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.

“Factory Complex”: How (But Not Why) Working Women Have it So Bad in Korea

By Colin Marshall 

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.

One pleasant-looking middle-aged lady employed at a call center, after describing the technical possibility of taking breaks but the practical impossibility of doing so given the pay structure’s strong incentive to take as many calls as possible, breaks into tears as she contemplates the contrast between how hard she works and how poor she remains: she can barely provide for her kids, and if she gets sick herself, she implies, she might just have no choice but to lay down and die. Why, she asks aloud, do I have do live like this? An excellent question, and one whose answer it would interest me to see explored.

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Yet Factory Complex, for all its power in depicting the remarkably arduous labor that went into the quickly industrialized South Korea’s economic “Miracle on the Han River” and the even more remarkable endurance of the women who did and continue to do so much of  it, doesn’t seem share that interest. This strange causal incuriosity (strange to me, anyway, a foreigner yet to do an honest day’s work) manifests in other Korean documentaries as well, even in the other documentary included in the Wildflower screenings: Park Bae-il’s Miryang Arirang (밀양 아리랑), about the titular farming town’s struggle to stop the construction of electrical towers.

That film, which includes plenty of visceral footage of young policemen struggling to subdue the foulmouthed grandmothers of Miryang, barely grazes the question of why the towers builders are so hell bent on putting them up there in the first place, and why they persist if — as we hear argued by interviewees — they’ve been rendered unnecessary by other power transmission infrastructure and will cause health problems in the nearby population. A case of bureaucratic inertia? A mindless continuation of Korea’s build-at-all-costs development policies? Or do those in charge of electrical tower construction maybe — just maybe — have a legitimate reason to do battle with these elderly farmers? We see a great deal of pain, resentment, and regret, but we never really find out the ultimate cause of it all.

Some mainstream Korean feature films also work from the same worldview. Take, for example, Yoon Je-kyoon’s 2014 hit Ode to My Father (국제시장), often described as a Korean Forrest Gump for its retelling of the country’s modern history through the life of one representative protagonist. In his review, Korea observer Matt VanVolkenburg looks back to Yoon’s previous spectacle Tidal Wave (or Haeundae/해운대), whose central disaster “provided an excellent metaphor for the way in which Korean films of the 2000s have dealt with Korean history, portraying people as blamelessly going about their lives when suddenly history crashes into them and sweeps them off their feet. Some of these films have blamed outsiders, and have rarely attempted to explain why the events portrayed occurred.”

Deok-su, the Gump figure in Ode to My Father, begins the film as a child at the Hungnam evacuation of December 1950, when the U.S. Navy transported thousands of refugees from what would become North Korea to the safety of Busan, on the southeast tip of what would become South Korea. After he makes a promise to his father, who vanishes in the chaos, “to take care of his family (and makes sacrifices in the hope of meeting his father again), the moments in modern Korean history he takes part in occur when he follows others. He (obviously!) follows his parents when they attempt to flee Hungnam, while it’s his friend Dal-gu who suggests going to Germany and Vietnam,” where they labor as coal miners and contract soldiers. And “the ‘decision’ to have a child and get married was essentially thrust upon him by his soon-to-be wife, so much of his life is shaped by others’ decisions.”

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This fits in with one prevalent narrative of Korean history, that of a “shrimp among whales” who, unable to influence events around it in any meaningful way, can only try its best to endure and survive. Why, the septuagenarian Deok-su cries to his never-returned father while reflecting on his life at the end of the movie, did it have to be so hard? Again, I’d actually like to hear a detailed answer to that question, or at least an attempt at one, but all the tissue-clenching Koreans around me in the packed theater seemed satisfied with the flood of emotions the film offered instead. The Wildflower screening of Factory Complex happened a little too early in the evening to attract much of a crowd, but I imagine Korean viewers have reacted similarly to Im’s ode to generations of mothers.

Me, I kept thinking of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 bestseller on the difficulties the fiftysomething author encountered when she tried to live on a series of minimum-wage jobs in various parts of the country. I read the book a few times back when it first came out, in part because of the Ehrenreich’s enjoyable style (I still laugh, now and again, at her observation of “an older white man in work clothes whose bumper sticker says, ‘Don’t steal, the government hates competition’ — as if the income tax were the only thing keeping him from living at the Embassy Suites”) and in part because I couldn’t quite come to terms with its argument, if indeed it had any argument more cogent than that we should all (a) be glad we’re not housecleaners and (b) stop voting for welfare reform.

I eventually came to see Nickel and Dimed‘s project less as diagnosing and pointing toward a solution to the problems of America’s working poor than of using tales of working-class discomfort and degradation to sneer at the villains floating around in Ehrenreich’s own political cosmology (one that’s served her well throughout her career of left-wing journalism). In a similar way, Korean movies like Factory Complex, Miryang Arirang, and Ode to My Father refrain from constructing coherent explanations, true or not, about what exactly brought about the conditions they lament, preferring to gesture toward vaguely assumed malevolence, or at least neglect, on the part of stronger entities, be they companies, governments, or social structures.

One explanation I’ve heard traces this tendency back to Korea’s tradition of “activist filmmaking,” practiced with a goal of social or economic change in mind to be effected by making the maximum emotional impact on audiences — simply one kind of power used against another. Actual protests in Korea, such as those agitating for better worker treatment we see in Factory Complex, employ much the same strategy. This still works well enough in Korea, but less so outside it; back when the country first made its serious appearances on the international stage, from politics to sports, this tradition of emotional display sometimes made its representatives look insane. But Factory Complex, while full of surreal images, and highly effective ones at that, comes off as eminently sane. I just seems to me that — call this the Westerner’s logical bias if you must — we can’t fix the problems of the women soldering the circuits, sewing the clothes, taking the calls, and bagging the groceries, in Korea or Cambodia or America or anywhere else, without a clear idea of what caused them in the first place.

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

When Conan Came to Korea

By Colin Marshall 

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, the Joint 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.

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Even though many longer-term Western residents of Korea (as opposed to those deliriously thrilled Korean fans, whom I can’t imagine taking exception to anything here) have their complaints about the aspects of the culture to which O’Brien’s travels pay either insufficient or excessive attention, it seems like everybody benefits. The only part that strikes me as a missed opportunity strikes me as a missed opportunity in nearly all narratives of Western, and especially American, humorists abroad: the too often unresisted temptation to play the part of the bumbling metropolitan provincial, drawing buckets and buckets of material from the wells of ignorance, incomprehension, and ineptitude.

Actually, O’Brien does better on that count than many. No sooner does he arrive than he sits down for a Korean language lesson — which he quickly steers into an exploration of his Irish Catholic guilt and stern-schoolmistress fetish, but still, it’s more than Dave Barry did when he went to Japan. Dave Barry Does Japan, the book that trip produced in 1992, remains in my mind as the locus classicus of a certain kind of fish-out-of-water dissimulation practiced by the high-profile Americans who visit east Asia — most often Japan, though China has also long provided a venue for this as Korea has just begun to — and, in the name of big laffs, affect enough IQ loss to throw themselves into a state of perpetual disorientation.

For Barry in Japan, at peak performance of his middle-aged-dope-from-Florida act, this manifests most punishingly in a running gag about his supposed inability to pronounce or even remember the words “domo arigato.” The problem, for me, has less to do with the weakness of the joke than with its implausibility; you don’t get a career like Barry’s without considerable observational and verbal horsepower, even if, like him, you harness it to write about boogers. By the same token, I don’t quite buy the air of hapless distractibility put on by O’Brien, surely one of the most focused and competent men ever to sit behind a late-night talk show desk.

