Movie Smackdown (Part 2): Crows Zero (2007 & 2009) vs. Volcano High (2001)
Battlefield High School
Part Two: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…
by Ender’s Girl
Volcano High / Hwasango
Jang Hyuk, Shin Min-a, Kim Soo-ro, Kwon Sang-woo, Gong Hyo-jin, Byeon Hee-bong, Heo Jun-ho, Kim Hyung-jong, Jeong Sang-hun, Chae Shi-ah
Directed by Kim Tae-gyun / Sidus & Cinema Service, 2001
In a Nutshell:
Not-quite-your-average teener Kim Kyung-soo’s expulsion from school for the eighth time (for disrupting class with his powers, tsk) lands him in Volcano High, an elite institution for other preternaturally gifted kids. But a nefarious plot soon sows chaos within the school administration and the already fractious student body, while an even graver and darker threat looms right outside the walls. Though determined at first to keep out of trouble (this time), Kyung-soo finds himself – and his vast, if still-unripe powers – left standing between his school and its oppressive new regime.
(SpoilLert: Very spoilery.)
After watching the Crows Zeros I was still feeling… dissatisfied despite being left near insensate by the visual and aural overload the films had dumped on me. So I rummaged through my Asian drama stash for two old VCDs that must’ve been buried under the newer arrivals. I found the discs still in their dusty case, exactly the way I left them ages ago.
My first encounter with Volcano High was in the early/mid-Noughties (just as my Hallyu obsession was reaching its peak), and I found it to be a breezy, entertaining popcorn flick that had the perfect blend of action and comedy with just a dash of romance and lightly — very lightly — sprinkled with interesting psycho-social insights. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my viewing satisfaction had not diminished over time – in fact it had increased, because now I could better appreciate the little details in the story, acting and production design.
I also realized, after having seen the Crows Zeros, why Volcano High stands up in the litmus test of multiple viewings and doesn’t feel stale or tedious to watch – even several years down the road. And the difference is predicated on two key elements absent from Miike Takashi’s Crows Zero films: a high school that feels like high school (despite the fantasy elements), and a likable protagonist with a well-developed story trajectory.
Volcano High is set in a parallel universe where such preternatural abilities as superhuman strength, extreme martial arts prowess, psychic powers and other mystical juju are all woven into the fabric of reality in a very East Asian-y way. But despite its uncanniness, the world of Volcano High bears a persuasive authenticity not found in the hyperreal, pseudo-nihilistic setting of the Crows Zeros.
For one, Volcano High feels like a real institution where the authorities are very much involved in the day-to-day operations of the school. Yes, there are faculty members who get intimidated by some of the tougher students — like the protagonist’s homeroom teacher, a pusillanimous old fart who turns his back (and a blind eye) on the classroom shenanigans. Nevertheless, the institutional power structure is still very much in place and the school authorities ARE in charge. The students may grumble and grouse and display their rebelliousness in little ways, but nobody would dare openly defy their teachers. Furthermore, the school looks like a school and not the gutted-out post-apocalyptic shell from the Crows Zeros. This is evidenced in the wider variety of campus settings used in the film: the classrooms, the mess hall, the faculty room, the school clinic, the vice-principal’s office, and the various after-class club rooms.
The existing hierarchy also creates a dynamic between the school administration and the students that is glaringly absent from the Crows Zeros, where the story is expurgated of all adult presence. This added traction in Volcano High enhances the story’s verisimilitude as it strongly resonates with audiences across the board – for we know that in every educational institution where rules and conformity are upheld, run undercurrents of mutual antagonism, resistance and distrust between those in authority and those under it. These undertones mirror the intrinsic friction between adolescents and their parents (or adults in general) who can be dismissive or patronizing towards youngsters.
