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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.

Korea Blog: The Making of a Dictator in Anna Fifield’s “The Great Successor”

I first learned of Kim Jong Il at the same time I learned of the country he ruled, and for years thereafter had no image to associate with North Korea but that of the high-living, Hollywood-obsessed Dear Leader with permed hair and platform shoes. This was back in my high school days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, a time when it came as a surprise that eccentric third-world dictators still existed at all. In subsequent years Kim would become more and more an international figure of fun, a process that culminated in his appearance as a grotesque marionette in South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s film Team America: World Police. By the time Kim died in 2011 I had learned much more about both Koreas, North and South, but the only thing that struck me as notable about his son and successor Kim Jong-un was his having been born the same year as I was.

Though less of an oddity than his father, Kim Jong Un has proven to be the more compelling figure, especially to consumers of news in the West. That goes even more so for producers of news like Washington Post Beijing bureau chief Anna Fifield, who began her career in Asia in 2004 when the Financial Times sent her to Seoul. She eventually developed a desire to “find out everything there was to know” about the current ruler of North Korea, and its fruit is the new book The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un. Applied by Fifield herself or not, that subtitle reflects the tone of the book, many of whose chapters open with epigraphs quoting the characteristically bombastic, tortured English in which North Korean propaganda pronounces on such subjects as the “monumental edifices of eternal value” built across that “socialist land of bliss,” the “thrice-cursed acts of treachery” committed a disgraced party member (Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek, whose subsequent execution was ordered by Kim himself), and the “icon of cultural efflorescence” that is the city of Pyongyang.

Few observers can resist the chance to poke fun at North Korea’s rhetoric, or indeed any other aspect of how the impoverished, belligerent “Hermit Kingdom” presents itself to the world. At the same time, the country also offers its observers an almost unparalleled opportunity to fire off high-handed pronouncements of their own, usually moral in character, on everything from the gulag-like system of prison camps made for dissenters to the enforced drabness of the clothing and hairstyles seen on the streets of the capital. “May you soon be free to follow your dreams,” Fifield writes to the people ruled over by the Kim dynasty in her book’s dedication, a statement neither particularly patronizing nor self-serving, which makes it quite refreshing by the standards of writing and speaking on North Korea — standards against which The Great Successor measures in every way as a superior work.

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

일기: 데이비드 호크니 회고전

데이비드 호크니는 영국 화가이지만 그의 제일 유명한 그림은 로스앤젤레스 풍경을 묘사한다. 1967년에 그렸던 <더 큰 첨벙>이라는 그 그림은 가장 인상적인 로스앤젤레스를 보여 주는 예술 작품들 중 하나인 것을 부인할 수 없다. 한국에 이사오기 전에 로스앤젤레스에 살았던 나는 <더 큰 첨벙>을 사진이나 동영상에서 본 적이 많지만 그 그림을 직접적으로 볼 수 있게 된 곳은 바로 서울시립미술관이다. 지금 거기에서 열리는 데이비드 호크니 회고전은 50년대부터 현재까지 그려졌던 다양한 형태를 가진 테마로 여러 작품들을 전시하고 있지만 내가 꼭 가려고 했던 이유는 오랫동안 실물이 아닌 매체로만 봤던 <더 큰 첨벙>이 있기 때문이다.

푸른 수영장과 키가 큰 야자수들이 있는 현대건축의 단독주택을 담고 있는 <더 큰 첨벙>은 로스앤젤레스의 이상형을 그리고 있다. 그러나 영국 지방 출신인 1937년생 데이비드 호크니의 눈에는 그러한 장면이 실제보다 그가 느꼈던 로스앤젤레스 실제 그 자체인지도 모른다. 20세기 중반에는 데이비드 호크니 뿐만 아니라 소설가 크리스토퍼 이셔우드와 건축 평론가 레이너 반함과 같은 많은 영국인들은 오래되었고 전통적인 유럽 도시보다 빠르고 자유럽게 팽창하고 있는 로스앤젤레스로 가서 사랑에 빠졌다. 크리스토퍼 이셔우드와 레이너 반함이 썼던 책들은 내가 매우 좋아하는 로스앤젤레스에 대한 책들 중에 하나이다. 그 책들은 크리스토퍼 이셔우드의 소설 <싱글 맨>과 레이너 반함의 <더 큰 첨벙>이 실린 표지가 있는 비소설 <로스앤젤레스: 네 가지 에콜로지의 건축>이다.

21 세기의 로스앤젤레스는 나를 여전히 매혹시키지만 60년대에 처음으로 갔던 데이비드 호크니 같은 영국 사람의 입장에서 본 로스앤젤레스는 매력적인 도시일 뿐만 아니라 신세계처럼 보였을 것이다. 세대와 국적이 다른 데이비드 호크니와 나는 공통점이 많이 없지만 우리 둘 다는 자기만의 방식으로 로스앤젤레스의 매력을 즐긴다. 게다가 로스앤젤레스에 살고 있는 영국인인 데이비드 호크니와 서울에 살고 있는 미국인인 나는 모국이 아닌 나라에 거주하고 있으면서 그 나라를 관찰한다. 그러나 그림을 그린지 60년이 넘은 데이비드 호크니는 나보다 관찰력이 훨씬 더 뛰어난다. 그가 예전에 한 인터뷰에 따르면 그는 보는 방식에 관심이 많다고 했고 나는 서울시립미술관의 회고전에서 그 말을 증명하는 증거인 작품을 많이 찾을 수 있었다.

