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Korea Blog: “Birthday,” the First Tearjerker About the Ferry Disaster that Killed 250 High-School Students

When I first visited Korea, less than three months had passed since the sinking of the MV Sewol. The pall cast by the more than 300 deaths it caused, 250 of the them having been high-school students, showed no sign of even potential abatement. I met up with a film-critic friend and we guessed at how long it would take the Korean film industry to come up with a Sewol-themed major motion picture, and more to the point, who exactly would make it. “I’m afraid it’ll be someone like Kang Je-gyu,” he said, naming the director of technically accomplished but ham-fisted blockbusters like Shiri (쉬리), an ersatz Bruce Willis-type action movie about the hunt for a North Korean assassin, and Korean War drama Taegukgi (태극기 휘날리며). Neither of us, fair to say, had very high hopes.

Five years after the ship sank, the big Sewol film has arrived. Birthday (생일) comes directed not by the likes of Kang but Lee Jong-un, a first-timer with Sewol credentials: she produced 2017’s Friends: Hidden Sorrow (친구들: 숨어있는 슬픔), one of several documentaries about the disaster that have come out so far, and participated in the campaign to fund another, Healing the Wounds with the Sewol Generation (세월호 세대와 함께 상처를 치유하다). Had it been up to me to choose the director for a story based on an event widely seen as the nation’s failure to protect its own children, I might have gone with Lee Chang-dong, whose filmography attests to an interest in the trauma his homeland inflicts on itself through its treatment of young people. But one could see Lee Jong-un, who worked as an assistant director on Lee Chang-dong’s 2010 film Poetry (시) and is now described as his protégé, as the next best thing.

Birthday counts Lee Chang-dong as one if its producers, and on some level feels as if it takes place in his cinematic reality. Starring as Jung-il and Soon-nam, a husband and wife whose teenage son died on the Sewol, are Sol Kyung-gu and Jeon Do-yeon, the former having previously appeared in Lee’s Oasis (오아시스) as a mentally disabled man who falls for a physically disabled woman, and the latter having previously appeared in his Secret Sunshine (밀양) as another mother whose young son is killed. Like her mentor, who shows impressive restraint even when dealing with the most harrowing subject matter, Lee Jong-un doesn’t go overboard — an expression I hesitate to use in this context, but one that fits the fears many must have had about the treatment of the Sewol disaster in a cinematic culture that pushes emotions to melodramatic heights as a matter of course.

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

일기: 이정헌, <나의 소녀>

한국 서점과 미국 서점의 큰 차이 점 중 하나는 에세이를 얼마나 많이 소유하고 있는지이다. 미국 서점에서는 에세이 집들이 주로 한 책장의 한 선반을 차지하지만 한국 서점에서는 에세이집들이 가게의 절반을 차지할 수도 있다. 에세이를 열심히 읽을 뿐만 아니라 에세이를 전문적으로 쓰는 나는 그 사실이 아주 즐겁다. 한국에 처음 이사왔을 때 한동안 임시 머물었던 홍대에 있는 동네 책방들을 검색하고 방문했다. 그러한 여러 방문 속에 나에게 특별한 느낌을 주는 에세이집이 내 눈에 띄었다. 그 책 제목은 <나의 소녀>이고 그 책에 담긴 에시이들 끝에 있는 모든 사진 속에는 똑같은 등장인물인 한 여자가 반복해서 나온다.

책의 주인공이라고 할 수 있는 그 여자는 매력이 없는 것처럼 보이지는 않았지만 나의 책 구입 동기는 사진이 주는 시각적 모습보다 사진의 분위기였다. 내가 그 사진들을 보는 것은 러시아 영화 감독 안드레이 타르코프스키의 작품처럼 다른 사람이 만든 영상을 보는 것이 아닌 마치 자기 자신의 추억을 보는 것처럼 느껴진다. 사진들을 찍고 에세이들을 쓴 저자인 이정헌에게는 진짜 추억이며 각 에세이에서 해당하는 사진을 찍게 된 상황을 기억하고 이야기한다. 비록 이정헌이 사진작가로서 사용한 사진기나 필름과 같은 기술과 관련된 할 말이 있긴 하지만 또 다른 면에서 7년의 기간 동안 찍었던 사진 자체들은 사랑 이야기를 한다.

