Innocent Witness (증인, Lee Han, 2019)

Innocent Witness poster“Are you a good person?” asks the confused girl at the centre of Lee Han’s Innocent Witness (증인, Jeungin). Her question comes after a series of surprising revelations which have left her questioning all of her relationships and the nature of the world itself, yet it’s one that’s largely impossible to answer. Formerly idealistic lawyer Soon-ho (Jung Woo-sung) thinks he’s been given the kind of case he can get behind, but as usual nothing is quite as it seems and if he wants to get to the truth of the matter he’ll have to learn to think differently.

Soon-ho began his career as an activist lawyer working for NGOs, but now he’s “sold out” to join an elite law firm with a dodgy reputation in order to pay back debts his father unwisely guaranteed for a friend. Because of his precarious financial status, Soon-ho has put-off marriage and relationships, despite his father’s nagging, believing them to be out of his reach and is conflicted by his recent career choices which leave him on the opposite side from old friends. When he’s handed a pro-bono case to defend a housekeeper (Yum Hye-ran) accused of murdering her employer he thinks it’s the best of both worlds. All the evidence points to suicide, but there’s a witness testimony which suggests otherwise. Seeing as the testimony is from a 15-year-old autistic girl who witnessed the crime from across the street, Soon-ho feels he can easily have it discounted.

Like many in the film, Soon-ho doesn’t know much about autism and writes Ji-woo (Kim Hyang-gi) off as “mentally impaired”, believing that will be enough for the jury to disregard her testimony especially as it so strongly conflicts with the rest of the evidence. Refused permission to meet with her in person, Soon-ho begins trying to befriend Ji-woo on the way home from school and eventually comes to realise that she is highly intelligent if easily distracted and uneasy in social situations. What he discovers is not that Ji-woo is unable to communicate with the world, but that the world is unwilling to communicate with her. If he wants to bond, he will need to learn her language and earn her trust.

Trust maybe he hard to come by as he witnesses the minor aggressions she goes through every day like the horrible boys at school who taunt her mercilessly and the supposed friend bullying her in secret, not to mention a world full of barking dogs and ringing telephones. When he finally puts her on the stand, his own co-defence chair reads out passages from a book about autism which describe it as a “mental disability” before painting her as a deranged idiot who probably half-imagined what she saw from things she’d seen on television – an act which has profound ethical implications in eroding Ji-woo’s sense of self. Ji-woo told Soon-ho she wanted to be a lawyer because lawyers are good people who help those in need, but Soon-ho has to ask himself whose interest destroying a 15-year-old girl on the stand is really serving.

The law firm Soon-ho joined does seem to be a sleazy one. Despite hiring him to improve their image, Soon-ho’s boss tells him that his new clients won’t be comfortable with him unless he gets himself a little “dirty” while inviting him to awkward parties with call girls in high class hotels. Meanwhile, Soon-ho remains conflicted – especially after potentially losing a 20-year friendship through saying the wrong thing to a still idealistic lawyer and passing it off as an attempt to be “realistic”. Realism is one thing, but Soon-ho seems to have given up and decided if you can’t beat them join them. His dad, sensing his son’s unease, writes him an impassioned letter in which he tells him that the most important thing in life is to be happy with yourself, everything else you can figure out later.

Realising his mistake, Soon-ho begins to see the light. Through bonding with Ji-woo, he learns that seeing things differently can be advantage and that society should have a place for everyone where they shouldn’t have to worry about being themselves. Tellingly, no one ever bothered to ask Ji-woo about the most important part of evidence in her testimony because they all had too many prejudices about her delivery. Only Soon-ho, having bothered to get to know her, was able see what it was that she wan’t saying. The film perhaps missteps when it has Ji-woo come to the conclusion that she can’t be a lawyer because of her autism, but otherwise presents a sensitive portrayal of a society trying to be better in accommodating difference and doing it with empathetic positivity while subtly waving a finger at the self-serving forces of conservative corruption.


Innocent Witness was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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)