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Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Korea Tour: Watch the Man, Not the Light with Michael Breen

michaelbreenIn Seoul’s Insadong district, Colin talks with Michael Breen, author of The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies as well as other books on Kim Jong-il and Sun Myung Moon as well as founder and CEO of Insight Communications Consultants. They discuss what you can infer about Korean society from the way Koreans drive versus now versus when he first wrote wrote The Koreans; the difference in the role of the law where it has traditionally oppressed people, as in Korea, and in society like the United States; the permanently red traffic lights in front of the president’s house, and how you get through by “looking at the man”; what effect the sinking of the Sewol and the “third-world accidents” that preceded it had on the country’s psyche as a developed nation; why those from already-developed countries have a hard time advising less-developed nations on matters like corruption; how “the politics lags behind the quality of the the people” in Korea, why the skills of rhetoric matter less there than elsewhere, and what the situation might have in common with Yes Minister; the dictator Park Chung-hee, “son of a bitch, but our son of a bitch” who ordered the country into development; why the South Korean government has no long-term plan for unification with the North; what sort of country he thought he’d got into in 1982, the extent of his ignorance about it at first, and the theoretical frameworks and attitudes he thereby escaped; the moment he found himself taking the side of journalist-beating cops; how Korean dictators, not just “random brutes” who rose to power, got put there by a particular system; why the potential “Seoul Spring” after the fall of Park Chung-hee didn’t immediately lead to democracy, but to conflicts between the citizenry and the police; what he heard (and couldn’t hear) in North Korea; how many branches of Starbucks he could hit with a stone (and how different were the old coffee shops in which dissidents met); what got stamp collectors arrested in the “old” South Korea; what lengths the South Korean government goes to not to allow its citizens their own judgment on North Korea; the lingering sense, in South Korea, that the North may have taken the high road; the issue of how unbroken Korean history really could have remained over the millennia; the Korean lack of an idea of Korean philosophical tradition; what got him interested enough in the Koreans to write The Koreans; the traditionally condescending (if thoughtfully condescending) attitude foreigners had toward Korea; what may change in the next edition in The Koreans, especially its coverage of culture; whether modern Korea remains recognizably the same place he came to in 1982; and what issues might make the most impact on the country soon.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Los Angeles, the City in Cinema: Night of the Comet (Thom Eberhardt, 1984)


Pitched between comedy, horror, and disaster, those reliable Los Angeles genres, Night of the Comet manages, in its thoroughly 1980s sensibility, to be at once the parody and the thing parodied. In it, two Valley-girl sisters who happen to survive the passing of a nearly humanity-extincting comet must contend with zombies, thugs, survivalist scientists, and one another — mostly in the already half-apocalyptic setting of downtown Los Angeles thirty years ago.

The video essays of “Los Angeles, the City in Cinema” examine the variety of Los Angeleses revealed in the films set there, both those new and old, mainstream and obscure, respectable and schlocky, appealing and unappealing — just like the city itself.

Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Korea Tour: Plenty to Offer with Adrien Lee

adrienleeIn Seoul’s Arirang building, Colin talks with Adrien Lee, host of Arirang TV’s Showbiz Korea and Arirang radio’s Catch the Wave. They discuss how he first reacted to the sight of all the branches of Paris Baguette, Tout les Jours, and Ciel de France in Seoul; how he got from industrial engineering studies in France to television and radio in Korea (and why he isn’t looking back); what Korean culture he could get exposure to growing up in France; how few complications his background introduced into his childhood; how his French mom met, and learned to speak Korean before meeting, his Korean dad; the Korean dream of Paris, France, and Europe; the constant change in Korea, the “exciting hell,” versus the unchanging stability of France, the “boring heaven”; what Koreans ask him when they find out he comes from France; how he grew up speaking a mother tongue, a father tongue, and a school tongue; how he teaches Korean language with Hyunwoo Sun, and why he finds people start studying it; how Korean people make the study of Korean interesting (in slight contrast to the situation with French); how he adapts his behavior to different cultures; the elements of Korean popular culture he personally enjoys, even when he doesn’t have to talk about them for work; the sort of Korean food you get in Paris; the things you wouldn’t expect that Korea, but not France, puts into bread; what has surprised him about the strengths of Korean culture, including the Korean women’s golf performance; the convenience of Seoul’s safety, 24/7 culture, and ease of leaving your laptop out at the coffee shop when you get up to use the bathroom; whether Korea and France can learn from one another’s priorities; whether Seoul has become an international city in the Parisian manner; where he takes visiting friends and relatives in Seoul; what first steps to take toward Korean culture before coming here; and how to keep up with his broadcasts, wherever you may live.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Korea Tour: Men, Women, and Society Behaving Badly with Marc Raymond

