Somehow, I managed to miss last year’s fantasy blockbuster Along with the Gods. I didn’t spot that it got a brief UK release until it was too late, and the movie didn’t make to any of the UK festivals to my knowledge. I didn’t even read any reviews. But it registered in my brain as a success in the theatres, so when LEAFF presented an opportunity to see it in a double bill with its 2018 box-office-topping sequel, that was an opportunity too good to turn down. And it was nice that they used the occasion to advertise the dates for their 3rd edition (25 October – 4 November) and to hand out their official tote bag with snacks generously provided by CJ Foods, who own the Bibigo brand.
The movie, based on a popular webtoon by Joo Ho-min, opens with Ja-hong, an heroic firefighter (Cha Tae-hyun – My Sassy Girl), falling to his death from a burning skyscraper, in the process saving the life of a young girl. As he picks himself up, understandably disoriented, he is greeted by three mysterious Guardians who will guide him, and act as defence attorneys, through the seven trials of the underworld. If he succeeds, he will be reincarnated. And the Guardians have an incentive to get him through, because if they meet their target of 49 reincarnations in a millennium, they too will qualify for reincarnation. Ja-hong is potentially their 48th. As he has led an exemplary life (the best the prosecutors in the nertherworld murder trial can come up with is that he didn’t manage to save a colleague in a burning building) it seems that everyone will soon be returning to the real world. But the final trial, that for filial impiety, looks like it could present problems; and their perilous journey through the underworld from one exotic courtroom to the next is disrupted by a vengeful spirit: that of his younger brother.
If it weren’t for the story line involving Ja-hong’s brother, in which Ha Jung-woo as the lead Guardian Gang-lim returns to earth to investigate and aim to resolve the circumstances surrounding his untimely death on military service, the narrative would be pretty uninteresting: a linear series of fantasy court cases in which prosecutors and judges wear increasingly outrageous costumes (how long did it take to give the God of Murder his preposterous hairdo?) and find that there’s always a benign reason behind an apparent crime. The opulent special effects provide some visual interest, the swordfights in which Gang-lim and assistant Guardian Haewonmak (Joo Ji-hoon, Asura: The City of Madness) fight off various demons are entertaining, and there are elements of humour along the way, though 18-year-old Kim Hyang-gi as junior Guardian Deok-choon does not have much to do other than play a straight role counteracting the more rebellious Haewonmak. The culminating trial, involving filial relations with the aged, mute mother, tug at the heartstrings and ensure that many in the audience will have to wipe away a tear or two (me included). But when I emerged from the screening room after the two hours twenty minutes of the first part of the double bill I wondered whether I was motivated enough to stick around for the second, given that it would mean I wouldn’t be climbing into a taxi until well after midnight.
I’m glad I stayed. The sequel was infinitely more involving than the original. While first movie, subtitled The Two Worlds, focused on the life of the firefighter, the sequel explores the backstories of the three Guardians. And while the first movie appropriately enough is set in two worlds – the afterlife where Ja-hong is undergoing his trials and the real world as we explore the lives of him and his family – the sequel has an additional world: a semi-mythical past set in the Goryeo period (a millennium ago) at the time of the wars with the Khitans and the Jurchens. We also have the additional comedy interest of a rogue demigod, Seongju, played by Ma Dong-seok (Train to Busan), who is trying to protect an old man and his young grandson from eviction from their humble home (in a nice touch, they are near neighbours with Ja-hong’s mother, who featured prominently in the first movie). The old man received decent compensation for moving out, but Seongju had invested the money in emerging market mutual funds on his behalf and they have nosedived (should have invested in real estate or Bitcoin, he grumbles) and now he feels obliged to make amends by playing guardian uncle.
The spirit being guided through the trials in the underworld is the insufferably cocky Su-hong (Kim Dong-wook, Coffee Prince), Ja-hong’s younger brother from Part 1. As he travels through the underworld Gang-lim warns him that the dangers in the desert they are crossing will be the things he fears most. “I’m not afraid of anything that exists” he boasts – which in a fantasy movie leaves plenty of scope to cook up things that don’t…
As events from the past find echoes in the present, and as the story lines in the three different worlds increasingly interlock, the movie comes to a satisfying conclusion. In the closing titles we get a hint that another sequel could be planned (Hancinema is already pre-emptively listing two further outings for the series), but with most of the loose ends tied up in this movie the third in the franchise would possibly end up being very different.
Thanks to LEAFF for putting on this fun double bill. Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days is released today at selected Odeon cinemas. The London East Asia Film Festival runs 28 October to 4 November, with a focus on Taiwan cinema and a co-curated selection from the Nara International Film Festival.
Kim Yong-hwa (김용화):
- Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds (신과함께-죄와 벌, 2017)
- Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days (신과함께-인과 연, 2018)