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It has taken decades for the world to take notice of the Korean Film Industry, but even with all the quality period pieces generated by these very talented folk, they've had to create a typical Hollywood-style futuristic flick for anyone to realise they even exist. However, Korea are also known in certain circles for hand-drawing and colouring-in the animation cells for The Simpsons and Futurama. And to top it all off, according to Bey Logan, when Jackie Chan was filming his 1970s Lo Wei induced nightmares in Korea, he and his fellow filmmakers would often look over the other side of the hill and laugh at the relatively pathetic attempts of the locals to create their own celluloid masterpieces.

Volcano High
There are many reasons why Korean movies remain in relative obscurity, but it mainly has to do with the amount of cash at their disposal, or lack thereof, for production and distribution. This has not stopped them in pursuing the echelons that Hong Kong has enjoyed for over three decades, and through sheer persistence alone they have been able to turn the tide with their golden lovechild Volcano High. They may still have a long way to go in building the much-needed bridges towards international recognition, but there is no doubt that their unique visual stylings and equally quirky cultural sensibilities (which oddly enough do work) will find a home in the lives of filmgoers who are after something just that a little bit different from the now-typical Hong Kong offerings. Surprisingly though, even with Korea's rich diversity in martial arts practices from Tae Kwon Do to Kendo, their film industry is severely lacking in good choreographers, which makes the actors' lack of hand-to-hand combat prowess even that more obvious to the naked eye.

The Premier Asia DVD label is essentially run by the same people behind Hong Kong Legends, but it was obviously created for the fact that it showcases non-HK produced films, of which there are three so far in their ever-increasing catalogue. Volcano High differs simply for the fact that this is set in some distant future rather than the historical era of period Asia - that and it plays just like a Manga comic book with real acting people. Whilst there is a plot to this film, I can't say that it delivers it all that well here, but no doubt the viewers will forgive this little oversight with the remarkable CGI production values that were generated for less than $5m. As for the acting talent in Volcano High, I'd say that it is a lot more consistent across the board than what was in Naked Weapon, regardless of the fantastic environment and larger-than-life personalities battling it out for precious screen time at the Lava Learning Centre.

I have said many times before that I'm not much of a fan of the dreaded Wire-Fu technique, especially when it is used to excess, if not distraction, as shown in Volcano High, but I don't mind it so much here since I can treat the characters much like I would those in the X-Men series. The people portrayed in Volcano High are in a state of development with their "Chi" or life energy that, whilst inexplicably, allows them to perform extraordinary physical acts that could almost be interpreted as telekinesis. The same could be said for the legendary and mythical settings of the ancient Asian lands of every other film of this type, but unfortunately I find this sort of thing much harder to swallow in a familiar traditional landscape.

Since this DVD only houses the shorter International version of the movie, some devotees may be disappointed with PA's decision to go in this direction. But as Bey Logan says in the commentary, sometimes it's better to have a film that streamlines the story rather than putting up with unnecessary padding, and Volcano High certainly fits the bill here. That said, there is a deleted scenes compilation provided on this already expansive two-disc edition, although it would have been great to be given an option to reinsert them into the feature proper ala X-Men. There is also a re-CGI'd Japanese version available with improved special effects, and also a re-edited version for the American market with the voices re-dubbed by popular rap artists - as if this film wasn't weird enough already.

Film
The bleach-blonde school kid Kim Kyeong-su (Hyuk Jang) has been expelled from his eighth school for using his overabundance of Chi against his teacher; his ninth and final placing at Volcano High is where he decides to do everything he can to not abuse his powers again. However, this isn’t no 90210 as the students are currently doing battle with each other to possess the much-desired Sacred Manuscript that goes to the most gifted (aka powerful) of all. And just like most other schools where the students own much nicer cars than the teachers, the kids at Volcano High possess a much higher Chi than what the lecturers can only dream of, especially when it comes to dispatching chalk at the little horrors.

Volcano High
Straight-laced and level-headed Song Hak-lim (Sang-woo Kwon) currently holds this prized position with a Chi power in phase 10. The students' power play is forced upon the unwitting Kim by various factions within the school including the captain of the Weight-lifting team Jang Ryang (Su-ro Kim) sporting a fashionable red-tipped haircut, as well as the sensitive yet strong-willed female head of the Kendo team Yu Chae-i (Min-a Shin). The carrot-topped head of the Rugby team Shim Ma (Hyeong-jong Kim) also desires this coveted title as he goes about more mischievous ways of obtaining his goal. Jang has the hots for Yu something fierce, but she has her eye on Kim for reasons other than love, although after she sees him do things with water buck naked in a shower she might just change her mind about that.

