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.

The Real Life of Seoul, as Seen by Street Photographer Michael Hurt

By Colin Marshall 

How do you convince someone to spend their limited travel time and money in Seoul? The officials tasked with promoting South Korea abroad have racked their brains over that very question for years and years, coming up with little in the way of sure-fire selling points for their capital city. Even aside from the formidable challenge of competing against name brands like New York, London, and Paris, Seoul struggles to positively distinguish itself, even in broad strokes, from the other metropolises of Asia. The integration of a deep-rooted culture with advanced technology? Tokyo has long had that image sewn up. Rapid change? Beijing changes faster now, for better or worse. Cheap food and a pleasurable nightlife? Sure, if you’ve never heard of Bangkok. Ease of communication? Don’t get any given tourist started.

They don’t really come to Seoul for its the renowned cultural institutions or its distinguished architecture, and certainly not for its history or diversity. What, then, makes this city so very compelling? I’ve had plenty of similar conversations about Los Angeles, another city which provokes in me (and a select but growing number of others) a fascination bordering on obsession, but whose appeal doesn’t always present itself to the first-, second-, or even third-time visitor. In the cases of both Los Angeles and Seoul, the answer always comes down, unsatisfyingly though it may sound, to a kind of unromantic vitality: though the basic elements of both cities can seem dull, dysfunctional, and even dangerous, the life lived among them, filled with boundless amounts of energy often flowing at cross purposes, offers a bottomless and ever self-refreshing subject of study.

In Seoul, few see this as clearly as Michael Hurt, a Korean-black American photographer who grew up in Ohio and first came here to live in 1994 as part of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program. After completing a graduate program in comparative ethnic studies at UC Berkeley in 2002, he returned to Korea and spent the next few years taking his camera to the streets in a serious way, capturing whatever struck him as the real visual and social texture of life in the city. Street photography had already established itself in Los Angeles and other cities across America and Europe, but in Seoul, apart from a cameraman named Kim Ki Chan who documented neighborhood activity in the 1960s and  70s, it remained a virtually unknown tradition.

 

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“Outback Girls” (2004)

Hurt shot all the pictures selected here during the early 2000s, the most street life-focused period of his photographic career. The image just above comes from a time, he says, “when I began noticing that Outback Steakhouses were a highly gendered space, dominated by twentysomething women.” This led to the realization that “what Koreans called ‘family restaurants’ were actually spaces for young women to socialize. This is about when my camera going in the direction of ‘gender performance’ and young women.” His photography and research in those areas has since led him to develop the field of visual sociology with Korea as a subject, a project further documented at his site Deconstructing Korea.

 

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“Post-Protest” (2003)

“I took this in after one of the big anti-American protests in Gwanghwamun,” Hurt says of the image above, “when the streets were blocked off but people were still milling about, lending a street festival-like vibe only extant for short periods of time.” I’ve come to Korea at a far less anti-American era, but should that sentiment arise again, it would no doubt make itself felt in this very same monument-scaled downtown space. “It’s no coincidence that Gwanghwamun was the site for the 2002 World Cup festivities and the big anti-American demonstrations. It was a natural site for mass gatherings charged with strong emotions,” whether of celebration or condemnation.

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The name Gwanghwamun refers to the main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace, the reconstructed 14th-century compound that Seoul promotes as a prime tourist attractions. Some visitors find it interesting and some don’t, but I always like seeing a historical (or at least historically styled) structure amid a forest of gleaming high-rises. This makes me a predictable Westerner in Korea, since our eyes tend to get caught by all the old-and-new contrasts the city offers up, such as the one above. “I came across this dude standing there looking like he had stepped out of time machine,” Hurt says of this 2002 shot. He liked it at the time, but having realized the cliché inherent in the contrasts, admits that he’s “not very into this picture anymore” — but I, a much more recent arrival, still am.

 

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“Furlough” (2002)

While no longer as militarized as it was in the decades right after the Korean War, South Korean society still has a faintly martial tint that might surprise and even discomfit travelers from the West or other east Asian countries. Some of this has to do with the constant presence, here and there, of uniformed young fellows enlisted in their mandatory military stint but temporarily free to go out on the town. The picture above captures a moment when Hurt passed by one such soldier “who had seemingly taken his short leave from the military a bit past the limit. I slowed down the shutter and held the camera steady to get the motion in the back, which added a dreamy feel.”

 

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“Seoul Nights” (2003)

Those who would object to the portrayal of one of the country’s defenders in such a defenseless state might have an even stronger objection to the picture above, which Hurt snapped on the way through  Seoul Cheongnyangni 588 red-light district. “This was when prostitution was getting into the news,” he remembers, “and the statistic that the industry was four percent of the GDP was getting some play, but there was still a strong social dislike for bad news about Korea, and this picture was flagged as ‘anti-Korean’ when I exhibited it.” But urban redevelopment has had its way with Cheongnyangni, as with many other neighborhoods, hollowing out the venerable 588 — as much an institution, in its way, as Gyeongbokgung.

 

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“One Night in Hongdae” (2013)

In Korea, as Hurt well knows, depictions of “bad things” about the country can hit a nerve (“good things,” by contrast, can include sights that play up the glories of the country’s distant past, the modernity of its buildings, its bounty of upscale commerce, and its industrial and technological prowess). But nobody can actually extricate the “bad things” about any place worth visiting, let alone living, from the “good,” and Seoul provides just about the richest mixture of the two going today. The more recent picture above, taken in the youth-oriented art-school district Hongdae, provides a rich glimpse into the Seoul experience, capturing, as Hurt says, “what Henri Cartier-Bresson would call the ‘decisive moment.’ All the elements come together, and catching it requires a real feel for and knowledge of both the area and the people within it, combined with an instinctual familiarity with one’s equipment and the technical limits of one’s camera to capture that moment when it happens.”

In this case, Hurt explains, “you have to already be pushing the shutter button when she upchucks, having known she was going to do that before the fact. This is quintessentially Hongdae on a Saturday night, no matter what anyone says about this being a ‘negative image of Korea’ — which it most certainly is not. It is just a fact of life and a part of the culture. This is a shot across the bow to anyone who only wants the world to know about Korea as what I call ‘Arirang and hanbok.’ Korea is what it is, and it ain’t always fan dances and fairy tales about fishermen. This picture is me ‘keeping it real.’ That’s the only thing I ever wanted to do with my camera in Korea.”

You can see more of Michael Hurt’s photography on Instagram and Flickr, and in future posts here on the Korea Blog.

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

Sex, Surreality, and Social Conformity: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian Sprouts Onto the U.S. Literary Landscape

By Colin Marshall 

Friends, friends of friends, and acquaintances often ask me if they should make a trip to South Korea, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to all of them — all of them except, perhaps, the vegetarians. I do know a handful of non-meat-eaters living here, all either foreigners or Koreans who grew up abroad, all living proof that a vegetarian can technically find a way to get by in this country. But the all-important social culture here, centered in large part on rounds and rounds of pork, beef, and squid grilled over an open flame, offers few points of entry to those who those who would stick to carrots and tempeh. (And as for the accompanying rounds and rounds of cheap liquor, teetotalers will find this a difficult land as well.) Once, I tried to explain veganism to a lady I met at in language-exchange group. “Oh,” she replied, in less a tone of judgment than of sheer bewilderment, “I think I cannot be friends with someone like that.”

But it’s one thing for a vegetarian foreigner to try living in Korea, where the locals know us by our often baffling lifestyle choices, and quite another for a Korean to decide to stop eating animals. Just such a conversion sets in motion the events of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (채식주의자), first published in South Korea as a cycle of three novellas starting in 2007, and just this month published as a single volume in English in the United States. The book has sold publication rights in twenty countries and in the Anglosphere received, especially by the standard of Korean novels in translation by authors unknown outside the homeland, a staggering amount of press, all of it positive, and much of it struggling for the right words to describe what, exactly, makes it so very compelling. “I was convinced,” as one character observes, “that there was more going on here than a simple case of vegetarianism.”

Those words come from the plainspoken, unambitious husband of the titular vegetarian, a similarly nondescript-seeming woman in her thirties called Yeong-hye. “I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way,” he says at the beginning of the novel. “To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short; jaundiced, sickly-looking skin; somewhat prominent cheekbones; her timid, sallow aspect told me all I needed to know.” But “if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married.” And so their featureless union smoothly goes, until the morning he finds her taking the hundreds of dollars’ worth of meat in their refrigerator out and bagging it up for the garbage.

Yeong-hye can offer only one sentence to explain her actions: “I had a dream.” And she had quite a vivid dream, the glimpses of which we get involve her struggling her way through a seemingly endless, meat-packed tunnel and emerging in shamefully blood-soaked clothes. She makes no attempt to convey the full extent of its horror to those around her, and on some level knows it wouldn’t make any difference to them; a visit with her parents, sister, and brother-in-law turns into a wild suicide attempt after her father, enraged at her intransigence, strikes her after a futile attempt to cram a chunk of pork into her mouth as her panicked family looks on.

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But again, we have more going on here than a simple case of vegetarianism: as time passes, Yeong-hye cuts out of her life not just all meat but most sleep, communication, reaction, and ultimately action of any kind. Kang has spoken of asking herself whether someone could live “a perfectly innocent life in this violent world” as well as the inspiration she drew from the poet Yi Sang’s pronouncement that “humans should be plants,” and in Yeong-hye we seem to have the result, examined from three different perspectives in the book’s three sections: first her husband, then her brother-in-law, then her sister In-hye. (Here in Korea, each of those parts constituted one of the novellas.)

