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Last year’s ALONG WITH THE GODS: THE TWO WORLDS was a fluffy spin on Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy; the story of an ordinary fireman poised for post-mortal greatness, after he is killed on the job.  In order to prove his worth and succeed to reincarnation, the regular Joe must travel through the various hells of the underworld and pass the trials of each god in residence. 

It was packed with some of South Korea’s biggest stars and full of CGI special effects, and was as weightless and mindless as similar fare seen in Hong Kong and China around Lunar New Year.  It went on to become South Korea’s second-highest grossing film of all time.  Clearly, there would be a sequel, and so comes ALONG WITH THE GODS: THE LAST 49 DAYS.

Picking up where the previous chapter left off, the trio of Grim Reapers are now escorting Su-hong, the brother of the fireman from the first film.  Su-hong was unjustly murdered by his army buddies.  He is apparently made of the same afterworld-favoured stuff as his brother, and so, if the guides can bring him through his series of trials and into reincarnation, their own long-awaited transition to a new life is assured.  Problem is, Su-hong is a bit of a pill, and bitterly rejects the notion that his friends have killed him, fighting against Gang-rim, Haewonmak, and Deok-choon at every step.  Besides getting this unruly client in line, the three are also consigned to deal with a rogue deity, who is affecting death tallies in the living world.

I didn’t care much for the first chapter, THE TWO WORLDS: It was pure claptrap, which is no disqualifier, but its brainlessness, laughably substandard special effects and visuals (Except for the fabulous duster coats worn by the two handsome male reapers.), were cheap and obvious.  The mawkish and schmaltzy tale of the perplexed dead fireman was manipulative and cloying.  The most interesting thing about the film was its trio of guides to the afterlife.  

Wisely, THE LAST 49 DAYS focuses more on the far more enticing guardians, than the irritating human they must assist (Though the film replaced one annoying schmuck for another, and gave this one irritation steroids.).  It feels far more lucid and entertaining, if more soap opera-ish.  The subtext of the reapers splitting up to accost Seongju, the household god who has become a little too attached to his human charges, sets us up for an unspooling of the trio’s backstory, which feels like an entirely different – and better – film than that of the ungrateful and obnoxious soldier, who spends the entire movie spitting in the eye of celestial help.

We learn our guardians have been entwined by fate for a millennium, in a historical tale of tragedy, betrayal, and the ruins of war.  The discovery of their identities had loomed since the first movie, when we learn the reapers don’t know who they were before they became Underworld tour guides.  Seongju, the house god is older than any of them, and knows them all.  He leverages his information against Haewonmak, and Deok-choon’s order to stop Seongju and proceed to bring the elderly, poor grandfather he’s assumed protection of, to the Other Side (Why exactly he’s chosen this particular old man, with all the stories of tragedy in the world, we never know, but hey.).  

Day after day (Per the title, they only have 49 to bring Seongju in, or they lose all their work toward reincarnation.), the house god tells them a bit about their pasts, which creates new feelings and dynamics amongst the trio, which could wreak a lot more havoc than a recalcitrant house god, or stubborn dead soldier, and might sever their bond for eternity.

As said, it was much smarter of the filmmakers to focus on the charismatic strength of the three guardians, than the hashed-over story of guiding another irksome mortal through the afterlife.  Superstar Ha Jung-woo cannot lose lately, appearing in more hits than he’s got fancy coats in this film.  On his own, he is a screen powerhouse (Even if he seems a bit sleepy, here.), so it’s just dandy that his underlings, played by Ju Ji-hoon, and young Kim Hyang-gi get their own time to shine.  

Fans of the first film are already familiar with the rash, fabulously-coiffed, firebrand Haewonmak’s tendency to make a dumb move first and ask no questions later, and Deok-choon’s sweet, open-hearted kindness and innocence.  Both actors are excellent in the flashback scenes, and almost undo the relative shallowness of their afterlife selves, who are imminently more boring than when they were alive. 

