Already assured of its place in film history as South Korea’s most spectacular bomb to date, big-budget cyber-fantasy “Resurrection of the Little Match Girl” turns out to be simply rather dull rather than inept or uninventive. A futuristic re-imagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of a ragamuffin who freezes to death in the snow during New Year’s Eve, pic is too clever for its own good and helmed by a director — art house darling Jang Sun-woo — who has no real feel for the subject matter. Any offshore future is more as an ancillary curio marketed to fantasy completists.
Long in the works, with a budget that escalated to a record (in Korean terms) $9.2 million, causing the bailout of production company Tube by conglom CJ Entertainment, film crashed and burned on September release with a mere 140,000 admissions (some $800,000). Experience sent the local industry, already troubled by mushrooming costs, into shock — and a frenzy of recrimination by press and public. Most of the name-calling was directed at Jang, whose auteur rep and gift for self-promotion rested on gritty festival faves such as “Timeless, Bottomless, Bad Movie” and the censor-busting S&M pic, “Lies.”
Initial reel sparks interest as, in typically challenging mode, Jang restages Andersen’s fable as a kind of silent movie, complete with intertitles and stylized color, as the young Match Girl (Im Eun-gyeong) hawks lighters in the modern city of Pusan behind a curtain of CGI snow. Tired and frozen, she falls asleep on the street.
Cut to two trashy, foul-mouthed young women talking in a bar with two guys, one of whom, Ju (Kim Hyeon-seong), has aspirations to be a “pro-gamer” but is stuck in a job as a delivery boy for a Chinese restaurant. In a sequence which may or may not be a fantasy expressing his frustrations, Ju pulls out a machine gun during one delivery job and peppers his clients with a hail of bullets.
After falling for the Match Girl and dialing a number on one of her lighters, Ju “enters” a game in which the objective is to freeze her to death — but in a painless way, by actually winning her love first. (Uh, right.) Fellow gamers, introduced with computer-like imagery, include a transsexual hit woman, Lala (Jin Sing), and Ju’s friend, Lee (Kim Jin-pyo); latter is hired by Orwellian org The System to kill him. Further twist is that the Match Girl, after sniffing her own lighters, acquires a will of her own and starts ventilating people with a machine gun.
Jang’s idea is to subvert the regular rules of both love and computer gaming. In practice, it’s a good excuse for much indiscriminate action, staged by a Hong Kong team led by Daniel Yu and Raymond Fung, that quickly becomes repetitive as the tangled story starts going round in circles. The match girl finally ends up in The System’s high-tech HQ — headed by a largely unseen, English-speaking mastermind (Pierre Rissient) — where the viewer is then given the choice of two endings, regular or happy.
Young gamer nuts may get a charge out of all this but general viewers will likely head for the exit as the picture spins completely out of control. Main problem is that Jang displays no endemic feel, or even liking, for the material he’s riffing on: the action set pieces, such as Lala rescuing the Match Girl in a nightclub bullet ballet, seem progressively divorced from anything, and there’s no real exploration of gaming mentality or psychology.
Visual effects, on which much of the budget went, are only okay, and the whole picture has an unattractive, grungy look that’s typical of Jang’s recent work but seems inappropriate here. Performances don’t go any farther than stereotype, though as the Match Girl Im has an ethereal, gamine quality which would be touching in any other context.