marcraymondOn a rainy day in Seoul’s Garosu-gil, Colin Marshall talks with Marc Raymond, film scholar, teacher at Kangwoon University, and author of Hollywood’s New Yorker: The Making of Martin ScorseseThey discuss how much you can learn about Korean life from Hong Sangsoo movies; what Hong has in common with Martin Scorsese; how the two directors relate differently to their “outsider” status; the international code Hong seems to have cracked, and why the rest of Korea covets that; Hong’s probable place in the Criterion Collection (or at least the Eclipse Series); how, exactly, he would describe what a Hong Sangsoo film is; the rarity of the intersection between talky relationship cinema and formally experimental cinema; the importance of drinking, smoking, and improvisation in not just Hong’s method but in Korean culture itself; how he first discovered Hong, and how he discovered Scorsese shared his enthusiasm; how Hong illustrates the breakdown of the social rules Korea doesn’t expect to break down; why his Korean wife laugh at different moments in the movies than he does; whether straight-up critiques of Korean masculinity have remained central to Hong’s work; Hong’s less-discussed critique of Korean femininity; whether he finds, given his experience with Korean life, that Hong’s criticism of Korean society hit the mark; how Hong’s films have become linguistically easier as he has gained larger international audiences; why, between degrees, he came to Korea in the first place; his early impressions of the familial attitude and reliance on authority that penetrated all environments; the reductiveness he dislikes in the scholarship of both Korea and Scorsese; where his native Canada’s lack of popular cinema drove him; whether Koreans expect him to exemplify Canadian virtues; the hockey comedy that outgrossed Titanic in Quebec; what it felt like to go from a huge, thinly populated country to a small, thickly populated one where his first apartment complex had more people than his hometown; the importance of a career that allows you to pick and choose where you go and when in a big city; what films, besides Hong’s, have helped him integrate into Korean culture, like Oasis and Secret Sunshine; the difference between Korean melodrama and other countries’ melodrama; who we can call “the Korean Martin Scorsese”; and whether Canada has, or could use, a Scorsese of its own.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Korea Tour: Out of Excuses with Mipa Lee

mipaleeIn Seoul’s Gangnam district, Colin Marshall speaks with Mipa Lee, proprietor of Itaewon’s vegan cafe and bake shop and café PLANT and author of the blog Alien’s Day Out. They discuss the unlikely country in which she became vegan; her journey from Korea to England to Africa to the United States and back to Korea again; her constant expectation of a move that had kept her from putting down roots or buying furniture; how her parents became early international Koreans; how her boarding school gave her blog its name; how much distance she now feels from “Korean Koreans”; PLANT’s role as a kind of international waters in the international neighborhood (and tourist space for Koreans) of Itaewon; how her return to Korea initially happened against her will, but how she then turned it to her advantage; how Korea’s advanced delivery infrastructure aided her initial baking ventures; the way to integrate into Seoul’s vast ecosystem of coffee shops, in which many Koreans want to participate at least once in their life; why you don’t get tainted for life here if your business goes under, unlike in Japan; when vegan desserts became widely viable, and which desserts quickly became successful for her; how exotic Koreans find “comfort food for foreigners”; when she discovered the fact that people want to indulge in “heavier and heartier” foods, vegan or otherwise; why, in Korea, she often has to “explain exactly what meat is”; the challenge of finding even kimchi in vegan form (and her memories of the kimchi situation in Ghana);  the popularity in Korea of Ghana brand chocolate; the “laid-back culture” she misses from Africa; the search for Ethiopian food in Seoul, and how seeking out vegan cuisine in general got her exploring the city, even in places she’d never go otherwise; the difference between Seoul and her birthplace of Busan; how she might one day balance her culinary, artistic, and exploratory interests; the way Korean eminence leads to more work, not less; where she dreams of traveling while spending six weeks at the shop; the contrast between her childhood memories of Korea and her experience of it today; whether the world might inevitably turn vegan; how she deals with eating vegan amid Korean social culture (by, for example, hanging out with foreigners); how different Seoul looks from the vantage of Itaewon; what she learns from getting to know, and in a sense “traveling” through, her international clientele; what art she dreams of creating while spending six weeks at the shop; what advice she gives to other vegans and vegetarians about existence in Seoul, such as how to obtain kale.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Korea Tour: De-Terriblization with Mark Russell