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Yet here and there O’Brien lets slip that he understands much more about what’s going on around him in Korea than it seems, even as he bungles, dozens of times in a row, his Korean-language lines while shooting a soap-opera cameo. It makes for an amusing reversal when in from Los Angeles flies Steven Yeun, ostensibly in his motherland to serve as O’Brien’s Virgil but immediately proven unequal to the task by their first meal together. “I mean, I’ve seen it,” he sputters in the face of the host’s mounting frustration at the inability of his “cultural ambassador” to identify the dishes in front of them. “So, it looks like… rice,” he trails off, speaking more directly to the Korean-American experience than has many an acclaimed novel on the subject.

There, O’Brien tries to eat his soup with a spoon by holding that spoon with his chopsticks — and succeeds, updating for the sushi-schooled 21st-century West a situation that, thirty years ago, would have had him throwing up his hands and struggling to spear bits of unknown and unwanted food on their tips. In away, it almost feels like a waste for such a tall, rangy, pale character, topped by what one of his writers described to me as his signature “coxcomb of hair” (in an episode of my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture, which I later took on a Korea trip of its own), to do all this today, so far past the expiration date of the Westerner in Asia’s old bull-in-a-china-shop routine to which his physique so suits him. But his comic persona of straight-faced (and even strait-laced) yet knowing freakishness, forged in the flames of 1980s irreverence and 90s irony, could only rise to such prominence in our time.

As much progress as South Korea has made toward its longed-for if vaguely defined “global” status, visible foreigners — especially those as visible as O’Brien — still stand out on the streets of Seoul. In the eyes of the locals, all of us enjoy some degree of honorary weirdo status here, which, in many cases, lets us escape whatever weirdo status we suffered back in our birthplaces. I wonder how many in O’Brien’s internet-watching Korean fan base realize that he comes off as not quite of this Earth even back in America, and I wonder how much that fan base can grow given the society’s distaste for irony, as I wrote about in a previous post on Alain de Botton, another Westerner with surprising name recognition over here. But O’Brien did go to Harvard, and as I also touched on in that post, that counts for something in Korea. Maybe everything.

(photo source: Team Coco)

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Capturing Seoul’s Street Style: Michael Hurt’s Fashion Photography

By Colin Marshall 

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.”

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Hurt explains more about his priorities in the essay “On the Inestimably Great Importance of Shooting Seoul ‘Street Fashion’ Slow and Proper”: “I came into this game as a photographer and academic doing street photography as social documentary, and then moved in the direction of documenting what women were wearing as a way of looking at changing gender role norms, the performance of gender in the Butlerian sense, and then at items of clothing specifically. So when I do what are essentially ‘environmental portraits’ that happen to take up sartorial concerns, I worry first about the background and then how that background is having a conversation with the subject. I worry about context first, the subject’s personality second, and the clothing last. And in the big picture, I am trying to capture something about Korean society beyond just the rags hanging on the subject’s body.”

In the shot above, we see “sartorial culture and trends and mediums bouncing across the decades and across the Pacific, not to mention between the high-fashion runway and the street. This is suku-jan, a Korean pronunciation of the Japanese word for Yokosuka, Japan” — a city bombed in retaliation for Pearl Harbor — “and jumper. It’s the hot ticket right now across the world’s collective street, and now that Korea is connected to the rest of the world and no longer dependent on local broadcast media to filter everything, it’s a good sign of just how far Korea has come with being connected in a global conversation, one in which Korean high-fashion runway designers are participating.”

Here we have “the very picture of fast-changing gender norms in Korea, and a more open public culture of personal identity expression. What this picture is is a living, breathing, and vibrant repudiation of the old societal line that women are women and men are men, in terms of gender roles, and never shall the boundary be blurred.” The shot hints at a “multiplicity of friendship modes, sexual identities, gender performance and identities. It’s also a great and natural middle finger in the face of the oppressive heteronormativity of South Korean culture, and in that way is extremely refreshing. It’s one reason the folks at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza during Seoul Fashion Week, cool in terms of both the sartorial and social senses, are a pleasure to be around and help me cope with life in this culture.”

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Hurt may find the heteronormativity of Korean society oppressive despite being heterosexual himself, but he also finds that, when it comes to capturing images of the boldest women’s style like the one just above, “my heterosexual male gaze enable me more than it cripples me. I’m not that concerned about the ‘fashion’ here, but the brashness of her outfit.” And that outfit “works in a very Korean way. It is veritably screaming SEX, SEX, SEX, but without doing it in the way an American sartorial message might, which would be to simply blare it out in a very literal way; the Korean way of dealing with sex is by stating its presence while also denying that’s what is being done. It maintains plausible social deniability.”

That means that “there’s not going to be any one, particular thing that gets a relatively mainstream, publicly reserved young lady like this in any pinpointable trouble,” especially one who understands that everything in her outfit “goes together in a Korean-edgy way, that it’s all cute and innocuous, even though it has a Hollywood-hooker aesthetic. No one is gonna say, ‘your socks are a bit Lolita‘ or ‘those heels are too high’ or ‘that bag makes you look cheap,’ because people aren’t working with these cultural messages that would actually get you in trouble in the FAR MORE SARTORIALLY CONSERVATIVE UNITED STATES. So I instinctively posed her in such a way that all the elements could come together and make the viewer GET what she’s doing without needing it spelled out too much.”

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And as for the image projected by this Seoulite out and about, Hurt describes it as “simply cool, and it has that confident attitude so much more typical of young Koreans these days. She is also doing what many young women do: picking and choosing freely from available style options, which is why you see such a mix of seemingly dissonant elements, such and and girly, frilly pink dresses (which this young lady was wearing) and dark, emo-esque makeup, mixed in together UNIRONICALLY” — irony being, as I’ve written before, a resource in sometimes blessedly short supply around here — and in this frame in particular, “hipster glasses with a hip-hop-influenced, swagged-out, fuzzy pink hat.”

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Hurt appreciated two things about the sensibility on display in this photo: “her youthful, beaming innocence and her jacket, which was on-trend and went with another huge fashion item, the white tennis skirt. Two birds, one stone.” And if those items strike you as oddly Western to have become so popular in Korea, I can assure you that you’re not alone. While walking the streets of Seoul, I every so often stop and think to myself, “Almost all of these thousands of people around me” — women, men, adults, children, the elderly — “are dressed just like Westerners.”

The thought sends my mind reeling, then casting around for an explanation, or at least some imagined image of what a modern Seoul in something other than Western dress would look like. But to Hurt’s mind, the very concept of “’Western’ style has no real meaning anymore, to the extent that even the Korean word for that, yangbok (양복), has come to simply mean a formal suit, as opposed to one half of a binary choice between Western versus Korean formal attire, hanbok (한복).” Interestingly, one does notice an increasing presence of hanbok-clad young women on the streets of Seoul today, though the sneakers they almost invariably wear beneath undercuts the effect somewhat.

“Certain aspects of Western fashion have become such universals that they’ve also lost meaning in an West-East binary. Take a pair of ten-centimeter stiletto heels, not uncommon on the streets of Seoul. Is that ‘Western?’ And especially since so many women wear six- to eight-centimeter heels all the time, even with hanbok, the distinction has become pointless. In the same way, I think few people in Korea see the automobile as ‘Western’ either, although it is indeed a Western invention — like the TV, the radio, or the telephone.”

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In his recent essay and photo series “Spring Sogaeting with Cherry Blossoms”, Hurt probes further the question what street fashion photography can tell us about Korean culture. “And to take this line of thinking even further, what is even particularly Korean about Korean street fashion, if it’s not all particularly Korean material, patterns, or even brands?” When world-famous street style photographer Scott Schuman, better known as The Sartorialist, came to Korea, he captured not Korean style but “an increasingly global, non-culturally specific culture of dressing well, one that is enabled by global media outlets, the ubiquity of the Internet, and the homogenization of taste. What Schuman’s much fetéd visit to Korea actually meant to many Koreans concerned with his visit was how it marked a certain kind of recognition from the White West, that Korea — the Korean fashion field, actually — had achieved the much-coveted status of the truly Global that has been both a societal and state goal.”

