Director: Lee Hwan-gyeong
Cast: Ryoo Seung-ryong, Park Sin-hye, Gal So-won, Oh Dal-soo, Park Won-sang, Kim Jeong-tae
RunTime: 2 hrs 7 mins
Rating: NC16 (Some Nudity)
Released By: Cathay-Keris Films
Official Website: http://www.7gift.kr
Opening Day: 20 June 2013
Synopsis: Lee Yong-gu is a mentally challenged man with an intelligence of a 6 year-old, which is actually the age of his own daughter Yesung who is much smarter than her peers. The two of them lead a happy life on their own while Yong-gu makes a living by working as a parking attendant at a local supermarket. But one day, when the police commissioner’s young daughter dies in a strange accident, Yong-gu who happens to find her is falsely accused and sentenced to death for abduction, sexual assault, and murder of a minor. Yesung is sent to a childcare institution and Yong-gu gets imprisoned and assigned to Cell No.7. At first, other inmates in the cell keep their guard against Yong-gu on death roll, then realize that there’s something wrong with him. Not understanding his own dire situation, Yong-gu only worries about his daughter. One day, he saves his fellow cellmate, an influential figure in the prison, from an attack by his rival. In return for saving his life, Yong-gu is granted a wish: to see his daughter Yesung again. The inmates put their heads together to carry out a daring operation and miraculously succeed in sneaking Yesung into Cell No.7 during a religious event. While the father and daughter rejoice, the others realize it was relatively easy getting her in, but impossible getting her out. After a while, Yesung is detected and sent back, but during the time the inmates as well as the prison guards come to realize that Yong-gu was falsely charged. And they all put their heads together to prepare him for his final trial.
True to its title, ‘Miracle in Cell No 7’ achieved a miracle in its home country earlier this year, joining a rare club of movies that have crossed the 10 million admission mark and cementing its position as one of the biggest local hits of the year. It’s not hard to see why really - despite being an odd mix of broad comedy and melodramatic family tragedy, director and co-screenwriter Lee Hwan-kyung’s latest film is an unabashed crowdpleaser that does exactly what it needs to in order to tug at his audience’s heartstrings.
Savvy viewers should be able to recognise his intentions right from the start, as Lee sets a mentally handicapped single father with a precocious but oh-so-adorable little daughter as his main character. Wasting no time in laying the premise of his prison-set story, Lee introduces us to the father-daughter pair of Yong-gu (played by the chameleon-like performer Ryu Seung-ryong) and Ye-sung (Gal So-won) singing and performing the ‘Sailor Moon’ theme song outside a stationery shop, the significance of that Japanese cartoon coming into sharper focus later on.
Ye-sung wants the ‘Sailor Moon’ backpack on display in the shop, but before Yong-gu gets his salary for the month to buy her the only one left, another parent has snapped it up for his six-year-old girl. By sheer chance, that same girl runs into Yong-gu at the parking garage where he works as an attendant, and promises to bring him to another shop which sells the exact same bag. So he follows, but along a quiet alley, she winds up dead and he is mistaken by a passer-by for having raped and killed her. Turns out that girl is the Commissioner’s daughter, who blinded by rage, is content to rely merely on circumstantial evidence to get him convicted and sent behind bars.
Lee doesn’t keep his audience under any illusion that Yong-gu is innocent, so any subsequent act of injustice done to him is meant to stir up a sense of indignation - whether the initial outburst by the prison warden Jang (Jeong Jin-young) at an act of perceived insubordination or the ‘ragging’ he gets from his cellmates at the start when they find out what he has been charged with. A selfless act that saves Boss Yang-ho’s (Oh Dal-su) life leads the former and the rest of his cellmates to change their opinion of Yong-gu, and Yang-ho returns the favour by smuggling Ye-sung into prison so that father and daughter can be reunited.
The mechanics of that aren’t important; by that point, it should already be clear that Lee is more than willing to play by narrative contrivance in order to engineer schmaltzy moments. Ditto for a distinct lack of veracity - not only for the sheer implausibility of just how long Ye-sung can stay hidden inside the cell without being found out, but at its most extreme, how Yang-ho and the rest of his cellmates can actually build a hot-air balloon that can rise above the walls of the prison. Indeed, if you’re determined to enjoy Lee’s slice of fantasy, you’ll be better off accepting his constructs at face value.
To Lee’s credit, it’s really not hard to be won over. The bond between Yong-gu and Ye-sung is heartfelt and heartwarming, and both Ryu Seung-ryong and Gal So-won share such effortless chemistry with each other that only the hardest of hearts won’t be moved. Also brimming with warmth are the scenes between Yong-gu and his cellmates - Chun-ho (Park Won-sang), Seo (Kim Ki-cheon), Bong-shik (Jung Man-shik) and Man-beom (Kim Jung-tae) in addition to Yang-ho - none of whom prove more threatening than a fly. In particular, the running gags involving their attempts to conceal Ye-sung from the guards and teach their boss Yang-ho to read are easily some of the most hilarious moments in the movie.
And even though it’s apparent that a large part of the movie is designed specifically for broad audience appeal, Lee exercises an admirable amount of restraint when it comes to the emotional finale. Yes, it’s a given that tears are meant to be shed, but Lee works that sequence with a touch of elegance, so much so that you won’t be inclined to begrudge it for being successful. Rather than leave his audience vexed, Lee also ends the movie on a bittersweet note as an adult Ye-sung finally gets her father the justice he deserves in a belated trial that reunites his former cellmates and Warden Jang.
Because of Lee’s deliberate but nonetheless effective efforts to ensure that his movie connects and resonates on an emotional level with his audience, it’s not hard to see why it has come out of nowhere to become one of the biggest Korean hits of the year. There is no cultural barrier to the story too, as Lee relies on universal themes of the love between father and daughter and the camaraderie between friends forged by circumstance to tell an implausible but touching modern-day fairy tale. Suspend your belief and we guarantee you that you’ll find yourself tickled and moved by this fable.
(Unabashedly manipulative but nonetheless surprisingly amusing, affecting and uplifting, this modern-day fairy tale of enduring love between a father and a daughter will leave you misty-eyed)
Review by Gabriel Chong