Director: Kim Yong-hwa
Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Ju Ji-hun, Kim Hyang-gi, Ma Dong-seok, Kim Dong-wook, Do Kyung-soo, Lee Jung-jae, Nam Il-woo, Jung Ji-Hoon, Lee Joon-hyuk
When your average Western movie-goer hears about Korean cinema, it’s probably fair to say one of three things probably comes to their mind: horror, drama or absolutely nothing. Maybe they know the odd film title, and it’s also probably a Park Chan-wook film, one of South Korea’s most popular and successful directors. But there is so much more to Korean cinema, and it’s just begging to be found by the aforementioned average Western movie-goers. Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days is an epic action-fantasy that should, in theory, easily slot into the mainstream of Western cinema. That’s probably a whole other subject to get into, so for now, let’s stick to the film itself. Part of a growing franchise, has it earnt its title as one of the best movies to come out of South Korea, or is it something we’ve seen before, just in another language?
49 Days begins exactly where its prequel, Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds, ended. Three Guardians (a type of arch-angel, or ‘grim reaper’) are charged with guiding their 49th soul (to reveal his name might provide spoilers for the first film) through his seven trials in the afterlife. Once they’ve managed to clear him through all his trials, he will be reincarnated, and once he is, the three Guardians, who have spent a millennium attempting to reincarnate the 49 souls, each get another chance at life with their own reincarnations. Whilst lead Guardian Gang-lim (Ha Jung-woo) takes the soul through his trials and the different Hells they represent, the other two Assistant Guardians, Haewonmak (Ju Ji-hun) and Lee Deok-choon (Kim Hyang-gi), are sent by Yeomra (Lee Jung-jae), King of the afterlife, to ascend (reap the soul of someone due to die) an old man, Heo Chun-sam (Nam Il-woo). Heo, however, has invoked the power of a God of House, Sung-ju (Ma Dong-seok), to protect him and his grandson, Hyeon-dong (Jung Ji-hoon), and so many previous Guardians have failed to ascend him. Sung-ju has made himself visible to his protectees, against the rules, after feeling sorry for them and wishing to help them out. Haewonmak and Deok-choon make deals with Sung-ju so that they can ascend Heo Chun-sam, along the way finding out about their previous lives, the memories of which are lost to them.
The series is based on a Korean comic/webtoon (manhwa), also named Along with the Gods, and it shows. The fantasy aspects, both the visuals and story (though the CGI isn’t amazing – more on that in a bit), are utterly immersive and are actually quite a treat for Westerners. It gives an interesting yet entertaining insight into Eastern beliefs and legends. The setup is reminiscent of Inferno, the first part of Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s famous Divine Comedy, where Dante is guided through Hell by the Roman poet Virgil. Inferno suggests there are nine levels of Hell, whereas Along with the Gods has seven, but the premise is very similar, so it shouldn’t be an entirely unfamiliar story to Westerners. The story itself is rooted in ancient Korean culture but blends wonderfully with the use of modern language (at least in the English subtitles).
49 Days doesn’t utilise CGI quite as much as Two Worlds, and that works in its favour. There are a lot of effects and graphics in the first movie and they’re not quite up to scratch, at least not if you’re used to another level of effects from other action-fantasy epics, such as The Lord of the Rings or anything from the MCU. It does deter a little from the enjoyment of the film overall. 49 Days still retains a few exciting action sequences that are quite reminiscent of The Matrix series (itself influenced by many aspects of Eastern culture, and so the cycle continues), but it puts a lot more emphasis on plot and character, each more dense in exposition and story than the previous instalment. Unlike a lot of movie sequels, which often depend on creating more of the same, 49 Days expands its universe and characters in a way that makes sense and drives the action and plot. It makes it, overall, a very worthwhile sequel that retains the aspects that made the first movie popular whilst standing on its own two feet.
What really shows in this film is its turn towards deeper exploration of certain themes, namely nature versus nurture, ethics, morality and commenting on economics and the “plight” of the rich and powerful. It could be seen as overkill and a bit heavy-handed, with too much to think about in what could really be just a straight-forward adventure film. But this is Korean filmmaking, and more often than not Korean filmmakers put more thought into what their film is trying to convey thematically than being aesthetically or superficially pleasing in comparison to many Western filmmakers. There is a good balance of commentary and pure entertainment that explains why 49 Days is absolutely smashing South Korean box office records. Two Worlds remains the second highest-grossing film of all time in the country, while 49 Days currently sits at number 16 and will likely climb higher and higher. It has proven more popular than Mission: Impossible – Fallout, taking about $5 million more in its first week. It just goes to show the popularity of this franchise in South Korea, and it’s a shame its success can’t be repeated across the world.
If you’re aware of Korean cinema, you may recognise the likes of Ha Jung-woo and Ma Dong-seok: Ha having appeared as Count Fujiwara in Park Chan-wook’s highly successful 2016 drama, The Handmaiden, and Ma in Yeon Sang-ho’s 2016 Train to Busan, perhaps two of South Korea’s most successful recent films, internationally. As Gang-lim and Sung-ju, respectively, both actors put in very fine performances, their characters fraught with heavy, emotional burdens and difficult decisions to make. They give the story a lot of its depth and meaning. Ju Ji-hun as Haewonmak provides a lot of the more comedic aspects, which is great for relieving tension, though he also gets a turn at a more serious and dramatic performance as his character’s history is revealed. Kim Hyang-gi is enticing as the young Deok-chun, giving a lot of heart to her character and giving the film a softer edge. It may seem stereotypical, the lead female counterbalancing the tougher, often more headstrong males, but she plays it to great effect and again, through her character’s history, is able to explore more of what Deok-chun is (or was) actually capable of.
As mentioned, it is a shame that foreign films such as this don’t get more recognition in the West. 49 Days is definitely one of the better films to come from South Korea, though maybe not quite on the level as movies from the likes of Park Chan-wook. It may not be quite up to Western standards visually, but what it lacks in effects it more than makes up for in story and character. That, and it does provide something different. We may be far from strangers to the action/adventure/fantasy genres, but the Along with the Gods series allows us to view a different set of characters in a different setting and a different history of cultural beliefs and rituals in a very entertaining way. Yes, its themes could seem overbearing, but as long as you don’t let your head get too wrapped up in them, there is so much enjoyment to be had. Leave the thinking to when you’re lying in bed at 3am contemplating life and death and the universe. And then look forward to the confirmed third and fourth instalments.