The Asian Angel (Japan, 2021) [NYAFF 2021]

Filmed entirely in South Korea, Yuya Ishii’s The Asian Angel charts the unanticipated coming together of two emotionally broken families, one Korean and the other Japanese. Sol (Choi Hee-seo), Jung-woo (Kim Min-jae), and Pom (Kim Yae-eun) are siblings who live from day to day, with eldest Sol financially struggling and supporting the other two by sporadic singing gigs in the wake of an unsuccessful attempt at being a recording artist. There is much tension within the love between the three siblings since Sol is essentially both mother and father to Jung-woo and Pom; or at least she tells herself she must be, much to Jung-woo and Pom’s frustration. Toru (Joe Odagiri) and Tsuyoshi (Sosuke Ikematsu) are siblings who reunite when the latter arrives in Seoul from Japan with his son Manabu (Ryo Sato) on the promise that Toru has a steady money-making business that Tsuyoshi can join. Business seems fine indeed, however shady the processes, but the brothers soon find themselves high and dry when they return to their warehouse-office-sleeping quarters and are greeted only with its emptiness, quickly realizing that a colleague has cleaned them out.

Slowly but surely, these two sets of siblings encounter each other, on a train no less, both heading for Gangneung but for different reasons. After some initial hesitation and awkwardness and plenty of flirtation on Toru’s part, together they embark on several micro journeys within and around Gangneung. During these journeys, they begin to change their attitudes towards themselves, their lives, and the future as well as towards each other. They come out on the other side still fragile, to be sure, but certainly all the better for it, especially once they discover that they are enigmatically linked by their witnessing of an angel who just happens to be the spitting image of actor Tateto Serizawa.

On paper, this plot line is readily intriguing and full of dramatic (and even comedic) potential—with or without the overarching context of Japan-Korea relations “at an all-time-low” (according to a headline that Tsuyoshi reads upon arriving in Seoul) serving as the narrative’s point of departure and rationale. But the actual result falls a bit short, however well-intentioned, particularly in terms of narrative energy and characterization. On the one hand, the performance of the ensemble cast is solid and assured for the most part. Odagiri’s Toru and Kim’s Jung-woo are the more memorable of the characters of the bunch due precisely to their respective energies in tapping into their roles as the goofy, down-on-his-luck yet ever optimistic brother of each family. Each of them serves as a necessary counterpoint to their respective sibling, Tsuyochi for Toru and Sol for Jung-woo, who is veering towards morbid self-attention. On the other hand, a majority of the situations and moments that are clearly meant to add emotional layers and complexity to characters and their relationships do not reach the viewer clearly or fully enough to avoid being forgettable (for example, Sol’s health scare or when Manabu goes missing. In fact, more often than not, it feels like the film is trying too hard to coax emotion from the scenes as well as the viewer. A difficult task when interest in the characters is middling at best. The task is doubly difficult when the two characters that emerge as the main focal point, Sol and Tsuyoshi through their mutual muted attraction as well as shared artistic struggles, hold the least interest and sympathy.

Sol and Tsuyoshi are ultimately the film’s lead characters for whom the film provides the most background information and context for their actions, while their respective siblings are literally the supporting cast: she is an aspiring singer but is only treated disparagingly at best by a recording manager whom she finally leaves and still deals with the trauma of of her mother’s passing when she was a child, while he is an emerging novelist who has not yet attained the level of recognition and financial stability to support himself and his son and is still in a fairly delicate headspace following the death of his wife. Notwithstanding these heartstring details, an undeniable lethargy hovers over the film, less to do with the actors themselves than with the characters given to them.

However, the film’s most critical error lies in not making more effective use of the conceit of a forty-something Asian angel (played by Serizawa) who appears to each of the siblings at different points in their lives. The first mention of the angel and its semi-appearance is with Sol in Seoul, and it is also with Sol during the journeys that the film reveals the angel in full view (albeit briefly). Meanwhile, on a separate occasion during the same set of journeys, Toru and Tsuyoshi recall the same angel that they witnessed when they were children. It is with Sol on the beach faced with the angel that a glimpse can be had of an alternative trajectory that the film could have taken: in the middle of finding the strength to reaffirm herself, be hopeful about her life, and thanking the angel for their earlier encounter, with tears streaming down, she wonders aloud why he has to look the way he does, unattractive and old-ish. Outside of this oddly amusing sequence, the film would remain the same if everything else about the angel were to be excised.

In retrospect, the narrative—with or without the angel—may lend itself more easily and productively to the TV drama format, with the micro journeys constituting different episodes.

The Asian Angel was shown at the New York Asian Film Festival on August 13.