Magic And Espionage In South Korea’s Winter Blockbusters

When I went to my local theater on the opening day of Star Wars: White Genocide, I saw a line extending halfway across the lobby. I was crushed, thinking I would have to wait another day to see Adam Driver’s massive pecs. Imagine my shock when I learned that the line wasn’t for Star Wars, but Along With The Gods (신과함께), a South Korean fantasy film based on a popular webcomic.

The popcorn movies that Hollywood releases every winter play in Korea too. But at least this year, they’ve got some homemade competition. I made it to two of these big-budget Korean spectacles this holiday season: Along With The Gods and Steel Rain (강철비).

Both films were more dialogue-driven than the last Korean movie I wrote about for REELYDOPE (the Hitchcockian thriller Forgotten), so since I watched them without subtitles, I missed a lot and had to read up after. But I can confidently say that both films 1) will not make any waves in the States, and 2) highlight interesting things about Korean culture.

A man in a firefighter's uniform stands, looking confused.

Heaven Can Wait

Along With The Gods, which topped the box office its opening weekend, is the closest thing South Korea has to a fantasy epic like Harry Potter or The Hobbit. The action scenes and special effects, while not as impressive as something from a $200-million-budget Western movie, come close for a movie that cost less than $40 million. But it’s the narrative, not the DragonBall Z-esque airborne swordfights, that make Along With The Gods a fascinating watch.

Along With The Gods is based on Buddhist theology, which threw me for a loop. There are plenty of American movies—especially in the horror genre—that draw on Christian theology, but I never expected to see their Buddhist equivalent. Like many Americans, I’m familiar with the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy that have been adopted by Western gurus and Silicon Valley (no self, get rid of attachments, achieve enlightenment, Bitcoin), but I know nothing about the pantheon of deities that make up more religious Buddhist traditions around the world.

If you know anything about Buddhism, you can imagine that many of the core myths that underpin Western hero’s-journey-type stories are not going to fly in a Buddhist moral universe. The idea of a “chosen one” destined to overcome obstacles and defeat absolute evil is…not very Buddhist. There is an “epic quest” in Along With The Gods, but the stakes and shape of the story are nothing like what I’ve come to expect.

The movie tells the story of Kim Ja-hong (Cha Tae-hyun), a firefighter who dies on the job. Upon his death, some spirits arrive and take him to the afterlife, where he will be judged by seven gods of death. The rest of the movie is basically a celestial courtroom drama in which Ja-hong’s public-defender gods trying to convince the prosecutor and judge gods that he’s not a bad guy. If he makes it through all seven tests, he’ll be reincarnated. If the death gods find him to be subpar, he’ll be sent to one of the hell-realms, where he’ll boil in lava/be eaten by piranhas/get rolled over by a big rolling pin for eternity.

As Ja-hong passes through these cosmic courtrooms, the stakes and circumstances of his possible moral transgressions get more ridiculous and melodramatic. At first, it’s simple stuff like:

Death God: “You abandoned another firefighter in the burning building just before you died! You only care about yourself! You should go to hell!”

Ja-hong’s Public Defender: “No! He abandoned him because he was trying to save a young girl! He was going to come back to rescue him later! He’s a good person!”

Death God: “Okay, fine! He can advance to the next level.”

But by the end, it’s like:

Death God: “You almost suffocated your mother with a pillow when you were a teenager, and then you beat up your younger brother when he tried to stop you! This caused your mother to become a mute! You traumatized your family in their time of need! You are clearly the worst villain the world has ever seen and you should go to hell!”

Ja-hong’s Public Defender: “No! He was going to kill his mother because she was deathly ill anyway and he thought he was sparing her from a more painful death! Then he realized that he didn’t want to kill her, so he took out his anger and sadness on his younger brother! The guilt he feels about the damage he’s done to his family is unimaginable! I’M CRYING RIGHT NOW BECAUSE THE WHOLE SITUATION IS SO SAD!”

Death God: “I’M CRYING TOO!”

