The Asian Angel (アジアの天使, Yuya Ishii, 2021)

A collection of lonely souls is brought together by angelic intervention in Yuya Ishii’s grief-stricken appeal for “mutual understanding”, The Asian Angel (アジアの天使, Asia no Tenshi). Brokering the sometimes difficult subject of Japan-Korea relations, Ishii makes a plaintive case for a pan-Asian family while his wounded protagonists each search for meaning and possibility in the wake of heartbreak and disappointment. Yet what they discover is less the urge to move forward than the gentle power of solidarity, bonding in shared sense of displacement and forging a new home from an apparently fated connection. 

Displacement is a feeling which immediately hits struggling author Tsuyoshi (Sosuke Ikematsu) as he struggles to make himself understood to a grumpy Seoul taxi driver after taking his brother up on an offer to relocate to Korea with his young son following the death of his wife some time previously. Toru (Joe Odagiri), however, has not quite been honest about his life in the Korean capital, housed above a church where they always seem to be rehearsing the hymn Angels We Have Heard on High. Wandering into the apartment, Tsuyoshi is physically thrown out by Toru’s grumpy business partner (Park Jung-bum) obviously unaware they were coming as even Toru himself seems to have forgotten inviting them. In any case, the trio eventually find themselves on the street after Toru’s Korean friend with whom he’d started an illicit business smuggling cosmetics betrays them. 

Meanwhile, across town melancholy songstress Sol (Choi Moon) has been supporting her brother and sister with her music career which seems to be on the slide with a faintly humiliating gig in a shopping mall which briefly brings her into contact with Tsuyoshi, apparently captivated by her sadness. Abruptly informed her contract has been terminated, she tries to take the matter up with her manager/lover but gradually realises she’s merely one of several ladies on his books. Feeling lost, she agrees to follow up on a suggestion from her brother Jun-woo (Kim Min-jae) to pay a visit to the grave of their parents who passed away while she was only a child. 

Running into each other on the train after Toru talks Tsuyoshi into a possible seaweed venture in Gangwon, the two trios end up travelling together if originally struggling to find the “mutual understanding” that Tsuyoshi had been looking for. The first message Tsuyoshi sees on his phone on after arriving informs him that Korean-Japanese relations are at an all time low, though perhaps one would think national tension might not descend to the interpersonal level even if he appears to feel slightly awkward as a Japanese man in Korea aside from his inability to speak the language, but after a few too many drinks at a Chinese restaurant Jun-woo starts in on how 69.4% percent of Koreans apparently disapprove of Japan while 61% of Japanese apparently disapprove of Korea which is one reason he wouldn’t be keen on his sisters dating a Japanese guy. Describing himself as a “progressive”, he claims it’s the relatives who wouldn’t accept it but ends the conversation by cheerfully looking forward to when they can finally “part from these Japanese forever”. 

Yet, they do not part despite several opportunities and in fact end up travelling together for a significant distance during which they begin to bond, discovering that they have much in common including the loss of loved ones to cancer and the improbable sighting of angels who appear not like those on the Christmas cards but a weird old Asian man with a tendency to bite. Several times they are told they shouldn’t be together, Toru lamenting that love between Japanese and Koreans is as impossible as that between angels and humans while a police officer later bemusedly remarks that they don’t look like a family but family is in a sense what they become as they each sort out their respective traumas and resentments to reach a healthy equilibrium. Perhaps you couldn’t quite call it love, but almost and it might be someday if only you let it. “Seeing the world through your eyes I might come to like it a little more” Tsuyoshi admits, while Sol too begins to awaken to a new sense of freedom and possibility brokered by an angelic intervention. Marrying the melancholy poetry of The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue with the gently surreal sense of humour of his earlier work, Ishii’s deeply moving drama makes a quiet plea for a little more “mutual understanding” between peoples but also for the simple power of human connection as evidence of the divine. 


The Asian Angel screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Images: (c) 2021 The Asian Angel Film Partners

The Journals of Musan (무산일기, Park Jung-bum, 2011)

Journals of Musan posterIf you’ve made it out of North Korea, travelled all the way through China, and finally arrived in the promised land of the South, you might expect to find yourself in a kind of paradise free of violence, fear, and oppression, where opportunity and freedom rule. The reality, however, is rarely so pleasant. Those arriving from the North do so with little support, face constant stigma and the threat of exploitation, and may end up just as hungry and alone as before. The hero of Park Jung-bum’s Journals of Musan (무산일기, Musanilgi) is one such lonely soul who finds himself tested and betrayed until cheated even out of his own innocence.