And unlike the Crows Zeros where the main conflict between the two alpha punks can feel rather static in spite of all the roughhousing, the main conflict in Volcano High bubbles up from the faculty-student tension and presents itself in these very relatable – but disturbingly real – scenarios: What happens when those in power abuse their authority and subvert the very rules they have made — all for personal gain? What happens when greed and corruption have undermined the teachers’ mandate to guide and educate their students? What then?
The moral turpitude that has infected the school administration at Volcano High spares neither its faculty nor its students. Our protagonist Kim Kyung-soo (Jang Hyuk) transfers to his new school unaware of the sh*tstorm that’s been brewing unseen in everyone’s midst, ready to unleash hell on the institution and all who are in it. The crux of the conflict (and object of the Baddies’ covetousness) is this mystical tome – bearing the most esoteric of names: the “Secret Manuscript” lol – that is said to be the key to ending the infighting that has bedeviled the land for the past seventeen years. Whoever holds the sacred manual is believed to wield the power to restore balance to The Force – although the movie is rather vague on how exactly the said feat should be accomplished. (Leave it to East Asian mysticism to have some kind of Amazing Transcendental Thingy as the be-all and end-all for every problem in the freakin’ universe, lol.)
Everybody at Volcano thinks that the school principal, this benevolent Zen master with a pet rooster, has the Secret Manuscript in his possession. But shortly after Kim Kyung-soo’s arrival, the principal is found in his quarters, locked in a trance-like coma after having survived – but just barely – a dastardly poisoning attempt. The evidence ostensibly points to Song Hak-rim (Kwon Sang-woo), the school’s Head Boy and top fighter (think Bruce Lee but cleaner looking, nicer smelling and more… philosophical), prompting the school authorities under the direction of the vice-principal to order Song Hak-rim’s solitary confinement pending the investigation.
But the assassination plot and the framing of Song Hak-rim (for frame-up it is, as we find soon enough) are actually cogs in a bigger conspiracy hatched by Vice-Principal Jang himself (Byeon Hee-bong) in collusion with the school’s resident bullyboy and captain of the wrestling team, Jang Ryang (Kim Soo-ro). Both Baddies have their own nefarious agendas to push: for Vice-Principal Jang, it’s to find that confounded manuscript and seize control of the school (and I assume the other schools as well). For Jang Ryang, it’s to get Head Boy Song Hak-rim out of contention and rule the Volcano roost. Though both are driven by the same lust for power, the two Jangs differ in their modus operandi: the vice-principal orchestrates things in secret while he hides behind the mask of a discipline-minded fuddy-duddy, while Jang Ryang openly terrorizes the student body with his burly minions in tow.
The strange illness of the principal and the unjust incarceration of Song Hak-rim effectively eliminate the two most trusted and respected authority figures at Volcano. Without the protection of the school administration and their Head Boy, the students are left vulnerable to the intimidation and harassment from Jang Ryang and his iron-pumping posse. One by one the heads of the various school clubs are challenged to a duel by Jang Ryang, only to suffer a nasty drubbing before their own teammates. For all their pluck, these captains are really no match for the self-styled King of the Jungle who goes by the moniker “Dark Ox” – but actually resembles a crocodile humanoid complete with a bristling mane streaked with outrageous magenta and blond tones. (Kim Soo-ro, FTW!!! Lol)
But Jang Ryang knows that only the possession of the Secret Manuscript can legitimize his domination of Volcano. He needs to find it – fast. Still reeling from their humiliating beatings, the sports teams regroup and vow to do everything in their power to thwart Jang Ryang’s megalomania before it enslaves them all. (This is also a good example of why Volcano High feels like a real school: instead of gangs, the students are organized into varsity teams: hockey, rugby, judo, football, kendo, etc. At least there’s a plausible basis for the existing social structure, and – it’s just so very high school, too.)
Enter Kim Kyung-soo (Jang Hyuk), the new guy who shakes things up without even trying. Thematically, Volcano High comes stocked with all the classic coming-of-age genre conventions: the fish-out-of-water Hero who: (1) tries awkwardly to fit into his new environs; (2) possesses immense but untapped potential but must first learn to control it; and (3) finally achieves self-realization when, after much soul-searching, he chooses to fight for something greater than his own self.
