Beautiful Blood on Your Lip
Successors to GWG


“Resurrection of the Little Match Girl” (2002)

Progressive cinema often enjoys limited commercial appeal, and Sun-woo Jang’s “Resurrection of the Little Match Girl” represents a self-referential parody of both Asian and Western action films, co-mingling genres with polemic in a giddying mix that largely eluded audiences.  Starting from the bare outlines of the Hans Christian Anderson children’s story – itself a social critique of wealth disparity and indifference to suffering – Jang portrays his eponymous heroine (played by Eun-kyeong Lim) as a butane-sniffing young woman on a forlorn and anachronistic quest to hawk cigarette lighters on the streets of a futuristic Korean urban dystopia.  Although this postmodern “Match Girl” is also universally ignored and left to suffer in the cold, her plight with its associated social critique are transformed into an immersive, voyeuristic videogame.  Even cultural criticism, it seems, can be commodified and re-packaged as an entertainment product.  The fact that this has always been the case with the violent subject matter of action films is interrogated by the way “Resurrection of the Little Match Girl” conflates the conventions of film with videogames.  This device both engages the audience with the multiple possibilities of gameplay while simultaneously distancing the viewer by the conventions of narrative cinema.

As a materialized software program within a larger system of virtual reality, the “Match Girl” avatar is unleashed on alternative narratives that are analogized to levels in a videogame.  The absurdity and pathos of her butane-intoxicated death while blocking someone’s parking space is subverted by audience remove.  The game’s object for the film’s antiheroic central protagonist “Joo” – played with good-natured perplexity by Hyun-sung Kim – is to get the “Match Girl” to develop romantic interest in him as she dies.  His task within the game is to prevent her from selling lighters to anyone else.  Within the “reality” of the film narrative, “Joo” is a videogame-obsessed food delivery boy who is secretly infatuated with “Eun-Gyung Im,” the girl who runs the videogame parlor where he plays.  His disempowerment – summarized by fantasized bloody vengeance when he delivers food to the wrong office, or brusque brush-off by the video parlor girl – evokes a familiar patriarchal narrative about overcoming adversity.  However, inside the videogame, the “Match Girl” subverts even his fantasy.  As “Joo” earns points and levels by fighting off assailants, he also picks up weapons.  However, the “Match Girl” avatar is a rogue program that does not respect genre conventions.  After being saved by “Joo” from freezing to death, the “Match Girl” picks up the weapon he has acquired – an MP5 submachine gun.  Anderson’s social victim then becomes the architect of brutal social vengeance, retaliating against ordinary citizens who reject or ignore her with merciless and gratuitous violence.
At different points Lim’s character appears in various guises, on an advertising billboard, as a street seller, as an object of male desire or teen fandom, and as a subversive figure to be controlled.  When she seizes power, metaphorically and literally, with the MP5, the “Match Girl” attacks the symbols of the state – its civic conventions, organized religion, economic structure and police power.  Other aspects of women’s representation in the huge videogame market are critiqued by the figure of a motorcycle-riding transsexual “Lara” (Xing Jin).  Her exaggerated gunplay and martial arts spoof videogame and film conventions, while repeatedly upstaging “Joo’s” efforts.  “Lara’s” narcissism transforms the “bullet time” of “The Matrix” and the “bullet ballet” of HK action cinema into an explicit “bullet dance” that fuses conventions of music video and an action film shootout in exultant absurdity.  As “Lara” cuts a swath through the gangsters and the “Match Girl” machine-guns hapless strangers, the underlying narrative conventions can themselves be interrogated
The film’s representation of game play unspools amid scenes of progressively more vicious violence with jarringly dissonant musical accompaniment (the B-52s, a solo rendition of ‘Ave Maria’).  The viewer witnesses violence but does not truly feel it until the very end.  It is only when the game concludes with an all-engulfing nuclear blast that the true horror of the game’s “happy ending” and the words “You Win” can be appreciated.  When “Joo” views his own bloody death as just another possible ending, the price of “winning” through violence is revealed.  Indeed, the fascination with death at the core of action videogames inspires even “Joo’s” romantic quest.  To win he must get the “Match Girl” to love him.  To achieve this she must die, and in so doing declare affection for him alone.  This quest inevitably brings “Joo” into contact with “The System” and its controllers until it is he who is saved by the autonomous challenge of the “Match Girl.”

