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Homeless Angels
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by Jay Seaver

"In a propaganda film, everyone's an angel."
3 stars

One of the few surviving films from Korea's colonial period, "Homeless Angels" is very much a work of its time. Released in 1941, it feels like a Hollywood issue movie, and if that's not earnest enough, an extra layer of Japanese propaganda is piled onto the end. By the standards of that time and place, it's fairly well-done, but it's more interesting as anthropology than entertainment today.

In early-1940s Soeul, homelessness is endemic, especially in the Jon-ro area. Teenage girl Myung-ja (Kim Shin-jae) walks the street selling flowers with little brother Yong-gil (Lee Wook-ha) in tow. The Fagin of the area is a guy named Kwon, who wants to start using Myung-ja in less appealing jobs. Yong-gil runs, meeting up with a teacher by the name of Bang Seong-bin (Kim Il-hae), who tends to take in runaways in off the street. He's taken in so many in - to the chagrin of his wife Maria (Moon Ye-bong) - that he eventually has to start his own orphanage on Hyang Rin Won, a farm owned by his brother in law Dr. Ahn (Jin Hoon) - who, despondent over the death of his wife, frequently drinks at the bar where Myung-ja sells flowers.

Homeless Angels is as earnest a movie as you'll ever see; it's filled with a great deal of can-do attitude, teary reformations, and heartfelt pledges to be good citizens of the Empire of Japan. For most of the running time, it doesn't feel like obvious propaganda; it instead feels like a simplistic but upbeat story of a good man helping his neighbors. Director Choi In-kyu actually does well by the outline of a story that Japanese writer Motosada Nishiki has provided for him; the atmosphere of Jon-ro is suitably seedy and he doesn't over-sanitize life at Hyang Rin Won - at least to modern eyes, the empty barn where the boys get put up looks kind of unappealing; there's still a bit of classism to Bang's charitable impulses. It's a marked contrast to when the time later comes for contrition and praise. That doesn't feel insincere, just given a hard push.

The cast is certainly good enough for what they are called on to do. Lee Wook-ha is suitably rascally and contrite as Yong-gil, while Kim Shin-jae gives off intelligence and virtue as the older sister. Kim Il-hae and Moon Ye-bong play very well off each other as the main adult characters; we like Seong-bin's big-heartedness even when he does seem a little naive, and Maria never actually comes off as mean in her less enthusiastic response. Jin Hoon, on the other hand, almost plays Dr. Ahn as two separate characters; the disheveled drunk and friendly physician can be tough to connect (the character being connected to both Myung-ja and Seong-bin also gives the movie a bit of a small-world problem).

Things end well, of course - it would be a lousy piece of propaganda if they didn't! It still makes for an interesting artifact, from how the only print that survived to the twenty-first century has burned-in Japanese subtitles (the film was apparently a popular hit in Japan proper), or how many of the characters have Western, specifically German, names. It's educational, if not necessarily in the way it was meant to be.

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originally posted: 12/11/10 02:03:00
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Directed by
  In-kyu Choi

Written by
  Bando-ui bom

  Il-hae Kim
  Ye-bong Moon
  Shin-jae Kim
  Jin Hoon
  Bong-chun Yoon

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