Based on the webcomic by South Korean author Joo Ho-min, Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds is the first half of two films that were filmed simultaneously. The second half, Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days, will be released in South Korea in the summer of 2018. The film adaptation of Along with the Gods is written and directed by Kim Yong-hwa (Take Off, 200 Pounds Beauty) and stars Cha Tae-hyun (My Sassy Girl) as Kim Ja-hong; a fireman who dies at the beginning of the film. In the afterlife, a soul must pass a series of seven trials in 49 days before they can be reincarnated. Ja-hong is escorted through the seven gates of hell by three guardians of death or grim reapers: Deok-choon (Kim Hyang-gi, A Werewolf Boy), Hewonmak (Ju Ji-hoon, Asura: The City of Madness), and Gang-rim (Ha Jung-woo, The Handmaiden). Ja-hong is believed to be a paragon; the first honorable death in 49 days, which the three guardians believe he’ll not only excel during the trials but also benefit their own afterlife in the long run.
Visual effects for the film were created by Dexter Studios, one of the largest visual effects studios in Asia. A big fantasy film like this relies on strong visuals to really sell and execute lavish settings that are otherworldly and or larger than life itself. Not being familiar with the work of Dexter Studios, it was difficult going into this with any sort of expectations but the trailer looked fantastic enough. Dexter Studios seemed to put a lot of care into just how extravagant Along with the Gods is visually. Every layer of hell is breathtaking with action sequences that zip around in the air like a climactic battle on Dragon Ball Super while each layer of hell seems to have a different element to it that allows each individual trial and location to feel different from the one before it. Combined with some creative camera techniques that thrust you directly into the action or submerges the audience seemingly right next to Ja-hong as he narrowly dodges death (for a second time) at every turn, Along with the Gods is visually exhilarating thanks to outstanding special effects and an innovative perspective.
The different hells traveled through in the film are as follows: the volcano of the damned in murder hell, the river of indolence in indolence hell, the blade forest of deceit hell, the frosty glaciers of injustice hell, the heavenly passage that meanders through betrayal hell, the vacuum sink hole of violent hell, and the internal desert of filial impiety hell. It’s soon revealed that time in hell can start accelerating once a vengeful spirit begins its wrath in the land of the living; this also triggers a horde of hell ghouls. Ja-hong typically struggles at each trial as he feels like his ill mother will be lost without the income he’s been sending her the past 15 years and is convinced she’ll be lost without him.
Ja-hong’s life story is a complicated one that seems to unravel a more complex life event at each trial he faces. The line between what makes an individual a worthy candidate for reincarnation is constantly questioned because when you think you’ve got Ja-hong all figured out a dark element from his past rears its ugly head. The story doesn’t really have you judging what Ja-hong has done in his lifetime but mostly has you reflecting on your own. How would the actions you’ve chosen over your entire life play out if you were in Ja-hong’s shoes? Everyone has life events they’re not proud of, so it becomes this sympathetic journey that you somehow share with Ja-hong over the course of Along with the Gods. Ja-hong left home at an early age and never forgave himself for something he did as a teenager. He tried to make up for it over the years, but never returned home despite his mom and brother always being the drive that kept him going for as long as he did.
The acting is superb in Along with the Gods. The four leads showcase emotion on a scale that is almost unprecedented in mainstream American cinema. Kim Hyang-gi is cheerful and ecstatic about the forthcoming trials because the Deok-choon character firmly believes that Ja-hong has a chance at reincarnation. Her thumbs up hand gesture becomes this significant and special symbol for the film that you can’t help but love. Ju Ji-hoon has a harsh exterior as Hewonmak with a fight first and do things by the book kind of demeanor without emotions getting in the way. He seems almost bitter that he’s in the position that he’s in and doesn’t understand why his captain, Gang-rim, goes out of his way to do things the way that he does. Ha Jung-woo has always been an incredible actor in films like The Chaser, Nameless Gangster, The Berlin File, and The Tunnel. He is the one guardian/grim reaper who has memories of the life he had before he died and it shows. He has a scene with Ja-hong’s mother that is this unbelievable portrayal and control of emotion that I’ve never seen in any film.
It is practically unheard of that we start off the year with a film this good, but Along with the Gods is an impressively entertaining and reflective way to jump start your movie watching habits of 2018. This movie freaking destroyed me emotionally and its last half hour made me cry harder than any movie ever has. Along with the Gods is like South Korea got its hands on the bizarrely awesome fusion of What Dreams May Come and The Frighteners while expanding on the adventure that awaits us all in the afterlife and sucker punches our tear ducts to oblivion in the process. The sequel can’t get here soon enough.