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

By Colin Marshall 

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

Chil-su and Man-su (칠수와 만수) opens with an air raid drill, a regular occurrence in the life of postwar Seoul even after the country turned from military dictatorship to ostensible democracy in 1987. The movie came out the following year, when modern South Korea made its debut on the world stage by hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics. Korea-inexperienced Westerners who came to watch the games, especially Americans primed by episodes of M*A*S*H, found, by most accounts, a more developed, more orderly, and — why mince words — more Westernized country than they’d expected. But even those who left having bought the narrative of the phoenix risen from the ashes could glimpse another story playing out on the margins of the scene, that of those barely touched, let alone elevated, by the economic Miracle on the Han River.

Park Kwang-su took two of the players in that other story and made them the title characters of his directorial debut. Chil-su, a 22-year-old dreamer employed as a theater movie-poster painter (very much a developing-world industry, though one still just barely alive in the late 1980s), quits his job in a fit of righteous rage against his stingy, hostile boss, declaring that he shouldn’t have to take his abuse in a democratic nation. Even more strapped for cash than usual and eager to woo a girl for whom he’s fallen after spotting her working at Burger King, he talks his way into a partnership with Man-su, an older sign-painter who at first treats him dismissively but to whom he nevertheless looks up.

And so, on one level, we have a comedy of two working-class guys trying to make it in the big city, but with an undercurrent of darkness that deepens as the story plays out. The jovial Chil-su lies compulsively: he tells everyone who will listen of his wholly fabricated plan to emigrate to Miami Beach and join his nonexistent brother and lets the object of his affection, whom he sketches at work while nursing a single Coca-Cola, believe that he attends art school. He does have a sister, but she vanished after their father threw her out of the house for consorting with American soldiers. The father himself remains in the family hometown, remarried after the death of Chil-su’s mother and slowly, bitterly pickling himself in soju.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Calvin and Hobbes in Korea

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Empire of Light’: a French Director Brings a North Korean Spy Novel to the Stage

By Colin Marshall 

Ki-yong, the middle-aged protagonist of Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic Is Calling You, lives at the apparent height of South Korean normality, complete with a wife, a teenage daughter, a film importing business in Seoul, and a strong enthusiasm for soccer and beer. Then, one morning, comes an encrypted message with an unambiguous order: drop everything, dismantle your life, and get back to the North immediately. Ki-young, we soon find out, has lived for over twenty years in the South as a Northern sleeper agent, theoretically awaiting orders while accruing all the accoutrements of life in the peninsula’s more prosperous half. The novel follows what happens to him, his family, his colleagues, and his pursuers over the next 24 hours.

I first wrote about Your Republic Is Calling You in the LARB back in a 2013 profile of Kim’s novels in English translation, of which he has more and higher-profile than the average Korean novelist under fifty. (More recently, I’ve written about his literary podcast and Read, his latest book of essays, here on the Korea Blog.) In that piece, I quoted a reader-on-the-street description of the book as “a Korean version of Ulysses,” owing, no doubt, to its single-day time frame (a storytelling technique laid out in Aristotle’s Poetics, about which Kim writes in Read) as well as the way it moves through the city of Seoul as Ulysses moves through the city of Dublin.

These qualities make for compelling reading, but how to translate them to the stage? Taking on that very challenge, we have the French-Korean production The Empire of Light, a live adaptation of Kim’s novel from the National Theater Company of Korea, years in the making and now running in the heart of Seoul’s busiest shopping district at the Myeongdong Art Theater. That English directly translates 빛의 제국, Your Republic is Calling You‘s original (and, I might add, superior) Korean title, itself borrowed from René Magritte’s series of canvases L’Empire des lumières — the title under which the play will appear when it opens at the Center Dramatique National Orleans in May.

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The show comes at the beginning of a series of some 300 events constituting the 2015-2016 Korea-France year, a celebration of the 130th anniversary of diplomatic relations between those two similarly sized countries. Though The Empire of Light‘s Seoul-set story requires an all-Korean cast, the French side of the collaboration includes director Arthur Nauzyciel, playwright Valérie Mréjen, and the artists who handled costumes and design. They’ve put together a striking stage, with two oversized video screens, one landscape-shaped and one portrait-shaped, towering over a human environment of pure gray: a gray table, a gray couch, gray carpet, gray clothing.

