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Hi, I’m Colin Marshall

… a Seoul-based essayist, broadcaster, and public speaker on cities, language, and culture.

You’ll find my essays here. I write for outlets including Guardian CitiesOpen Culture, the Times Literary Supplementthe Los Angeles Review of Books (including its Korea Blog), KCET, Boom: A Journal of California (and guest-edited its issue on architecture, infrastructure, and the built environment), Bookforum, Boing Boing, Put This On, The Japan Foundation, The Millions3QuarksdailyThe Quarterly Conversation, and Maximum Fun.

Each month I appear on a Seoul urbanism radio feature on TBS eFM’s Koreascape. Previously, I hosted and produced the world-traveling podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture [RSS] [iTunes], which evolved from the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas. 

My video essay series The City in Cinema examines cities (especially Los Angeles) as they appear on film.

My public speaking, which I’ve done in places like Portland’s Hollywood Theatre, the San Francisco Urban Film Festival, Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Chapman University, California State University Long Beach, and the Seoul Book and Culture Club, usually covers this same suite of cities-and-culture-related topics.

You can also keep up with me on Twitter and Facebook as well.

Books on Cities: Trans-Europe Express: Tours of a Lost Continent (2018)

The publisher of Owen Hatherley’s Trans-Europe Express: Tours of a Lost Continent sent me a copy addressed to “Colin Marshall, Cities Writer.” Though I’ve never worked under that title, I can hardly reject it; then again, it would seem to apply rather better to Hatherley himself, who despite being only three years older than me has published ten more books than I have. The volumes with which he made his name, 2010’s A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain and 2012’s A New Kind of Bleak, deal exclusively with the built environments of British cities. 2015 Landscapes of Communism sends him farther afield, to capitals such as Moscow and the former East Berlin, of course, but also Kiev, Warsaw, Bucharest, Vilnius, and Zagreb, among other smaller and more obscure ex-Soviet destinations. Trans-Europe Express, his eighth, represents the widest expansion yet of his architectural-urbanistic mandate.

Essentially an essay anthology, the bookcollects Hatherley’s writings on various cities across the European continent. The occasion was the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” vote of 2016 — hence, presumably, the “Lost” of the subtitle — and the structuring question is what, exactly, makes European cities different, usually better, than British ones. “The reason why I wanted to stay in the European Union was architectural,” Hatherley writes, though in his view the superiority of the European city doesn’t stop at its buildings but manifests in its streets, its squares, its transit systems, indeed its very sense of urbanity. Urban Britain did once seem about to Europeanize: “Bradford would be an Italian hill town, Gateshead would be the new Bilbao, Salford would become as outward-looking as Rotterdam, Sheffield would model its public spaces on Barcelona.” Yet “each of these towns and cities voted in the majority to leave Europe. What went wrong?”

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Books on Cities: Christopher Alexander, “A Pattern Language”

When urban theorists speak of “reading” the city, they usually leave the mechanics of the act to the reader’s imagination. In 1977, Christopher Alexander launched himself high into the urbanist canon by taking the opposite approach, creating with his team at Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Structure a set of verbal tools to make legible, discuss, and evaluate the city, broadly defined, as rigorously as they could without losing sight of human values. The result was A Pattern Language, a 1,171-page dissection of the entire built environment into its recurring components — or quasi-grammatical “patterns” — from “independent region,” “ring road,” and “promenade” down to “house cluster,” “sitting circle,” and “marriage bed.” The project is both descriptive and prescriptive: by the time Alexander declares that “bedrooms make no sense” on page 869, such a sweeping charge hardly comes as a surprise, nor does the analytical-romantic justification that follows.

A Pattern Language first appeared in the long post-hippie moment of the 1970s, which saw many a former seeker, high-profile and low, turn toward more practical concerns. The book’s synthesis of both the pre- and post-60s mindsets turned Alexander in particular, as architect-critic Witold Rybczynski puts it, into “something of a guru in the youthful Whole Earth Catalog-influenced counterculture.” Whatever value the era placed on the intersection of the visionary and the pragmatic, it wasn’t a golden age for major cities, especially in places long subject to anti-urban impulses such as Britain and America. Alexander cites a Gallup poll indicating that a mere 13 percent of the U.S. population then wished to live in a city, as against 32 percent who voiced a preference for a small town. (A startling 23 percent of the respondents dreamt of a life on the farm.)