The novel only allows Yeong-hye the occasional opportunity to speak to us, or, given the italicized text and internal monologue-like tone of the passages, think at us. She remembers one childhood run-in with a dog and the violent folk remedy that followed: “The saying goes that for a wound caused by a dog-bite to heal you have to eat that same dog, and I did scoop up a mouthful for myself. No, in fact I ate an entire bowlful with rice. Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump. Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides.”

The attitude Yeong-hye develops toward meat and humanity as a whole that reminds me, in certain respects, of that held by another title character: J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, a respected novelist spending the twilight of her life on the lecture circuit who insists that her own vegetarianism “comes out of a desire to save my soul.” She’s made her choice but her inner turmoil continues: “I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money.”

When she looks into the eyes of family, Costello says, “I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?” Yeong-hye acts as if she sees nothing at all in the eyes of family or anyone else, and nothing raises any kind of desire in her until her sister’s husband, a video artist obsessed with her blue Mongolian spot, convinces her to participate in realizing an image that has come to obsess him: a man and a woman, their bodies painted with brilliantly colored flowers, having sex. At this point having got fairly deep into her own transition to living as a plant, Yeong-hye gladly obliges.

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Costello, so far as I can recall, engages in no experience quite like that, and also unlike Yeong-hye has only grown more outwardly stubborn and opinionated with age. Kang’s ever-withering vegetarian, who ultimately refuses to accept food of any kind, locks into what those around her see as an inexorable march toward non-existence. By the novel’s end, when everyone else has turned away in disgust or shame, only In-hye remains to futilely urge her sister her to eat, and even she reaches a breaking point, “no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.”

The myriad strictures of Korean society, as well as their invisibility to those who have never known freedom from them, give this country’s literature one of its major themes. I sometimes hear Korean life described as the challenge of keeping the various groups — social, academic, familial, workplace — who claim you as a member constantly satisfied, and Yeong-hye manages to throw them all into chaos at a stroke. Taking stock of their reactions gives Kang the opportunity to touch on nearly all the other themes Westerners who read about Korea will recognize: not just meat-eating and suicide, but sudden bursts of rage (we learn that Yeong-hye’s father, made a habit of beating her, but never In-hye, throughout childhood), the unenviable position of women (In-hye escaped those beatings through sheer subservience, growing into “the kind of woman whose goodness is oppressive”), and the vast generation gap (that father, before dressing down Yeong-hye for her vegetarianism through it, had “never used a telephone in his life”).

Deborah Smith, who with her work on this book has made herself the young Korean-to-English translator to watch, doesn’t hesitate to speak of her admiration for Kang: “The great strength of Han’s work is that she gets to the universal through specificity,” she told the Guardian. “Historically, that’s been rare in Korea, which is such a homogenous country that the writing it produces has often been too inward-looking to travel.” The Vegetarian clearly can travel, though it also demonstrates that, no matter how astute the translator, awkward cultural artifacts will always remain: Yeong-hye calls In-hye “Sister,” In-hye prepares “side dishes,” and their family enjoys “yuk hwe, a kind of beef tartar.” (Tellingly, the bits of Korean novels that don’t quite translate often have to do with food.)

English-language readers will no doubt hear more from Smith, Kang, and both of them in collaboration. The Smith-translated Human Acts (소년이 온다), Kang’s examination of the Gwangju massacre of 1980 which appeared in the United Kingdom last month, will certainly make its way to the United States sooner or later. Not long ago, I asked a friend in Japan, himself a friend of a very well-known Japanese novelist, why that novelist has attained such international success. “He’s created his own genre,” my friend replied without hesitation. We’ll have to wait and see whether Kang’s work will attain the same reach, but the readers of The Vegetarian who appreciate (presuming they can handle) Kang’s seamless union of the visceral and the surreal will surely sense another genre on its way.

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

Between Boring Heaven and Exciting Hell: Kim Soo-yong’s ‘Night Journey’

By Colin Marshall 

This is the first in a series of essays on the important pieces of Korean cinema freely available on the Korean Film Archive’s Youtube channel. You can watch it here. 

By day, Miss Lee and Mr. Pak work at the same bank in downtown Seoul, maintaining an ostensibly cordial if chilly professional relationship. But at night, they both return to the same apartment in a riverside tower block, where they live almost — but not quite — as husband and wife. “Weddings are lame,” insists Mr. Pak when Miss Lee, spurred by the coming nuptials of another formerly secret office couple, asks if they’ll ever have one of their own. He then nods off, putting an end to one of their rare opportunities to communicate, hemmed in as they are by the need for propriety at work and the insistence of his superiors at the bank on round after round of nightly drinking.

Having reached her late twenties without any marriage prospects, at least as far as the rest of her colleagues know, Miss Lee, given name Hyeon-joo, plays the role of the office “old miss” (올드미스), a title she’d until recently shared with the worker who sits next to her, the one about to get married. The boss, apparently out of pity, gives Hyeon-joo some time off and a holiday bonus as well, which Mr. Pak, in his work persona, jokingly suggests she use to tag along on the newlyweds’ honeymoon. Humiliated, she must wait until the evening at home before she can scream, shout, and throw household objects as well as punches in retaliation at her husband-to-be-or-not-to-be.

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This domestic battle cuts straight to a televised boxing match, which the couple watches in rapt, half-drunken excitement. When a round ends and the broadcast cuts to commercial, they fall amorously to the carpet, but they’ve barely got started before the fight resumes and Mr. Pak snaps back to attention, chanting and punching along with this geopolitically charged contest between a Korean boxer and a Japanese. Hyeon-joo remains sprawled on the floor, and we get a long look at her disappointed expression, a mixture of shock and bitter expectation at her apparent inability to compete with the flickering entertainment. How, she wordlessly says, can it have come to this?

The malaise of modern marriage — or modern quasi-marriage, anyway — has provided a reliable (and perhaps too reliable) theme in the fictions of many societies for decades and decades. Usually these stories end with either a union dissolved or made stronger than ever, but Kim Soo-yong’s Night Journey (야행) departs from the tradition by ending with Mr. Pak and Hyeon-joo’s relationship in the essentially tentative state in which it began, but sending the latter on a haunting, erotically charged odyssey in the meantime. Stanley Kubrick would do the same thing a quarter-century later in Eyes Wide Shut, but he did it to a man in 1990s Manhattan, which makes a fairly different statement than doing to to a woman in the South Korea of the 1970s.

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Kubrick, who got most of his material from novels, adapted Eyes Wide Shut from Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle (or “Dream Story”). Kim, whose prolific filmmaking career has also tended toward literary adaptation, took the material for Night Journey from a short story by Kim Seungok, a writer who, in a burst of creativity during the 1960s, produced a body of nihilistic work that crystallized his generation’s experience coming of age in a country careening toward a state of both full industrialization and harsh repression. His best-known story, “Seoul, Winter, 1964” (서울, 1964년 겨울) showcases the author’s thorough knowledge of the city as well as his thorough knowledge of what it feels like to lead a meaningless life within it.

Hyeon-joo decides to use her holiday time and money on a solo trip out to her small coastal hometown. There she immediately changes into her old high-school uniform and relives her youth, taking her little sister bicycling along the beach as she was once taken by her first love, a teacher who, not long after consummating the relationship, went and got himself killed in Vietnam. All that had the Korean-seaside-hamlet rumor mill going full tilt, forcing Hyeon-joo to leave home for Seoul, but now, back in town, she draws the attention of a widowed former acquaintance, the scion of a local factory-owning family. But despite his habit of going around on a roaring motorbike in a white leather cap and aviator sunglasses, he proves more timid than the brutish playboy for whom she’s found herself hoping.

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Kim Seungok’s original story focuses on this compulsion. Its Hyeon-joo spends night after night wandering the streets of Seoul, longing for passers-by to fix on her as an object of desire — the more roughly handled an object, to her mind, the better. The film’s Heyon-joo does share her textual counterpart’s taste for being grabbed by the wrist (even drawing a fetishistic charge from the sight of handcuffs) and taken to the nearest yeogwan (여관), a kind of cheap, old-fashioned hotel, but she spends the rest of her vacation after returning from her hometown in search of viscerally cathartic experiences in general.

Visiting a café that overlooks her and Mr. Pak’s workplace, she casts a glance across the room at a rough-looking fellow sitting alone, and in her imagination entertains a brief fantasy of the two of them as a kind of Korean Bonnie and Clyde, dapper in dress and with guns blazing. (In reality, he skips out on his bill, leaving Hyeon-joo to pay it.) She goes to an arcade, giving its punching bag hell as the prepubescent clientele looks on in a kind of amused pity. As she re-emerges onto the streets and the night darkens further still, increasingly unsteady men circle around her, asking for a light, asking for a drink, asking for a dance.

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That last one turns out to be one of the boys from the bank — the very same one, in fact, whose wedding to the other “old miss” she’d attended just days before. “You must be enjoying your honeymoon,” Hyeon-joo says to him. “I did not enjoy my honeymoon,” he replies. “She wasn’t a virgin. Virgins, where have you flown off too?” His frustration, which has by now reached a theatrical pitch, peters out: “Men are all the same. We don’t like anything complicated. There are no virgins in this world anyway.” He might just as well have asked where everything else about the world he knew growing up, or thought he knew about the world growing up, had flown off to.

These characters make their way through what must have looked like a startlingly modern city in 1973, but the film presents the fast developing Seoul as a highly anomic kind of place, its inhabitants — even the basically middle-class ones like Hyeon-joo and Mr. Park, who look out from the balcony of their high-rise at the balconies of another high-rise — racked with feelings of dislocation. And to make matters worse, as Hyeon-joo finds (though she finds it more dramatically in Kim Seungok’s story, which has the tearfully reunited mother and daughter plunging into mutual spite in a matter of days), you can’t go home again. The men get caught in the samsara of eighty-hour work weeks and the regimented bacchanalia that goes with them, and as for the women, who knows what they’re liable to do in their desperation to feel something?