A condensed cast of the novel’s characters roam that gray carpet, going between gray table and gray couch, including, in her gray dress, Ki-yong’s wife Ma-ri, a former political radical and current saleswoman at a car dealership with problems of her own. She’s played by Moon So-ri, who grew famous through her film roles (including several for Hong Sangsoo), and in The Empire of Light performs a kind of film role as well, in the footage projected on those screens behind her and the rest of the players. That simultaneous action, shot all over Seoul, allows for near-constant movement through the city without a single change of scenery onstage, also obviating the need for an intermission in this movie-length production.

But given the typical complaints about the look of the city from disappointed tourists, the sheer grayness of the set in front — a varied grayness, in several different shades — also strikes me as somehow Seoul-inspired. Mréjen, citing the atmosphere of surveillance that comes to pervade the novel, has also named the “recording room” as an aesthetic reference point: colorless, utilitarian, and neutral, but also versatile, a complementary space to the brightly lit streets, cafés, subway trains, and love hotel rooms in which the story’s cinematic dimension plays out.

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Nauzyciel, who as preparation made visits to all of the real-life locations of the novel, describes Seoul as “one of the characters in the story,” and even if Seoul doesn’t do all the work of a character here, it certainly counts as an inextricable element of the story. The director draws a contrast between the unromanticized South Korean capital with the much-romanticized, and almost as dominant, French one: “In Paris, we live in the past. I live in a building that was built in 1647 and that’s normal. Here in Seoul, I feel like the past has been swept away. There’s no way to know what it used to be before the city was demolished and rebuilt. It’s like living in the present. But sometimes, we don’t realize we are carrying the past with us.”

But few Korean stories, of course, whether on the stage, screen, or page, fail to acknowledge the un-pastness of the past, mostly in regard to the still historically fresh scar from the country’s division after the Second World War. I’ve long appreciated Kim Young-ha’s books for not focusing on the pain inherent in life in a divided Korea as fixedly as those of some of his colleagues, but a novel like this one, involving as directly as it does the theme of North-South relations — let alone featuring a North Korean protagonist, and one portrayed as a non-monster at that — can’t avoid dealing with separation, whether between states or between individuals.

And so the material of The Empire of Light becomes, in the words of French ambassador, something “between espionage and philosophy,” breaking from the thriller-like plot of Kim’s novel to engage in a polyphonic meditation on not just separation but conflict, allegiance, and memory themselves, perceived from across the ever-growing gulf between two societies. There the performance uses its recording-room set in the most literal way, bringing the actors up to standing microphones to deliver monologues composed of thoughts, memories, and emotions, both factual and fictional, stirred by North Korea. A very French theatrical tactic, you might say — but a very Korean one as well.

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

We All Had a Hard Time Back Then: Lee Seung-U’s ‘The Private Lives of Plants’

By Colin Marshall 

This is the first in a series of posts on the Library of Korean Literature, a series of modern novels and books of short stories in English translation published by Dalkey Archive Press in collaboration with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.

I once heard the Korean filmmaker Lee Sang-woo make a remark that shed a lot of light on the expectations of an international “art” filmmaker. He named Titanic as his personal favorite movie and claimed to want to do nothing more than make a silly romantic comedy, yet to that point had a filmography full of grim microbudget features set among Korea’s more desperate classes with names like Father Is a Dog (아버지는 개다) and Mother Is a Whore (엄마는 창녀다). He’d made them, he said, because film festivals go for them; they want to see the “dark side” of the places their movies come from, so he’d obligingly darkened it up every time. (He said it at a Q&A following his latest picture, a high-school story of drugs, prostitution, cancer, and sex addiction.)

Lee Seung-u’s The Private Life of Plants (식물들의 사생활), which opens with its narrator driving around looking for working girls for his disfigured brother who, without regular sexual activity, goes into thrashing, terrifying fits — and this as an alternative to the brother’s former practice of having his mother carry him on her back to the brothels — at first struck me as an example of the same phenomenon. If world cinema has this festival-driven bias toward extravagant misery, might smaller and more “serious” publishers have incentivized the same thing in world literature? But the more I read, the more the novel deviated from my expectations — and the more pleasingly strange it became.

