strapped into a harness and hurled through the air. That is to say, they wave their arms and scream a lot.

A professor once told me that directing is about making choices. Every single thing which appears on the screen is the result of a choice. If too many people with conflicting visions are involved, as often happens with big-budget movies, choices are made by committee. The resulting film may be so bland that no choices appear to have been made at all.

Volcano High is not pablum-by-consensus. Tae-gyun Kim made many choices, and he made them firmly and with enthusiasm. Unfortunately, at least half of them were wrong.

The result is a film which is more confusing than compelling, more frenetic than energetic, and more overacted than you can even begin to imagine.

[Rachel Manija Brown]