“I can’t remember why I came here,” sighs one of the characters, over an hour into Yuya Ishii’s “The Asian Angel.” You may find yourself feeling the same way at various points during this rambling cross-cultural road movie, shot entirely on location in South Korea, but there’s a generous payoff at the end.
Widowed father Tsuyoshi (Sosuke Ikematsu) moves to Seoul with his taciturn young son, Manabu (Ryo Sato), after getting a sketchy business proposition from his older brother, Toru (Joe Odagiri). It turns out that Toru’s associates are even sketchier than he is, and the siblings soon find themselves down and out, though not before crossing paths with Sol (Moon Choi), whose career as a pop singer seems to be going no better than Tsuyoshi’s as a novelist.
After a humiliating tryst with her soon-to-be-former boss, Sol looks like she might be about to end it all, but she’s saved by the appearance of an angel. The experience jolts her back to reality and sends her on a train journey to the coast to visit her parents’ grave, joined by her decent, none-too-bright brother, Jung-woo (Kim Min-jae), and prickly younger sister, Pom (Kim Yae-eun).
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||128 mins.|
|Language||Japanese, Korean, English|
Whether through luck or divine intervention, they find themselves on the same train as Tsuyoshi and his family, though Toru is the only one who speaks the others’ language. He immediately starts turning up the charm, leading Jung-woo to go on a drunken rant about how the animosity between their countries has made it impossible for Japanese and South Koreans to find love together.
That sounds like a challenge, and the film rises to it, as Tsuyoshi and Sol embark on a tentative courtship, drawn together by their deep-seated grief and a few phrases of rudimentary English. That angel makes another appearance, too, though Ishii — who also wrote the script — gives this potentially hokey plot device a delicious twist.
Although the early scenes in Seoul have a frazzled, fresh-off-the-plane energy to them, the film comes into its own when its characters hit the road together. Ishii has drawn some warm, heartfelt performances from his cast, and they carry the story through even its more eye-rolling contrivances.
Odagiri’s louche charisma is such a perfect match for Ikematsu’s nerviness, I’m hoping this won’t be the only time they star alongside each other. In a welcome inversion of the typical cute kid role, Sato stays silent for almost the entire film, his watchful eyes suggesting that he’s figured out there are other ways to get the point across.
Finding a common language is what international co-productions of this nature are all about, but few of them capture how people from different cultures interact as astutely as Ishii does here. There are perhaps a few too many scenes of characters pouring their hearts out to an uncomprehending listener, but each time they make a faltering, imperfect attempt to communicate, it’s a joy to watch.
Those moments of connection are what “The Asian Angel” is ultimately all about. Rather than just asking why we can’t all get along, the film offers a roadmap. As Toru notes, if you know how to say “I love you” and “Let’s have a beer,” you should do just fine.
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