Touching on such historical topics as Chinese suzerainty, the retaliation of and for Pearl Harbor, shifts in the dominant language of power, the divide between black and white U.S. servicemen, “neo-colonial Kool-Aid,” anti-communism, the 1988 Olympics, and the emergence of a “global fetish,” Hurt’s piece makes an attempt at explaining why “identifying the KOREA in Korean street fashion photography is increasingly problematic.” Where, he asks, “is the local in an entity whose popularity mostly comes from its globality? Where is the specific, the Koreanness, within an aesthetic system whose very logic and language is expressed in universal terms?” All this culminates in a series of photos, taken under the cherry blossoms now coming into view all across the country, of the kind of female self-presentation he describes, in its deliberate “social innocuousness, demureness, and sheer, unabashed femininity,” as “oh, so Korean.”

Still, some of the most fascinating aesthetic developments happening now go on not deep within cultural traditions, but along cultural borderlands. Before seeing that idea expressed in Hurt’s street style photography, I hadn’t thought to look for it in women’s clothes. I do follow a fair few publications to do with men’s style, an area in which Korea has only just begun to build up momentum. Many young Korean men still look dressed, directly or indirectly, by their girlfriends, and most of those who’ve attained a respectable age go in for drab, utilitarian looks — though strangely often with the accent of brightly colored athletic shoes. (I’ll probably have to keep going Japan for my menswear magazines for the foreseeable future.)

As ever in modern Korea, in stylistic as well as other respects, the women lead the way. (Quite a leap forward for a sex who, as recently as the turn of the 20th century, could barely leave the house.) If you want to see the future of this country, look to them, and not just to what they’ve put on today. “It’s not just about the clothing and who’s wearing it,” Hurt writes. “Because fashion isn’t just about clothing; fashion is part of a larger conversation, it is a cultural text, it is about social norms and value, social structures, all in the big picture, defined as what we call culture. If you can’t see all that in a street fashion picture taken in Korea, something major is missing.” For more, have a look at his pages on Instagram and Flickr, as well as his site Deconstructing Korea, which also has a section on his students’ work in fashion sociology.

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Why Korea Needs Alain de Botton (And Why Alain de Botton Needs Korea)

By Colin Marshall 

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.

These topics have, by design, great relevance to most every human being, but it seems they strike an especially resonant chord with Koreans, who by their own admission often feel as if they lead stress-filled lives amid demoralizing buildings (of the kind de Botton diagnosed in The Architecture of Happiness), racked by anxiety about status and much else besides, their relationships complicated by the remains of Confucianism and their minds clouded by the fear that it might all come to nothing in the end. Though as a foreigner I don’t feel quite so afflicted and, perhaps as a result, haven’t attended a School of Life class myself, I do appreciate de Botton’s overall project, which I’ve come to know mostly through his writing and his television documentaries.

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(source: The School of Life Seoul)

I even had the chance to express a bit of that to him directly when I interviewed him on The Marketplace of Ideas, a public radio show I did in Santa Barbara few years ago, about his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. (You can download an MP3 of it here.) Though I’d already started studying the Korean language back then, I had no idea yet of his disproportionate readership in this country, and so it surprised me when, talking to a Korean friend in Los Angeles a few years later, I heard her name The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work as one of her favorite books. Doing some follow-up research afterward, I found she wasn’t an outlier.

Still, I realize that not everyone counts themselves as fans of Alain de Botton, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Lisa Levy’s criticism of his work, The School of Life included, in the LARB‘s own pages. It astonishes me that the first School of Life opened in London, the epicenter of a culture seemingly built upon “taking the piss out of” the kind of earnest and undisguised efforts to raise oneself up that it ostensibly encourages in its clientele. When I interviewed Daniel Tudor, author of Korea: The Impossible Country, here in Seoul, he clearly articulated what he likes better about this country, however impossible it may be, than his native England: “We’ve always been a little bit cynical. We make everything into a joke. It’s socially a crime, almost, to be seen being very ambitious, or trying to be different, trying to do something new. In England, somebody will always laugh at you: ‘Why ya doin’ that? C’mon, mate.’”

But not in Korea, a country that, for one reason or another, doesn’t trade in what we in the West would call irony. According to the author of Stuff Koreans Like,  “Irony is the #1 Stuff Koreans Don’t Like,” since “Koreans tend to be bad at understanding irony and all subsets of irony (sarcasm, hypocrisy in politicians and church ministers, etc.),” hence the enduring success of Friends over here and the sinkage of Seinfeld. “This is also why Korean culture is so successful in the global arena: Korean pop music and telenovelas, neither of which are particularly rich in irony, can be easily translated and globally exported.”

I hesitate to say that Korea has nothing resembling irony, and I hesitate even more to say that Korea doesn’t have irony “yet,” as if irony must ultimately arrive everywhere as just another stage of development into modernity as inevitable as skyscrapers or convenience stores. I also understand the richness a certain degree of irony can bring to a culture’s humor — not for nothing does British comedy still count as a species apart from, and often above, the American variety — and what its forms of expression lose without it, as evidenced by all those bland Korean hit songs and interminable melodramas packaged for export. But when in the West, I find it hard to ignore the feeling that irony — the malignant kind, as a friend once put it, whose opposite isn’t gullibility but sincerity — has made real, possibly irreversible progress in eating us alive.

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(source: The School of Life Seoul)

Just as I enjoy Korea for its relative lack of irony compared to other developed countries, I enjoy Alain de Botton for his relative lack of irony compared to other living writers. (Not to say that it results in books stripped of humor; his writing in English tends to possess the kind of dry, descriptive wit that gets occasional out-loud laughs from me at surprising moments, though whether it translates effectively into Korean I can’t say.) And a reduced level of irony allows for a higher level of aspiration, a concept criminalized, inadvertently or deliberately, by ironists everywhere; de Botton’s harshest critics tend specifically to condemn this aspect of his project, which not just allows but encourages him to get people taking classes on how to make up their minds, to use works art and philosophy as tools of therapy, and to write books with titles like How Proust Can Change Your Life.

Mark Greif, looking back in the Chronicle of Higher Education at the lost America of the 1930s through the 50s in which the Partisan Review thrived, writes of that time, place, and publication’s “aspirational estimation of ‘the public.’ Aspiration in this sense isn’t altogether virtuous or noble. Nor is it grasping and commercial, as we use ‘aspirational’ now, mostly about the branding of luxury goods. It’s something like a neutral idea or expectation that you could, or should, be better than you are — and that naturally you want to be better than you are, and will spend some effort to become capable of growing — and that every worthy person does.”

When American friends ask why I wanted to move to Korea, I often give some variation on the answer that people here still regard the future as a good thing. Longtime Korea observers, well aware of the country’s economic slowdown, bitter generational conflict, low birthrate, and increasingly fearful, heavy-handed government might scoff at that notion, but I still sense on the streets of Seoul that idea, or that expectation, that everyone can, or should, be better than they are. This can manifest, of course, in a variety of unappealing ways, from the nouveau-riche Gangnam garishness so popularly lampooned by Psy to the elective cosmetic surgery industry, from cruder forms of Westernization to the tendency to regard everything (especially school and especially Harvard) as just another brand name with which to label oneself.

