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Korea Blog: “Factory Complex” Examines How (But Not Why) Korean Working Women Have it Bad

Last week I spent a few nights downtown at the venerable Seoul Cinema (established 1964, which more than qualifies it as one of the city’s grand old institutions) for special screenings from this year’s Wildflower Film Awards (들꽃영화상), an independent and low-budget production-oriented celebration organized by my friend Darcy Paquet, an American film critic based in Korea since the 1990s. The mix of six movies shown over three nights kept things varied, including comedy as well as drama, stories about younger as well as older generations, and a couple of documentaries in there with the fiction films, one of them especially striking in its visual adventurousness: Im Heung-soon’s Factory Complex (위로공단).

Darcy writes in a column about documentaries as a window into Korean culture that the film, which won the Silver Lion at the 56th Venice Biennale, “is two things at once, a history of women workers in Korea and the different issues they have faced throughout the decades, and also an abstract and beautifully realized work of art. [Im] has a background in painting and video installations, and his documentaries contain a unique blend of social insight and art.” The images he crafts to illustrate the hardships endured over the decades by female employees in electronics factories, garment-making sweatshops (shown here in Korea as well as, during an especially grim middle section, Cambodia), call centers, grocery stores, airplanes, and elsewhere will haunt even those viewers not normally inclined to watch documentaries about labor conditions in Asia.

The film’s interviews with past and present low-level members of such industries constitute a parade of indignities suffered by the rank and file of Korean working women: the electronics assemblers having their heads shaved during treatment for cancers contracted at the Samsung plant; the grocery-store cashier showing us the pieces of cardboard on which she and her co-workers had to eat their lunches after their store’s (unnamed but easily guessable) Christian-run parent company converts the break room into a prayer room; the stewardess, fearing the ever-present threat of a negative customer evaluation, smiling and nodding at the passenger seated across motioning for her to open her legs a little wider.

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

“Where Is the City of the Future?” Begins Today: The Stateless City

CotF Los Angeles 1

“Los Angeles is the city of the future,” goes the old joke, “and it always will be.” That makes it as suitable a point from which to begin this exploration of the world metropolises of the Pacific Rim, as does the fact that I spent the past four years living there. But I didn’t move to Los Angeles in the first place because of its promise of a vision of things to come — though having arrived from Santa Barbara, the small, wealthy coastal town built a hundred miles up the coast with legally mandated Spanish Revival quaintness and home, primarily, to “the newlywed and the nearly dead,” any proper city would have seemed excitingly dynamic. Santa Barbara boasts certain lifestyle advantages, no doubt, but all of them put together couldn’t ultimately compete with my sheer fascination about Los Angeles, which drew me down as inexorably as a tractor beam.

This phenomenon didn’t begin with me; Los Angeles has had that effect on people for well over a century. During the city’s first major population boom in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, other Americans came in to populate it from all over the rest of the country: Midwesterners who’d already made their modest-to-immodest fortunes, for instance, or farmers whose agricultural careers back home had, for one reason or another, come to an end. But as the decades wore on, farther-flung foreigners, especially western Europeans, got wind of this city that had grown with strange suddenness near the southern California coast, one that looked and felt in some ways like the urban areas they knew, but in most others resembled them not in the least.

One of my favorite expressions of this mixture of wonder and disgust takes the form of a two-minute segment of a 1969 French television documentary. “At the feet of this kingdom another decorative city bustles about and whispers,” intones the narrator (whose calm Francophone delivery puts me in the mind of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, but then most things do) over footage of various representatively twentieth-century buildings and streetscapes captured from, of course, a passing car. “A blue, flat city: Los Angeles. Fractured into multiple working-class areas that ignore each other, inhabited by individuals who live together but never meet, a city wedged between the desert and the ocean, constantly under threat, its heaving heart torn, dislodged, deprived of a center by the existence of the desert.”

Read the whole thing at Byline.

Korea Blog: When Conan Came to Korea

I first moved to Los Angeles not long after Conan O’Brien did, or more precisely, after he and his team resigned from the stewardship of The Tonight Show which had relocated them from New York just the year before. But it didn’t take him long to get back on television, and news of his exploits in Los Angeles swept through my Koreatown circles when his new venture, a cable show simply called Conan, aired a bit where he and Korean-American actor Steven Yeun hang out nakedly — and, for O’Brien’s part, with characteristically comedic anxiety and discomfort — in a neighborhood Korean spa. (Well, not exactly a Koreatown spa, but Wi Spa, big complex over in Westlake popular with non-Koreans. Close enough.)