회고전을 보고나서 <더 큰 첨벙>이라는 그림 뿐만 아니라 1974년에 나온 영화도 찾아서 봤고 그 것은 내가 즐기는 다른 많은 영화들처럼 여러 장르들과 형태들을 한 작품 속에 섞었다. 얼핏 보면 <더 큰 첨벙>은 데이비드 호크니에 대한 다큐멘터리처럼 보이지만 허구인 장면들도 포함한다. 그 색다른 형태의 영화 줄거리는 데이비드 호크니가 전 애인이 등장하는 <예술가의 초상>이라는 그림을 그리는 과정을 다룬다. <예술가의 초상>은 작년에 9천만 불에 팔렬지만 내가 데이비드 호크니를 부러워하는 것은 성공도 부도 아닐 뿐만 아니라 관찰력도 아니다. 무엇보다도 부러운 것은 바로 영화인 <더 큰 첨벙> 속에서 볼 수 있는 그의 집중력이다. 영화 속 데이비드 호크니가 그림을 그리는 장면을 보면 그가 일하면서 작품 외에 다른 아무 것도 인식하지 않는 고도의 몰입감이다. 그러한 몰입감이 없었다면 <더 큰 첨벙> 같은 그림을 그리는 데에 필요한 로스앤젤레스를 보는 방식을 찾을 수 없었을지도 모른다.

Korea Blog: A Harrowing Journey to an Island of Women, and Into Korea’s Psychological Recesses: Kim Ki-young’s “Iodo” (1977)

Every Westerner with an interest in Korea remembers when they first realized just how different Korea is from the rest of Asia. The contrast with Japan and China is especially notable, given that many Westerners at first see those countries as culturally indistinguishable from Korea. But it doesn’t take much observation before distinctive elements start to emerge: the popularity of Christianity, to name one highly visible example, at least if all the neon crosses glowing red on Seoul skyline’s are any indication. But despite the surprising influence that particular faith now commands in Korea — mainly in the form of Protestantism, though Korean Catholicism can hardly be ignored — it hasn’t entirely overwritten more deeply rooted belief systems like mugyo, a form of shamanism practiced mainly by women.

That folk religion may date back to prehistory, but its traces still appear in countless forms throughout modern Korean society. “One suspects something wrong happened on the way to modern nationhood in Korea,” wrote Ian Buruma after coming to this country during the 1988 Olympics. “An unfortunate synthesis must have occurred between West and East. The West, usually via Japan in the 1920s and 1930s, gave Korea half-baked German notions of Blood and Soil; it also exported, mostly from America, the equally half-baked notions of vulgar evangelism. Korea contributed an emotional legacy of historical bitterness and a propensity for shamanistic rites.” This mixture, in varying proportions, had also long been appearing in Korean cinema. About a decade before Buruma’s visit, one film used those shamanistic in service of a haunting story that plunges deep into the country’s psychological recesses: Kim Ki-young’s Iodo (이어도).

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

일기: 배수아, <올빼미의 없음>

나는 미국에 살았을 때보다 한국에 살면서 독서 모임들에 훨씬 더 자주 참여한다. 고정관념일 수도 있겠지만 미국에서 열리는 독서 모임의 참여자들은 대부분 다른 할 일이 없는 아줌마일 경우가 많다. 그러나 내 경험에 의하면 한국 독서 모임 참여자들의 대부분은 20대나 30대 여자이지만 남녀노소들도 오는 경향이 있다. 나는 한국어 읽기와 말히기를 연습하려고 나를 빼고 한국인 밖에 없는 한국말로 진행되는 독서 모임에 가긴 하지만 서울에서 열렸던 영어 독서 모임에도 들른 적이 몇 번 있다. 지난 영어 독서 모임 시간에는 우리가 배수아의 단편 소설집 <올빼미의 없음>의 영어 번역본을 읽고 토론했다.

하지만 영어 번역본을 도서관에서 못 찾은 나는 그냥 한국어 원작을 읽고 영어 독서 모임에 참석했다. 나는 배수아의 작품들을 매우 좋아하고 모두 한국어로 읽을 목표가 있어서 영어로 읽지 않아도 될 거라고 생각했다. 알고 보니 독서 모임에 참여한 사람들은 책을 통해 나와는 굉장히 다른 경험을 했다. 책을 읽은 대부분의 독자들은 책에 나와 있는 소설들 중 이해할 수 있었던 것이 하나도 없다고 불평했다. 그들은 너무 긴 문장들과 애매모호한 줄거리를 따라가기 힘들다고 했다. 내가 말할 차례가 왔을 때 나 역시 배수아 같은 작가의 소설을 즐기는 법을 모국어인 영어로도 설명하기 어려웠다. 모든 가장 독특한 작가들의 경우에는 원래 그 책에 맞는 독자도 있고 맞지 않은 독자도 있을지도 모른다.