We learn that the narrator, Ki-hyeon, feels responsible for the loss of his brother Woo-hyeon’s legs. It happened due to an explosion during a military training exercise, and he got sent off to the military as a punishment for have taken the wrong pictures during his brief time as an avid photographer. “I remember the days when my brother was always on the streets with his camera,” remembers Ki-hyeon. “It was a time when Seoul often teemed with demonstrators and the air was filled with tear gas. His eyes watering and nose running, he devotedly clicked his shutter. He took photos of the police throwing tear gas bombs and wielding their clubs wile charging against protesters. He snapped shots of protesters throwing firebombs against the police shields, and photos of grimacing passerby, running for safety to avoid exploding tear gas bombs.”

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This could only have been the mid-1980s, when clashes in the street between between the people and the government, one side usually represented by college students and the other by equally youthful troops of riot police, gained both frequency and intensity. These and other disturbances would ultimately force South Korea into a kind of democracy, but not without serious loss of life and abuse of power. Lee dramatizes the heavy hand of the state in the fate of Woo-hyeon, arrested and forcefully enlisted after a police raid of the family home discovers what he’d been photographing. Their authorities had got their tipoff, it seems, from an unfinished roll of film left in Woo-hyeon’s Nikon after Ki-hyeon, effectively kicked out of the house and feeling vengeful, sold it to a camera shop for pocket money.

“I learned the truths of our times through your photos,” says an apologetic Ki-hyeon to the legless, vocationless Woo-hyeon years later. “I didn’t read newspapers; I didn’t need to, because nothing was more honest than your photos. I saw the raw truth in them. Through your photos I learned of the sadness and despair of our reality and I saw its anger and tears.” But Woo-hyeon has long since left photography behind, along with almost everything else but the fits, the prostitutes, and the occasional haunting, dissociative monologue about trees. He seems not even to think any longer of Soon-mee, his girlfriend from before the arrest and the wedge driven between the two brothers that, in a way, motivated Ki-hyeon to steal the camera in the first place: since he couldn’t have the girl on whom he’d developed a romantic fixation, he’d take the object of his brother’s intellectual fixation.

Having moved back into the family house, Ki-hyeon, whose ne’er-do-well ways had never benefited from comparison to those of the formerly serious, high-achieving Woo-hyeon, finds the motivation to start his own business, a one-man errand-running agency called Bees and Ants (“a name I greatly admired”). No sooner has he installed a phone line and bought a few ads than a client rings him up hiring to tail his own mother. Unable to resist taking the lucrative case, in this way finds out about her facilitation of his brother’s brothel habit. “I felt nauseous,” he says. “No mother should do something like that! My inner rage was so strong that I felt my heart would explode.”

By Ki-hyeon’s standard, that doesn’t count as great emotional hyperbole. Time and again he tells us of situations where “unable to control my anger, I began to shout at him,” or where “despite all logic I was helplessly consumed by a raging envy,” or where “my strange passion gripped me tightly and inflated by self-confidence to a dangerous degree.” But readers of Korean literature might expect such heightened passions and characters consumed by them, especially when those characters describe those passions as leading them inexorably into regrettable acts of violence, crime, sex, or some combination thereof — micro-tramas ultimately caused, to some degree, by the macro-traumas of Korean history.

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But some of the characters in The Private Life of Plants find a refuge from this inner turmoil, down near a seaside town on the other side of the country from Seoul. When his mother seems suddenly to decide she needs to go town there, Ki-hyeon follows her, eventually witnessing a meeting between her and a frail old man, not long for this world, who turns out to have been her lover of thirty-five years before. It happens under an enormous palm tree (in and of itself a bizarre enough sight to Ki-hyeon, who’s never left his homeland), planted by the couple back when she was just a young waitress, and he  a high-powered official who frequented her restaurant.

Just as Woo-hyeon and Soon-mee wound up a kind of casualty of South Korea’s troubled political climate, so did Ki-hyeon’s mother and this man. Fingered by a colleague as a North Korea sympathizer, he had to go into a sudden but prolonged period of political exile. The accuser himself, overwhelmed by the guilt of decades, arranges this long-separated couple’s reunion: “He repeated, over and over again, that he was the one to blame. He also said how he was ashamed of still being alive and not getting what he really deserved — death. But at the same time he didn’t resist giving an excuse for his conduct. ‘But as you know,’ he said, ‘we all had a hard time back then.’”