I’m not exaggerating when I say that at the end of this movie there was not a dry eye in the theater besides mine. Some English-language reviews of Along With The Gods give it bad marks for the melodrama, but the Korean people I’ve talked to who’ve seen it all liked it. It’s got something for every generation: CGI action for the kids, family weepy stuff for the older crowd.

To me, Along With The Gods’s dramatic situations jumped the shark within the first half, and the main character’s ineffectual personality made it hard to care about his journey. However, if the movie’s box office performance is any indication, these “flaws” bother Koreans a lot less. I get the sense that they’re a feature, not a bug. In a Buddhist cinematic universe, a protagonist who saves the world might be less interesting.

A North Korean officer stands in the aftermath of a bombing.

Little Rocket Man

Not that Korean cinema doesn’t have stories about saving the world. Case in point: Steel Rain, a blockbuster that shoots contemporary anxieties into your veins like heroin. It’s an espionage thriller set in a near future where travel between the two Koreas has been tentatively reinstated, and Kim Jong-un (who I don’t think is ever directly named, to avoid another Interview situation) is cooperating with the South’s peacemaking efforts. That’s all thrown into jeopardy when a militaristic North Korean general stages a coup and tries to assassinate the Supreme Leader.

Eom Chul-woo (Jung Woo-sung) is a North Korean secret agent who is sent to prevent the coup attempt. Think Jason Bourne, only instead of amnesia, he’s a communist. When things go south, he is forced to flee to Seoul with the injured Supreme Leader’s unconscious body. Once he gets there, he runs into Kwak Chul-woo (Kwak Do-won), a top South Korean intelligence officer who knows about the coup attempt. They’re from different countries…but they have the same name! Wow!

The rest of the film is basically an odd-couple story of the two of them working together to stop the coup and keep Kim Jong-un safe. Maybe you’re thinking, “Wait, really? There’s a South Korean action movie about protecting Kim Jong-un’s comatose body? Is it a joke? Like Weekend At Bernie’s or something?”

No, it’s played completely straight in the Bourne/24/Homeland mold, with war rooms, fast-paced phone calls, and everyday objects being used as jiu-jitsu-stabby-thingies. But there is some good comic relief. In the first fifteen minutes of the movie, Kim Jong Un is shot in the leg, so Eom Chul-woo hides him in a van full of stuffed animals and ties a panda to his shin to stop the bleeding. Everyone in the theater would giggle when a character would recognize the passed-out man on the stretcher. However, the funniest moments come in the contrast between the main characters: the austere Northerner and the hedonistic Southerner.

In one scene, a diseased Eom Chul-woo lies in bed suffering from withdrawal pains while Kwak Chul-woo stuffs his face with a hamburger. It’s as much a send-up of South Korean consumerism as it is a comment on Northern poverty. Later, Kwak plays Eom a song by G-Dragon, one of the biggest K-pop stars. Eom can’t stand it, and I’ve never empathized so much with a North Korean in my life. Besides the humor, these scenes pose the question of what would happen if people from the two Koreas got to know each other on a personal level. Reunification looms large in the South Korean popular imagination, larger than most Americans are probably aware, and this movie is an example of that.

Whereas Age Of Shadows  gave its Japanese villains no trace of humanity, Steel Rain makes careful appeals to the North Korean mindset and idealizes a future in which the Koreas can once again exchange culture (or at least the South can inflict its pop music on North Korean kids). It was a nice break from Western media that hypes up a militaristic attitude towards North Korea and assumes that South Korea will follow suit, even as the South Korean President Moon Jae-In continues to push for more open dialogue between the two countries.

Both of these movies reminded me that although the format of the glitzy action movie seems simple, it’s adaptable to different cultures, concerns, and storytelling traditions. The conventions of Korean melodrama might lead audiences to see these movies as “predictable,” but despite their emotionalism and sometimes one-dimensional characters, the moral situations seemed more sophisticated than the “moral grey areas” common in many of today’s American blockbusters.

Plus, the lower budgets have a silver lining: the final battle scenes are short and explosion-free.

absolutely no relation to r. kelly.Adam Keller is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. Twitter