But maybe when I say people here still regard the future as a good thing, I just mean many still seem to operate on the notion that they themselves could be better in that future, and understand that doing so requires a certain rethinking of the way they live. “Korea is a wonderful country, but in many areas it’s a country in pain,” says de Botton in a School of Life promotional video, expanding on that in a Time Out Seoul Q&A, calling this “a society that has many of the problems (and pleasures) of the modern world where people are extremely busy, life is crowded and expensive, there is never enough time and there is a tension between tradition and the hyper modern, between loyalty to family and to oneself.” Nobody here has yet figured out a perfectly effective solution to the resulting discomforts, but at least they know it isn’t irony.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

 

 

 

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

By Colin Marshall 

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.

I brought up, as the obvious comparison, Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”, another story of a young-ish character employed in an office but not performing the duties, responding to his boss’ every request with a now-household phrase: “I wound prefer not to.” But Hye-mi’s situation, Chang wasted no time pointing out, differs considerably from Bartleby’s: whereas the latter now stands as the literary personification of unwillingness, the former lives under a burden of inability, unable to commute to work quickly because she takes an old and breakdown-prone subway line from a distant satellite city, unable to get back from lunch in time because she has to use the hour to get treatment for an injured leg, unable to bring visitors refreshments because the office hasn’t provided anything with which to serve them properly.

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(photo: Stephane Mot)

The novelist narrator of Kim Min-jung’s The Most Expensive Novel in the World lives in outwardly dissimilar but similarly stunted circumstances, still with her parents at the age of 34, $60,000 in debt from a literature PhD, and bringing in a yearly income of nothing at all. She can appease her mother, who watches closely over her always ready with a praiseful remark about her successful investor brother, only with the sound of the printer. (This, to me, represents the mindset of many Koreans who came up during the industry-and-development-obsessed 1960s and 70s, who probably can’t rest unless they hear some sort machine working away.) But despite not having yet published a full-length novel, she can at least call herself a novelist, not so much because of her daily writing habits — which she keeps up, more or less — but because she won a prize with a previous piece of fiction, the only way Korean society will grant a novelist the title.

Prefacing the question by remarking on how many hugely popular novelists in the West have never won a prize of any kind, I asked Kim why you have to jump that hurdle in Korea before anyone will acknowledge you as a novelist at all. She explained it in terms of the different conceptions of the role of the writer in the West and Korea (or indeed Asia): whereas a writer in the West may only have to write books and maybe — probably — teach students, people also look to writers in Korea for comment, both indirect and direct, on society itself. They must, in other words, fulfill the role of qualified “public intellectual” that America has, by now, specialized almost out of existence. And people want their public intellectuals, whether in the East or West, to have attained at least a certain age.

On top of that, the limited number of validating prizes for which Korean writers can compete means that it takes longer than elsewhere to make one’s debut (especially by comparison to America, the land of “30 under 30” lists). And so the circle of “young” novelists in Korea has seemingly widened to encompass anyone under the age of fifty. This makes the likes of Chang Kangmyoung, Kim Min-jung, and Kim Ae-ran fresh-faced youngsters indeed, though with with an average age somewhere in the mid-thirties (and all looking even more youthful than that, I should note), they make for ideal representatives of Korea’s “young-ish” generation, falling between the parents who enjoyed the secure gains of a growing economy and the kids in a slowing one who work odd jobs while dreaming of emigration. (One of Chang’s earlier novels bears the title 한국이 싫어서, or Because I Disliked Korea.)

Myeongji, the protagonist of Kim Ae-ran’s Where Would You Like to Go? has attained some of the trappings of a Korean middle-class existence, such as a full-time office job, a husband, the intent to have a baby, and the beginnings of an ability to make kimchi. But alas, in the middle of her first attempt at preparing the culture’s signature fermented cabbage, she suddenly gets a call informing her that her husband, a teacher, has drowned attempting to save the life of one of his students, an event which detaches her from the life she has established and eventually sends her into a self-imposed exile in Edinburgh. And even though Kim makes no mention of a boat, a class trip, or even any deaths apart the teacher’s and the student’s, the reader’s thoughts could hardly go anywhere but straight to the sinking of the Sewol in 2014, an incident widely seen as not just the failure of the older generations’ responsibility toward the younger, but also a terrible indictment of South Korea’s claim to membership in the first world.

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Artifacts of Korea’s struggle to attain that status surface even in the story of Fired: when Eun-yeong, Hye-mi’s supervisor, eventually gives up trying to help and starts trying to fire what she sees as this intransigent albasaeng (알바생, a portmanteau of the words for “part-time job” and “student” that has come to signify a whole unstable quasi-caste), she comes up against a variety of labor laws — of which the seemingly unthinking Hye-mi can actually quote chapter and verse — that came into effect well after the country’s industrialization and without the knowledge of many of its employers. Hye-mi, at least for a time, proves unfireable, and she and Eun-yeong the prolonged but subtle grudge match only ends when the older woman pays off the younger one to defuse her intimated threats of a lawsuit.

Hye-mi can sue because her employers, in attempt to save money, never enrolled her in the company insurance programs — illegally, it turns out. Eun-yeong and those above her in the office, a local branch of a large German firm, know that they they must, at any cost, prevent their foreign overlords from finding out what has happened: “The Germans are really sensitive about this type of stuff. Basically, they don’t trust the Korean employees. They think that we secretly break the law and embezzle funds. And since working conditions are really important to them, they have separate supervisors for this type of stuff. That’s why to them, this is huge.”

I asked Chang about this curious co-existence between Korea’s national obsession with joining the ranks of highly developed countries and its entrenched resistance to following certain common practices of those countries. He put Germany on the long list of places he’s seen his homeland look toward and try to imitate as long as he can remember: first it was Japan, then America, then France, then Germany, and now the Scandinavian countries have come into fashion. He described Korea as less a developed country than one “being developed,” and — after clarifying repeatedly that he knew understood the controversial nature of this opinion — argued that Western-style capitalism and democracy represents the way forward not just for this country, but, adding in English after the interpreter finished translating his answer, “for all mankind.”

That may be, but as I couldn’t help adding, many visitors — even those from the countries long acknowledged as members of the first world — arrive in Seoul marveling at a level of development apparently so much higher than the one they came from. Especially to someone like me, coming from an America in a period of economic malaise and large-scale infrastructural decline, South Korea looks like the future, or at least the extreme present. On some level, I think the writers know it: Chang Kangmyoung has roots in Korea’s science-fiction community, Kim Ae-ran writes the most meaningful conversations of Where Would Like To Go? between her bereaved narrator and Siri on her iPhone, and Kim Min-jung’s The World’s Most Expensive Novel offers a vision of literature dependent on wealthy patrons and embedded advertisements. She takes it to a funny and grim extreme, but whatever shape the literature of Korea’s future takes, I trust this “young-ish” generation to write it intelligently.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

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

By Colin Marshall 

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.

Two-year-olds, though, have yet to internalize the anti-bus prejudice entrenched in America and other parts of the West (much less to perpetuate the feedback loop of low expectations that cause inadequate bus service in the first place, which then lowers expectations further, leading to even worse service), and so Tayo and friends have built up a fan following here and there all over the world. But the show remains essentially a Korean product, and one conceived, with the help of previous Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon’s office, as a way of familiarizing the children of South Korea with this tried-and-true form of public transportation.

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

(source: Korea.net)

But Tayo (whose name means, literally, “ride”) has, since he debuted in 2010 on EBS (they of Multicultural Love), has gained the most traction, as it were, in his home country. All his adventures take place on backdrops of generic Korean urban streetscapes punctuated by such highly recognizable Seoul landmarks as the Han River, Seoul Tower, and City Hall. It reminds me of the structure of Grand Theft Auto V‘s Los Santos, described by Sam Sweet as “an extremely realistic version of a Los Angeles that doesn’t actually exist,” a virtual city whose map “is familiar but its contents are condensed. The landmarks are exact but the placement is screwy.”