“So Close” (2002)

“So Close” distills and refines the formula of the GWG film under the guidance of two of the industry’s best.  Corey Yuen directed, while Jeff Lau wrote the script.  The film combines three popular forms – the police procedural, assassin, and vengeance narratives.  Their interface is overtly constituted as a women’s friendship film, injecting an element of melodrama.  The undercurrent of Sapphic desire that runs through the female assassin sub-genre here spills across into the realm of the police procedural, eroticizing this, also.  The overall result feels instantly familiar to aficionados of the fast-disappearing GWG film genre, and “So Close” may be its ultimate expression.  Its fetish with high heels and runway chic costuming is both slickly appealing and ironically self-mocking.

As its title and eponymous theme song connote, the entire production is shot through with voyeuristic elements that bring the female characters, and audience, so close – from the literal “eye in the sky” surveillance satellites to the pervasive closed circuit video monitoring of building interiors.  The voyeuristic camerawork also peers at Shu Qi bathing, Zhao Wei crying on her bed, and Karen Mok dressing.  A fight sequence is interrupted by camera zoom (and the look of Karen Mok’s male police partner) when she and Shu Qi tear their clothing, revealing lingerie.  Karen Mok’s police detective “Hong Yat Hong” and her young male partner exchange highly intrusive questions about sexuality while waiting in their car.  At various points each of the three female leads manipulate surveillance technology to observe and control friend and foe alike.  A digital camera records scenes of life and death, further distancing and insulating the spectator to yet a further degree of remove.  Zhao Wei’s character’s tenuous links to her murdered family are exclusively maintained through the medium of stored digital images – to the extent that she buries the camera bearing her sister’s image after her death, rather than burying her sister’s body at the family grave site.
Extreme close-up cinematography interrogates each of the three female leads, probing their thoughts or memories.  At some points Karen Mok is seen in close-up through the lens of a surveillance camera as she is knowingly observed by Zhao Wei’s character “Sue.”  On another occasion her gaze is equated with the screens of digital technologies as these request a match for the face of a wanted criminal.
Formulaic story elements that essentially reprise “Dreaming the Reality” are re-packaged to good effect.  Shu Qi and Zhao Wei play sisters who make their living as assassins.  Shu Qi’s character “Lynn” executes the contracts, while her sister Sue hacks into surveillance and security systems to provide electronic cover.  As the film opens, their client is a Japanese business tycoon seeking to eliminate all rivals.  The film’s opening sequence in which Shu Qi displays impossible CGI-augmented physical agility while proceeding to gun down a small army of security personnel is pure fantasy.  It may be commented that this is very much a phallic fantasy involving exaggerated competence, guns, dominance and an emphasis on boots with pointed toes and stiletto heels.  Her serene slow-motion fall from the top of an office tower is reminiscent of the quasi-spiritual “fall” of “Motoko Kusanagi” in the anime “Ghost in the Shell” – but with the addition of dart guns. Hewing close to the assassin formula, “Lynn” becomes involved in a romance and seeks to retire.  “Sue,” however, decides to go it alone and forcefully rejects the notion of protection by a male partner.  After “Sue” fails to successfully complete a hit with a sniper rifle, “Lynn” is compelled to step in and finish the job.  Neither sister has figured on the resourcefulness of Karen Mok’s police investigator “Hong,” or on being double-crossed by their client.
During a confrontation in a parking garage, Karen Mok and Shu Qi square off against each other using a combination of kung fu and grappling in high heels – while their respective assistants watch.  This fight is constructed as a voyeuristic spectacle, complete with handcuffs.  However, with the arrival of a group of bad guys sent to finish them off, they temporarily join forces in a spirited shoot-out that employs some bullet POV and a face-off that results in shooting enemies approaching from their rear on opposite sides.  Such devices not only sharpen the tension but also conflate traditional rivalry with cooperation, breaking down simple occupational roles on opposite sides of the law.  This scene builds on an earlier one in which “Sue” glides around “Hong” on roller blades in a record store – unseen and unacknowledged by her until she prompts “Hong” at a listening station to hear the very music played the scene of “Lynn’s” crime.  This scene, reminiscent of the preliminary climax of “Tell Me Something,” is highly charged by the provocative and seductive gaze of Zhao Wei who reportedly suggested the underlying homoerotic theme that sets the plot alight.
The camera lingers on her eyes as she circles Karen Mok.  Later, Mok returns the same electricity by slowly licking off her fingers the frosting of a cake sent by “Sue” while looking directly into a surveillance camera, knowing that the unseen “Sue” is watching her in close-up.
When “Lynn” is killed by reinforcements led by Ben Lam and Yasuaki Kurota, “Hong” is also framed for her murder and arrested.  Her rescue by “Sue” sets the stage for a vengeance endgame, as well as a charged partnership between these two “opposites.”  As their comments about relationships and interests indicate, their characters are attracted to each other.  This is consummated in a fight to the death against Ben Lam and his security guards as well as a katana-wielding Yasuaki Kurota, during which “Sue” is nearly killed.  Nevertheless, she masters both the technological and combat skills previously the exclusive province of her now-deceased older sister.  In the penultimate scene, “Sue” kisses “Hong,” while “Hong’s” voice-over alludes to a delicate but sustained future relationship.
Quite apart from its obvious voyeuristic and mildly erotic elements, the film is actually a strong affirmation of female power.  These women command highly sophisticated technologies, drive getaway cars in high-speed chases, are masters of hyperkinetic martial arts and gunplay, and are not deterred by danger or obstacles.  They resolve situations of mortal danger by effective resort to collaborative, rather than individualistic action.  The male characters are either stereotypic villains or are strictly subordinate.  When “Hong” rides down in an elevator while pinning two male criminals on either side of the car with her legs – it’s clear who’s in charge.  The end result is a formulaic film that satisfies because its makers understand and have mastered the formula.  The resulting concoction is potent.