Read the whole this at Substack.

Korea Blog: The Cinematic-Romantic Collaboration of Hong Sangsoo and Kim Min-Hee Evolves in “The Woman Who Ran”

If at all possible, do try to see The Woman Who Ran (도망친 여자), the new picture by Korean auteur and international film-festival habitué Hong Sangsoo, at Seoul’s Emu Cinema. I recommend that particular venue in part because it offers occasional English-subtitled screenings for non-Korean-speakers, but more so because it appears as a major location in the movie itself. Watching Hong’s films in Seoul is like watching Éric Rohmer’s films in Paris: the characters tend to encounter one another and fall into meandering, insistent conversations in places you recognize from everyday life, and indeed may have passed through on your way to the theater. But it’s one thing to watch a movie in the city where it takes place, and quite another to watch its protagonist take a seat in the very same screening room in which you’re seated yourself.

That protagonist, a 30-something Seoul florist named Gam-hee, is played by Kim Min-hee, star of seven out of Hong’s last eight movies. It says something about Hong’s prolificacy that these constitute only the latest period in his career, during whose 24 years he’s directed exactly as many features. For his dedicated followers, myself included, the wait for The Woman Who Ran felt worryingly long, his previous work Hotel by the River (강변 호텔) having come out all the way back in 2018. In that film Kim’s character checks into the titular small-town lodgings, some distance from the capital, after breaking up with her married lover. That same year also saw the release of Grass (풀잎들), an hourlong novella of a picture built around the eavesdropping conducted by Kim’s amateur novelist from the corner table of a Seoul coffee shop.

The year before that, Hong directed three films. In The Day After (그 후) Kim plays an assistant at a small publishing house physically attacked on her first day of work by the boss’ wife, who confuses her with the girl she suspects he keeps on the side. This also turns out to be her last day of work, and Kim’s character in Claire’s Camera(클레어의 카메라), a film-distribution company employee, experiences similar professional difficulties. Her boss fires her on a trip to Cannes with seemingly inexplicable suddenness, and only later does it come clear that both of them have been surreptitiously involved with the same film director. This followed the also partially Europe-set On the Beach at Night Alone (밤의 해변에서 혼자), which features another of Kim’s performances as an actress and erstwhile filmmaker’s mistress.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Books on Cities: Ben Wilson, “Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention” (2020)

I wonder: have I ever described the city as “humankind’s greatest invention”? It’s not impossible, given the proclamation’s tempting combination of boldness and obviousness — which it would retain if applied to, say, language, another of my own interests. Reading Ben Wilson’s Metropolis: A History of Humankind’s Greatest Invention, I realized its subtitle sounded familiar because it echoes that of Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, published nearly a decade ago. Glaeser is a Harvard economist and Wilson a historian, author of popular books on the free press, public morality, and the British navy. Though their different professional and intellectual backgrounds make for differences in their approach to the city, both Triumph of the City and Metropolis are ultimately arguments in its favor. And so their most enthusiastic readers, myself included, feel a bit like preached-to choirboys.

The most city-inclined among us would, I suspect, prefer urban environments even if they made us poorer, dumber, less green, less healthy, and sadder. (When my own such preferences emerge in conversation, I often find myself incorrectly assumed to be an environmentalist.) That in Glaser’s view the numbers support the opposite conclusion is but a nice coincidence. An economist in the 21st century would, of course, make much of numerical data that support his point, but Wilson also hauls out what feels like nearly as many figures on his way through urban history. The world’s urban population has increased from one billion in 1960 to more than four billion today. Every hour, 85 people move to Lagos and 53 to Shanghai. China used more concrete between 2011 and 2013 than the United States did in the whole of the 20th century. Two-thirds of humanity will live in cities by 2050.

These aren’t uninteresting trends, though the numbers that stick in my head rend to reflect specific chapters of history. In the year 1500, Asia had seven of the world’s twelve largest metropolises. In 1675, Holland’s urbanization rate was 61 percent, as against nine percent across the rest of Europe. By 1851, more than half of Britain’s population lived in towns and cities, making it the history’s first majority-urban society. Haussmann added 600,000 trees and 24 squares to Paris. In the 1950s and 60s, the cities of the United States gained ten million new residents, but its suburbs gained 85 million. The number of public baths in Tokyo peaked in 1968, at 2,687. Mexico City and Mumbai now have nearly 250,000 street vendors each. Shanghai had no modern high-rises in the early 1990s; now it has 25,000, more than any other city. Seoul, where I live, comes in second with 17,000.