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The Koreans have a saying about how you choose either a boring heaven or an exciting hell. It can apply in a variety of contexts, but I most often hear it used to describe the choice between emigrating to the West, the boring heaven, or staying in Korea, the exciting hell. Kim Soo-yong, whose style critics describe as a bridge between traditionalism and modernism, renders an exciting hell indeed — or, to put it in terms more suited to the medium, a vivid nightmare, rendered in the somehow muddily rich colors of the era (1970s Korea didn’t dodge that flood of orange, green, and brown any more than 1970s America did) as well as its cinematic techniques: freeze frames, dubbed voices speaking with dreamlike clarity, an ominous score that generates uneasiness still through incongruity, and an unexplicit, metaphor-intensive eroticism. (The director gets plenty of mileage here out of his signature image of waves splashing against the shore.)

But even such hellish excitement can consign the Hyeon-joos of the world to a deeper, more existential boredom, and the Kim would return to the theme of a woman’s consequently compulsive self-ejection from the rigors of Korean life in his next film A Splendid Outing (화려한 외출), the story of a high-powered Seoul entrepreneur who, overtaken by the desire to drive to a sea village she’s seen in a dream, finds herself sold as a wife to an island fisherman. It, too, stars Yoon Jeong-hee, best known in recent years for her comeback performance as an Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandmother in Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (시).

A Splendid Outing came out almost at the same time Night Journey which, while shot in 1973, couldn’t get past the censors until 1977. Though Kim has claimed they made substantial cuts, it still comes off as much more daring a movie than one imagines emerging from its time and place. Even today, outsiders perceive South Korea as a conservative, buttoned-up, almost martial society, but behind that veil of conservatism people more or less obey their impulses. Kim’s films show, captivatingly, how new a condition that isn’t.

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

How Has Korea Become a “Silent Cultural Superpower”? The BBC Sends a Historian to Investigate

By Colin Marshall 

“I’ve been to China and I’ve been to Japan,” says Rana Mitter at the beginning of his BBC Radio 3 documentary South Korea: The Silent Cultural Superpower, “but I’ve never got off at this place before.” Increasingly many Asia-savvy global travelers have uttered variations on that line in the past decade, having known, of course, of this country’s existence and even of its history, but never having regarded the actual experience of it as a priority. Why has that changed?

The BBC has clearly taken an interest in the question, having sent potter Roger Law here at the end of last year for the five-part series Art and Seoul, and now having had Mitter come and take a closer look at why so many of us know something about Korean culture today while so many of us knew almost nothing about it yesterday. When I interviewed Michael Breen, author of the respected book The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies, he mentioned that, when he wrote its first edition in the 1990s, only when a friend pointed it out did he realize that he hadn’t said a word in the text about the products of Korean culture, and at that time didn’t feel he needed to. Now almost every major piece of writing about South Korea begins with them.

The Silent Cultural Superpower looks for the sources of modern Korean culture in many of the stops in Seoul that, if you follow Korea’s presence in the international media, you’ll expect: the tourist-thronged shopping streets of Myeongdong; the hip cafés of the historically countercultural Hongdae district; the sidewalk across from the Japanese embassy where protesters express their views on the “comfort women” issue in no uncertain terms; Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza (a “huge, sinuous, gorgeous egg of a building” as well as a “statement about what Korea is now”); and the foot of Lotte Tower, the under-construction symbol of the power of those giant corporations, a lineup also including such now globally known names as Hyundai, Samsung, and LG, that have “powered this country’s economic miracle and sent it global.”

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Refreshingly, Mitter never sets foot inside a cram school or plastic surgery clinic, avoiding some of the topics all too frequently obsessed over in mainstream Korea coverage in favor of others not so commonly discussed. An examination of recent Korean film and television highlights the centrality of “the powerlessness of the Koreans,” as against the power of China or Japan or America or anywhere else, as a theme. It surfaced with special clarity in Ode to My Father (국제시장), Yoon Je-kyoon’s blockbuster from the Christmas before last. While it drew many comparisons to Forrest Gump, not without cause, the film’s story of one Korean man’s life from the division of his family at the end of the Korean War to his work abroad as a soldier in Vietnam and a coal miner in Germany to his struggles with redevelopment as a merchant in modern-day Busan tells a great deal of Korean history in domestically tear-jerking microcosm.

Ode to My Father has its inaccuracies, the product of artistic license as well as glossings-over, but in that sense it offers a valuable look at a certain kind of Korean perception of Korean history. In his review and analysis of the movie, Matt VanVolkenburg at Gusts of Popular Feeling breaks this down for the non-Koreanist, framing the film as “a national coming of age story” set in a harsh, unforgiving world in which “a weak Korea, beset by poverty and war,” a “shrimp among whales” ever caught between powerful neighbors, must struggle simply to exist. Hence, in this storytelling tradition, the tendency to portray Koreans as “blamelessly going about their lives when suddenly history crashes into them and sweeps them off their feet” (literally, in the case of Yoon’s previous tidal-wave disaster picture).

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In The Silent Cultural Superpower we also hear from Han Kang, a novelist who’s broken into the English language in a big way with The Vegetarian (채식주의자), published in translation in the United States this month, and Human Acts (소년이 온다), just recently out in Britain. In the latter book, Kang takes on the theme of the powerlessness of Koreans from another angle: not their powerlessness against the whims of other, bigger countries, but their powerlessness against the whims of their own dictators. The program discusses on Park Chung-hee, the architect of South Korea’s industrial development who held the reins of power from 1961 until his assassination by his own security chief in 1979, but says less about his successor Chun Doo-hwan, who in 1980 ordered the military’s massacre of protesters which Human Acts takes, unblinkingly, as its subject.

Even the documentary’s inevitable coverage of K-pop takes a different tack. We hear one argument that the music “isn’t really Korean,” but a simple repurposing of Western pop forms, and we hear about its strategic use to improve Korea’s often troubled relationship with Japan, as in K-pop star BoA’s recording of songs in Japanese as well as in Korean. We also hear about its strategic use to retaliate against North Korea’s recent announcements of a hydrogen bomb test by setting up giant speakers blasting K-pop over the border, which the North reportedly fears might actually influence the minds of its young soldiers. (Silent cultural superpower, indeed.)

That grumpy neighbor aside, the much-publicized “Korean Wave” of culture, driven by music and television, has indeed swept to an impressive extent across Asia. When Mitter hits Myeongdong, he starts looking for Chinese people — no tall order, since these days that area seems populated by nothing but — to ask about their own degree of enthusiasm for K-pop. When he immediately finds some, he busts out fluent Mandarin to talk to them, which might comes as a surprise until you learn that he holds a professorship of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford’s Institute for Chinese Studies. It places him well to analyze Korea’s still-shaky relationship, despite all the Myeongdong-going girls who profess their love for the Chinese-Korean boy-band EXO, with the Middle Kingdom, summed up neatly by one of his Korean interviewees: “We still have a lot of wary eyes toward China.”

But in the West, the Korean Wave hasn’t done much more than splash against the shores. “I wonder,” theorizes Mitter, “if that’s because most K-pop acts reflect a regimented culture of centralized corporations and social conformism,” which leads into a talk about PSY’s “Gangnam Style” (as if I needed to provide the link for anyone who hasn’t yet seen its 2.5 billion times-watched video) and how the success of the track’s Seoul-specific satire and the goofiness of the rapping jokester doing it astonished everyone who assumed a highly groomed boy- or girl-band held the natural right to break the coveted American market.

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This leads Mitter to look for the exact opposite of K-pop culture, deep in Seoul’s experimental music scene. He talks with Hong Chulki, a political theory graduate student by day and experimental musician by night who uses a laptop, mixers, various pieces of broken equipment, feedback noise, and the sound of air blown onto turntable needles to craft listening experiences meant to cleanse his head of K-pop, so unavoidably has it become woven into the sonic fabric of the city. This sort of thing also offers a catharsis, for Chulki and his colleagues, from a life in modern Korea dominated by social pressures, hated (though painfully competitive) jobs, and an older generation out of touch with and unwilling to cede any power to the younger one.

Comic artist Yoon Tae-ho dramatized these circumstances in his series Misaeng (미생), or “Incomplete Life,” which, adapted into a drama, became a surprise hit on Korean cable in 2014. Clearly the material works, even if it presents a side of Korea the country’s boosters would rather downplay. Those in the business of promoting Korean culture abroad understand that the now-characteristic high-gloss professionalism of so much of the country’s music, film, and television — and even, in some cases, comics and literature — appeals to the rest of the world. But they may understand it too much, ignoring the fact that the polish is only as interesting as the sorrow, humor, confusion, strangeness, and discontent with which it contrasts. Indeed, “the roughness at the edges,” Mitter concludes at the end of his short visit, “might be Korea’s best hope for giving its culture a genuinely global presence.” If so, the best of modern Korean culture, which itself has moved farther past powerlessness than ever, is yet to come.

(Dongdaemun Design Plaza photograph: Eugene Lim)

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

A Korean Literary Superstar Tells His Countrymen Why to Read

By Colin Marshall 

When I started reading Korean novels seriously, I started reading Kim Young-ha — going on, in fact, to produce a profile of his work right here in the LARB. The world of modern Korean letters has produced few hits in translation, much less in translation into English, where Shin Kyung-sook’s Oprah-anointed Please Look After Mom (despite Shin’s recent and confusing plagiarism scandal or maybe non-scandal) remains the Korean novel to beat in the Anglosphere. But were I a betting man, I’d put money on Kim as the next big thing in global Korean literature; unlike most of his colleagues, he already has a deliberately international outlook, not to mention three novels available in English with major publishers: I Have the Right to Destroy Myself (나는 나를 파괴할 권리가 있다), Your Republic Is Calling You (빛의 제국), and Black Flower (검은 꽃), all of which draw on Korean culture as well as literature’s more placeless powers to make their impacts.