As the students fight amongst themselves to determine who should rightfully possess this treasured ancient document, they soon discover an even greater threat, that of the immoral teacher body who bring in The Five Great Cleaners - these guys are scary enough to make you want to study for perfect marks every time. They have come at the worst time for the students whilst they are at their most vulnerable, the students now realising that life at school is not all fun and games. The kids must abandon their petty differences to band together against this new threat to the Sacred Manuscript; Kim must also overcome his fears and doubts to save the future of education as they know it.

Volcano High is littered with instantly forgettable character names, confusing plot points, exaggerated larger-than-life personas barely rising above the first dimension and the general abuse of wires which would leave a piano-tuner crying his heart out. However, if you treat it like a Japanimation graphic novel come to life, then admittedly it becomes more watchable with each subsequent viewing. The other thing I noticed about this film is that, when I first watched it with the audio commentary, the lack of a wacky soundtrack made it feel like a different movie altogether. The over-the-top music and sound effects are just as important as the bizarre visuals and its absence seriously detracts from the enjoyment of Volcano High - I'd just hate to think how MTV have treated it with their own American WWF-influenced popularity over there. And whilst it can't out-matrix The Matrix, it does a fine job of emulating it by copying some of the lesser signature moves, recreating the master-student training sequence and maybe even reproducing some of the hokey dialogue as well ... and is even more enjoyable than M2&3 combined!

Video
The closest you could describe this image to being is between the colour palette found in the blue-biased real-world of The Matrix combined with the bleached-out monotone look of Pitch Black. This heavily stylised presentation is perfectly suited to the movie and the DVD rendering is as equally striking as the behavior of the characters themselves. I'm sure that whatever faults we witness here are for artistic purposes only and ultimately any shortcomings should be a non-issue for the viewer.

The first thing you will notice from time to time is the amount of grain between shots, which range from somewhat excessive to virtually undetectable, although I'm unsure as to whether there is a set pattern to when it shows up according to certain beats in the movie. Regardless, this does add an almost newspaper look to some of the sequences which give it an edge that Hollywood would rather try and avoid most of the time. Thankfully, the dual-layer spread for this ninety minute flick is used to the fullest with little or no compression artefacts to be seen anywhere, and no bloom to mention either.

The black levels are deep with probably the highest contrast ever seen in a film, the shadow detail too being quite revealing since everything was processed in the digital post-production realm, however I read elsewhere that the black tunics are better rendered in the R3 version. Focus has a sharpness to it that gives much needed detail to such things as the buttons on each person's tunics, yet has a softness and depth to the image that you wouldn't normally associate with a cold ice blue motif.

Volcano High
Even with all the usual imperfections on exhibition, this image is basically what the director intended.

Audio
There are three soundtrack offerings for this movie, although in short the Korean DTS 6.1 is the best listening experience for the most obvious of reasons. If you don't have DTS capability then the Korean DD 5.1 should come in at a close second and finally the English DD 5.1 rendition to be kept at a very distant third. Bear in mind that the English dub present on this DVD is not the same as the American MTV remix with its revoiced rap stars and even more wacky editing on offer. However some reviewers seem to suggest that you'd be better off with the original English version if you're that desperate for it at all, although being the way-out movie that Volcano High is then the English dub isn't so bad in this light.

There's not much worth whingeing about here as pretty much all the bases are covered very effectively, except for the almost unnatural processed feel to everything being said and done ... but then, this movie is much more a comic-book than real-life portrayal of what is going on around here. The dialogue is extremely clear and detailed, so much so that it doesn't hold any amount of natural ambience, making it very disjointed against the rest of the soundtrack ... not that any of the sound effects and environmental sounds are all that authentic either. What these soundmixes do provide to the viewer is a rollercoaster ride of aural wonders that gives every speaker something to do other than just hum once in a while.

I'm not kidding that everything explodes in this movie, even when opposing Chi's are struck against one another. The result is a very hologramatic (er, holosonic) experience, especially when utilising the DTS 6.1 mix to the max. The other two DD 5.1 mixes though are equally impressive, but the DTS one naturally has the edge when it comes to finer detail of shattering glass and falling tea-leaves etc. The subwoofer also provides a wonderful undertonal support for everything happening above it; thumping body blows, things that go boom and the groovy funky rock bands are given equal billing here; the subtle uses of bass go towards things like oncoming heart attacks experienced by soon-to-be dead school principals.

No matter which of these three soundmixes that you choose, all are remarkably worthwhile listening to, especially given the minuscule budget that was afforded for the entire production.

