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Korea Blog: the Techno-Mythological Imagination of Kim Bo-young’s I’m Waiting for You

South Korea has one of the first populations who can claim to have collectively traveled through time. In a trivial sense, of course, we all travel through time, forward at a rate of one hour per hour, one day per day, one year per year. But this country, as no introduction fails to mention, underwent in the second half of the 20th century a transformation already seen in other societies — “development,” “modernization,” “Westernization,” call it what you like — but at an unprecedented speed. Aggressive industrialization compressed a century of history into just a few decades, and the aftereffects of that process account for much of the good, the bad, and the weird in Korean life today. Among other traces, it has left tragi-comically wide generation gaps: for many Koreans, interactions with their parents feel like Westerners’ interactions with their disoriented great-grandparents.

“My dad lived his whole life in his hometown,” says the narrator of the story “I’m Waiting for You.” But “by the time he passed away our hometown was a completely different place from where he was born. Buildings had been put up and roads laid, mountains flattened, and the courses of rivers diverted. Time moved him to somewhere completely different. Who could possibly say that he lived in one place his whole life?” The reflection comes in one of a series of letters to this narrator’s fiancée, whom he won’t be able to see for nearly five years. Both are aboard separate spaceships, she to emigrate to a distant solar system with her family, and he expressly — by way of light-speed travel’s dilation of time for the traveler — more quickly to pass the years her trip will require before they reunite for their wedding on Earth.

For his fiancée doesn’t intend to stay with her family, of whose meddling in her life she’s had enough. She wouldn’t be the first Korean to go to great lengths to get away from relatives, nor the first to engage in instrumental immigration: “anyone who travels to another solar system gets an outer planets residency permit,” she explains, and “there are loads of advantages when it comes to taxes and things like that.” The more things change, as many a literary vision of the future has meant to show us, the more they stay the same. But change is precisely what the narrator’s fellow emigrants in time went into the “Orbit of Waiting” hoping for: “Some people are traveling to the year their pension plan matures, others hope real estate taxes will come down while they’re away. There are artists too, who believe they were born in the wrong era.”

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

Korea Blog: K-Pop Evolution Traces the Origins of Korea’s Prime Cultural Export

Certain Western observers of Korea wear their aversion to K-pop, or at least their pointed disinterest in it, as a badge of honor. From them I’ve heard the rise of K-pop credited with destroying Korean culture, or — somewhat more positively — with turning the Korean mainstream bland enough to give rise to a counterculture of correspondingly extreme marginality and transgression. But at this point the music itself is, at least here in Korea, never wholly ignorable, and as the country’s third-largest export (a position held fifty years ago by wigs) unlikely to go away in the foreseeable future. Even those Western Seoulites who walk around with headphones lest they pass through one of the many public spaces soundtracked by K-pop must now have moments of curiosity about how and why it’s become quite so prominent. K-Pop Evolution is the first documentary series to attempt an explanation.

Distributed under the banner of Youtube Originals, K-Pop Evolution recently finished making free to view on that site the last of its seven episodes. Together these tell of how Korean pop music has cultivated enthusiastic and often large fan bases around the world, a story not necessarily well understood by many of those fans themselves. Anyone living outside Asia could almost be forgiven for assuming that Korea didn’t make pop music at all until 2012, the year Psy’s “Gangnam Style” went unprecedentedly viral. Though few of Psy’s countrymen would have elected him as K-pop’s emissary to the West, his surprise breakthrough aligned with the priorities laid down fifteen years earlier, at the time of the Asian Financial Crisis. Known locally as “IMF,” that economic disruption weakened the domestic market enough to force many Korean industries, music included, to create product expressly designed for foreign consumption.

“At the time, there was a general sense of inferiority in Korea’s mainstream culture, that we weren’t as good as Japan,” says music critic Kim Zakka, one of K-Pop Evolution‘s more knowledgable interviewees. But there was also a willingness and ability to cater to Japanese consumers, the continuing capitalization on which has meant that “the K-pop we know today wasn’t made for domestic audiences, but created to sell on the international market.” Also among the series’ taking heads is Kwon Bo-ah, better known as BoA, whose great success in Japan almost two decades ago did much to earn her the title “Queen of K-pop.” Coinciding with a period of increased cultural exchange across what Korea calls the East Sea, this endeavor necessitated on her part the cultivation of not just singing and dancing but Japanese language skills as well.