그러나 결국에는 내가 독서 모임의 다른 참여자들에게 배수아 같은 작가의 작품들이 왜 나를 매혹시키는가에 대해서 조금이라도 알려 주기도 했다. 내가 특별히 깊은 인상을 받은 <올빼미의 없음>에 있는 독일 프랑푸르트를 배경으로 한 <무종>이라는 단편소설을 예로 들고 배수아가 외국 도시에서 도시로 이동하는 색다른 느낌을 어떻게 글로 전달하는가를 설명해 봤다. <무종>은 책의 다른 소설들에 비해서 길지 않지만 프랑푸르트 뿐만 아니라 여러 다른 배경들도 포함한다. 한국에 살고 유럽에 자주 가는 작가인 배수아와 비슷한 화자는 다른 유럽 도시들에서 몇 달씩 머물렀던 방들을 떠올리고 그 여행 경험을 자유롭게 묘사한다. 소설의 시작에서는 저자가 모형 비행기 수집가라는 인물과 함께 길을 못 찾는 기사가 운전하는 택시를 타고 있지만 끝은 그 모형 비행기 수집가가 등장하는 꿈의 장면이다.

여러 다른 장소들과 시간 사이로 이동하는 <무종>을 포함해서 배수아가 쓰는 글은 에세이를 자주 읽을 뿐만 아니라 쓰기도 하는 내가 보기에 소설과 에세이의 사이에 존재한다. 나는 소설을 두 번째로 읽은 후에야 배수아가 그 연결을 어떻게 만들었는지를 볼 수 있게 되었다. 내가 생각하기에 글을 구성하는 구조는 잇따라 일어나고 있는 사건들이 아니라 생각의 논리나 흐름으로 구성된다. 문장들이 엄청나게 길고 가끔 복잡하기도 한 이유는 현실에서 우리의 생각도 그렇게 느껴지기 때문이지 않을까? 한국어를 공부하는 나 같은 독자에게 재미있는 도전을 주는 <무종> 같은 작품에서 중요한 것은 줄거리보다 연결이고 배수아가 하는 일은 추억과 경험이나 상상과 꿈 같은 여러 소재들을 자연스럽게 연결하는 것이다.

Korea Blog: With “Parasite,” Bong Joon-ho Comes Back to Attack His Homeland — and Wins it a Palme d’Or

When a Korean wins a major international award, that award tends to be seen here in Korea as having been won for, or even by, the nation itself. Olympic gold medals, if not silver or bronze, have long mattered a great deal. Anticipation for another Nobel has run high since former president Kim Dae-jung’s Peace Price in 2000. The 2016 Man Booker International Prize went to novelist Han Kang and her English translator Deborah Smith for The Vegetarian, but in the eyes of much of the press here, the validating honor also went to Korean literature itself.  Over the past decade or two, Korean film has enjoyed a higher global profile than many other products of Korean culture, but no Korean filmmaker had ever come back from Cannes with a Palme d’Or. Or rather, none ever had until last week, when Korea — or rather, Bong Joon-ho — won it with Parasite (기생충).

Cinephiles may wonder what took the Cannes jury so long to bestow the Palme d’Or upon a Korean film, given the astuteness the festival has shown in regard to Asian cinema in general: they gave one to Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in 2010 and have given five to Japanese pictures over the past 65 years, most recently Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Shoplifters in 2018. That film, about a poor but cheerful quasi-family clinging to the margins of modern Japanese society through a life of small-time crime, has more than a little in common with Parasite, which tells the story of a father, mother, son, and daughter living by their wits in the closest thing to a Seoul slum a mainstream movie has dared portray. Earning a meager income by folding cardboard pizza boxes, the Kim family may not have to shoplift — not regularly, at least — but they do have to live by their wits, seizing upon any and all minor opportunities that present themselves just as they do the unprotected wi-fi signals that reach the corners of their run-down basement apartment.

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

일기: 송학다방

나는 어느 한국 도시에도 처음으로 가면 그 도시에서 제일 먼저 찾으려고 하는 것은 책방이다. 책방 다음에 가는 곳은 市場이고 市場 다음에 들르는 곳은 茶房이다. 내가 茶房을 좋아한다고 하면 거의 모든 상대방은 스타벅스나 탐앤탐스와 같은 커피 체인점을 말하는 것처럼 생각하지만 내가 좋아하는 것은 말 그대로 옛날 느낌이 물씬 풍기는 茶房이다. 요즘에 생기고 있는 옛날식을 모방한 茶房들에 재미있게 가본 적이 있긴 하지만 나에게는 진짜 옛날부터 오랫 동안 영업해 온 茶房만큼 인상적인 곳이 없을지도 모른다. 제일 좋은 茶房의 경우에는 내가 마치 60년대나 70년대 한국 영화에 직접 들어간 것처럼 느껴진다.

내가 선호하는 오래된 영화 속에 있는 것 같은 인상을 주는 茶房들을 市場에서도 가끔 찾을 수 있다. 어떤 지방 市場들은 더 젊은 고객들을 끌기 위해 책방을 포함해서 바와 부티크 같은 새로운 가게들을 개업할 수 있도록 市場의 위층을 개측한다. 수원 영동시장의 2층에는 28청춘 청년몰이라는 그러한 유행하는 空間이 있고 이와 더불어 송학다방이라는 옛날 茶房도 있다. 송학다방은 너무 오래되었고 의자 덮개는 다 하얗게 깨끗하지만 숫자가 다섯 개 밖에 없는 전화 번호가 의자 덮개에 쓰여져 있다. 그 덮개를 교체하지 않은 이유는 주인이 설명했듯이 옛날을 배경으로 한 영화들이나 드라마를 촬영하러 제작자들이 자주 오기 때문이다.

