Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days (신과함께-인과 연,Kim Yong-hwa, 2018)

Along with the gods 2 posterKarma is a bitch, and Korean hell is apparently full of it. You don’t have to be guilty to work here, but it certainly seems to help. Picking up straight after the conclusion of the first film, Kim Yong-hwa’s Along with the Gods sequel, The Last 49 Days (신과함께-인과 연, Singwa Hamgge: Ingwa Yeon) sees stern grim reaper/celestial defence lawyer Gang-lim (Ha Jung-woo) make good on his promise to clear the name of a once vengeful spirit now cheerfully deceased, but willingly or otherwise it’s himself he’s putting on trial as the facts of his client’s case veer eerily close to his own. King Yeomra (Lee Jung-jae) is up to his old tricks once again.

Brother of the first film’s “paragon” Ja-hong, Kim Su-hong (Kim Dong-wook) is headed nowhere good – after being accidentally shot by one friend and then buried alive by another to cover it up, Su-hong became a vengeful spirit creating havoc in the mortal and underworlds. Gang-lim, however, is convinced that Su-hong’s death was “wrongful”, that he died as a deliberate act of murder rather than simply by a tragic accident, and commits himself to clearing Su-hong’s name so that he can be reincarnated immediately. He manages to win King Yeomra over, but there is one condition – an old man, Hur Choon-sam (Nam Il-Woo), is an overstayer in the mortal world and should have been “ascended” long ago but his household god, Sung-ju (Ma Dong-Seok), keeps despatching the Guardians to keep the old man safe. If Gang-lim and his assistants Hewonmak (Ju Ji-Hoon) and Deok-choon (Kim Hyang-Gi) can clear Su-hong’s name and ascend Choon-sam within 49 Days King Yeomra will at last set them free and allow them to be reincarnated.

Having dealt so thoroughly with the mechanics of hell in The Two Worlds, Kim expands and deepens his canvas to delve into the lives of our various Guardians. As it turns out Sung-ju was once a Guardian himself and so he knows a thing or two about our two underlings – Hewonmak and Deok-choon, whose memories were wiped when they became employees of King Yeomra. As Sung-ju spins a yarn, it becomes clear that the fates of the three Guardians were closely linked in life and death, bound by a series of traumatic events over a thousand years ago during the Goryeo dynasty.

As in the Two Worlds it all comes down to family. Gang-lim’s memories are fractured and confused, he’s convinced himself he’s a righteous man and wilfully misremembered his death (or at least misrepresented it to his cohorts). Stiff and lacking in compassion, Gang-lim was at odds with his gentle hearted father who, he thought, had found a better son in a boy orphaned by the cruelty of his own troops. These broken familial connections become a karmic circle of resentment and betrayal, enduring across millennia in the knowledge that even to ask for forgiveness may itself be another cruel and selfish act of violence. The circle cannot be closed without cosmic justice, but justice requires process and process requires a victim.

Gang-lim plays a bait and switch, he walks the strangely cheerful Su-hong through the various trials but it’s himself he’s testing, working towards a resolution of his own centuries old burdens of guilt and regret. There are, however, unintended victims in everything and the fate of orphans becomes a persistent theme from the orphaned foster brother Gang-lim feared so much, to those who lost their families in the wars of Goryeo, and a little boy who will be left all alone if Hewonmak and Deok-choon decide to ascend Choon-sam. Choon-sam’s adorable grandson is only young but he’s already been badly let down – his mother sadly passed away, but his father ran up gambling debts and then ran off to the Philippines never to be seen again. He didn’t ask for any of this, but there’s no cosmic justice waiting for him, only “uncle” Sang-ju who has taken the bold step of assuming human form to help the boy and his granddad out while trying to come up with a more permanent solution.

Nevertheless, compassion and forgiveness eventually triumph over the rigid business of the law, finally closing the circle through force of will. Kim doubles down on The Two Worlds’ carefully crafted aesthetic but perhaps indulges himself with a series of random digressions involving psychic dinosaur attacks and lengthy laments about stock market fluctuations and failing investments. Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days may lack the narrative focus of its predecessor but is undoubtedly lighter in tone and filled with the sense of fun the first film lacked, which is just as well because it seems as if hell is not done with our three Guardians just yet.


Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days is currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds (신과함께-죄와 벌, Kim Yong-hwa, 2017)

Along With the Gods- The Two Worlds posterThere’s nothing like death to give life perspective. If life is a series of tests, death is the finals but if you pass you get to come back and do it all again, otherwise you’ll have to spend some time in the afterlife thinking hard about what you’ve done and presumably studying for some kind of resits. At least, that’s how it seems to work in the complicated Buddhist hell of Kim Yong-hwa’s fantasy epic Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds (신과함께-죄와 벌, Sin gwa Hamkke – Joe wa Beol). The first in a two part series, The Two Worlds takes a saintly man and tries to pull him down only to build him back up again as a potent symbol of filial piety and wounded selflessness.

Firefighter Kim Ja-hong (Cha Tae-hyun) is killed leaping heroically from a burning building with a little girl wrapped in his arms. He doesn’t realise he’s dead until he’s greeted by two neatly suited, official looking types who explain to him that they are his “Guardians” and will be looking after him on his journey through the afterlife. It turns out that Ja-hong’s heroic death has earned him a “Paragon” badge – a rare occurrence, and he has a good chance of reincarnation before the 49th day if he can successfully pass each of the seven trials which mark passage through Buddhist Hell.

As the Guardians point out, it would be extremely difficult for a “normal” person to pass these seven trials and achieve reincarnation but as a Paragon Ja-hong should have an easier ride. Ja-hong is, however, an ordinary person with an ordinary person’s failings even if his faults are comparatively small. Ja-hong is literally on trial seven times – represented by his team of defence lawyers, the Guardians, he is charged with various sins each “judged” by a god presiding over a custom courtroom. Murder Hell is fiery chaos, indolence is assessed by a stern older lady (Kim Hae-sook), and deceit by (who else) a small child (Kim Soo-ahn) licking a large lollipop.

Ja-hong is indeed a “good person” but he has also been to dark places, wilfully deciding to turn and walk away from them in order to repurpose his rage and resentment into a determination to care for his seriously ill mother (Ye Soo-jung) and younger brother (Kim Dong-wook). Working tirelessly, Ja-hong has been selfless in the extreme, saving lives and saving money for his family whilst sacrificing his own life and prospect of happiness in order to provide for others. That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t a degree of “sin” in the selfishness of Ja-hong’s selflessness or that he hasn’t also been cowardly in making a symbolic recompense for a guilty secret rather than a personal apology.

Kim Yong-hwa weaves in a series of subplots including a lengthy shift into the life of Ja-hong’s brother Su-hong, a possibly gay soldier with an intense attachment to a comrade which eventually has tragic results. Su-hong’s mild resentment towards his brother becomes a key element in his trial, eventually developing into a more literal kind of spectre haunting the proceedings while perhaps creating even more turmoil and confusion in the living world thanks to a moustache twirling villain whose desire to “help” is probably more about saving face – the kind of “betrayal” which is not “beautiful” enough to get a pass from the Goddess.

In the end the court seems to bend towards Ja-hong’s moral philosophy, excusing his human failings through moral justification even when that justification remains flimsy as in the case of his “fake” letters intended to make people feel better through the comfort of lies. The essence of the judgement, however, looks for forgiveness – if a sin is forgiven in the mortal world, it is inadmissible in a celestial court. The message seems clear, face your problems head on and sort out your emotional difficulties properly while there’s time else you’ll end up with “unfinished business” and get bogged down in Buddhist Hell being attacked by fish with teeth and having old ladies asking you why you spent so much time watching movies about death rather than living life to the fullest.

Ambitious in its use of CGI, Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds acquits itself well enough in its carefully drawn (if lifeless) backgrounds and frequent flights of fancy which allow Ha Jung-woo’s enigmatic Gang-lim ample opportunity to whip out his fiery sword of justice. Narratively, however, it’s comparatively clumsy and content to revel in the melodrama of its tearjerking premise. A post-credits teaser linking part one and part two through the recurring figure of an old man who can see the Guardians presents a familiar face in an extremely unfamiliar light and hints at a great deal of fun to be had next time around – appropriate enough for a film about reincarnation, but then again it’s as well to have some fun in this life too, something The Two Worlds could have used a little more of.