As often in Korean literature, hard times then beget hard times now, but by the end of this short novel, the characters find themselves heading toward a kind of broken redemption. Nothing has fully absolved Ki-hyeon of his guilt; nothing has extinguished the candle his mother holds for the man who came before his devoted but taciturn and botany-obsessed father; nothing has brought back Woo-hyeon’s legs. And though the clouds of tear gas in Seoul and elsewhere have long since dissipated, nothing has cleared up the ambient distrust between the powerful and everyone else.

Having tracked down Soon-mee with the skills that serve him so well at Bees and Ants and put her up in the empty house beside the palm tree, Ki-hyeon prepares to deliver his brother there, to the spot just outside reality that provided a temporary paradise to his mother and her lover those thirty-five years ago. Whether it will offer such a state of being to Soon-mee and Woo-hyeon as well Lee leaves open. “I loved Soon-mee the way that my father loved my mother,” concludes Ki-hyeon. “But she loved my brother, just as my mother loved another man. But just as it can’t be said that Mother doesn’t love Father, it also can’t be said that Soon-mee doesn’t love me.” And while it can’t be said that they’ve all arrived on the bright side, exactly, nor can it be said that they remain on the dark one.

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

Learning from the Korean City

By Colin Marshall 

Few books have changed the way I see cities Eastern or Western as much as Barrie Shelton’s Learning from the Japanese City. Were I an urban-planning academic, I’d want to write its counterpart for the Korean city myself. But until some urban-planning academic does take it upon themselves to write such a book, I actually recommend to those who arrive in and struggle to understand Seoul, or any less colossal Korean City, Shelton’s original. As I spend more time in Korea — punctuated by visits to its neighbor across the water, where I happen to sit writing this very post — the exercise of spotting the differences between it and Japan has become an exercise of spotting their ever-rarer similarities.

A great deal of work has gone into scrubbing away the imprint of the Japanese colonial rule, which lasted in Korea between 1910 and the end of the Second World War, including the demolition of structures built (no matter how well) during that time. Consequently, you don’t see much architectural similarity between, say, Seoul and Tokyo, but you do see a fair extent of overall urban similarity, beginning with the feelings both cities provoke in first-time Western visitors. “I was baffled, irritated and even intimidated by what I saw,” writes Shelton of his own early exposure to Japanese urban environments. “Yet at the same time, I found myself energized, animated and indeed inspired by them. The effect was liberating and my intuition was quick to suggest that further exploration of their chaotic vitality might be extremely rewarding.”

Tokyo and Seoul have long made this kind of unfavorable first impression, at least since, “to the ‘Enlightened’ Western eye of the latter half of the nineteenth century, the cities appeared drab, featureless and insubstantial,” and the observing Westerners, “almost without exception, could not see beyond the flimsiness of the individual buildings and the collective monotony of the cities.” Shelton even quotes the late nineteenth-century traveler Isabella Bird Bishop (about whose travels through Korea more in a later post) describing Tokyo as “‘a city of “magnificent distances” without magnificence’ meaning that it was an amorphous amalgam of grey featureless patches in a seemingly endless urban landscape.”

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That description will sound familiar to every Seoulite, as will Shelton’s quotation of the Australian novelist Hal Porter on the Tokyo of the 1950s and 60s: “makeshift and confused, a freak weed sprung from a crack in history, and drenched by a fertilizer that makes it monstrous but not mighty, immense but immoral, overgrown and undercivilized,” despite the “unparalleled opportunities” for reconstruction, when “it was incinerated flat by the 1923 earthquake and the World War II bombings, to disentangle and straighten out its Gordian knot of streets.” And even now, “to most Western eyes, Japanese cities lack civic spaces, sidewalks, squares, parks, vistas, etc; in other words, they lack those physical components that have come to be viewed as hall marks of a civilized Western city.”

You often hear the same complaints in Seoul, and though the complainers sometimes do it from a well-informed place of genuine urbanist concern, they often sound to me like non-readers of the Korean or Japanese languages moaning about how the pages of a Korean or Japanese newspaper don’t make any sense. Maybe they just need to learn to “read” these cities, or so I came to believe after reading Shelton’s book, since he bases much of his examination of the Japanese city on the notion of the urban fabric as a text. Most intriguingly, to my mind, he compares at length the way of Japanese city-building with the way of Japanese writing, in which two different phonetic alphabets (one of them dedicated exclusively to foreign words) coexist with the pictographic kanji descended from Chinese characters and even the Western alphabet.

