MIRACLE IN CELL NO. 7 (2013)
A tragicomedy with heart-string pulling pluck, a mentally atypical father is separated from his daughter after being convicted of a child murder
It took some measure of bravery to allow Lee Hwan-kyung’s Miracle in Cell No. 7 to traverse past the elevator pitch stage. A quirky comedy that hangs off the hook of a wrongful murder of a child by a mentally impaired father.
The remit for offense and insensitivity seems too risky to chance, yet the film succeeds to pair off-kilter laughs with this dark and tragic event. It partly achieves this by the central event not being the narrative source, more a device to place our central characters in their bind.
Then we have some fine performances from Ryu Seung-ryong as the accused Lee Yong-gu and especially his daughter Ye-sung, played by Kal So-won, who manages to muster the most remarkable range of facial expressions to portray her deep emotions in each situation.
The pair have a connection nearer to that of close friends, owning to Seung-ryong’s mental restrictions, with Ye-sung often needing to guide her father’s behaviour. Their lives are filled with joy though as they both hunt a backpack emblazed with Japanese manga series Sailor Moon.
The final Sailor Moon backpack is sold to the police commissioner and his daughter, with Seung-ryong attempting to intercept the purchase and accidently causing a scuffle. When the commissioner’s daughter later tries to show Seung-ryong where he can find the bag elsewhere, she falls in a wet market and accidentally dies.
Baying for blood, the commissioner and his detectives manage to coerce Seung-ryong into a confession, exploiting the limitations of his understanding, and he is separated from Ye-sung and sent to prison ahead of a brutal death sentence fulfilment.
Inside prison, Seung-ryong forms an unlikely bond with the other inmates in his cramped cell and together the group hatch a plan to smuggle Seung-ryong into prison.
Miracle in Cell No. 7 sometimes has that soft-focus tinge of a daytime K-Drama and much of the comedy is borderline slapstick, but what works is the emotional core of the film. We care deeply about Seung-ryong and especially the incomprehensibly adorable Ye-sung. Something that another film from the same year manages to do superbly too – Lee Joon-ik’s Hope.
It also leans into one of the most human of anger reflexes – injustice. In this case, a miscarriage of justice, driven by bitter, lazy and manipulative forces that are designed to protect us from such injustice. The detectives, which are a rare focus themselves, seem reminiscent of so much Korean cinema, most notably Memories of Murder (2003) and The Chaser (2008).
Cinema’s uncanny ability to make us laugh, make us cry, to be rattled with fear and to create anger at injustice are all on display here. A drama, a comedy, a crime mystery procedural, a court room drama and even a buddy movie. A heady cocktail of cross-genre blending pulls us in every direction here, leaving only the stone-hearted unaffected.