markrussellIn Seoul’s Hongdae district, Colin Marshall talks with Mark Russell, author of the books Pop Goes KoreaK-Pop Now!, and the coming novel Young-hee and the Pullocho. They discuss what unites Korean pop culture other than having made by Korean people; the tendency toward mixture that characterizes so much of the country culture; his early experience with Korean culture practicing tae kwon do in high school; where the “if this doesn’t work, I can go teach English in Korea” took him, how he envisioned that prospect, and how he found himself on a plane to Korea the same week he brought up the idea; the “completely different” Seoul of today from the “bare” one he found in the nineties, where Pringles could excite him; what in Korea doesn’t change, amid all the change that has gone on; the European look backward, and the Korean look forward; how Korea makes the impossible possible, but sometimes takes the possible and screws it up; the bygone days when every foreigner was assumed to be an American; whether K-pop saturates Korea more than American pop saturates American; what, exactly, makes pop music uncool; the consequences of the fact that “most people don’t live at the PhD level; what makes Korean blockbusters more interesting than American ones, including not having quite cracked the “scientific blockbuster code”; the Korean popular culture his first discovered; what happens when you go drinking with a favorite director; what happens when you look too closely into the “sausage factory” of art production; the pop golden age people remember from three years ago; when he realized his own life in Korea had taken shape; his plunge into the Seoul alternative music scene; when Busan, not Seoul, had the best music in Korea; the role Hongdae has played in Korean music, having become the Korean music scene itself; why groups have trouble touring the country; Korea’s lack of unconventional “slots” in which to live, especially outside Seoul; when he began writing fiction, and how he wrote a novel set in Korea while in Spain; the all-important “de-terriblization” process in art; how much insight traditional Korean folktales give him into the culture today; the foreigner’s freedom to “get things wrong in your own way”; his years in Spain, and the difference drinking wine there versus drinking wine in Korea; what he began to miss about Seoul while away; his impressions of the Spanish economic crisis; his sense of Korea getting better and better, economically as well as culturally, despite the fact that he “wants to be as cynical as everyone else.”

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: Mona Simpson

On the latest Los Angeles Review of Books podcast, I talk with Mona Simpson, author of the novels Anywhere But Here, Off Keck Road and My Hollywood. Her latest is Casebook, a story of marriage, divorce, boyhood and surveillance, told as a text within a text and set in this most suitable city for detective stories, Los Angeles. 

You can stream the conversation just above, listen to it on the LARB’s site, or download it on iTunes.

Guardian Cities: A Stay in Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Las Vegas

 “You have to promise not to drink the Kool-Aid there.” That’s what a colleague familiar with Las Vegas’s infamous “Downtown Project” told me just before I went out to experience this outlandish experiment in urban revival for myself.

Certainly, the $350m (£225m) investment in businesses and other spaces in the city’s depressed core by multi-millionaire internet entrepreneur and retailer Tony Hsieh is in a fragile state. Some of the excitement and acclaim that met the effort at its beginning in 2012 has already congealed into a mixture of ridicule, schadenfreude and plain confusion: did Hsieh really think he could run a city like an internet startup? What did he really intend in the first place? And has he already abandoned ship?

Hsieh’s story, one well-told among American urbanists, resonates with the country’s culture on several levels. The Harvard-educated child of Taiwanese immigrants became rich in the late 1990s when Microsoft purchased LinkExchange, the internet advertising firm he had founded after ditching his corporate job.

Hsieh’s subsequent foray into venture capitalism led to his investment in the idea of an online shoe store, which soon morphed into the “service company that just happens to sell shoes” (in Hsieh’s own description) now better known as Zappos. When he brought his company to downtown Las Vegas, Hsieh also brought his entrepreneurial spirit, his reputation as an unpretentious bon vivant, and his media-friendly sense of spectacle. Furthermore, he brought his interest in privately creating a new start for the city’s depressed centre – its original gambling district, before the supercharged Strip took over.

