Fantasia Fest 2015: BIG MATCH — A Kinetic, High-Concept Battle Royale

Big Match recently screened at Fantasia International Film Festival.

A ultra-exclusive, clandestine gambling ring is operated by a maniacal entrepreneur known only as “Ace” (Shin Ha-kyun). Equal parts supervillain and game-show host, Ace — who looks like a Tim Burton character — takes real people and drops them into absurd, life-threatening situations while feeding the video to his bored, ridiculously wealthy clients who bet on the outcomes.

For his latest event, Ace turns up the crazy and chooses a top celebrity to run his gauntlet: popular footballer-turned-MMA-fighter Choi Ik-ho (Lee Jung-jae), better known by his professional pseudonym, “Zombie”. His specialty? Taking a beating.

Ace kidnaps Ik-ho’s brother Young-ho, who is also his trainer and business partner, threatening to murder him if the MMA star doesn’t follow their instructions. Ik-ho is equipped with a tracking device and earpiece to receive instructions, while Ace’s expert hackers tap into surveillance and security cameras, in addition to their own drones, to record his every movement.

Ace sends Ik-ho headlong against the clock into insane situations with the odds stacked against him — brawls with scores of policemen and gangsters (both of which continue to pursue him throughout the film), a frantic search in a packed soccer arena, and direct confrontations both in cooperation with and against other coerced participants.

It’s fair to assume that director Choi Ho and the filmmakers behind Big Match are probably big Jason Statham fans. The rugged English actor may not appear in the film, but it’s not difficult to spot his ass-kicking influence fused into this South Korean action-comedy’s DNA. Ik-ho is an MMA fighter and former soccer player; Statham is likewise an accomplished martial artist and portrayed a soccer player in the British The Longest Yard remake Mean Machine (not to mention a World Cup coach in The Pink Panther). Big Match’s adrenaline-pumped, mad dash against time is recognizably similar to the amped-up actioner Crank and its sequel. Meanwhile, Ace’s lethal, reality-based game show and its high-tech video-betting pool brings to mind the similar Pay-Per-View gauntlet operated by a sadistic prison warden in Death Race.

So how good can a Statham movie without Statham be?

As it turns out, pretty darn great, actually. Lee Jung-jae is no Jason Statham to be sure, but the Korean actor is charismatic in his own right and pretty fun to watch. He’s convincing enough in the demanding depiction of a world-class MMA fighter, and to this end, the film is suitably packed with nearly non-stop fighting, with the camera giving room to breathe and effectively show the action.

Beneath the action-comedy surface is a quiet condemnation of a surveillance state where cameras are trained on everyone at all times — a theme common to modern thrillers from Asia, where such surveillance is more pronounced than in the US. Ace’s team of malicious hackers easily take control of cameras to track the action — even in a police station. What’s to stop real-life hackers — or even legitimate but unscrupulous operators — from similarly abusing this kind of incredible power?

To a lesser extent, the story also taps into the same kind of distrust for the elite rich as other films like The Purge: Anarchy and They Live: to the ultra-wealthy, you’re just a plaything that can be manipulated for their amusement.

With endless action, a keen sense of fun, and some underlying social commentary, Big Match is a big winner for Fantasia Fest, and I count it among my favorite Korean films in recent years.

A/V Out.

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