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Korea Blog: An Existentialist Seoul Bookstore Owner’s Message to His Countrymen, Goof Off for Once

No matter how much of an effort I make to explore Seoul, every so often something reminds me how much of the city I still haven’t discovered. That goes for the far-flung districts to which I haven’t yet made it as well as out-of-the-way parts of my own neighborhood, the same one I’ve lived in ever since moving here from Los Angeles. The first big hint of how much I might be missing out came when I happened upon a small bookstore not five minutes’ walk from my building, one nearly hidden on a quiet street running through part of an old neighborhood right next to one being scraped for a development of high-rises. Its storefront struck me as almost European, not least because of the dozens of empty wine bottles lined up on the ground outside. Even more intriguing was its name, written only on a sandwich board placed in the street: 퇴근길 책한잔, or “A Glass of Book on the Way Home.”

But one thing drew me in more than any other: the poster, taped up on the door, for Hong Sangsoo’s Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은 맞고 그때는 틀리다), a movie I wrote about here on the Korea Blog not long before discovering A Glass of Book on the Way Home. I’ve come up with few more reliable predictors of whether I’ll get along well with someone I meet here in Korea than whether they enjoy the films of Hong Sangsoo, which combine social comedy, formal experimentation, and a distinctive (usually budget-enforced) kind of rigor, with artistic results deeply rooted in both the culture of Korea and the culture of cinema itself. To get the biggest possible laughs at Hong Sangsoo’s movies requires a familiarity with Korea as well as resistance to taking the place too seriously; to fully appreciate them requires a sense of where cinema has been as well as a certain frustration with how timidly it has explored its possibilities thus far.

What Hong Sangsoo has done for Korean cinema, A Glass of Book on the Way Home’s proprietor Kim Jong-hyeon seems to have made it his mission to do for Korean life. Or rather, that has become a side-effect of his last few years of lifestyle choices, all of which might strike many of his countrymen as unthinkably radical: quitting a safe corporate job, couch-surfing through Europe, renting out a vacant former air-conditioner repair shop in an unfashionable area and turning it into a bookstore with no particular business plan. These and other decisions he explains in a new book called 한번 까불어 보겠습니다, which I might loosely translate as I’ll Goof Off for Once. In its 45 short essays, Kim lays out his philosophy of life as reflected by his thoughts on everything from travel (which he does by deliberately getting lost, a strategy whose employment he also recommends in daily life) to family (an entity that, in its controlling traditional Korean form, he rejects, though he does mention still living with his somewhat unconventional parents) to atheism and existentialism (“I am an existentialist,” he writes. “Don’t be scared”) to love and — in a chapter titled “I Like Sex” — sex.

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