Currently on limited UK cinema release courtesy of China Lion.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

 

The Merciless (불한당: 나쁜 놈들의 세상, Byun Sung-hyun, 2017)

merciless posterHeroic bloodshed is alive and well and living in Korea. The strange love child of Na Hyun’s The Prison, and Park Hoon-jung’s New World, the first gangster action drama from Byun Sung-hyun (previously known for light comedies), The Merciless (불한당: 나쁜 놈들의 세상, Boolhandang: Nabbeun Nomdeului Sesang) more than lives up to its name in its noirish depiction of genuine connection undercut by the inevitability of betrayal. Inspired as much by ‘80s Hong Kong cinema with its ambitious, posturing tough guys and dodgy cops as by the more immediate influence of the seminal Infernal Affairs, Byun’s brutal tale of chivalry is, as he freely admits, an exercise in style, but its aesthetics do, at least, help to elevate the otherwise generic narrative.

That would be – the complicated relationship between young rookie Hyun-su (Im Siwan) and grizzled veteran Jae-ho (Sol Kyung-gu). Hyun-su proves himself in prison by besting current champions bringing him to the attention of Jae-ho – the de facto prison king. Sharing similar aspirations, the pair form a tight, brotherly bond as they hatch a not so secret plan to take out Jae-ho’s boss, Ko (Lee Kyoung-young), leaving Jae-ho a clear path to the top spot of a gang engaged in a lucrative smuggling operation run in co-operation with the Russian mob and using the area’s fishing industry as an unlikely cover.

We’re first introduced to Jae-ho through reputation in the film’s darkly comic opening scene in which Ko’s resentful, cowardly nephew Byung-gab (Kim Hee-won), has a strange conversation with a soon to be eliminated colleague. Byung-gab says he finds it hard to eat fish with their tiny eyes staring back at you in judgement. He admires Jae-ho for his ice cold approach to killing, meeting his targets’ gaze and pulling the trigger without a second thought.

Jae-ho is, indeed, merciless, and willing to stop at nothing to ensure his own rise through the criminal underworld. He will, however, not find it so easy to pull that trigger when he’s staring into the eyes of sometime partner Hyun-su. Neither of the two men has been entirely honest with the other, each playing a different angle than it might at first seem but then caught by a genuine feeling of brotherhood and trapped in storm of existential confusion when it comes to their individual end goals. Offering some fatherly advice to Hyun-su, Jae-ho recites a traumatic childhood story and cautions him to trust not the man but the circumstances. Yet there is “trust” of a kind existing between the two men even if it’s only trust in the fact they will surely be betrayed.

Byun rejoices in the abundance of reversals and backstabbings, piling flashbacks on flashbacks to reveal deeper layers and hidden details offering a series of clues as to where Jae-ho and Hyun-su’s difficult path may take them. Truth be told, some of these minor twists are overly signposted and disappointingly obvious given the way they are eventually revealed, but perhaps when the central narrative is so fiendishly convoluted a degree of predictability is necessary.

The Merciless has no real political intentions, but does offer a minor comment on political necessity in its bizarre obsession with the fishing industry. The police know the Russians are involved in drug smuggling and using the local fishing harbour as a front, but as fishing rights are important and the economy of primary importance they’d rather not risk causing a diplomatic incident by rocking the boat, so to speak. The sole female presence in the film (aside from Hyun-su’s sickly mother), determined yet compromised police chief Cheon (Jeon Hye-jin), is the only one not willing to bow to political concerns but her methods are anything other than clean as she plants seemingly vast numbers of undercover cops in Jae-ho’s outfit, only to find herself at the “mercy” of vacillating loyalties.

Heavily stylised, Byun’s action debut does not quite achieve the level of pathos it strives for in an underwhelming emotional finale but still manages to draw out the painful connection between the two anti-heroes as they each experience a final epiphany. An atmosphere of mistrust pervades, as it does in all good film noir, but the central tragedy is not in trust misplaced but trust manifesting as a kind of love between two men engulfed by a web of confusion, betrayal, and corrupted identities.


Screening as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2017 at Regent Street Cinema on 3rd November, 6.30pm. The Merciless will also screen at:

and will be released by StudioCanal on 13th November.

International trailer (English subtitles)