Asako in Ruby Shoes – E J-yong’s least accessible but possibly most interesting film

U-in tries unsuccessfully to make small-talk with Mia
U-in tries unsuccessfully to make small-talk with Mia

Asako in Ruby Shoes (Sunaebo, 순애보, 2000) is the one E J-yong feature that the KCC hasn’t managed to fit in to its February focus on the director’s work. By coincidence, it’s also the E J-yong film that Hancinema hasn’t, to date, loaded up into its database. But despite its poor showing at the box office, it’s a film that is well worth watching.

It features Lee Jeong-jae, who had his breakthrough film under E’s direction (An Affair, 1998) and Kim Min-hee (who also appears in E’s latest film, Actresses). Asako is a Korea-Japan co-production and features as many Japanese actors as Korean (notably Misato Tachibana as Asako / Aya and Urara Awata as her best friend Rie). It’s a film which flits between mundane realities in Seoul and Tokyo, and explores issues of loneliness, alienation and dislocation.

U-in: bored and depressed
U-in: bored and depressed

Lee Jeong-jae plays U-in, a junior employee in a local government office whose job includes making identity cards, delivering local tax forms and trying to get residents to comply with recycling policies. It’s not a job he finds particularly interesting, but to be honest he doesn’t seem to be interested in much, apart from Mia, a quirky teaching assistant with red hair. Making no headway with her, he seeks a soulmate online and finds Aya, whose screen name at a rather seedy internet porn site is Asako (meaning “morning beauty”).

U-in's night-time entertainment
U-in's night-time entertainment

If U-in is bored and isolated (in a telling scene he is the only Korean in a gathering of Chinese migrants) Aya is bored and suicidal. Seeking escape from the tedium of high school she is aiming to save enough money to buy herself an air ticket eastwards. Her plan: to commit suicide by holding her breath as she crosses the International Date Line. Perversely, she wants people to puzzle over whether she died today or yesterday.

Aya as Asako, Mia lookalike and object of U-in's desire
Aya as Asako, Mia lookalike and object of U-in's desire

If this all sounds rather gloomy, it’s actually rather touching as we find out some superficial detail the different characters. Aya’s affection for the ruby shoes which she had to save up for and which she took with her as part of her fantasy on-line persona; her best friend’s preference for Middle Eastern boyfriends (again, the film’s focus on transient communities, people living in dislocated circumstances); U-in’s pursuit of the unattainable redhead whom Aya so resembles.

But what is less satisfactory about the film is that we don’t get to know about the characters themselves. How U-in ended up in his dead-end job and why he can’t get a grip on himself is not explained. He is from a wealthy family; he lives on his own in a villa in suburban Seoul. He is rich enough that he doesn’t need to work, but he still does work, albeit not with much commitment. He has a history of underperformance which is never explained. We discover that his sister has disappeared – we are not sure why, though we suspect it might be adultery. We also discover that U-in has a strangely insensitive little finger which is often mangled without his noticing. Again, we’re not sure of the significance of this. Is it because all characters in Korean melodramas have to have a mysterious disease which will eventually kill them, or is it just something to make clear that with U-in, not everything is alright?

Aya, who becomes Asako to earn enough money for her suicide bid
Aya, who becomes Asako to earn enough money for her suicide bid

For Aya, life at home is miserable, with her parents going through marital problems (and partner-swapping sessions). The only place she feels secure is at the home of her recently deceased grandmother, about to be sold. But this isn’t enough to explain why Aya wants to kill herself, and we understand even less about why Aya’s best friend Rie also tried to commit suicide in the past.

The original title of the movie, Sunaebo, meaning Pure Love Story, raises interesting questions. Leaving aside the unhappy story of U-in’s sister and Aya’s parents, where little love seems to be involved, there seems to be little about purity in the U-in / Aya relationship: the whole precept of the film is that U-in finds his Asako via an internet porn site, and the emails he sends her via the site are either pitiful or creepy depending on your point of view.