Read the whole thing (and subscribe) at Substack.

Korea Blog: Frances Cha’s “If I Had Your Face,” The Great Korean Plastic Surgery Novel

When first learning Korean in Los Angeles, I went to a Koreatown bookstore in search of simple reading material. There I picked up the first volume in a long-running a series of illustrated books for children called Happy World (행복한 세상). Its short, fable-like stories turned out to be united only by what struck me as an often thoroughgoing sadness, their titular world populated mainly by neglected children, impoverished students, downtrodden mothers and fathers, and crippled elders. “Oh, I know exactly what this means,” said a Korean friend to whom I showed the opening of one such tale, which simply introduced its young characters, a young brother and sister living in a mountain village with their maternal grandmother. “Their mother probably died in a factory accident, then their father drank himself to death, then the rest of the family was too ashamed to take them in…”

This implied history of misfortune could go on. Even then, film and literature in translation had already shown me that “every Korean story is a tragedy” — which, if not literally true, at times feels practically true. Observers of Korea thus often find themselves tempted to reference the concept of han, the deep-seated set of negative feelings defined as uniquely Korean. So do some Koreans: in Frances Cha’s new novel If I Had Your Face, one character remembers hearing that her grandmother “had choked to death on han — the pent-up rage from all the pillaged generations before her — seeing her parents die before her eyes, having served her mother-in-law as a body slave until she aged long before her time.” Though life has gone rather better for the speaker and the book’s other principals, all young women in 21st-century Seoul, theirs remains an unhappy world.

Narrative duty rotates between four of these women, all of whom live in the same humble apartment building, the gray “Color House.” Ara, rendered mute by incident whose nature Cha holds for the end of the book, spends her days working as a hairdresser and her nights obsessing over a pop singer. Kyuri, having undergone myriad cosmetic-surgery procedures (“the stitches on her double eyelids look naturally faint, while her nose is raised, her cheekbones tapered, and her entire jaw realigned and shaved into a slim v-line”), has worked her way up to employment at a “room salon” that pays her to drink with and fawn over big-spending male clients. Miho, she of the han-choked grandmother, is an artist not long returned from studying abroad in New York. Married and pregnant, the thirty-something Wonna observes the “girls” living on the floor above her with a mixture of concern and envy.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Announcing my new Substack newsletter, Books on Cities

There have surely been better times for city aficionados than the summer of 2020. I write you from Seoul, which as I observed in the New Yorker this past spring has so far managed without serious disruptions to its everyday life. (In fact I just got back from a haircut, albeit a masked one.) But then, for the past year I’d also been planning an urbanist road trip across the United States. Needless to say, I’ve postponed it — the result of a decision process greatly clarified when Detroit and New Orleans, its starting and ending points, became two of the country’s coronavirus hot spots.

The day when we can get out into our own cities and others besides will come again. Until then, there are plenty of books about cities to be read: those published over the past fifty, sixty, seventy years, of course — many of which even the most literate urbanists haven’t got around to — but also those being published even now, as we speak. Predictions of the pandemic-hastened “end of the city,” no matter how confidently made, haven’t yet put an end to what I’ll call the “city book.” This includes no few works of city criticism, a genre I made a start at defining last year in the Guardian and on which I certainly haven’t given up, as either a reader or a writer.

Hence my launch of Books on Cities, a newsletter in which I’ll write long-form essay-reviews of books new and old about cities the world over. Though I’ve been aware of certain writers making a go of it on Substack for quite some time, it didn’t cross my mind to try until the coherence of this particular idea, which struck me as a neat fit of substance and form (and I’m nothing if not a sucker for a neat fit of substance and form). Beginning Friday, September 18th, I’ll post one piece on one city book every two weeks. As seems to be standard operating procedure on Substack, some of them will be free for anyone to read, and others will be accessible to subscribers only.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Korea Blog: No Sex Please, This Is the Korea of Jang Sun-woo’s The Road to the Race Track (1991)

Since the liberalization of international travel in 1989, Koreans abroad have become a more than occasional subject of Korean cinema. My own favorite example remains Hong Sangsoo’s Night and Day (밤과 낮), from 2008, about a boorish artist in Parisian exile from a drug charge. But then, Hong’s films — modestly budgeted, dialogue-heavy, and improvisatory in construction, celebrated at European festivals (most recently in Berlin this year, where he won the Silver Bear for Best Director) and routinely compared to the work of European auteurs — are in some sense foreign themselves. But they aren’t entirely without precedent: for the Korean movie that first found all of its substance in the dissimulating conversations and abortive sexual encounters of half-formed intellectuals, we must look to Jang Sun-woo’s The Road to the Race Track (경마장 가는 길).

The Road to the Race Track came out in 1991, five years before Hong’s debut feature The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (돼지가 우물에 빠진 날). What the films have in common begins with their origins in literary source material, once almost a matter of course in Korean cinema. They also both involve journeys from Seoul out to smaller provincial cities and back, and both of them spend time in cafés and motels. But when describing the Korea of the early 1990s, in the capital or elsewhere, the English words for those places don’t suffice: much more evocative, for anyone who knows this country, to say that these movies time in dabang and yeogwan. The two main characters in Jang’s film use those very terms with some frequency, commenting in certain lines on how they seem to go nowhere else.

In fact there are practically no characters but those two, called only R and J. R, a bespectacled, jacketed and necktied academic in his late thirties, exits baggage claim at Gimpo Airport to meet J, a woman in her mid-twenties with a bouncy late-80s perm, set somewhat apart by a faintly Continental style of dress. And indeed, both have spent time on the Continent, specifically France: R has just returned from half a decade earning his doctorate in literature there, a task J herself completed the year before. For three years of their overlapping time abroad they lived together as lovers, yet when J drives R to his yeogwan — like a motel but smaller, cheaper, and somehow both garish and spartan — she makes to leave as soon they arrive, puzzling R with her reluctance to pick up in Korea where they’d left off in France.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: The First Comprehensive Introduction to “K-Lit” Past and Present, Youngmin Kwon and Bruce Fulton’s “What Is Korean Literature?”

Where to start with Korean literature? That question can frustrate Western enthusiasts of modern Korean popular culture — music, television, film — who want to go deeper. When I began seriously watching Korean movies, I realized many of them were adaptations of novels or stories, but soon learned that reading those novels and stories myself wouldn’t be easy. Less Korean literature had been translated than I’d expected, and much of it was hardly distributed outside academia. Most of the Korean books I did find in English seemed obsessively focused on the various traumas of 20th-century history. Their awkward prose wasn’t helped by romanized Korean words whose apostrophes and unfamiliar diacritical marks made them look stranger than the actual Korean alphabet.

Blame for that last goes to the McCune-Reischauer romanization system, in use since the late 1930s. It was co-creator Edwin O. Reischauer, an Asia scholar and the United States Ambassador to Japan under John F. Kennedy, who called the Korean alphabet hangul “perhaps the most scientific system of writing in general use in any language,” a claim still repeated (usually out of context) in Korea today. Hangul is, at any rate, a logical and easy-to-learn system of writing, as I found out when I began self-studying the Korean language soon after my first encounters with Korean literature — having resigned myself to the idea that if I wanted to enjoy Korean books, I’d probably have to do it in Korean.

McCune-Reischauer was falling out of favor even then, challenged by a revised system introduced around the turn of the millennium by the National Academy of the Korean Language. Yet some prominent translators have held fast to it, including Bruce Fulton, who with his wife Ju-Chan Fulton has brought into English the work of many of the notable Korean writers of the past half-century. (Their translations of Kim Sagwa’s novel Mina and Yoon Tae-ho’s comic Moss have previously been featured here.) The experience placed him well to work in another Korean-Western partnership: in collaboration with Seoul National University literature professor Youngmin Kwon, he’s written the introductory text What Is Korean Literature?, newly published by UC Berkeley’s Institute of East Asian Studies.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: “Train to Busan,” “Peninsula,” “#Alive,” and the Korean Zombie Apocalypse

I write these words on the KTX, South Korea’s high-speed train. Though not as iconic as Japan’s Shinkansen, it certainly does the job more efficiently, and for the passenger more comfortably, than any rail service I remember back in the United States. Even those who’ve never been to Korea may be familiar with the look and feel of the KTX experience, especially if they happen to like zombie movies. The standard for Korea’s cinema of the living dead was set in 2016 by Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan (부산행), that train being a KTX on a run from Seoul to the country’s second-largest city, at the other end of the country on its southeastern coast. Faithful to its setting right down to the employee uniforms and seat-pocket travel magazines, the film no doubt pleased train aficionados as much as it did zombie aficionados, and not just Korean ones either.

