This videogame-themed, cyberpunk adventure from South Korea draws unlikely inspiration from Hans Christian Anderson’s melancholy fairytale, although an onscreen credit claims it is based on a poem. The opening scene similarly tugs at our heartstrings. A teary Korean ballad swells on the soundtrack, as the titular waif (Lim Eungkyeong) wanders forlornly through snow-swept streets and implores passers-by: “Buy a lighter, mister. I can’t walk anymore. I am frozen and I am hungry.” Cruelly spurned by all she meets, the Little Match Girl lays down on the street and quietly freezes to death.
Meanwhile in futuristic Seoul, nerdy game enthusiast and restaurant delivery boy, Ju (Kim Hyeonseong) harbours a secret crush on Hui-mi (Lim Eungkyeong, again), the girl who works in the video arcade next door. Stuck in a rut with his life going nowhere, Ju feels intimidated by his superstar gamer best friend, while his dad groans: “It’s because of rascals like you, our country is going nowhere.” One night, he bumps into Little Match Girl, who seems the spitting image of Hui-mi, and buys from her a cigarette lighter upon which he finds a phone number. Dialling the number logs Ju into a virtual reality game called “Resurrection of the Little Match Girl.” The rather cruel objective is firstly, prevent anyone buying lighters, so Little Match Girl will freeze to death. Secondly, to win her heart so that, as she lays dying, the last thing she imagines will be the winning player.
Drawn into a helter-skelter world of endless fights and shootouts with gangsters, secret agents and commandos, Ju finds help from a disgruntled, old game designer and a gun-twirling, motorcycle action-girl called Lara (played by male actor: Sing Jin). “Remember Lara Croft?” reads her character bio. “Well, here she’s a lesbian.” His newfound friends clue him into the System, a shadowy, Orwellian conglomerate who seem to run things in both the real and virtual world. When the System hire Ju’s best friend to assassinate him, he starts to wonder whether this is a game or reality. Elsewhere, Little Match Girl suffers flashbacks to her one true love, a Korean pop star murdered by the System. After spending the night with Ju, she steals his machinegun and goes on a killing spree that inexplicably transforms her into an national celebrity.
As a virtual reality action-adventure, this is more engaging and imaginative than Total Recall (1990) or The Matrix (1999). One or two fight sequences borrow a little too obviously from the Wachowski brothers’ overrated “bullet-time” shenanigans, but the action is overall well-staged with impressive pyrotechnics and stuntwork. It’s an ambitious movie, punctuated with references to Buddhist texts and mantra-like music, and mimics the flashy, fast-paced, yet meandering tone of videogames with pop-up bios for minor characters, helpful hints for gamers, power bars, plus multiple endings (memorably described as: “Crap Ending” and “Happy Ending”). However, the myriad plot strands fail to coalesce into compelling drama, bombarding viewers with an information overload that provokes more questions than delivers answers. Why is Ju’s best friend so easily persuaded to kill him? Who is the old game designer? Who killed Little Match Girl’s boyfriend, the pop star who supposedly programmed her? The list goes on…
Many of the satirical gags drag past the point of being funny, making the experience somewhat akin to a friend rambling through an elaborate joke then forgetting the punchline. Among the few genuine chuckles is a melodramatic, faked rescue-from-rape where the would-be hero crows: “You bastards are worse than dogs. Stop living in darkness! Start living in virtue!” then makes a pathetic attempt at seducing Little Match Girl. The film fumbles the promising (and all-too plausible) idea of a nerdy gamer imagining himself a lesbian Lara Croft, rendering the character a kooky, but pointless distraction.
Somewhat disconcertingly, much of the humour derives from characters going on violent killing sprees. Ju fantasizes about gunning down office workers, Lara goes clubbing and starts beating up random kids on the dance floor, and Little Match Girl machineguns callous citizenry to the sound of Aaron Neville singing “Ave Maria” (?!) As in Westworld (1973), there is a certain satisfaction in seeing a pitiful automaton turn against its smug masters, but Little Match Girl kills indiscriminately - gangsters, shopkeepers, slave labourers. Fortunately after this low point the film turns itself around, as Little Match Girl uses her newfound celebrity to wage war against hordes of special forces units and paratroopers, while Ju and friends race to take down the System.
Imaginative touches abound, including one character holding themselves hostage, a fish that turns into toy gun that turns into a super-weapon, a CG world where butterflies embody human souls, and a UFO that whisks the survivors off to a tropical paradise that might be another plane of existence. It’s a movie that requires multiple viewings to sift through all the plot offshoots and meta-textual allusions, but upon first glance seems like a fascinating failure.