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“When a person reaches the afterlife, he is tried 7 times in 49 days.  Tried by deceit, indolence, injustice, betrayal, violence, murder, filial impiety.  Only souls who pass all trials are reincarnated” So goes a Buddhist scripture, and fortuitously enough, the opening credits and plot of ALONG WITH THE GODS: THE TWO WORLDS.

Ja-hong could never have expected to die so young.  Nor could he have expected the first people he would meet after his untimely demise would be a trio of helpful Grim Reapers (or jeoseung saja), aiding his passage into the afterlife.  On this day of many shocks, another big one is the fact that after a life lived as a courageous firefighter - indeed having died while saving a child from a high-rise inferno – that Ja-hong is not just another soul departing this mortal coil, he is a Paragon; the rarest and highest of spirits, who lived an especially noble life.  

Being a Paragon comes with all sorts of perks, including a far more rapid ascension into reincarnation, so they can jump right into a new life.  However, as with any other soul, a paragon still has to endure a long series of trials, wherein his moral fibre during the life he just departed is dissected, displayed, and judged by the gods of Hell. 

Ja-hong must face inquiries about whether he lived a life of deceit, wasted his precious earthly time in idleness, and other standards of goodness; including and most importantly in this Underworld, his devotion as a son to his disabled mother.  Ja-hong’s status as a Paragon would seem to make passing these tests a breeze; a big part of the three death gods’ helpfulness comes from their stake in Ja-hong’s fortunes, as his passage would help them to finally leave the Afterlife and reincarnate back to the world of the living.  Unfortunately, upon deeper inspection – and with some unhelpful honesty from the subject himself – getting Ja-hong to pass through to his next life isn’t going to be as easy as the Grim Reapers thought.

My first thought upon seeing ALONG WITH THE GODS, was how much it reminded me of recent Chinese New Year action movies, which are famously packed with the country’s top stars, and overloaded with computer-generated visual effects.  Those films are also infamously unchallenging; they are purely constructed for viewers to turn off their brains and be entertained.  So we have ALONG WITH THE GODS; which brought to mind the visual sense of a Huayi Brothers production, with loads of combat, explosions, and fantastic, otherworldly action.  Sadly for the Korean film, it has neither the SFX proficiency, nor the narrative competence to make ALONG WITH THE GODS a success.

The initial setup of the film is not exactly a cinematic innovation; a guy dies and resurrects in the underworld.  The premise of the different worlds and trials after death is carved straight from Dante (as inspired by Greek Mythology), but still has plenty of room to be clever and amusing.  To that end, the movie does well in relying on the appeal of its many stars and familiar faces from the Korean film industry, because that’s really the movie’s only charm:

As the adorable child Grim Reaper, Kim Hyang-gi’s brightness and spark are a breath of fresh air in every scene.  K-Pop idol, EXO’s Do Kyung-soo is sad and effective as an earthbound soldier hiding a terrible secret, with a compelling Lee Joon-hyuk as his increasingly unhinged superior.  On the flip side of the stellar casting, there’s a sense that veterans like Oh Dal-su, Kim Hae-sook, and Kim Ha-neul playing judgy deities are slumming it.  (An exception would be heartthrob Lee Jung-jae as the main god of Hell having a ball chewing the scenery, growling and almost unrecognisable under a big ol’ weave.)  Like the movie itself, star and ubiquitous presence on Korean screens, Ha Jung-woo seems to run out of steam as our main jeoseung saja and the lead defender in Ja-hong’s trial defense.  His fellow death angel, the dashing, immaculately-coiffed Ju Ji-hoon is a lot of fun at first, but his dubious, hot-tempered clod routine gets tiresome, as the movie -- at two hours and nineteen minutes -- drones on about a half hour longer than necessary.

The film seems to consist not so much of the two worlds of its title, but two different movies clumsily jammed together, as Ja-hong’s story weirdly expands to include several murder plots.  It would have been far better to concentrate of one realm and stick to it.  The decision to cross back and forth between life and death results in a leaden, half-baked, amazingly convoluted mystery that stems from an oppressively mawkish sentimentality.  The whole second half of the film becomes a sugar-coated sob story.  Midway through the film, one of the beleaguered Reapers derisively calls Ja-hong a “mommy’s boy,” which doesn’t even begin to describe the character, who appears to be in his early 40s, yet can only pine for his mother throughout his trials in Hell.  When it turns out that Ja-hong was kind of the worst child any parent could have, it all seems like a lot of sloppy crocodile tears all around.  The audience is asked to forgive the unforgivable, and it makes for a jarring, uncomfortable resolution all in the name of selling the movie’s saccharine schmaltz.  Instead of being a fun and exciting romp through the Afterlife, writer/director Kim Yong-hwa uses a winch to shamelessly yank on every heartstring he can find.

Another reason they should’ve abandoned the sentimental earthbound story was because then Director Kim might’ve been able to concentrate a bit better on the lacking quality of the film’s incessant, noisy visual effects.  They are muddy, indistinct, and utterly without a single “wow” moment.  For a film that is supposed to take place in different dimensions of Hell, the backgrounds aren’t at all transporting, majestic, or immersive; they look like cheap, minimal sets on a soundstage, ready for a matte.  All too often, the special effects look like the green screen and computer graphics they are.  The breakneck and choppy camerawork cannot improve the unimpressive visuals and actually diminish scenes that should’ve been great, like our two handsome Grim Reapers’ battles against various underworld demons: Dressed in fetching, flowing, flared black and gray dusters (One of several similarities to the hit supernatural drama about the afterlife, Goblin {Dokkaebi), the two jeoseung saja wield flaming swords and double-bladed staffs to meet their foes, but the jerky, rushing camera squelches the excitement. 

It’s obvious a lot of money has been spent on this film (The coats! The hair gel!), but between the terrible script, awful pacing, and lacklustre visual effects, it’s as if that money was thrown into the wind.  Despite its many advantages, including an all-star cast and should-have-been-fun fantasy setup, ALONG WITH THE GODS: THE TWO WORLDS is a joyless, dreary slog.

Maybe in its next life, ALONG WITH THE GODS will be a better film.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Jan 9th, 2018

 

 

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