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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: Bong Joon-ho’s Biggest Victory, Accepting His Oscars in Korean

When we cinephiles of a certain age remember our discovery of film, we remember browsing video-store shelves in search of interesting movies to rent. But explaining the facts of that era in the face of disbelief from the young — You mean you couldn’t watch a movie someone else was watching? You had to pay “late fees”? — should keep us from looking back with excessive fondness. Not only did we have to contend with the contingencies of physical media, from unwound VHS tapes to scratched DVDs, we had to accept whatever our local video store happened to carry. Some of us could expand our cinematic horizons with trip to the nearest major city’s speciality rental shop, with its large and intensively curated stock organized by director, by movement, by country. But most of the time we had to make do with suburban chain stores, who broke down their Hollywood-dominated selection into crude genres like “action/adventure,” “drama,” “comedy,” — and, over in the back, “foreign.”

I’d like to say I discovered Korean cinema back then, but in fact it took another decade before I came upon the fateful cache of Korean Film Council releases in my university’s media library. Still, my near-random picks from the foreign section, usually from Japan or Hong Kong, got me used to two aspects of cinematically faithful home video, both of which bothered viewers across America at the time. The first was letterboxing, which fit a film’s entire rectangular frame within the then-square frame of television screens, causing some to insist that part of the image was actually hidden by “black bars.” The second was subtitling, which obviated the need to dub a film not originally shot in English into English, much to the consternation of those unwilling to “read a movie.” But not long thereafter, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proved that a subtitled movie could succeed in the United States, in not just its urban “art houses” but its anonymous multiplexes as well.

Or rather I’d thought it did, not least because I haven’t encountered a single English-dubbed film this century. Hence my surprise when I heard Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho poking fun at the non-movie-readers of America after accepting his Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film. He won it with Parasite, a suspenseful, funny, violent, and tightly crafted and tale of class warfare I wrote about here on the Korea Blog after it won the Palme d’Or last May. The audience at Cannes, whose last few big winners have come from Japan, Sweden, England, France, and Turkey, are presumably no strangers to subtitles. The same, perhaps, cannot be said of the audience at the Golden Globes, to whom Bong gave these words of advice: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” I admit to never having made a habit of overestimating the cultural acumen of my fellow Americans, but still I wondered: how many of us really had yet to step over that barrier?

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

Open Culture posts on Hunter S. Thompson

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the death of Hunter S. Thompson, author of Hell’s Angels, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Curse of Lono, and other equally harrowing and inimitable gonzo-journalistic views of the American scene. Here follow the posts I’ve written about Thompson and his work for Open Culture over the past eight years:

You’ll find much more about Thompson in the site’s archives. You can also find a selection of some of my other favorite posts in the Open Culture section of my essays page.

Korea Blog: The American Dream Dies in Los Angeles in Bae Chang-Ho’s “Deep Blue Night”

Speeding through the desert in a convertible, blasting “Highway Star” on the radio: as much appeal as that fantasy has held for Americans, it’s held even more for non-Americans. Such a scene opens Deep Blue Night (깊고 푸른 밤), a Korean film shot entirely in the US and intensely, even grimly concerned with the broader notion of the “American dream.” At the wheel of the car — incongruously, not an American classic like a Mustang or a Corvette, but a Mercedes — is a Korean man of about thirty. In the passenger’s seat is a girl, another essential element of the fantasy, but before long the man will have abandoned her in Death Valley, having roughed her up, relieved her of an envelope full of cash and, deaf to her entreaties, continued on his way. What looked like a simple living of the dream turns out to be part of a mission before which morality is clearly no object.

The man’s name is Baek Ho-bin, and Los Angeles is the destination of a months-long journey that began in his homeland. From there he first made his way to Mexico, then crossed the border into San Diego, where he met the young lady, a fellow Korean, whom he left in the desert. In Los Angeles he connects with another Korean woman, a bartender who introduces herself only as “Jane.” An American citizen, Jane runs a side business entering into sham green-card marriages in exchange for money, just the service for a man like Ho-bin eager to bring his wife and unborn child over from Korea. In time she lets Ho-bin live in her hillside house, and even sets him up with a job at a convenience store. That the cynical operator eventually develops genuine feelings for the handsome rogue may at first seem like a cliché straight out of a romantic comedy with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere — whom Ahn Sung-ki, a child star in the 1950s and now an icon of Korean cinema, resembles in the role of Ho-bin.