역사적인 空間이라고 할 수 있는 송학다방의 주인은 역사에 대한 관심이 많은 것 같다. 우리가 커피와 계란이 들어 있는 쌍화차를 다 마시고 나가려고 할 때 주인은 우리에게 茶房에 있는 역사의 벽을 보여 주었다. 주인이 직접 만든 그 벽은 지난 100년의 수원 역사를 보여 주는 사진들로 장식되어 있다. 어떤 사진들은 바로 옆에 있는 창문을 통해서 아직도 볼 수 있는 개울 풍경의 먼 과거를 담았다. 우리가 떠나기 직전에 주인은 우리에게 자기 나이를 추측해 보라고 했다. 그녀는 다음에 이어서 말한 매일 하는 등산 때문인지 나이보다 더 젊어 보였다. 게다가 오랫 동안 단골인 것 같은 茶房에 있는 다른 고객들보다 굉장히 더 젊어 보였다.

“Blade Runner,” Los Angeles, Asia, and the Urban Future on Film

Originally delivered as a talk at San Diego State University for the Futures Past & Present exhibition.

It appeals to my sense of coincidence to be giving this talk in 2019, the year in which Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner takes place. Of course, the film came out and underperformed in theaters in 1982, a couple of years before I was born, but by the time I became a Blade Runner fan myself, the world had long since caught up with it.

In film, in literature, in comics, in video games, and in much else besides, we would now be hard pressed to find a vision of the urban future not influenced by Blade Runner‘s imagined Los Angeles of 2019: its shadowy forest of high-rises; its multi-ethnic, polyglot crowds; its multi-ethnic, polyglot advertisements, illuminating the streets from enormous video screens mounted on those high rises; its stark division between the lower classes relegated to those streets and the upper classes who have escaped not just high above them but indeed off the Earth entirely.

In the real 2019, how much of this come to pass? Even if Angelenos don’t quite live in a concrete Babel of perpetual night and perpetual rain, something in the urban future crafted by Scott and his many collaborators, and originally inspired by the writing of Philip K. Dick, tapped into a primal fear felt by its viewers, especially viewers in the West. I’m told that in the real Los Angeles of the 1980s and 90s, opponents of a denser, taller built environment threw around the term “Blade Runner-ization” with nearly the frequency and scorn with which they, or those of their number who remain, still today throw around the term “Manhattanization.”

Some of that sentiment came out of the dominant American economic anxieties of the day, having to do with the newly staggering wealth of Japan — staggering on paper, at least — and the question of how much of America Japan intended to purchase with that wealth.

By the time of Blade Runner, Japanese conglomerates had already put money into downtown Los Angeles skyscraper construction, among other concerns, but going by the signage on display in the movie, Japan would within 40 years own more or less the entire city. Other films of the 1980s made use of this fear as well, sometimes more subtly: recall, to name another Los Angeles example, how Die Hard cast Century City’s Fox Plaza as the besieged Nakatomi Plaza.

Decades after the bursting of Japan’s asset bubble at the beginning of the 1990s, this all looks rather quaint, but Blade Runner itself has held up well enough to inspire a sequel, 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, that retains and even intensifies the sensibility of the original film. Excited speculation about another Blade Runner had been going on even before I discovered the first one, but I have to admit that I looked upon the prospect of a sequel with some trepidation, not just as a potentially inferior thematic or aesthetic enterprise, but as a potentially inferior Los Angeles movie as well.

After years of growing fascination with the city at an ever-decreasing distance, I decided to move to Los Angeles in 2011. But I’ve often wondered if those years of fascination were actually, on some subconscious level, decades of fascination, first sparked by Blade Runner and its use of Los Angeles’ already distinctive urban form to create an even more distinctive urban future.

Growing up in the suburbs of Seattle, I was, like many around the world, totally ignorant of the southern Californian metropolis apart from what I picked up, almost subconsciously, from countless movies shot there, whether they were actually set in Los Angeles or not. Taken together, everything I’d happened to not just see but hear or read suggested a city magnetic yet loathed; a city with no culture containing nearly all cultures; a city that wasn’t really a city, or so it was claimed by detractors and boosters alike; a city too big to comprehend, let alone know: a city, in other words, that laid down an irresistible challenge.

We catch glimpses Los Angeles through the movies, but we can also gain an understanding of Los Angeles through the movies — or at least I took that as a premise when first I lived there. I began with Los Angeles Plays Itself, a three-hour-long video essay by a CalArts professor named Thom Andersen that cuts together hundreds of the ways Los Angeles has been portrayed — or in any case, used — throughout the history of cinema up to the early 2000s.

That time, recall, was before the advent of Youtube, Vimeo, and other online video streaming platforms that have in this decade turned the video essay (if not yet the three-hour video essay) into a newly viable form. That and the fact that a fair few notable cinematic visions of Los Angeles had come out between the release of Los Angeles Plays Itself and my own move to the city — Michael Mann’s Collateral, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Driveconvinced me to launch my own exploration of Los Angeles through film for the streaming-video era: Los Angeles, the City in Cinema.

I also wanted to revisit for myself some of the many pictures only touched on by Thom Andersen, in between the more thorough treatments his essay gives to the mythologized Los Angeleses of Chinatown, of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, of L.A. Confidential — and indeed of Blade Runner, a Los Angeles that I recognized from the beginning as essential to my project as it was to Andersen’s.