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

MIT Technology Review: Los Angeles, “a Humming, Smoking, Ever-Changing Contraption”

Los Angeles is vast and practically formless, a city so unlike any other that it can hardly be called a city at all. That, at least, is the impression the past few decades of writing on the Southern California metropolis has tended to offer. Hardened into received wisdom, this presumption is now repeated even by astute contemporary observers. But there’s more to Los Angeles than that tired critique suggests.

To see Los Angeles clearly, one needs to go half a century into the past, when three writers came to take the measure of what was then the fastest-growing city in the rich world. Though each brought a distinctive and formidable stock of world experience and historical knowledge, all came to understand postwar Los Angeles by recognizing how technology gave the city both purpose and possibility.

“All modern cities are machines, but LA is even more of a machine than the others … it is a humming, smoking, ever-changing contraption,” Christopher Rand wrote in his 1967 book Los Angeles: The Ultimate City, which began as a three-part series in the New Yorker. The lack of water and threat of earthquakes made this place particularly dependent on technology, he argued. Cities, since the very beginning, had relied on water management, but the complexity of LA’s water system, fed by a giant aqueduct that diverts water from the Owens Valley some 200 miles to the north, was far greater than anything that had come before. 

Rand also pointed out that while Los Angeles was known for the film industry, aerospace in fact dominated the city’s economy. The industry was diminished with the end of the Cold War, but decades later, SpaceX, the world’s most valuable privately held company, is based there. “As our technological force manifests itself in Los Angeles, it seems to have many questionable things about it. The aerospace industry, for instance, seems surrounded by a cloud of false publicity,” Rand wrote in 1966.

Read the whole thing at the MIT Technology Review (subscription required).

Korea Blog: Kim Ki-young’s The Insect Woman (1972), Featuring the Grandma from Minari as a Grindhouse Femme Fatale

Now that K-pop, K-drama, and K-beauty have been international phenomena for years, Westerners must prepare themselves for the reign of the K-grandma. I’ve heard that label, or rather its more Korean form K-halmeoni, applied to Youn Yuh-jung, a veteran actress famous here in Korea since the 1970s. Much more recently she’s become a star in the United States as well: the anointment occurred last month, in the form of an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress granted for her performance in Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari. Much lauded even before the Oscars, Chung’s film tells of a Korean immigrant family struggling to make a go as farmers in the Arkansas of the 1980s. Youn plays the mother-in-law brought over from the old country to watch the children; at first an alien presence to the American-born young son, this foulmouthed grandmother comes ultimately to provide just the kindness and encouragement he needs.

Though perhaps not a role that will win any awards for originality, as written by Chung (in a “semi-autobiographical” script) and played by Youn it has resonated with viewers Korean and non-Korean alike. Increasingly many of the latter have been moved to watch Minari expressly in order to see Youn’s performance, so endearing a personality has the actress displayed in her post-Oscar interviews. An immigrant to the United States herself during a decade of “retirement” from the mid-1970s through the mid-80s, she’s spoken playfully and often sardonically in English about the rigors of low-budget independent filmmaking, Western mispronunciations of her name, and her desire to meet absentee producer Brad Pitt. As she accepted her Academy Award, she dedicated it to “my first director, Kim Ki-young, who was a very genius director. I made my first movie with him. He would be very happy if he is still alive.”

Released exactly half a century earlier, that first movie Woman of Fire (화녀) features a 23-year-old Youn playing a femme fatale who brings about the destruction of a stolid middle-class household. It shares this basic story with an earlier Kim picture, 1960’s The Housemaid (하녀), which is now regarded, in the company of Yu Hyun-mok’s Aimless Bullet from the following year, as one of the greatest Korean films of all time. Restored by the Korean Film Archive in 2008, it was later granted the supreme cinephile imprimatur of an edition in the Criterion Collection. That the release came endorsed by Parasite director Bong Joon-ho, star of last year’s Academy Awards ceremony, speaks to Kim’s lasting influence on Korean cinema. More than 20 years after his death, he lays fair claim to the title of the most important Korean filmmaker of all time.

