Film Review: Miracle In Cell No 7

   Miracle in Cell No 7
is a cocktail of a movie which could have only been created in South Korea. A saccharine magic realist melodrama, goofy slapstick comedy, courtroom social polemic and biting indictment of institutionalised corruption and maltreatment of the nation’s marginalised outsiders – that all these elements mix together to create a coherent and thought-provoking whole is something of a miracle itself.

   Lee Hwan-kyung’s film (currently the third most popular movie of all time in South Korea) stars Ryu Seng-ryong as Yong-gu, a mentally handicapped single father who is accused of the rape and murder of an elementary school girl. Sentenced to death, and separated from the daughter he cares about more than anything in the world, Yong-gu’s remaining days look bleak until his new cellmates realise his innocence. They conspire to not only exonerate him of his crimes, but to also smuggle into prison the one thing Yong-gu wants – his daughter.

   In lesser hands, the jarring distance between the film’s major plot strands (a father and daughter’s infinite and unconditional love for each other, and the impending and unjust execution of an innocent man unable to defend himself) would create an uneven and shapeless movie. Lee, however, balances the two perfectly – the slapstick comedy and infinite joy Yong-gu and his daughter feel for each other in Miracle’s lighter moments create huge empathy for the pair, making the ominous and impending tragedy feel even more existentially brutal. It’s a savvy trick which makes his feature, one which bears much in common thematically with Bong Joon-ho’s The Host and Memories of Murder, a film which is just as likely to engage with an audience’s emotions as it is with their intellect. By creating a crowd-pleasing comedy with an undercurrent of indignation at corruption and the death sentence, Lee has been able to Trojan horse issues of societal injustice to a mass audience – an incredibly courageous piece of film-making.

   As a straight up melodrama, Miracle In Cell No 7 is practically perfect too. The film opens with a shot of a balloon, entangled in a fence, straining to get free and escape into the blue sky above it. Bring tissues – it’s unlikely that, by the time the balloon returns to the movie, something to dab away tears won’t be needed.

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