Category Archives: The Korea Blog

Dispatches on the literature, cinema, current events, and daily life of Korea from the LARB’s man in Seoul Colin Marshall and others.

You can follow Colin Marshall at blog.colinmarshall.org, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook @ColinMarshallEssayist.

Yoo Jae-ha’s K-Pop Masterpiece Because I Love You, 30 Years After His Untimely Death

By Colin Marshall

Thirty years ago this month, a Korean singer-songwriter by the name of Yoo Jae-ha died at the age of 25. Had the car accident that killed him happened a few months earlier, before he released his first and only album Because I Love You, Korean pop music, now better known as “K-pop,” might have taken a different sonic direction entirely. Though he died believing it had failed, his record has not just risen to the status of a beloved pop masterpiece but emanates an influence still clearly heard in hit songs in South Korea today. The posthumously granted title “Father of Korean Ballads,” as well as a music scholarship and yearly song contest, honor his memory, but on some level they also acknowledge that Korean pop music may never see — or more importantly, hear — an innovator like him again. Continue reading

At the Intersection of Korea and Mongolia: the Uncompromising Stories of Jeon Sungtae’s Wolves

By Charles Montgomery

In the past, Korean literature has had a strong tendency towards painful navel-gazing, being more or less defined by the traumas native to Korea at the time. At the turn of the 20th century, authors, naturalistic ones like Kim Tongin as well as more “visionary” ones such as Yi Kwangsu, rallied behind the flag of “modernism.” When Japan invaded and overtook Korea, the literature shifted toward concealed (and sometimes not so concealed) explorations of the effects of colonialism and national powerlessness. With the end of World War II and the brief interregnum of “liberation,” literature turned toward a Korean future, sometimes also exploring the meaning of the colonial and collaborative past. After the split of Korea and its Civil War came almost nothing but pundan munhak, or literature of separation. Similarly, when Park Chung-hee frogmarched Korea into the modern economic era, writers examined the political, social, and economic costs of this great leap forward. Continue reading

Looking Back at LA Arirang, the 1990s Korean Sitcom about Life in Los Angeles

By Colin Marshall

Not long after I started studying Korean, I signed up for a Japanese class, Japanese being the closest language I could find classes for in Santa Barbara at that time, in hopes of meeting a Korean international student with whom to practice the one I really wanted to learn. I soon did, and he invited me to a meal at his favorite Korean restaurant in town (or rather, one of Santa Barbara’s few Chinese restaurants, but one that happened to serve Korean dishes on the side). It turned out he had something more on his mind than introducing me to the food of his homeland. “I have a question to ask you,” he said after ordering, and nothing I could have considered in that moment would have prepared me for what came out next: “What is the American dream?” Continue reading

In Korea, All You Need Is Love (Or a Love Motel, at Least)

By Stefano Young

Stefano Young didn’t know the difference between Korea, China, and Japan until he was 23 — but then he met a Korean woman, learned to say “사랑해요,” and has studied Korean language and culture ever since. In this occasional series, the Los Angeles Review of Books Korea Blog presents his essays on his ever-deepening experiences with Korean life, culture, and family. Links to previous installments appear at the bottom of the post. Continue reading

Where Modern Korean Drama Began: the Heroism, Villainy, and Idealism of Yi Kwang Su’s The Soil

By Charles Montgomery

Yi Kwang-su (pictured above) has been mentioned here before for his theoretical contributions to modern Korean modern literature in the early 20th century as well as for his wandering political eye. As a writer of some repute best known for the novels Heartless and The Soil (흙), the latter of which which is, to my mind, the spiritual progenitor of the modern Korean drama. Yi’s stories are laced with love triangles, betrayals, defeats, revenges, and The Soil brings in a spectacularly failed suicide attempt as well. Doomed lovers make promises they can’t keep, wealth differentials grind people into dirt, and “true” heart and dedication (according to Yi’s model) bring no tangible rewards. Continue reading

From Language Lessons to Sex Slavery: Korea’s New Comfort-Woman Comedy I Can Speak

By Colin Marshall

Over the past few months, a publicity blitz of the caliber usually reserved for Hollywood superhero spectacles has urged Koreans to see a I Can Speak (아이 캔 스피크), a movie about a straight-laced young civil servant who reluctantly gives English lessons to an old battleaxe. Or at least that’s how it looked at first: as more detailed press and advertisements came out, people started to sense something more complicated than the Korean Harold and Maude (if that) they might have expected. Soon word spread that it actually deals with one of the most dangerously controversial issues in the country today: the plight of the “comfort women,” the young girls forced into prostitution for the Japanese military during the Second World War. Continue reading

Three Recent Books, Including a Funny and Inventive Graphic Novel, On What It Means to Be a Korean

By Charles Montgomery

Time to take a break from the history of Korean literature and talk a little bit about three recently published works, each of which shines a light on a particular aspect of the Korean experience: one story and essay collection that shines a light on Korean literature under colonialism and just after; some “international” Korean fiction; and a lovely if voluminous manwha (or graphic novel) on man’s struggles with the city, the countryside, and himself. Continue reading

Consumerism Is Culture: a Visit to Korea’s Lotte Department Store

By Stefano Young

Stefano Young didn’t know the difference between Korea, China, and Japan until he was 23 — but then he met a Korean woman, learned to say “사랑해요,” and has studied Korean language and culture ever since. In this occasional series, the Los Angeles Review of Books Korea Blog presents his essays on his ever-deepening experiences with Korean life, culture, and family. Links to previous installments appear at the bottom of the post. Continue reading

Why K-Pop is the Same as Classic Rock

By Colin Marshall

Pet Sounds passed the 50th anniversary of its release about half a year after I moved to Korea. That same day, I later learned, also marked the 50th anniversary of Blonde on Blonde; this year brought that of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Despite never having owned any of these iconic albums myself, I know them when I hear them (mostly, these days, at Peter Cat), as, no doubt, do plenty of kids in the West 20 years younger than me. Or at least they know a fair number of their songs, many having developed that familiarity almost inadvertently. Many in their great-grandparents’ generation probably went through a similar process: even if they loathed the then-audacious sounds of the Beach Boys or Bob Dylan or the Beatles, they eventually grew to recognize them, and even, sometimes, to grudgingly appreciate them. Continue reading

The Explorer’s Guide to Korean Fiction in Translation: The Fractured Postmodern Adventures of Jung Young Moon, Park Min-Gyu, and Other Contemporary Writers

By Charles Montgomery

The LARB Korea Blog is currently featuring selections from The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation, Charles Montgomery’s book-in-progress that attempts to provide a concise history, and understanding, of Korean literature as represented in translation. You can find links to previous selections at the end of the post. Continue reading