Director Kim Yong-hwa’s blockbusting 'Along With the Gods' gets an equally ambitious, record-setting sequel, once again headlined by Ha Jung-woo and Lee Jung-jae.

Following the record-setting, Star Wars: The Last Jedi-trouncing Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds, writer-director Kim Yong-hwa strikes box-office gold a second time with the film’s concurrently shot sequel, The Last 49 Days. Picking up what seems like a few minutes after the end of the first entry, the follow-up carries the distinct aroma of a true franchise in the making, setting a ticket presale record at home in South Korea (this time crushing the opening frame of Mission: Impossible — Fallout) and likely to get off to a rip-roaring start in territories that are also eagerly anticipating part two (Hong Kong, Taiwan). Success in niche markets that gave the first installment a chance will see similar results the second time around, and the prospect of an instant double bill could spark newinterest elsewhere. This approach is built for streaming, too.

The story starts with our intrepid afterlife escorts, the Guardians, planning a new trial — their crucial 49th soul — this time for Su-hong (Kim Dong-wook), the paragon of virtue’s brother turned avenging spirit in The Two Worlds, which turns out to be the only real narrative connective tissue. There’s a catch this time: King Yeomra (Lee Jung-jae) reluctantly promises reincarnation for the troublemaking Su-hong; for Haewonmak (Ju Ji-hoon), Deok-choon (Kim Hyang-gi) and their boss Gang-lim (Ha Jung-woo), reincarnation after a millennium of purgatory will only come if the former two reap an elderly man that’s overstayed his time on Earth, while the latter stays and tries Su-hong’s case alone.

Needless to say, there is a plethora of challenges, snags and secrets along the way for each of the Guardians to deal with: In tangling with the household god protecting the old man and his orphaned grandson, Sung-ju (The Outlaws’ Ma Dong-seok), Haewonmak and Deok-choon recover lost memories from their lives in dynastic 10th century Goryeo that realign their relationship to each other as well as to Gang-lim. Gang-lim, meanwhile, wrestles with his own guilty demons, ancient fears and hypocrisy, which the smart-mouthed former law student Su-hong is quick to point out.

Though the two films were shot simultaneously, there’s a sense of “more” to The Last 49 Days that doesn’t really do it any service. Like many a sequel bent on topping its predecessor to prove the first entry wasn’t a fluke, the end result is just a bigger, noisier, less focused slog rather than continued world-building (John Wick: Chapter 2 and The Empire Strikes Back may the exceptions that prove the rule). Where The Two Worlds had an end destination it was clearly heading toward (even if it rambled on occasion), The Last 49 Days plays more like a disconnected historical melodrama pivoting on the Guardians and their intertwined fates. At its core the first film, was a simple, sentimental family drama about selflessness, morality and karma that unfolds in the here and now. This time around, Kim aims higher, tossing in commentary on wealth, land, eminent domain, corruption, loan sharking and banking — and how we have created our own hell — as well as more Buddhist meditations on suffering, regret, filial piety and existential angst. Plus dinosaurs. Kim really loses the plot with a Jurassic Park shoutout (or rip-off depending on your point of view) that seems to exist purely to prove Dexter Studios can build CGI T. rexes, too. As the film hauls itself to its courtroom climax, the points Kim wants to make become more and more muddled, with the cast struggling valiant to make it work.

Despite the general bloat, The Last 49 Days has its share of little pleasures. A handful of visual set pieces stand out, the Wheel of Indolence and a fiery Murder Hell are among the best, but Kim and co. don’t consistently create the same detail with the various levels of hell this time around. Ma’s household god is a winner, though. He makes the most of what is essentially an expositionary role, brandishing his singular bruising charm and stealing almost every scene he’s in. Ha dials down the debonair in order to pump up the latent guilt and agony, and in doing so loses the looser, funnier Gang-lim that was hinted at earlier. And as if truly channeling the Hollywood franchise machine, the afterlife prosecutors previously played by Oh Dal-su and Choi Il-hwa were recast (with Jo Han-chul and Kim Myung-gon) following revelations of sexual harassment by Oh and Choi in the past. Unsavory scandals aside, Kim will need to get far more creative if Along With the Gods is to have a life beyond two parts.

Production company: Realies Pictures, Dexter Studios
Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Ju Ji-hoon, Kim Hyang-gi, Ma Dong-seok, Kim Dong-wook, Lee Jung-jae, Nam Il-woo
Director: Kim Yong-hwa
Screenwriter: Kim Yong-hwa, based on the webcomic Singwa Hamgge, by Joo Ho-min
Producer: Choi Jee-sun, King Yong-hwa
Executive producer: Kim Ho-sung, Wong Dong-yeon
Director of photography: Kim Byung-seo
Production designer: Lee Mok-won
Costume designer: Jo Sang-gyeong
Editor: Kim Hye-jin, Jino Kim
Music: Bang Jun-suk
World sales: Lotte Entertainment

In Korean
No rating, 141 minutes