Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days (Sin-gwa ham-kke: In-gwa yeon)

Korea (2018) Dir. Kim Yong-Hwa

Not a sequel but a continuation of the first Along With The Gods outing, as denoted by the fact both were filmed in one go, which must have been very tiring for the returning cast. So, if you’ve not seen the first film it would be imprudent to jump into the franchise with this one.

We rejoin the action in the wake of the three guardians Gang-lim (Ha Jung-Woo), Lee Deok-Choon (Kim Hyang-Gi) and Haewonmak (Ju Ji-Hoon) having successfully guided Kim Ja-Hong through his seven trails to earn reincarnation. Now, they need do to it all again, this time with Ja-Hong’s brother Soo-Hong’s (Kim Dong-Wook), to defend his right to reincarnation by proving he was wrongfully killed.

But there is another problem in the land of the living – a rogue house God Sung-ju (Ma Dong-Seok) is preventing guardians from taking an elderly man Hur Choon-sam (Nam Il-Woo) who should have passed over years ago. King Yeomra (Lee Jung-jae) makes a deal – if Deok-Choon and Haewonmak can get Choon-sam to ascend inside 49 days and Gang-lim can clear Soo-Hong, he will allow them to be reincarnated.

Like its predecessor, The Last 49 Days boasts a 140-minute run time and uses every second of it effectively telling three stories that could easily have been separate plots in their own right. There is a frustration in how disparate these individual arcs seem and covering them all in one go comes across like a Kim Yong-hwa is simply showing off the film’s impressive budget – until the final act when everything converges.

Ordinarily, this would mean praising Kim for such a cleverly deceptive screenplay that teases disarray but is far more coherent than it looks, and I will give him that, however, that doesn’t mean he had to cram this film with so much content. The result is enjoyable enough with something for everyone – comedy, CGI action, and heavy drama – but is laden with the expectation of carrying it all in the one cinematic basket.

From reading the above synopsis, you might wonder how a straightforward sounding plot could be so problematic, so let’s look at why this is.  First off, the trial of Soo-Hong is based on the fact he was once a vengeful spirit having been accidentally shot then buried alive despite his superior and colleague realising he was still alive. Gang-lim needs to convince the Seven Gods the murder was intentional to have Soo-Hong ascend as a paragon, but the evidence is hard to obtain.

Soo-Hong meanwhile has let go of his anger and seems quite content to be dead, but in talking to Gang-lim whilst they journey between courts and is regaled by Gang-lim’s own personal history, he suspects there is a hidden agenda to Gang-lim helping him. The revelation of Gang-lim’s history takes us back to exactly a millennium earlier during the Goryeo Dynasty, where he was an entirely different person to how he is now.

Meanwhile, Deok-Choon and Haewonmak have their hands full with Sung-ju, a former god how has given up his post to help Choon-sam and his young grandson Hyun-Dong (Jung Ji-Hoon). The boy has lost his mother and his gambler father has runaway to the Philippines, leaving him with Choon-sam who is riddled with debt, which Sung-Ju has tried to fix but his understanding of the human world is a little askew and hampered by being unable to use his abilities to fix things.

Deok-Choon and Haewonmak get Gang-lim’s permission to stick around to help Sung-ju out, during which time they learn the memories of their pasts have been erased. Since Sung-ju was there at the time, he fills in the blanks, taking them back to one thousand years ago to a small village inhabited by the Jurchen tribe, about to be attacked by the imperial army.

Jumping between these timelines and flashbacks creates a disjointed narrative even if the eventual intertwining is clever, and certainly tests the patience of the viewer by reeling us in with a segment from one setting then whisking us away to another just as it was getting good. For example, we might be engaged with Gang-lim’s recollection of when he was a child as the son of a general, only to cut next to Sung-Ju trying to get welfare help for Choon-sam in modern times.

It’s a tricky thing to balance as the audience might not appreciate having the main story started, then detour of a huge chunk of exposition before returning to where we were, unlike a TV show which can afford to take such liberties. Thus, the piecemeal approach is necessary in this instance, but the argument for the subplot involving Choon-sam to be a separate film altogether and have Sung-Ju be incorporated into the main story another way is demonstrably robust.

However, if you find the story too heavy or clumsy, then there are plenty of opportunities to sit back and enjoy this as a visual spectacle. Whether the evocative cinematography of the historical scenes, the CGI fantasy landscapes of the underworld, or the array of its otherworldly inhabitants, including stampeding dinosaurs, there is a variety of eye candy to appease all tastes and artistic leanings.

The cast are pushed much further than before in playing two different versions of their characters that doesn’t necessarily flesh them out per se but adds an extra dimension to how they operate as people. Kim Hyang-Gi is particularly impressive in displaying the emotional effects on Deok-Choon, whilst her male co-stars reveal some depth beyond their matinee idol looks with their other selves too.

With an ending that looks to the future and a new storyline, it will be interesting to see where the next instalments of the Along With the Gods are heading. Hopefully there are still enjoyable and continue to examine the concept of redemption, but not as overloaded with subplots like The Last 49 Days and restores some of the humour that helped the first film.