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)

Steel Rain (강철비, Yang Woo-suk, 2017)

Steel Rain posterA little way in to Steel Rain (강철비, Gangchulbi), one of its heroes – a Blue House official, gives a pointed lecture on Korea’s past to some students of Geopolitical History. Fiercely critical of Korea’s previous subjugation by Japan, he laments that his nation was not able to free itself from the Japanese yoke and was awarded its freedom with the end of a wider political conflict which saw the Japanese “empire” collapse. According to Kwak Cheol-u, Korea has never quite lost its cultural admiration for its former colonisers which is why its most prominent corporations – Samsung, Haeundae etc, are all direct competitors with similar Japanese firms (and are only now pushing past them in terms of global market penetration and technological innovation).

Switching tack, he wonders why it is that Japan lost a war and Korea got cut in two by two new “colonising” forces. In his oft observed mantra, Kwak (Kwak Do-won) insists that the citizens of a divided nation suffer more from those who seek to manipulate the division for their own ends than they do from the division itself, which is where we find ourselves in the contemporary era of my button’s bigger than his button in which “capitalist pig dogs” face off against “dirty commies”. Adapting his own webcomic, Yang’s action thriller is among the most recent in a long line of North/South buddy movies and even if its cold-war paranoia feels distinctly old hat, it just goes to prove that everything old is new again.

Eom Cheol-u (Jung Woo-sung), a former North Korean special forces agent, is called back into the fold by his old commander for a very special mission. Tensions are about to boil over in the perpetually precarious state and the Dear Leader’s life is under threat from a suspected coup. Eom is to silence one of the conspirators in return for which he will be given elite status and his family will be well looked after. Unfortunately, the mission does not go to plan and Eom ends up witnessing a missile strike on a welcome meeting at a Chinese managed factory in which the (mostly young and female) employees are murdered in cold blood. Managing to escape with the Dear Leader himself who is seriously wounded, Eom travels over the border along with two young girls. From this point on he’s in conspiracy thriller territory trying to work out just what’s going on and who he can really trust.

The symbolism is rammed home by the fact that our two heroes, Kwak and Eom, have the same first name – Cheol-u, only one uses the characters for “strong friendship” and the other “bright world”. Taken together they paint a pretty picture, brothers in arms despite the political difficulties which place them on differing sides of an arbitrary line drawn up by a foreign power without much consideration for those divided by it. As in many North/South buddy movies of recent times, the North Korean agent displays the best qualities of his nation in his essential “goodness” – a caring husband and father, he executes his mission with maximum efficiency but bears no ill will towards those outside of it and is keen to protect the people of North Korea from almost certain doom should a nuclear war break out between the two peoples. Kwak, by contrast, is more of a schemer whose moral universe is much less black and white. A fluent Mandarin speaker he’s in tight with a North Korean official who keeps trying to talk him into taking a research post at a Chinese university while his family life is somewhat complicated thanks to a divorce from his plastic surgeon wife.

Meanwhile, the film is at pains to point out that Korea became the focus point of the first East/West proxy war and, in Kwak’s view at least, remains insufficiently important in the eyes of its “allies” to merit much direct consideration. Thus our boardroom squabbles are often reduced to the looming face of the American President “advising” the Korean officials on the best course of action while others worry about what Japan is going to think and wonder if the US secretly values the opinion of the Japanese more than the Koreans on the ground. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the government is in a transitionary phase in which a new president has been elected but not sworn in. The crisis may well play out entirely within the old president’s final hours which means that diplomatically he has little to lose and as he is a conservative, might as well milk the situation for all it’s worth. In short, he’s as keen to ruffle diplomatic feathers and bring the situation to a head as everyone else is and war looks more likely than not. The central message is that, as Kwak is fond of implying, governments care little for their people or that millions may die when idea of division is so easily manipulated, especially if it’s not “their” people who will be doing the dying.

Not for nothing is the new president seen reading copy of Willy Brandt’s book on successful reunification, even if he begs his outgoing predecessor to consider the economic impact of any possible change in relations with a Northern neighbour. The North Korean official also warns that China is not keen on the idea of a war seeing as that will necessarily mean an influx of North Korean refugees no one wants to take responsibility for. The cold war may be about to turn hot, but the heroics that cool it down turn out to be of a much less gung-ho nature than might be expected, relying on personal sacrifice and a perhaps outdated code of honour. Nevertheless, the crisis is averted not through macho posturing but through “diplomatic channels” and a careful balancing of powers. Perhaps not so farfetched after all.


