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 Age of Shadows (밀정, Kim Jee-woon, 2016)

age-of-shadowsWhen the country of your birth has been occupied by another nation, what do you do? Do you fight back, insist on your independence and expel the tyrants, or quickly bow to your new overlords and resign yourself to no longer being what you once were? Kim Jee-woon becomes the latest director to take a look at Korea’s colonial past with the Resistance based thriller Age of Shadows (밀정, Miljung) which owes more than a little to Melville’s similarly titled Army of Shadows, as well as classic cold war spy dramas The Third Man and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

The film opens with an impressive set piece in which two Resistance members, Jang-ok (Park Hee-soon), and Joo (Seo Young-joo) are betrayed whilst trying to sell a Buddhist statue. Joo is captured but Jang-ok makes a run for it as what looks like the entire Japanese garrison of Seoul chases him, running gallantly over the picturesque Korean rooftops. Cornered, Jang-ok is confronted by Korean born Japanese policeman Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho), once a Resistance member himself and a former comrade in arms of Jang-ok. This is the point Jung-chool’s carefully crafted collaboration beings to fracture – his friend, rather than allow himelf to be captured, shouts “Long Live Korea” and blows his own brains out.

His mission a failure, Jung-chool is then moved onto the next investigation which aims to dig out the Resistance top brass in the city. Jung-chool’s Japanese boss Higashi (Shingo Tsurumi) wants him to infiltrate the cell headed by antique dealer and photographer Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) in the hope that it will lead them to head honcho, Jung (Lee Byung-hun). However, Higashi also saddles him with a very young but high ranking Japanese official, Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), to “help” him bring in Woo-jin.

In Jung-chool’s final conversation with Jang-ok, his friend berates him for the decision to turn traitor and work for the Japanese rather than against them. Jung-chool asks him if he thinks independence is a credible aim, implying he’s long since given up believing in the idea of the Japanese ever being overthrown. Jang-ok evidently believed in it enough to sacrifice his own life, but other comrades have also abanoned the cause and actively betrayed the movement in much more serious ways than Jung-chool’s pragmatic side swapping.

Even if Jung-chool has decided that if you can’t beat the Japanese you may as well join them, he’s coming to the realisation that his superiors, even if they’ve previously treated him warmly, will never regard him as equal to the Japanese personnel. Hashimoto’s sudden arrival undercuts Jung-Chool’s career progress and reminds him that he serves a very distinct purpose which may soon run out of currency. Higashi, having seduced Jung-chool with promises of a comfortable life and praise for his skills, does not trust his Korean underling enough to send him out on his own. This personal wound may do more to send him reeling back to the other side than anything else, especially as his “replacement” Hashimoto is a crazy eyed psychopath who has half a mind to burn the entire city just to be sure of getting his man.

A man who’s been turned once can be turned again and so mastermind Jung decides to prod Jung-chool in the hope that he’ll become an asset rather than a threat. As he puts it, what’s more frightening than feeling your heart move and Jung-chool’s certainty has already been shaken. Song Kang-ho perfectly inhabits Jung-chool’s conflicted soul as his old patriotic feelings start to surface just as he begins to truly see his masters for what they are. Always keeping his intentions unclear, Jung-chool is the ideal double agent, playing both sides or maybe neither with no clear affiliation.

Like Army of Shadows, the final nail in the coffin is delivered by a sentimental photograph. In this chaotic world of betrayals and counter betrayals, there can be no room for love or compassion other than loyalty to one’s comrades and to the movement. Yet against the odds Woo-jin comes to trust Jung-chool implicitly, certain that he will finally choose the side of freedom rather than that of the oppressor. The relationship between the two men provides the only real moments of comic relief, though others members of the group are less well defined including an underwritten part for Woo-jin’s Chinese love interest (Han Ji-min) who isn’t permitted to do very much other than model some elegant twenties outfits.

Maintaining tension throughout, Kim intersperses psychological drama as betrayal piles on betrayal, with intense action sequences including a particularly claustrophobic train based game of hide and seek. Inspired by real historical events, Kim does not claim any level of authenticity but sets out to tell the story of the double dealing inside a man’s heart as he weighs up duty and self interest and asks himself how far he’s willing to go for the sake of either. The age of “shadows” indeed, these are hollow men whose identities have been eroded, living only for today but in certainty of the bright tomorrow. Kim’s examination of this turbulent period is both a big budget prestige picture with striking production values, and a tense, noir-inflected thriller in the mould of Melville, but also a nuanced human drama unafraid to ask the difficult questions which lie at the heart of every spy story.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)