And so, now that I’ve moved from Los Angeles to Korea, it only makes sense that O’Brien would follow to shoot a whole series of special segments on life in the Land of the Morning Calm. (Which does have its precedents: Conan has made a thing of location shows in places like Cuba and Armenia, and Anthony Bourdain brought his show here last year.) “A while back, I got a letter from a fan who lives in South Korea,” he says by way of introduction, showing her letter (written an exam form) and the boxful of Korean snack foods she also sent along. He decided to take this young lady up on her invitation to her homeland, “and that’s when I found out that even though my show does not air in Korea, thanks to the internet, I have some fans there,” hundreds of whom, instigator “Sunny” Lee included, turned up to greet him upon his arrival at Incheon International Airport.

The Noryangjin (in O’Brien’s no doubt deliberately clunky pronunciation, “no-ree-on-gone”) fish market, a PC game cafe, the set of a television drama, a tae kwon do demonstration, a traditional restaurant, the Bonkwangsa (“bo-gwong-sow”) Buddhist temple, theJoint Security Area at the Demilitarized Zone on the North Korea border, a K-pop video: the journey passes through many of the spots even a casual Korea-watcher might expect, Conan makes some more Korean fans, Korea gains some more of that ever-desired positive exposure in the West (and for that reason the shows’s producers must have found the country reasonably cooperative), and we all get entertained along the way.

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

Korea Blog: Capturing Seoul’s Street Style

Last month we featured the work of Seoul-based Korean-black American street photographer Michael Hurt here on the Korea Blog. But while those shots all capture something essential about the life of the city, most of them depict the Seoul of at least a decade ago — the equivalent, surely, of something like 25 years of change in Los Angeles. Since then, Hurt himself has also changed, going from pure street shots to a kind of hybrid of street and fashion photography, all part of a discipline of “visual sociology” that he continues to develop through his academic work. Since these two chapters of his career have produced such different images of Korea, I thought it best to give each its own post. When he posted the brand new series of shots of the subject above, I knew the time had come to put in work on this one.

“This is a young lady I met on the last night of Seoul Fashion Week,” Hurt says. “To me, this kind of picture is the quintessence of Korean life and what one could call street fashion. One reason I connect very strongly with the real lies in the fact that, when it comes to representations of Korean reality outside of Korea, there is this strong Korean desire to dress up that reality to the point that it becomes nothing more than a superficial tourism commercial. People ask me whether these images are good or bad for people outside of Korea to see or whether I’m trying to advocate something such as smoking or sexiness or some other ridiculous thing.”

And what does he say in response? “The image I am recording, especially ones such as this one of the young lady smoking, are the most truly and socially real documentary photos that one could take. And in this post-1950s, reality television-reared, ‘I Want My MTV’ generation and its Photoshop- and YouTube-enhanced media environment, nobody wants carefully censored, government-curated, 1984 -esque tourism-bureau representations of reality. If those old fogies in suits could make Korea look cool with pictures of Korean traditional dress, dance, and flowers and other shit, Korea would’ve looked cool decades ago. And that’s why I love this fucking photo.”

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

Korea Blog: Why Korea Needs Alain de Botton (and Why Alain de Botton Needs Korea)

Cast your mind back, if you can, to the internet of the late 2000s, through which blew a fierce blizzard of Stuff White People Like copycats after copywriter Christian Lander’s satirical blog about “the Unique Taste of Millions” blew up and produced not one but two “real” books. None attained anything like Stuff White People Like’s explosive burst-of-the-blog-book-bubble success, but some of them at least cracked a few good ones in the attempt. Even the English-speaking Korean national behind Stuff Koreans Like, a short-lived blog even by these standards, made a few astute observations on his countrymen and their enthusiasm for pictures of food, the Nobel Prize, travel essay books, slapstick, “taking white people too seriously,” Harvard, and the writer Alain de Botton.

“Swiss-born English-language essayist Alain de Botton is the sum of what every Korean essay writer consciously or subconsciously aspires to be,” reads the relevant entry. “Calm and subtle prose, lightly worn erudition, even attended Harvard at one point. Alain de Botton may very well be the Perfect Modern Korean Essayist.” You can see the evidence of de Botton’s large and ever-growing appeal in this country at every major bookstore, from whose shelves dozens of images of his face look sagaciously out from little paper banners wrapped around translated editions of his many books, like Essays in Love (왜 나는 너를 사랑하는가, or “Why I Love You”), The Consolations of Philosophy (젊은 베르테르의 기쁨, or “Young Werther’s Happiness”), and Status Anxiety (불안, or simply “Anxiety”).

