Miracle in Cell No. 7: Film Review
An all-star cast of character actors anchors this box-office record-breaker from South Korean sentimentalist Lee Hwan-kyung.
A mentally handicapped single father is wrongly accused, tried and sentenced to death for the rape-murder of an elementary school girl in Lee Hwan-kyung’s Miracle in Cell No. 7. The miracle of the title is the series of meetings the man has with his daughter while in prison in the months that lead up to his execution and the friendship she forges with his fellow inmates. Years later, the girl grows into a woman set on exonerating her dad with their help. Oh, this is a comedy.
Schmaltzy family drama, physical and clever spoken gags, tooth-rotting sweetness and finally tragedy go into the unholy cocktail that makes up Miracle, which since its release around the Lunar New Year has shot into the pantheon of Korean box office hits and now only trails films such as The Host and Avatar for highest all-time admissions with over 12 million. With a tiny budget (that would have demanded fewer than 2 million admissions to break even) and anchored by a cast of journeyman actors that rarely get their names above the title, it’s also one of the industry’s most profitable. Despite blatant manipulation and a ridiculously sky-high concept, it’s hard to deny the film’s appeal; it gets under the skin. Box office prospects in Asia should be strong; Asia-focused festivals seem a sure bet based on its success at home, and limited release in overseas urban markets is not out of the question.
1997. Yong-gu (Ryu Seung-ryong) is a mildly handicapped parking garage attendant raising his daughter Ye-sung (Gal So-won) on his own, though she’s clearly the keeper of the household despite being six years old. Yong-gu wants to get her a Sailor Moon knapsack, which leads him to follow another child down a quiet Seoul street to a shop that has them in stock. The second girl -- the police commissioner’s daughter -- winds up dead and Yong-gu is quickly judged kidnapper, rapist and murderer. Yong-gu is fingered as a child-killer in the big house (never good) but after saving his cellmate, Boss Yang-ho (Oh Dal-su) from a shiv in the yard and other displays of pure goodness, the remaining cellmates soon come to understand Yong-gu’s been railroaded. During Yong-gu’s incarceration, Yang-ho and his crew -- academic Chun-ho (Park Won-sang), wily lifer old man Seo (Kim Ki-cheon), secretly sensitive thug Bong-shik (Jung Man-shik), flamboyant Man-beom (Kim Jung-tae) -- conspire to smuggle the one thing Yong-gu wants into the prison: his daughter. Cue hijinks.
The prison escapades with Ye-sung form the bulk of the film, a rambling comedy that’s every bit as absurd as it sounds. But silly as it is, director Lee and his team of regular writers commit fully to the fantasy and build the world so completely it’s easy to let reality slip away. Even the primary set, the prison cell, exists on a fantastical plane. Production designer Lee Hu-kyoung’s bright, homey jail is free of steel bars and bare concrete (the toilet has a door), shot with soft edges by cinematographer Kang Seung-gii to be a space fit for a little girl; it certainly looks nicer than the classroom Ye-sung attends at the orphanage. And it is the prison sequences that contain the most genuine laughs, often refreshingly non-reliant on toilet humor. Ye-sung’s decision to color over the Playboy pinups decorating the walls, Boss Yang-ho’s reading lessons and the sight gags built around keeping Ye-sung hidden are among the highlights.
But then there’s the melodramatic, tragic aspect of the film that gives it its jarring tone. The prison scenes are told in flashback as an adult Ye-sung (Park Shin-hye) addresses a court in an attempt to prove her father’s innocence. Her biggest ally in the quest is Jang Min-hwan (Jeong Jin-young), warden at the time of Yong-gu’s detention. In 1997 Jang is a grieving father whose experience and gut instinct tell him Yong-gu may be innocent. He does his part by looking the other way when Ye-sung sneaks in and by raising the little girl later on. He also digs around police records and uncovers a pattern of political prosecution, police ineptitude and corruption that supports their claims. And Lee has a penchant for heavy-handed imagery (the hot air balloon that gets snagged on barbed wire) and histrionics (walking the green mile) that could bear judicious editing.
It is this odd mix of broad comedy and issue-based drama that makes Miracle so perplexing and logic-defying. It’s hard to tell if Lee has made a social drama (legal shortcomings and cronyism make headlines in Korea) disguised as a goofy comedy or a comedy with an undercurrent of righteous anger. Either way, the film wouldn't work at all if it wasn’t packed with engaging performances by some of Korea’s most reliable second-stringers. Ryu (War of the Arrows) waffles between caricature and affecting as the handicapped Yong-gu, and Gal occasionally suffers an overabundance of cute (though she’s far more interesting than Park), but the rest of the cast more than compensate for their shortcomings, particularly Oh (The Thieves) and Jeong (The King and the Clown). Miracle in Cell No. 7 is one of those films you don’t want to, one you know you shouldn’t, but you just can’t help liking.
Producer Kim Min-ki, Lee Sang-hun
Director Lee Hwan-kyung
Cast Ryu Seung-ryong, Gal So-won, Oh Dal-su, Park Won-sang, Jung Man-shik, Kim Ki-cheon, Kim Jung-tae, Park Shin-hye, Jeong Jin-young
Screenwriter Lee Hwan-kyung, Yu Young-a, Kim Hwang-sung, Kim Young-seok
Executive producer Kim Woo-taek
Director of Photography Kang Seung-gii
Production Designer Lee Hu-kyoung
Music Lee Dong-june
Costume designer Kim Na-youn
Editor Choi Jai-geun, Kim So-youn
No rating, 127 minutes