<나의 소녀>에서 자세히 설명되지는 않았지만 이정헌과 사진들 속에 나오는 여자는 함께 작업하는 예술가일 뿐만 아니라 서로 연애하는 사이이다. 그 사실을 인터넷에서 검색하면 쉽게 알 수 있긴 하지만 그러한 수고 없이도 저자가 찍은 사진들을 통해서 그 여자를 어떻게 바라보는지에는 의심의 여지가 없다. 독자가 보는 것은 그저 단순히 여자일 뿐만 아니라 사랑하는 남자의 눈으로 보는 여자이다. 그 사진들을 인상적으로 만드는 것 중 하나는 그 사진을 찍게 된 이야기를 하는 에세이 후에 사진들이 나오는 것이다. 사진들이 처음부터 계획된 것이 아니라 생활에서 우연히 찍었기 때문에 그 사진들은 더 인상적일 수 밖에 없다.

우리는 요즘 매일 인스타그램을 보며 어디까지가 일부러 계획된 시진들이고 어느 정도가 생활에서 우연히 찍힌 사진들이라는 것을 구분할 수 있을까? 나에게는 <나의 소녀>가 인스타그램이 유명해지기 전인 2005-2011년에 찍었던 사진들이 대부분의 인스타그램을 위해 찍은 사진들과 완전히 다르게 느껴지고 더 깊은 마음에 울림을 준다. 그러나 이고은이라는 책의 주인공인 그 여자는 인스타그램 계정이 있고 그 계정을 보면 <나의 소녀>와 비슷한 사진들도 발견할 것이다. 그 사진들 중 이고은의 얼굴이 보이지만 셀카가 아닌 것들을 찍은 사람은 아마도 사진 순수주의자이며 자기 자신의 인스타그램 계정이 없는 이정헌일 수 있지 않을까?

Korea Blog: Stoked by a Racist Ad, a K-Pop Sex Scandal, and an Anti-Communist Massacre, Can the Korean Demand for Apology Ever Be Satiated?

However robust the Korean supply of public apology has been lately, it may never even come close to meeting the Korean demand for public apology. Longtime Korea observers know this, just as they know that the apologies, and more so the expectations for and rejections of those apologies, have only just begun to flow forth from the Burning Sun scandal. What began as a possible case of sexual assault at a Seoul nightclub of that name last November has, over the past few months, blown up to encompass drugs, embezzlement, prostitution, police corruption, and hidden-camera sex footage rings. This increasingly complicated affair has drawn such rapt public attention not least because of the identity of one of Burning Sun’s managers: Lee Seung-hyun, better known as Seungri, a member of top boy band Big Bang.

“I sincerely apologize to everyone who has been involved in or taken offense from the recent controversy,” Seungri posted to Instagram in February. “I am sorry that this official explanation and apology is overdue. Surrounding acquaintances have discouraged me from apologizing right away, lest the uncertain details that have already snowballed create even bigger misunderstandings.” But it seems that even apologizing on one of the most popular social-media platforms in Korea (and later in concert) wasn’t enough to save him: first he was suspected of ordering the procurement of prostitutes for the nightclub’s clients, then his agency YG Entertainment terminated his contract, then the police charged him with distributing a picture taken with a hidden camera, then they charged him with embezzlement, and the dirt is apparently still being dug up.

Seungri isn’t the only celebrity brought low by the Burning Sun investigation so far: trawling the group chat rooms shared by these K-pop stars on Kakaotalk, Korea’s messaging app of choice, the dragnet has also ensnared, among others, the singer Jung Joon-young, who had used those rooms to distribute his own sex videos. “I admit to all my crimes,” says Jung’s statement of apology. “I filmed women without their consent and shared it in a chat room, and while I was doing so I didn’t feel a great sense of guilt.” It goes on: “Most of all, I kneel down to apologize to the women who appear in the videos and all those who might be disappointed and upset at this shocking incident,” adding an intent to “repent for my unethical and unlawful behaviors, which constitute criminal acts, for the rest of my life.” But neither those words nor any others are likely to put his image on the road to rehabilitation.

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

Korea Blog: Listen to the Seoul of the 1980s, Real or Imagined, with Streaming Mixes of Korean “City Pop”

Japanese names like Katomatsu Toshiki, Ohnuki Taeko, Yamashita Tatsuro, or Takeuchi Mariya may or may not mean anything to you. Rest assured, however, that there are Korean record collectors to whom they mean a great deal indeed. I see more than a few of them in person whenever Gimbab Records, a shop not far from where I live in western Seoul, puts on one of their sales of Japanese “city pop” records. These hotly anticipated events have usually involved an especially well-stocked collector parking a van on the store’s narrow street — almost an alley, really — and dealing the sacred pieces of vinyl straight out of the back. The sacredness comes through in the prices they pay, which surely exceed even what they cost new back at the height of Japan’s economic bubble in the 1980s. I’ve never brought along the kind of cash I would need to buy even half of what I might want, and deliberately so.