Ahn looks and acts most like Gere as he appears in movie that certainly doesn’t count as romantic comedy, but does count among the underrated Los Angeles movies of the 1980s: Jim McBride’s American remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, which is more respectable than it sounds. Whereas most American versions of foreign films lighten up the originals, McBride’s Breathless darkens Godard’s debut down, replacing its doomed romantic flair with a nihilistic seediness befitting the change of setting. It also swaps the nationalities of the main characters: Jean Seberg’s Patricia becomes Valérie Kaprisky’s French UCLA student Monica, and Jean-Pierre Belmondo’s Michel becomes Gere’s murderous drifter Jesse. Each in his own way, both Jesse and Ho-bin are archetypes of the aggressive young man in America, the former native-born and full of aimless vitality, the latter a new arrival on the make. Neither show any compunction when dealing — sexually, violently, or both — with those in the way.

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

Pretty Much Pop podcast: Martin Scorsese the Auteur

I appear on the latest episode of Pretty Much Pop, a podcast curated by Open Culture, to discuss the films of Martin Scorsese. Though prompted by the release last year of Scorsese’s latest feature The Irishman, preparation for the discussion convinced me to launch into a complete re-watch of Scorsese’s filmography. Here’s the official episode description:

We consider the highly lauded 2019 film The Irishman in the context of Scorsese’s body of work and the styles and themes that his films tend to exhibit. Writer/podcaster Colin Marshall joins Mark, Erica, and Brian to talk about what we do and don’t connect with in Scorsese’s work and how these films qualify as “art films” despite their watchability, not to mention the big budgets and stars. We cover CGI age alteration, the connection to The Joker, his comments about the Marvel franchise vs. him being a franchise unto himself, his use of music, and making films as an old guy. We hit particularly on Raging BullTaxi DriverBringing out the DeadThe King of ComedyGoodfellasGangs of New York,  The DepartedCasinoSilence, and Cape Fear.

You can also follow my Scorsese filmography Twitter thread (still a work in progress) here.

Archinect: For Los Angeles’ Future, See Tokyo’s Present

On the very first morning of my life in Los Angeles, I went to Little Tokyo. With its Japanese bookstores, its undigested chunks of 1980s architecture, and its late-night East-Meets west diners, the neighborhood had done much to draw my attention to the southern Californian metropolis in the first place. Los Angeles, a banner at its airport once proclaimed, is “a World in Itself,” and indeed, it held out to me not just the promise of the city, but of elements of the East Asian city as well. After a few years in Los Angeles I moved to Asia itself, from Koreatown to Korea, but even living on the other side of the Pacific I haven’t stopped thinking about Los Angeles. Nor have I stopped chiseling away, albeit remotely, at the exhilaratingly hopeless task of figuring the city-that’s-a-world-in-itself out. 

Not that I make it to Los Angeles much these days; I’ve been seeing far less of Little Tokyo than I have of the original Tokyo. When I first moved to Los Angeles I’d never set foot in Japan, but when I made my first visit back to Los Angeles, it brought the Japanese capital immediately and vividly to mind. Or rather, one particular Los Angeles vista did: the city as seen from the 70th floor of the InterContinental Hotel downtown. My attempts to master Los Angeles while living there included seeing it laid out from every high-elevation viewpoint I could: the Griffith Observatory, the Getty Center, the Bonaventure Hotel. But I left town before the opening of the Wilshire Grand Center, now the tallest building in the city — at least technically, thanks to the thin spike on top  — and the one whose 70th floor the InterContinental’s panoramic “Sky Lobby” occupies.

This view, a clearer and more expansive one than I’d ever thought possible of Los Angeles, took me back to the observation deck of Tokyo Tower. Originally built in 1958 as a broadcasting antenna (with the dual function of signaling to the world Japan’s rapid rise from wartime devastation), Tokyo Tower is downright venerable compared to the Wilshire Grand Center. But whatever the historical and architectural differences between the two structures — to say nothing of the cities that spread out below them — as vantage points they felt unexpectedly similar. The visit, my first to anywhere touristic in Tokyo after half a dozen trips there, simultaneously indulged my love of all things of the mid- to late Shōwa era (the reign of Emperor Hirohito, which lasted from 1926 to 1989) and my desire to grasp the structure of Tokyo. But it also made me realize that, by comparison to all the cities one could try to understand, Tokyo and Los Angeles aren’t entirely different endeavors.

Read the whole thing at Archinect.

Korea Blog: Introducing Kim Hoon, Korea’s Greatest Living Novelist Never Published in English

On a pedestal high above downtown Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square stands Admiral Yi Sun-sin. Generation after generation of Korean schoolchildren have studied the 16th-century naval commander’s unblemished record of victory against the invading Japanese, and four centuries after his death Yi remains the unrivaled symbol of a small, impoverished nation’s will to resist predation by the larger powers surrounding it. His statue was erected in 1968 at the behest of Park Chung-hee, the military dictator who had taken power in a coup d’état seven years before. Park ordered only that the monument depict the Korean most feared and admired by the Japanese who, with Yi long gone, had finally colonized Korea in 1910 and remained in power there until the end of the Second World War.