“My Wife is a Gangster 2” (2003)

Heung-soon Jeong’s “My Wife is a Gangster 2:  The Legend Returns” is a cinematic exception – a sequel that compellingly surpasses the original.  Jeong reportedly sought to avoid or minimize some of the more obvious flaws that vitiated the original, and aimed to produce a darker, edgier result.  Incidental slapstick and exaggerated sight gags are held to a minimum, while the focus is – properly – fixed on Eun-Kyung Shin’s exhilarating performance as “Eun-jin Cha,” here nicknamed “Tsu Tsu” or “Chicken Head.”  As the opening credits roll, she experiences a literal and metaphorical fall as she tumbles, wounded, off the edge of a tall building during a police raid on a gang fight.  “Eun-jin” is saved from otherwise certain death by the chicken wire of a passing poultry truck that acts as a safety net.  Injured, filthy and concussed she tumbles from the truck and unceremoniously comes to rest in a small park.  As she briefly regains consciousness, “Eun-jin” is almost urinated on by a passing drunk.  This character “Jae-chul,” a small restaurant proprietor, is sympathetically played by Jun-Gyu Park.  His altruism in helping this helpless, mysteriously injured stranger is later tempered by the nature of her recovery following emergency medical treatment.  With severe amnesia, “Eun-jin” literally has nowhere else to go, and becomes a windfall to “Jae-chul” as unpaid help in his restaurant.