It’s also ridiculously easy to root for Kyung-soo because he doesn’t come swaggering into the story dripping with machismo and those nothing-can-faze-me, crazysexycool vibes. He’s really a loner, a misfit, his social skills stunted no doubt by his itinerant school life which made it difficult – if not impossible – to make any normal human connections. In a world where supernaturally gifted people constitute the minority, Kyung-soo’s a freak and knows it. He grew up moving from one school to another, carrying the weight of his powers like a shameful affliction that brought him nothing but ignominy and an unusually long juvie rap sheet.
But it isn’t that Kyung-soo loves violence, he just can’t control his powers, which give him command over certain weather elements like rain and wind. Having acquired them as a child after falling into an aquarium teeming with electric eels, Kyung-soo’s abilities reach full strength during electrical phenomena such as lightning storms. There’s a short sequence in the second half of the film that summarizes Kyung-soo’s difficulties with his raw abilities. It plays like a silent film — with the grainy sepia tone, accelerated frame rate and expansive Chaplinesque acting, but this whimsical intermezzo gives viewers a deeper understanding of why Kyung-soo is so averse to using his powers, and why he keeps running away whenever things become unmanageable. I like how the writing doesn’t bombard the viewer with Kyung-soo’s entire history in the first five minutes of the film, but instead drops insightful little nuggets through the course of the story while allowing space for his character to grow on the viewer. This silent film clip is one such example.
Kyung-soo is less a pushover than an active nonparticipant who chooses the path of least resistance, and he arrives at Volcano careful not to rock the boat or step on any toes, refusing to join any of the school clubs and mostly staying out of the way at the first whiff of intramural conflict. Jang Ryang and his flunkies naturally take the new kid for a road test on his first day at Volcano, making their “welcome” felt using a board bristling with nails placed on Kyung-soo’s seat. But despite that unfortunate (and excruciating as hell) incident, Kyung-soo is determined to turn the other cheek. He can’t afford another expulsion.
It’s not that Kyung-soo easily gets cowed by Jang Ryang — in fact, he fights back when pushed to his limit, like the time when a simple handshake between him and Jang Ryang degenerates into a deadly squeeze-off (and okay, that scene was just loads of fun to watch), or the time he almost trounces the bully in the school’s training hall before the entire student body. I say “almost” because Kyung-soo’s Achilles heel is his own reluctance to turn his powers up full blast. And flashbacks of his own family members entreating him to curb his powers trigger this automatic switch inside him and cause his concentration to slip – just long enough for his opponent to regain the upper hand – and the next thing Kyung-soo knows, he’s lying flat on his butt, watching as Jang Ryang’s heavy boot grinds him deeper into the mire, tsk.
But Head Boy Song Hak-rim, a martial artist of the highest order, susses out Kyung-soo’s latent strength from Day One – and their first meeting is a pretty cool hallway encounter where shock waves and compressed energy blasts are exchanged, and window panes shatter to smithereens (naturally). Jang Ryang likewise can at first sense a disconcerting potency hidden under Kyung-soo’s nonaggressive, avoidant nature, but in his blind arrogance dismisses the upstart as no real cause for alarm following their first few battles which Jang Ryang ended up winning (but only ‘coz Kyung-soo got distracted, duh).
The rest of the story focuses on how Kyung-soo masters his powers instead of allowing them to master him. But the heart of his maturing process lies in learning to overcome his own apathy and bid for self-preservation, and take up the cudgels for his fellow students while placing courage and self-sacrifice before himself – a mold very much like Ryu Seung-bum’s character in the 2004 comedy martial arts flick Arahan, and… well, countless other movies, lol.