By the time the Korean War came to its prolonged halt in 1953, the Korean Peninsula was a divided shambles. But at the end of the 20th century, its fully industrialized and democratized southern half boasted a standard of living nearly equal to that of its loathed (but for its economic dynamism, grudgingly respected) former colonial master. How much need remained to mythologize a military figure from the distant past, or for the anti-Japanese sentiment inflamed by official depictions of Admiral Yi and channeled by the likes of Park to rally the South Korean public behind the project of nation-building? Yi has long drawn comparisons to Horatio Nelson: as a masterful and unconventional naval tactician shot down amid his final victory, as the personification of a certain idea of a nation’s spirit, and as the hero of often-told tales. The considerable respect for Admiral Yi by ordinary Koreans has not always been accompanied by a pressing desire to hear his story told once more.

Yet just after the turn of the 21st century, the story of Yi Sun-sin did indeed seize the attention of the Korean reading public afresh. It did so in the form of the novel Song of the Sword (칼의 노래) by Kim Hoon, a career journalist who — in this country transformed seemingly overnight from one of the victims of history into a technologically savvy exporter of cars and computer components — had never driven a car nor used a computer. Kim’s project, articulated plainly, may also have sounded like near-sacrilege: to write not just from the Admiral’s point of view, but in the Admiral’s voice. Drawing on Yi’s own war diaries, Kim needed not invent that voice out of whole cloth, but the clipped, resoundingly unsentimental narration with which the Yi of Song of the Sword relates the final two years of his life nevertheless made an impression on readers who had only perceived their national hero through the grandest, most elevating language. If Yi is Nelson, Song of the Sword is Nelson as rendered by Hemingway.

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

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.

Korea Blog: The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art’s Ambitious Review of 120 Years in Korea, The Square

Every visitor to Seoul sees Gwanghwamun Square, stretching as it does between two major tourist attractions: at its north end Gyeongbokgung, the palace that comes in near the top of every list of the city’s must-see destinations, and at its south end Cheonggyecheon, the former freeway overpass admired by urbanists the world over since its 2005 conversion into a long, idyllic public space. Gwanghwamun Square boasts statues of the two great heroes of Korean history as currently conceived: King Sejong the Great, who created the Korean alphabet in the mid-15th century, and Admiral Yi Sun-sin, who beat back the invading Japanese in the late 16th. But in itself, it isn’t much of a destination: whenever I’ve brought visitors there, indeed whenever I’ve set foot there myself, it’s always been on the way to somewhere else.

Despite its name, Gwanghwamun Square is nothing more than a pedestrian island in the middle of a major street, separated from the sidewalks by six lanes of traffic on either side. That’s actually an improvement on the old days, back when there wasn’t even an island: movies from the 1970s and 80s like Night Journey or Chilsu and Mansu show Admiral Yi standing alone in a sea of automobiles. But being cut off from the businesses along the street — not to mention a near-complete lack of seating and shade — has kept from Gwanghwamun Square the kind of vitality American and Asian travelers envy in the squares of old Europe. Having acknowledged the deficiencies of one of its central public spaces, the City of Seoul has lately commissioned plans for a redevelopment aiming to replace some of the traffic lanes and turn the island into something more resembling a genuine square. This process has involved gathering opinions from Seoulites, with a focus on groups not often consulted: the young, enthusiasts of alternative means of transit, the disabled, even foreigners.

Hence the invitation I received to participate in a “foreigner’s forum” on the future of Gwanghwamun Square. As the only American on the panel, I figured I could contribute by discussing the many less-than-ideal public spaces of Los Angeles. Everywhere in the world, I can get a laugh by mentioning the various “squares”designated all over the city by nailing signs with the names of notables —  Billy Wilder at Sunset and La Brea, John Fante at Fifth and Grand, Dosan Ahn Chang Ho at Jefferson and Van Buren — over unaltered, practically automobile-only intersections. A more relevant example is to be found in Pershing Square, fatally flawed not because of its much-derided design but because of the cars constantly entering and exiting the garage beneath it. The more recently built Grand Park provides an even closer analog to Gwanghwamun Square, what with the streets slicing it apart and cutting it off from the surrounding institutions, City Hall and the Music Center in the former case, Gyeongbokgung and the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in the latter.

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