In 2014, the city even rolled out actual buses decorated to resemble Tayo and his compatriots (not so difficult a task, given that the designers of Tayo and his pals modeled them closely on Seoul buses in the first place). 40,000 people turned up from all over the country to take part in the event that introduced them, a day including activities meant to teach youngsters how to board a bus, pay their fare with a transit card, and press the stop-request button. Best of all, in the memorable words of Korea.net, “the children were able to get on the bus and sit in its seats, curious to see the inside of their favorite cartoon characters.”

Nikola Medimorec, at his Korean urban-development blog Kojects, foresees that, thanks to this sort of thing, “children will grow up with the impression that buses are fun. Moreover, I believe that it also has an effect on the parents. It’s probably small but I hope that if they take their child on a bus, they will see that it isn’t that bad to use public transport WITH their child,” instead of using parenthood as an excuse to start driving, standard operating procedure among even my most die-hard urbanist acquaintances in Los Angeles.

Still, I can’t imagine anyone spending even just a few days in Seoul and coming away with the impression that its population suffers from an insufficient awareness of or willingness to use public transportation. Seoul has far and away the finest subway I’ve ever used, but even then one of the city’s countless bus routes can get me to my specific destination often more comfortably and sometimes more quickly than a train. If any urban transit system can sell itself without the benefit of smiling anthropomorphism, Seoul’s can. Very few of the bus-riders here — normal people, not looking homeless or deranged or violent or any more downtrodden than the average Seoulite — started using them because a cartoon character made it seem like a good idea.

And what of the City of Angels? “I thought about the bus in Los Angeles,” says Richard, the non-driving narrator of Richard Rayner’s novel Los Angeles Without a Map. “It was the way to travel. Once I had waited for over two hours at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights Boulevard when a driver with a cowboy hat and and a drawling voice like Harrison Ford decided he was sick of his job. His solution to the problem was to stop the bus and make everyone get off.” Richard goes on to tell us of enraged aisle-prowlers, robberies by prepubescent thugs, and passing motorists shouting “Lo-sers, asshole losers!” His blonde über-Angeleno girlfriend asks if he really likes riding the bus. “It’s democratic,” he replies. She snorts, asking whether democracy arrives on time. “’Never had to wait more than five minutes,’ I lied.”

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(source: Kojects)

But that book, though as perceptive and hilarious a read as ever, came out in the late 1980s, a time when Los Angeles had no rapid transit infrastructure to speak of. “It was weird not to drive, it really was,” recalled Rayner, still unburdened by a driver’s license, when I interviewed him for a LARB podcast, “because a lot of the city was still quite empty. I was friendly with this family, and the father was a lawyer in Warren Christopher’s firm downtown. I was taking to one of the daughters, and she said, ‘Well, how do you get around?’ I said, ‘I take the bus.’ And she looked at me and said, not in any sense of irony, ‘Where do they go?’”

I sometimes wonder if Los Angeles, now that it boasts a quite usable and still-growing rail network and the status, in many ways,  of America’s transit city to watch, has achieved much more transit awareness than it had back then. When I tell people here where I moved from, they often ask if Los Angeles has a subway (one of them, a New Yorker, also asked if it has skyscrapers), and some Angelenos themselves, especially those who’ve lived there a long time, regard the existence of trains and buses in the city, let alone their viability, as more rumor than reality. Perhaps Los Angeles needs Tayo more than anywhere — or better yet, a Tayo set in a familiar environment, something like Los Santos without the rampages.

During my day-to-day life in Seoul, I still spot the faces of Tayo, Rogi, Lani, and Gani now and again, and I have only to look out my window to see a stream of similarly blue, yellow, green, and red buses flowing all day long through their dedicated lanes, running in the opposite direction to the rest of the traffic. A few months before moving here, I went to an event with New York transportation guru Janette Sadik-Khan and Los Angeles Department of Transportation general manager Seleta Reynolds. Having taken the “Rapid” 720 bus there (the ones that goes down Wilshire), I asked during the Q&A when Los Angeles, too, will finally get actual rapid buses, rather than buses for which traffic lights kind of stay green and which sometimes have their own lane during certain hours of the day unless cars also really need to go in them.

Reynolds, to her credit, acknowledged the problems, then said getting respectable rapid bus service there would require “a lot of storytelling.” I found the response frustratingly mystifying at the time — what, now we have to spin tales in exchange for basic infrastructure? — but maybe Tayo the Little Bus represents the kind of storytelling she meant. If so, Los Angeles had better start doing it soon; I when I checked back in with my friend, he reported that his young son was, already, “thankfully off his Tayo kick.”

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. If you’re in town, come to the free, bilingual Seoul Book and Culture Club event he’ll host on Saturday, April 2nd, a conversation with award-winning young Korean writers Kim Ae-ran, Chan Kangmyoung, and Kim Min-jung.

“Moss”: a Star Korean Comic Artist’s Suspenseful Tale Brought into English by Literary Translators and Serialized Free Online

By Colin Marshall 

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?

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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.

Only now has Moss become available in English, translated by the formidable husband-and-wife team of Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton. (I recorded a podcast interview with Bruce here in Korea in the summer of 2014.) Enthusiasts of Korean literature will almost certainly know the names of the Fultons already, given their prolificacy and astute choice of material, most recently a retranslation of Hwang Sun-won’s Dickens-scale The Moving Castle (about which more in a future Korea Blog post). Here they try their hands at one of the most popular of all current Korean storytelling forms. Should you make the trip to Seoul, take a glance at the screens of the mobile phones at which almost everyone aboard the subway will be staring; chances are you’ll see more than a few webtoons scrolling by.

Moss takes advantage of the format: each of its episodes unrolls vertically, like an actual scroll, usually landing on some sort of cliffhanger or revelation: Haeguk, and thus we, discover the village head’s shady past as a police detective, the even shadier pasts of the other inhabitants, a secret tunnel built under his father’s house, a murderous intent among those who surround him — that sort of thing. The story has drawn comparisons to the classics of Southern Gothic literature, especially those that drop a citified protagonist into a small, isolated community, set in its ways, peopled with eccentrics, and exuding a sinister vibe that deepens with every page turned.

 KB - Moss 3

“Just play dumb,” Haeguk tells himself, having settled into the community as best he can after selling most of his father’s land to the developer who’s been waiting for it. “Lay low and blend. Move slow and steady, grab on and stick like moss.” His investigation determines early that there’s, “strictly speaking, not a single family unit here,” and almost no women, apart from a young-ish widow from whom he rents a room and about his attraction to whom he engages in a bout of self-loathing. Later, he pieces together that the residents haven’t all come here by chance, and the retired detective — the one who didn’t want the death of Haeguk’s father looked into — may have used his power over years and years bring everyone there one at a time, with the utmost deliberateness. But why?

I haven’t even touched on another major player, a district attorney in his own countryside exile, sent down after a tangle with Haeguk in the past. I’d tell you more about their relationship and the probable result of their inevitable man-to-man encounter in this alien setting hostile to the both of them, but I don’t yet know much about it myself. Moss‘ serialization in English, which began in January on the Huffington Post, has only reached episode 42 of 82, with a new one going up every Monday. Haeguk has cheated death a couple times already, and plenty of cliffhangers and revelations surely remain in store.

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You can read more about the process of translating a work like this in Asia Pacific Memo’s interview with the Fultons. “We saw in the story an allegory of abuse of power during the period of military dictatorship in the Republic of Korea,” they say, emphasizing that Yoon has created something much more complex than the standard everyman-in-a-eerie-small-town thriller: “Like much good fiction, and especially with works that involve political and social problems, there’s a great deal of hidden meaning.” (Sometimes these meanings proved especially hidden, so they ran their questions by Korean friends, though “they too had difficulty understanding certain areas of the story.”)