This element constitutes the core narrative of the film.  “Eun-jin” clearly possesses skills and had a background of substance – but as what?  Her amnesia and lowly position superficially render her vulnerable, and “Jae-chul” fantasizes about exploiting her sexually as well.  She, however, unceremoniously kicks him away, and is quite willing to apply painful locks or strikes to enforce her warnings to leave her well alone.  Discovery of her physical talents prompts “Jae-chul” to speculate that she might have had a career as a circus acrobat!  Eun-Kyung Shin’s skill in portraying an engaging but dazed head injury victim is a visual pleasure.  She combines uncertainty and exaggerated decisiveness with mild facial tics and irritable capriciousness.  Her character’s lines may be innocuous, but as she tears away on a motor scooter to make a delivery – ignoring traffic – it becomes apparent that elements of her forgotten role as a gang boss nonetheless find distorted expression in the most mundane of circumstances.  Hypnosis only uncovers images of horrific past violence, while a Buddhist priest recognizes the true significance of her tattooed back and directs her to catch and eat a white snake – which she does.  Along the way “Eun-jin” confronts all and sundry, beating up a customer who tries to grope her, a stall owner who abuses a female customer, and a group of bank robbers.  The last brings public recognition and appreciation, as well as nomination to lead a neighborhood association of small businesses resisting a commercial development that will take their land.
Once “Eun-jin” attracts public attention, it is only a matter of time before the criminal elements behind the commercial redevelopment project – none other than her gang rivals – recognize her as the former gang leader “Mantis” and attempt to have her killed.  Elements of good-natured comic relief are enhanced by “Eun-jin” being oblivious to the imminent threat.  Would-be assassins are so intimidated by her presence and reputation that their nerve fails.  Eventually, after “Eun-jin” fails to recognize a former girlfriend, she is finally located by the loyal remnants of her own “Scissor” Gang.  They bring photographic proof of her former role, finally disabusing “Jae-chul” of any future hope for intimacy.  When “Eun-jin” gets in a confrontation with his wild teenage daughter and again falls from a roof, she comes up swinging at imaginary enemies and screaming at those who “want a piece of me.”
Restored to her role as boss of the “Scissor Gang,” “Mantis” recovers habits such as stubbing out a cigarette on a subordinate’s tongue, but still remains a perplexed observer of her own behavior.  When her old gang rivals kidnap “Jae-chul’s” daughter, “Mantis” confronts them in a hopeless, one-sided fight that pits her honor against their numbers.  After a savage beating, she is saved by the intervention of “Jae-chul,” her own gang, and the neighborhood merchants association.  Although “Jae-chul” is killed, the rival gang is destroyed and “Mantis” takes revenge with her blade.  This atavistic struggle appears to finally restore “Eun-jin” to full awareness of her role, if not full recollection.  Her motorcade sweeps out of the now saved neighborhood of small business, with a sleekly attired “Mantis” restored to her place in the back of a limousine.  As she prepares to depart, “Jae-chul’s” daughter rides up on her motor scooter.  On impulse, “Mantis” climbs aboard and the convoy leaves.  The film’s closing scenes portray “Mantis” and her female partners firmly in charge of their gang’s operations, and confronting a new rival played by Zhang Ziyi in a cameo appearance.
What really distinguishes this film is Eun-Kyung Shin’s slovenly, tousle-headed character who deliberately challenges gender stereotypes as well as being slightly unhinged.  Her casual pants and sneakers and annoyingly loud laughter irk “Jae-chul” by reminding him of a man.  “Eun-jin’s” casual movements and blunt confrontations only exacerbate this.  She hurts men foolish enough to touch or confront her, and makes a point of accompanying a very public beating of a male stall keeper who berated a female customer by emphasizing the need to respect women.  Although she intervenes with the female teen gang members who are beating up “Jae-chul’s” daughter, the punishment is more ritual than physical.  At other points the film explicitly parodies sexist stereotypes and preoccupations.  The sight of a woman’s underwear wreaks havoc in the street.  But perhaps the most telling moments are when “Mantis” is restored to leadership of her gang.  Along with other perks of the position comes an eye candy girlfriend and being addressed by her male subordinates as “Sir!”