Just last weekend, the man himself stopped by Seoul to deliver a lecture at Korea University’s grandest hall, whose attendees snapped photos of themselves beside posters bearing his image for hours beforehand. (Though most bought their tickets early, I found some available at the door — for those who wanted to pay nearly $140 a pair.) Some had registered to attend through Korea University itself, and some through The School of Life Seoul (인생학교 서울), the local branch of the international educational organization co-founded by and closely associated with de Botton (and here run by writer-entrepreneur Mina Sohn), which offers classes on how to be creative, manage stress, relate to your family, travel like a philosopher, and face death.

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

Korea Blog: Three Young-Ish Korean Novelists on the Plight of the Young-Ish in Korea

Back in December, I wrote up a Seoul Book and Culture Club event featuring four Korean writers as a spectator. This past weekend, I experienced another as a participant, and specifically as the interviewer who talked with another group of Korean writers about their stories, all recently put out by ASIA Publishers in compact dual-language editions. I highly recommend these books (and all their predecessors in ASIA’s “K-Fiction” series) as learning tools to anyone studying the Korea language at an intermediate or advanced level. I also highly recommend, should the opportunity arise after reading the books, getting up on stage and talking to their authors about them.

This time we had three writers: Chang Kangmyoung, author of Fired (알바생 자르기); Kim Min-jung, author of The World’s Most Expensive Novel (세상에서 가장 비싼 소설); and Kim Ae-ran, author of Where Would You Like to Go? (어디로 가고 싶으신가요). All three stories, so it seemed to me after reading them and considering them together, have to do with the condition of “young-ish” Koreans, those in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties who, while hardly kids, have for a variety of economic, societal, or personal reasons not quite made it to what the generation before them would have considered a full-fledged adult life. This sort of thing as provided fodder even in America for trend piece after hand-wringing trend piece, but the society of South Korea, a country that more recently came to the end of a much more dramatic period of growth, has felt it with special acuteness.

Chang Kangmyoung deals with this this most directly in Fired, which comes with its own nonfictional appendix explaining how the South Korean economy has changed with each generation. Hye-mi, a part-time front-desk worker at a mid-sized Korean company who turns up late, takes long lunches, spends hours on the internet clicking around travel and music sites, and never makes it to after-work company dinners. But rather than telling it from Hye-mi’s point of view, Chang makes a protagonist of Hye-mi’s supervisor, who at first feels sorry for her young-ish underling but then, when the aggravations built up, decides to get rid of her, running into a host of unexpected difficulties in the process.

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

Korea Blog Podcast: “The Vegetarian” and Korean Literature Worldwide

Chance Dorland and Seoul-based essayist, broadcaster, and Los Angeles Review of Books Korea Blog writer Colin Marshall discuss the attention the English translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is getting & the spotlight that has slowly begun to shine on South Korean authors.

You can find more Korea Blog podcasts here and my original Korea Blog post on The Vegetarian here.

Korea Blog: One of Korea’s Most Popular Cartoons Is About a Bus

Gwanghwamun Sketch 2014.04.06. Gwanghwamun, Seoul  Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service Korea.net(www.korea.net) JEON HAN ----------------------------------------------- 광화문 스케치 광화문 차 없는 날  2014-04-06 광화문 문화체육관광부 해외문화홍보원 코리아넷 전한

Tayo the Little Bus is a steaming pile of garbage,” a friend of mine recently posted to Facebook. If you don’t like that show in America, I told him, try not to move to Korea, the land where Tayo comes from. I only understood his reference because I did move to Korea — and moreover to Seoul, where Tayo imagery abounds — but my friend, the father of a two-year-old, has had the phenomenon inflicted much more directly upon him. Like any production geared toward toddlers, I imagine its inherent repetitiveness, combined with the average little kid’s immunity to watching the exact same thing over and over again, soon pushes any grown-up of sound mind halfway to the asylum.

On its face, the concept of a computer-animated cartoon about a bus and his friends, mostly also buses, makes sense, especially one aimed at very young boys going through their phase (or, as the case may be, lifetime) of obsession with all things mechanical and in motion; the Thomas the Tank Engine and Cars franchises have certainly done well for themselves by tapping into that same vein. But my friend’s central objection turned out to have less to do with the show’s concept that with its English-language dubbing, specifically the teeth-achingly enthusiastic performance of the lady who plays Tayo himself.

