Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds (Sin-gwa ham-kke: Jwi-wa beol)

Korea (2017) Dir. Kim Yong-Hwa

We all have ideas about what happens after we die, with the most prominent theories driven by religious concepts of the afterlife. For many, the simple idea of heaven and hell is a popular one but there are even variations on that, take Buddhism for example and their belief in reincarnation for the virtuous…

Fireman Kim Ja-Hong (Cha Tae-Hyun) dies after leaping from a burning building whilst protecting a young child, yet awakens almost instantly like nothing had happened – except that was his dead self waking up. Watching nearby are two guardians Lee Deok-Choon (Kim Hyang-Gi) and Haewonmak (Ju Ji-Hoon) waiting to escort Ja-Hong to the afterlife to meet with their leader Gang-Rim (Ha Jung-Woo).

Having been declared a Paragon due to his selfless and heroic acts in life, Ja-Hong is a dead cert for reincarnation, but only if he can pass the seven trials of Hell over the next 49 days. The guardians are there to act as Ja-Hong’s defence counsel and if he passes, they will also be reincarnated, but the presence of a vengeful spirit of somebody from Ja-Hong’s life threatens to ruin his chances of passing all seven trials.

I don’t know if Korea is an especially Buddhist country but the idea of reincarnation after death was enough to make the first in a series of Along With the Gods films the highest grossing movies in 2017, and currently the third most viewed film in Korean history. A sequel filmed at the same time was released in 2018 with two more announced.

Starting life as a web comic by Joo Ho-min, The Two Worlds wastes little time in getting into the action, implying there is a lot to cover as the 140-minute run time also asserts. Director Kim Yong-Hwa opens the film with a quick explanation of the Buddhist concept of reincarnation and the seven trials, with the charges being Murder, Indolence, Deceit, Injustice, Betrayal, Violence, and Filial Impiety.

Each Hell is presided over by a God (slight paradox there) who decides if Ja-Hong is guilty or not based on the evidence, and as a Paragon he passes the first two trials with relative ease, thanks also in part to the guardians vexing the inept defence counsels (Oh Dal-Su and Lim Won-Hee).

Barely 20 minutes have passed at this point, and we wonder how this can keep going for another two hours, so an almighty spanner is thrown into the works when a journey to one of the hells is interrupted by an evil presence. Gang-Rim takes off to find out whom or what is causing this, leaving Deok-Choon and Haewonmak to handle the defence.

Gang-Rim locates the destructive spirit, unmasking it as Ja-Hong’s younger brother Soo-Hong (Kim Dong-Wook), who died whilst serving compulsory national service. The initial suspicion is Soo-Hong is angry with Ja-Hong hence the disruption to his journey, but Gang-Rim is compelled to dig deeper and discovers the real, unsettling reason for his wrath.

Now the long runtime makes sense with two concurrently running stories of emotional regret to explore, making for a very busy film indeed. The benefit is if one story doesn’t suit the frequent shifts between them means the other is not far away from continuing; if however, you feel Ja-Hong should be the main focus, his arc tends to be overshadowed by Soo-Hong’s on occasion as the more tragic of the two.

In the role of the fulcrum for the brothers’ stories is their mute mother (Ye Soo-Jung). With no sign of a father, she is left to raise her sons alone and typically it was a struggle, playing a big part in Ja-Hong’s altruistic approach to life in wanting to make things better for her and his brother. When Ja-Hong dies, his first thought is to see his mother as he has something to tell her, which is denied but as a paragon, he could return to her in a dream.

Yet, the trials each reveal a side to Ja-Hong contradicting his present virtuous self which the guardians find increasingly harder to counter, often relying on Gang-Rim’s guile to pull a rabbit out of the hat at the last second, other some judges feel ready to pass judgement before hearing all the facts. But it is a card that is played too often and tends to telegraph the outcome from the start, putting further pressure on justifying sitting through all 2 hours plus of the same scenario on endless loop.

Fortunately, Soo-Hong’s arc is not the only distraction from this, as the fantasy element affords plenty of action scenes and magical fights between the guardians and the various demonic beasts that dwell in each of the hells. They may not reach the giddy heights of Marvel’s battles on a visual or spectacle level that Kim clearly aspires to but are not shoddy either, serving their purpose and on occasion delivering sufficient thrills.

Unfortunately there is also a distinct clash with this and the tear jerking finale to suggest maybe going the fantasy route was excessive for a story that might have been better served as a straight drama suffused with the rather underplayed Buddhist philosophy. It isn’t difficult to see why these two concepts were combined but the feeling of watching two different films in one becomes quite prevailing.

Kim handles both aspects very well in his direction, and has a top notch cast to bring the characters to life but there is nothing really that exceptional about them, especially the guardians about whom we know almost nothing. And if the end credits teaser for the sequel is accurate, they have been replaced by three new guardians for an entirely new mission.

Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds is perfectly acceptable entertainment based around an intriguing and inviting premise with great scope for such wild interpretation, though I must confess it’s huge resonance with Korean audiences is less obvious. I am however curious about the sequel, which is a positive.