Streaming worldwide via Netflix.

Steel Rain will also receive its international festival premiere as the opening night gala of the Udine Far East Film Festival on 20th April.

Far East Film Festival trailer (no subtitles)

Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Jeong Yoon-chul, 2017)

Warriors of the Dawn posterSome might say a king is the slave of his people, but then again he is a very well kept slave even if he is no more free than a serf at the mercy of a feudal lord. Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Daeribgoon), set in 1592 during the short-lived Japanese invasion, takes this idea to its heart in playing up the inherent similarities between the oppressed poor who are forced to impersonate the sons of wealthy men too grand for the battlefield, and the Crown Prince unwillingly forced to impersonate the King who has abandoned his people and run away to China to save his own skin. Though the Prince is young and afraid, with the help of his resentful mercenary brethren he begins to find the majesty buried inside himself all along but crucially never forgets what is like to feel oppressed so that he might rule nobly and fairly, unlike his more selfish father.

The tale begins with Tow (Lee Jung-Jae) – a “Proxy Soldier”, one of many from the Northern borderlands where the living is hard. Sons of feudal lords need not risk their lives on the battlefields while there is money to spend and so they buy the service of young men from poor families to stand in for them. The men take the name of the man they’re supposed to be but if they die, their family must send a replacement to serve out the remaining time or pay back the money that was given to them. At this point Tow’s main problem is the Jurchen rebels who’ve decided to live life their own way outside of the system of class hierarchy currently in place in feudal Korea.

The Japanese, however, are pressing on and making gains towards the capital. The King decides to flee, hoping to reach China where the Ming Emperor may be minded to help them. He cannot, however, simply abandon ship and decides to divide the court with the left behind contingent headed by his son, Crown Prince Gwang-hae (Yeo Jin-goo). Gwang-hae is young and inexperienced. Not having had a good relationship with his father, he’s mystified as to why he’s suddenly been given this “honour” but together with a selection of advisors he’s sent on a journey to found a second court at Gonggye, picking up scattered forces along the way. This brings him into contact with Tow and his contingent who become his main defenders.

Having lived a life inside the palace walls, Gwang-hae knows nothing of war or fighting and has brought a selection of books with him hoping to learn on the job. His ineptitude is likened to that of a young recruit to the band of Proxy Soldiers who has been forced to join on the death of his father but has no training and is too squeamish to kill, requiring Tow to come to his rescue as he later does for Gwang-hae. Tow is a born soldier yet reluctant, fully aware that he no longer exists and should he die another man with no name will step into his place with nary a pause. He continues to fight because he has no choice but he also feels an intense bond of brotherhood to his fellow men, something which later extends to Gwang-hae once his latent nobility begins to emerge.

Gwang-hae’s central conflict is between his advisors who council him towards austerity, and his deeper feelings which encourage him to sympathise with the ordinary people he meets along the way whose lives are being ruined thanks to the government’s failure to protect them. As it turns out, Gwang-hae is also low-born, in a sense, and therefore has inherited something of the common touch which separates him from the aloofness of his father. Though he is constantly told to make the “rational” choice he refuses – ordering troops to stop when they attempt to extort food from starving peasants, insisting on evacuating a village to safer ground, and then finally becoming a warrior himself in order to defend his people when no one else would.

Gwang-hae is, perhaps, a warrior for a new dawn and a flag that men like Tow can follow in the quest for a better world in which each man can keep his own name and fight for his own cause rather than that laid down for them by men with money or power. Despite the potential for a more urgent argument, Jeong mostly falls back on standard period aesthetics with overly familiar narrative beats heavily signposted by a subpar script. Warriors of the Dawn cannot decide whether it’s a film about catching the conscience of a king or the noble sacrifice of would be revolutionaries, failing to lend the essential weight to its duel arcs of rebirth and coming of age all of which makes for a long, hard march towards an inevitable conclusion.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

International trilogy (English subtitles)