As to how Moss arrived at the Huffington Post, the Fultons talk about how the internationally-minded Korean webtoon company Rolling Story took it and about two dozen other series in translation and pitched them together as a serialization package. The site accepted six of them, including, of course, the Fultons’ translation of Moss. I’ll admit that, unfailingly aggravated by its glitchy and distraction-intensive design (not to mention their pay practices), I’ve long instinctively avoided the Huffington Post. Even with webtoons it can’t get the interface quite right, a particularly bothersome example being how the navigator to click to the next episode sometimes appears and sometimes doesn’t. A far cry indeed from the advanced webtoon infrastructure of the Korean web, but I’ll deal with it; now, just like Haeguk himself, I’ve simply got to know what killed his father and why, no matter the obstacles that lie in my path.

Get started reading Moss, translated into English by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton, from the first episode here at the Huffington Post.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. If you’re in town, come to the free, bilingual Seoul Book and Culture Club event he’ll host on Saturday, April 2nd, a conversation with award-winning young Korean writers Kim Ae-ran, Chan Kangmyoung, and Kim Min-jung.

The Unbearable Preposterousness of Westernization: Park Kwang-su’s “Chil-su and Man-su” (1988)

By Colin Marshall 

This is one in a series of essays on important pieces of Korean cinema freely available on the Korean Film Archive’s Youtube channel. You can watch this month’s movie here. Last month’s movie was Kim Soo-yong’s Night Journey (1975).

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.

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Man-su, too, has gone in for a similar regimen of self-medication, drinking away days and nights without work. His own father has spent 27 years and counting in jail, a communist sympathizer incarcerated by a state driven nearly to insanity by its own anti-communist paranoia. Though without any communist leanings himself, Man-su had his application for a passport denied, and thus his own ambitions to go abroad thwarted, due to the perceived sins of the father. And so, despite his education, he must eke out a living painting advertisements for the new goods he can’t afford to buy and the high-rises he can’t afford to live in, retreating at night to the local roadside tent pub for some cheap liquor and maybe a drunken brawl or two.

This all might seem punishingly grim if not for the sharpness of the film’s satire. Some of these satirical moments target the inequality the film presents as having deepened with Korea’s development. But the funniest moments of satire lampoon the country’s concurrent Westernization, and to certain generations of South Koreans, only one Western country matters: the United States of America. Hence not just Man-su’s groundless boasting about his imminent departure for Miami, but his attire: he first appears clad entirely in denim, and later — lest that outfit look only ambiguously American — in a shirt made out of the Stars and Stripes.

Some of this act Chil-su puts on purely to impress the cashier he loves, employed as she is in an American fast-food business transplanted into Korean soil, and possessed of a name, Jin-ah, that sounds as Western as it does Korean. When he finally lands a coffee date with her, she has to cut it short to make it to her class at an English-language academy, at which point seemingly random Koreanized English words begin to litter their dialogue. The next day Chil-su rings Jin-ah up to ask for from a construction-site phone booth, reading his English lines phonetically off a notecard: “How are you, hm? This is Chil-su Jang! I’m telephone you in the campus. You know? Here. And I wanna see you tomorrow again, okay?”

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Their second date takes them to the movies — not, of course, to see a Korean film, but an American one, and not just any American film, but the ultrapatriotic Rocky IV. Watching Chil-su try to get his arm around Jin-ah during James Brown’s extravagant ringside performance of “Living in America”, I began to understand why North Korea refers to this part of the peninsula not as the South Korean side of the border but the American side. That’s not to say that, in Chil-su and Man-su‘s Korea, other countries — that is, other rich Western countries — don’t also merit imitation. In order to shore up his supposed identity as an art-school student, Chil-su arranges to take Jin-ah to an art gallery and “bump into” Mansu, posing with a pipe and beret as one of his former upperclassmen, just back from years in Paris becoming a famous painter.

That night, Chil-su, Man-su, Jin-ah, and one of her school friends end up at a club whose sound system pumps out, naturally, nothing but English-language pop music (including but not limited to Rick Astley’s immortal “Never Gonna Give You Up”). Man-su, deep in the cups and miserable in his pseudo-Parisian getup, stays seated when Chil-su and the girls hit the dance floor, and upon their return demands a bottle of soju. Embarrassed by this rustic choice of beverage, Chil-su tries to explain it away as the effect of not having had soju while abroad, but then Jin-ah’s friend suggests, instead, some “euiseuki on deo rak” — whisky on the rocks. This infuriates Man-su, who, dragged out of the club by Chil-su, delivers the saddest line of the movie: a plea to go out for soju and sea snails when they get outside.

Chil-su and Man-su‘s famous final scene plays out high atop a building in Gangnam, Seoul’s wealthy southern half that suddenly went vertical in the 1970s, where our boys have just finished painting an enormous rooftop ad for, yes, whisky — and a whisky promoted with the image of a bikini’d blonde at that, emblazoned with the English words “Drinking less? Then drink better.” (The point, the executive commissioning the job says, is to be sexy, shoehorning in not just the English word for sexy but point as well.) Fed up with their lot in life, Chil-su and Man-su launch into a final catharsis by standing atop the sign and shouting denunciations of Korea’s wealthy, educated, and privileged at the countless freshly built tower blocks of Gangnam below.

Their harangue draws a traffic-stopping crowd. Unable to make out their words, onlookers assume the two are either putting on some sort of labor-related protest or about to leap to their deaths. Someone mistakes their after-work bottle of soju for a molotov cocktail, and before long the police, fire department, news crews, and even army have shown up. A bullhorn-wielding negotiator asks why they’ve given up on life, why they’ve disrupted society, and what their employers have done to cause this behavior, but Chilsu and Mansu, as ever, can’t make themselves heard.

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The Korea-based American film critic Darcy Paquet calls Chil-su and Man-su “the first film that really did step in after the relaxation of censorship and make a political point. It’s somewhat indirectly stated. Westerners watching the film will not be shocked by its radicalism, but within the context of its time, it was a film that stood out.” He teaches this final sequence to his students of Korean cinema history, pointing out how it captures the ironies of the immediate post-dictatorship years, when “the working class tries to express itself, but there’s such a huge gap between them and the rest of society that misunderstandings are inevitable and conflict results.”

And though “certain aspects of Korea have changed quite a bit, other aspects have not. In many ways, the film industry has abandoned this type of filmmaking, but outside, there’s still a lot in today’s Korea that resonates quite strongly with what you see in that film.” Sometimes, despite the dramatic changes since then, I do feel as if I’m living in Chil-su and Man-su‘s Korea. Some of it has to do with the movie’s indictment of internal class issues; as I make my way past the circles of middle-aged drunks gathered on the concrete outside Seoul Station, some noisily airing their grievances and others simply passed out, I do wonder how many were the real Chil-sus and Man-sus of thirty years ago.

But most of it has to do with the movie’s indictment of a society so bent on development itself that it can’t spare a moment to think about know which way to develop, and so has often fallen back on embarrassingly direct replication of whichever countries it sees as more advanced. This manifests most humorously in Chil-su’s American flag shirt, Man-su’s pipe and beret, and Jina’s Burger King visor, but all the jeans, hooded sweatshirts, and Western business suits worn in the other scenes make just the same point, bringing to mind the questions I always have about the assumed “English” names with which Koreans introduce themselves to me with dispiriting frequency (and which they often have trouble pronouncing themselves): what on Earth does this have to do with you you are? What does it have to do with where you come from? Or does it only matter where it looks like you’re going? 

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. If you’re in town, come to the free, bilingual Seoul Book and Culture Club event he’ll host on Saturday, April 2nd, a conversation with award-winning young Korean writers Kim Ae-ran, Chan Kangmyoung, and Kim Min-jung.