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

Books on Cities: Sam Anderson, Boom Town (2018)

When I fantasize about living in Oklahoma City, I mentally install myself in the Regency Tower, a 24-story downtown apartment building put up in the late 1960s. By comparison to the surrounding built environment — newer, for the most part, than even the city’s mere 131 years would lead one to expect — the Regency ranks as a classic. It has also proven itself as a survivor, standing as it was just a block away from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building when the latter was destroyed by the 1995 car-bombing that remains many Americans’ sole association with the Oklahoman capital. The Regency sustained only cosmetic damage, despite a proximity to the blast such that an axle of the explosive-packed Ryder truck crushed a car parked nearby. It was that VIN-stamped part, in fact, that hastened the capture of Timothy McVeigh, the embittered Gulf War veteran who’d masterminded the bombing.

Sam Anderson includes such memorable facts all throughout Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis. The book was published in 2018, three years after my own first visit to Oklahoma City. I stopped there, as I imagine more than a few do, in the middle of a cross country road-trip. Interstate 40 had already offered up the likes of Barstow, Flagstaff, Albuquerque, and Amarillo, and later would come Memphis, Knoxville, Asheville, Raleigh. Of the time I spent in all these places, somehow my evening, morning, and afternoon in Oklahoma City left the sharpest impression. This owed less to visiting the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, now the affecting if somewhat literal Oklahoma City National Memorial, than to the surprisingly robust urban gestalt I sensed while walking around its environs.

“OKC is in the midst of a downtown renaissance,” Anderson writes, “a growth whose improbability — after decades of busts and self-inflicted disappointments and unspeakable tragedies — has made the place almost legendary among contemporary American cities.” On nearly every stop of the road trip I heard locals express surprise at the revitalization of their city center (“I’d never have believed downtown could be like this”), but in Oklahoma City I felt it right there on the streets. That impression could have been enhanced, I admit, by the pumpkin festival, which happened to be going on in the Myriad Botanical Gardens beneath Devon Tower, the brazenly out-of-scale “850-foot glass skyscraper that is the most literal possible monument to the city’s grandiose self-image.” And it certainly didn’t bring me down to have a cappuccino at Elemental Coffee, which in the book’s acknowledgments Anderson calls “my OKC office.”

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Korea Blog: Youjeong Oh’s Pop City Reveals How K-Pop and K-Drama Have Transformed their Homeland

If you read the Korea Blog regularly, you more than likely have an interest in Korea. And though it’s far from guaranteed, you may well also be a Westerner of one kind or another. If both of these conditions hold true for you, then the odds say — albeit with plenty of room for exception — that your interest in Korea was sparked by the fruits of the “Korean Wave,” which over the past couple of decades has crashed onto many a shore throughout the non-Korean world. Though some definitions encompass film, comics, and literature, the Korean Wave as popularly understood consists primarily of two cultural forms: pop music and television dramas. And as Youjeong Oh argues in Pop City: Korean Popular Culture and the Selling of Place, their popularity in foreign countries has been powerful enough to alter the landscape of South Korea itself.

The operative phenomenon is, in a word, tourism. From far and wide come both “K-pop” fans seeking closer proximity to their singing idols and “K-drama” addicts hoping to re-live emotional moments from their favorite shows. Local economies have rapidly adapted to cater to them not just in Seoul, home of all the big entertainment companies and management agencies, but also across the rest of the country, where dramas often film their most memorable scenes. Both types of tourist inevitably encounter disappointments: major K-pop stars are seldom if ever publicly seen when not in concert, and the drama sets maintained as attractions, often in far-flung areas, tend to be smaller and situated in much less romantic contexts than they look on television. Yet the enthusiasts, as their demographics shift with time and their interests change with the trends, have for most of the 21st century kept on coming.

Oh uses a more descriptive term than enthusiast: “As celebrity involvement is often tantamount to worship,” she writes, “visiting a destination associated with the adored star can be perceived as a pilgrimage.” For many tourists, coming to Korea is an “overwhelmingly pop culture-focused journey to attend concerts and television shows, to go on pilgrimage tours to entertainment agency buildings and restaurants operated by K-pop stars.” I won’t pretend not to have made any such pilgrimages of my own, at least if visiting the pubs and coffee shops that have appeared in Hong Sangsoo movies counts. Such a practice may reflect the fact that I came to my own fascination with Korea through Korean cinema — or that I’m not a middle-aged Japanese woman, the demographic group who first proved the economic value of the obsessed foreigner not just to the Korean entertainment industry, but to Korean cities as well.