The prospect of reading Kim’s other books in the original has provided more than its share of motivation for me to get a handle on the Korean language. And I don’t just mean his novels, though I do relish the opportunity to read his currently-under-translation I Can Hear Your Voice (너의 목소리가 들려) before it comes out in English next year and Diary of a Murderer (살인자의 기억법) before it does some time in the far-flung, not-firmly-scheduled future. I mean his collections of essays, a favorite form of mine but one which barely any publishers bother bringing into English, even though they can make big splashes in their writers’ home countries. It just recently happened with Kim’s Read (읽다) which completes a trilogy of slim nonfiction books that started with See (보다), which rounded up his columns written for a film magazine, and Speak (말하다), a collection of his talks and interviews.

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With the success of See and Speak, Kim seemed to have tapped into a demand for not just the fruits of his imagination but his observations on storytelling culture as well. This justified spending the time and effort to make Read not out of previous writings, but all new material: a series of six lectures, which he delivered live, one per fortnight, in the run-up to the book’s release. In them, he talks about the classics, what about the stories told in the classics have allowed them to endure, what the classics have technically and thematically in common with modern stories told today on the page as well as the screen, and why one might want to read the classics at all. The result references and analyzes everything from The Odyssey to Collateral, Don Quixote to The Big Bang Theory, Crime and Punishment to Norwegian Wood, The Stranger to The Sopranos.

For much of his twenty-year career so far, Kim hasn’t just written books for his countrymen to read, but has advocated to them the act of reading itself. Before Read, this mission manifested in his podcast Time to Read a Book (김영하의 책 읽는 시간), subject of a previous post here on the Korea Blog, and as it turns out, something of a proving ground for the ideas expanded upon in the new book. These include the features of the 24-hour story as prescribed by Aristotle’s Poetics (and as practiced by Kim himself in Your Republic is Calling You, a day in the life of its North Korean sleeper agent protagonist suddenly called back home), the use of characters themselves absorbed in fictions (not just the Man of La Mancha, but Emma Bovary, Jay Gatsby, Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper), and the novel as a kind of natural landscape for the reader to wander while experiencing its joys and pains, savoring all the myriad connections to be found between all the stories written throughout the history of literature.

Asked why he himself reads novels, Kim replies by paraphrasing Sir Edmund Hillary: “Because they’re there.” But according to the numbers, most South Koreans don’t share his motivation: despite impressive literacy rates, the country tends to languish in the middle, or more often at the bottom, when ranked by the amount of reading its people do for pleasure. I’ve heard mostly simple and even dismissive explanations for this, claims that the period of rapid industrialization that stretched from the 1950s at least through the 1990s left Koreans “too busy” for a pursuit as unproductive as reading books. But could it also have to do with the novel’s relative lack of penetration, as a form, into the culture?

In Read‘s fifth lecture, Kim explores “the world of the charming monster,” a character type we in the West know from the examples he puts before his audience: Tony Soprano, Hannibal Lecter, Crime and Punishment‘s Raskolnikov, Lolita‘s Humbert Humbert. These he frames as examples of the most interesting character type, which occupy one corner of the matrix (a matrix, incidentally, I’ve personally witnessed him draw on a bar napkin) with “good” and “bad” on one axis and “simple” and “complicated” on the other. This produces four quadrants: one for simply good characters, one for simply bad characters, one for complicatedly good characters, and one for the Sopranos, the Lecters, and Raskolnikovs, and the Humberts of the world — the complicatedly bad ones.

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Much Korean literature has thus far tended to feature either simply or complicatedly good protagonists tormented by, and sometimes sacrificing themselves to, simply bad antagonists. This jibes with the complaints I’ve heard from Korean friends about the oversimplified way history gets taught in schools here, usually in the form of stories of essentially people — benevolent rulers, brave military men, tireless freedom fighters, peace-loving citizens — against wave after historical wave of essentially bad intruders and occupiers. Just as a history with its eyes open to moral complexity, and especially the complexity of what in other contexts gets called evil, is much more fascinating than those with their eyes closed to it, a novel willing to admit and even examine the existence of the complicatedly bad is much more compelling than those that aren’t.

Kim, on some level, must have known this from the jump; his debut novel I Have the Right to Destroy Myself follows, among other characters paintable in neither black nor white, an artistically inclined professional suicide-enabler. You can rest assured that, when Diary of a Murderer finally appears in English, it will offer no flat condemnation of its title character. In this way and others, Kim has positioned himself on the vanguard of Korean literature, which, in terms of texts written in the Korean alphabet rather than in classical Chinese, only really goes back about a century. That makes it still a fresh literature, and thus one excitingly open to the formative powers of Kim and other writers of his young generation (at least by the standards of the official Korean literary apparatus, which equates prizes with legitimacy and hesitates to hand many out to anyone under fifty). In order to push the Korean novel forward, then, it makes sense that, searching for what makes any literature worth reading in the first place, he would look back.

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

Among the Korea Vloggers

By Colin Marshall 

A few weeks before moving from Los Angeles to Seoul, I went to a show at the Downtown Independent put on by Eat Your Kimchi. The word “show” doesn’t quite capture the nature of the event, but then I don’t know quite how to describe Eat Your Kimchi either. The project, the creation of a Canadian married couple called Simon and Martina Stawski, produced years of Youtube videos after brief Youtube videos about food in Korea, pop culture in Korea (their biggest hit being a tongue-in-cheek exegesis of “Gangnam Style”), and life in Korea as a foreigner. When EYK’s popularity blew up in a big way, it afforded its creators the opportunity to crowdfund a real live studio in one of Seoul’s hipper neighborhoods, its logo a beacon to all those expatriates harboring their own dreams of professionalized Korea vlogging.

If 21st-cetury media endeavors live or die by how well they connect with their fan base, EYK struck me in that moment as one of the halest, heartiest 21st-cetury media endeavors going: they’d almost filled the theater, and while the Downtown Independent isn’t exactly the Hollywood Bowl, I’d never seen a Youtube celebrity of any kind do it before. But then, the Simon and Martina Stawskis of the world have redefined the very nature of celebrity, a word that may once have identified only those known by nothing more than name and face to tens of millions, but has now expanded to cover those known much more intimately (if still indirectly, and even if the economics sucks) by thousands or even hundreds.

It stands to reason, then, that these new kinds of celebrities, making their new forms of entertainment, would require a new form of live performance, or rather live appearance, or rather something else intriguingly in-between. Like many events I’ve attended, EYK’s included a question-and-answer session; unlike any other event I’ve attended, EYK’s began with it, and in fact it took up most of the time we all spent there. (I didn’t stay for the post-event fan photo sessions which, for all I know, may well run deep into the night.) Even before Simon and Martina began taking questions, people started lining eagerly up at the microphone, allowing me observe one salient detail of EYK demographic: it’s all women.

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Well, one man did eventually get in line, but he prefaced his question by saying that his wife had brought him there. This broadly aligns with what I’ve seen of the Korea vlogging world in general which, while not one hundred percent female, definitely skews that direction, whereas the actual long-term foreigner population I encounter here in Seoul skews precisely the opposite direction. Male Korea vloggers do exist, but from what I’ve seen, female Korea vloggers occupy the majority of the high-profile spots. And several of the men I’ve seen hosting Korea vlogs do it, like EYK, as one member of a hosting couple — sometimes their wives, in other words, have brought them there.

I found out about one such Korea-vlogging husband and wife through the documentary shows about foreigners I watch on EBS, more or less the Korean PBS. One episode of 한국에 산다 (They Live in Korea, as I might translate it) focused on the life of Sarah from Canada and Kyuho from Korea, who do their thing on Youtube under the banner of 2hearts1seoul, whose popular episodes include their wedding ceremony, the story of how they met, and the story of how Kyuho proposed. Far from Seoul out in the countryside resides another multicultural Korea-vlogging couple, the Australian Nicola and the Korean Sun-hong, who do the series My Korean Husband. They, too, have told their meeting story to the internet, and have much else besides to say on the subject of love: how to get a Korean boyfriend, things to consider when dating or marrying a Korean guy, how a Korean man should introduce his foreign girlfriend, the differences in dating culture between Korea and Australia, and so on.

Their videos give a sense of the standard forms this sort of vlogging has found so far: sometimes the hosts sit down and recount their experiences straight at you, chopped up by jump cuts (a few bloopers strategically left in) and accompanied by an often ukulele-driven score; sometimes you get fragments of their experiences out and about, cut together after their capturing with a handheld (or selfie stick-mounted) camera. Certain expected episode types have also emerged, such as the tour — if we can use the word, given the small size of the dwellings here — of the host’s Korean apartment: 2hearts1seoul have done one, and Eat Your Kimchi did at least four of them. (A vlogger named Cory May, for whose detailed urbanistic explorations of Seoul I tune in, once posted a tour of an apartment that looks eerily similar to mine. Then again, most of the apartments I’ve seen in the city look pretty much the same.)