Reading Calvin and Hobbes in Korea

By Colin Marshall 

The Sunday funny pages may now seem, even by current print standards, like the blandest, most marginal cultural forum imaginable, but they’ll always feature prominently in my own life story as the place I learned to read. Each week, I’d go from the basic, often slapsticky, sometimes entirely nonlinguistic humor of Garfield to the more artistically, emotionally, and verbally advanced likes of Peanuts to — if I could put in the time — the forbidding heights of Doonesbury and Zippy, with their detailed images and wordy mixtures of irony and earnestness, or the often mystifying, rarely attempted “serious” comics like Mary Worth and Apartment 3-G. Each week, I grasped a little more of their stories, their messages, their jokes.

In adulthood, I’ve come around to rediscover the delight of learning to read English in learning foreign languages. It has something to do with the immediate and perceptible (or at least theoretically immediate and perceptible) return on effort: learn a little more of a language, and you can then and there have that much more of a conversation, watch that much more of a movie, read that much more of a book, navigate that much more of a new environment. Since we learn our native languages in some sense unconsciously, without much in the way of deliberate effort, I didn’t get any particular charge — not that I remember, anyway — from learning to speak English. But later, when I opened up the comics each and every Sunday while learning to read English, a deliberate project indeed, I could feel both the rich satisfaction of making progress and the equally rich frustration of sometimes making less progress than I’d expected to.

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And so it’s gone with the work of mastering Korean, though since I live in Korea, the evaluation comes not once a week but every day, unavoidably, over and over again. Still, it occurred to me somewhere along the way that I could again use comics as a learning tool much as I used them over a quarter-century ago. On my first visit to Seoul, having come across a bursting-at-the-seams basement secondhand bookstore not only still open at almost midnight but manned by an eccentric owner who served us instant coffee (all of which, by itself, probably sold me on Korea as a place to live), I had good reason to snap up the book of Calvin and Hobbes strips translated into Korean I found wedged into the middle of one of the countless floor-to-ceiling piles.

Calvin and Hobbes, unquestionably my favorite strip in the newspaper, always stood way out from the rest of the page. But I doubt I need to sell anyone, especially any American of my own generation, on the merits of Bill Watterson’s game-raising vision of an imaginative six-year-old boy and his tiger, which ran from 1985 to 1995; I understand there even exists a documentary consisting, in large part, of my fellow Millennials talking about how much the strip meant to them. As time goes by, I’ve found ever more to appreciate in this possibly last great newspaper strip, though back before I’d even reached its protagonist’s age, I sensed that I also had much to learn from it, linguistically and otherwise.

Before long, my reading skills reached the point where I could spend hours with the Calvin and Hobbes collections I put on every birthday and Christmas list, pausing only occasionally to look up Calvin’s more incongruously advanced words or cultural references. “Calvin’s vocabulary puzzles some readers,” his creator once wrote, “but Calvin has never been a literal six-year-old.” (“Besides,” he added, “I like Calvin’s ability to precisely articulate stupid ideas.”) I eventually got the idea that, if I followed Calvin’s example in that respect, I could gin up the illusion of intelligence in the company of other kids and grown-ups alike. I don’t recommend that strategy; having successfully faked my way into the role of Smart Kid, I spent the rest of childhood and adolescence avoiding any task, intellectual or otherwise, difficult enough to potentially strip me of the title.

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Figuring my patchy Korean vocabulary could use a touch of the incongruously advanced, I opened this Calvin and Hobbes Comic Reader (캘빈과 홉스 만화 일기), a collection of strips translated into Korean and published in 1994 as part of a series geared toward young students. Though it came out late in the life of Calvin and Hobbes itself, the book includes mostly early episodes from the first few years of its run, few of them based on preposterously elaborate rhetoric, many based on simple mischief: Calvin playing the cymbals in bed; Calvin left alone for the evening and immediately ordering forbidden pizza and watching forbidden horror movies; Calvin trying to shorten his bath time by sitting inside the toilet bowl, flushing, and spinning round and round.

In one strip, Calvin, always keen to earn a nickel, asks his mom for an advance in his allowance, whether any outstanding war bonds might bear his name, and so on. Coming up dry on every count, he finally asks whether he could have some soap, to which his mom replies that he can have as much as he wants. In the last panel, we see him sitting outside, at a folding table beside the family car, on whose windshield he has written — in soap — “4 SALE CHEEP!” Or that’s what we see in the original American strip, anyway; the Korean one inexplicably changes the words to “SOAP FOR SALE.”

To the Korean-learning Calvin and Hobbes fan — especially to one like me, who spent a sizable chunk of his formative years reading and re-reading, and thus inadvertently committing to memory, the original strips — these alterations of content at once disappoint and fascinate. Sometimes they come from the translator’s apparent misunderstanding of the source of humor in the original, as in the Korean version of a particular favorite of mine, the one where we first see Calvin happily hammering nails into the coffee table; then Calvin’s screaming mom, rushing over to ask what he’s doing; then Calvin, after a moment of blank reflection at his handiwork, asking, “Is this some sort of a trick question or what?” In Korean, he just says, “Guess, mom” (“엄마가 알아맞혀 보세요”).

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Stranger still, on the facing page from each strip in the Calvin and Hobbes Comic Reader appear a few explanatory paragraphs, not just retelling the story of the strip across from it but making up framing events before and after it as well, all purely speculative and well outside Calvin and Hobbes canon. The text for the coffee-table episode even describes Calvin as diligently hammering the nails in the shape of the Big Dipper. Several of the strips about Calvin’s never-ending campaign to gross out Susie, his classmate as well as the girl next door, become, in their accompanying texts, chapters in the saga of Calvin’s heart-pounding crush on her. (One of them has Calvin coming home full of shame, confessing to Hobbes his remorse over having lied to Susie at lunchtime, telling her his sandwich was full of squid eyeballs.)

The rubber duck in Calvin’s bath turns to wood (though he still uses it to test for the presence of sharks, a practice that puts the Korean Hobbes on the verge of tears), and his red wagon, vehicle of so many careening philosophical discussions, becomes a “toy car” (장난감 자동차). A variety of unexpected pop-culture references also make their way in through the supplementary prose, from MacGyver to Jurassic Park. (Watterson himself deliberately stopped including dinosaurs in the strip for a time after the theatrical release of Steven Spielberg’s CGI-dinosaur extravaganza, not wanting to subject the images of Calvin’s imagination to the comparison.)

The question of why the Korean version of an American comic would work in even more mentions of things American could consume a whole other post, but at least they work in the sense that neither the translation of the dialogue nor all this newly written material relocate Calvin and Hobbes to Korea. They do, however, make the occasional connection to Korean culture, as when Hobbes tells Calvin, who’s just received a pack of cigarettes from his mom (who intends Calvin’s inevitable nauseous coughing fit as a lesson), that tigers used so smoke in old-time Korea — or at least he’s seen his probable Korean cousin Hodori, the 1988 Summer Olympics’ friendly tiger mascot, doing it.

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Some things, of course, never would have translated smoothly. When I first read the strip where Calvin wakes up in the middle of the night, climbs out his bedroom window and calls his dad on the payphone across the street to ask, “It’s 3:00 a.m. Do you know where I am?”, I found it funny enough, but it turned hilarious when I saw the long-running public service announcements Calvin was quoting. (The Korean text across from it turns his joke into a solemn test of fatherly compassion; Dad fails, leaving a devastated Calvin tearing up under the moonlight.) Yet try as I might to get the humor across to one Korean friend as I excitedly showed her this book, she could never quite identify what she was supposed to be laughing at. The subsequent hour during which I struggled to explain the “trees sneezing” strip, perhaps Calvin and Hobbes‘ finest hour (though it doesn’t appear in the Reader), met with more or less the same result. But the more beloved an work of art, the more you can benefit from examining it through another cultural lens — even a lens that kind of screws it up.

