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)

 

Confession of Murder (내가 살인범이다, Jung Byung-gil, 2012)

Confession of murder posterThe UK does not have a statute of limitations for criminal cases, only for civil ones, so if you want to be certain you’ve got away with murder you’ll need to wait until the very end and offer only a deathbed confession. In Korea, however, the statute of limitations on murder is (or was, at least, in 2012) 15 years so after that time you can even go on TV and tell everyone you’re a serial killer and all that will happen is that you’ll suddenly become a media darling beloved by a hundred giddy schools. Such is the premise behind Jung Byung-gil’s complicated mystery thriller Confession of Murder (내가 살인범이다, Naega Salinbeomida) in which a grizzled detective and the bereaved relatives try to cope with their guilt and desire for revenge by enacting their own kind of justice on a self-confessed serial killer.

15 years ago, Detective Choi (Jung Jae-young) let a serial killer get away with only a scar on his cheek and the killer’s promise of reunion to show for it. 10 women are dead and Choi’s own fiancée missing presumed among the victims, and with the statute of limitations about to expire it appears that the killer will get away with his heinous crimes having successfully outlived justice. On the day the killer is officially off the hook, one of the victim’s sons commits suicide, further adding to Choi’s sense of inadequacy in being unable to bring the killer to justice within the time limit.

Two years on from the limitation passing, a handsome young man steps into the limelight with a book called “Confession of Murder” which claims to be an exposé on his reign of killing. Lee (Park Si-hoo) with his pop idol good looks and suave manner quickly becomes a media sensation despite the discomfort of some that he is profiting from the deaths of his innocent victims whom he has also robbed of justice even if he claims to be remorseful and to have reformed. Detective Choi has his doubts about the killer’s account and particularly about the possible 11th victim whose body has never been found.

Aside from the intrigue surrounding the true identity of the killer (or killers), Confession of Murder has a few difficult questions to ask about the nature of fame and the cult of celebrity. Lee has just confessed to a brutal series of unsolved killings of women, but thanks to his boy band good looks and impressive media marketing campaign he’s already amassed a fan club of adoring young girls including three rowdy high schoolers we first meet in Choi’s prison cells. Having escaped justice, Lee feels secure enough in his legal protections to crow not only about his crimes but in having gotten away with them so skilfully. His book becomes a best seller and his TV appearances hotly anticipated even if the fascination behind them maybe more ghoulish than intellectual or steeped in admiration.

What Lee exposes is a set of judicial double standards in which a man who has not paid for crimes he freely admits committing can be allowed to remain free and even use those same crimes to build a new life for himself by exploiting them for financial and social gains. The families of the bereaved, denied justice, seek their own – as does Choi even if he does it as a serving law enforcement officer. The lines between justice and revenge become ever blurred as the killer subverts the protections of the law as weapons against those who would seek to see that his crimes are properly served by it.

Meanwhile, Jung veers wildly between taught psychological thriller and absurd action drama in which an attempt to kidnap the killer is made by throwing poisonous snakes at him and then stealing him away in a fake ambulance which soon gives way to a lengthy motorway chase. The action sequences, often unexpected, are brilliantly choreographed set pieces of frenzied attack and retreat in which the outcome is perpetually uncertain. Uncertainty is certainly something Jung is adept at using as his narrative becomes ever more convoluted and intentions increasingly cloudy.

As much fun as it all is, Confession of Murder also has its degrees of poignancy in insisting on a need to deal with the unresolved past head on. Buried truths begin to fester and no amount of wilful forgetting will cure them, only the truth will do. Detective Choi faces a serious dilemma when faced with the limitations of a system to which he has devoted his life and which has already taken so much from him. If he transgresses, he will be judged by that same system but the judgement itself will also be a kind of affirmation that justice has finally been done and the case firmly closed.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Villainess (악녀, Jung Byung-gil, 2017)

the villainess korean posterVengeance is a doubled edged sword, it cannot help but wound the wielder. The heroine of Jung Byung-gil’s ironically titled The Villainess (악녀, Aknyeo) has more to be revenged of than even she knows. Yes, the narrative beats are familiar and Jung has clearly drawn inspiration from Luc Besson’s seminal hit woman movie La Femme Nikita as well as the long history of female revenge films from Lady Snowblood to Kill Bill, but he does it with style and style is always hard to argue with. A new kind of action cinema, The Villainess makes a performer of its camera, darting frantically like an animal on the run and then drifting listlessly between dreamlike visions of half remembered traumas. Jung remains firmly in B-movie territory but owns it, unafraid to embrace the genre’s more extreme qualities and all the better for it.

When we first meet Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin), we are Sook-hee. Jung opens with a lengthy (seeming) one take POV shot of an assassin fearlessly taking down untold numbers of bad guys in a tightly controlled corridor battle before we are suddenly ejected from her head when it connects with a mirror. Sook-hee has come here for revenge, though we don’t know that yet. Leaping from an upper window and landing heroically in an alleyway below, Sook-hee is taken into custody by a shady government organisation intent on turning her into a sleeper assassin. She is uniquely qualified for the task but has lost all hope and longs only for death. The revelation that she is pregnant gives her a reason to keep on living, as does the promise of her new mentor, Kwon-sook (Kim Seo-Hyung), who assures her ten years of service will buy a lifetime of comfort and freedom both for herself and the young life inside her.

Of course, it is not that simple. Jung gradually reveals Sook-hee’s backstory through brief flashbacks and lengthier evidence gathering sequences but her story is one of constant abandonment, adoption, betrayal, and vengeance. As if she could ever have forgotten them, the seminal images of Sook-hee’s life are frequently thrown back at her – an innocent girl witnessing the bloody death of her father, the eyes of the dying gazing back at something they once loved, games of death and of salvation. Sook-hee has been used and misused by men all her life, traded for jewels, and tricked into a murder of the self as sheds her skins to transform from frightened child to heartless killer, loyal wife, and loving mother. Swapping one master for another she is lied to and manipulated, denied her own identity in service of someone else’s ideals.

Ironically enough the prize which is dangled in front of Sook-hee’s eyes is nothing more than the prospect of a “normal life”, free from crime, killing, and fractured identities. As elliptical as the film itself, Sook-hee’s adult life is an ongoing quest to regain what was taken from her in childhood. A “normal life” is what’s offered to her by each of her respective masters but none of them has the capability, and only one the will, to give it to her. There can be no normal life for Sook-hee, reduced as she is from a name to an epithet. A villainess – no longer a woman, merely a faceless archetype, a grudge bearing revenger with dead eyes and an icy heart.

When Sook-hee performs in her strangely meta, Hedda Gabler inspired play, she remarks that she and the (presumably) long lost lover to whom she is speaking can no longer exist in the same space, in order for one to live the other must die. This line has an obvious correlation in the narrative but Sook-hee isn’t just speaking of her unseen enemy but of her own dualities. Only one Sook-hee can survive, but so many Sook-hees have died already starting with the lost little girl offered salvation in the barrel of the gun. Beginnings become endings, and endings become beginnings, but whether The Villainess is the story of a woman assuming her true identity or being subsumed by it, Sook-hee remains where she’s always been – alone and encircled by men with guns whose infinite authority she is perpetually unable to evade.


The Villainess was screened at FrightFest 2017 and will also be screened as the final Teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival at Regent Street Cinema on 11th September ahead of a limited cinema outing and October DVD/blu-ray release from Arrow Video.

International trailer (dialogue free, English captions)