On the surface, “The Last 49 Days” is devoid of a sob-fest and appears to have less sinpa. But the film tries even more than its predecessor to move the audience.
The flick takes off right where “The Two Worlds” left off, as our heroes Gangrim, Haewonmak and Lee Deok-choon -- agents of the afterlife played by Ha Jung-woo, Ju Ji-hoon and Kim Hyang-gi -- try to fend off the guardians of the underworld who attempt to attack their client Kim Soo-hong, played by Kim Dong-wook.
In the last film, Su-hong -- a soldier killed accidentally by a close colleague and buried alive -- turns himself into an evil phantom to haunt the living, therefore he is being perused in the underworld. Gangrim’s team -- grim reapers/advocates of the dead in the trials after death -- pleads his case by saying that the unjust nature of his death led to his actions.
Yeomra, king of the afterlife played by Lee Jung-jae, grants Gangrim’s wish to prove that Su-hong should be cleared of his charges. But this is only under the condition that Gangrim’s team bring to the underworld Heo Choon-sam, an elderly man living past his due time thanks to the protection of guardian god Seong-ju, played by Ma Dong-seok.
As in the first film, the plot moves between the events of the underworld and the real world, with Gangrim and Su-hong’s adventures in the trials to evade eternal damnation and Haewonmak and Deok-choon’s quarrels with Seong-ju. Another layer is added when Seong-ju, who turns out to be an ancient being over a thousand years old, tells the life and death of the pair when they were humans.
As expected, the Ma Dong-seok, Ju Ji-hoon and Kim Hyang-gi trio is responsible for most of the laughter and the scenes are genuinely hilarious. Ma is like Dwayne Johnson, the toughest, meanest-looking guy in the world and people just can’t stop smiling at the sight of him.
The movie also ventures down the past of Gangrim’s team a thousand years ago. The period piece section is visually impressive and all three actors look and play the part.
But here is the problem with these sections. While the humor of the modern-day part and the heart of the past part are enjoyable, there is just too much. The movie constantly interrupts more serious scenes with joke after joke, and it is hard to take Haewonmak seriously when he is made into a goofy character. It does not help that the guy plays the solemn badass at the same time.
Another mistake the movie makes is that the characters are almost too perfect. It feels like the film has to justify every bad deed of all the characters, and ends up making some of them saints, just like it did in the first one.
Kim Dong-wook’s Su-hong was one of the best things about the first movie. But here, he is turned into, for a lack of better word, a jerk. He just bickers and complains incessantly with Gangrim, which for the first 10 times can show character but after that is just annoying.
He is also unfazed by the peril that he faces, which really takes out the suspense. How can the audience be concerned about a character who just looks at the fiery pits of hell when it opens up in front of him?
Su-hong is a minor character in this film, but that doesn’t mean the director couldn’t have included a compelling subplot. Kim Dong-wook is a good actor and he is almost wasted in this movie.
As did the first film, this film follows the formula of “funny and lighthearted at first, serious and heart-warming in the climax,” which has almost become director Kim Yong-hwa’s modus operandi with pieces like “200 Pounds Beauty (2006),” “Take Off (2009)” and Mr. Go (2013). And the drama part is not bad.
Kim Hyang-gi’s performance, showing both the innocence and strength of the character and being the anchor to the most emotional sequence of the movie, is to be complimented. She even eclipses Ha, one of the best Korean actors today.
But that’s not saying much considering that his portrayal in this film is very one-dimensional, which is the same for most characters.
Director Kim is talented in making the audience laugh and cry, but the way he weaves the tearful and funny elements is still very clunky.
It is not a bad film at all. It was actually quite fun: The funny scenes were really enjoyable, the action was good, and the CG -- considering the budget -- was top marks. The odds are it will probably end up being the most successful Korean film of the year.
But every time it had a chance to take the next leap to be a great film, it just fell flat. It didn’t need to have a funny scene every step of the way; it didn’t need to make Haewonmak that goofy – again; and it didn’t need to absolve every single sin of our heroes. They’re human, we get it. They make mistakes.
It just tried too hard to be funny and heart-warming. When telling a joke, the biggest mistake one can make is to explain why it’s funny. This is what the movie did: It explained why scenes are heart-warming, why they are good people after all. The audience could have gotten it on their own and it would have been a better choice. This movie is anything but subtle.
The film is one that had potential to be great but ended up just being OK, and that is not OK.
“Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days” opens in theaters on Aug. 1.
By Yoon Min-sik