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Volcano High or WaSanGo (2001)

January 30, 2011 Leave a comment

When you view any foreign film, the inevitable first response is to filter the experiences through the lenses of your own cultural expectations. What you see triggers associations with memories of your own visual experience. You are reminded of television programmes and films you have seen. Because of Western notions of supremacy, you tend to find foreign films derivative. You think whatever you recall from your own culture must have come first. That the foreigners have merely copied these ideas. In the 1950s, I grew up with the constant reinforcement of the post-war myth that everything made in Japan was a cheap copy of one of “our” inventions. This gave us two reason to think badly of Japan (apart from the war which, as victors, we were supposed to put behind us as we rebuilt for the future). That all they could do was copy. There was no natural creativity. And that everything they did produce was cheap and poor value. In reality, this was the worst of manipulative protectionism, shielding our manufacturers from the very effective competition from abroad.

 

So it is particularly fascinating to come to Volcano High aka WaSanGo, a film written and directed by Kim Tae-Gyun, made in Korea in 2001. A casual first glance would nominate key words like kung fu, action and fantasy. But there’s rather more cultural substance to it. No matter what you might expect, this is not a routine “kung fu with fantasy elements” movie set in a High School. It’s a clever and innovative way of examining some of South Korea’s core values.

 

For a moment, let’s think about the culture of South Korea which derives its power from a mixture of Shamanism and Confucianism. It has the same general materialism of other “Asian” countries (using Asian in its broadest sense) valuing success and seeking for sufficient prosperity to ensure good health and a long life. But the primary values are filial piety, focussed on the family and depending at its root in continuous deference to those who are older and in positions of authority. This runs through the worship of ancestors, a practice intended to reinforce a general emphasis of social hierarchy. Everyone has their status and the respect accorded it. Maintaining this pecking order maintains a spirit of collectivism and social harmony. Conformity and loyalty to the peer group is fundamental. Yet there is always a potential for change through Shamanism. This proposes the view that there is an animate power in particular objects and nature in general, which can directly affect the fortunes of every individual.

 

So it is that Kim Kyeong-su played by Jang Hyuk comes to Volcano High. This is the end of the line for him. He has been kicked out of all the other local schools for indiscipline. In this, he is a great disappointment to his father who has always taught him to respect his elders and, if necessary, take a beating to prove it. This goes hard for the young man who is actually possessed of great supernatural abilities. Able to draw on water for strength and energy, he could be the most devastating of kung fu exponents. Yet, in this last chance saloon, no matter whether he is personally humiliated or he perceives others around him unjustly victimized, he makes a virtue of turning the other cheek.

 

What makes the story so interesting is the subversive nature of the actual power relationships both among the students and the staff. In this kind of film, we are always dealing with clichés. There’s the terrible school bully who uses his fighting skills to intimidate everyone else. This is Jang Ryang played by Su-Ro Kim When he deems the time right, he notifies the beautiful and righteous girl, Yu Chae-i played by Shin Min-A, that she is now to consider herself his girl. Needless to say, this is not well received. Then there’s the devious school deputy who is prepared to go to any lengths to secure possession of a kung fu manual hidden away by the mild-mannered school principal. Indeed, because it has remained hidden, there has been a seventeen-year lull in the feuds between the different clans and factions. The myths say whoever holds the manual will rule the world. So at a personal level, the deputy must oppose his “boss”, while at a society level, the prize is the ability to defeat the Korean hierarchy. It represents the end of deference and the use of skills to establish a new pecking order.

 

As you might predict, Kim’s arrival destabilises the dynamics among the students. The fact he chooses not to fight is more than obvious to all who see him. Then the plans of the deputy go awry and, with the principal incapacitated, he must call in outside help to find the manual and subdue the students. The arrival of a high-powered squad of five enforcers is the catalyst to bring Kim’s powers out in their full glory. In this he is fortunate that it’s raining most of the time — a factor that gives Kim access to enough power to beat all-comers. All he needs to do is break the conditioning imposed on him by his father and, when you place him in full context, all Korean society. Consider that he is now defying a group identified as disciplinary masters representing the power and authority of the Education Ministry. The fact they are not authorised and merely top kung fu exponents employed by the Deputy to find the missing manual does not change the challenge to Kim’s social conditioning. Fortunately, the student framed for the attack on the principal is able to help Kim achieve his full potential.

 

The hit squad’s leader, a maths teacher called Mr Ma, is played with wonderful malevolence by Jun-ho Heo). Without this pivotal performance, the film would collapse but, in a clever use of shadows, he moves as if partly cloaked in darkness. The cinematography and direction is careful to establish his dominant status and therefore represent the most effective challenge to Kim. Indeed, if the team had imposed order in a more even-handed way, Korean values would have prevailed and Kim would not have rebelled. Mr Ma must therefore victimise individuals and be manifestly unKorean to provoke our hero. When finally roused, Kim takes to the air in full wired combat mode as the rain sweeps across the sport field. Although some of the wire work lacks the control we now expect of these sequences, the resulting fight is really pleasing, driven by the intensity of Mr Ma’s control and the raw emotion of the rookie just coming into a full understanding of what he can do.

 

And at the end? Well, in a sense, order is restored and the key characters fall back into the roles expected of them. You can only bend Korean society so far before it snaps everyone back into place.

 

This is genuinely enjoyable whether you want to watch it just as a kung fu movie with faintly comic aspirations or as an interesting commentary on Korean social values. And, of course, it is creative, original and not derivative at all.

 

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