The dissolution of the economic fears that went into Blade Runner‘s urban environment reveals its aesthetic legacy that much more clearly. If the film drew much of its look and feel from Tokyo, it in turn provided an even greater inspiration to Japanese visions of the future. Take, for instance, the late-1980s animated series Bubblegum Crisis, which takes place in the Tokyo — or rather, the “Megatokyo” — of the year 2032, a city that, to any Blade Runner fan, may look and sound oddly familiar.

In 1995, Oshii Mamoru’s animated film Ghost in the Shell dealt with questions of consciousness and individuality in a world with not only the technology to build artificial human bodies but to transplant minds between those bodies as well. These themes hardly lie a million miles from those of Blade Runner, and the settings of both pictures have much in common as well.

Instead of Los Angeles, or even Tokyo, Oshii gives the full cyberpunk treatment to Hong Kong, turning it into a megalopolis of high tech and low life called “New Port City.” The high point of the film — and, for my money, the high point of Japanese animation thus far — comes in the middle, a three-minute montage with neither action nor dialogue that, in revealing and bringing to life New Port City, achieves an ideal union of setting, character, and theme.

Blade Runner takes place in 2019, which in 1982 was of course the future — and the future, to coin a phrase, is now. It surprised me, in the promotional materials for Futures Past and Present, to see that line attributed to the Korean artist Nam June Paik, because despite having long enjoyed his work, I had no idea he’d played a part in popularizing such a well-known English saying — let alone one I find myself using more often, and less ironically, the deeper we find ourselves in the 21st century. In my own writings about Paik’s native Korea, where I now live, I credit him with foreseeing what I call the “society of screens,” a concept with which anyone who has taken a ride on the subway in any east Asian metropolis will be well familiar.

Paik died in 2006, at the dawn of our era of omnipresent streaming video, but I like to think he would have felt at home in it. He may also have felt at home in the Los Angeles of Blade Runner. On the first day of 1984, he masterminded a live international New Year’s Day television broadcast called Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, a celebration of not just video technology but, in Paik’s own eyes, the fact that the dystopian future envisioned in Orwell’s novel had failed to materialize.

Angelenos who experienced the time of the brightly colored (and profit-making) Summer Olympics of 1984 all, in my experience, tend to remember it as a high-water mark for the city. Los Angeles would regain its dystopian image in the 1990s by emblematizing urban dysfunction, natural disaster, racial strife, and crime both high-profile and low, a perception reflected and even exaggerated by films like Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon, Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down, and — written in the early 1990s but not produced until the mid-2000s — Paul Haggis’ Crash.

Now, in the late 2010s, Los Angeles has oscillated back to a broad positivity, not least because of the 21st-century resurrection of its downtown, long occupied by primarily by office workers during the day, the poor during the night, and at various times film crews there to make use of its architecture, both its gleaming new corporate towers and its handsome but then-deteriorating examples from the early 20th century. 2019 finds it downtown Los Angeles home not to Blade Runners and tower-side video geishas but, increasingly, to a population of young professionals and the high-end grocery stores and coffee shops that cater to them.

Above it all stands the Wilshire Grand Center, which opened in the summer of 2017 as the new tallest building in Los Angeles. Owned by the Korean conglomerate Hanjin, it bears the logo of Hanjin’s subsidiary Korean Air — and so 73 stories above Los Angeles glows the airline’s red-and-blue logo, all similarities to a certain national flag being, of course, entirely coincidental. Will the downtown skyline show us that the humbling of the Japanese zaibatsu of the 1980s has led only to the victory of the Korean chaebol today?

But then the American media, so far as I can tell at my transpacific remove, reserves its darkest intimations for the rise of China. 2013 brought us a cinematic vision of a Sinicized Los Angeles in Spike Jonze’s Her. Its story of a man in love with an artificial intelligence takes place in quite possibly the most thoroughly realized Los Angeles future on film since Blade Runner, a digital hybrid of the built environments of Los Angeles and Shanghai, joined to create not an urban dystopia but, at least on the surface, an urban utopia.

Incidentally, when I first saw Her, I saw it in a classically Los Angeles fashion, watching it on an Academy Awards “for your consideration” screener disc with friends, at the house of one of them whose father works in the entertainment industry. The train lines now in operation in greater Los Angeles are more numerous and farther reaching that most outsiders (or even many Angelenos) realize, but as soon as this imagined rapid-transit map appeared onscreen, we instinctively paused the movie to marvel at it. That map, more than anything else, made the Sinicization of Los Angeles an appealing prospect — an infrastructural Sinicization, if neither a cultural nor a linguistic one.

A few years before Her, Duncan Jones had already hinted at a more thoroughly Korean future, and done it more subtly, in Moon. Its central character, an astronaut assigned to oversee an automated lunar mining operation, lives in a station called Sarang — the Korean word for love, and one that appears both romanized and in the original Korean script all over the sets.

Jones later revealed that he chose that name because his girlfriend at the time was Korean, “so that was me being a bit of a romantic,” but in the recent history of Koreanized futures in Western film, Moon has proven not to be a one-off. The years after its release saw the solidification of the rumors that had swirled around the prospect of a second Blade Runner, and in late 2016 the trailer for Blade Runner 2049 gave us a promising first look at what we could expect.

This shot in particular got me speculating in overdrive. The eyes of those of you familiar with the Korean language will go, as mine did, straight to the top of the frame — and then try to read it backward, since the text faces outward on the glass. It says haengun, or luck, a natural enough sentiment to stick on the window of what turns out, in the film, to be an abandoned casino in the blasted ruins of Las Vegas.

