We actually tailored our trip to the Halloween Haunt to make sure we had a chance to see this film. The Boy and I had seen it when it came out in December of 2017—it may have been his first K-town movie—and the sequel (Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days) was The Flower’s first. But I had gotten way behind by the end of 2017 and never managed to put up a review, which is a shame, because it’s one of my favorites. It is reminiscent to me of the best of Hollywood Blockbuster moviemaking, being both a effects-heavy spectacular that’s still strongly centered around a very emotional story.
In this story, a heroic firefighter dies and is taken to the afterlife. This being a Korean movie, the afterlife is governed by an implacable bureaucracy. The deal is you are taken through each of the seven hells and judged on your sins. If you fail, you end up suffering the torment for that sin. Our Hero, Ja-Hong learns all this from his after-life advocates who are a combination of defense attorney, bodyguard and psychic. It’s their job to defend Ja-Hong from the aggressive, and aggressively incompetent, assistant district attorneys of the underworld. I mean, they don’t call them that, but that’s their job: To find Ja-Hong guilty of his sins, to get him punished and to make sure he doesn’t get off too lightly (or perhaps at all). If he makes it through the trials, he gets to be reincarnated.
That in itself would make for a pretty good set-up, and it makes for the emotional core of the movie: Sort of a more dramatic version of Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life. But there’s a twist: Ja-Hong doesn’t want to be reincarnated. He doesn’t believe he’s a paragon, and he’s indifferent or even hostile to his own defense—until he’s told that he other reward of making it through is to be able to appear in the dreams of a loved one, and there’s a message he really wants to get through to his mother.
But wait, there’s more!
Ja-Hong is also a paragon. What that means is that he would actually be capable of going through all seven trials in 49 days—which becomes a hook for the sequel—and if he can get through them all, as a paragon, he counts for one of the hundred paragons our defending attorneys need to achieve their own goals of reincarnation. So they are highly motivated to get him through, especially his bodyguard, Haewonmaek, and peppy psychic sidekick Dukchoon, since they have no memories of their past lives at all. (Again, grist for the sequel.)
That, you think, would be enough movie. But there’s still more wrinkles in this plot. Traveling between the hells, our heroes begin to come under assault by demonic forces. This, we’re told, means that one of Ja-Hong’s relatives has died and become a vengeful spirit. This apparently messes up the familial karma, speeding up time, and will prevent Ja-hong from making it through in the 49 days or perhaps at all. Now you got an action comedy-drama afterlife movie.
This could get out of hand pretty quickly I think. But the thing is the action is just to add a little fun suspense to the dramatic aspects of the film. The way one travels through the hells, by this scheme, is according to severity of the crime, which works in both a philosophical and an aesthetic sense. So, as we go along, we see a great many “sins” that are not really sins at all. For example, the bumbling prosecutors try to get Ja-Hoong on cowardice because he left his colleague behind to die in a burning building.
But of course that wasn’t cowardice at all: His colleague insisted on him saving a civilian and “coming back for him”, even though they both know at that point there’s no coming back. And our hero tries anyway. And when he’s on trial for indolence, the Lord of Indolence Hell wants to put a statue up to him because he was constantly working, helping, sacrificing—until he says he did it all for money. But there’s a twist there, too, of course.
I mean, he’s a paragon, right?
But then when we get to the more serious crimes, betrayal and—apparently the worst possible crime—filial impiety, we see some very dark things indeed. The sins, in the order for this movie, are murder, indolence, deceit, injustice, betrayal, violence and filial impiety. Now, murder can be very indirect, which is how we get the trumped up charge of leaving behind his colleague. But the Lord of Filial Impiety is basically the uber-Lord of all the hells so, yeah, they take it seriously in the East.
Much like the bureaucratic aspect of this film, I cannot express how Korean this aspect of the movie is. Our hero is a bonafide paragon, literally labeled so by the powers of Heaven (or whatever) and he has some dark, dark sins under his belt. But there’s always a way back, and this movie is very much about forgiveness. (And we know what happens when you don’t embrace forgiveness for sins: You get a Korean revenge picture.)
