Ja-hong (played by Cha Tae-hyun) is a very special man. Most people who die, they just end up getting stuck in line. The unlucky ones get trapped in eternal torment. Somewhat luckier ones get clerical positions and cool magical powers. Ja-hong's guardians Kang-rim (played by Ha Jung-woo) and Seaman Mac (played by Ju Ji-hoon) get combat abilities. Deok-choon (played by Kim Hyang-gi), the lone woman, is stuck with just information gathering abilities. They all dream of reincarnation, of once again knowing what it is like to be human. But Ja-hong? He's under consideration for a position of considerable power in the underworld. "Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds" concerns itself with the question as to why.
I do not mean the question of why Ja-hong needs to go through trials to prove his worth in the first place. Given how the godlike beings appear to be nearly omniscient, it's not clear why they need the pretense of a court system to judge Ja-hong. Why Ja-hong has to make such a long journey on foot is even less clear. Presumably it's so that Seaman Mac can explain all the freaky special effects.
So let's just stick to the metaphorical interpretation. All of Ja-hong's trials represent blights upon his soul- evil acts committed throughout his life. At each trial, Ja-hong's godly companions must attempt to contextualize Ja-hong's actions in such a way that the purity of his soul remains intact. Which at least explains why Ja-hong needs solicitors to argue on his behalf. Ja-hong is a terrible communicator, and frequently takes rash actions. The man's in a bit of a raw emotional state, being dead and all.
This characterization takes on increasing relevance as we see more of Ja-hong's past life, and how he responded to other traumatic incidents the same way. There's never a magic moment where Ja-hong comes to absolute moral terms. The man constantly behaves ambiguously in pursuit of some noble short-term goal. Ja-hong's disregard of long-term consequences prevents him from rationalizing, and allows him to stay on a precipitous yet inevitably well navigated moral path.
That's the inspiration. That's where all the tears come from at the end. When we're watching the various gods leap around throwing their magical powers all over the place in these vast backgrounds of casual grotesque torment, that's just spectacle. The puppets dance to amuse us. Then we see Ja-hong as a man who makes right choices out of the wrong ones, never wanting to live down even a single mistake.
"Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds" is an inquisition into human flaws, using Ja-hong as a vehicle to explore how they can be redeemed as such. A parallel storyline featuring supernatural battles in the human world serves as a constant reminder that even if Ja-hong's story is at an end, suffering still continues. I mean sure you can interpet the ending as a cynical sequel hook if you want, but I'd rather look at as a statement on how death, like life, is an ongoing struggle.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a substack at williamschwartz.substack.com where he discusses the South Korean film industry in broader terms and takes suggestions for future movies to review.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds""
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