So, there’s this guy who works for MTV Films. His boss notices that martial arts films have become big money, so he sends this guy out to a film festival to find one. The guy packs his bags, gets on a plane, and 10 hours later, he’s stumbling around a city he doesn’t know. The next few days are filled with too many screenings and studio parties. Though the great martial flicks are already optioned by the big studios, he still has to come back with something. And so he reaches back into his party-fogged memory and pulls out one featuring high school kids with extraordinary powers. He pitches it as an “Asian X-Men.” The boss loves it and flies him home, where he gets a promotion.
That’s the way I imagine MTV Films got hold of Volcano High. Now available on DVD—in its uncut original Korean version and a heavily edited U.S. cut on a two-sided disc—the movie is a mess no matter how you slice it. The original version, which runs 20 minutes longer, is thoroughly baffling. Kim (Hyuk Jang) arrives at the titular school having been expelled from nine other schools for using his powers (the extent and particulars of these remain unclear). Though he tries not to use them here, he’s drawn into a complicated battle between his fellow students (who also possess unspecified powers) and teachers over a secret manuscript that promises to enhance the powers of whoever holds it. Despite the interesting premise, the film never coheres.
The script, by director Tae-gyun Kim and Dong-heo Seo, is heavy on narration, including on-screen text, that outlines various characters’ back-stories. Instead of clarifying the history of the enormous cast of characters, the additional text only emphasizes the number of mismanaged characters and muddies an already confusing plot. The film cuts between past and present, and each scene, shot from a new insane angle, is thus imbued with a sense of extraordinary purpose. A character entering a room will be shot from above and to the right for no other reason than simply it could be done. Even a secondary character eating soup in the school cafeteria will be given a generous, dramatic close-up.
The film also struggles with pacing, and instead of building to a final showdown, it seems one continuous climax that is completely exhausting. In the first half-hour alone, there are easily a half-dozen various battles, each with varying degrees of importance to the plot, all treated with the gravitas of a final reel showdown. It’s difficult even to describe what happens.
By contrast, the folks at MTV Films are all about the pitch, and have done a bang-up marketing job to bring Volcano High to a U.S. audience. Ditching any explanation of the film’s plot on the back of the case, the DVD text claims the film is where “martial arts and hip-hop collide” and saving its brief copy space to list the celebrity guests. To meld these two disparate worlds together, Lil’ Jon, Tracy Morgan (not exactly “hip-hop,” but whatever), Kelis, Andre 3000, Method Man, and Mya lend their voices to the American dub. For the most part, their voice-acting is quite good. Lil’ Jon loses his distinctive snarl and Morgan is effectively goofy. The only misstep is Snoop Dogg, whose can’t escape his distinctive drawl, making his voice an odd match for an Asian teenager. In the embarrassingly incomplete, home-video-style making-of featurette (about the U.S. voice dubbing), the stars offer insights that amount to little more than “This is a fun project” or “I like martial arts.” But I suppose this all beside the point, as the stars are primarily here to lure in a targeted audience, that with the help of their voices, will hopefully understand the film their about to watch.
The U.S. version is actually more compelling and easier to follow than the original, dispensing with the secret manuscript subplot to focus instead on the battle between the various student factions, while the teachers take a backseat. I’m usually the first one to fight against movies being changed when they’re brought to the U.S., but here, I’ll cut the MTV crew some slack: the very fact that they made a sensible cut out of this movie is an accomplishment.