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The rest of the body of Korea vloggers have collectively shot what comes to a staggeringly, hypnotically long duration of apartment-touring (over the course of which you’ll hear hours of talk about the number pads we futuristically use instead of keys), including one lady known as Smiling Seoul, who made three, and Chelsea Speak, who’s done two so far. Both of them have also put out their own variations on another less common but more telling type of Korea vlogging episode: the elaborate apology and/or self-justification for not speaking more Korean despite having lived for years on the very peninsula that uses it. (Some try to bridge the gap with sheer exuberance, to mixed results.) Smiling Seoul called hers “Why I Don’t Speak Korean,” Chelsea Speak called hers “Why I Don’t Speak Korean,” and both attest, by their very existence, to the fraught relationship between Korea-resident Westerners and the language that surrounds them.

Michael Aronson, representing the male Korea vloggers, has also done a somewhat askew version of that standard, though he packs much more weirdness into his minute-long standoff with a whining pile of kimchi. Sheer oddity has made that into his second-most-viewed video, albeit a distant second to the Seoul Subway Song, a rap that incorporates both Aronson’s thorough knowledge of the conveniences of the capital’s rail system and the jingle that plays over its trains’ speakers whenever they approach transfer stations. It may not have got him anointed with honorary Seoul citizenship by itself, but alongside his raps on the Korean alphabet and traditional Korean clothing, and songs “I’m in Korea” (to the tune of “I’m a Believer”) and “Kimbap” (to the tune of “MMMBop”), it couldn’t have hurt. (He more recently joined the chorus of mockery against the city’s new slogan “I.Seoul.U” with a parody of “I Touch Myself,” but I doubt they’ll revoke his status for it.)

Other Korea vloggers have no need to dedicate episodes to explaining their infrequent use of Korean, because they use it all the time. A highly self-Koreanized American named Dave — or rather 데이브, Deibu — has used it to win a sizable Korean audience with comedic videos on the differences between boys and girls, between the linguistic habits of foreigners with four months in Korea and foreigners with four years, and between the tastes of chocolate and ramen (which he eliminates by mixing them together). An Australian named Sara (not to be confused with the aforementioned Canadian Sarah or Australian Nicola) has, with her channel SeoulSarang (sarang meaning love), narrated in Korean videos of her trips to Seoul Fashion Week at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, Jeju Island, and even her native Sydney.

The prospect of hearing an Australian city described by a genuine Aussie in Korean had intrigued me, but Sara chose to conduct that episode, a food tour, almost wordlessly. Despite that, and despite having been shot far outside Korea, it somehow captured perhaps the most important common quality of Korea vlogs, or indeed, perhaps vlogs in general: a near-fetishistic fixation on things edible (which, in the case of at least one Korean vlogger, has crossed the line straight into fetishism, or the satire thereof). The internet, of course, has come to love food, possibly because, though its capabilities for conveying imagery and description of it food richer by the day, it still gets you no closer to the actual taste; eating remains one of the few experiences for which digital technology can offer no substitute (not that at least one Korean isn’t working on it as we speak).

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But even Percival Lowell saw in the 19th century that Korean life revolves, to a possibly unique degree, around food, a cultural condition to which many more foreigners have since thrilled. And so no Korea vlogger can avoid doing food episodes, and few can avoid doing a lot of them. Eat Your Kimchi made a big part of their name on not just episodes involving the titular fermented cabbage, but Korean ramen, Korean fried chicken, and Korean pizza (not to mention a seemingly endless array of packaged snack tasting videos). 2hearts1seoul have covered street food, kimchi pancakes, and a buffet. My Korean Husband, on breaks from giving relationship advice, shift their focus to things like spicy noodles, spicy rice cakes, and the biggest piece of fried pork ever. 데이브, in addition to his chocolate ramen, has with his coterie of international pals consumed chicken neck soup, mozzarella burgers, and even spicier rice cakes before the camera.

Noe Alonzo’s ROK On!, which I especially enjoy for its occasional episodes in Spanish (a language I study whenever Korean gets to be too much), spends a great deal of time on food even by these standards: there you can see the pork spine soup known as gamjatang (감자탕) up close and hear about it in both English and Español. Josh the “Korean Englishman,” known for the solidity of both his language skills and production values, found a way to continue Korea vlogging even after he returned to his homeland: he now shoots the reactions of his countrymen to various Korean foods. He’s fed his fellow Brits things like Korean barbeuce, kimchi fried rice, and — with a staggering 5.6 million views — that beloved dish of Korean tradition, fried chicken and beer.

If the foreign vloggers of Korea have covered much the same ground as one another, they haven’t done it out of a lack of awareness of one another’s existence. Just as 21st-century media-makers have to connect to their fans, they have to connect to each other. And not only do Korea vloggers connect to each other, they tend to pop up on each other’s vlogs, as when 데이브 and the Korean Englishman had a pronunciation showdown, Sara from SeoulSarang joined Nicola and Sun-hong from My Korean Husband on a day trip (and another in Digital Media City), or when Nicola and Sun-hong use as material for one of their own videos an Eat Your Kimchi meetup in Sydney, something like the one I witnessed in Los Angeles.

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But as of this year, Eat Your Kimchi is no more. Simon and Martina, the king and queen of Korea vlogging, have after a seven-year reign abdicated their thrones and decamped for Japan — where, as English teachers looking for an international placement, they’d wanted to go in the first place. (New name: Eat Your Sushi.) But then, up until recently Westerners who spend years in the Land of the Morning Calm have tended to arrive here near-accidentally, as often as not because it offered them an easier path in than did the Land of the Rising Sun. But as time goes by, more foreigners of all kinds arrive in Korea with serious intent to stay, fewer and fewer of whom have a lack of the language or an unwillingness to look deeper than the surfaces of the culture for which to answer.

Still, no matter how much of a destination of choice Korea becomes, when I see video footage of Asia shot by a traveler with any sense of fresh-eyed curiosity, I do think of Japan. I think of Japan because of one of my very favorite films, Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, a kind of sui generis fictional documentary which spans the globe, but whose Japan passages —  the late-night and early-morning train rides, the video synthesizer, the cat shrine — everyone remembers best. Alain Resnais called Marker “the prototype of the 21st century man,” and now that we’ve seen what form travel vlogs have taken in the 21st century, that rings truer than ever.

I watch Korea vlogs and think of Sans Soleil not just because of the letter-from-abroad construction of the script, and not just because of the movie’s female narrator, but because of its virtuoso passage on the importance of food. The camera fixes on a Japanese okonomiyaki chef named Yamada who practices, as the poetic cameraman supposedly sending all these clips from afar puts it, “the difficult art of ‘action cooking.’ He said that by watching carefully Mr. Yamada’s gestures and his way of mixing the ingredients one could meditate usefully on certain fundamental concepts common to painting, philosophy, and karate. He claimed that Mr. Yamada possessed, in his humble way, the essence of style, and consequently that it was up to him to use his invisible brush to write upon this first day in Tokyo” — or indeed Seoul — “the words ‘the end.’”

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

An Ajeossi and His Robot (or, How Korean Film Dramatizes Disaster)

By Colin Marshall 

“Even better if you see it as a family,” exclaimed the ads for a movie that opened a couple weeks ago here in Seoul and has now made it to Los Angeles. The posters showed a middle-aged man hanging out with a diminutive, somewhat R2-D2-like robot and the title Robot, Seori (로봇, 소리). The film bears the official English title of SORI: Voice from the Heart, but I prefer the simpler, more literal translation I’ve seen used here and there: Robot Sound. In some respect it reflects the content more clearly, given that the story concerns a robot fallen to Earth, and specifically to the South Korean coastline, originally designed by the U.S. National Security Agency as a component of a satellite that records the sound content of and, using its formidable artificial intelligence, recognizes the voices in all phone calls made across the globe.

The robot lands at the feet of Hae-kwan, the fellow on the poster, a disheveled late-fortysomething nearly a decade into an increasingly hopeless search for his missing daughter Yoo-joo. “This is crazy talk,” he says in the words that also constitute the picture’s tagline, “but I think this guy knows how to find my daughter.” But the robot turns out not to be a guy, or at least Hae-kwan decides it mustn’t be one after rolling it into a clothes store (having borrowed his wheelchair-bound techie friend’s spare conveyance to cart his discovery around) in order to buy it some kind of disguise. He suggests a black hooded sweatshirt, but Sori (for the robot has by now taken as a name the Korean word for sound) wheels over to a pink one instead, which sets up, for me, the biggest laugh line of the movie: “You’re a woman?” shouts the flabbergasted Hae-kwan. “Yes?” responds the suddenly nervous girl minding the shop.

SORI has its moments of comedy, at other times plays like a geopolitical techno-thriller, and at other times still goes, as so many Korean movies do, for the melodrama. The tone, as well as the human-robot buddy pairing, remind me of Short Circuit, that tale of a gentle animal-handler and an experimental treaded military drone brought to wisecracking life by the strike of a lightning bolt. John Badham, the director of that film as well as others like Blue Thunder, War Games, Stakeout, and Bird on a Wire, lays fair claim to the title of one of the masters of 1980s Hollywood, whose sensibility mainstream Korean entertainment has recently rediscovered and begun reinterpreting. A broad but energetic buddy-cop picture called Veteran (베테랑) last year became the third highest-grosser in Korean cinema history, and at a Q&A after a screening I asked its director Ryoo Seung-wan what other police movies he likes; he cited Beverly Hills Cop and 48 HRS. as his direct inspirations.

Korea has also seen a string of popular film and television period pieces set in the 1980s, a time when Korean society (to use a phrase beloved of the textbooks here) came back into bloom. The controls of the dictatorship began to loosen (albeit with bitterly remembered and often violent clampings-down along the way), and waves of protests loosened them further still, to the point of forcing the introduction of democracy. The period infused works of art, no matter how popularly intended, with a reinvigorated spirit of societal criticism, another of the qualities I’ve come to expect in mainstream Korean films where I wouldn’t necessarily expect it — or at least would expect a more toothless variety of it — out of Hollywood.

