Monday, June 21, 2004

Conflicted and Contemptful
Why I'll probably never make it in the movies.

It's happened to me a number of times.

Some movie comes along that I read is horrible. More correctly, they call it by epitaphs like a lofty failure, or a creative mess. Something like that.

Well, I like ideas, and I like crazy stuff. I really like to see people try something, and try something new.

Sometimes, I like it because I like it in spite of itself.

Sometimes, I like it because it is what it is or is genius...and I begin to wonder if anyone else got it.

As you may have guessed from that opening, this weekend I took in such a flick.

Director Jang Sun-Woo, to my mind, suceeds where all the critics accuse him of failing with The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (2002). As for the initial Korean audience, I understand why they hated and ignored it. Everyone since then should have known better.

The Story: On-line gamer Joo finds himself in the midst of a battle for the love and attention of the aloof fairy tale character, the little match girl. Like all video games, this one has missions and levels, and Joo confronts new obstacles as the situation continually changes. Finally, he must rescue the little match girl from the evil System which controls and manipulates the universe the game takes place in.

The Review: I'm not saying the movie's perfect. It's got it's problems here and there. It's a little slow getting started. It loses it's main character for a little too long in the 2nd Act. Then there's two odd sort of difficulties with it which I had problems with at first, but didn't by the end of the movie...

At first, I was thinking that everyone except the main character seems a little underdeveloped (and of course the little match girl had almost no personality at all). Along those lines, I'm also thinking that the story is a little thin and suddenly has huge shifts. Then I realized....

Of course it does, it'a a fricking video game.

Like a video game, take something like Metal Gear, it's got a story that in some ways is paper thin, but everyone in the movie takes it as being gravely serious. As the audience though, you can't take it seriously, but because the actors do, if you ride with it, you'll stay grounded in that world. To me, it's the contempt for his audience, that got him in trouble. Reviews constantly make reference to The Matrix and if you think about it, the fans of that stuff take it way seriously. Fans of video games take it way seriously. If you step back and look at it though, how can you really?

(At least comics have something of a nearly 100 year long literary history to draw on. Nootch!)

As long as were on the subject, people say that it can't be a parody if it tries to replicate some of The Matrix's effects. Again, I think they're missing the point. In most cases, the effects and the fights are so over-the-top, or funny, or even (to me) intentionally bad. It all seems to be having fun again while still presenting itslef as though it wants to be taken seriously. It makes you go "whoa" and has you laughing at at the same time. One scene in particular is the back and forth of two characters with the signature liquid airwaves around bullets as they fire at one another. It looks good, but goes too far to seem deadly.

In fact, that again seems part of the commentary: none of the violence seems particularly painful or frightening (with a few exceptions). Background people get winged and they fall over dead. Main characters get shot full of lead and keep running and gunning. In this day of reality television and so on, people seem to crave a visceral blood and guts reality...but Jang seems to be reminding us that movie violence isn't real, and video games even less so. Again, I don't like to get too interpretive, but there's little hints throughout that say that everything here is intentional.

There's also of plenty of other things going on here like the new need for people to interface with their reality and dreams through already made mediums. At the same time, we see the mediated reward for becoming a violent personage (in some ways à la Natural Born Killers), but that violence comes through doing what many people wish they could do: shoot people for being rude or obnoxious. In fact the movie seems to be a two hour editorial, and if it has a failing, it's that it can't be tuned out completely. I say that because many of my favorite movies and books can divorce their commentary from the story depending on how you want to read it.

Like I said at the beginning though, I see where most people didn't like it. It probably wasn't the best idea to make a movie like this out of the biggest budget sci-fi flick to come out in Korea. Some critics said that Jang didn't know how to handle the budget. I don't think that's true, it's all up there on the screen and it looks great. I think it was just inappropriate to make a movie that was purely contemptuous of it's audience on that scale. There's plenty of movies that haven't been as obvious about insulting the idiots who like watching those kinds of movies.

Thinking about it, the ultimate example of subversion, which I loved, was the hero's weapon at the end of the film. Dubbed "The Mackerel" it's a 50's Buck Rogers looking ray gun, which although funny, looks anything but badass compared to all the other tech being hauled around in this flick. That and the gun doesn't have a trigger, and works on the hero's mental abilities and his emotions. Again it steals all the badass-ness out of it by turning it into the weapon-equivalent of fairy dust. I don't want to ruin everything, but I was howling when the gun truly lived up to it's name.

I should also mention that the film's opening credit sequence was pure genius. Excellent.

In the end, I do have problems because Jang's choices led to this movie's failure which may have led to the cessation of the making of sci-fi flicks in Korea, and there have been a few I liked so far. On the other hand, the only thing in the movie itself that I really objected to was the hero's best friend's hair. It was awful.

I want more reality in my day-to-day life and more fantasy in my media...sadly everything just keeps running completely opposite of that.


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