We Knew The Box Was Empty All Along: Volcano High (2001)

If I have learned anything from the narrative world of cinema, it is that for anyone going to high school in a fictional world, things are especially tough, whether it be need to plan elaborately just to skip a day of school only to have Ben Stein repeatedly call your name a la Ferris Bueller's Day Off, or realizing that planning as something as simple as a house party for your friends requires deceiving your father, fighting a ton of high school bullies and then dealing with racist cops in the film of the same name.  Yet, in all their absurdity, these films manage to still exist within a state of normalcy, in the sense that the endeavors are understandable, while the obstacles might be a bit inconceivable.  This is not the case for contemporary South Korean cinema in the slightest.  While much of their output is already non-linear and narratively rejects a fictional world that fabricates a simulacra of the world viewers are to share, it is no more obvious then in the High School films being released by the country.  This is clear in the supernatural horror series that includes both Whispering Corridors and Memento Mori, wherein a ghost attack serves as a metaphor for a larger ridicule faced by a young lesbian couple.  In a more wild example, a work like Daesepo Naughty Girls looks at dealing with difference and high school cliques through a sci-fi invasion narrative that will have even the most expansive of cinematic tastes questioned and confused.  In the middle of these films exists a work like, Volcano High, which is very much in the vein of the paranormal high school narrative, while also being a film that exist within the martial arts and kung fu genre, although the fights in this film take on an psychic extension yet seen in a large degree during this marathon.  While the film is not absolutely stellar and often relies on the aid of style to negate from dealing with some of its more substantial narrative issues, it is a fun movie to look at and Tae-gyun Kim's high flying choreography paired with an industrial editing style and mise-en-scene do invoke a style of filmmaking that existed around the late 90's and early 2000's that plays very much off of the breakout cult hit The Matrix.

Volcano High, as the title suggests, focuses on the experiences of Volcano High School, a school riddled with authority problems as various leaders of clubs and organizations attempt to take back the Secret Manuscript, which holds unknown power.  The manuscript, however, is held by the heads of the school and has recently been seized by the power hungry Vice Principal (Byeon Hee-Bong).  Meanwhile a new student has come to the school in Kim Kyung-Soo (Jang Hyuk), who has been kicked out of eight schools previously for his "disruptive" classroom behavior, although the narrative seems to suggest that in every scenario it was a result of prodding and bullying by others.  Needless to say, when Kim comes to Volcano High he is instantly approached by various members of the earlier mentioned clubs to join their groups and it is made abundantly clear that these groups function as high profile gangs who engage in bouts with one another, whether it be Jang Ryang (Kimm Soo-ro) who is the captain of the weightlifting team and all around tough guy.  Ryang's willingness to assert his physical authority has led to his being labeled as the dark ox.  Furthermore, there is also Hak-rim (Kwon Sang-woo) the school's most powerful martial artist, who is framed for the disappearance of leaders after the Vice-President's move for power, nonetheless, agreeing to train Kim when he realizes his latent psychic abilities.  During his time at Volcano High, Kim also takes to liking the captain of the kendo team Yoo Chae-Yi (Shin Min-a) whose love for Hak-rim only has led to her being known as Icy Jade in that she refuses to acknowledge the advances of even Kim.  As the narrative unfolds it becomes clear that the students are being played upon one another while a push for wild power occurs by the Vice President, who hires a new set of faculty to deal with the skills of the various students, thus resulting in an authoritarian rule in the space of Volcano High that leads to a wild revolt and confrontation, which affords even the most unlikely of allies unity.  Kim, learning to harness his unique powers, becomes a hero in the school, but as the closing montage suggests, this also comes with the continued expectation that he defend such a title.

It is in this sense of contesting and reaffirming authority that Volcano High excels.  Indeed, much of the narrative is spent considering the power that words, symbols, age and gender play into who is allowed to assert their opinion or reject the ideas of a person in charge.  The most obvious sense of this comes through the constant reminder that the President of the school exudes the most authority, despite spending nearly the entire narrative in a stone like state, after being poisoned by the Vice-President.  In the case of this his age, masculinity and name have afforded him a place of unquestioned privilege and to a degree exploitation, since it is rather obvious that Volcano High is not the most well-run of high schools.  The lingering authoritative presence of the president is only one aspect of this authority, in so much as the collective of the faculty seem capable of exploiting the students based on threats of expulsion and punishment that are often vague and non-physical, which is interesting in that it seems to speak to a larger cultural issue of shame and identity.  The students at Volcano High are already a diverse group of individuals, either socially different for personal choices or physical abilities that are deemed almost that of a mutant and the thought of having a mark on their record that would suggest anything but positive would therefore ruin their career.  Knowing that once I graduated from high school and began college, everything I did in high school became irrelevant, I can still remember believing that even the smallest misstep might result in my future downfall.  It was authority working at its finest, in that its mere presence resulted in my paranoia to the point of acting far too conservatively for a majority of those years.  Foucault would have been ashamed.  While some of the students at Volcano High fear similar results, they seem far more concerned with the power possessed by the Secret Manuscript that affects the choices and movements of the main characters, despite it being revealed relatively early on that it is merely an empty box.  This empty box and indicative of rules and authority is perhaps the greatest of the filmic metaphors on authority, because it is grounded in nothing, in a very literal sense, much like many institutions of oppression and ruling.

Key Scene:  The first bamboo forrest fight is quite watchable, all be it highly referential and a bit of a rehashing of other fight scenes.

I would probably overlook this film, unless you really like Korean cinema or high school movies.  In which case you will probably adore this film.  Only thoroughly liking the former, the high school elements all seemed highly forced to me.

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