But to me, and no doubt to what other enthusiasts of Blade Runner, urbanism, Los Angeles, and east Asian languages exist, these two syllables suggested that the Blade Runner vision of the future had to some extent, turned Korean. Whatever my reservations about the very idea of a sequel, I couldn’t resist the chance to see how that vision turned out in the conglomerate-owned multiplex right across the street from my home in Seoul — incidentally, the same place I saw La La Land, a Los Angeles movie that became and remains quite a cultural phenomenon in Korea.

Blade Runner 2049‘s Los Angeles is a far cry from that of a romantic-comedy musical like La La Land — a far cary, in fact, from any version of Los Angeles we’ve seen before, save for the one in the original Blade Runner. But Blade Runner 2049 takes place in not so much a Los Angeles of that year as an intensification, an exaggeration, and at times almost a parody of the Los Angeles of its predecessor. It emphasizes not just a continuation of the series’ commitment to flying cars, but that the built environment of its Los Angeles, which already looked frighteningly dense to audiences in 1982, has only grown denser, and its high-rises have only grown higher.

The reactions of Blade Runner fans to the new film have varied, but no fan could object to how its production has continued using built models (combined with photography of the real Mexico City), which gives these scenes a certain physicality badly lacking in the 100-percent-CGI urban futures so often conjured up onscreen today.

On the ground, the signifiers of Blade Runner‘s urban reality appear at every turn, though the driving rains have become flurries of snow and dust, and joining the advertisements for the Off-World Colonies is a bilingual one for, of course, a Japanese Company — in this case Sony, Blade Runner 2049‘s distributor. The protagonist K lives in an apartment not entirely dissimilar to the one Rick Deckard lives in in the original Blade Runner, but rather than locating it in downtown Los Angeles’ storied (and oft-shot-in) Bradbury Building with interiors in Frank Lloyd Wright’s equally storied Ennis House, Denis Villeneuve uses a concrete apartment block in Budapest, almost all of the film’s exteriors having been shot in Hungary.

In the years after the release of the original Blade Runner, some spoke of a “Blade Runner curse,” speculating that the film had somehow visited its commercial disappointment on the brands advertised in its cityscapes. Atari, Bell, Coca Cola, Pan Am: these and other real, once-leading companies fell on hard times over the subsequent decade, and some of them into ruin. Nothing evidences Blade Runner 2049‘s commitment to extending the original Blade Runner‘s vision than the persistence of so many of those brands, despite the technological apocalypse that’s supposed to have occurred in the thirty years between the two movies. The Atari sign in particular, you’ll notice, has grown to enormous proportions.

As Thom Andersen says in Los Angeles Plays Itself, “Blade Runner has been called the ‘official nightmare’ of Los Angeles, yet this dystopian vision is, in many ways, a city planner’s dream come true. Finally, a vibrant street life. A downtown crowded with night-time strollers. Neon beyond our wildest dreams.” Alas, in the real Los Angeles of 2019, even the Korean conglomerate-owned Wilshire Grand Center still struggles for permission to play moving video on its exterior screens instead of still images.

Where the written languages of Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles are English and Japanese, not necessarily in that order, the sequel’s Los Angeles makes frequent use of a few more, including Korean and Cyrillic. In the early 1980s, Korea had developed well out of its wartime devastation, but had yet to make its debut on the world stage; the Soviet Union, America’s Cold War enemy, had no place on Blade Runner‘s streets at all, but in Blade Runner 2049 appears as just another brand to be promoted with the highest possible technology.

San Diego, according to Blade Runner 2049, will in three decades have become Los Angeles Municipal Waste Processing: San Diego District. But is turning into Los Angeles’ garbage dump a worse or better fate than the one envisioned in Marco Brambilla’s Demolition Man, where by 2032 the city has been wholly absorbed into a vast, totalitarian urban agglomeration called San Angeles?

Despite the imaginativeness of its choices and the impressiveness of their presentation, Blade Runner 2049 never quite convinces as a Los Angeles film, but least because it lacks even the modest ambition of the original Blade Runner — a cyberpunk update of the kind of detective dream stories Raymond Chandler told — to be a Los Angeles film in the first place.

Blade Runner 2049 may present a relatively placeless urban dystopia, but it nevertheless presents a placeless urban dystopia as thoroughly realized as any in recent cinema. Signs of a climate turned violent and unpredictable are everywhere, reflecting relatively recent ecological concerns. In other respects, however, we see in the film the West still both fearing and on some level desiring the same developments it did 37 years ago: streets thronged with buyers and sellers of more or less everything imaginable, legal or otherwise, dealing in a farrago of languages and dialects, a sensory overload at once both futuristically urban and classically urban. What, after all, has the city itself always been if not a marketplace?

But Blade Runner-style urbanism has always haunted many Western viewers, and especially American viewers, with the prospect of the cities they know made foreign, plunged back into what looks and feels like what used to be called the third world. The irony in the West’s trepidation about the influence of Asian cities on those of the West is that that the 21st-century Asian city comes as the result of a modernization process that, in the 19th and 20th centuries, was more or less synonymous with the idea of Westernization.