Moving on from the surface of the film, there’s plenty that could occupy the academic looking for themes of Korean emasculation in the years post the IMF crisis. U-in’s brother-in-law can’t keep his wife; U-in can’t get it up when a sexually dominant woman wants some pleasure; and Mia, the object of U-in’s attention in Seoul, prefers women to men. U-in has to seek satisfaction online with a woman who is virtually his own cyber-creation.

Mia: not interested in her job, and not interested in men
Mia: not interested in her job, and not interested in men

The film is a Korean-Japanese co-production made before dramas such as Winter Sonata made it less unusual for a Japanese female to desire a Korean male. Of course, the still unresolved Comfort Women issue casts a shadow over the portrayal of any relationship formed across the East Sea, and it was a brave decision to have U-in, a Korean male, desiring and controlling Asako, a Japanese female, reversing the theme of Korea’s history of the first half of the 20th century. The fact that they find happiness together is a message of healing and hope for the new century. But in an ending that is strangely similar to An Affair, it is perhaps significant that it is only in a country that is far away from home that the characters can start afresh and experience freedom and happiness.

One interesting detail of the film, identified by Hye Seung Chung and David Scott Diffrient in their informative article referenced below, is that the film deliberately echoes an essay by Pi Cheon-deuk (피천득) named Inyeon (인연, roughly translated as Karma), set during the colonial period. “Where have I heard the name Asako before?” U-in wonders. The answer is in his schooldays:

According to the Korea Times, the essay

is included in middle-school textbooks in South Korea and remains etched in the memory of a majority of Koreans.1

The much-loved essay is about Pi’s encounter with a Japanese girl named Asako, daughter of a boarding house Pi stayed during his study in Japan. He recalls his three encounters with her in life in a calm manner, and the essay became his signature writing, conveying the feelings related to yearning, nostalgia and passage of time.

Not only is the essay mentioned in the film, but also a strange scene from the essay is acted out as an otherwise unexplained fantasy sequence while U-in and a work colleague are hunting a stray cat in the Seoul suburbs. The reference to the essay will be lost on most non-Koreans, and probably also to the Japanese audience as well. Fortunately, there are more than enough other layers of complexity in the film to occupy a Western audience that it doesn’t seem vital to have read the essay to appreciate it.

Happy ever after: U-in and Aya in Alaska
Happy ever after: U-in and Aya in Alaska

It is perhaps possible to view the film as a quirky romantic melodrama: U-in and Aya unknowingly met two years before the action portrayed in the film, when U-in was acting as a tour guide in Seoul for Japanese tourists. That chance and unrecognised meeting sowed the seed of their final union in Alaska, with fate or coincidence playing its part at every step along the way: the coincidence that when U-in was looking for a “doll” to comfort him on the internet, Aya was looking for lucrative work online; the fact that U-in’s desired female fitted the online characteristics of the persona created by the website’s managers; the puzzling encounter when the two characters brush against each other on the Seoul subway; and of course the ultimate coincidence that the two of them ended up on the same flight to Alaska. And it is really only in Alaska that they properly meet for the first time.

The film ends, as it began, with a shot taken through the windscreen of an empty road in Alaska, symbolising the future that U-in and Aya will have together, in a land that is strange and exotic to both of them. It’s a happy ending, like An Affair, but a very different, more complex film. Its many layers provide much food for thought, but we are left wanting to know more about the two main characters themselves. Whatever one’s conclusions about the film, its theme of an almost fated love, combined with the world of internet porn, provides a fascinating bridge between the touching romance of An Affair and that boisterous exploration of material you can find on the internet which is Dasepo Naughty Girls.

Recommended reading:

  • Interethnic Romance and Political Reconciliation, Hye Seung Chung and David Scott Diffrient in New Korean Cinema (ed Chi-Yun Shin & Julian Stringer, Edinburgh UP 2005)
  1. I did my own unscientific research, and 100% of my sample of two Koreans remembered the essay from their school textbooks. []

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