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The story of SORI takes place for the most part in the recent past, the year 2013, and in the somewhat far-flung city of Daegu, a former pillar of industry situated in a valley almost 150 miles from the capital that remains known primarily for its American military bases and stifling summer heat. (I’ve heard some positive things about the place too. I once asked a well-known Korean writer if it wasn’t true that Daegu has the most delicious apples in Korea. “They were,” he responded. What about the widely held notion that Daegu has the most beautiful women in Korea? “They were.”) In any case, it hasn’t enjoyed much screen time before, so even if the prospect of a man befriending a stray robot didn’t appeal to me, seeing the rare Daegu movie would.

So what happened to Yoo-joo? Structurally, most of the movie plays like a detective story, with Sori using her accumulated information drawn from all that omniscient phone recording to lead Hae-kwan from person to person from her past, getting a scrap of information from each. Yoo-joo, we learn, had musical aspirations: at one point Hae-kwan comes across her guitar, and from one of his interrogatees he takes her sole extant demo CD. The daughter couldn’t have chosen a lifestyle more at odds with that of her father, presented in flashbacks before her disappearance — in other words, before the rigors of the search make him relinquish control over his appearance and behavior — as a representative of the faceless company men of his generation, cut as clean as possible, dressed as soberly as possible, and brimming with frustration and rage, every inch the stern, bland, middle-aged ajeossi (아저씨) figure of popular culture.

Sori waits until the very end of act three, cornered by authorities both Korean and American high above the dockyards, to reveal the whole truth to Hae-kwan in the form of a tearful voice message left by Yoo-joo on his old cellphone just before she perished in the subway fire of February 2003. That might sound like a spoiler, but every Korean watching this movie will have known it from the beginning, far sooner than Hae-kwan himself does — or at least, far sooner than he finally accepts the obvious. A Korean movie having a character disappear in Daegu in 2003 is like an American movie having a character disappear in Oklahoma City in 1995: sure, she could have vanished off to anywhere, but given the time and place, you have a pretty fair idea of what happened.

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The Daegu subway fire killed 192 people, two of whom remain unidentified, and it now appears in the litany of nationally embarrassing disasters, badly exacerbated by incompetence and irresponsibility (the driver of the flaming subway train, for example, ran and locked all the doors behind him), often recited to illustrate the problematic nature of South Korea’s rapid development. It happened eight years after the even deadlier collapse of the Sampoong Department Store in Gangnam, which gave a basis to Kim Dae-seung’s romantic tragedy Traces of Love (가을로), and eleven years before the sinking of the M.V. Sewol, the subject of two documentary films so far which still awaits its own feature adaptation. As a friend very familiar with the Korean film world said when the subject of who might direct the inevitable Sewol movie arose, “I just hope it won’t be Kang Je-gyu,” a filmmaker famous for his high-profile, big-budget, simple and unchallenging crowd-pleasers.

Ho-jae lee, the director of SORI, has made a mainstream movie indeed, though not, to my mind, an oversimplified one. But viewers unfamiliar with the sensibilities of Korean cinema may find its indictment of Korean society, which deals with the poisoned relationship between the generations, rather stark. Hae-kwan’s cohort came of age at a time when South Korea, still in many respects a developing country, could for a little while longer credibly hold out the promise of relative prosperity in exchange for untroublesome compliance with the national program. Yoo-joo’s peers find themselves in a different reality altogether, one with far fewer guaranteed returns on hard-working and conformity — a conformity that, so one narrative has it, got in the way of the older generations creating a country where the younger ones could prosper.

SORI doesn’t come as the first movie in circumstances force a prosperous, set-in-his-ways ajeossi (Hae-kwan has a cellphone in 1990, which even in America would have set him apart as a hot-shot) to the realization that his children’s generation doesn’t live in the same world he does. In 2013, Yang Woo-suk’s The Attorney (변호인) found great success telling the ostensibly fictional story of a Busan tax lawyer in the early 1980s who sees enough light to defend a student against trumped-up charges of sympathy with the communist North. But anyone could clearly see, through that flimsy veil, an early chapter in the life of Roh Moo-hyun, who would go on to serve as one of the few South Korean presidents of whom anyone under age forty still approves.

Big Korean movies don’t generally mystify their allegories. SORI, though, despite all its ajeossi-robot banter, clouds of technobabble, and typically goofy acting by whatever “American” actors the production could turn up (one of whom plays a character called Major Mike), strikes more directly than most. The last view Hae-kwan gets of Yoo-joo, he sees out the window of his car, having just thrown her out of it after what might have been an argument between any number of millions of conflict-prone fathers and daughters in Korea, the former seeing the latter as reckless and impudent, the latter seeing the former as rigid and unwilling to understand anyone but themselves. Hae-kwan demands that Yoo-joo get out at the entrance of the Jungangno station, where, moments later, a disabled and unemployed cab driver (a fellow ajeossi, although one who saw the system as having failed him) would set catastrophic fire to a subway train — and thus one generation literally casts another into the flames.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. Catch up on the Korea Blog’s archives here.

The Adventures of Percival Lowell, Famed Astronomer and Early Writer on Korea

By Colin Marshall 

Just before moving to Korea, I took a road trip across America, from southern California to North Carolina. An early overnight stop came in Flagstaff, Arizona, a city overlooked by the Lowell Observatory, a scientific institution (and now tourist attraction) founded in 1894 by Percival Lowell, the American astronomer whose research led to the discovery of Pluto. The observatory grounds feature an exhibit about the man himself, and having a look at it I noticed the photo above, in which Lowell sits among a group of 19th-century Koreans, and below it a first edition of his book Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm: A Sketch of Korea.

It came out in 1885, just a couple of years after Lowell first went to Korea as a foreign secretary to the diplomatic Korean Special Mission. Having got the inspiration to travel to Asia from a lecture on Japan he attended in 1882, he remained there for quite some time, going on to write other such non-astronomical volumes as The Soul of the Far East in 1888, Noto: An Unexplored Corner of Japan in 1891, and Occult Japan, or the Way of the Gods in 1894. You can follow the links to download all of them for free from the Internet Archive. Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm, the first of them, also counts as the first full-length English-language personal narrative of Korea.

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It also still counts as one of the richer full-length English-language personal narratives of Korea yet published, and quite possibly as the most thorough: Lowell divides this 400-page book into chapters on everything from the country’s geography to its climate to its government to its architecture to its principles to the many hats (literally) worn by its people. All fascinating stuff, and all suitable material for a man of such wide-ranging curiosity, but some modern readers may come up against difficulties right away with the structure and style. Lowell wrote like the scientist he was, not in the English-as-a-third-language way some scientists do — I find much to admire in his prose, the occasional Victorian excess aside — in the way of someone who regards detail and precision, especially pertaining to the natural world, as ends in themselves.

Any first-hand account of Korea, and especially one written in the temperature control-challenged 19th-century, has to say something about the weather. But Lowell almost begins his book with it, having said little about the Korean people but, apparently working his way up to the social after laying as thoroughly as possible a foundation of the natural. He dives deep into the effects of the deflection of the mean annual isothermal line. Elsewhere in the book, he adds his personal experience of the weather, such as his struggles with the cold weather and with the heating systems of the day, a seemingly uncontrollable early version of the now widely used underfloor ondol (온돌) heating, too slow to heat and too hot thereafter, operated by overzealous if somewhat inattentive servants. “I was the victim of the too complete fulfillment of my own previous desires,” he writes, “for I myself had unwisely urged them to feed bountifully the flame. Then I yielded to misery. I reflected upon the exceeding vanity of human wishes.”

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Lowell tells of other old-time Korean discomforts with amusing vividness, such as the only means of long-distance travel available in a country without the wheel (“the thing remains uninvented,” he wrote): “Of the essential properties that commend any method of conveyance, speed and bodily comfort, neither, to our notions, is a conspicuous feature of the Korean palanquin.” In this and other respects, he here and there argues, Korean civilization of the 1880s hardly benefits from comparison to that of China or Japan. The same sort of observations come up in subsequent Korean travelogues by other writers in English: of the harshness of life there, the crudity (or indeed nonexistence) of the infrastructure, the colorless aesthetic of common society, the rigid hierarchies, the women shut out utterly from public life, the deep-seated superstition and indolence. “The servants were as incompetent,” he declares at one point, “as the appliances were wanting.”

But Lowell finds about as much to appreciate as he finds to gripe about, and so Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm also sets a precedent for the sympathetic Korean travelogues to follow, in which the author’s countless irritations with the place give way — or at least lose the upper hand — to a kind of admiration: sometimes grudging and often amused at points of seeming inferiority, but admiration nonetheless. And on the whole, his attitude provides an example even today’s Western observers of Asia would do well to follow: “There is among us a prevailing impression that the far East — China, Korea, and Japan — is delightfully but hopelessly odd, and that the interest attaching to these lands lies solely in this irrational oddity,” and, simply accepting this perception, “partly from want of opportunity, partly from neglect, we open the eyes, shut the brain, and think we see.” (It also helps that, unlike many writers on Korea even now, he displays an understanding of the language.)

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Lowell keeps his brain open, and as a result sees Korea with such clear eyes (in his prose as well as his photographs, a selection of which appear here) that his account holds up today in its revelation of both how much and how little has changed here in the past 130 years, a period at the beginning of which “Korea stepped as a debutante into the society of the world.” First, to the differences. Not only has Korea found out about the wheel, they’ve put up a high speed train that can deliver a modern-day Lowell from Busan, his port of entry to Japan, to Seoul in under three hours, rather than the days and days over sea and land the trip required in the 19th century. And when he got there, he certainly couldn’t make the observation, as Lowell did, that “there is not a single religious building in the whole of Seoul” — not only but most obviously because of all the Christian churches and their blazing red neon crosses that have sprung up since his day.

