After 20 minutes it began, I concluded that I was not a good target audience for South Korean comedy film “Miracle in Cell No.7”. I understood what it intended to be, but I kept annoyed by its blatant comic/melodramatic approach to the subject during the screening, and I felt saddened to watch a group of good talents trapped inside this manipulative movie which clumsily tried to squeeze tears from the audiences every 5 or 10 minutes.
But I must report to you that this cheap tactic worked well with the audiences as far as I observed at last night. Many audiences laughed frequently, and they also responded with tears exactly when the movie wanted to make them weep for its unfortunate hero who does not deserved to be abused and mistreated as depicted in the movie. While I kept being grouchy about it, they wholeheartedly embraced its shameless sentimentality to the end, and I felt like being alone amid a big collective emotion I could not follow.
But I will not deny that its melodrama and comedy work to some degrees in spite of its dark, serious social subject inside its story. This is not an incompetent film, and it has several good things I admire, and maybe you can like it unlike me while forgiving its many weaknesses. So let’s talk about several reasons why I think this is not a good film, and I’ll let you decide for yourself whether you are going to watch it or not later.
1) Unrealistic elements too many for one story. I respect its intention to be a crowd-pleasing weepy movie, but its story are sugarcoated with too many synthetic elements beyond the reality, and you can discern that problematic aspect right from its very premise. Despite his mental deficiency, our dim but innocent hero Yong-goo(Ryoo Seung-ryong) rarely loses his child-like sunny attitude, and everyone including a strict and severe prison officer(Jeong Jin-young) finds their hearts quickly melt by Yong-goo’s everlasting goodness hidden inside his idiotic behaviors, so his cellmates even allow him to freely spend some time with his cute little daughter Ye-seung(adorable Gal So-won) in their prison. The prison in the movie does not look like a real prison at all(after all, they shot the movie in a prison set near my hometown Jeon-ju), and, while hidden from the guards for a while, our cute little girl never sees the harsh side of the life of her poor father and her ‘uncles’ – and neither do we.
2) The crime only existing for pushing its hero into a grim situation which guarantees more cries and tears later. I forgot to tell to you how Yong-goo ends up being incarcerated in the prison, so let me describe that unfortunate circumstance briefly. Yong-gu happens to be seen near a dead girl as young as Ye-seung, and then everything is swiftly processed as he is arrested and then immediately sent to the trial. He is innocent(well, what do you expect?), but never mind, because that dead girl’s father is none other than the Police Commissioner and this angry father is very determined to get what he wants as a one-dimensional villain of the story. It is always infuriating to see an innocent man unjustly treated by the legal system, but shouldn’t the movie provide a better story to induce us to think more about the real legal injustices observed in our reality and the fair treatment of the mentally disabled?
3) A talented actor wasted by a not-so-good screenplay. The screenplay by the director Lee Hwan-gyeong seriously needs lots of improvement especially in case of characterization. Our Yong-goo is just simply defined as a good-hearted simpleton by his childish behaviors in his first scene, and that is all for the rest of the film. Ryoo Seung-ryong, who has recently become one of the most dependable South Korean supporting actors through the series of good performances in “War of the Arrows”(2011) and “Masquerade”(2012), tries everything he can do for playing his one-note character and his performance is far from being awful, but, like Seen Penn in “I Am Sam”(2001), he is not supported well by a flawed screenplay which keeps driving him to the ‘fully retard’ mode throughout its story.
4) The good supporting actors equally wasted by the screenplay. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the movie is mainly driven by its lively supporting actors who do their jobs nicely even though they are stuck with their caricature roles. Oh Dal-soo has several funny scenes as a gang member who is the leader of the prison cell No.7 where Yong-goo and his cellmates are incarcerated in, and we also have the reliable actors like Jeong Man-sik, Kim Jeong-tae, Kim Gi-cheon, and Park Won-sang as Yong-goo’s cellmates. Like Ryoo Seung-ryong, they are not bad in the movie, but I have seen better performances from them in their previous films, and I was not that pleased about watching them mainly utilized for silly gags or cheap tears.
5) Another manipulative use of a good child actor. Whether it is a comedy or a drama or a thriller, melodrama comes with the territory in South Korean films, and there is nothing better than a crying child to draw every tear you can shed from your lachrymal glands. I appreciated Gal So-won’s radiant cuteness among her adult co-performers, but, alas, her assigned job is being cute or tearful whenever it is necessary for the movie to bring warmth into the audiences’ heart or squeeze the emotions from their heart.
6) Its continual dose of sentimental sappiness approaching to an unbelievable fantasy. Maybe you can tolerate the unrealistic aspects of the story at the beginning, but there are more ‘fantasy’ elements to come along the story, and you may find some of them very unbelievable to accept. For example, we have a feel-good moment involving an escape plan later in the story, and I could not believe my eyes at one point for what was happening on the screen. Seriously, it could not have been more preposterous even if they had got a helicopter ready for Yong-goo and his daughter.
7) The prologue and epilogue scene framing the story for extra sappiness. Everything is told through a mock trial for law students, the adult Ye-seung(Park Shin-hye) acts as a defense lawyer for her father’s case while he is absent(you can guess the reason within few minutes), and she pours every feeling inside her to the courtroom to touch everyone – and us. I heard that the law students are very serious and passionate during their mock trial even though it has no legal effect, but our Ye-seung is so serious and so involved that she even invades into the past scenes to protest as her tears are flowing down her cheek. She will surely win(is that a spoiler?), but I wonder whether that feel-good ending with a yellow balloon in the sky can make any difference in the story except for another sappy moment for us.
While these are the reasons I did not respond well the movie, I must point out to you again that this is not a lousy film. It is a well-made commercial product supported by good talents on the screen, and Ryoo Seung-ryong proves his capability as a lead actor in this movie although this is not his most interesting work. I am glad that he gives a fairly decent performance while not making a fool of himself, but, folks, I saw no point in observing him on the full retard mode for two hours, and he and his co-performers really deserve better than this.