Frankly, it surprises me that Tayo the Little Bus (꼬마버스 타요) exists in English at all. Cars tend to dominate American landscapes as well as lives, and trains, however deeply passenger rail sinks into the realm of low-budget antiquarianism, have held their place in the American imagination. But the very mention of buses, for most of my countrymen, seems only to conjure up images of uncleanliness, inconvenience, and poverty. Speed, the pinnacle of Los Angeles action cinema, struggled to get made due to its script “about a bus.” The situation has improved in recent years thanks to the revival of downtowns across the country (Los Angeles’ own being the most dramatic), but only by degrees.

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

Korea Blog: “Moss”, a Star Korean Comic Artist’s Suspense Tale Serialized in English

A young man from the city drives out to the countryside, ostensibly to set in order the affairs of his recently deceased father. But not long after he arrives in the remote village where Dad spent his final years, he decides to stay. On some level, this looks like an example of the kinds of acts of filial piety you’d see in any number of Korean stories, but the circumstances of our protagonist, a certain Ryu Haeguk, quickly get complicated. And in fact, they’d already got complicated before the story begins, what with his having somehow lost his wife, daughter, and career at his relatively early age, thus leaving him free to pursue the suspicions that arise shortly after he meets the cast of shifty-looking creeps who populate the hamlet he now calls home.

The brief prologue of Yoon Tae-ho’s comic series Moss (이끼) describes Haeguk as “fussy and compulsive, so that small misunderstandings build into major events” — such as the aforementioned total disintegration of his life in Seoul. But his attention to detail, combined with a borderline-foolish fearlessness we see demonstrated early and often in the story, puts him firmly in the tradition of the ideal mystery protagonist, unable to resist probing into the not-quite-explained until, and indeed well beyond, it gets him into trouble. Here, the process begins with one driving question: why has the village head written off his father’s sudden death, at age 67, as a case of “old age,” not bothering with and perhaps even refusing to order a routine medical examination?

Haeguk’s increasingly dangerous investigation of his estranged father’s life, the place where it ended, and the people around whom it ended originally ran in Korean between 2008 and 2009, not as a traditional print comic but as one particularly successful example of the made-for-the-web form of comics Koreans call “webtoons.” It gained such a fan base, in fact, that it became an award-winning feature film in 2010 and did much to make Yoon’s name as one of Korea’s most famous webtoon artists. He’s more recently demonstrated his wide range with the even more popular Misaeng(미생), a webtoon satirizing in the dead-end office jobs often held by Korea’s younger generation, which went on to become a hit television series.

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

Korea Blog: Park Kwang-su’s “Chilsu and Mansu” (1988)

Chil-su and Man-su (칠수와 만수) opens with an air raid drill, a regular occurrence in the life of postwar Seoul even after the country turned from military dictatorship to ostensible democracy in 1987. The movie came out the following year, when modern South Korea made its debut on the world stage by hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics. Korea-inexperienced Westerners who came to watch the games, especially Americans primed by episodes of M*A*S*H, found, by most accounts, a more developed, more orderly, and — why mince words — more Westernized country than they’d expected. But even those who left having bought the narrative of the phoenix risen from the ashes could glimpse another story playing out on the margins of the scene, that of those barely touched, let alone elevated, by the economic Miracle on the Han River.

Park Kwang-su took two of the players in that other story and made them the title characters of his directorial debut. Chil-su, a 22-year-old dreamer employed as a theater movie-poster painter (very much a developing-world industry, though one still just barely alive in the late 1980s), quits his job in a fit of righteous rage against his stingy, hostile boss, declaring that he shouldn’t have to take his abuse in a democratic nation. Even more strapped for cash than usual and eager to woo a girl for whom he’s fallen after spotting her working at Burger King, he talks his way into a partnership with Man-su, an older sign-painter who at first treats him dismissively but to whom he nevertheless looks up.

And so, on one level, we have a comedy of two working-class guys trying to make it in the big city, but with an undercurrent of darkness that deepens as the story plays out. The jovial Chil-su lies compulsively: he tells everyone who will listen of his wholly fabricated plan to emigrate to Miami Beach and join his nonexistent brother and lets the object of his affection, whom he sketches at work while nursing a single Coca-Cola, believe that he attends art school. He does have a sister, but she vanished after their father threw her out of the house for consorting with American soldiers. The father himself remains in the family hometown, remarried after the death of Chil-su’s mother and slowly, bitterly pickling himself in soju.

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