But whatever the region of the globe, whether in the past future of Blade Runner, the present future of its sequel, or the future future of a sequel to the sequel — unlikely as we are to get one, given the fact that Blade Runner 2049 racked up box office numbers as lackluster as its predecessor did — one truth holds good: sex sells. The colossal ethnically ambiguous nude holograms of the new film surely have their admirers, but I personally find more tasteful their predecessors in the original, the geisha-like figures whose video-screen appearances on the towers above 2019 Los Angeles, however brief, have come to stand in the culture for Blade Runner‘s entire urban sensibility.

These digital geishas make for another connection to Asia, not just the obvious one to Japan but a less likely one to Korea as well. One of them is played a Korean-American actress my the name of Alexis Rhee, who would nearly a quarter-century later play a part in Crash. Before the 1990s, Hollywood movies only made occasional reference to the considerable Korean presence in Los Angeles, and then often vaguely or inaccurately, but by 2005 no film seeking to capture the city — over-ambitious and even foolhardy a goal though that may be — could possibly ignore it. Doubly so in a melodrama intending to diagnose the causes of its racial discord, and so Crash finds Rhee representing Korean Los Angeles, itself a city within the city, as a anger-prone middle-aged immigrant with the highly improbable name of “Kim Lee.”

Living in Seoul, I find that many of my Korean-American acquaintances there, those who moved to Korea out of a desire to experience the ancestral homeland or moved back to experience the country of their early childhood as adults, are in some sense the sons and daughters of Kim Lee. By that I mean they grew up under immigrant Korean parents who, however imperfectly they get on in the West, have lived there for twenty, thirty, forty, years with hardly a thought toward returning to Korea themselves. If and when these Kim Lees do make the trip back to visit their wayward offspring, they tend to find that little remains of the Korea they remember, and of which they typically have a dim view indeed.

Here we have a photograph of the Korea of the 1970s, when the agrarian society of the 19th century came literally up against the high-rise development of the 20th. And here we have the Seoul of the 2010s:

These are, I underscore, real pictures of Seoul, which notably come taken not by Korean photographers but by Westerners, in this case Westerners by the names of Steve Roe and Noe Alonzo. William Gibson, whose 1984 novel Neuromancer did nearly as much as Blade Runner to define the cyberpunk aesthetic, once famously said that the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

At the time Gibson first said that, Westerners would have looked instinctively to Japan, and specifically Tokyo, to see what that unevenly distributed future might bring. But whereas the future once looked obviously Japanese, it looks less so today. One might make the argument that Chinese cities, those densely populated capitalistic battlefields raised to great heights and connected by ultramodern infrastructure seemingly overnight, show us the future, but the global imagination still seems to flinch from them.

But the longer I live in Korea, the more convinced I become that Seoul, with its omnipresent conglomerates, its distinctive combination of order contained with disorder and vice versa, and its population of 25 million that adopts and assimilates the latest personal technology without hesitation, offers more than enough material for those looking to imagine an urban future in the 2010s. At certain moments in my life in Seoul, the city strikes me as having surpassed Blade Runner, and sometimes as having surpassed Blade Runner 2049.

Every time I visit Los Angeles, I admit to feeling disappointment, frustration, and even anger at the absence of nearly all the conveniences available as a matter of course in Seoul. But it’s never long before I start imagining how Los Angeles might one day take Seoul as an example, incorporating its most desirable features but re-interpreting them in its own way. It occurs to me then that the urban future resides not in any one city, but in the way that distant cities meet one another, in life or on film.

Korea Blog: Los Angeles and Seoul, a Tale of Two Ugly Cities

Los Angeles and Seoul have in common enormous size and unusual structure, both of which make them difficult places to apprehend quickly, or indeed even slowly. Someone seeking a functional understanding of either one needs a “way in,” and so, when I first moved to Los Angeles early in this decade, I looked for it in books, reading all I could find about that city. When I then moved from Los Angeles to Seoul three or so years ago, I immediately began reading all I could find about this city. That in addition to the reading about Los Angeles I never stopped doing, my four years there having generated more questions than they answered. Still, my reading (and indeed writing) about Los Angeles and Seoul has revealed to me not just a great deal about the nature of each individual city, but something about their deeper, less obvious commonalities as well.

Over the past ten to fifteen years both Los Angeles and Seoul have entered new eras of self-awareness, and a greater quantity of writing about both cities (sometimes and sometimes not accompanied by quality) has resulted in that same period. In both cases some of that writing is straightforwardly celebratory, but at least as much of it strikes a pose of apology or defiance, as if these cities were inherently unworthy or even objectionable subjects. One of my favorite recent books about the Korean capital is called Even So, I Like Seoul (그래도 나는 서울이 좋다), and a good deal of the enthusiasm for Los Angeles currently expressed in text or any other medium could be similarly titled. Even the most avid enthusiasts of either city will make certain concessions right upfront — Seoul’s bad air and unruly drivers, Los Angeles’ sizable homeless population and incomplete transit infrastructure — and both seem to take as given one particular criticism of both cities so common as to be almost reflexive: that they’re ugly.

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

일기: 空間 사옥/아라리오 뮤지엄

지난 3월에 일본 건축가 이소자키 아라타는 건축계에서 최고의 상으로 알려진 프리츠커상을 받았다. 이소자키가 일본의 가장 유면한 건축가들 중 하나라면 한국의 가장 유명한 건축가는 누구일까? 내가 보기에는 그 건축가는 이소자키와 동갑이고 동경에서 같이 공부했던 김수근이다. 이소자키와 김수근은 공통점이 몇 가지가 있다. 그런데 이소자키가 프리츠커상을 받은 소식을 듣고 나서 나는 김수근이 50대에 일찍 죽지 않았다면 그도 프리츠커상을 받을 수 있었을까라고 상상하게 되었다. 이소자키가 설계해 온 많은 건물 중 하나는 로스앤젤레스의 현대 미술관이다. 나는 로스앤젤레스에 살았을 때 김수근이 죽은 1986년에 개장했던 그 미술관을 자주 지나갔다. 만약 김수근이 살아 있었다면 로스앤젤레스에서 그렇게 멋있는 건축물을 설계할 수 있었을까?

