South Korean cinema is known for its wealth of excellent thrillers, horror films, historical dramas and melodramas, but its fantasy genre has been known more for the misses than the hits; it always seemed that the industry found itself slightly out of its depth when it took on the more massive, epic-level projects – or at least, that used to be the case. A major shift in the right direction happened in 2017, when director/screenwriter Kim Yong-hwa (Mr. Go, Take Off, 200 Pounds Beauty) decided to draw from the wealth of popular Korean fantasy webtoons (web comics) and adapt Joo Ho-min’s manhwa series Along with the Gods (created in 2010 and ongoing) for the big screen.
The series was popular even before Kim eyed the series as movie material – it got adapted into a game and a musical, which ensured that Kim could put together a high-profile, high-cost production, both in technical terms and in terms of the cast. The end result were two simultaneously shot films, Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds (released in 2017) and Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days (released two weeks ago); interestingly enough, the first turned out to be both a disappointment for the fans of the webtoon and an extreme success, since it currently still reigns second on the list of the highest-grossing films of all time in South Korea.
What angered the fans of the webtoon was that the films turned out to be a very loose adaptation, eliminating the beloved character Jin Gi-han and changing the relationships of the characters and their backgrounds enough to add an extra layer of melodrama. Now, this is Korean cinema we’re talking about, and that layer is something that appears to be the silent rule of any film that reaches for the epic dimension – which obviously does not make it right, but at the same time, should not come as a surprise. And as the rule of adaptations goes (as we have learned, with a lot of pain, from Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The-H-movies-that-must-not-be-named), for the sake of our own sanity, we should always look at the films as separate entities – so let’s do just that.
Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds opens with loads of smoke and a bang, foreshadowing the hell that is yet to come. In the midst of the fiery action, a firefighter, Kim Ja-hong (Cha Tae-hyun), heroically dies while saving a civilian. Immediately after his death, he is met by the grim reapers, who inform him that he is the rare paragon, a human who died virtuously, which makes him a candidate for reincarnation in 49 days. The process draws on Korean folklore – he must face the 7 judges of hell and pass their seven trials (Murder, Indolence, Deceit, Injustice, Betrayal, Violence and Filial Impiety) to earn the right to a new life. That is not all – his three guardians can earn their own reincarnation if they are successful as his defenders – and they really want to achieve just that; out of the 49 souls that they need to save, Ja-hong has the potential to be the 48th.
Naturally, the trials turn out to be harder than expected, especially when the guardians discover that they are being trailed by a vengeful spirit that is somehow connected to Ja-hong. The leader of the guardians, Gang-rim (Ha Jung-woo), leaves the group to investigate what is going on in the world of the living (something that he is technically not allowed to do) and the comedic, melodramatic and action antes get upped, swirling all the way to the emotional finale as he uncovers the hard reality of Ja-hong’ and his family’s lives.
In terms of the casting, all the stops got pulled – Cha Tae-hyun is known to be an audience favourite, even if he reaps more fame for variety TV shows than movies nowadays, and Ha Jung-woo is a proper heavyweight – he is one of the highest grossing South Korean actors, known for his roles in The Berlin File, Take Off and The Handmaiden, among others. If we scroll down the list of the cast and cameos, all we can see is big, and then bigger names. The exceptions are few and far between, and all performances turned out to be great, even if the focus is less on the depth of the characters than it should be – they got overshadowed by two things: excessive melodrama, and loud CGI.
The melodrama is what ultimately pulls this production overboard – if the focus was just a bit switched off the intentional tear-jerking, the story would have lived up to its source material potential. And as much as the CGI moments excel, it feels like they were given too much emphasis – instead of supporting, they carry the bulk of the story. It’s a pity, since the entire production could have turned out to be the very first South Korean fantasy epic that ticked all the right boxes. Still, it did generate enough interest to sell oodles of tickets, and with all of its ups and downs, the first Along with the Gods film has to be given credit for a very important thing: it shows that Korean film industry has reached the point where it is ready (at least on a technical level) to take on projects that used to be manageable solely by Hollywood big-shot companies. Also, ultimately, Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds is based on a story that is original enough to spark and maintain interest, and it does offer a spectacle that, with all of its shortcomings, still makes this movie worth a watch.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © Lotte Entertainment
UK readers should note that both Along with the Gods films are being screened tonight as the preview screenings for London East Asia Film Festival, at Soho Hotel Cinema, starting at 7 PM.