Train to Busan‘s impact is evidenced by the academic essay collection Rediscovering Korean Cinema, in which the film appears not just as the subject of a chapter but the source of its cover photo. In his consideration of “South Korea’s first zombie blockbuster,” University College London’s Keith B. Wagner describes the film, with its “family-rescue-drama-cum-zombie-survivalist-contamination-anti-neoliberal” sensibilities, as “a polished apocalyptic tale that is unafraid to touch on pressing social issues that matter to Koreans.” This is in keeping with the genre’s capacity as a vehicle for social critique, established at least since 1978 when George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead showed us zombies shambling, with a somehow recognizable mindlessness, through a shopping mall. Jim Jarmusch (who happens to have gathered a robust Korean fan base) took the satire further in last year’s The Dead Don’t Die, whose 21st-century zombies moan for coffee, wi-fi, and Xanax.

The more traditional, wholly non-verbal zombies of Train to Busan have no desires apart from the usual one for human flesh. In this and most other respects they adhere to the standard zombie behavioral model, staggering unthinkingly toward any living being in the vicinity in order to bite it and thus turn it undead as well. As with every entry in the genre, the film has its own take on what Wagner calls “an aesthetics of the undead with the zombie characters displaying whitened irises, veiny and blanched faces covered in mucus, flesh particles and blackened blood spatter, and bodies hunched over and in various stages of decay and decrepitude.” There’s something distinctive in the way Train to Busan‘s zombies move, like contortionists wired up with electrodes placed and firing and random, but to the film’s international audience, one characteristic in particular will stand out: they’re all Korean.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: Six Expatriate Writers Give Six Views of Seoul in a New Short-Fiction Anthology, “A City of Han”

As a cradle of expatriate literature, Seoul has thus far proven to be no Prague, Mexico City, or Tangier, to say nothing of a Vienna or Paris. That’s not for lack of desire among expatriates themselves: every few months here I get word of the existence of another Westerner-oriented writing workshop, or contacted by another reporter or teacher certain he’s got a novel in him. But many such expatriates, yet to find their way out of self-published obscurity, will admit that this city is something of a faulty launchpad for a literary career, at least for those writing in languages other than Korean. In English, attempts are nevertheless made from time to time to harness the writerly energies of the expat population, the latest of which takes the form of a six-story anthology called A City of Han, compiled by Seoul native Sollee Bae.

In her introduction, Bae writes of asking others for explanations of her hometown’s failure to gain literary traction. “Their answers were surprisingly unanimous,” she reports. “Seoul did not have a defining character. It was too bland. It was the quintessence of a modern metropolis, made up of concrete buildings and wide roads and a grey sky. If we were to compare it to a person, it would be that man or woman who worked for a marketing firm, dressed sensibly, and carried the last year’s model of iPhone (but no older).” That’s not an entirely unconvincing explanation. For my part, I’ve long wondered if the city simply looms too large to clearly be seen. Unlike the capitals of the US and Europe, whose size and power haven’t persuaded the countries that produced them to consider them exemplary rather than exceptional, Seoul — in the eyes of all but nature poets and travel writers — is South Korea.

The difficulty of rendering Seoul with a distinct identity, not unexpected among a class of residents who often struggle to understand the signs in its storefronts, afflicts Korean writers as well. I once stumped a well-known novelist here by asking for recommendations of novels with rich visions of the city, and he’d written an internationally acclaimed one himself. Korean authors telling stories with Korean characters can’t easily avoid writing about Seoul, but expatriates can — and in various forms, do — tell stories of Seoul practically without involving Korean characters at all. This owes to the intersection of the “write what you know” principle and the insular lifestyles of a certain kind of Westerner in this country: those who fashion for themselves an approximation of the life they’d have lived back in their homeland, associating exclusively with Westerners and the kind of English-speaking Koreans who take pains to set themselves apart from their countrymen.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.