Review By: Christopher J. Wheeler
Society may not always have our best interests at heart. Laws and regulations are tangled with bureaucracy and riddled with a rigidity that often leaves the individual alone and unrepresented. Modern Korean cinema has embraced the depiction of such societal frustrations, often choosing to downplay authority figures while indulging melodramatics. Favorable genres such as the seasonal horror and persistent gangster flicks, consistently contain themes of an inauthentic authorial agency that subverts social authority. The results of such threads can easily be seen in this year’s highest grossing Korean film MIRACLE IN CELL NO. 7, an entertaining and emotionally charge film that scores big on presentation, but failed to attend to the enriching details that makes a story memorable.
“Miracle in Cell No.7”, Lee Hwan-gyeong’s fourth feature, eventually claimed $12.8M (Source: KOBIZ) admissions during its eleven-week stint in the top ten. That figure comfortably places it as the third highest grossing Korean film ever produced, surpassed only by Choi Dong-hoon’s “The Thieves” ($12.9M) and Bong Joon-ho’s iconic “The Host” ($13M).
The storyline behind Lee’s blockbuster is simple enough: mentally handicapped father Yong-goo (Ryoo Seung-ryong) is wrongfully imprisoned, marking a painful separation from his loving young daughter Ye-seung (Gal So-won). Their relationship is the sole driving forced behind the film and all other story elements are blindly in service of it. Continuity, as a result, suffers and became a despondent servant to overly melodramatic scenes and characters.
In MIRACLE IN CELL NO. 7, our intellectually impaired hero Yong-goo is found standing over a dead girl’s body and caught trying to unbutton her pants while the blood still runs out the back of her skull. The viewer is not presented with the facts as to what actually transpired. Instead, like the legal system that judges Yong-goo, we can only assess things on the surface of what is seen. Seemingly driven by quick results, the court hastily imprisons Yong-goo after manipulating him into signing a confession. His mental handicap is, in the legal sense, dismissed and used against him behind closed doors to ensure case closure of the young girls death. Later on in film his appeal process takes centre stage.
The film seeks to counter-balance its lack of legal logic with excessive emotional appeals. The result is an audience member that can be likened to that of the film’s protagonist, mentally and well as emotionally handicapped and lacking the ability/knowledge to make sense of anything but the drive to see Yong-goo reunited with his daughter. The intellectual process of making cinematic sense of sequences of images on screen becomes secondary to their actual existence. By this I mean that the how of events are unashamedly subverted in favour of the what. Seeing Yong-goo and Ye-seung together is much more important that how they came to be. Consider the speed at which Ye-seung is able to get into Yong-goo cell to see him. Soon after being imprisoned, Ye-seung is, suddenly and without much explanation, shown to be performing in a Christian choir for the prisoners. Form here it was just a simple cut and then we see her being smuggled into her father’s cell by his compassionate cellmates.
At this stage we know little of Ye-seung and her new life without her farther, but here she stands, singing happily and looking well, at the very prison her farther was recently incarcerated. It’s all a little too convenient as the viewer is ask to fill-in the important gaps Lee has left between events. Similar to the police when they find Jong-goo at the scene of the crime, here the viewer is forced to recreate a plausible back-story that would allow for such a coincidence to occur. That’s not to say that such a narrative event may not ever occur, just that in a film that appeals to the audiences sympathies such jumps are counter-productive and dilute a potentially sympathetic angle on the two’s separation.
Again, ‘how’ the situation came to be is overridden by what we see: a mentally impaired farther soon holding his innocent little girl. It’s an emotional moment, to be sure, but one that is birth from a suspension of disbelief so thin that the viewer is given as much intellectual functioning as Ryoo Seung-ryong’s handicapped character.
Issues of narrative continuity and logic are overruled throughout the film by aggressive appeals to the audiences’ emotional faculties. Early on the film viewers will notice the distinct inclusion of a sound I can only describe as magical stardust being drizzled over the images. Such ‘magical’ accents, along with intriguing composition and captivating miss-en-scene, distracts the viewer by allowing them to exclusively indulge in the visual; the surface of cinema that, in this case, offers little depth and appeal to any lasting appreciation. Like the judges and policemen, the films visuality serves as direct and observable signs and severs the truth signified in the process. It’s a ‘saving face’ tactic, one that is more concerned with the signifier (e.g. the court systems) than the signified (e.g. democracy and a fair trial).
Such a glamour also occurs where one would not likely suspect. The separation of Ye-seung and Yong-go is similarly lacking depth and dimension. When the two are separated, one might have expected the film to show both sides of their lives in an undesirable manner. Perhaps prison life is a little tough, the food horrible, or one’s cellmates are violent or unruly. Maybe Ye-seung’s life outside is hard and she isn’t getting the love we want for her. Lee completely puts aside such considerations and, in fact, makes both of these fertile areas for conflict renders them moot points. Not only is prison life bearable, its actually greatly beneficial to Yong-goo who now has a group of loving friends and sympathetic guards watching him. Who knows how many friends he had in the real world, but here he is safe, loved, and generally quite happy.
Ye-seung’s outside life is given much less attention, but beyond her desire to be with her farther she is happy, healthy and still flexing her talents as a singer in a Christian choir. Here the film drifts aimlessly a bit, driven only by the film’s own singular notion of them reuniting. It does not dabble in how this mental challenged individual might care for this smart young girl when she gets older, nor does it probe the reality of potential conflict between the two. Simplistic and stubborn, “Miracle” reveals all too little and explores even less as it charges blind, deaf and dumb towards its feel-good climax.
Where is the conflict then in this tale? Again, like so many other Korean films “Miracle” locates its friction in public authority and the system it serves. Both the lives of Yong-goo and Ye-seung are without much cause for concern (outside of them not physically being together), and it is only later that their future is really threatened. Simply put, “Miracle in Cell No.7” is actually less about a father-daughter relationship than it is about victims of authority. It’s the handicapped man versus the system here, the individual who has nothing but love in his heart and the forces at large that prevent him from enacting that passion. Corrupt and unprofessional policeman abuse his disposition, beating him to his knees to confess to a crime he didn’t commit. Evidence, due course, justice is dispensed and openly disregarded and manipulated with the facade of democracy there for all to see. It matters not whether he did or didn’t murder the girl, only that Yong-goo’s soft mind was malleable enough to pressure him into submitting to the regulations and expectations of the legal process. This, unfortunately, reduces Ye-seung to nothing more than a plot hinge, an empty narrative device whose only function is to embody this simple man’s desire.
Without dimension or depths, “Miracle” indulges in deep and uncomfortable melodramatics that some will find hard-pressed to overlook. As such, many reviewers, including myself, find it difficult not to recommend the film to those viewers looking for a light, well packaged, and entertaining film. As mentioned the film is visually quite appealing with much of the film being carefully crafted to ensure the quality of the eye-candy onscreen. That, along with some likable performances, makes “Miracle in Cell No.7” a hard film to hate or even score poorly. Sickeningly sweet and hollow throughout, Lee Hwan-gyeong “Miracle in Cell No. 7” has delighted 12.8M viewers with just such a tactic. There are no miracles here though, just a potent glamour and enough stardust to keep you choking on emotion till the credits role.
|No rating, 127 minutes|
|Director: Lee Hwan-Kyung 이환경|
|Screenwriter(s): Lee Hwan-Kyung, Kim Hwang-Sung, Kim Young-Suk 김영석|
|Producer(s): Lim Min-Sub|
|Cinematographer: Kang Seung-Ki|
|Foreign Language Film: Korean|
|Distributor: Next Entertainment World|