Like most city pop fans around the world, I just listen to the stuff on YouTube — and in fact discovered it on YouTube in the first place. If you’ve never heard city pop for yourself, you’ll better understand it not through a description of its sound but through a Youtube trip of your own. A YouTuber who calls himself Stevem has put together a video essay, “What Is Plastic Love?,” that explains just how a Japanese pop single from 1984, obscure even in its own country, racked up millions of views seemingly overnight after someone made it available in streaming-video form. That song, Takeuchi Mariya’s “Plastic Love,” has for the better part of a decade acted as the most effective gateway drug for the potential city pop enthusiast. All that time, the digitization and uploading of this “strain of lite, easy-listening J-pop that drew on a variety of American and Asian influences including funk, soul, disco, lounge, and even yacht rock,” as Rob Arcand and Sam Goldner put it in their Vice guide, has continued apace.

City pop’s 21st-century fan base knows no nationality, and its members have mixed, matched, and even remixed its-ever growing selection of acknowledged tracks into a great many themed streaming mixes, often visually accompanied by clips of vintage Japanese television and animation. For my money, the  Chicago-based Van Paugam (whose work includes a brief history of city pop) has long made the best city pop mixes on YouTube, but earlier this year the Japanese recording industry — an aggressive entity, even by recording-industry standards — had his channel taken down, forcing him to start over again. You can still hear all of his mixes on Mixcloud, though, and not every city pop-minded YouTuber has suffered the same fate. Some have avoided it by diversifying their musical selections, even to the point of looking, or rather listening, outside Japan entirely: take, for instance, the recent appearance of city pop mixes from Korea.

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

Korea Blog: Fried Chicken’s Central Role in a TV Drama, a Police Comedy, and Korean Culture Itself

“Did you come because of the movie?” said a middle-aged man waiting a few places in front of me in line for fried chicken. He didn’t ask me, but a nearby family of four or five, and they had indeed come because of the movie, as had I. That movie, Lee Byeong-heon’s Extreme Job (극한직업), racked up more than 10 million ticket sales about two weeks after it opened in Korea January, a fairly staggering success in this country of 50 million people, especially for a comedy. The story of a bumbling team of detectives who stake out the headquarters of a drug-running operation by buying a chicken shop right across the street, it has made a fad of an unusual kind of fried chicken, one prepared with a marinade normally used for galbi, the beef short-rib dish available in Korean restaurants the world over.

Specifically, it has made a fad of galbi-marinade fried chicken available at the chicken shop I went to: Nammun Tongdak on the tourist-destination “Chicken Street” in Suwon, a large suburb about twenty miles from Seoul. Though it doesn’t have roots as deep as some of the other occupants of Chicken Street, its owners can claim to have put the dish on its menu two years ago, though they dropped it from the menu when it proved to be a slow seller, only bringing it back as soon as Extreme Job instilled in the public a jones for it, or at least an awareness of it. The movie’s main characters start using the recipe out of desperation: none of them have any experience frying chicken, so they have to make do with the culinary knowledge one of them picked up working at his family’s Suwon barbecue restaurant.

The hybrid dish immediately becomes a social-media sensation, and life has, to a degree, imitated art: even on a Monday afternoon, Nammun Tongdak had a line out the door and both floors filled with determined eaters. Though the taste of the chicken proved worth the trip — the Coca-Cola in the marinade gives it a metallic edge, though not an unpleasant one — I may never make another, not because of anything unpleasant about that particular chicken shop at all, but because there are so many to choose from, not just on Suwon’s Chicken Street but more or less everywhere in Korea. Known not by the Korean word for chicken used in other dishes but with the loanword chikin, fried chicken is, as any number of expat food bloggers might put it, not just a food in Korea but a way of life, a dish automatically chosen for so many gathering of friends, classmates, or co-workers.

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

My Interview on the Blunt Report Podcast: Korean Desires, Happiness, and a Frog in a Well

A few months ago, Konner Blunt came to Korea to record a few episodes of his interview podcast The Blunt Report, which “exists today to create interest and intrigue in the world around us.” You might remember me doing something similar with Notebook on Cities and Culture‘s Korea Tour, and now that I live in Korea myself, I seem to have gone from interviewer to interviewee.

