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Korea Blog: French Nobel Laureate J.M.G. Le Clézio’s New Novel of Korea, and the Love of Korea That Inspired It

Like any country afflicted by an inferiority complex, South Korea has shown an avid interest in winning Nobel Prizes, to the point of scrutinizing and attempting to adapt for itself the customs of the nations (and even ethnicities and religions) that have managed to produce large numbers of Nobel laureates. But apart from the 2000 Peace Prize, awarded to pro-democracy activist and then-president Kim Dae-jung, the dream remains elusive. A few Korean or Korean-born scientists have come up as potential future winners, but the hopes of recent years have been repeatedly pinned on the poet Ko Un, who, at the age of 84, continues — to the great frustration of Korean culture’s global promoters — not to win the Literature Prize.

Nevertheless, Korea does have a Nobel-winning champion in French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, whose receipt of the Literature prize in 2008 occasioned a scramble to make his work available in the non-Francophone world. Even before being granted the sacred object, however, he’d already become something of a public figure in Korea, having arrived here the year before to teach French language and literature at the prestigious Ewha Womans University. “Le Clézio was a Nobel literature prize candidates in 2007, and reporters camped outside his house in Seoul on Oct. 11, the day the winner was announced,” writes Esther Lee in an early-2008 piece in the Joongang Daily. “Asked if he knew reporters were waiting for him, he laughed. ‘I was out that day, riding the subway,’ he said. The award went to Doris Lessing.”

The article also points out Le Clézio’s enthusiasm for Korean literature, “which he describes as dynamic and multicolored.” The Nobel’s arrival in 2008 provided him with an enlarged platform to promote it, especially in his homeland: “Korean literature is written in a hard language, without affectation, pity for oneself or satisfaction,” he wrote in a Le Figaro, “but is always imaginative and allusive with self-deprecating humor that characterizes the Korean people.” A decade on, he has, in a sense, contributed a work of his own to the body of Korean literature with his new book Bitna: Under the Sky of Seoul, a short novel of connected tales set in the Korean capital.

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

Korea Blog: How Korea’s Version of TED Talks Aims to Heal Korean Society

Come to live in South Korea, and you’ll find that everything you used to use in the old country has a locally made equivalent in Korea. That goes not just for goods but for services, even — maybe especially — services on the internet. For nearly 20 years, Koreans have done most of their searching not on Google but on a portal site called Naver, which also offers its own, much more functional (in Korea, that is) map application. They look up restaurants not on Yelp but Diningcode, find apartments not on Craigslist or Zillow but Zigbang or Dabang, and have long done their messaging through a service called Kakaotalk. Alongside the Korean Wikipedia exists the jokier but often more detailed Namuwiki.

Those named are hardly the only options, since each category with any potential user base at all tends to produce an abundance of Korean competitors, no single one of which ever seems to attain complete dominance. Apart from the government’s reluctance to allow the release of detailed map data to foreign companies (ostensibly in the name of national security), this situation hasn’t arisen, for the most part, as a matter of policy, but from the perceived need to address the supposedly unique expectations and problems of the Korean consumer, which itself might go all the way back to the exports-good-imports-bad developmental ideology of the 1960s and 70s. It has also given rise to a Korean equivalent of TED Talks, the series of short video lectures that for well over a decade have generated praise, criticism, and hundreds of millions of views.

Korea’s own TED Talks launched in 2011, calling itself “Sebashi” (세바시), a contraction of sesangeul bakkuneun shigan 15 bun (세상을 바꾸는 시간 15분), officially rendered in English as “The Fifteen Minutes that Changes the World.” Most of its videos run over 15 minutes, some well over; however much its creators have copied from the TED Talk format, they haven’t applied its famously rigid 18-minute limit. TED curator Chris Anderson has justified that length as “long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention,” with the added advantage of being “the length of a coffee break.” Many a Korean office worker combines coffee break and cigarette break, meaning they take them outside, even during a chilly Seoul winter like this one.

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

My ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2017: Chris Marker’s travel books, Randy Newman’s Los Angeles, J.M. Coetzee’s secret computer poetry, and more

For nearly six years now, I’ve written a post every weekday at Open Culture, usually to do with literature, film, music, art, television, radio, or language. The total comes to more than 1500 so far, and here are ten of my favorites from the more than 250 I wrote in 2017:

Korea Blog: Korean Cinema Looks Back at 1987, When Students Died and Democracy Was Born

At least once a week I walk by something called the Lee Han-yeol Memorial. Though located in a nondescript building down a side street full of them, it catches my eye every time, and at first got me me wondering, no doubt by design, who Lee Han-yeol was. Not that his dates, 1966-1987, didn’t already give a big historical hint. If an American man born in 1950 died in 1968, it brings to mind the Vietnam War; if he died 20 years later, AIDS. By the same token, if one hears of a Korean man born in the early to mid-1960s, the time of South Korea’s own postwar “baby boom,” who died in the 1980s, one might well wonder if he counts among the country’s martyrs for democracy. Lee turns out to rank near the top of that list, and though I didn’t know him by name, I did already know the story of his death, one cinematically told in the new 1987: When the Day Comes.

