Miracle in Cell No.7 (7beonbangui Seonmul)

Korea (2013) Dir. Lee Hwan-Kyung

In 1997, Choi Ji-Young, the daughter of a Police Commissioner Choi (Jo Deok-Hyeon) dies in a freak accident, a mentally handicapped father Yong-Goo (Ryoo Seung-Ryong), who was with the girl, is arrested sentenced on a trumped up charge of alleged murder and rape. Yong-Goo has a six-year old daughter of his own, Ye-Seung (Kal So-Won), an intelligent girl who dotes on her father as he does her. In prison Yong-Goo saves his cell mate and ex-gangster So Yang-Ho (Oh Dal-Su) from an attack by a rival gang boss. As a reward Yang-Ho offers Yong-Goo anything he wants to be smuggled into the prison. Naturally, he chooses Ye-Seung.

It’s hard to imagine that such a serious subject could yield a heart warming comedy drama but Lee Hwan-Kyung has achieved just that with what is currently South Korea’s third highest grossing film of all time – and it’s barely six months old! But don’t be disarmed by the light hearted promotional materials or cutesy comic set up – this is an emotionally hard hitting and often damning film about the corruption of high ranking officials who can not only abuse their position in the name of revenge, but also exploit a disability for their own means. Whether Lee intended to impugn the police with his story, there is certainly plenty of material here that will raise the ire of the viewer.

The film actually starts in the modern day where we meet the adult Ye-Seung (Park Shin-Hye), now a graduate lawyer who has called for the case against her father to be re-opened. Going back to 1997, we learn that the whole cause of this miscarriage of justice was a Sailor Moon backpack. Young Ye-Seung desperately wants one but has to wait for Yong-Goo’s meagre salary from his car park attendant job before he can buy it for her. Whilst admiring it through a shop window, the last one is sold to Choi Ji-Young and in his childlike state Yong-Goo tries to plead his case for “Ye-Seung’s” bag, but gets hit by Choi for his actions. A few days later, on pay day, during a sudden icy spell Ji Young sees Yong-Goo and offers to take him to a shop that sells the backpack. It is on the way that Ji-Young slips and cracks her head on the pavement, but all an elderly shopper sees Yong-Goo apparently kissing the corpse (he’s administering CPR obviously). This is enough for the police to arrest Yong-Goo and by manipulating his love for Ye-Seung have him sign a false confession and lock him up pending a trial for which the sentence is death.

Not many laughs to be found here admittedly but that all changes once Yong-Goo is inside. Put in a cell with group of fairly comedic criminals, Yong-Goo seems to be in good company, which defrosts after Yong-Goo saves So Yang-Ho. Since being a criminal requires some kind of guile and creativity, a rather ingenious plan involving a church choir is concocted to smuggle Ye-Seung into prison and they pull it off – until the bus leaves early and Cell 7 gets a new inmate for the next two nights. The humour comes from the interactions between the cell mates and Ye-Seung, whose infectious bubbly presence and devastating cuteness reveals a number of personal issues for the criminals that humanises them somewhat considering their comic foibles. While this should clash with the melodramatic centre of the plot, it actually works very well as light relief and doesn’t feel incongruous due to the foreboding tearful outcome is a constant presence.

What might seem like the elephant in the room for many viewers is how Yong-Goo’s handicap isn’t immediately recognised or used in his defence even from the get go. Surely one look at him would be enough to question his part in the accident and rule out any deliberate foul play. Even with a vengeful Choi heading the lynch mob surely someone would stand up for Yong-Goo? The lengths they go to in order to get a confession from him are disgusting and underhanded, manipulative and unconscionable, and while they are clearly designed to rile the audience and engender further sympathy for our maligned antagonist one doesn’t feel guilty for succumbing to Lee’s trap, such is the quality and power of these scenes. This also gives way to another emotional tact revolving around Prison Chief Jang (Jung Jin-Young), a man with a chip on his shoulder towards prisoners following the death of his own son at the hands of an inmate, who eventually begins to wonder how legit the confession is.

To make any great story work on screen one needs a strong cast and Lee has found just that. Young Kal So-Won is an absolute joy and a real find. She is not just adorable but can handle the darker, emotional scenes with utter conviction and her chemistry with veteran Ryoo Seung-Ryong feels totally genuine. Speaking of Ryoo, his performance here is a revelation, a complete contrast to his usually hard man/bad guy role. Last seen as a lead villain in Masquerade, it is hard to believe that this is the same actor, such is the playfulness, heart and humanity in his well observed role as the mentally slow Yong-Goo. A final nod goes to Park Shin-Hye who plays the adult Ye-Seung and is tasked with being the emotional centrepiece of the final act, which she carries off with a tearful yet haunting turn.

There is a lot more to Miracle in Cell No.7 to ensure that even the most cynical film buff will be hard pressed to dismiss this is as sentimental fluff. As glossy as the presentation is, the handling of the central conceit of the abuse of Yong-Goo is handled with the same intelligence and clout of any straight up drama. A very worthwhile and enjoyable film indeed.