7번방의 선물 (7-Beon-bang-ui Seon-mul)
Director: Lee Hwan-kyung (이환경)
Runtime: 127 min
Miracle in Cell No. 7 is a much-loved Korean film, which even 8 years after release still ranks as the 7th highest grossing Korean film of all time. It opens up with a case in court and a decisive young woman (Park Shin-hye) who sets out to overthrow a case from the past. Moments later, we find ourselves in 1997, and the winter is showing its icy teeth. The story immediately anchors itself to Yong-gu (Ryu Seung-ryong), an intellectually disabled man, who tries his best to provide for his 6-year-old daughter Ye-sung (Gal So-won) as a single father. The first time we meet the father-daughter duo, they are longingly staring at a yellow Sailor Moon backpack on display, one that the father will finally be able to afford with his next paycheck. Their interaction is adorable and full of warmth, but the first heartbreak (and shock) this film delivers is already around the corner.
It is the yellow backpack of doom that leads to the death of a police commissioner’s 9-year-old daughter and to a confession under duress for a horrible crime that Yong-gu did not commit. He finds himself separated from his daughter, jailed, and thrown into a cell housing a group of hardened criminals as he awaits the trial. The first interactions with other inmates are fraught, but then Yong-gu saves the life of his fellow cellmate, Yang-ho (Oh Dal-su), and earns himself a favor. And what does Yong-gu want above else? Why, to be reunited with his daughter.
If this were a Western film, an elaborate action sequence would probable follow that would somehow justify the fact that a group of prisoners is working to smuggle a 6-year-old into a prison, but director Lee Hwan-kyung decided not to spend too much time dwelling on such hijinks. Instead, we have a group of 6 men, five nervous and one overjoyed, and a kid, who all try to coexist in a tiny cell after they fail to smuggle the little girl out – after all it, should be harder to break out of prison than to break in. The comedy is ever present in the scenes that follow, as is the sweetness that permeates the interaction between Yong-gu and Ye-sung, which doesn’t leave anyone present unaffected. In no time, it also becomes crystal clear that Yong-gu did not commit the crime he was accused of. His cellmates – on top of “boss” Yang-ho, there is also grandpa Seo (Kim Ki-cheon), white-collar criminal Chun-ho (Park Won-sang), a thug with a sensitive heart Bong-shik (Jung Man-shik), and exuberant Man-beom (Kim Jung-tae) – decide to help Yong-gu prove his innocence. Eventually, the one who starts to fight the most to prove Yong-gu’s innocence is the prison chief Jang Min-hwan (Jeong Jin-young) himself.
On the one side, the film is spurred on by comedy that is as pure as it is refreshing. On the other, it is a melodrama about an innocent man in prison, in a legal system that totally fails him. It is uncanny, just how the two sides of the film manage to work together. The balance is precarious, but it is held up by some of the best acting talents South Korea has to offer. Ryu Seung-ryong walks the edge of a knife, portraying an intellectually disabled person, but he manages that balance to perfection. His performance is further aided by Gal So-won, who offers an amazing performance for one so young. Another thing that really helps the balance is the involvement of subplots that never really take over, but they make the story feel a bit more authentic and a bit less fantastic, such as touching on the issues of illiteracy, poor childcare system, and personal grief. But above all, the film sets out to do two things: propel righteous anger at the flawed system by inciting deep compassion for the innocents that have been wronged, and to highlight the little things, connections that people can share, regardless of their social standing or location.
The titular Miracle is a loud and proud showcase of compassion, and laughter, and love – the important things in life that we should focus and hold on to, no matter what bad things follow – and in the case of this film, be prepared – follow, they will. Another message that the film offers is that despite all the pain that life brings, we should believe in moments of justice, even if they are too late, or long overdue. Life is unfair, and sometimes, it is out to break us – but there is still plenty to smile about, and there are people to love, which is an energy that is never wasted, but spreads into the universe. Love IS the biggest miracle of all.