I never noticed any change in the appearance of the Lee Han-yeol Memorial until a few weeks ago, when on one of its outer walls appeared 1987‘s poster. Advertised for months in the run-up to its release this past week, the high-profile, star-studded picture ends in June of that year, just after by the encounter with a tear-gas grenade that killed Lee. It begins the January before, just after the fatal torturing of Park Jong-chul, a Seoul National University student activist detained by the authorities for questioning as to the whereabouts of his fellow agitators. The story relflects widely accepted narrative of South Korean political history that frames that year, and especially its series of protests known as the “June Struggle,” as the most critical period in the country’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy.

It also joins a recent spate of popular Korean films based on the country’s troubled decades between the Korean War and the end of the 20th century: Yoon Je-kyoon’s Ode to My Father (국제시장) told nearly the whole story of the country through the story of one fictional man. Yang Woo-suk’s The Attorney (변호인) dramatized the depredations of anti-communist paranoia through an episode in the thinly veiled life of Roh Moo-hyun, who defended accused North Korea sympathizers in court in the 1980s before his time as president in the 2000s. Jang Hoon’s A Taxi Driver (택시운전사) looked at the Gwangju massacre of May 1980 through the eyes of titular cabbie who took a German journalist there to report on it. Most recently, Kim Hyun-seok’s I Can Speak made an only ostensibly lighthearted comedy out of the situation of the young Korean women made to serve as “comfort women” for the Japanese army during the Second World War.

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

Seoul Urbanism on TBS eFM’s Koreascape: the Driverless, Ad-Free, “Cultural” Ui-Sinseol Line

Each month I join Kurt Achin, host of Koreascape on Seoul’s English-language radio station TBS eFM, for an exploration of one of Seoul’s urban spaces. This time we ride the brand new Ui-Sinseol Light Rapid Transit (or Ui LRT), Korea’s very first driverless light-rail subway. Running from the center of the city out to Bukhansan on its northeastern edge, the line stops at thirteen stations, many of them designed as gallery spaces to display artwork old and new. None of it has to compete with ads for rider attention since, except for announcements of cultural events, the line doesn’t have any ads. Even these early months of operation have also already seen it equipped with machines where riders can check out and return library books, bowls full of poetry (one poem per person, please), and more.

Stay tuned for further explorations of Seoul’s architecture, infrastructure, and other parts of the built environment. You can hear our previous segments here.

Korea Blog: Why Has Korea Hired Gordon Ramsay to Be Its Big Brother?

A few months ago, a somehow youthfully hardened face familiar to Westerners started to pop up in advertisements all over Seoul: that of Gordon Ramsay, the British Michelin-starred celebrity chef known for television shows in which he profanely and remorselessly shouts down culinary incompetence in his own restaurants and elsewhere. His sudden prevalence in Korea comes as less of a surprise than the product it promotes: Cass, the flagship beer of Oriental Brewery (OB), one of the few domestic mega-producers who dominated the South Korean beer market for decades and decades effectively without competition — and thus an unexpected object of favor from such an aggressive enemy of complacency in matters of food and drink.

Not that long ago, anybody in Korea who didn’t want to drink Cass could choose only from Hite, Max, or whatever else the conglomerate-owned breweries felt like bringing to market, for all of which even the most nationalistic Korean drinker could only summon one credible defense: that they do the job just fine after a few rounds of powerfully spiced food accompanied by soju, when even good beers won’t have much flavor. This dire situation only began to change about five years ago, when then-Economist correspondent Daniel Tudor took the heavily regulated local brewing industry to task with an article headlined “Fiery Food, Boring Beer.”

In it Tudor, who has since published the popular book Korea: The Impossible Countryand opened a chain of pizza pubs, wrote that “South Korean diners would not tolerate bland kimchi (cabbage pickled in garlic and chili) or sannakji (fresh chopped octopus, still wriggling on the plate), so why do they swill boring beer?” He also dared to venture that “brewing remains just about the only useful activity at which North Korea beats the South. The North’s Taedonggang Beer, made with equipment imported from Britain, tastes surprisingly good.” In recent years, changes in the relevant laws have liberalized the market for imported and domestic craft beers, creating the conditions for a challenge that Korea’s hulking legacy brewers would sooner or later have to come up with a way to counter.