Back in 2001 Volcano High was touted as Jang Hyuk and Shin Min-a’s star-making vehicle, and in my opinion they couldn’t have chosen a better project to launch a film career. The formula was a sure-fire commercial hit — funny and high-spirited with an emotionally undemanding script and peppered with stock characters and audience-pleasing fight scenes. The material and storytelling style had that unmistakable comic book-y feel but in a good way, boasting a cornucopia of “superhero-comes-of-age” tropes and cinematic tricks to hold the attention span of your average 13-year-old fanboy – which I can only imagine to be very, very brief, lol.
Jang Hyuk shines in Volcano High because he takes one of the most recognizable and relatable archetypes out there and RUNS with it, giving his all and holding nothing back. It’s not a very challenging role to play, but he mines it to the hilt. Although he doesn’t get to flex his dramatic muscles that much in this movie (‘coz it’s a… different set of muscles he flexes here, heh heh heh), he pulls off a performance that is as multi-dimensional as the writing can allow, and with equal confidence and credibility brings out all the different facets of his character: the cagey self-consciousness, the open-mouthed gaucheness around his crush, and that endearing Everyman/underdog quality. In spite of the outré bleached hair, stocky-but-toned frame and characteristic overbite (okay so that last one couldn’t be helped, hehe), he’s also rather cute in this movie, so that ought to count for something.
As I only began this blog in late 2009, regular (or semi-regular) readers may be surprised to learn that I’ve been fangirling Jang Hyuk for quite some time now. Admittedly he hasn’t been getting a lot of press here (but he will – soon!!! hint: what rhymes with “Juno”? lol), but in my aimless pre-The Little Dorama Girl days I could be found semi-coherently propagating the Hyukie luuurrrve in sundry forums and fansites around cyberspace, feeding my fantasies er, fandom like a harpy possessed. But don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t Volcano High that made me a fan, or even the Hallyu hit Windstruck, and it most definitely wasn’t Public Toilet lol. Rather it was that lovely gem of a drama entitled Thank You (MBC, 2007). But that is another story for another day.
The Jang Hyuk 1.0 roles (late Nineties to 2004) are always fun to watch because they channel his inner dork in various ways. As much as I luurrrve-to-a-ridiculous-degree Jang Hyuk 2.0, Serious Romantic Lead, I like revisiting his past work where his characters were looser, freer, sillier, and oodles funnier. In Volcano High Jang Hyuk’s goofy flair and facial expressions are right on the money; there’s a scene where Kim Kyung-soo, upon presenting himself in the faculty room on his first day at school, endures a spittle-flecked upbraiding from a teacher who has taken exception to the boy’s spotty school record. Glaring straight ahead, Kyung-soo listens in silence under the force of the man’s words (and of his… um, oral secretions), unobtrusively wiping the offending droplets from his flushed skin, and later – because he can stand it no longer – holds up a clenched fist just inches from the fulminating teacher’s face. The teacher looks uneasily from Kyung-soo’s unusually fierce expression to his balled-up hand, but the boy merely says through gritted teeth, “I’ll. do. my. best.” LMAOOOOOOOOO. (Sorry sorry, but this scene is really best enjoyed if you watch it yourself – goes without saying.)
Also comical are Kyung-soo’s attempts to worm his way out of recruitment by the other teams who have also noticed his untapped potential and are anxious to have him on their side. Spurred on by Head Boy Hak-rim’s disclosure that Kyung-soo is.The.One!!!, the kendo team’s co-captain So Yo-seon (Gong Hyo-jin!!!!) resorts to extra persuasive measures to enlist the poor boy, although “persuasive” here means “attacking him in the school corridor with full body armor” (lol). Naturally, Kyung-soo declines the “invitation” just as vigorously: “I don’t join delinquent clubs,” he huffs in protest and Yo-seon retorts, “We’re a little rough — but we’re NOT delinquent!” – while she literally twists his arm to get his thumb print on their contract – LMAO. I’m just so happy these scenes between Jang Hyuk and Gong Hyo-jin (including that little sparring session in the corridor) were included in the story. To the director and writer of Volcano High, although you weren’t aware of it yet, I just would like to say… Thank You.