Only a rare Korea resident reading the book in the 21st century — or even in the second half of the 20th — could stifle their laughter as Lowell offhandedly explains that “nothing in Korea is ever done in a hurry.” Few discussions of Korean society today can avoid coming around to the so-called bballi bballi (빨리 빨리) way of doing things, which elevates hurry to the highest virtue. That sudden shift in the speed of life here, which happened alongside the sudden shift in economic growth, gets the blame for all sorts of things laid at its feet, not least the shattering of the imagined peace and quiet implied by the nickname Lowell popularized with the second part of the book’s title.

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The first part of the book’s title, though romanized in a now-outdated fashion, served to remind us that, when Lowell went to Korea, he went during the tail end of the Joseon Dynasty (조선 시대), which lasted five centuries from 1392 to 1897 and now provides the setting for the vast majority of historical films, television dramas, and novels that come out. (They pay rather less attention to the Japanese colonial period whose gears started turning thereafter.) But those modern Joseon stories tend to involve women, whereas Lowell’s Joseon experience, apart from his attendance at parties with hired geisha-like professionals and a desperate attempt to photograph a a woman who ran away, scandalized, before he could even set up his camera, leads in to declare that “in Korea woman practically does not exist.”

“Materially, physically, she is a fact,” he explains, “but mentally, morally, socially, she is a cipher.” That was not, of course true, and the segregation is over. The public spaces of Seoul, to an outsider free to roam them during the day, now feels as much like a world of women as it felt like a world of men to Lowell. The men of Korea are shut away in their offices, a sign that gender equality is still far off. In a sense, women have led the way in the cosmopolitanization of the capital as well as other cities, patronizing each new wave of cafés, restaurants, and other gathering places while the men, according to the stereotype, remain in more traditional spaces, grilling meat and draining bottle after green bottle of soju.

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Not that the women of Korea, now free to eat what and where they please, readily turn down an evening at the barbecue themselves. Lowell names as “one of the most salient of the national characteristics” an “insatiable appetite,” in thrall to which “the average Korean does not eat that he may live, but live that he may eat,” with the result that “to the average Korean, it is always meal-time.” The culture of eating remains strong still, as does the culture of smoking, a practice that Lowell found “as common in Korea as in Japan; that is, everybody smokes — all the time,” and those who don’t often have to make elaborate excuses not to partake while everyone else around them does. But Korea, more so than Japan, looks lately to have begun turning its back on cigarettes, and in that the women have also taken the lead, and by a wide margin.

The similarities, though, stick out even more than the differences. “The greater part of the steamers that ply there are not what they might be,” Lowell writes of the waters off Korea’s west coast, adding that accidents “happen at intervals.”. Disasters at sea and elsewhere, most recently in April 2014, and any other elements of Korean life people find objectionable, are often blamed on the lingering ill influence of Confucianism. Lowell describes Confucianism as something that has been “artificially, because arbitrarily, prolonged, and has long since outlived its usefulness,” especially in the form of filial piety, which he describes as “the one great moral principle of the far East. All others exist, as it were, in abeyance. Truth is unknown, honesty largely out of practice, and chastity a luxury wherever it is a fact.”

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Yet despite these complaints, Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm doesn’t read like a work written out of frustration. He hates uncomfortable palanquins and what he sees as the shiftless, constantly hungry “coolies” hired to carry them, but usually Lowell withholds judgment, and sees better. His was an undivided Korea of 12 million people, with few roads and no tall buildings; and withholding judgment yields even more insights in the high-tech, hypertrophied 25-million-strong capital of South Korea of today.

“It is a curious case of partially arrested development,” writes Lowell, assessing the state of the Korea he found, marveled at, and ultimately warmed to. “The evolution of the fundamental principles was checked, while the superficial details of civilization went on growing.” Whether those fundamental principles have changed in the past 130 years it falls to modern Koreanists to determine, but boy, did the civilization ever keep on growing. Has that subsequent development been all to the good? Has it been anywhere? Does Korea remain, if not a land of morning calm then, as Lowell put it, “a thrice happy land, indeed, where a man does not make love to his friend’s umbrella”? If you want to know what that means, well, you’ll have to read the book. Rest assured that he explains it all there, to the best of his ability — and in detail.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. Catch up on the Korea Blog’s archives here.

Finding Korea in Osaka

By Colin Marshall 

My friend Nick Currie, the musician, artist, and writer best known as Momus, has enjoyed a variety of roles in his career, most recently that of the Japan Times‘s Unreliable Food Critic. While he’s long engaged his own fascination with Japan in the service of his music, he only moved to the country relatively recently, about five years ago. (You can listen to a radio interview I did with him on the subject of going there at the bottom of my collection of podcasts related to Japan.) I met up with him yesterday in Osaka, his home as well as one of my favorite cities in the world — in a league with the likes of Seoul and Los Angeles — for what he calls his “prostitution and destitution” tour, an afternoon stroll through a few neighborhoods that happen to sustain those two conditions.

For all their fascination value, neither of these areas have much in the way of high eating. (Though the signs hanging outside the countless tiny, immaculately presented, and open-fronted brothels of Tobita Shinchi do present the businesses as “restaurants,” and, word on the street has it, will actually order in food from elsewhere should a thoroughly oblivious foreigner wander in hungry.) But that makes them no less fertile ground for the Unreliable Food Critic, a title the food-indifferent Nick crafted for himself that comes with a mission, stated in his debut column, to “explore back alleys where gimlet-eyed men in baggy carpenter pants glance up from enormous bowls, surprised to see a foreigner,” to “shop at garish supermarket chain Tamade,” and to “head to Osaka’s Korean district and rhapsodise about the cheap eats in the market.”

He did just that last in his second column, which found him “in the dark arcades below Osaka’s Tsuruhashi Station” chomping on an ojingeo jeon (오징어 전), “a rubbery crepe filled with spring onions and flattened seafood, and I’m able to bite the pancake from the packet as I wander around this warren of rundown arcades. You couldn’t eat okonomiyaki this way, but here, the center of Japan’s biggest Korean community — almost 120,000 people at the last count — it’s not a problem.” And so, after having passed through the prostitution and destitution, I kept walking, making my own way to Tsuruhashi for a local taste, in as many senses of the word as I could find it, of the country I came from.

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But I hadn’t come straight to Osaka from Seoul; I first spent a weekend in Tokyo, a city so vast and varied that, if you dislike it, you’re probably just doing it wrong. (The same principle holds, maybe even more so, for Los Angeles.) But as soon as I stepped off the bullet train and set foot in Osaka, I knew the second-largest city in Japan would successfully defend its title as my favorite city in Japan. While still very much a Japanese city, it has a slightly ramshackle and famously boisterous nature — powered by what Nick once called a current of “vulgar commercial energy” — and an abundance of still-present artifacts in its aesthetic environment of an earlier Japan, the Japan of the Shōwa period, and especially the Japan of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

You can find that sort of thing in Tokyo, but I sense that you have to work a little harder to do it; in Osaka, it surrounds you. One vivid illustration takes the form of two projects by Kisho Kurokawa, a famous architect who designed many of Japan’s iconic buildings of those late Shōwa decades. I first went to see the Nakagin Capsule Tower, an apartment building made of theoretically modular cubical “capsules” owners could “unplug” and replace whole, which has stood in Tokyo since 1972. Alas, this visionary structure has fallen on hard times indeed: a netting now covers it to hold in the parts that periodically fall off, some of the capsules (none ever replaced) brim with junk, others sit long since abandoned, and none of them get hot water. (You can, however, rent one on Airbnb, but not sleep in it.)

Then, when I came to Osaka, I checked into at the Kurokawa-designed Capsule Inn, the progenitor of a type of hotel the world now thinks of as quintessentially Japanese. Though only seven years newer than the Nakagin Capsule Tower, the Capsule Inn Osaka has kept in vastly better shape, surely looking on the whole not much different than it did on opening day. Granted, it’s since developed many a rough edge and absorbed decades of cigarette smoke, but it’s comfortable and very much its own kind of place that operates smoothly in its own way — all things you could say about Osaka itself.

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I did, however, sweat it a bit when I first approached the reception desk. Every foreign language-learner will know what I mean when I say that I followed along well enough when the girl working the counter began explaining to me the rules of the hotel, but then my understanding started to lose traction. Still, I kept “hai, hai, hai”-ing through it, grasping less and less as I went, though I did make out that she’d asked me for my address. I told her I live in Korea, and she gasped with surprise — it turned out she was Korean herself, as I learned after we switched, she overwhelmed with excitement and me overwhelmed with relief, to her native language. A graduate of Ewha Womans University (to which I live practically next door), she’d come to Osaka for, in her words, “just an experience.”

Back out on the streets, I heard the voices of a great many more Koreans out having experiences, each one turning my head toward the bracing splash of understanding, a presence that does its part to make Osaka my Japanese city of choice. It certainly did its part to make Los Angeles my American city of choice, something I wrote about not long ago for Boom in a piece about finding the Korea in California and the California in Korea. But I’ve found some Korea in Japan as well, my enjoyment of which I tried to convey to the lady from Busan (long Korea’s port of entry for things Japanese, for better or for worse) from whose close-quartered Tsuruhashi restaurant I ordered some bibimbap. I wanted to explain how I realized that Osaka brings, for me, some enriching measure of the spirit of improvisationally and directness I so appreciate in Korea to Japan, a country that has elevated procedure and indirectness to cultural art forms.

