Resurrection of the Little Match Girl is a disaster so complete and inexplicable you can't pry your eyes from it. A mediocre director would never think to make such an a ambitious movie, but he would also never have the nerve to fall as flat on his face as Sun-Woo Jang has here. For that I give him credit: he was sure thinking big to come up with something this wonked.
Jang was the director of the controversial Lies, a widely-banned film (in Korea and elsewhere) that was derived from an equally widely-banned novel, about a bizarre and explicitly explored sadomasochistic relationship. That film had, curiously, many parallels to this one. There were many attempts to wink at the audience, to subvert the seriousness of the goings-on and to heave a wrecking ball at the fourth wall as if the director had sworn a blood oath to demolish it.
Lies was puzzling, but it at least held our attention and seemed to actually add up to something. Match Girl is just plain schizoid: it burns through drama, slapstick comedy, macho action movie, sensitive romance and special-effects head trip without ever actually touching down on any of them. It is said of a good movie that we can hear the director thinking to himself, but here, the thought amplifier has been turned up so much it's painful. It is, to coin a phrase, all payoff and no setup.
Hyun-sung Kim plays Joo, a glum delivery boy for a noodle stand with no direction in his life. His one big ambition is to become a video game jock like his yellow-haired friend Yi, who's raking in the bucks in tournament playoffs. After a peculiar set of circumstances, he realizes he's being invited to take place in a kind of massive multi-player game called — what else? — "Resurrection of the Little Match Girl."
This is some game. The Match Girl of the title (Eun-kyeong Lim, who looks a lot like a certain girl Joo has been bumbling around after) is the worst imaginable heroine. She drags herself from place to place, whining at people to buy her lighters, and eventually dies huffing her own product in some back alley. The object of the game is to rescue her, see, so that she will dream of you instead of someone else when she freezes to death. Somehow I don't see this tearing a lot of people away from EverQuest.
And yet people are logging onto the game in droves, as evidenced by the big table of players shown near the start of the film, and the fierce competition to steal the Match Girl away from people. Perhaps the point, as with Battle Royale, is that the game is supposed to be essentially stupid — that for people to expend the time and energy they do in massive multiplayer on-line games is just silly, and the movie is mocking that impulse. The problem is that the mockery is founded in contempt, not affection or understanding, and is not grounded in anything. Battle Royale used its "game" as a Swiftian critique of the social fear of rebellious youth; Avalon covered much of the nature-of-reality material better. Match Girl is too dazzled by its crazy-quilt of ideas to have any coherent ambitions other than to pummel the audience senseless.
Once Joo plugs in, so to speak, the movie kicks into high gear — but in twelve different directions at once, all of them equally arbitrary and therefore uninteresting. There's a lady warrior, Lara (as in Croft, ha ha), played by transsexual Jin Xing, who Joo sort of tries to apprentice himself to. There's various gangs of thugs with attitude to match, all trying to steal away the Match Girl and shooting up hectares of scenery in the process. There's odd figures lurking in the shadows, selling information and weapons to Joo, much as it might be in a real game like this. And so on.
Lara, the two-gun nutcase, becomes Joo's crash course in survival —
although she's not much of a teacher.
More than half the film (or at least it feels that way) consists of mindless shoot-outs where one gang of heroes — or villains? who can tell? — steals the Match Girl away, and someone else comes sailing in with guns blazing to "save" her. They march in and out like the mustache-twirlers in a silent movie, and come back later even after they are shot dead, thus robbing us of any sense that any of this matters (as one player puts it, "It's OK — I'll reconnect later!"). After the first couple of times, what little novelty and parodic value this conceit has is exhausted, and we sit there growing number by the minute.
It's not that the movie doesn't make sense. It's that the movie never lets you care. It's so busy mixing and matching and trying to pull the rug out from under you that it never turns into a movie. In a movie where anything can happen, and does, the ultimate response is indifference. Why care about anything in a movie where our investment may never be paid back?
There are moments when it does work, but only in small ways. I loved the little pop-up boxes that explained who each character was, and the blurbs that indicated when people were "leveling up" or getting better equipment, for instance. More than a few of the action sequences are hilariously rendered. And there was a stretch during the middle of the film where it seemed to be adding up and going somewhere, climaxing with a sequence where the Match Girl picks up a gun and (very quietly) goes postal on all the people who pissed her off ... only to turn into a celebrity.
It's a funny, biting element, but the movie plows it under in favor of more action scenes — scenes which are all the more saddening because they cost a lot of money and trouble to film, and don't bring us any closer to the heart of the goings-on. Those good bits and pieces belong in a story that actually respects its ingredients instead of trying to grind them into a post-everything pulp.
I dunno. I could try and justify this chicanery, I guess, as the authors of the movie's press release did: "In a world where Mickey Mouse has more legal rights than an Iraqi child, director Jang Sun-Woo has driven this car bomb loaded with semiotic explosives and philosophical dynamite deep into the heart of the multiplex... [he] isn't here to praise the movies; but to bury them." True, but anyone who shells out the cost of a ticket (or a DVD) to figure that out is going to feel mighty gypped.
The last twenty minutes are ostensibly one big mind-screw on the order of 2001, but anyone who makes it that far is scarcely going to care by then. Because the movie never picks a single, solid take on its myriad ideas and commits to it, there's no follow-through. It's all wasted breath. Watching Match Girl is like watching someone trying to kill an ant with a sledgehammer and losing, over and over again, and never getting the hint.
Footnote: Match Girl was the most expensive film from South Korea to date — some US$10 million was spent on the film, an immense amount of money for a Korean production — and also turned into that country's biggest turkey. It's not hard to see why.