나는 이러한 질문들을 생각하면서 서울에 있는 아라리오 뮤지엄에 방문했다. 김수근의 살아 있는 삶 동안 존재하지 않았던 아라리오 뮤지엄은 옛날에 김수근의 건축 사무소였던 空間 사옥이라는 건물에 위치해 있다. 空間 사옥은 김수근이 직접 설계했던 70년대 초에 서울에 있었던 모든 건물들과 완전히 다르게 생겼고 오늘날에도 그렇다. 벽돌로 지어져 있고 외관이 담쟁이로 뒤덮혔기 때문에 그 어떤 면에서보다도 아시아 대도시에 있는 미술관이라기보다는 미국 동부 대학 교정에 있는 도서관처럼 느껴진다. 그러나 들어가자마자 좁은 복도와 계단으로 연결된 여러 작은 방으로 구성된 내부 공간은 도서관이나 미술관이라기보다는 마치 미로를 연상시킨다.

空間 사옥의 공간 활용을 일본식이라고 말하는 건축 평론가들이 있긴 하지만 어쩌면 그 공간 사용은 일본 건축에게서 영향을 받았던 모든 시대를 통틀어 가장 유명한 미국 건축가인 프랭크 로이드 라이트의 작품과의 유사성을 찾을 수 있다. 프랭크 로이드 라이트가 설계한 뉴욕에 있는 구겐하임 미술관은 예술적인 가치를 가지고 있을 뿐만 아니라 인상적인 건축 작품으로 인해서 방문객을 많이 끌어들인다. 이와 더불어 한국의 空間 사옥을 이용하는 아라리오 뮤지엄도 마찬가지다. 자유롭게 사진을 찍을 수 있는 예술 작품들이 많지만 건축에 대한 관심이 많은 나는 그 예술 작품보다 건물 그 자체를 훨씬 더 많은 사진에 담았다. 또한 가장 잘 나온 사진들은 건물과 예술 작품 뿐만 아니라 일반 미술관에 없는 창문들을 통해서 보이는 경치까지 사진에 나온 것이다.

아라리오 뮤지엄에서 볼 수 있는 대부분의 예술 작품들은 한국 예술가가 만든 것들이 아니라80년대와 90년대에 젊은 영국 예술가를 뜻하는YBA라는 호칭으로 불렸던 데미언 허스트나 트레이시 에민과 같은 예술가가 창조한 것이다. 아라리오 뮤지엄에서 전시되어 있는 다른 작품들 중 거의 김수근과 동갑인 백남준의 텔레비전으로 만들어진 유머 감각이 풍부한 조각품 몇 개도 있다. 나는 여전히 세상에 가장 잘 알려진 한국 예술가인 백남준의 작품들을 대중 매체에서 본 적이 몇 번 있었지만 직접 본 것은 나에게 색다른 경험을 주었고 이러한 독특한 공간에서는 더욱더 그렇다. 게다가 외관상보다 많은 층수를 가진 아라리오 뮤지엄의 다른 층에서 내가 처음으로 들어본 씨킴이라는 한국 예술가의 무척 흥미로운 조각품도 만났다.

씨킴이라는 예술가가 누구일까? 알고 보니 그는 바로 아라리오 뮤지엄의 주인 김창일이다. 백만장자이며 사업가이기도한 김창일은 사업이 성공한 후에 예술작품들을 수집하기 시작했을 뿐만 아니라 예술작품들을 직접 만들기도 시작했다. 그러한 면에서 그는 김수근과 그다지 다르지 않다고 할 수 있다. 우리에게 김수근은 건축가로 기억되고 있지만 그의 생전에 여러 예술가들에게 경제적인 지원을 넉넉히 해 주었고 空間 사옥에서 건축과 예술에 대한 <공간 월간>이라는 잡지를 창간했으며 空間 사옥의 지하실에서 예술 극장까지 운영했다. 김수근은 空間 사옥을 짓기 시작했을 때 건물을 완공할 만큼 충분한 자본이 없었지만 결국에는 다른 나라에서 찾을 수 없는 건물을 세상에 내보였다. 그러나 2010년대에 김수근이 없는 김수근의 건축 사무소는 파산선고에 놓여서 空間 사옥을 팔고 떠나야만 했다. 하지만 空間 사옥이 이제 누구나 방문할 수 있는 문화 공간으로 기능 할 수 있는 것은 다행한 일이지만 그 건물의 파란만장한 역사는 우리에게 예술이 가치도 있고 이와 더불어 돈도 중요하다는 것을 일깨워 주기도 한다.

Open Culture posts on Japan

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 things Japanese, and you’ll find those posts gathered below:

Akira Kurosawa

Animation

Art and craft

Books

Cities, architecture and urbanism

Clothes

Design

Film and television

Food and drink

Haruki Murakami

Hayao Miyazaki

History

Language

Music

Oddities

Ukiyo-e