You can hear “Desires, Happiness, and a Frog in a Well,” my 80-minute conversation with Konner about life in Korea, learning the Korean language, the task of observing and interpreting Korean society and culture, what one learns about one’s homeland when living abroad rather than just traveling, and much else besides at The Blunt Report‘s web site, on iTunes, or on Youtube.

일기: 전상인, <공간으로 세상 읽기>

나는 나 자신을 주로 도시에 대한 관심이 많은 사람으로 묘사한다. 그 것은 백 퍼센트 사실이긴 하지만 내가 관심 있는 것은 도시 뿐만 아니라 건축물과 길거리를 포함한 동네를 비롯하여 지하철과 같은 도시를 형성하는 여러 가지 시설물이다. 엄밀히 말하자면 나는 도시보다 도시를 구성하는 공간에 관심이 더 간다. 전상인 교수님의 <공간으로 세상 읽기>를 읽고 나서 나의 그러한 관심을 더 증폭시키기 시작했다. 이 책은 집과 터 그리고 길로 나눠져있고 각각 부분에 해당하는 종류의 공간의 역사나 현재를 조망하는 중요점을 다룬다.

이 책은 저자가 이야기하는 모든 종류의 공간을 도시와 연결하고 도시를 이루는 개별요소를 설명한다. 또한 나처럼 도시에 대한 책들을 많이 읽은 사람이 잘 아는 가장 유명한 도시 이론가인 루이스 멈포드와 이에 버금가는 제인 제이콥스와 이론가임과 동시에 건축가인 르 코르뷔지에와 같은 도시 이론가들의 작업을 자주 언급한다. 솔직히 말하면 내가 이러한 주제에 이미 친숙해져 있어서 이 책은 내가 읽는 다른 한글로 된 책들보다 훨씬 더 읽기 쉽다고 느끼게 된다. 그러나 이 책은 단순히 다른 사람들이 쓴 도시와 여러 가지의 공간들에 대한 것들을 요약하는 것뿐만 아니라 더 나아가서 사회학 교수님인 저자는 그의 관점을 모국인 한국의 도시와 공간으로 돌려 이 책을 통해 비판가의 역할도 맡는다.

공간빈국과 공간 후진국은 저자가 한국에 붙인 두가지 라벨이다. 그의 말에 따르면 오늘 날의 한국은 공간에 대한 본격적인 연구가 부족하기 때문에 공간들이 아무 계획없이 마구잡이로 설계되어서 그 공간들로 구성되어 있는 한국 도시들은 더 공들여 개발했던 다른 나라의 도시들에 비해서 매우 바람직하지 않다고 한다. 저자의 관점에서 보면 한국은 터를 어떻게 사용하고 그 위에 집과 길을 어떻게 놓을지를 완전히 새롭게 재고할 필요가 있다. 나는 이 책을 읽기 전부터이러한 서울에 대한 비판을 들은 적이 몇 번 있고 그 것의 이면에 담긴 생각을 이해하지만 전적으로 동의하기는 어렵다. 왜냐하면 저자와 나를 비교하여 누가 더 많은 도시를 방문했는지는 모르지만 나는 세계의 적지 않은 도시들에 가봤고 그중 제일 좋아하는 곳들 중에 하나가 바로 서울이기 때문이다.

저자가 말했듯이 서울을 제일 위대한 유럽 도시들과 비교하면 서울이 매력이 없는 곳처럼 보일 수도 있다. 하지만 내가 한국에 이사오기 전에 살았던 고속도로로 덥혀 있고 뒤죽박죽으로 건축된 로스앤젤레스도 마찬가지의 상황에 처해 있다. 어떻게 보면 가장 흥미로운 질문은 서울이나 로스앤젤레스와 같은 도시가 무엇이 문제인가가 아니라 서울이나 로스앤젤레스와 같은 도시를 왜 사람들이 즐기는가이다. 내 생각에 지난 백 년의 서양 도시 이론은 서울을 어떻게 개선할 수 있는지를 보여 줄 수는 있어도 새로운 21 세기에는 있는 그대로의 서울이 위대하다고 할 수 있는 유럽 도시들에게도 당연히 가르쳐 줄 것이 있을 거라는 것을 많은 사람들이 느낄 것이다.

Korea Blog: Luc Besson’s “Léon: The Professional,” a Cultural Phenomenon Going Strong in Korea for 25 Years

Léon: The Professional, the film that launched director Luc Besson into an international renown, came out a quarter-century ago this year. And in this case, “international renown” means he became known outside his native France not just in America but all over the world, and especially here in South Korea. Or rather, Besson the filmmaker has become less a household name in this country than Léonthe film has, and its name now seems known to more Korean households than ever. Most cellphone accessory shops stock Léon-themed cases, and as soon as I snapped one on my phone, everyone I encountered stopped commenting on its age — few Koreans today would be caught dead with an iPhone 5S — and started commenting on how much they love the movie the image on its back came from.

