Sundays are so much fun for me now. I feel like I’m on a sugar high after watching this flick today. I might put on an Aki Kaurismaki film now, just to bring me back down before bed.
Wilfully odd but wonderfully nuts.
Um, there’s a school called Volcano High, and all the sports teams are actually warring factions, with the leader of each trying to be the school’s number one fighter because then the principal will give them the Secret Manuscript which can make them all-powerful. One day Kim Kyung-Soo arrives. He’s been expelled from every other school he has attended after using his psychic powers and getting in fights, and Volcano High is his last chance. Then things get really weird.
At least I think that’s what it was about. This is one bizarre film. Some of the viewers on Lovefilm have described it as “The Matrix meets Harry Potter” but that’s taking the easy way out. Yes, it takes place in a school where the kids can do incredible things and don’t get on with each other (I’m guessing that’s the Harry Potter part) and everyone wears lots of black and they fight in the rain (yep, in a Matrix-y stylee) but these are just surface comparisons. Kim Tae-Gyun’s film wilfully borrows from lots of other sources but he has crafted something kind of special from those myriad parts. Of course I’m not going to sell you a thoroughbred fit for the glue factory here; the movie probably won’t ever win any awards (except maybe “Best Film of 2001 Named Volcano High”)* but there is such enthusiasm and wild abandon on display – both in front of and behind the camera – that it’s hard not to get caught up in it at least a little bit.
There isn’t a single duff note amongst the actors. Again, I feel I should qualify that statement. For movies like this, the standard good/bad paradigm of Western cinema doesn’t really apply. Everyone on screen has equally bought in to their character and the performances all match the tone created by the story and the visuals. Jang Hyuk is a stand-out as Kim Kyung-Soo, the mysterious rebel. Most of the comedy in the movie comes from his laconic delivery and his nonchalant reactions to the repeated attempts made to kick his ass into next week. Kim Soo-Ro is great fun as Jang Ryang, captain of the weightlifting team and presumptive Top Dog until Kim arrives (Jang is usually the one attempting to kick Kim’s ass into next week). The effects are very good, considering the age and budget of the film. As with most Asian martial arts movies of the last decade or so, the fights are mostly of the wire-fu variety, but again that fits with the cartoonish aspect of the flick. I’m no fan of the way wire-fu almost wiped out proper fisticuffs (and footicuffs) completely but it does have its place. Realistic fights would just seem a bit dull in this world.
If there is a problem with this movie that I can explicitly point my finger at, it’s the edit. The cut I watched today on Lovefilm Instant was the international version, running to about 95 minutes. Even considering my ability to read the subtitles with one eye and follow the action with the other (either that or I can just read really fast, I’m not sure) I was having trouble following the plot at times, as my brief description above will probably attest. It was only later that I found out the original cut released in South Korea was 120 minutes. The difference is mostly additional character and plot development, and appears to be included as separate deleted scenes on the DVD, but in this day and age I don’t see a need for this to still be happening, particularly when the result is going to be negative reviews of the “I didn’t know what was going on” variety. The full 2-hour cut is actually up on YouTube of all places. I’ll maybe give it a try in the next couple of weeks. If you are trying to track down this flick for yourself though, avoid any mention of the MTV cut. This is another cut down version of the film with all the dialogue dubbed by hip-hop stars of the time – such as Snoop Dogg, Kelis, and Andre and Big Boi from Outkast – many of whom also contributed to a new soundtrack that replaced the original rock-based one. It was broadcast three times by MTV in the US and is, by all accounts, shit.
*Apparently I was so very nearly wrong there. Gong Hyo-Jin was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at South Korea’s Blue Dragon Film Awards for her performance as So Yo-Seon, co-captain of the Kendo team and love-letter-writer extraordinaire. That’s me told.