Korean heavyweights Ha Jung-woo, Cha Tae-hyun and Lee Jung-jae lead a starry cast in writer-director Kim Yong-hwa’s karmic holiday blockbuster.

Taking a page from Buddhist dogma involving karma, judgment and rebirth and spinning an achingly sincere afterlife adventure from it, director Kim Yong-hwa returns from a four-year hiatus with a three-hanky weepy that’s not nearly as grating as it should be. Following the hit musical romance 200 Pounds Beauty and, more recently, Mr. Go, the 3D China-Korea co-production about a baseball-playing gorilla, Kim steers away from more overtly comedic moralizing for an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser about family and sacrifice. Based on the webcomic Singwa Hamgge, literally “With God,” Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds had a massive opening weekend at the end of the year at home in South Korea — thoroughly trouncing such competition as Yang Woo-suk’s Steel Rain and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. If audible sniffles are anything to go by, continued success in Korea will be followed swiftly by similar reactions regionally, particularly given the strong, recognizable cast led by The Handmaiden star Ha Jung-woo. That, Kim’s commercial track record and the film’s sentimental material could also help garner attention in urban markets overseas as clever counter-programming.
When firefighter Kim Ja-hong (Cha Tae-hyun, still best-known for My Sassy Girl) dies in the line of duty, he’s greeted by a trio of guardians — Deok-choon (Kim Hyang-gi, Thread of Lies), Hewonmak (Ju Ji-hoon, Asura) and their reaper boss Gang-lim (Ha) — who are also his escorts through the afterlife. He is informed that because he was a paragon of virtue in life, he’s eligible for reincarnation within 49 days, as long as he’s acquitted in seven trials on seven different levels of “hell.” The trials are designed to judge whether or not Ja-hong is guilty of any betrayal, indolence, violence, deceit and so on. As a bonus, his guardians/de facto defense lawyers Deok-choon and Hewonmak can earn their own reincarnation if they’re successful in their arguments on his behalf. They’ve been stuck in limbo a while and really, really want to get out, but when a vengeful spirit starts to stalk the group, it puts all their plans in jeopardy. The spirit’s interference compels Gang-lim to investigate, even though he’s not technically allowed to intervene in earthly affairs, and soon a complicated family history surrounding Ja-hong’s mute mother, his aspiring lawyer brother Su-hong (Kim Dong-wook) and a life of poverty emerges.
Along With the Gods is loaded up with greenscreen and CGI, some of it extremely messy, but by the same token it shows off some vivid environmental set pieces, like the soft rolling dunes of the desert of Ja-hong filial impiety trial, or the snowy, blue-tinged mountains of injustice. In general, the film is strong technically, but appropriate though it may be, Bang Jun-suk’s syrupy, string-heavy score in the last act is likely to cause cavities. It’s too long by at least 20 minutes (yes, we get to see all seven trials), the otherworldly “chases” over the city’s rooftops are just wasted space and a subplot pivoting on Gang-lim’s ancient past adds so little to the bigger picture it could have been excised completely with zero narrative consequences.
But all that is just window dressing, as the film really rests on the shoulders of its cast and the sentimental (sometimes maudlin) story. In fairness, this is unapologetically emotional stuff (call your mother), and Kim harbors no ambitions to anything else.
In the lead role, Cha turns in the same hang-dog, misty-eyed performance he has been delivering for most of his career. He’s innocuous enough here, but he’s also a touch too unperturbed by his whole ordeal (at least until the final waterworks). Fortunately, Ha is on hand to bring some of the same suave authority he did to The Handmaiden, though this time around he gets to be a bit funnier, as does Lee Jung-jae as King Yeomra, the all-powerful God of Death. Veterans Oh Dal-su and Lim Won-hee as a pair of afterlife prosecutors, and Kim Su-an as the juvenile, lollipop-sucking goddess of deceit, all leave indelible impressions by bringing the right balance of drama and levity to their scenes, and all make Cha — and the entire film — look good.