Extras
On Disc 1, the Audio Commentary is, as usual, graced with the informative rambling’s of Hong Kong cinema guru Bey Logan, however he may have finally met his match with the inclusion of Korean movie maestro Mike Leeder. These guys could be mistaken for being long lost twin brothers as they duke it out for the oft-limited time allotment of the spoken word, which makes for a much more lively conversation than we are normally used to from Bey alone. The main benefit here is for the helpful and sometimes difficult translations of local culture and language to the international audiences. But even with all the added verbalisation on offer, I get the feeling that we only end up with about half the usual amount of information about the movie. Nonetheless, this is a welcome addition to this unusual turning point in Korean film. Also, there is a Deleted Scenes compilation (39 mins) to address the extricated footage from the original Korean print of the movie; this includes 21 minutes of unseen footage (with the main excision being the Bamboo Bimbo) then an extended version of the finale lasting 18 minutes. If there was a bit more forethought taken, maybe Bey and Mike could have commentated on these as well.

Volcano High
On Disc 2 is where the main body of supplemental material is kept, although a lot of the set & location video footage tends to get reused in the various featurettes provided here. These are split up into three main areas; Interview Gallery, Promotional Archive and Behind The Scenes.

First up is the Interview Gallery with discussions provided by director Tae-gyun Kim (12 mins), Kendo femme Min-a Shin (12 mins), schoolyard bully Su-ro Kim (19 mins) and veritable class clown Hyuk Jang (15 mins). The director reveals all the unexpected difficulties of creating what was literally a new filmmaking genre in Korea with all the on-location wirework filming and CGI post-production to be generated. The actors talk about their own personal life experiences, recollections of what it was like to shoot the movie as well as giving a more in-depth look at their personas onscreen than what the film itself allows. Su-roh Kim in particular gives a very good explanation of his character's background with a surprisingly complex rundown of what makes him tick in the storyline. There are also some shots of him taking some extremely hard knocks that will make you wince in pain every time you see them.

Next is the Promotional Archive which starts off with Under The Volcano: The Making Of Volcano High (12 mins). This somewhat brings together most of the other elements on this disc into one short descriptive presentation. There is an Animated Photo Gallery (2 mins) which presents precious few on-set photographs and does little to stir the imagination over the already abundant behind-the-scenes footage. The Music Video plays an unknown song by an unknown band with indecipherable lyrics; there are no English subtitles present which would have been handy in understanding the song's meaning, but then I always say that with heavy metal and rap music in general anyway. The one thing to note here is that when playing this music clip on a Pro-Logic system, the entire soundtrack is reproduced in the surrounds only; can't say I've experienced that before. Then there are the Trailers housing the original Korean teaser and trailer as well as the obligatory self-promotional UK trailer from HKL/PA.

Finally there is the Behind The Scenes collection split up into several shorts. Fight School details a few of the key scenes showing raw video footage then the final edited film product. Schoolyard Rivalry isn't exactly what the name suggests, instead it just shows some excess video footage of relatively uninteresting scenes that couldn't find a home anywhere else here. Teacher's Pet kind of retreads old ground with another Hyuk Jang interview and plentiful doses of movie clips; this is actually presented inside a half-sized framed window which is probably the first time ever for a video featurette. Girl Trouble sounds like the rest of these shorts, however it does present a pretty rare insight into the nuances of what a director exactly wants in a scene; namely from the Chi in Shower, Kiss in Shower and (excised) Kiss in Bamboo Plantation sequences. End-Of-Term Review (16 mins) is a look at some of the complex CGI effects by (who I assume to be) the director and head of special effects; they spend their time mostly complaining about what they could have done better whilst being proud of their achievements at the same time, and is also presented in a half-sized window to test the will of annoyed viewers I'm sure. Storyboard Comparisons (12 mins) is just that, showing seven separate scenes individually selected through the menu (but with no Play All option); this has little relevance to me even at the best of times.

Volcano High
Overall
As with Naked Weapon which I reviewed earlier, Volcano High is the kind of film that at least deserves a rental as there are no doubt much worse offerings available on the shelves. These two films are also in truncated one-disc forms for R4 - Naked Weapon is pretty much the movie-only, but Volcano High has the added bonus of incorporating the deleted scenes back into the International Cut to present a stilted version of the Korean Cut ala Robocop with some extras from this R2 edition. The other thing to note is that the R3 product houses the Korean Cut in its entirety but apparently has a slightly better textured image on offer; however for my money I am quite satisfied with the R2 presentation. Of course, I have not even begun to comment on what the American MTV edition is like in R1 (since I haven't seen it yet) but I seriously doubt that it can improve upon what the Korean producers originally created.

For the Asian movie collectors out there, you will now be racking your brains trying to decide which version of Volcano High to buy. This will depend on what version of the movie you want to watch (with Japanese or Korean SFX), the image transfer on offer and how much supplemental material is really necessary for your extensive DVD library. I would say that this R2 Premier Asia two-disc edition more than meets the demanding requirements of both casual and hard-core fan alike, even with only the International Cut present here. As for those who only like watching a movie once in their lifetime, you should be alright renting your local version of Volcano High no matter where you live around the world.


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