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

Korea Blog: the First Korean “Comfort Woman” Novel, Kim Soom’s One Left

When a 92-year-old woman by the name of Lee died at last year, all of South Korea took notice. Her passing reduced to eighteen the official count of surviving Korean “comfort women,” who as girls were kept in sexual servitude to the Japanese military during the Second World War. Six months later, University of Washington press published an English translation of a Korean novel that imagines the future, inevitable and surely not far off, when that number falls to one. But an official count is just that, as Kim Soom reminds us with the character of One Left‘s 93-year-old protagonist P’unggil, a former comfort woman who never registered herself as such with the government. The death of the second-to-last member of the acknowledged group plunges her into an extended recollection of her own experience, which constitutes this “first Korean novel devoted exclusively to the subject of the comfort women.”

Georgetown University Korean studies professor emerita Bonnie Oh emphasizes this distinction in her foreword to the English version of One Left (한 명), translated by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton. (Previously on the Korea Blog, we’ve featured their translations of Kim Sagwa’s novel Mina and Yoon Tae-ho’s comic Moss, as well as What Is Korean Literature?, a study co-written by Bruce Fulton.) The novel also, she adds, “rebuts denials of the validity of the comfort women’s claims by synthesizing an intense personal story with painstaking historical research.” The idea of a novel as a vehicle for rebuttal, or for argument of any kind, will give some Western readers pause, though it’s hardly unheard of in Korea. Cho Nam-joo’s Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, which appeared in English last year, was nothing if not a novel-shaped set of claims about the lousy lot of Korean women in the 21st century.

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

Books on Cities: Jan Morris, Hong Kong (1988/1997)

When Jan Morris died this past November, her fellow writer of place Pico Iyer saluted her on Twitter as “the kindest, shrewdest and most indefatigable master portraitist of cities.” Most of this portraiture she executed in the form of essays: “The Know-How City,” to name just one example, a 1976 Rolling Stone dispatch on Los Angeles from which I’ve been quoting ever since I began writing about the place myself. Though an author of many books, including the imperial-history Pax Britannica trilogy, she treated relatively few individual cities at that length. When she did, she chose subjects with which she already had decades of acquaintance: Oxford, Venice, Trieste, New York. “I have been writing about Hong Kong on and off for thirty years,” she in her eponymous volume on that city, “and I come back to it now primarily as a student of British imperialism.”

Those words come from the 1997 edition of Hong Kong, a publication timed to coincide with the colony’s return to China after more than a century and a half of British rule. The book had first come out nearly a decade earlier, in the wake of Morris’ major works on the Empire. Though not exactly an apologist for imperialism, Morris was hardly among its severest critics. For some of those countrymen who worked to paint the map red she expresses condemnation, but for others she expresses admiration, and that this ambivalence would one day become “problematic” doesn’t seem to have escaped her. “However things go after 1997,” she writes at the very end of the book, “I dare to claim this: that the British are bringing their rule in Hong Kong, and with it the record of their Empire as a whole, to a conclusion that is not ignoble.”

But then British Hong Kong, “the final edition of the last great imperial colony,” was in Morris’ view “only just a British colony at all.” An especially visible aspect of this exceptionality is its famously large and densely packed population, overwhelmingly Chinese and in the main bearing few traces of influence by 156 years of British rule. “On the surface, and in the tourist brochures,” Morris writes, “Chineseness in its most fantastic forms is honored in the everyday life of this British colony.” And below that surface, “in a thousand ways old tastes, habits and techniques resist all challenge.” In multiple senses, China had always loomed at least as large there as Britain, what with the vast Middle Kingdom just over the mountains and the colony’s handover (a consequence of Britain’s limited lease on not Hong Kong Island itself but the later-acquired peninsular territories) long recognized as inevitable.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Korea Blog: Indie Synth-Electro-K-Pop Queen Neon Bunny’s Journey from Seoul to the Stars

From time to time since the 1960s, South Korea and North Korea have blared propaganda at one another through hulking stacks of loudspeakers aimed into the Demilitarized Zone. These border blasters came down in 2018, during a period of thaw in North-South relations, but in the years leading up to that point the mutual sonic provocation had become unusually aggressive. This provided fodder to many an odd-news corner in the West, which seized especially upon the fact that the South had been mixing K-pop songs in with its denunciations of the Kim Jong Un regime. “Now, they haven’t said exactly what music they’ve been playing, but I hope it’s some of the better K-pop stuff,” said comedian-commentator John Oliver on a 2015 broadcast of his show Last Week Tonight. As examples he rattled off names surely unfamiliar to most HBO viewers at home: Uhm Jung-hwa, Jo Sung-mo, TVXQ, Neon Bunny.

