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Finding Angel (Cheonsaneun Baileoseu, 천사는 바이러스)

Director – Kim Seong-jun – 2021 – South Korea – Cert. 15 – 114m

****

Who is the mysterious so-called ‘Angel’ who every Christmas delivers a box containing a large sum of money to a needy local resident of a small, rural town? – out in cinemas on Friday, November 26th

For the last seventeen years at Christmas, the ‘Faceless Angel’ has visited the town of Rohsong in Jeonju City, South Korea to leave a box containing money for a local person in need. Last year, an old woman received the money she needed for a knee operation. Who this person might actually be has remained a mystery, but the locals are glad the Angel is there doing what he or she is doing.

Wishing to solve the mystery and with the journalist’s scent of a good story, newspaperman Kim Ji-hoon (Park Sung-il from Samjin Company English Class, Lee Jong-pil, 2020) arrives in the town in December as the temperature plummets. He makes enquiries at the town office but the girl on the front desk (Lee Ga-kyung) stonewalls him. His attempts at talking to the townspeople don’t get him very far until he talks to old Miss Ok-bun (Moon Sook) about renting a room and she promptly puts him up in her freezing upstairs bedroom.

At night, he sees a man sneaking around outside her courtyard; their conversation alerts the landlady, but Ji-hoon doesn’t give the man away. This stands him in good stead, since Pan Soo (Chon Moon-song from The Bacchus Lady, 2016; Crocodile, Kim Ki-duk, 1996; The Woman Of FIre ’82, Kim Ki-young, 1982) returns the favour by getting him work at Chon-ji’s junk yard. Chon-ji, 28, (Lee Young Ah) is a notoriously difficult boss, expecting her (mostly elderly) workforce to arrive very early in the morning and the work, which often includes lugging heavy loads up hill on a cart, physically demanding. She’s a woman with a strong business sense who has adopted a small boy as her son. Ji-hoon slowly comes to respect her.

All of which is quite engaging but gets us no nearer to the identity of the Faceless Angel. Ji-hoon gets access to Chon-ji’s office safe and starts going through the documents inside, to no real avail. He later learns that Pan Soo is a former successful composer with a good pension, a fact he keeps hidden. And he and Miss Ok-bun have a past relationship which he’d like to rekindle. Ji-hoon himself is not quite what he appears to be either, and has money troubles involving a dubious moneylender.

Somewhere in all this there’s material which might constitute a crime drama, but this is primarily a gentle outing about discovering and getting to know life and people in a small town. The characters are generally engaging and likeable, although nothing like as saccharine as the overly sentimental trailer (with music to match) might imply. As to the mystery of the Angel’s identity, there are various clues and red herrings along the way, but that seems less important than the people you meet in passing, who are worth spending time with.

One thing I didn’t like is the translation from Korean into English in the subtitles. It’s mostly fine, except that there’s a huge amount of swear words. Now, I don’t have any objection to swear words per se, but in this case feels to me either as if someone has deliberately added a lot of swearing in translation to get a 15 rating or, more likely, we’re dealing with an English as a second language translator who doesn’t understand that, for example, the phrase “fucking good” is considerably ruder than the phrase “very good” and is using words like “fucking” for emphasis when most of the time, “very” or “really” would do the job and actually do it better.

There are admittedly also one or two mildly salacious scenes which might get the film (I’m guessing) anything from a PG to a 12, maybe even a 15, but the translated English swearing is a shame given that it likely doesn’t accurately reflect the spoken Korean and might put off some English-speaking viewers (although I hope it doesn’t). I imagine the translation is the element that actually earned the film a 15 rather than the other material, which seems a bit of an own goal if you’re Korean trying to crack the English language market. In one sense it’s not really a children’s film, so it shouldn’t matter, but it would have been nice if the translators had got this right. I should add that I don’t speak Korean and it could be that the spoken Korean has this same problem. However it would surprise me if that were the case.

Translation issues aside, however, this is a good little film and a lot better than the dreaded phrase “heartwaming Christmas film” might imply. I was drawn to it because I like Korean movies, and It didn’t disappoint. And, to be honest, I enjoyed it a lot more than the many lacklustre Western Christmas movies I’ve seen in recent years.

Finding Angel is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, November 26th .

Trailer:

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