Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds
Director: Yong-hwa Kim.
This has been one of the hardest reviews I've had the pleasure to write, purely because there’s so much to take in; making it difficult to know where to start. I could simply start with what the film is about, the plot; but there’s an absolute mountain of backstory, even though the key source material is a simply written web comic; and to make sense of it all would require some explaining.
I’m going to start with the source material, which is the titular Korean Manhwa webtoon created by Ho-min Joo that spanned three volumes from 2010 to 2012. A satirical drama set in present day about people travelling to the underworld, or, the otherworld here; going through Hell and face a number of trials. Someone dies and is escorted to Hell to face judgement, but depending on their past deeds and sins, they are accompanied by certain levels of help. I’ll go into more detail later because the film differs slightly from the comic and I don’t want to digress. Well, I say slightly... see where I’m struggling with this?
It might sound like it, and it does have great similarities to Dante’s Divine Comedy; facing the seven realms of Hell. But this version of the underworld is deeply rooted in traditional Asian folklore and mythology, and not in the way you might expect. This film personifies death and the afterlife to a whole new level, sometimes with comical effect; don’t forget the original material is quite farcical with the subject.
A firefighter dies an untimely death and is greeted by three guardians; personifications of death, or Grim Reapers if you like, though they’re smartly dressed and not frightful to look at, at all; each having their own duties in defending the honour of their Paragon, a highly regarded soul, the firefighter who, if is granted reincarnation counts towards the guardian's allotted quota. A task they have been working on for a thousand years. Still with me?
As guardians, they serve to protect, guide and defend their paragon through the required trails of hell, seven to be precise, over 49 days (you do the math) and during this journey they prepare their defence, and I’m not just talking about battle stances or formations, though there is plenty of action fighting ghouls and other unsavoury creatures. I’m talking about defence in a court of law. Yes, believe it or not but this film switches, almost effortlessly between action and court room drama with some cunning scriptwriting that keeps you wanting more. You have to appreciate that this balance must have been difficult to achieve, but not only are viewers entertained by the fight scenes, but they’re intrigued by the unfolding trial of the firefighter, which I must add, is very sentimental. But there’s an additional mystery!
Our attentions are divided yet again when a vengeful spirit is wrecking havoc in the Land of the Living and brings dangerous consequences to the current trial, so the guardians have to take responsibility to track and stop this rogue ghost before things get really out of hand. As if it hasn't already. There’s so much going on, and it’s all squeezed into a 139 minutes of screen time. The introduction of characters, Gods and guardians with a wealth of history and regulation that hold binding rule even in the afterlife is immense. These two stories run parallel to each throughout, a murder mystery of the living world with court room policies and procedures of the afterlife.
Gang-lim (Jung-woo) is the steadfast leader of the trio, an astute, fearless guardian whose name refers to the heroic death god in Korean mythology, the Chasa Bonpuri. Sounds oxymoronic right? Haewonmak (Ji-hoon) is the mischievous rebel of the trio but is undoubtedly the coolest and the most skilled fighter with Lee Deok-choon (Hyang-gi) the cute, dutiful, caring and apparently youngest guardian who acts much like a keeper of records, dare I say, secretary. Each of these character are equally likeable in their own special way and I find it impossible to pick a favourite, in fact, I can't envision the film without either one of them, or envision anyone else playing their parts for that matter. Some of us might be familiar with Jung-woo and now I’m totally on the look out for both Ji-hoon and the adorable Hyang-gi.
All the performances are good, being able to manage a whole range of emotion, without becoming a mess, which could be seen as typical of Korean cinema; the emotional value, not the mess. But all the key characters and even the supporting characters are developed and portrayed so well; though, with the number of characters involved, there is a danger of some confusion happening. The only great difference with the webtoon is the absence of one character, but the film seems to merge him into a tweaked Gang-lim so no great loss there as it doesn't diminish the film's story at all.
The comical element I mentioned earlier comes mostly from the failings of the prosecution and the almost, disrespectful attitude and banter between the guardians; especially the relationship between Gang-lim and Haewonmak. Also, the let’s not forget the reactions of our firefighter as he attempts to face his deepest fears in a totally, unfamiliar world.
What this epic story gives rise to, is to some great creativity and production design which could not have been an easy task. How does one create the various hells of the Otherworld whilst keeping a lot of the story in the Land of the Living. The VFX are astonishing and the design and sets are incredibly impressive. The costumes are brilliant as they manage to cross the worlds perfectly without looking unfitting. Try imagining The Matrix's Neo kicking butt in John Woo’s Red Cliff. The action pieces are swift and well choreographed, even if a little silly in places, but they convey our heroes powers perfectly.
It’s like A Few Good Men fused with Labyrinth with influences from The Matix and the Final Fantasy games. But it's also very touching, funny whilst being challenging and thought-provoking, making me wonder how my own trials would go. I would like to think that if I would be afraid, I would be greeted by a guardian, quoting Joe Black “Not a man like you.”
An absolute must see, a total feast equally for both the eyes and soul that’s strangely inspiring and makes me so intrigued to see the second part.
Running Time: 9
The Cast: 9
Job Description: 10
The Extra Bonus Point: 10 for an incredible epic. Kudos to Ho-min Joo