How avidly Oliver really listens Korean music isn’t clear, though he did heap praise last year on a member of boy-band BTS, the highest-profile pop singers ever to come out of this country. “It’s frankly shame-inducing that K-pop has produced him, while American pop fans are stuck with Adam Levine,” said Oliver (undiminished though Korea’s own enthusiasm seems for the likes of Maroon 5). Just this month, BTS chalked up a couple more achievements that attest to their rise in the global zeitgeist: a performance at the Grammy Awards, followed by a report in the Onion in which they thank the “Horrifyingly Exploitative System That Got Them Where They Are Today.” The latter purports to quote one of the BTS boys expressing the group’s “heartfelt appreciation to the corporations and shareholders who never gave up on draining us of all personality and remaking us us into easily interchangeable commercial objects.”

BTS’s vast self-described “ARMY” of fans, a demographic not known for its sense of irony, took great exception to this bit of satire, and not wholly without cause. Among successful K-pop boy-bands and girl-groups, one could indeed find much clearer-cut examples of standardized industrial production. But the article nevertheless reflects a persistent distaste felt by many Western holdouts against the “Korean wave”: while the United States of America may have invented the pop star all but genetically engineered to meet consumer demand, Korea appears — as with other adopted foreign practices — to have taken it too far. And as has been argued elsewhere, Korea’s hit machine absorbs so great an amount of resources financial, cultural, and attentional within the country that other kinds of music, even other kinds of pop music, go begging. Or in the case of performers like Neon Bunny, one of Oliver’s picks, they go crowdfunding.

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

Korea Blog: The Vertiginously Satirical Sci-Fi of Bae Myung-Hoon’s Tower

Bae Myung-hoon’s Tower (타워) comprises six interlinked stories, which take place almost entirely within a single building inhabited by 500,000 people. To that setting I imagine Western readers reacting with the look of the stunned distaste I sometimes receive when, back in the United States, I describe the standard form of middle-class housing in Seoul: clusters of 10, 20, 30 buildings, rising to 20, 30, 40 stories each. That verticality alone signals dystopia to many Americans, but to no few English as well — most notably J.G. Ballard, whose 1975 novel High-Risedramatizes the swift and total breakdown of society that occurs in, and is seemingly caused by, a luxury apartment complex of the titular form. No such fate befalls Beanstalk, the 674-story tower imagined by Bae, though it does experience a few close calls, subject as it seemingly is to constant threat from within and without.

Beanstalk isn’t just a building but a sovereign nation unto itself, locked in an ongoing Oceania-and-Eastasia-style geopolitical conflict with the distant country of Cosmomafia. This perhaps reflects the interests of the Seoul National University international-relations scholar Bae was when he began to build a readership as a writer of fiction. But in just over 250 pages, he also describes or alludes to aspects of Beanstalk and life within it in a range wide enough to reflect active fascinations with structural engineering, urban development, terrorism and antiterrorism, geographic information systems, literature, military strategy, Machiavellian politics, and Buddhism. The state of nirvana is invoked several times, once as a fighter pilot downed in a vast desert feels death’s approach (little knowing that the Beanstalkians have banded together to comb through satellite photos, facilitating his rescue), and again when an Indian elephant plunges from a 321st-story window.

The elephant is called Amitabh, a name borrowed (as Bae revealed in a recent podcast appearance) from Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan. Show business bears more directly on the life a celebrity dog known as Film Actor P, another of Tower‘s non-human characters, who not only figures into several of its stories but turns up again in the last of its appendices to give an “interview.” You may at this point suspect the book of an unconventional structure, either by the standards of novels or those of short-story collections. Nor is it formally homogenous, with one epistolary story breaking up the omniscient third-person voice and two of the appendices constituting excerpts of texts referred to in the foregoing narratives: a sociological study of one of Beanstalk’s floors and a myth-like tale of a polar bear (who eventually does manage to attain nirvana) ostensibly by “Writer K,” star of the second story.

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