Instead, I just said that I like Osaka because it has a Korean feeling — a 한국 느낌. “The weather is cold,” as Nick wrote as the Unreliable Food Critic, “but not as brutally icy as it is currently on the Korean peninsula. The arcades are cleaner here, but I miss seeing colorfully dressed ajumma women (the universal Korean “aunt” figure with her tightly permed black hair and brashly clashing garment patterns) sitting on newspapers on the ground chopping vegetables, and I miss Korea’s younger population, with its louder vitality. Like the Korean cuisine here, the Zainichi (ethnic Korean residents of Japan) in Osaka seems a touch cleaned up and toned down. But they still spice up Japan.” And they keep me appreciating both countries, whichever one I find myself in.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. Catch up on the Korea Blog’s archives here.

Ways of Seeing Korean Plastic Surgery

By Colin Marshall 

The first morning of my first visit to Seoul, I went out looking for coffee and came back with a stereotype seemingly confirmed beyond all expectations. After I found the nearest main road and started walking down it, I soon came upon a coffee shop (as I knew even then, Korea has quite a density of them), but couldn’t bear to enter it. The second one I found had the same problem, and I walked on further still, past a third and a fourth that I avoided on similar grounds. They were all open for business, none with too big a crowd, and I certainly had enough Korean to order a coffee. So what spooked me so badly? It was their location: that is, they were all located inside plastic surgery clinics, institutions I had already learned to fear and loathe from the disapproving attitudes of countless trend pieces on Korea.

It hasn’t taken long for them to lean hard on a narrow set of tropes: the tense relationship with the North, the ultra-competitive academic culture, the robust pop music and television drama industries, and, yes, the creepy popularity of cosmetic surgery. No matter the medium, these reports usually make their way to quotes from a few Kim Jihyes on the street who blithely state their intentions to get new eyelids, a new chin, a new nose, or some combination of the three (maybe even bought as a gift by her parents, should she do well enough on her college entrance exam) in order to one day land the right job, the right man, or both. This sort of thing causes a good deal of us in the West, and especially America, to stroke our imperfect chins and lament what we see as some sort of conformist, surface-obsessed dystopia of the image.

The subject comes so laden with baggage and cliché that, on one level, I haven’t really wanted to write about it; but on another level, some of the questions I consider most interesting never really get asked. At the top of the list: what about Korean plastic surgery, exactly, bothers Westerners so much? Different Westerners have different theories. Some think it has to do with a perceived hypocrisy, in that the longer a non-Korean lives here, the more of the glories of the Korean race that non-Korean will have heard implicitly or explicitly trumpeted. So why, they sarcastically wonder, does this world-beatingly superior people so badly need the assistance of cosmetic surgeons?

Others find it bothersome to see such flagrant engagement in an activity so many in the West see as cheating; at least when Americans go in for plastic surgery, they have the decency to lie about it afterwards. Others regard the face as such an integral component of one’s identity that to casually change it seems as inhuman a choice as to casually change one’s name. (Then again, Koreans also do a surprising amount of name-changing, often casting off their “old-fashioned” given name in favor of whatever name happens to be most popular at the time; imagine the equivalent in America, where a few thousand grown Johns, Roberts, and Davids each year apply to change their name to, say, Jaden.)

Others still put forth a more controversial opinion: that Koreans use plastic surgery to make themselves look more Western, but refuse to admit it. To what extent we can consider Westernization an aesthetic goal of Korean plastic surgery has, so I’ve discovered, become something of a third rail in conversations about all this. I’ve scrolled past many a knock-down, drag-out online argument about whether Koreans have been spending all this money on lighter skin, wider-open eyes, and tapered jawlines in order to meet Western standards of beauty, or whether they do it to meet “classical Chinese” standards of beauty — a trivial distinction, to my mind, if the outcome is the same either way, but clearly not to the combatants in these elaborate debates.

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Surely we can all agree on one thing: that Korea and the United States have very different standards of appearance indeed. I first noticed signs of the chasm between the societies when I began to understand enough Korean to get a sense of what Koreans talk about when they talk about how people look: for instance, I’ve heard evaluations of the quality of skin in great detail, skin always having been something that, to my mind, you either had or you didn’t. I’ve heard much about the concept of face size — the smaller the better, according to their schema — which I’ve stopped even pretending to understand.

But the importance placed on appearance applies as much to clothing as it does to bodily characteristics. Many a Korean-American who pays a visit to the ancestral homeland returns filled with bitterness about the ceaseless nagging drawn by their style of dress, or lack thereof. I met one such lady who still seethes about how, when first she went to Korea back in the 1990s, her relatives all gave the stink eye, and worse, to her baggy jeans and Doc Martens — though she never once paused to consider whether her baggy jeans and Doc Martens may have been ugly.

When it comes to dress, I would submit that the Korean dystopia of the image doesn’t have it all wrong. Often when I think about what drove me from America, I think of the fact that, granted the freedom to dress just about any which way we like, we schlub around in hoodies and cargo shorts, a choice we make out of pure laziness but, if pressed, couch in incoherent terms of egalitarianism (or worse, self-expression, a concept which, to my delight, hasn’t yet caught on here as an absolute good), as if our slovenliness somehow put us all on an equal plane. In fact, even under those sartorially miserable conditions, the strata remain visible: witness how, in a city like Los Angeles, poor people dress in cheap sweatpants and flip-flops, whereas rich people dress in expensive sweatpants and flip-flops.

At least in Korea you see people putting in the hours, so to speak, by which I don’t mean that everyone here has somehow become a style virtuoso; far from it, especially among the older generations, whose women raise socks with sandals to the status of native garb, and whose men sport some of the most hilariously incongruous toupées I’ve seen everywhere. Words fail me to explain the preference for socked sandals, but in the case of the hairpiece-wearers, I don’t think they’re trying to fool anyone as much as they’re trying to feel as if they’ve made the effort, and be seen to have made the effort, in the manner of Americans who conspicuously work out five days a week at the gym.

Physical fitness counts as one of the qualities of self into which Americans feel little shame about plowing time and money. Another, one much more uncomfortably similar to the plastic surgery so tut-tutted about in Korea, is orthodontia. When I was growing up and even before, many if not most American kids could expect to have to go through what amounts to a years-long cosmetic surgery procedure, albeit undergone in something like a dentist’s chair. Orthodontists can justify this eloquently and fearsomely with talk of how little Jaden’s crooked teeth will surely, if left unchecked, grow into his brain by his junior year, but the fact remains that American parents will gladly shell out for it because they don’t want their kid looking like a poor.

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On a higher level, we might draw a comparison between cosmetic surgery in Korea and psychotherapy in America, in that both have at least the ostensible motive of self-improvement, and both give you something to talk about and signal your relative wealth, especially to friends of roughly equal wealth. And then they have the Sisyphean element in common: you’re never really done with either one. Just as you meet Americans who profess, not without a hint of pride, to having spend decades on the couch, you see Koreans on the street (especially in Apgujeong, the neighborhood where I searched in vain for coffee that first morning) wearing telltale bandages whose non-bandaged parts also attest to previous rounds under the knife.

We tend to think of serial plastic surgery recipients in America as falling into several looked-down-upon categories: the delusional would-be celebrity, the washed-up real celebrity, the aging society wife. Here, cosmetic procedures get advertised to everyday (if reasonably well-off everyday) people as addressing a more practical suite of concerns. The simple fact that job applicants must always attach their photograph to their resume, effectively granting preferential hiring to the most attractive from the get-go (as opposed to in an enlightened society like America, where companies have to consider everyone before they can proceed to hire the most attractive anyway), along with what some Korea observers see as a lasting influence of superstitious face-reading, constitutes reason enough to consider it.

Those eminently utilitarian considerations, of course, doesn’t make me or other Americans any less weirded out by it. The overall effect, given the prevalence of the same set of procedures all meant to produce a basically similar same set of supposedly ideal features, can look like a chilling conformity. (I still can’t get over how, when Koreans rank the beauty of the celebrities, they agree.) Still, I resist the notion of Koreans as a nation of mindless trend-following drones. The force behind all this looks to me less like conformity than resignation, a sense of, “Screw it, if changing my eyelids will get me a raise, I’ll change my eyelids” — or, for that matter, “Screw it, if working at Samsung will get me a more comfortable life, I’ll work at Samsung,” or “Screw it, if moving to Gangnam will get my kids into a slightly better school, I’ll move to Gangnam.”

But I, personally, have no more honest or cogent objection to cosmetic surgery as practiced and consumed in Korea than that I don’t particularly like the look it produces. Take this as the one man’s opinion that it is, but you need only watch older Korean movies, from the 1960s, 70s, or even 80s, to realize that people looked better, or at least more distinctive, before. Whatever people have gained with the advances in plastic surgery — and you could put a positive spin on it by calling it it the democratization of beauty, assuming you find its results beautiful — they’ve also lost something.

This pressure about looks has begun to weigh on Korean men almost as much it has on Korean women. (The hot trend piece of late: In Korea, Men Buy Cosmetics Too!) But to the extent that the men have entered the plastic surgery market later than the women, they’ve taken on that much less of a freakishly bland similarity of appearance. Korean friends, after a couple of drinks, often ask me what I think of Korean women. I always say the same thing: the regular, real-life ones present themselves with a skill few others in the world can equal, but the celebrities — well, frankly, I can’t tell them apart. Then they agree with me and we all have a good laugh, but part of me worries that Korean plastic surgery won’t have accomplished its mission until I can’t tell anybody apart at all.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. Catch up on the Korea Blog’s archives here.