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

KCET: Thom Andersen’s Collected Essays Map Los Angeles’ Relationship to Film

“This is the city: Los Angeles, California,” begins the narration of Thom Andersen’s “Los Angeles Plays Itself.” “They make movies here. I live here.” When I first heard those words, spoken over an assembly of black-and-white shots of freeways, studio lots and theater marquees from Los Angeles movies of the 1940s and 50s, I, too, lived that city. In fact, I’d only just moved there. A friend who’d settled in years earlier had invited me over to watch Andersen’s nearly three-hour-long documentary on the myriad depictions of the city in film as a way of introducing me to my new city. He’d acquired a bootleg DVD of it while studying at CalArts under Andersen himself, a formidably knowledgeable and dry-witted presence not just in the classroom but at the theaters around the city and elsewhere that have screened “Los Angeles Plays Itself” every so often since its release in 2003.

Potential intellectual-property trouble over the clips of more than 200 different movies used in Los Angeles Plays Itself held up a proper DVD release, so for quite some time there was no other above-board way to see it. Andersen’s wide-ranging post-screening Q&A sessions, though, made attendance almost compulsory for even enthusiasts of Los Angeles on film who did have a quasi-legitimate copy of their own. I went to at least five or six of them in my first four years in Los Angeles, but then, if I’d moved there for any reason other than sheer fascination with the place, I did it for the moviegoing. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s film program exerted an especially strong draw, repeatedly bringing me down from Santa Barbara, where I lived before, with its promise of French and Italian New Wave, 1970s road movies, the Korean experimental social-comedies of Hong Sangsoo, and much else besides.

Alas, not long after I set up house in Los Angeles, LACMA sacked the man making those choices. It wasn’t his first time on the chopping block: “In 2009 film-lovers in this sprawled-out city had come together with a remarkable cohesiveness to protest the cancellations of film programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,” Andersen writes in a Film Comment piece from early 2012. “As a newcomer to Los Angeles, the museum’s CEO and director Michael Govan couldn’t understand the program’s special niche in Los Angeles film culture.” The public response stayed the executioner’s hand, but only for two years. Then, “in a brilliant Pontius Pilate maneuver, Govan ousted the museum’s outspoken, passionate film programmer Ian Birnie for good,” replacing him with the high-profile critic Elvis Mitchell, a “controversial but really unassailable” replacement.

The loss, though immediately palpable, didn’t then seem like a fatal blow to Los Angeles film culture: we still had the American Cinematheque, with the Egyptian in the Hollywood and the Aero in Santa Monica; we still had the Quentin Tarantino-owned New Beverly; we still had the avant-garde-oriented Filmforum. We still had the ramshackle but wonky and highly adventurous Cinefamily: “Its programmer Hadrian Belove lacks the suaveness of Elvis Mitchell,” Andersen writes, “but he can do what he likes without looking over his shoulders for big donors.” Not anymore: financially insecure even in the best of times and dealt a fatal blow when the storm of “sexual misconduct” accusations sweeping through the film industry forced Belove out, Cinefamily shut down for good earlier this month.

Read the whole thing at KCET. (See also my interview with Thom Andersen on Notebook on Cities and Culture.)

Korea Blog: Korea Has Started Using English Names — But When Will It Stop?

As it spreads across the world, Starbucks has come to serve many functions, not least giving the kind of travelers inclined to complain about the global homogenization of place an Exhibit A to point to. Such travelers make those complaints with a special intensity when in Seoul, which in addition to a robust local coffee-shop economy boasts the highest number of Starbucks locations per capita of any city in the world. I take a slightly brighter view of the green mermaid’s ongoing journey from Seattle to omnipresence, and not just because they offer those twin lifebloods of the 21st-century writer, coffee and reliable wi-fi: Starbucks stores, despite and indeed because of their efforts to hold every aspect of their experience steady across cities, countries, and continents, have ended up becoming the places where pure contrast forces the host culture’s deepest-seated characteristics into view.

Not that you’d know it at first glance — nor, sometimes, at a closer second glance, which in a Korean Starbucks might well take in the baristas’ nametags, nearly all of which bear, in bold, chalky, Roman capital letters, names like SALLY or RYAN or ANGIE. You’d expect that in Denver or Syracuse, but in the capital of South Korea, let alone the much smaller towns all over the country, and pinned to the chests of an all-Korean staff serving a mostly Korean clientele, the effect is surreal. It turns out to have come down from corporate: “Starbucks staff are required to have nicknames,” writes the Korea Times‘ Kim Young-jin. “The reason, company officials say, is to create a culture in which all ‘partners’ are equal.”