All this over a 25-year-old French hitman picture. The range of Léon merchandise available on the streets of Seoul — none officially licensed, naturally — hardly stops at cellphone cases: shirts emblazoned with drawings of Jean Reno’s rough-edged but ascetic assassin-for-hire and Natalie Portman’s smokingly, swearingly precocious orphan spill out of every other university-proximate clothing store. At the city’s frequent craft fairs young artists have applied their images to an ever-widening array of objects, often accompanied by the words “love or death” from the ultimatum so memorably laid down by Portman’s Mathilda to Reno’s Léon. Unlike London Review of Books tote bags, which last year enjoyed a moment in Korea as aesthetic objects more or less disconnected from their referent, Léon often gets referenced in its content as well, in text as well as on screen.

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

Korea Blog: Reading Tocqueville in Korea (Part Two)

Alexis de Tocqueville made his transatlantic journey in 1831 in order to discover what made America different from other countries, especially his native France and the rest of “Old World” Europe. “On my arrival in the United States, it was the religious atmosphere which first struck me,” he writes in the first volume of Democracy in America, published in 1835. “Americans so completely identify the spirit of Christianity with freedom in their minds that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive the one without the other.” He saw “Americans coming together to dispatch priests to the new states in the West in order to found schools and churches” and met “wealthy New Englanders who left their native land in order to establish the fundamentals of Christianity and freedom on the banks of the Missouri or in the prairies of Illinois. In this way, in the United States, religious zeal constantly gains vitality from the fires of patriotism.”

When I first started taking notice of Korea, gleaning what I could from the occasional visit to Korean restaurants and Korean-American classmates’ houses, I sensed how different a culture it really seemed to possess from that of, say, Japan and China, the countries with which Westerners tended to conflated it. Certain differences in sensibilities and aesthetics quickly make themselves felt (even someone completely ignorant of east Asian languages can usually identify Korean script, “the one that has circles”), but nothing stands out quite as much as the prevalence in Korea of Christianity. A Westerner visiting Korea for the first time might expect some kind of theocracy, extrapolating from the enthusiasm so many Koreans profess for the church back in the West, but in reality Protestants and Catholics (a distinction insisted upon much more fiercely than in America today) account for about 30 percent of the South Korean population combined.

By the standards of this part of the world, 30 percent is an impressive figure, but it might nevertheless strike our Westerner in Korea as a serious underestimate, especially if he arrives by night to see all the neon crosses that burn red along the Seoul skyline. There aren’t as many neon crosses as there used to be, but culturally, Christianity in Korea still punches well above its weight, stop just short though it may of Tocqueville’s observation, made in the second volume of Democracy in America, of the its being “intimately linked to all national habits and all the emotions which one’s native country arouses” and ruling “not only like a philosophy taken up after evaluation but like a religion believed without discussion.” But since America towered as an example of national success — and in a way, an object of worship itself — all throughout Korea’s development in the second half of the 20th century, its trifecta of Christianity, democracy, and capitalism must have looked like a magic formula to banish privation and humiliation to the past.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books (and part one here).

Talk at San Diego State University: “The Urban Future on Film” (2/14/19)

“Los Angeles is the city of the future,” the old joke goes, “and it always will be.” Certainly that holds true on film, where the southern Californian metropolis has been put to every possible cinematic end. Filmmakers have used Los Angeles to recreate the past, to portray the present, and most memorably to envision the future. The Japan-infused 2019 Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, first released in 1982, has ever since shaped the way we imagine urban dystopia; more recently, Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited sequel Blade Runner 2049 intensified and diversified the look and feel of the original to suit our present moment. What makes Los Angeles, even in more utopian futuristic movies like Spike Jonze’s Her, such a rich collection of materials for urban futures — and why has the presence of Asia, as well as the characteristics of Asian cities, nearly always been essential to those futures?

I’ll address these and other questions about Los Angeles’ urban future on film, both utopian and dystopian, at San Diego State University on Thursday, February 14 at 5:00 p.m. in Hepner Hall, Room 214. My talk comes as part of Futures Past & Present, at art show at SDSU’s Downtown Gallery considering “not only how the future has been forecast in the past, but also how our present reality will inform what is yet to come.”