Volcano High also provides viewers with a satisfying romance angle — which I felt was one storytelling aspect that Miike Takashi botched up in Crows Zero I & II, much to the films’ disadvantage. As with any coming-of-age template (whether it’s Spider-Man or Cinema Paradiso or, um, Little Manhattan lol), falling in love may not be that essential to the Hero’s journey towards self-actualization, but it sure helps sweeten the pot – usually by giving the inspiration or impetus to spur the Hero on in his Quest for… whatever that may be. The romance also broadens the movie’s appeal and makes the story accessible to more viewers.
In the case of Volcano High, Kim Kyung-soo falls (bleached blond) head and (thickset) shoulders in love with the Resident Hot Chick on his first day at school, the kendo team’s captain Yoo Chae-yi (Shin Min-a), nicknamed “Icy Jade” – which only cranks up her hotness level, natch! Chae-yi is actually more steely than frosty; she’s no Snow Queen or Frigid B*tch Goddess, and only seems unattainable because of her focused, no-nonsense demeanor and kickass fencing skills – in addition to her great and terrible beauty that is, lol. But she plays it straight while Jang Hyuk does his winning goofball thing — giving a nice little counterpoint to their dynamic.
I like how Kyung-soo’s schoolboy crush on Icy Jade is free of angst or any of that stuff, and it’s actually very sweet how he’s so inept at making any move towards her except for that dorky little wave and moony-eyed grin he can only flash from a distance. Much of Volcano High’s humor comes from Kyung-soo’s hilarious stabs at love – or rather, from how love stabs him, lol – and it doesn’t seem to help that whenever Chae-yi happens to look in his direction he’s always caught doing something undignified, like getting doused in rainwater or stuffing his cake hole with noodles — LMAO.
Although Kyung-soo and Chae-yi’s relationship never quite levels up into full-blown romance within the movie’s time frame, their moments veer from gross-you-out funny-but-sweet (e.g. the time Chae-yi dabs at Kyung-soo’s bruised face with cotton balls following a nasty encounter with Jang Ryang, and the school nurse calmly informs her that she’s using his medicine for athlete’s foot, LOL) to the WHOA-WOOT-didn’t-see-that-coming!!! (e.g. The Shower Scene… well well well… how ya doin’? heh heh heh).
Without a doubt the movie’s most iconic scene, the Curious Incident in the Shower Room begins with Kyung-soo trying a little experiment with the taps in an effort to master his powers. Which is going rather well for him, except that: (1) Chae-yi is trapped in the adjacent locker room, a victim of a well-meaning prank!!! and (2) Kyung-soo is in his birthday suit!!! (What to do Icy Jade, what to do?) Kyung-soo, deep in concentration, remains fully unaware of the free peepshow his little… exhibition is providing. The voyeurism (both Chae-yi’s and the viewer’s, lol) is just a dash naughty, but oh-so-nice. Kyung-soo finally climaxes – er, what I mean is, his powers reach their climax – amid a furious water ballet of erupting pipes and exploding shower heads, literally blowing Chae-yi’s cover and drenching them both in bathwater and endless mortification, lol. And Kyung-soo’s reflexive reaction when he finds out? Furrreeeaking priceless!!!
But the ensuing aftermath is a lovely foil to the hilarity of the previous scene, and here we see why Jang Hyuk and Shin Min-a’s chemistry works so well, conveying so much despite zero dialogue. Now fully dressed (rats! lol) and emboldened perhaps by the adrenalin rush from his recent use of power, or by the unbelievable realization that his dream girl was doing a Peeping Tom on him, or by the fact that she can’t seem to tear her limpid gaze from him too, or maybe it’s all three – our Hero moves closer to seal the interlude with a kiss… and WOOT WOOT Chae-yi does not seem to object… aaaaand just before Kyung-soo’s lips touch first base, something happens to remind you that this IS a comic-book movie after all, where the Hero gets the Girl after he defeats the Baddies, and not before.