“All appear alongside each other or interspersed as a matter of course in the newspapers, on the streets, etc.,” Sheldon writes. In Japanese, “each character has an areal base and an invisible centre of gravity. Since each bears meaning and is, to some degree iconic, it has a good measure of independence.” In Western writing, however, “our letters are abstract symbols without meaning and depend upon precise linear spacing to achieve it. Further, they are complete within themselves (finite in number) and can only be readily understood if written in a horizontal left-to-right format.” Thus “the most fundamental difference between the two ‘ways of seeing’ in these fields appears to be that the Japanese is based on area while the Western is on line, and it is from here that other differences tend to flow: namely the relative independence and flexibility exhibited by the parts in the Japanese systems.”

As with the Japanese text, so with the Japanese city, where one-dimensional streets have far less importance as places or even as wayfinding tools than do units of two-dimensional area, where the buildings that occupy those areas and the activities that take place in them bear little obvious relationship to the context around them, and where vastly different aesthetic styles, eras of history, and layers of “meaning” appear all at once, parseable only with great difficulty, if at all, to uninitiated foreign eyes. (Not to mention all the actual text visible all around, the “vertical and roof signs joined by massive flat and animated ones, not to mention large- scale screens complete with sound — in effect, street cinema.”)

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Shelton calls the layout of a Japanese magazine, and thus the layout of a Japanese city, “an intricate collage with no obvious centre and no clear edge,” words that remind me of any number of descriptions of Los Angeles, especially as it took its mid-twentieth-century form and struck so many observers as a brand new kind of metropolis. “When I imagine most Western cities, I think first of their streets and other spaces and the patterns of relationship between these: of major to minor streets, of monumental buildings to spaces, and of dominant centres to peripheral places. When I think of Japanese cities, I think of scattered points with no clear relationship between each other and often no clear form within themselves.”

And all throughout, “the Japanese city is quick to sever, discard, replace and re-form its parts according to the new needs of a rapidly changing world and without the Western concern for the wider visual context or pattern. Hence, the quality which so infuriates the Western observer seems also to be the Japanese city’s strength” — and the Korean city’s, and especially, with its famously short cycle of construction, demolition, and reconstruction, Seoul’s. Think of book whose text, already written in a variety of fonts, colors, and sizes (with pictures!), might change a word, a sentence, or a paragraph at a time even as you read it, but whose structure remains basically intact.

So it makes sense that Japanese and Korean cities would require their own navigational strategies. I’ve heard a fair few Western friends visiting Asia bemoan there countries’ lack of regular street grids, predictable street addresses, and even evident street names, but if they stay long enough, they start to internalize the necessary changes in perception. This comes especially quickly if they often ask for directions — which for these reasons they’ll need to do much more than they would in the West — and thus often get told to emerge from a certain subway station and walk toward the statue of the independence-movement freedom fighter, pass through a stretch of coffee shops, stop at the big bell and look for a couple of fried chicken places, then head up the winding path into the hill between them, and so on. The very terms used to give directions, especially in Korean, stresses context rather than path.

Hence, given “the haphazard nomenclature and numbering systems,” the importance of maps, a “common feature of regional and local newspapers, magazine and even billboard advertising” and an item commonly received along with an invitation to a private home. Shelton makes the point about Japan, of course, as did Roland Barthes when he wrote, in Empire of Signs, of how the Japanese “excel in these impromptu drawings” made to help recipients find their way through the cityscape. The Seoulite lives no less map-intensive an existence; several times a week, I come home to find a flier wedged in my door advertising my neighborhood’s newest yoga studio, hair salon, or Chinese food joint, its street address almost hidden away but a simplified (and usually self-aggrandizing, or at least self-exaggerating) map of its surroundings prominently placed.