Given more screen time in this chapter, Ju Ji-hoon is clearly meant for the A List, if he’s not there already. (Ju also appears in this month's THE SPY GONE NORTH)  He has star quality and presence, and this year’s version of his Haewonmak is more finely and fully written, and much less shrill.  Balancing his impulsive guardian with his heroic, melancholy self from the past, is a great counterpoint to show what actor Ju is capable of.

The film also adds a very important co-star to the action.  Ma Dong Seok – or Don Lee, as he’s called in these ostensible international forays, is a huge plus to the proceedings.  Charismatic as the day is long, Ma Dong-seok, elevates the film (Mostly by simply being Ma Dong-seok); giving heart to his role as the sympathetic house god, who loves humanity, even if he doesn’t understand it one bit.  The brawny actor’s hangdog glare, wry humour, and willingness to give his all to slapstick is an asset to every film he appears in.  He makes a better foil to Ju Ji-hoon’s brash, impulsive Haewonmak, than Ha Jung-woo, if only that he is allowed to be unselfconsciously silly.

For all these improvements that make this film more palatable than its sire, there’s still a lot lacking:  The CGI that was distinctly unimpressive in the first film, has, unbelievably, gotten worse.  After the box office bonanza of the first movie, I would have thought the CGI team would be rolling in ₩on.  If they were, I’m guessing there were a lot of full-course dinners and overstuffed mattresses in the VFX department, because there wasn’t onscreen evidence of improvement to a single special effect.  

If nothing else, the scenic locations used in the flashback sequences were far more notable than watching thick black outlines around the character’s forms as they were badly matted into green screens.  Even the zippy, supernatural fighting motion looked like something a 7th grader could achieve with Microsoft Paint, or a bad rehash of silly, flipping Yoda from ATTACK OF THE CLONES.

Annoying dead person substitute this time is Kim Dong-wook, an odd-looking actor, who doesn’t seem to know what to do with his expressions, other than to look smug most of the time, especially when others are fighting for his immortal soul.  Had I been subject to his unrelenting snarkiness, I would have thrown him into the lava pits of hell, and let him have his wish of not reincarnating.  

Having to endure Su-hong’s character is not helped by really stale retreading of many of the scenes from THE TWO WORLDS.  This time, whilst wandering in the underworld wastelands, the filmmakers inexplicably decide to throw several scenes featuring poor, but unmistakable rip-offs of various Jurassic Park dinos.  I wonder if Universal Studios can sue for that pointless, bald-faced plagiarism?  The scene was a complete head-scratcher, as it made no sense, and went on forever in complete unfunniness.  Still, if the Mosasaurus out of the desert had actually eaten Su-hong, it would have all been worth it.

What’s worse is this movie goes on so long that it feels like they’ll have another one lined up before this current one is over.  There is no reason for this movie to be 2 hours and 20 minutes long, especially as we tread over so many of the original film’s grounds. 

However, if the forecast is accurate, while it seems we may be stuck with the itchy, uncharismatic Kim/Su-hong, it looks like we’ll be getting a newer, much more charming human to play with in the inevitable third installment.  If so, I kinda hope it’ll be a musical.

Side note: The long duster coats on both Ha and Ju remain fabulous (If somewhat ill-fitting on Ha).  Hopefully, in chapter three, they’ll float some fly threads to young Kim Hyang-gi, as well? 

Amateurish, even after a first blockbuster, and terribly uneven.  I’m curious how long ALONG WITH THE GODS spell is going to work on the Korean public?  Even as pure popcorn claptrap, these movies aren’t that great.  While the performances by some of the cast became better, and the guardians’ origin story was interesting enough (For the first two hours), I’m aghast at the continued incompetence of the special effects, the laziness of treading over the original film’s plot points, and the complete lack of magic or spark.

ALONG WITH THE GODS: THE LAST 49 DAYS, has much to thank Ma Dong-seok, Ju Ji-hoon and Kim Hyang-gi for.  Whoever had the wisdom to throw the movie over to their wonderful performances, saved the film from being completely irredeemable, and improved it over the original.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Aug 4th, 2018

 

 

 

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