I love Shin Min-a, she never overdoes it or mugs for the camera. And she undergirds all her characters with the right mixture of grace and grit. Her Chae-yi is cool and levelheaded throughout the story, but the moments when she smiles – so sweet, so winsome – are enough to brighten up the whole movie house. She isn’t your token damsel in a superhero movie; rather she takes the lead and displays her mettle even in the school’s darkest hour – but possesses the shrewdness and foresight to choose her battles wisely. And above all it is Chae-yi who pushes Kyung-soo to reach his own Tipping Point, thus making her integral to the purposes of the story and not a mere side option.
But let’s not forget Jang Ryang, who happens to have the hots for Chae-yi too!!! And oh my gawsh, the scene where he disrupts kendo practice to fall on his knees, Desperado-style, and propose to a horrified Chae-yi is BLOODY HILARIOUS. From the mariachi intro strains to the way Jang Ryang opens his heart, a dinky little ring box, and that great gaping maw – all at once, had me replaying this scene again and again while laughing my face off. This is actually the incentive that Kyung-soo needs to step up to the plate and challenge Jang Ryang’s supremacy – but only because he hears at the last minute that Volcano’s top fighter can get any girl he wants, lol.
Kim Soo-ro sinks his (feral-looking) teeth into this role, making Jang Ryang sinister, unctuous and pitiful all at once. I can’t imagine any other actor playing this part. I just can’t. And you realize that this cruel and intimidating bully, like all true bullies, is just a coward deep inside. When the infighting at Volcano escalates, the REAL villains swoop into picture, these five trench-coated storm troopers tasked by the powers that be to bring the entire student body to heel – never mind if their methods make them more like Dementors with Education degrees.
The storm clouds start to gather in the second act when the entrance of these menacing martinets (who, btw, are INSANELY SKILLED martial artists to boot) raises the stakes of the game. The Dementors place the entire school under lockdown and begin a campus-wide hunt for the Secret Manuscript. Taking full advantage of the redrawn power lines, the vice-principal — ever the opportunist — kowtows to the five (led by the Frankensteinic Mr. Ma (Heo Joon-ho)) just as easily as he sells his former henchman Jang Ryang down the river. And Jang Ryang is too dumb and naïve a bully (as all true bullies are) to know when he’s outclassed. Outraged that these Dementors have encroached on his turf, he challenges them to an open duel – and pays dearly for his foolishness.
It’s interesting how the Dementors’ governing style is reflective of authoritarian regimes past and present: trampling on civil liberties, dissolving the school clubs and banning student assemblies, and using experimental Jedi mind tricks to brainwash (more like brain-damage) erring students, beginning with Jang Ryang himself. Throughout the crackdown, that classic protest song by Pink Floyd (“Another Brick in the Wall”) kept playing in my head: We don’t need no education / We don’t need no mind control / No dark sarcasm in the classroom / Teacher leave them kids alone / Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone! / All in all you’re just another brick in the wall / All in all you’re just another brick in the wall…
Now it becomes painfully clear that when the final battle is fought, it will be not for the supremacy of one student club, but for the very survival of Volcano High. Kyung-soo fully embraces his calling but not before one last training session with none less than the imprisoned Head Boy Song Hak-rim — in this Matrix-inspired, let’s-fight-in-our-minds-but-we-can-hurt-each-other-physically-oh-crud! wire-fu-ey duel (and Kwon Sang-woo, you are oh-so-fine).
By the time the storm breaks over Volcano High, our Hero has mustered enough ch’i to challenge Mr. Ma and his Dementors to a winner-take-all showdown that will seal the fate of their school. (And thanks for pitching in, Jang Ryang. The bullyboy may have the brains of a turnip, but there’s hope for him still. Okay Dark Oxy, youuuuu’re forgiven! Um, sorta.) And this is a comic-book movie so of course our Hero gets knocked about to within an inch of his life before he turns the tide of battle and triumphs over the Baddies.
The fight scenes are a mixed bag of wire fu, swordplay, remote blasting and one-on-one fisticuffs — made all the more thrilling by the use of CGI, freeze-frame captures and slow-mo. And instead of relying on flashy set pieces and sprawling outdoor locations, the production design builds the look and mood of the film through light-and-shade contrast and strobing lightning/thunder effects. The design of the school is also very minimalist: slate-gray walls and nondescript corridors, dark wood furniture, clouded glass windows. The rest of this sunless world, perpetually shrouded in rain and gloom, is left to your imagination to conjure up. Clever, cost-efficient and badass. I like.
Volcano High provides a fulfillment that goes beyond the few momentary kicks you get out of watching a parade of fight scenes, no matter how energetic, technically polished or cool-looking. Although the action in Volcano High is very much a part of the story and one of the film’s top draws (only not as furious or frequent as in the Crows Zeros), there’s no mistake about its function, which is to serve the purposes of the plot – and not the other way around. The fight scenes in Volcano High may be fewer than in the Crows Zeros, but in a way they’re more memorable because they punctuate all the emotional highlights of the story (and also because the diverse fighting styles keep things interesting).
And here lies the fundamental difference between Volcano High and Crows Zero that goes beyond style or setting: Volcano High isn’t about the fight scenes, it’s about Kyung-soo’s inner evolution. That is why I can keep returning to this movie and come away satisfied every time. You can only derive so much gratification from watching a bunch of students try to kill each other in the mud, whereas good storytelling — no matter how simple the narrative or conventional the tropes used – will never wear out its universal appeal. Simply put, Volcano High is comic-book-hero entertainment done well. Nothing too edgy, impenetrable or avant-garde; this is a movie that knows how to give viewers a rollicking good time. Director Kim Tae-gyun is at the height of his powers here as he “shoots forth thunder”… and cooks up one helluva storm.
The Crows Zero vs. Volcano High Smackdown: In Summary
Hero: Jang Hyuk wins, hands down… butt exposures notwithstanding heh heh heh.
Villain: Yamada Takayuki wins, hands down. Kim Soo-ro makes the most of the prototypical bullyboy villain, but the Serizawa Tamao role is meatier to begin with and Yamada Takayuki eagerly – and skillfully – ravens his character down to every last psychotic morsel, lol.
Leading Lady: Shin Min-a brings depth, winsomeness and poise to her bamboo stave-brandishing character, while Kuroki Meisa suffers from a flat and rather pointless role stretched over two films. For the kickass kendo moves alone, Shin Min-a wins this round.
Narrative Elements: Volcano High boasts a tighter, more engaging storyline that hews closer to the spirit of superhero canon while the rambling Crows Zeros plot only gets to breathe in the filler gaps between fight scenes. Volcano High takes this one.
Visual Elements: Miike Takashi is a crack visualist who wields his camera and orchestrates his films’ main draws – the highly kinetic brawls – with technique, brio and artistic flair. For their visuals, the Crows Zeros pack quite a wallop – in more ways than one.
Soundtrack: Crows Zero I & II. Barring the heavy metal track at the end credits, the music in Volcano High isn’t quite the raucous, strutting character that it is in the Crows Zeros. The Street Beats and their fellow artists BRING IT and you’ll be humming their songs long after Crows Zero and its sequel have ended.
Overall Winner: Volcano High — because I still prefer story over style. And because it’s the film I can watch repeatedly and not feel like I’m wasting my time. Nine years after its release, Volcano High proves it’s still got what it takes to scorch the feathers off those high-flying corvid punks of the Crows Zeros. Fried bird, anyone? (Om nom nom)
Grade: Crows Zero I & II (d. Miike Takashi, 2007 & 2009)
Artistic & technical merit: B-
Entertainment value: C+
Grade: Volcano High (d. Kim Tae-gyun, 2001)
Artistic & technical merit: B
Entertainment value: B+
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