Review: The Asian Angel

Quality-wise, cross-border co-productions are rarely as good as their intentions. This Japanese-South Korean film is a case in point, a true hybrid in that it combines Japanese writing-directing styles with Korean production values while presenting a mixed cast that mostly acts on instinct. The writer-director is Yuya Ishii, who’s earned an enviable reputation outside of Japan with idiosyncratic but low-stakes indie films like The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue and The Vancouver Asahi. Here he’s working on location in Korea with a local crew, and his script often evokes the kind of sentimental road movies that are common Korean indie fare, especially for novice filmmakers. 

The plot, however, constantly strains for relevance, if not credibility. Takeshi (Sosuke Ikematsu) travels to Seoul with his young son (Ryo Sato) not long after his wife has died of cancer. He has accepted the invitation of his expat brother, Toru (Joe Odagiri), a ne’er-do-well gladhander who has some sort of get-rich-quick scheme he wants Takeshi to help him with. Predictably, the job, or whatever, falls apart almost as soon as Takeshi shows up, and the three light out for the south in order to try their hand at seaweed exports. On the train, however, they accidentally meet up with Seol (Moon Choi), a pop singer whose career has stalled in second gear and whom Takeshi met in Seoul. She is traveling with her siblings in the same direction to visit their parents’ graves. 

Ishii drapes the usual cross-cultural misunderstandings—both comical and wince-inducing—on this barest of plot structures, and when it works it’s because the Korean actors understand how to effectively interact with both the setting and the dramatic protocols that Ishii provides. The Japanese actors, especially Odigiri, have less success owing to the sketchiness of their character development. Moreover, so much is implied about the underlying political tensions between Japan and South Korea that the sentimental resolutions, which are designed to dispel those tensions, feel contrived. In a sense, The Asian Angel actually highlights the differences between current Japanese cinema and Korean cinema. Technically, it’s an impressive work, but Ishii’s writing and conceptualization lacks the baseline rigor that makes even low-key Korean movies so compelling these days. 

In Japanese, Korean and English. Now playing in Tokyo at Theatre Shinjuku (03-3352-1846), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

The Asian Angel home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 The Asian Angel Film Partners

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