That in opposition to Korea’s established corporate culture, “notorious for long working hours and a rigid chain of command,” where employees, as a rule, address each other not by name but a title that locates them unambiguously in the organizational hierarchy. More than a few Korean companies have followed Starbucks’ suit. “Kakao, one of South Korea’s largest Internet companies, decided three years ago that all employees would go by English nicknames,” writes Rachel Premack in the Washington Post. Additionally, “companies in English education, tourism, trade or other globally focused industries typically have English nickname policies. They want to accommodate foreign business partners who can’t decipher between Lee Ji-yeong and Lee Ji-yeon.”

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

This week’s city reading: the cases for coffee-shop laptopping, Monocle magazine’s apartment-building, and Seoul street-eating

In Defence of the Coffee Shop Laptopper (Kate Symondson, Times Literary Supplement) ‘Data scientists and an entrepreneur-blogger, Sam Floy, created a series of heat maps correlating “on-the-up” neighbourhoods with coffee shop density. This “Coffee and Chicken shop method”, as it has come to be known, demonstrates that homebuyers ought to opt for an area where there is a high density of coffee shops, a low density of chicken shops, and low house prices.’

What Happened to the American Boomtown? (Emily Badger, New York Times) ‘The places that are booming in size aren’t the economic boomtowns — the regions with the greatest prosperity and highest productivity. In theory, we’d expect those metros, like the Bay Area, Boston and New York, to be rapidly expanding, as people move from regions with high unemployment and meager wages to those with high salaries and strong job markets. That we’re not seeing such a pattern suggests that something is fundamentally amiss. The magnets aren’t working.’

Los Angeles Is Ready for the Next Mobility Revolution (Julia Wick, Citylab) ‘The importance of the basics—and the depth of the gulf between our varied, glittering futures and the daily reality of being a transit-dependent Angeleno—was particularly apparent once I exited the mobility revolution and made my way to the bus stop. I narrowly dodged one of the candy-colored rolling mules as I exited the temporary festival grounds, and then walked a supremely pedestrian-unfriendly half-mile to catch an express bus that spent 20 minutes circumnavigating downtown traffic before even beginning its westward crawl.’

Monocle: You’ve Seen the Magazine – Now Buy the Apartment (Rupert Neate, The Guardian) ‘Patrons sipping lattes and cappuccinos at the Monocle cafe in London’s Marylebone district said they’d be keen to move into a Monocle-designed apartment if they could afford it.’

How Did the Tube Lines Get Their Names? A History of London Underground in 12 Lines (Jonn Elledge, Citymetric) ”Since the integration of the tube network under the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933, the city authorities have succeeded in creating precisely no new major underground railways without naming them after the royal family. And this is why we will never have true equality in Britain.”

The Allure of Pojangmacha (Yoon Min-sik, Korea Herald) “Despite the overpriced and sometimes questionable food, dim lights, inconvenience of plastic tables and chairs along with not-so-friendly owners, Koreans continue to seek comfort in the flimsy red tents of pojangmacha.”

Los Angeles Review of Books: David Sedaris and the American struggle with foreign languages

“THE INEVITABLE finally happened,” writes David Sedaris in his diary entry of April 6, 1999. “My French teacher faxed Andy at Esquire saying my articlehas had the effect of a bomb at the Alliance Française.” That piece, which became the title essay of Sedaris’s 2000 collection Me Talk Pretty One Day, tells of the French classes he took at that cultural institution’s Paris headquarters. It gives a starring role to his fearsome instructor, a fount of pronouncements translating to “You exhaust me with your foolishness and reward my efforts with nothing but pain” and “Every day spent with you is like having a cesarean section.”

She even breaks the classroom’s French-only rule in order to chastise Sedaris all the more harshly: “‘I hate you,’ she said to me one afternoon. Her English was flawless. ‘I really, really hate you.’ Call me sensitive, but I couldn’t help taking it personally.” While she does, on occasion, single Sedaris out for lavish praise — “Bravo,” she once shouts, taking his hand and holding it up high, when he correctly answers a trick question about the passé composé — she also displays a penchant for hurling insults as well as pieces of chalk at her students, and she makes more than one declaration of hatred. “I had used falloir in the subjunctive rather than the imparfait,” he reflects after enduring another, “so I guess I deserved it.”

Traumatic though they may sound, Sedaris’s learning experiences under this manic figure, first written down in his diary which in turn provided material for the Esquire piece and others, fueled one of the bursts of popularity that has made him the best-known humorous essayist writing in English today. Still, as the class comes to its end, he confides in one entry that he wishes he’d never published his account. “I meant it at the time, but since then things have changed. She’s still moody, but I think she’s a good teacher. I can see that now, whereas I couldn’t before.” He regrets having “failed to mention her wit, and her skill as a teacher. That is what I have to apologize for, my laziness.”

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