Yankinku Dragon (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Nowhere but here in Japan

Japanese film “Yankinku Drangon” is a corny but heartfelt drama mainly revolving around one colorful Korean Japanese family. While you can instantly discern that it tries to pull our heartstrings as hard as it can, the movie has a big heart in the right place at least, and we accordingly get several genuinely poignant moments which are more than enough to compensate for a number of contrived elements in the story.

Through the narration of a young mute boy named Tokio (Shinpei Ooe), we are introduced to his Korean Japanese family and several figures hovering around them in their slum neighborhood not so far from a big airport. It is 1969, and Japan has been going through lots of changes thanks to its rapid social/economic advancement, but Tokio’s neighborhood has not received much benefit from that, and Tokio’s father Yong-gil (Kim Sang-ho) and Yong-soon (Lee Jung-Eun) do not care much about that while running their little cow intestine barbecue restaurant as usual, which has been in business for more than 20 years.

To Yong-gil and Yong-soon, nothing is important than giving a chance of better life to their children, and that is why they sent their son to a rather expensive private school, but Tokio does not like to go to his school at all because he has been frequently bullied by other students for his ethnic background. As a matter of fact, he prefers to stay around his house, and his father tolerates that to some degree, though he still does not let his son skip his school days too often.

In case of Yong-gil and Yoon-soon’s three daughters, they are respectively beginning to step into adulthood with varying degrees of confidence. While Shizuka (Yoko Maki) chooses to focus on helping her parents due to her permanently injured leg, Rika (Mao Inuoe) recently gets married to a hot-tempered lad named Tetsuo (Yo Oizumi), and Mi-hwa (Nanami Sakuraba) has been in a serious relationship with a good-looking guy who, as told to us in advance, is actually married to someone in Mi-hwa’s current workplace.

Meanwhile, we also get to know several other characters who often frequent Yong-gil and Yoon-soon’s restaurant. Besides a South Korean dude who recently came in Japan as a worker, there are a trio of local bums who function as a constant source of humor while drinking a lot and paying not much, and there is also a young relative of Yong-gil, who later enters the picture as Rika suffers from her increasingly deteriorating relationship with Tetsuo.

It subsequently turns out that Testuo was once quite close to Shizuka. Both of them still seem to have some feeling toward each other despite that incident which caused her leg injury, but then, what do you know, Shizuka gets herself romantically involved with the aforementioned South Korean worker, who eventually becomes her fiancé later in the story.

Now this is surely your average soap opera story, but the screenplay by director/writer Wishing Chong, which is adapted from his 2008 hit stage play, thankfully does not let the story get too sappy, though it sometimes becomes too theatrical for my taste. As busily juggling its many different characters, the movie often swings its tone between comedy and melodrama a little too abruptly, and we become more aware of its numerous artificial aspects including its apparently stagy main background.

Nevertheless, the movie keeps rolling mainly thanks to the vivid personalities of its main characters, who may be quite broad but are lovingly depicted with warmth and humanity. While they are certainly your average mismatched couple, Yong-gil and Yong-soon deeply love and care about each other as two different people who have closely lived together for many years, and we can sense their strong relationship even when they conflict with each other. They surely want their children to have a better life someday, so they often fight with their children over a number of matters, but they and their children never forget that they are still a family despite that.

Of course, their hard moments are further accentuated by their ethnical background. As “Zainichis”, they are not welcomed much in Japan as well as Korea, and there is a powerful moment when Yong-gil phlegmatically reminisces about how he kept working hard and hard for his family even while his chance to return to Korea got decreased year by year. Once he settled in his neighborhood, he promised to himself that he would never leave his neighborhood no matter what would happen, but there eventually comes a change beyond his control and determination, and he has no choice but to accept that.

Although the movie comes to lose its narrative pacing around its last act, it is still supported well by the solid ensemble performance from its main cast members. While Yoko Maki, Mao Inoue, and Nanami Sakuraba are engaging as three different sisters, Yo Oizumi, Ryohei Otani, Han Dong-Kyu, and Shinpei Ooe are also well-cast in their respective roles, and Kim Sang-ho and Lee Jung-Eun, who are two of the most dependable character performers in South Korea, fluidly move back and forth between Korean and Japanese dialogues as never making any misstep in their believable performance.

Overall, “Yankinku Dragon” feels overwrought from time to time while not entirely free from its stagy origin, but it mostly works thanks to its sincere storytelling and the commendable efforts from its main cast members. I still think it stays a little too long with its characters, but I came to like and care about them more than expected anyway, and I will not deny that I already missed them as watching them respectively moving onto whatever will come next.

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