This movie doubles down on the idea by introducing the vengeful spirit, from which state we are told no redemption is possible. But there’s a twist (and in fact the entire sequel) on this topic as well.
It’s not hard to figure out why this movie works, even with its (by Western standards) wonky kinda-sorta-Buddhist/Christian vision of the afterlife: It’s fun. It takes its characters seriously without taking itself seriously. It lets humans be their own messy selves in the way that humans are, but it’s very careful about judgment. In fact, the meta-story going on (which plays out in the sequel) is that of our three defense attorneys, who are wrestling with their own issues—but for a movie about Hell and damnation, there aren’t really any bad guys. There are only people who make mistakes.
Well, okay, the demons—the ones who are invoked by the vengeful spirit and have no purpose but to destroy Jang-ho—are bad guys. But they’re the genre’s requisite cannon fodder.
Tae-Hyun Cha, whom I don’t know, does a good job as Ja-hoon. Dukchoon is played Hyang-gi Kim, whom I only know from these two movies, is ridiculously adorable in this one, and shows a lot of depth in the sequel, where her youth (she was, like, 16-17 when this was being filmed) and innocence is a major factor. Jae-hoon Ju plays Haewonmaek. Here he’s competent but also dumb and fun, in sharp contrast to his roles in Dark Figure of Crime and The Spy Gone North (which we saw last year before the Halloween Haunt). Jung-woo Ha (1987: When The Day Comes, The Handmaiden) is the most inscrutable of the characters: He doesn’t have the emotionalism of his underlings, but there’s a lot going on under the surface.
The stinger features Dong-seok Ma who is, as mentioned, our current favorite and really big in Korea. The Flower and I were looking him up on YouTube. He’s going to be in Marvel’s Eternals but we figure he won’t get enough screen time.
From a technology standpoint, the CGI is fine, not really up to the highest of American standards. But it has held up well over the past two years because it always seemed to be aimed more toward a pleasing aesthetic than “realism”. Like we always point out: An effect just has to be pleasing to work. If it’s trying to fool us, it probably has a very limited shelf life.
The Boy and I liked it. The Flower was also quite taken with it. I think I liked it even more this time. I was a little overwhelmed the first time. It’s very epic, very “cinematic universe”—in fact, I’m sort of surprised there isn’t a (Korean) TV series or another film in the works. (There might be, I can’t really tell.) There’s a lot of heart-string-tugging here, I won’t lie. Ja-Hoon’s mother is a mute, for example, and the message he’s so desperate to get back to her is that he got her a rice-cooker for Christmas—one that makes burnt rice, which is something she’s been struggling with as she gets older.
I mean, come on. Rip my heart out. Go ahead.
The story of the vengeful spirit, too, is a tragic one. And the colleague left in the burning building, who leaves a family behind. Japanese stuff often does a remarkable job of tone switching, from super light to super serious (Your Name, e.g.), but the swings are often just amazingly wide. Here, it seems a little more natural: We go about our day to day lives as the goofballs we are, but those lives are obstacle courses of tragedy. I mean, Die Hard is a great action flick, but it’s the (admittedly ham-handed) moments of drama between Willis and Vel Johnson that gives it its heart and makes it a great movie.
What it might boil down to is, here in America we’re in “save the cat” mode: We have our stories hitting precise beats with the requisite number of humanizing moments that have been proven to yield box office results. Here, you feel like the filmmaker had a story to tell (and apparently these movies are based off a web comic!) and sometimes the beats come where you don’t expect them. It keeps things fresh and lively. The content of the beats may be heavy handed, but the beats themselves are not.
Maybe this is only the sort of observation you can make when seeing 120-150 movies a year, I don’t know. But it feels right, and I could watch both movies again, back-to-back.