The Asian Angel (2021) review [OAFF 2021]

Introduction

Yuya Ishii is, without a doubt, one of the most promising young directorial talents of the last years. For us, he proved his worth and talent with All The Things We Never Said (2020), a film that blew us away and rightly won the first place at our top 10 Japanese movies of 2020. This year, Ishii presents his new narrative, called The Asian Angel.

Review

After receiving an invitation from his brother Toru (Joe Odagiri) to work in Seoul with him, Aoki (Sosuke Ikematsu) decides to leave Japan with his mute son Manabu (Ryo Sato). Upon arriving, he realizes that Toru’s situation is not actually as he has described, but his brother’s speech convinces him to stay and help him in his shady business. Not that much later, Toru’s business partner disappears with all the funds.

Sol (Moon Choi), a struggling singer who with the little money she makes feels the need to support her brother Jung-woo (Min-Jae Kim) and sister Bom (Kim Ye-Eun), hears, one day, that her contract has been terminated. Later that night, she also discovers that her lover, the president of her management company, has sexual relationship with other girls (Narra-note 1).

Be mere chance, the Japanese trio, on their way to start a scheme to sell seaweed, meet Sol and her family on the train. Toru convinces Aoki to interrupt their trip and invites Sol, Bom, and Jung-woo family to dinner.  

Yuya Ishii’s The Asian Angel, as narrative, explores four different but interrelated themes: language barriers, the interlingual dimension of acts, intercultural friendship, and intercultural romance.  

The theme of language barriers, the difficulties of moving within a certain foreign social space without knowing the language, is vividly explored via the character of Aoki (Language-note 1). Ishii evokes that even though, due to the resemblance of the foreign social space with the social space, the specific Other, in which one grew up, one can find one’s way in a different social reality, the lack of knowing the foreign language – here Korean – problematizes the establishment of a secure rooted (symbolic) place within this Other. The subject enters the foreign Other as a foreign object. His initial position is a position of being outside-inside the foreign Other, a position that, as evoked in the narrative, is highly alienating.      

Luckily, Aoki can orient himself somewhat within this foreign Korean Other due to the presence of his brother – the presence of his brother acts as a kind of anchor that keeps him safely moored within this Other. Yet, as is shown in the narrative, when his brother disappears, Aoki drifts off, disoriented within this foreign Other, anxiously searching for his brother (Narra-note 2).

The second aspect Ishii touches upon concernsthe communicative power of gestures/acts. What The Asian Angel shows is not that acts are more important than signifiers, but that acts, by taking place within two different Others – i.e. a Japanese and a Korean Other, can become powerful translingual signifiers. The reason why an act can become a translingual signifier is because the event of the act needs interpretation; it needs to be interpreted, via language, by the subjects who perceive it.      

The Asian Angel reveals – and this is the third theme – that it is precisely due to the translingual power of acts that intercultural friendship becomes possible, that it becomes possible to overcome preconceived ideas about the other that one has consumed through the discourses of one’s own Other and meet the other as semblable. But Ishii goes even further. He also explores the viability of intercultural romance, the viability of a romance that transcends national borders and overcomes the existing negative preconceptions about the Otherly cultured other.

In his exploration of the viability of intercultural romance, Ishii touches upon the importance of a common language (e.g. English) to establish a minimal form of communication. Yet, while this common language allows both to reveal certain fragments of their subjectivity to each other and overcome some of the Otherness that marks the other, is this minimal communication enough to open the possibility to establish a romantic relationship? While the narrative seemingly ends in an open-ended way, Ishii does formulate a clear answer to this question (Narra-note 3).

The composition of Asian Angel stands out due to its subtle and pleasing dynamism, its fluid integration of cinematographical decorations (i.e. slow-motion), and its effective play between compositional roughness and fluidity. Ishii also used his composition, albeit it is rather subtle, to evoke Aoki’s and, to a lesser degree, Sol’s subjective state. In the case of Aoki, rough static moments or wild dynamic shots are applied to emphasize the expression of his emotions, like anger, anxiety, and desperation. In Sol’s case, it is a not a kind of framing that is used to evoke the impact of certain events on her subjective state, but the musical accompaniment.

Of course, musical accompaniment is not only employed to evoke Sol’s subjective state, but also to give certain moments between Sol and Aoki a vague but sensible romantic quality and other moments a certain heartfelt humanity. Yet, the more emotional scenes are devoid of any kind of musical accompaniment. The touching and heartfelt emotions within these scenes are entirely function of the acting performances – Ishii demands, in other words, that the emotion comes from the performances such. There is one performance that stands out above the rest, one performance that ensures that Ishii’s narrative is touching: Sosuke Ikematsu’s nuanced and layered performance.

Another element that makes the composition of Asian Angel so visually pleasing is the natural lighting-design. The effective use of the lightning design – a play with blues, yellows, oranges, … etc. – gives Ishii’s narrative, at times, a highly pleasing artful realism.

While Ishii’s latest film does not reach the emotional heights of All The Things We Never Said (2020), The Asian Angel does succeed in showing, in a powerful and touching manner, the possibility of intercultural friendship and romance. In fact, in these recent times, where ongoing tensions mark the bond between Japan and South Korea, Ishii delivers a humanistic message that is, maybe more than ever, highly needed.   

Notes

Narra-note 1: Sol is confronted with the fact that the relationship she felt was genuine was not genuine at all. For her manager, she was only one sexual object out of the many, just one element of a collection of beautiful singers through which he could satisfy his (phallic) power.

Narra-note 2: One of the questions that the narrative poses can be formulated as follows: Can Aoki find another person that allows him to navigate the Korean societal field in a secure way?  

Narra-note 3: It is in exploring the possibility of intercultural romance, that the title The Asian Angel receives its full meaning. The way Ishii has utilized the notion of the Angel will put, on the one hand, a smile on the face of the spectator (a comical application) and force, on the other hand, a tear in his eye (a romantic application).

Language-note 1: The narrative also illustrates that certain gestures are translingual – i.e. that the same gesture have the same signification in two different language systems.  

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