By Chris Hyde
July 15, 2003
Jang Sun-woo’s The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl is an ambitious, sprawling mess of a movie: a diffuse and thought provoking work that soars even as it falls apart. But maybe that’s the point.
In a world where many films tread a safe and formulaic line that often leaves them somewhat lacking in scope, it’s nice to know that some productions are still willing to take a gamble in their storytelling. Unfortunately, those still willing to stick their neck out narratively risk a flat-on-your-face fall if audiences don’t accept their flights of fancy. That’s what happened to this project, as after four years in production and huge budget overruns that made it the most expensive Korean production ever, the movie was rejected outright by fans and flopped horribly upon its debut. The damage was so great that the failure essentially caused its primary backer, Tube Entertainment, to become financially insolvent and vulnerable to acquisition by its rival CJ Entertainment.
But for a movie such as this one, in a certain sense it seems utterly appropriate for its failure to be so gigantic. The entire enterprise is so far reaching, confused, contradictory and aspires to do so much that its theatrical run should truly only have only been a grand success or a glorious disaster. With something like The Little Match Girl there’s seemingly no room at all for breaking even; throwing all its chips on the table for one big spin of the wheel the film simply gambles everything at one go. And to these eyes therein lies much of the appeal of the entertainment -- for much like the raffish charm of the raconteur who is willing to hazard everything and live with the consequences, The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl possesses a go-for-broke spirit that lends its excessive overreaching a meritorious edge.
Inspired by a Korean poem by Kim Chong-ku that is itself a take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Seller ( http://hca.gilead.org.il/li_match.html), Jang Sun-Woo’s film first introduces us to Ju (Kim Hyun-sung), a young man whose primary entertainment is playing videogames in a local arcade. His ultimate goal in life is to become a professional gamer like his best friend Yi (Kim Jin-pyo), and beyond that he has little else besides his menial job delivering food. The only other thing that appears to occupy him is his attraction to Hee-mee (Im Eun-gyung), the girl who works the counter in the gaming parlor. After one long night of videogaming, Ju meets a strange and scruffy street vendor selling lighters who is the exact doppelganger of his arcade crush, and out of curiosity buys one of the lighters she is blankly hawking. He also follows the mysterious girl through the night and sees her apparently engaging in the illicit activity of selling her body for others’ pleasure.
At this point the film begins to enter videogame territory, as Ju notices that the lighter he is holding has an odd phone number printed upon it. Dialing into this exchange leads him directly into a surreal world of gaming, a virtual reality where to emerge victorious he must find the Match Girl and impress her enough so that her last thoughts upon dying will be of Ju. But of course he isn’t the only one competing for the attention of the battered waif; instead, there are many other players vying to become the girl’s last thoughts and some of these characters possess abilities that are powerful and dangerous. As Ju stumbles around in this alternate universe trying to learn its rules as he goes, he encounters many offbeat personages -- such as Lala (played by Chinese transsexual Jin Xing), a gun-toting lesbian who may be either friend or foe. Along the way our hero also runs afoul of the System, the all-seeing entity that runs the game in a manner unsurprisingly similar to the pseudo-software environment seen in the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix films. When the System decides that this young gamer constitutes a threat to its integrity, it sends out its minions to eliminate him and take in the Match Girl for reprogramming, and thus Ju must use the skills he has learned and the friends he has found to defeat the big boss and come out on top.
Any short summary of the plot of this film, however, is destined to make the proceedings sound much more linear and coherent than they really are on screen. The film unfolds in all sorts of fascinating and frustrating ways, and its postmodern storyline fractures and turns back upon itself repeatedly throughout the film’s two-hour length. Plot details surface and then vanish, reality is layered with unreality, and the tonal moods shift from dead seriousness to flat out parody. If you’re the type of moviegoer who demands a tight plot or a unified mood in order to accept a film as a successful outing, then this movie will undoubtedly be a major disappointment to you. The screenplay instead actually revels in its dualistic looseness as it tries to encompass a wealth of characteristics: it’s part fairy tale and part modern storytelling, part tribute and part rip-off, part videogame and part cinema, part philosophy and part entertainment, and additionally part revisionist criticism and part modernist indulgence.