Read the whole thing at The Guardian.

Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Korea Tour: Assume the Impossibility with Laurence Pritchard

laurencepritchardIn Seoul’s Gangnam district, Colin Marshall talks with with Laurence Pritchard, writer, teacher, and enthusiast of Korean literature. They discuss the Korean phenomenon of the “English gentleman” and the presence of English culture in the country; the idea that westerners “are all incredibly promiscous”; the expectations of an Englishman; the constant hurry of Seoul; his experience in France versus the Korean France of the imagination; the importance of swirling with the biggest wine glass you can get; the “disaster” of Korean bread the better part of a decade ago, and how it comes up against the English refusal to mix the sweet and the savory; what exposure to Korean culture he had before meeting his Korean wife in Paris; how he tuned into Korean film’s tendency to mix styles; what literature has taught him about the central idea of han; Dalkey Archive’s library of Korean literature; how he has come to get a handle on Korean class distinctions and intergenerational conflict; how his unhesitating decision to move to Korea came about; when he realized the true strictness of the hierarchies here, especially through how they manifest in novels; the greater importance of the president of Samsung than the president of South Korea; what it’s like teaching English to high-powered executives; the drinking habits in Seoul (such as going straight to hard liquor and falling down escalators) versus those seen in English pubs; the failure of the “hipster” or “bohemian” idea, let alone irony, to penetrate Korean dress; the expatriate tendency to demonstrate they know more about the culture than you do; the ways that people in Korea don’t connect; the parallels between attitudes toward Park Chung-hee and Margaret Thatcher; the default business of the fried-chicken shop; the difference between getting into French culture with French literature and getting into Korean culture with Korean literature; what goes into a “Gangnam novella”; the advantage of writing about Seoul rather than writing about Paris; what he gains by having a life and family established in Korea, and the prospect of doing a language exchange with his own daughter; how you don’t go up to someone in England and say, “Hey, I’m from England”; the promising Korean literature translations of Deborah Smith; whether you can work with the “great truths” imparted by literature when plunged into a foreign culture; the necessity of assuming the impossibility of knowing about the foreign culture you plunge into; and his experience in a Seoul “bullet taxi,” just like the ones Kim Young-ha describes in I Have the Right to Destroy Myself.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Korea Tour: Sonic Bibimbap with Bernie Cho

berniechoIn Seoul’s Garosu-gil, Colin Marshall talks with Korean music industry expert Bernie Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, a creative agency that provides digital media, marketing, and distribution services to Korean pop music artists. They discuss why the world now knows what K-pop is; how Korean youth culture, pop culture, and digit culture have become one in the same; Psy as outlier and representative of K-pop, “the bad boy who became the golden boy,” who put a dent in the industry’s pursuit of perfection; how “made in Korea” can work, internationally, as a label; whether the concept of “crazy Korea,” like “weird Japan,” has any traction; the big technological differences between the time of the 1990s J-pop boom and the modern K-pop boom; the musician’s perceived need to break out of Korea for success; how, growing up in the United States, he became aware of Korean popular culture; his disenchantment with the “boo-hoo session” of Asian American studies; the accidental meeting that got him into music television; what he discovered in Seoul’s Hongdae neighborhood; the Korean government’s investment in internet technology, and the digital and cultural revolution that followed; why Korean pop artists have, in the recent past, made so little money; the use of music not as a business, but as a business card; Korea’s other DMZ: the closed-garden “digital media zone” of Korea-only technology; how he first saw the seemingly wholly under-construction Seoul almost twenty years ago; how the vibe of the 2002 World Cup has carried over into the present; what Los Angeles and Seoul have to learn from each other; how his advantage in coming from America has gone away; how K-pop has become “sonic bibimbap,” uniquely Korean in its mixture of various ingredients; what Koreanness internationally-marketed Korean music retains; his “What am I even doing?” moment on a flight from Los Angeles to Seoul; why the origin of the word “piracy” reveals it as a good thing, and how it sparked the British Invasion; what he makes of the return of the 1960s and 70s “golden age” of Korean pop and R&B; and why he tells artists they shouldn’t do everything in English (and why he plays them Sigur Rós).

Download the interview on Soundcloud above, here as an MP3, or on iTunes.