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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.

Los Angeles Review of Books: The London Review of Books Turns 40

I alway ask serious readers which publications they find reliably interesting, and each year they struggle harder to come up with titles. Those who read print sources usually mention the London Review of Books, and an explanation of what keeps them coming back must, I suspect, begin with its headlines. Here’s Frank Kermode on Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliché“Nutmegged.” Michael Wood on Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater“I Am Disorder.” Jenny Turner on Rachel Cusk’s Outline“I Blame Christianity.” John Lanchester on Don DeLillo’s Mao II“Oh My Oh My Oh My.” The LRB’s first cover, dated October 25, 1979, bears a rambling headline about William Golding’s Darkness Visible. Forty years later, it published a much-circulated reevaluation of John Updike under the title “Malfunctioning Sex Robot.”

Surely one for the history books, that headline came too late to make it into this history book, published to celebrate the LRB’s 40th anniversary. However far the paper’s headlines may have stood out in the thoroughly analog late 1970s, they stand even farther out in our digital present. Many internet-native publications label every piece of “content” with a title engineered to maximize share counts and game search-engine rankings, and even legacy publications founded in the print era now exhibit online the same tendencies toward deadening explanation and formulaic provocation. Some surviving magazines and newspapers embitter the pill further, appending beneath the digital version of a piece the less intelligence-insulting headline under which it appeared in print.

An LRB headline usually comes straight from the piece, often from quotation of the book under review: Kermode includes Amis’s description of a goalkeeper looking “capable of being nutmegged by a beachball.” Sometimes the words are the reviewer’s own: Lockwood imagines Updike as not just a malfunctioning sex robot but one “attempting to administer cunnilingus to his typewriter.” The lack of context makes the headlines all the more enticing, as does the implicit assumption of our willingness to read the whole piece to discover that context. The average word count of the pieces named above exceeds 3,600, but others go far longer: the past few years alone saw 9,000 words from Lanchester on Facebook, 10,000 from David Bromwich on free speech, and an entire 60,000-word issue from Andrew O’Hagan on the Grenfell Tower fire.

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

Korea Blog: Pengsoo, the Genderless, Shameless Giant-Penguin Antihero Winning Korean Hearts and Minds

If you watched even a few clips of televised celebrations from countries around the world this past New Year’s Eve, you almost certainly saw South Korea’s. Each year at the stroke of midnight, a group of notables together commence the traditional ringing of Bosingak, the large bell in downtown Seoul used to announce the opening and closing of the city’s gates in centuries past. Those who follow baseball may have recognized among this year’s bell-ringers Ryu Hyun-jin, currently of the Toronto Blue Jays and formerly of the Dodgers. Those who follow the European Union may have recognized its ambassador to the Republic of Korea Michael Reiterer. But to most Korean viewers, especially those personally thronged around Bosingak in the freezing cold, one face jumped out before all others: that of an aspiring “universal superstar” named Pengsoo.

Then again, Pengsoo’s face probably jumped out at viewers regardless of their nationality, belonging as it does to a nearly seven-foot-tall penguin with headphones. Despite having never been seen nor heard of at the beginning of 2019, Pengsoo had by the end of 2019 become enough of a cultural phenomenon to appear alongside the mayor of Seoul on international television. This makes it a natural if show-stealing figure to ring out the old year and ring in the new — “it” being the most suitable pronoun available, what with the character’s clearly documented state of genderlessness. That’s just one of the qualities that sets Pengsoo apart from the countless anthropomorphic animals that daily cavort across Korea’s media landscape: the others include a penchant for dropping honorifics and an undisguised hunger for fame.

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

My ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2019: brutalist architecture, the great American road trip, Houellebecq reading Tocqueville, and more

For nearly eight years now, I’ve written a post every weekday at Open Culture, usually to do with literature, film, music, art, architecture, television, radio, or language. The total comes to more than 2,000 so far, and here are ten of my favorites from the more than 250 I wrote in 2019:

See also my ten favorite Open Culture posts of 201220132014201520162017, and 2018.

Los Angeles Review of Books: David Bromwich’s “How Words Make Things Happen”

When it comes to chroniclers of the United States’s political decline, readers today are spoiled for choice. But none brings quite the same background to the job as does David Bromwich, in whose bibliography early titles like A Choice of Inheritance: Self and Community from Edmund Burke to Robert Frost (1989) and Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic (1983) have given way to, most recently, American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us (2019). An eminent scholar of, among other things, 18th-century poetry, criticism, and philosophy, Bromwich has in recent years turned up every few months in left-leaning publications like The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books to offer commentary on American politics. That he takes a dim view of Donald Trump is no surprise, but his view of the intellectual fashions of the left so volubly opposed to Trump is even dimmer, and more incisive for it.

American Breakdown, Bromwich’s second book this year, closely follows How Words Make Things Happen, an infinitely less topical-sounding text that would seem to belong more to the roster of Bromwich the distinguished English professor than Bromwich the political commentator. But it does clarify that the author looks upon politician and poet alike with the same critical eye — or rather, that he listens with the same critical ear. That goes for the political speechwriters as well. “He was the first man of the right to leaven his moralism with jokes,” Bromwich writes in a damning piece published shortly after the death of William Safire and later collected in the volume Moral Imagination (2014). “With fun and ‘pace,’ with plenty of euphemisms, and with calculated self-depreciation, he did more than anyone else to legitimate a reactionary president, Ronald Reagan, as a new kind of centrist.”

One might expect a man of the left to condemn a figure who “connects the political style of McCarthy with that of Rush Limbaugh.” But Bromwich doesn’t go easy either on the likes of Barack Obama, who, as he summed up in a 2014 LRB piece, “watches the world as its most important spectator.” The headline of an earlier essay in that same publication delivers a plainer assessment: “A Bad President.” What sets Bromwich off about both Safire and Obama is their abuse of language, and not the kind of syntactical misfires on which critics of George W. Bush fixated, and critics of Trump now fixate, with such righteous glee. In Bromwich’s view, Safire used words to stoke the flames of the Vietnam War, and later to press forward the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Obama used words first to make promises — closing Guantanamo Bay, restraining domestic surveillance — and then to retroactively convince his supporters of the obvious impossibility of keeping those promises.

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

Korea Blog: The Bitter Korean Neorealism of Yu Hyun-Mok’s “Aimless Bullet”

South Korean films, as even casual foreign viewers come to believe, are meant to critique South Korean society. To the extent that this precept holds true, the country’s most acclaimed films bring its society in for the severest treatment: take Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (버닝), to name a recent example, or Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (기생충), to name a more recent and more widely celebrated one. Looking back to the pictures most often named as the masterpieces of Korean cinema, one finds even harsher indictments, none perhaps harsher — nor more highly praised for its artistry — than Yu Hyun-Mok’s Aimless Bullet (오발탄). Shot in 1960, less than seven years after the armistice agreement that put the Korean War on hold, the film takes such a bitter view of life in the developing South Korea that the country’s government almost suppressed it entirely.

It took an outsider, so the story goes, to clearly perceive the artistic virtues of Aimless Bullet, specifically an American consultant to the Korean National Film Production Center. That consultant persuaded the Korean government to at least allow the movie enough of a release in Seoul that it might qualify for foreign film festivals. Despite being quickly pulled from Korean theaters, it eventually played at the 1963 San Francisco International Film Festival (the sole surviving print used for the Korean Film Archive’s extensive 2015 restoration) and met with praise from the likes of Variety, whose critic praised its “brilliantly detailed camera work” as well as its “probing sympathy and rich characterizations.” The aesthetics and themes would have seemed broadly similar to those of the Italian neorealists, filmmakers whose work was still in vogue in America at the time. Yu credited Bicycle Thieves as an influence on his style, and the like of Vittorio De Sica and his cohort had already prepared Western audiences to find cinematic interest in downtrodden people and war-torn places.

By the looks of it, people didn’t come much more downtrodden in the early 1960s than South Koreans. Adapting a novella by Yi Beomseon, Yu find his main characters in a hillside shantytown home to refugees from the north the peninsula displaced by the war. In one of its houses live two brothers: Cheol-ho, a clerk at an accounting firm with two children and a pregnant wife, and Yeong-ho, a wounded former soldier and current hard-drinking wastrel. Their sister Myeong-suk out-earns the both of them by going on “dates” with American soldiers. Traumatized into a kind of living death, their mother never leaves her bed, repeating the same phrase day and night, sometimes muttering and sometimes shouting: “Let’s get out of here!” (This line in particular is supposed to have been a point of contention with the South Korean censors, who thought she meant they should all go back to the north.)

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

Open Culture posts on David Lynch

Since 2012 I’ve written about all manner of topics at Open Culture, and you can find a selection of some of my favorite posts over the years in the Open Culture section of my essays page. I often write there about filmmakers, and few filmmakers as often as David Lynch. Here are all my posts on the auteur of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks, and much else besides:

Korea Blog: Notes on the Camp of the Pyongyang Pub, Where Seoulites Eat and Drink Like It’s North of the 38th Parallel

North Koreans aren’t especially hard to come by in Seoul. Here and there around the city I’ve had the chance to attend a few talks given by defectors from the other side of the border, the most recent of which happened as part of the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. That day’s North Korean was a 35-year-old guy whom the host asked to discuss aspects of daily life in Pyongyang, like dating culture and how girls there wear their makeup differently than they do in Seoul — at least to the extent that he could remember them. A small North-South cultural exchange club had done its part to bring him onstage, and as part of their regular series of events they also held a North Korean cooking class last weekend. There I learned to make ogeurangjuk (오그랑죽), a kind of porridge with rice, adzuki beans, and gnocchi-like dumplings made of potato, potatoes being an agricultural specialty of the North as well as the northernmost province of the South.

Our teacher was a genuine North Korean, a woman who’d arrived in South Korea just one year before I did. I wondered whether I would struggle to understand her Northern accent and vocabulary, but I needn’t have; not only did she speak more or less like a Southerner, she’d also acquired a Southerner’s command of English — or rather, Konglish — loanwords. (She also introduced herself with an English name, “Jessie,” which she uses on her North Korean cooking Youtube channel.) One of the shockinghan things she found upon arriving in the South, she told us, was how sweet Southerners eat their own porridges. Ogeurangjuk, by comparison, has what one might call an understated flavor, hence the bowls of salt provided at each cooking station. But the salt wasn’t enough for another of the Northerners present, a voluble young guy who helped out with the cooking and cracked jokes at every opportunity. He dug through all the cooking supplies in the kitchen until he came upon a bag of sugar, his exaltation at the discovery of which suggested a ready assimilation to Southern tastes.

But like a surprising number of others in his generation of South Korea-resident North Koreans, he didn’t take great pains to conceal his national origin. He even popped up in a recent Youtube video, produced for a channel created by national news agency Yonhap’s Unification Media Institute, about the Pyongyang Pub (평양술집), a newly opened eating and drinking establishment meant to give Seoulites a taste of the Northern capital. But by all appearances it does so less to encourage unification, or even to promote cultural exchange, than to capitalize on a potential trend, a practice not unknown in the South Korean marketplace. It has also benefited from stirring up controversy: it made the news back in September, before it even opened, when it was ordered to take down the portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hung on the building’s exterior in the same manner — North Korea travelogues never fail to mention it — as they hang, by law, in each and every North Korean home.

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

Open Culture posts on self-improvement

Since 2012 I’ve written about all manner of topics at Open Culture, and you can find a selection of some of my favorite posts over the years in the Open Culture section of my essays page. Below I’ve gathered my posts having to do with how to improve your habits in writing, thinking, learning, and other areas besides:





Korea Blog: An American in Taiwan — with a Korean Tour Group

South Koreans couldn’t go freely abroad until 1989, at which point the repressed desire to do to so turned into potent fuel for a still-blazing travel industry. This industry has a media side, producer of books and television shows in a quantity and variety surprising to even the most travel-minded foreigners. It also has a tourism side, comprising the countless companies offering package trips of various lengths to countries and cities all over the world. Or at least I gave up trying to count the companies when I checked in at Incheon Airport last week for my own first Korean package tour, three days and three nights in Taiwan, a popular foreign destination for Koreans since Koreans have had foreign destinations to make popular.

Proximity has something to do with it: reachable within three hours’ flight, Taipei is closer to Seoul than even most American tourist-destination cities are to Los Angeles. Taiwan has also had a place in my own consciousness at least since I began watching the films of Taiwanese auteurs like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, and Edward Yang, but my investment in Taiwanese cinema as a whole never quite matched my investment in the Korean and Japanese varieties. My knowledge of Taiwan itself lagged behind proportionately, though at some point it began to look like a manageable entry point into the unignorable Sinosphere, without the burden of intimidatingly vast size and historical complexity presented by mainland China itself — and, more practically speaking, without the extra charge for a tourist visa.

Korea and Taiwan also have a deeper commonality as fellow members of what Dutch Asia specialist Ian Buruma calls “the old Japanese empire” in God’s Dust, a book based on Buruma’s travels around Asia in the 1980s that I happened to throw into my bag as I left for this trip. In it, Taiwan and South Korea share a chapter that takes as its theme the shape of Japan’s colonial legacy. “Modern Seoul looks more like Tokyo every day,” Buruma writes, “with its neon-lit coffee shops, its bric-a-brac modern buildings and its neon-lit pleasure areas tucked away behind the steel and glass.” In Taipei “Japanese culture is everywhere, in a Western guise, its origins blurred, suppressed, or forgotten,” a phenomenon that “makes the surface of modern Taiwan so familiar to anyone who knows Japan.” Everywhere in the South Korean, Taiwanese, and Japanese capitals are “forms of modern kitsch twice removed from their source, and thus they almost defy interpretation.”

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

Korea Blog: Learning Korean with Duolingo, the Mercilessly Addictive Language App

Over the past few weeks I’ve plunged into addiction: an addiction to Duolingo, the language-learning app that has claimed more than a few formerly normal lives since it launched for the public seven years ago. Or perhaps the word “normal” is excessive, given that the population most susceptible to Duolingo addiction distinguishes itself precisely by a willingness to stare at a screen and grind through foreign-language quizzes for hours at a time. Sensing, perhaps, the fate that could befall my already shaky time-management system, I avoided looking up or learning anything about Duolingo when first I heard of it. My Korean teacher brought it back to my attention a year or two ago, when he started using it out of a “Despacito”-stoked interest in acquiring a little Spanish. He mentioned to me that the app had recently added a Korean-language course, suggesting I give it a try and let him know my opinion on its effectiveness.

Even without the assistance of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, Spanish would still be the most popular language among English-speaking Duolingo users. Of the 23,400,000 English-speakers studying the language of Cervantes through the app, I wonder how many are my fellow Americans trying to ameliorate their embarrassment about their lack of functionality even after enduring five to ten years of compulsory Spanish classes in school. In second place after Spanish (albeit with about ten million fewer learners) comes that alternative bane of the Anglophone schoolchild’s existence, French. Despite the French language’s much-bemoaned loss of status and claim to universality over the past century, becoming francophone nevertheless remains an aspiration for many of us, not least, as I wrote about in a LARB essay last year, because of the high regard in which the French hold their language, and the high standard of its use to which they hold themselves.

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