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Asian Angel, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Intersecting Road Trips"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2021 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: "The Asian Angel" is almost, but not quite, two road movies in different languages that got stuck together and tangled up, which occasionally plays into how sometimes people need to get things out even when the idea of people hearing and understanding is awful. That there's a romance involved is unlikely, but the filmmakers fundamentally understand how rickety the whole thing is, and make no apologies for giving the audience the movie they came to see.

It involves widowed novelist Takeshi Aoki (Sosuke Ikematsu) arriving in Seoul with son Manabu (Ryo Sato) in tow despite neither of them speaking Korean and general tension between the countries as bad as they've been in decades, if not since World War II. Takeshi's brother Toru (Joe Odagiri) has been there a while, running a shading import/export business and giving Takeshi the impression that there's work and Japanese-language schools they can afford which may not be the actual case. Nearby, the Choi family has their own tensions; Seol ("Moon" Choi Hee-Seo) is seeing the last vestiges of her hopes to become a pop singer vanish, brother Jung-Woo (Kim Min-Jae) isn't really doing well with the family business that their parents left him, and just-past-teenage sister Po-Mu (Kim Ye-Eun) is bitter that there's not a lot left for her as a result. Their paths have already crossed a couple of times before they're on the same train - the Aokis chasing a deal that might save Toru's business, the Chois visiting their parents' grave - but Manabu's tendency to wander off and an encounter with Seol's agent winds up with the two groups thoroughly intermingled.

Writer/director Yuya Ishii tends to build his movies around lingering wounds, at least as far as the ones that have made the North American festival circuit go (which ironically does not include The Great Passage, his biggest hit, which appears more upbeat), and that's the case here: Whatever modest success Takeshi and Seol may have had at the starts of their careers is thoroughly spent, and their brothers' businesses are both a bad break or two from just not being there any more. These families haven't been broken, but don't necessarily have a lot to say to each other at the moment; everything to be said has been said, and while they need each other, Toru doesn't really know what he's got for Takeshi to do and Jung-Woo can't really articulate to Seol why he thinks visiting their parents' graves will help.

Finding themselves thrown together with the other family doesn't seem like it should work - early scenes of Takeshi and Seol talking past each other smartly play out as her recognizing his good intentions as being somewhat patronizing, and between Ishii and actors Sosuke Ikematsu and Choi Hee-Seo, even the subtitle-reading audience has a clear idea of what they understand and what they don't, and when they later discover that each speaks a little English, there's a bit of relief at finally being able to communicate, but also a need to be clear and put effort into their words. There's a sort of paradox to how these people are communicating - there are a lot of scenes where it's just a relief to get something out without or to listen and sympathize without details, but also care to how having to use a foreign language forces one to consider what they think and feel rather than just lean on expectations.

As introspective as that is, the movie and cast are often lively. Takeshi and Seol make an enjoyable pair because her cynical cool plays well against his haplessness, a shared frustration at things not going as they should uniting them. As the brothers, Joe Odagiri and Kim Min-Jae supply contrasting sorts of easygoing charm; Odagiri's Toru is almost convincing in his amoral detachment until his weakness for Korean girls shows up or he has to stand up for his friends and family but doesn't want to make a big deal out of it, the sort of layered performance that is kind of sneakily good because Ishii doesn't let him usurp Ikematsu as the movie's center, while Kim Min-Jae is kind of familiar in presenting Jung-Woo's working-class bluster while making his pride in Seol's talent the sort of genuine that annoys her but doesn't break into cringe for the audience. Kim Ye-Eun feels like she'd have something really interesting to do if this were just the Chois' story - Po-Mu is often sulky and snarky and she clearly resents being a side character even if she doesn't break the fourth wall about it.

Their stories are all mixed up, and it clearly takes a bit of effort to keep them that way. Ishii doesn't necessarily have to work hard to build things up in order to knock them over - there's something impressively well-calibrated about how he handles the line between "we're poor but stable" and "your car breaking down on a cold night is really dangerous" - but he puts the families into a number of small, disposable tricky situations to keep things moving, with the climax a more urgent one rather than something the others were building to. The angel of the title winds up serving as an odd bit of glue, like Takeshi, Seol, and their families need a little something extra to bind them than just a shared situation.

And yet even without it, the two bickering families have been so thoroughly intertwined by the end that imagining their journeys as merely parallel seems impossible, like this was one story from the start. It's an impressive bit of alchemy, even if it does, maybe, take a little extra time for the combined unit to settle and cool.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=34589&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/30/21 04:33:30
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2021 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  YŻya Ishii

Written by
  YŻya Ishii

Cast
  Sosuke Ikematsu
  Joe Odagiri
  Moon Choi



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