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But over and above these details of life lived in them, why does a Seoul or a Tokyo immediately feel so different to someone coming from New York, London, or Paris? Shelton points out another different in language that sheds light on the question: the lack of a sharp distinction between “urban” and “rural.” He cites the scholar of Japanese geography Paul Waley as “at pains to stress that the Japanese language has no equivalent words for ‘city’ and ‘country’ and there is no strong idea that sets the two kinds of places in some sort of binary opposition.” The Japanese language has the word inaka (田舎) and Korean the word chonseureopda (촌스럽다), both evocative of “rural isolation and ignorance, but this is hardly a positive or even romantic image of the rural scene, rather a negative product of space and time.”

Not quite so in the countries of the West, most of whom insist upon a comparatively stark urban-rural divide not just in language but in planning. Waley, “searching for some vaguely related notion” to the Western glorification of the countryside, “was able to note only the home place or furusato (故郷) as a notion holding some positive out-of-the-city association for urban Japanese — for most do continue to retain some link with and affection for their ‘home’ place. This is, however, more a personal point of reference of family or home surroundings (which may be much more than a village) than a general concept of countryside.” Koreans have the very similar concept of gohyang (고향), referring to whatever smaller hometown they left for Seoul — but probably without too many reservations.

The same goes for the difference, much labored-over in English, about the difference between “public” and “private” space. “Just as Waley suggests that there are no equivalent Japanese words which pit the idea of ‘city’ against that of ‘country,’” Shelton writes, referring to the novelist and Japan researcher John David Morley’s observation that, unlike in the West where “‘public’ is a powerful term,” indicating “all those places to which the entire community has both access and for which it has responsibility” while “private is possessed by an individual or group and is not generally open to the public,” the Japanese language has no equivalent distinction, even having to import public from English as the loanword paburikku (パブリック).

As the classes of private and public lack a clear distinction in the Japanese language, so they lack a clear distinction in the Japanese city: activities that might seem to the Westerner to belong to public spaces might easily happen in parts of the city that feel more like private ones, and vice versa. Seoul, a city often criticized for the few-and-far-between-ness of such classic Western-style public spaces as parks, works just the same way. Whether there, in Tokyo, or in any other city in these two countries, we’d do well read what goes on in the city as much as we read the places it goes on it. It goes along with what Shelton frames as the fundamental difference in Western and Eastern “thinking about space”: the former’s affinity with area which has it “put greater emphasis in city place-making on content (information, activity and animation),” and the latter’s with line, which makes it “more preoccupied by form (object, physical pattern and aesthetic composition).”

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Shelton even assembles a list of all the organizational qualities that make Japanese cities the opposite of Western ones, from a preference for the patchwork over the network, decentralization over the centralization, temporariness over permanence, content over context, vague boundaries over clear ones, and fragments over wholes. No wonder Tokyo and Seoul seem illegible at first glance to someone who learned to read urban space in anywhere like a classical Western city, though I like to think that Angelenos — accustomed as they are to their city’s oft-criticized but unique interpretation of the decentralized, temporary, vaguely bounded and fragmentary patchwork — come with an advantage, however slight.

So many of Learning from the Japanese City‘s conclusions about its subject apply to Seoul as I experience it every day that I sometimes wonder if we even need a Learning from the Korean City. But the more thorough the similarities, the more glaring the differences, which brings us back to the analogy between the elements that make up a city and the language that makes up a text. Korea, needless to say, uses the Korean language, a different beast indeed than Japanese, and one without so much mixture of writing systems within. Korean texts, as well as Korean cityscapes, once incorporated a great many Chinese characters (and once, longer ago, had nothing but), though by now all but the most common have fallen into complete disuse. They also used the Japanese language, during the colonial period, but the process of de-Japanification has seen that it no longer makes up a substantial component of public life.

Pay a visit to a Seoul, then, and you’ll mostly see the distinctive — though linear, homogenous, and non-ideographic — Korean alphabet alongside, if not quite mixed with, ever more frequent splashes of English. What sort of a city does the thinking behind the Korean language, and the use of the Korean language as a visual texture, create? For the most part, we’ll have to wait and see. With every passing year, Seoul and the other cities of South Korea get a little farther from the decades of strong Japanese influence, and farther still from the centuries of strong Chinese influence before that. What sort of more fully Korean urban “text” will emerge down the line? Curiosity about the answer has, in part, brought me here myself. The text may undergo revision as you read the book, but the fascination of Seoul is that the language itself also gets invented. 

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

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.