Heaven can wait, but reincarnation has a strict deadline. “Paragons” must prove their worthiness in forty-nine days or they will have to go through the purgatorial slog with the rest of the moral slobs. Apparently, paragons run in the family. Gang-lim and his team of guardians helped firefighter Kim Ja-hong navigate the seven hells and now they have been assigned to his murdered brother Su-hong. This time, the case awakens painful memories for the guardians that had been suppressed for nearly a millennium in Kim Yong-hwa’s Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days, which opens this Wednesday in New York.
It isn’t easy being a guardian. Gang-lim and his assistants, Hewonmak and Deok-choon are one reincarnation away from their one-thousand-year quota, but despite his worthiness, Kim Su-hong will be a hard case. He was an angry ghost, because he was killed by two of his army comrades, but Gang-lim helped ease the bitterness in his heart, only slightly violating the afterworld’s Prime Directive. As a further complication, Kim claims he does not want to be reincarnated, but he goes along with the process out of curiosity.
As a condition for Kim’s expedited trial, Gang-lim’s team must also take care of some housekeeping in the human realm. An old man is long overdue to ascend, but Sung-ju, the house god living in his flat chases away all guardians that come with a death notice. He is played by Ma Dong-seok/Don Lee, so you know he will be formidable. In a major violation of protocol, Sung-ju now lives openly with old man and his abandoned grandson. However, he has a few secrets that will be of interest to Hewonmak and Deok-choon, because he served as their guardian way back when.
The previous film, AWTG: The Two Worlds, featured some intriguing afterlife world-building and some Tsui Hark-worthy fantastical action sequences, but seemed relatively self-contained. However, Last 49 Days answers just about every question viewers might have had, while deepening the backstories and mythology, eventually serving up several heavy revelations. It definitely tops the first film, even rectifying the some of the first film’s flaws, like the weak prospective paragon.
The intertwined histories of Hewonmak and Deok-choon are particularly compelling and so is the chemistry that develops between them, as played by Ju Ji-hoon and Kim Hyang-gi. As Gang-lim, Ha Jung-woo is still all kinds of steely, but he also ups his game, reaching for levels of classical tragedy. Even though Ma/Lee has become an action lead in his own right, it is easy to see why he would take an ensemble role as Sung-ju the household god, because it is quite an effective showcase for his larger-than-life screen-presence and good-naturedly luggish comedic chops.