I'll admit that eight months ago I may have brought a certain amount of prejudice with me when I went to see Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds, the fantasy epic blockbuster that would become the second most successful Korean film of all time. Rewatching the film earlier this month, I realize my initial assessment was a little harsh and that it was more effective and engaging than I initially gave it credit for. This time around I went in with an open mind, twice, before collecting my thoughts. So I feel quite confident when I say that, sadly, Along the the Gods: The Last 49 Days is the bigger but far less successful half of Korea's first two-part blockbuster (though this may not have much of an impact on its financial prospects).
We find archangels Gang-lim (Ha Jung-woo), Hae Won-maek (Ju Ji-hoon) and Deok-choon (Kim Hyang-gi) and the recently deceased Soo-hong (Kim Dong-wook) just where we left them, in the midst of a battle against demons on a sandy plain in the afterlife. The trio of guardians is about to embark on the trial for Soo-hong's resurrection. Should it be successful, it would be their 49th resurrection in a millennia, which would grant them their own resurrection.
King Yeomra (Lee Jung-jae) , lord of the afterlife, is unsure whether Soo-hong, who wreaked havoc as a vengeful spirit in the last installment, deserves a fair trial. However, he agrees on one condition: Gang-lim can proceed with the case, but only if Hae Won-maek and Deok-choon go down to the present world to dispatch the troublesome housegod Sung-joo (Ma Dong-seok) and bring an overdue soul to the pearly gates.
For whatever its flaws may have been, the first Along with the Gods had a compelling hook: a virtuous man (Soo-hong's older brother) is guided through seven trials in the afterlife as he seeks to be reincarnated. The Last 49 Days commits itself to two main plot lines, as noted above, but neither is anywhere near as compelling as its predecessor's central narrative.
Up in the afterlife, Gang-lim and Soo-hong don't exactly see eye to eye, and the only way for the former to get the latter to go along with his plan is if he tells him about his life on earth a thousand years ago. Hae Won-maek and Deok-choon engage in a similar deal with Sung-joo the house god, who is just trying to secure a stable future for the grandson of the soul they must collect. They will help him give the boy a fair chance at life if he tells them about their lives on earth (unlike Gang-lim, the pair have no memory of their former lives).
That's already quite a lot of plot, and it doesn't even cover the extensive flashbacks to the Goryeo Dynasty that explain who the archangels were on earth and how they came to be bundled together, not to mention lots of talk of redevelopment, loan sharks, mutual funds, and, believe it or not, several prehistoric cameos borrowed from another popular film franchise.
Even though his role as Sung-joo keeps him mostly sidelined (apparently house gods cannot harm humans but archangels can), Ma Dong-seok (who also goes by the international name Don Lee) is the most welcome addition to this sequel. His humorous brand of brawn and heart gives the film its most engaging and relatable sequences down on earth, even if they are occasionally bogged down by repetitive talk of poor investments. Granted, this might strike a chord with local viewers, most of whom will at least know one person who's lost their skin in an unwise gamble. There's even a bitcoin reference in there.
On the other hand, beyond the clunkiness of the new storylines, one of the most disappointing aspects of the new installment is that despite all its worlds and time periods, there's a distinct lack of women in the Along with the Gods multiverse. Trials only take place in four of the seven hells this time, conveniently skipping all three which were presided over by women judges.There is Deok-choon of course, but compared to the last film, not to mention the way she's represented in the original webcomic, actress Kim Hyang-gi is mostly called upon to play a damsel in distress.
Fans of the first will find many of the elements they enjoyed again here, but in such a messy package it's a less enjoyable experience. This applies particularly to the end, where the present trial and the mysteries of the guardian's pasts are resolved through a predictable deus ex machina. What's more, returning director Kim Yong-ha liberally peppers the final sequences (and a mid-credits sequence) with seeds for further sequels.
Producer Won Dong-hyun of Realies Pictures (one of two companies behind the feature, along with director Kim's Dexter Studios) recently announced that plans were underway for a third and fourth installment, which would furthermore set the groundwork for future spinoffs and prequels. Given how much of a monster The Last 49 Days is poised to be at the box office, we may very well be bearing witness to Korea's first Marvel-style cinematic universe.