This particular interpretation of Calvin and Hobbes plays fast and loose enough to fumble much of what makes the strip compelling in the first place, such as Hobbes’ deliberately ambiguous existential state, suspended eternally between stuffed doll, imaginary friend, and conscious being; the introduction to the Reader flatly describes him as a toy that comes to life whenever only Calvin is around. But larger points remain intact: in Calvin and Hobbes, as the book’s afterword emphasizes to its Korean readers, “despite the different language and customs of this faraway country’s children’s story, you see yourself reflected.” And somewhere in there I see my much younger self, often not quite grasping the language, but nevertheless keeping at it, enjoying the process enough now not to worry too much about a payoff later.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. If you’re in town, come to the free, bilingual Seoul Book and Culture Club event he’ll host on Saturday, April 2nd, a conversation with award-winning young Korean writers Kim Ae-ran, Chan Kangmyoung, and Kim Min-jung.

Walking Deep Into Seoul With an Expert on the Korean Built Environment

By Colin Marshall 

“Things in Seoul don’t have anything to do with each other.” We members of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch (왕립아세아학회한국지부) heard this important principle for understanding the Korean capital early in the day from our guide, Robert Fouser. A noted American scholar of linguistics and architecture, he’d come to town to promote a couple new books he has out. He wrote them in Korean, a language that, during the years he spend living in Japan, he also taught — in Japanese. Just as none can doubt his experience with east Asian languages, none can doubt his experience with east Asian architecture, or at least his experience with traditional Korean houses, known as hanok (한옥), one of which he spent serious time and effort restoring to not just sound but fully authentic condition.

The word “authentic” came up more than a few times on the walk, which took us deep into Seoul, beginning at the Jongmyo Shrine. Between its construction in the late 14th century and its arrival on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1995, the place has seen some hard times, up to and including destruction during the Japanese invasions of 1592 and 1598. Rebuilt in 1601, the Jongmyo Shrine counts as one of the oldest building complexes in Seoul, a city where most historical structures have been torn down and put back up again much more recently, in the 19th, 20th, or even 21st centuries. But which can make the claim to greater authenticity: those rebuilt longer ago, or those rebuilt more recently with closer adherence to their original architectural plans?

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People disagree about that question in Korea, but only recently has the debate risen to a high profile. For a long time after the Korean War, anything old suffered from shameful associations with poverty, backwardness, and underdevelopment; even in the 1980s, when Fouser first arrived in Korea as a student, tourists could roam sites like the Jongmyo Shrine more or less freely. But on our walk, we found sign after sign telling us where we couldn’t go, and watchful supervisors ready to let us have it the moment we set foot on any now-forbidden stone. The Joseon Dynasty (조선 시대), the kingdom of the united Korea that lasted from the late 14th until the late 19th century has, it seems, become fashionable.

The Jongmyo Shrine even had construction going on right outside its gate, a project, from what I heard, meant to make the approach look more appropriately historical — to 21st-century eyes, at least. After passing the men at work, we immediately entered the domain of men not at work: Jongmyo Park, where hundreds of elderly pensioners, whose wives have passed on or who never married in the first place, gather every day to chat, drink, play a game of go, or — so it’s been reported — buy a few minutes’ good time with a Bacchus lady. (Not that it happens too far out of the public eye; this year saw the festival debut of E J-yong’s controversy-guaranteed feature on the subject, titled The Bacchus Lady in English and 죽여주는 여자, literally Killer Woman, in Korean.)

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Just past those whose Korea’s economic miracle has passed over, we found a set of buildings the country’s development has left behind: the Seun Sangga (세운상가) Shopping Center, Korea’s first mixed-use residential and commercial complex. Ordered up in 1966 by construction-minded Seoul mayor Kim Hyon-ok (who earned the nickname “the Bulldozer” during his short four years in office) and designed by Kim Swoo-geun, one of Korea’s few well-known modern architects, it became popular in the 1980s as an electronics mecca, a training ground for internationally famous video artist Nam June Paik’s technicians as well as a place for Koreans to buy their first personal computers, cheaply pre-loaded with pirated software. (Not that “pirated” meant much in this country back then, a time and place without enforcement of international copyright law.)

It also became well-known for its plentitude of adult materials for sale, a market that Korea’s rapid adoption of information technology has certainly done its part to decimate. More recently, the left-wing newspaper Hankyoreh described Seun Sangga as “a symbol of the indiscriminate redevelopment that occurred during the dictatorship years,” a time of “development that lacked a sense of history” when “Seoul rapidly became a metropolis with no character.” The complex’s worsening reputation brought about discussions of redevelopment, that all-purpose solution to Seoul’s every perceived urban problem, and when higher-ups in Korea talk about redevelopment, they usually mean demolition and total replacement.

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But somewhere amid the years and years of discussion the nuclear option fell off the table, and now talk has circled around going with the strategy, tested in other world cities, of converting this large complex (which a friend compared to a mega-skyscraper laid on its side) into an “art center.” Some of the chances in that direction have already happened: we walked past a series of old turntables, amplifiers, and radios, the kind of things you’d have come to buy forty years ago, into garden sculptures, and the shutters of most of the upper-floor shops were covered with fresh-painted whimsy. A new wave of businesses, including a bookstore, had just begun to move in, but almost everything else surrounding us came from a more industrial past: small repair specialists, parts dealers, machine shops — Pietà country.

Fouser took us to locations from other films as well, through a former (and still, in part, current) movie theater district used back in 1997 in The Contact (접속) and ending up at the tea shop which, a dozen years later, played the title role in the Japanese-Korean co-production Café Seoul (카페 서울/カフェ・ソウル). It stood in Ikseon-dong (익선동), a neighborhood built as an all-hanok development in the 1930s which itself once faced the threat of demolition. But now, with busy hands of the redevelopers stayed, the area has undergone some of a process that, in America, we might — or rather, we often — call gentrification: hip new eateries have appeared, as have hip new vintage stores, as have the hip new young people to be seen in them. But the discussions about gentrification don’t sound the same in Seoul as they do in Los Angeles. Here they seem wholly economic in content, whereas in America they inevitably swerve toward class or race issues.

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Korea, an ethnically non-diverse society whose class system essentially pushed the reset button after the war, hasn’t really produced the body of sociologists needed to study this sort of thing in the same way it gets studied in America. But nor has the country’s study of its own history gone without complications; different people have different answers to the question of what counts as properly historical, especially in the realm of architecture. Fouser, a self-described “hanok maniac,” pointed out some of Ikseon-dong’s especially bothersome abuses of the form, such as the insertion of picture windows into private homes or the cutting away of entire walls of cafés — the better, presumably, for the rest of the neighborhood to hear the pop songs it cranks up into the night.

At least they’ll bother you if you place a high value on authenticity, and want a time-tested street-scape to look and feel the way it’s always looked and felt. I imagine that can be an exhausting sensibility to possess in Seoul, a city still working out its relationship to its history with an almost metabolic tendency toward disintegration and reformation. As always with these RAS excursions, I enjoyed the conversation that happened afterward as much as the event itself, and there at the tea house we talked about not just why we like Seoul, but how even to describe the city to someone who’s never experienced it. Yes, it lacks the kind of cultural weight Tokyo has; yes, it has little in the way of architectural distinction; yes, it’s only come around to an appreciation of history after losing most of it and realizing that developed countries tend to have old things; and yes, it can feel like a jumble where nothing has anything to do with anything else. But in the jumble, so we could all agree, lies the fascination.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. If you’re in town, come to the free, bilingual Seoul Book and Culture Club event he’ll host on Saturday, April 2nd, a conversation with award-winning young Korean writers Kim Ae-ran, Chan Kangmyoung, and Kim Min-jung.