After months in a resettlement centre, Seung-chul (Park Jung-bum) is living with a friend in a rundown flat next to a village knocked down to pave the way for yet another batch of swanky middle-class homes on the periphery of an ever expanding city. Assisted by a friendly policeman who urges him not to tell his prospective employers that he’s come from the North, only that he’ll work hard, Seung-chul looks for honest work but finds it difficult to come by, not only thanks to the mild stigma attached to being a defector but his relative lack of equivalent qualifications, and restrictions on his movements. Meanwhile his roommate, Kyung-chul (Jin Yong-ok), has decided the best buck’s a fast buck and started an individual enterprise “assisting” his fellow North Koreans sending money home via his uncle in China for a “small fee”. The only job Seung-chul can get is pasting up fliers for clubs and bars often over those for other establishments at the behest of an exploitative gang leader who rarely pays him and threatens to take the work away altogether if Seung-chul continues to refuse the less legal jobs he’s often “offered”.

Seung-chul is an innocent, godly soul who truly believes it should be possible to live honestly and with kindness in a land of freedom. His only refuge is the local church of which he is a devout member, but even here he is an invisible outsider who sits and eats alone only just brave enough to venture in in the first place. Developing a fondness for a pretty woman in the choir gives Seung-chul another reason to attend, and eventually a hope of a job too when he silently follows her to the karaoke bar she works in where they happen to be in need of another pair of hands.

The church, however, is just one of the many institutions to renege on their promises, offering relatively little in terms of real support to suffering men like Seung-chul who are granted only superficial welcome. Sook-young (Kang Eun-jin), the young woman Seung-chul idolises, is ashamed of her job in the karaoke bar which she feels to be immoral and in conflict with her otherwise intense religiosity, taking against Seung-chul on spotting him at church in fear that he will spill the beans and out her as an impure woman among her flock. Seung-chul would never do such a thing, though as he points out he doesn’t have any friends there to spill the beans to anyway.

In any case he continues to admire her from afar while she remains oblivious though slightly irritated to think he may have formed an attachment to a “helper” girl after he gets into a fight with a drunken patron who was touching her inappropriately. “Why do you care about people like that?” she asks him, tellingly, exposing her religiosity as the puritanical kind all about rules and oppression and not at all about compassion or kindness. Sook-young looks down on the helper girls as fallen women, advising Seung-chul that a godly man like himself has no business falling for “that sort of girl” before firing him when she catches him singing hymns in the karaoke booth, convinced that his excuse of not knowing any other songs must be a lie.

Sook-young seems to have no idea Seung-chul is from the North. True enough he speaks little but no one picks up on his accent and he’s been trained not to volunteer the information for fear of rejection. Once she finds out, Sook-young is full of remorse, actively inducting Seung-chul into the church and making him her good deed for the day. It’s not only the social stigma that plagues Seung-chul, but a kind of exoticisation. Kyung-chul’s other sideline is earning money through lectures to anti-communist organisations to whom he parrots the accepted line on North Korea – the violence, the oppression, the famine, though stopping short of the full horror. Seung-chul, unwillingly dragged to a church support group, reveals the full extent of what it cost him to survive and discovers no one quite wanted that level of honesty or is willing to help him in the depths of his despair. All anyone wants of a defector is to say what it is they want to hear, any deviation from the accepted line will not be tolerated in an eerie echo of all they’ve escaped.

Gazing at an expensive tailored suit, Seung-chul chases dreams of success but finds only exploitation and abandonment. His only real attachment is to a little dog brought in off the street to whom he shows the tenderness no one has yet shown him but even this small comfort is not enough to sustain him in the fiercely capitalist environment of modern day Seoul. Seung-chul is presented with a choice, one which strains the fragile innocence he’d been careful to preserve for his new life, and finds himself no better than the world which surrounds him. North or South, survival has a price but you can damn yourself by paying it even in the knowledge that those around you sold out long ago.


The Journals of Musan was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)