Whether the film ultimately satisfies would seem to hinge on an audience’s willingness to embrace its inherent contradictions and scattershot approach. There’s little here in the way of real character development or contemplative insight, and the frenetic cut-on-action editing and nonstop flashy style of The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl can be overwhelming at times. But there’s enough lurking inside this piece of cinema to make the movie an interesting exercise if not an outright success; with the big budget, heavy special effects action directed by a filmmaker known more for his controversial noncommercial work, the seeming shallowness has hidden depth. Jang Sun-Woo in the past has helmed mostly movies that are outside of the mainstream and that tackle difficult subjects that challenge his viewers. At the same time, the director has at times taken some flak for his past work, as some critics see him not so much as an examiner of society’s ills as an exploiter of them. (His last film, Lies, was an s + m story of an older businessman and his young schoolgirl girlfriend that raised the hackles of South Korea’s censors.)
So what exactly is a controversial director known for his provocative films dealing with the nature of sex and violence doing directing a cyber action film that ended up costing more than any Korean movie ever made before? It’s likely that Jang Sun-woo for his part simply was interested in trying his hand in the commercial arena, but at the same time also wished to use The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl as a platform to explore modern themes that revolve around Korea’s younger generation. At the same time, given the final nature of the project, it could easily be seen as an attempt to subvert the genre from the inside; working within the milieu of the genre picture gave Jang the opportunity to both celebrate and criticize the form itself. Though in the end the multiplicity of themes and their double-edged characteristics are so overwrought that they threaten to collapse in on themselves, the philosophical angles brought from behind the camera give the movie an added dimension that helps make it much more than a first look at its gleaming exterior would indicate.
For in addition to his asides about contemporary Korean youth culture and its mores, Jang Sun-woo here in many ways mines much of the same postmodernist territory as the Wachowskis do when they filter Borges through the lens of cyberspace and movie screen. Just as that great Argentine writer explored the nature of fiction and its relationship with reality, the director in this case is extremely interested in pursuing ideas that contemplate the essence of the imaginary and the way that it can both complement and intrude upon what is seen to be “real.” Where exactly the line is drawn between these two realms is something that seemingly becomes more confused with every passing day, and as the story of The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl progresses reality comes piled on top of unreality until the viewpoint shatters and the audience is left wondering where exactly they sit. This approach thus allows the filmmaker to utilize the rubric of the action picture to comment directly upon the form itself; whether or not this style is to be seen as frustrating or hypocritical is more or less left up to the viewer. (Though given the tepid box office reception for the film in the director’s home country, there’s little doubt as to how most South Koreans feel about this means of storytelling).
Finally, then, whether or not one sees The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl as a successful special effects laden blockbuster, an insightful tract that dissects the essence of reality or just another run-of-the-mill explosion filled piece of action escapism is mostly a question of perspective. To these eyes, what makes the film such an intriguing piece of cinema is that it really can’t be pigeonholed as being any one of those particular things -- instead, these are just different facets of its multifarious nature. In a celluloid world where so many films are just one-dimensional pieces of formula, a film such as this one is somewhat unique with its textural variety and all-encompassing eye. Undoubtedly, however, the shifting nature of the narrative here and its deeper implications are destined to turn off many who might be looking for a more traditional storytelling approach. The style employed is such that this viewer still remains unsure as to whether or not the filmmaker’s goals are in the end achieved by his approach; but in any case it’s sure a testament to Jang Sun-woo’s skills that the movie continues to provoke ruminations on my part long after the flickering has faded from the screen. So while it may be that at the last this project won’t actually manage to stand up to repeated viewings and may ultimately be judged a failed attempt at a deeper reading of the genre picture, the fact remains that its complexity is great enough to warrant continued thought and follow-up viewings. With the world full of cinematic work that barely rates even the initial look, a movie like The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl should at the very least be praised for its ambition and scope. The world of film could be so much richer if more films tried as hard as this one to bite off more than they could chew.