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 Priests (검은 사제들, Jang Jae-Hyun, 2015)

The Priests PosterThe era of hero priests might be well and truly behind us but at least when it comes to the exorcism movie, the warrior monk resurfaces as the valiant men of God face off against pure evil itself risking both body and soul in an attempt to free the unfortunate victim of a possession from their torment. To many, the very idea sounds as if it belongs in the medieval era – what need have we for demons now that we posses such certain, scientific knowledge? There are, however, things far more ancient than man which are far more terrifying than our ordinary villainy.

The Priests (검은 사제들, geom-eun sa-je-deul) begins with two Italian clerics in the Vatican discussing the somewhat taboo subject of exorcism and demonic possession. They have been made aware of a serious case in Korea and, as they can’t get in touch with the Korean exorcism department, head out there themselves for a little pest control of their own. However, the enemy they were facing proves too strong for them as they become involved in a multi-car pileup allowing the demon they’ve trapped inside a small dog to escape and migrate to a better humanoid host.

Now we turn to the Korean church authorities who are also worried about a young girl who appears to be displaying the symptoms of demonic possession. Their leader repeatedly tells them he will not “officially” sanction any kind of action whilst making it clear he wants them to go ahead and deal with it. No one knows much about exorcism so they reluctantly turn to the maverick preacher Father Kim who, as it also turns out, is a friend of the girl, Young-sin. Matters have reached an impasse as the demon inside Young-sin tries to make her commit suicide by jumping from her hospital room window in order to migrate to a more robust host, leaving her in a comatose state.

Anyone with any basic knowledge of exorcism in the movies knows that you need a young priest and an old priest so Kim gets a sidekick in the form of the equally unusual Deacon, Choi, who is not exactly a model student at the seminary. Choi is initially quite excited to be assisting in such an arcane ritual even if his chief job title is “pig sitter” and his new “boss” is a gruff and world weary man who he has also been asked to spy on just in case this is all down to Kim acting “inappropriately” with an underage girl rather than a visitation from an even more ancient evil. Needlessly to say, Choi quickly discovers Father Kim has been speaking nothing but the truth and he is in way over his head.

Though this is a Catholic crisis bound up with Christian cosmology and centuries old rites, this is still Korea and so Eastern concerns seep into the Western religiosity. The night Kim has chosen for his final assault coincides with the Buddhist feast of the Hungry Ghost when the dead return to visit the living and one of the criteria that made Choi a prime choice for the role of the assistant is that he was born in the year of the Tiger and therefore supposedly more spiritually sensitive. In a quest to help the girl, all avenues are being explored so shamanistic rites are also performed (though with little success) and Kim seems to have a kind of professional respect for his shamanic counterpart even if the two obviously disagree on some quite fundamental things.

Thanks to its double layer of exoticised mysticism, The Priests quickly works up a supernaturally charged atmosphere though its eyes are strictly on entertainment rather than exposing any deep seated social concerns.The possessed girl calls forth animals, speaks in tongues offering bizarre and disturbing prophesies, and eventually projectile vomits blood and snakes all over a painting of the Virgin Mary yet the film never aims for the shock factor that defined Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Though tagged as horror, The Priests is not particularly frightening (jump scares aside) but does manage to evoke a kind of ever present dread in the face of this unfaceable threat.

Despite the heavy atmosphere, Jang is careful to allow the occasional comic episode providing a welcome break from the seriousness of the war against ancient evil. Impressive action sequences including the early serial car crash and later chase sequence add to the urgency of the situation whilst also alleviating some of the ever increasing tension. Though he visits some dark places, Jang’s world view is not as bleak as Friedkin’s as we’re left with a feeling of restitution, once the original threat removed, though we obviously know that other such threats remain. The heroic ending allows us to forget this for a moment as we enjoy the right and proper victory of good over evil, neglecting that this is but one of many battles in an eternal, celestial war.


Reviewed at a Teaser Screening for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival to take place in November 2016.

US trailer with English subs: