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Hi, I’m Colin Marshall

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

On my new Substack newsletter Books on Cities, I write long-form essay-reviews on exactly that.

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.

I’ve previously appeared on a Seoul urbanism radio feature on TBS eFM’s Koreascape as well as 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 Agony and Ecstasy of Learning Korean, Expressed by Memes

Worldwide interest in the Korean language has grown to enormous proportions — enormous, at any rate, compared to twenty years ago, when it might as well have had no proportions at all. Even I felt little desire to learn Korean back then, despite my having given precious megabytes on my Diamond Rio over to several Koreanpop songs I’d downloaded through Napster. Now, culturally phenomenized in with the West as “K-pop,” this music and its performers constitute a hugely popular motivator to study the language — second only, perhaps, to the more verbally intensive if not necessarily more complex form of the Korean television drama. That both K-pop and K-drama have accrued international fan bases of such striking avidity owes something to the concurrent development of social media. And it is there, on what Konglish calls “SNS,” that Korean-learners express their collective frustration.

It always starts so easily. Unlike Chinese, written modern Korean uses not logographic characters but a phonetic alphabet, a fact I’d picked up even when I was listening uncomprehendingly to Baby V.O.X. back in high school. (Until not so long ago it mixed Chinese characters with the phonetic alphabet in the manner of Japanese, and now I’ve come around to wishing it still did, but that’s a subject for another day.) King Sejong the Great, the fifteenth-century ruler celebrated for having commissioned the creation of hangul, literally “Korean writing,” is recorded has having described it as learnable by a smart man in a day and a stupid man in a week. That claim seems to be true as far as it goes, made though it was without consideration of the far thornier difficulties for those who have yet to understand the language itself — a subject since addressed by memes.

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

Korea Blog: The Harrowing Films of Kim Ki-duk (1960-2020)

Kim Ki-duk died last month, and not for the first time. The coronavirus caused his death in reality, whereas his cinematic death occurred nearly a decade ago. It happened in Arirang (아리랑), a film Kim shot alone in a spartan countryside cabin to which he’d exiled himself for the previous three years. In it the filmmaker takes himself to task for his failure to maintain the productive momentum under which he’d directed internationally acclaimed pictures like Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (봄 여름 가을 겨울 그리고 봄) and 3-Iron (빈집). He attempts to explain his retreat — an actress was nearly killed on the set of 2008’s Dream (비몽), certain collaborators defected to the mainstream — but finally resorts to annihilation. Armed with a revolver crafted using his own machine tools, he drives into Seoul and apparently executes those who betrayed him before turning the homemade gun on himself.

This portrait of the artist as a self-pitying outcast does offer Kim the chance to tell a remarkable life story. Having never reached middle school in a society known for denying futures to those without prestigious tertiary education, he worked in junkyards and factories at a young age. After serving in the Marines, he studied theology for a time before redirecting his autodidactic energies to art, going so far as to spend a few years painting on the streets of Paris. There, in his 30s, he first set foot in a cinema, and would later credit screenings of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs and Leos Carax’s Les Amants du Pont-Neuf with inspiring his dedication to film. Back in Korea he began writing a screenplay (having yet to attain full literacy, so the story goes) that would win an open contest held by the Korean Film Council in 1995.

Kim’s debut feature Crocodile (악어) came out the following year. Its scenes of destitution, prostitution, rape, murder, and suicide prefigured themes of his later work, and its eponymous character marks the first appearance of a recurring type: societally marginal, nearly mute, and subject to uncontrollable outbursts of violent rage. Despite not actually a being crocodile, Crocodile’s behavior is often indistinguishable from that of a dangerous wild animal. The same holds for the title figure in 2001’s Bad Guy (나쁜 남자), portrayed, like Crocodile, by Cho Jae-hyun, a frequent enough collaborator to be regarded as Kim’s onscreen avatar. This sexually frustrated small-time thug impulsively kisses a college girl he spots in a park, earning a righteous beating from a pack of soldiers drawn over by the ensuing commotion. In retaliation, he soon thereafter orchestrates her capture and effective sale to a brothel.

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

Books on Cities: Lawrence Osborne, Paris Dreambook (1990)

“You can’t have Bach, Mozart and Beethoven as your favorite composers,” Michael Tilson Thomas once declared. “They simply define what music is.” By the same token, we might say you can’t have New York, London, and Paris as your favorite cities, collectively defining as they do the standard against which we measure — and usually find wanting — all other cities. I myself have never named New York, London, or Paris among my favorites, though I’ve only spent a few weeks each in the first two. Paris I’ve never set foot in, possibly in subconscious reaction against its sheer belovedness, especially among my fellow Americans abroad. Even apart from my basic condition of Europhilia-phobia, something in the city’s popular image always grated: not for me the picturesque City of Light and its innumerable boulevards, squares, and back alleys, all arbitrarily forced to retain their mid-19th-century shape.

Yet had I encountered Lawrence Osborne’s version of the city in my youth, I’d surely have got to Paris long ago. An Englishman now resident in Bangkok, Osborne wrote Paris Dreambook early in his career, when first he was building his profile as a novelist. Though not a novel, the book also refuses to fulfill most of the expectations commonly raised by a non-fiction city book. Its subtitle, An Unconventional Guide to the Splendor and Squalor of the City, is in equal parts descriptive and misleading. In neither form nor content does the text resemble that of a guidebook, though the word “guide” may actually refer to its central character, whom the omniscient character calls only “the peasant.” Seemingly an outsider to Paris, the peasant nevertheless knows the city intimately, or at least the parts of the city that surround his apartment building at 37 rue André Antoine.

That, as readers familiar with Paris may know, is a real address. A writer on cities named Alex Marshall (no relation) confirmed it first-hand two years after the book’s publication, finding it “on a small, bumpy narrow street that twisted its way down a hill from a small plaza and church at the Place des Abbesses. Above the doorway to the otherwise plain building was a statue of a reclining nude woman.” Inside he finds the Tanzanian concierge Osborne calls “Aladdin” and depicts as occupying a single room “in the middle of which, amid the paraphernalia of many assumed lives, Arabic dictionaries of medicinal spells hi-fi equipment, boxes of rabbits’ feet, cabinets of tropical oil and herbs, cooking pots scented with clove oil, pots of lemon grass and cardamom pods, dense clothes racks and various firearms, hangs a khaki regulation tropics British army uniform decorated with a colored bands.”

Read the whole thing at Substack. See also my interview with Lawrence Osborne on The Marketplace of Ideas.

From my interview archive: Lawrence Osborne on Bangkok

I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

In recent years, Lawrence Osborne has become famous as a novelist, expertly constructing his stories in settings as far-flung as Morocco, Cambodia, Greece, and Mexico. He wasn’t when first I interviewed him, though he was hardly unknown, having published non-fiction books on a variety of subjects including wine, tourism, Asperger syndrome, and the history of sexual pessimism. After reading a review of his Bangkok Days, on the city in which he’d spend a good deal of time off and on over past couple of decades, I requested an interview without hesitation.

What was it about the book that demanded my attention? At the time, I’d never lived in Asia. In fact I had yet to set foot there, and indeed labored daily under the shame of having never traveled no further abroad than Canada. But looking back, it must have tapped into several currents of inevitability that I had yet to acknowledge (or had resisted acknowledging). Though I maintained a variety of divergent professional aspirations, my future clearly lay with writing, and writing of an essayistic kind. For some time I’d been reading memoirs by Westerners in Japan, and occasionally interviewing their authors. And for even longer I’d been learning the Korean language, an effort I told myself was just so I could read Korean DVD boxes.

A decade later, I live in Korea and write about cities. This perspective certainly enriches a revisitation of my interview with Osborne about Bangkok Days, but in truth I’ve listened to it more than a few times over the years. (This sets it well apart from most of the hundreds of others I’ve recorded, edited, and never heard again.) Without quite being able to separate cause from effect, I can say that many of the subjects we discussed have turned into longer-term themes for me: the “new urban civilization” emerging in the 21st century, the necessity of speaking the local language, the persistence of Judeo-Christian morality in ostensibly secular societies, the danger of the West “regulating itself out of existence,” the insult to intelligence that is the U.S. publisher-applied subtitle.

Many of the observations Osborne made in our conversation have stayed with me, none more than that “our relationship to cities is very much like our relationships to a person.

It’s almost like a love affair or a friendship. If you think about the way in which you get to know a human being in all their complexity, it’s something that happens over many, many years. You don’t meet somebody in one period of time and decide that they’re a friend or a lover. You do in some ways, but what you really do is drop in over and over again, you get to know that person over a very, very long period of time. And when that happens — 10, 15, 20, 25 years — the accumulation of those visits, the accumulation of that time spent, produces in you complex feelings.

This is never far from my mind when I write (or indeed read) about cities. Nor, after half a decade living in Asia, is the fact that I still haven’t been to Bangkok. My Korean, Japanese, and Mandarin skills have each come along at their own pace — or at least they’ve come along from their near-nonexistence in 2009 — but I have yet to mount an assault on the heap of Thai language learning materials I’ve been gathering as preparation for my first trip there. Given the tricky international travel situation at the moment, of course, mine will be Seoul days for the foreseeable future.

Books on Cities: Michael Sorkin, All Over the Map (2011)

When the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the United States, Michael Sorkin became one of its earliest high-profile casualties. He died in New York City, where he’d lived since 1973 and about which he’d written since at least the early 1980s. Throughout that decade he was the architecture critic for the also-late Village Voice, a position in which he could fairly be said to have drawn on the experience of both of his master’s degrees, in architecture from MIT and English from Columbia. Not that his written work, well-known in the city for its needling tendentiousness, smacked of the academy: Paul Goldberger, New York Times architecture critic and Sorkin’s erstwhile enemy, once wrote that it was “to thoughtful criticism what the Ayatollah Khomeini is to religious tolerance.” Sorkin put that quote on the cover of his next book, an anecdote that obituaries have retold as representative of his character.

Sorkin was elsewhere remembered as a “bomb thrower,” and by the editor-in-chief of Architectural Record at that. Pieces written for that magazine constitute most of All Over the Map: Writings on Buildings and Cities, the volume I picked up in search of a belated introduction. Despite having known Sorkin’s name for years, I’d somehow never spent much time with his writing — an especially surprising oversight since it would seem to offer a model of city criticism, a form I attempted to define not long ago. City criticism is not architecture criticism, as I emphasized, and Sorkin seems to have approached the same point from a different direction, seldom writing about an individual building without also writing about the city. This could mean the actual city (usually New York) in which the building exists, “the city” in a more conceptual sense, or — least fashionably — the “good city.”

The sine qua non of the good city, in Sorkin’s view, is density, “the enabler of propinquity, the coming together of bodies in space. This density of encounter is the substrate of sociability and the material basis of democracy,” and the “frequency, character, and controllability of such encounters define the quality of urban life.” But the good city must “offer the possibility of avoidance as well as a hedge against uniformity of experience. A good city is clearly one that cannot be completely learned but must also reward the study produced by everyday participation. And a good city is one in which freedom of movement is facilitated, not impeded.” Cities are “civilization’s mnemonic, a contract in stone between past and future,” and the preeminent value of the good city “lies in its neighborliness, its respect for the other, for existing and historic patterns of life.”

Read the whole thing at Substack.

My ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2020: Ed Ruscha’s Sunset Boulevard, Roald Dahl’s writing hut, France’s 80s internet, and more

For nearly nine 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 2,300 so far, and here are ten of my favorites from the more than 250 I wrote in 2020:

See also my ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2012201320142015201620172018, and 2019.

Korea Blog: Leenalchi’s Pansori at the Disco

Last month my girlfriend and I visited Mokpo, a somewhat down-at-the-heels port town on Korea’s southwest coast, hoping to have a look at its Japanese colonial architecture and a taste of its tangtangi, a local specialty involving raw beef and still-twitching squid. Though Mokpo lacks Seoul’s density of screens, it has just enough of them to make us notice the same music video playing all over the city — and that its hot pink-suited dancers were cavorting through the very places we’d put on our itinerary. The production was, of course, part of a campaign to promote Korean tourism; more surprisingly, it had racked up well over 30 million views on YouTube since that campaign launched last summer. Driving the phenomenon was less the video itself, however picturesque and amusing its imagery, than the music, the work of an overnight sensation called Leenalchi (이날치).

Like all overnight sensations, Leenalchi’s roots run deeper than they appear to; this holds true even in the notoriously capricious popular culture of 21st-century Korea. Some run all the way to 17th-century Korea, where the traditional form of musical storytelling known as pansori has its origins. Though an unlikely source of inspiration for dance music popularized through YouTube, pansori has enjoyed its moments of modern-day popularity, the most notable having occurred after Im Kwon-taek’s Seopyeonje (서편제) in 1993. That film takes its title from a regional form of pansori; Leenalchi, in turn, take their name from 19th-century pansori master credited with developing it, Lee Nal-chi. Most of the band’s members have studied under pansori masters themselves, but their music has none of the rigorous purism of government-funded gugak, or “national music”: they’re pop artists first, creators of songs to be enjoyed in the moment.

This, at any rate, is the line taken by Jang Young-gyu, one of Leenalchi’s masterminds. Long established as a film composer, Jang’s body of work includes the score for Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing (곡성), which in 2016 unsettled audiences the world over by repurposing Korean shamanism into the material for modern-day horror. He also played bass in Ssingssing, a cross-dressing “gugak fuion” rock band whose style also partook from shamanistic tradition. This seemingly niche act turned out to have global appeal: it was after Ssingssing receiving a hugely positive response to a 2017 show for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, of all venues, that Jang came to understand the potential they’d tapped. The next year he and Ssingssing drummer Lee Cheol-hee played in Dragon King, a pansori-based musical production that put them alongside the skilled vocalists who would become their bandmates in Leenalchi.

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

Times Literary Supplement: Michael Booth, “Three Tigers, One Mountain”

Were does Europe end and Asia begin? “If someone can pose as an expert on the country in question without knowledge of the relevant language, it’s part of Asia”, the American North Korea analyst Brian Reynolds Myers once quipped. Michael Booth doesn’t pose as an authority on the Koreas, or on the other countries in Three Tigers, One Mountain: A journey through the bitter history and current conflicts of China, Korea, and Japan, but his linguistic strategy is that of many an Asia “expert”: “They don’t speak any English so I attempt a mime”, he writes of an interaction with South Koreans at a historical site, “but that only serves to confuse matters further”.

A Briton resident in Denmark, Booth presents himself as an enthusiastically interested if occasionally befuddled outsider, a safe choice given the sensitivity of his subject. “The Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, along with a fourth tiger, Taiwan, would appear from a distance to have everything to gain from harmonious relations”, he writes, “and yet they seem constantly to be on the brink of a potentially serious conflict. Many believe that if there is to be a World War III, it will most likely begin here”. The author sets off on a journey from Japan to South Korea to China, then to Hong Kong and Taiwan and back to Japan, asking one question: “Why can’t the nations of east Asia get on?”

Read the whole thing at the Times Literary Supplement. See also my previous essay on the book at the Los Angeles Review of Books Korea Blog.

Korea Blog: Five Years a Seoulite

I haven’t lived in Korea long — just long enough to forget that I live in Korea. This presents something of a professional danger, given the supposed subject of so much of my work. But like writing about Los Angeles when I lived there, writing about Korea guarantees me frequent reminders that I do indeed live here. This, in part, inspired me to pitch the idea of a Korea Blog to the LARB just before making the move five years ago: having regularly to consider different topics pertaining to Korea would, in theory, prevent me from retreating into an ersatz West — stocked with Western media, Western food, Western languages, Western friends — of the kind known to entrap Westerners here. It would also record a moment in Korean life, culture, and current events as perceived by one foreigner (and occasionallyothers) with a persistent interest in the place.

As any workaday foreign correspondent would confirm, these past five years constitute a particularly interesting time to have been in Korea. When I arrived, President Park Geun-hye was being protested, but not at the scale — nor for the reasons — that would ultimately see her deposed. The sinking of the M.V. Sewol in the spring of 2014 remained bitterly fresh in public memory, not least due to the release of documentaries like Cruel State (나쁜 나라); the feature Birthday (생일) would come later. And though Korean cinema already commanded a not inconsiderable fan base around the world, nobody could have imagined the unprecedented breakthrough it would make just a few years later, when Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (기생층) would win the Palme d’Or and then four Academy Awards, Best Picture included.

Then again, I’d can’t say it wouldn’t have pleased me had the work of Lee Chang-dong, whose Burning (버닝) also contended at Cannes, enjoyed that victory; or even more so, that of Hong Sangsoo. Having put out eight pictures in the time I’ve been living in Korea, the latest being this year’s The Woman Who Ran (도망친 여자), Hong offers me one way of marking my time here, but he also did more than his part to inspire me to dig into Korean cinema, and consequently the Korean language, in the first place. And yes, even after five years of life in Korea and more than a dozen years of study, Korean is still hard. It’s actually become harder, in that every day here reveals more of my own linguistic ignorance — which, to my mind, is half the fun of expatriation.

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

Books on Cities: Jason Horton, Abandoned and Historic Los Angeles (2020)

When you hear something described as “only in L.A.,” rest assured of its being neither unique to nor representative of Los Angeles. Take, mundane though it may be, the definite article preceding freeway numbers — “the 10,” “the 5,” “the 405” — a linguistic tic mythologized, by a kind of soft cultural conspiracy, as unheard outside Southern California’s metropolis, or at least outside Southern California. True, Los Angeles doesn’t look, feel, or seem to work quite like any other city. Both its avowed lovers and haters agree on that, but what exactly sets it apart, and how, remains a matter of active inquiry. Or it would be if more of us actively inquired into it, rather than gesturing toward settled trivialities: frequent driving on the aforementioned freeways, encounters with flamboyant quasi-celebrities, streets lined with palm trees, buildings not shaped like normal buildings.

In recent decades, those avowed lovers of Los Angeles have started to outnumber the haters, or at any rate to speak over them. I don’t consider this an unmixed good, though I think I can claim a greater enthusiasm for the place than most. The enjoyment of Los Angeles holds a contrarian appeal, not just for me but others more firmly rooted there as well. When documentarian Doug Pray said to me that “Los Angeles can be so hated that I actually enjoy it,” I understood at once what he meant, cool though that hatred had even then. I was interviewing him for Notebook on Cities and Culture, the podcast I launched shortly after first moving to Los Angeles myself about a decade ago — a time, I like to think, when moving to Los Angeles and launching a podcast was less of a cliché than it is today.

At least I wasn’t doing a comedy podcast, a genre that even then seemed to emanate an unlistenably huge amount of content from Los Angeles alone. Though I might interview the occasional comedian — an appealing breed of guest, due not least to their habits of observation and perpetual willingness to talk — my primary goal was to get not laughs but a variety of perspectives on Los Angeles in order to better understand the city. Though I’d already hosted radio interviews for years, I thus found my instinct for identifying articulate interlocutors more rigorously tested. Few of the negative preconceptions about Los Angeles were borne out by my daily experience, but those about a certain class of Angeleno speech have, I admit, something to them. Beginning with “so,” sentences stagger through a series of “like”s and “you know”s before eventually finding their unstructured way to a concluding “awesome.”

Read the whole thing at Substack.