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A Korean Literary Superstar Tells His Countrymen Why to Read

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


People Will Move

By Joshua Weiner

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders.

This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the“Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


Thursday, 15 October

Dinner plans with the English poet, Alistair Noon, and his partner Sabine, who is German. The U-bahn ride is only a few stops, but Berlin-wise a different world from my secret service block — the blue collar district of Wedding (pron. Vedding). Alistair’s directions have me walking through what he calls “a spooky park.” Without any light at all in the park, I find myself walking long stretches beneath rows of thickly foliated trees that block out any ambient illumination. My urban hackles and sixth sense are raised; it’d be a cinch to jump me here. On the other hand, only an idiot would walk through this park and you’d have to be an equal one to wait for him in such deep darkness (a woman would never make the mistake). But I’ve never had a problem in Berlin, and I go pretty much everywhere — it helps, I suppose, to have some size (what I lack in height I make up for in girth). I get through all right, every other step giving me away with clinking beer bottles in tote.

Their flat is modern, small and neat. They’ve just moved in, having re-done the floors — (in Germany, renters are expected to pay for their own renovations; people don’t move around much and they often rent the same flat for decades — thus the inevitable epic wait to secure new digs). I have beaten Alistair home, he is on a beer run. Sabine and I are soon joined by their friend, Malte Fuhrmann, a cultural historian at the Türkisch-Deutsche Universität zu Istanbul, who slowly strips off his cycling rain gear — he is well protected head to toe, a true all-weather Berliner cyclist. Alistair soon follows and within minutes we’re all drinking outstanding Franconian beer. Conversation percolates over lentils, chard, and potatoes. As I find with Lian (and maybe this is a sign of authenticity) Alistair is very much like his poems — satirical, sharply enunciated, urbane, far-reaching in global reference, and fun to listen to. He’s been living in Berlin since before the Mauerfall, and makes his bread as a translator of legal documents (he also has good working command of Russian, and has translated Pushkin and Mandelstam in addition to contemporary German poets such as Monika Rinck).

Sabine teaches German as a second language to refugees — specifically those who have already achieved some kind of official foothold in the society. She describes some of the culture clashes between the values of Western open societies and Eastern notions of propriety, decorum, and social license (e.g. to live an openly gay life; for women to talk directly and freely and to exercise self-determination; to be openly physically affectionate; to express one’s sexuality without fear of reprimand or punishment . . .) Sabine’s class includes a wide range of nationalities, ethnicities, and religions.

There are sometimes tragi-comical episodes, such as building evacuations over forgotten book bags; but also alarming acts of violence against people with different expectations and ideas about how to act in society — different ideas about what society, in fact, in the West, is.

I ask her if the idea of a million Muslims entering Germany gives her cause for concern. No, she says, what scares me are the right-wing extremists in Germany. (I would hear that again and again, the feeling of many Germans that the far right in Germany, and of Germany, is more dangerous than the foreigners entering).

Alistair breaks in. No one should be surprised by the massive movement of refugees across the border, he says, after all, capital has been moving across borders without hindrance for at least a generation or more; it only makes sense that at some point people will move as well. The system, however, is designed to check people while allowing for the free movement of capital. But who creates the capital, he asks rhetorically. Well now the same system is breaking down. And, he adds, for good reason. Malte, whose focus as a scholar is the Ottoman Empire in the 19th & 20th centuries, breaks in with an especially acute reading of the situation. Unfortunately too much beer from Bamberg, Erlangen, Nürnberg have fritzed the synapses, and all I can remember is my impression that he knew more than any of us.

The evening ended with Malte and I walking back through the spooky park, which, with our blood alcohol levels, had been transformed into a foggy midnight pastoralia. I do remember, however, one of Malte’s subspecialties: Ottoman beer production in the 19th century and the transformation of public space. All hail Franconia! (And one of the main regions of entry for refugees in Germany….)



An e-mail from Malte Fuhrmann arrives, responding to my request for his (lost) thoughts about the crisis.

On the one hand, we are all a bit puzzled how differently things are running now compared with the big asylum-seeker influx in the early 90s (destitute people from economically wrecked Soviet block countries plus mostly Bosnian war refugees). Back then the CDU [Christian Democratic Union party, the center right catch-all party in Germany] kind of welcomed the attention towards the refugees, as this distracted from their obviously economically ruinous policy towards Eastern Germany. Also many mainstream intellectuals and the media jumped on the bandwagon. Now, there is this big consensus from the CDU through the mainstream media to not allow for racism, leaving the racist segment of society (which, mind you, is still big) looking for obscure organizations like Pegida and AfD [Alternative for Germany, one of the right-wing populist parties, fairly new]. Whether this or the old strategy is a better long-term solution to keep the right-wing small, I do not know. 

Other things which are different: back then buildings with people inside were set on fire, now it is “just” empty buildings. Nowadays Syrian war refugees get asylum status, whereas Bosnians in the 90s only received “Duldung” (status of being tolerated). It made it easier to deport them at short notice and excluded them from education, the job market etc. 

Another perspective is of course having lived in Turkey for several years. My friends from Turkey laugh at the fuss Germans make over the arriving refugees, as Turkey has lived with 2 million refugees from Syria throughout the last years. However, Germany offers much more to refugees then Turkey does (welfare, emergency housing, language education etc.), where there are a few mass camps for first arrivals, but many Syrians live in a state of destitution in the streets.  German society is a structurally very conservative one: most people did not really want their lives to change with reunification, and now they also would wish things just to return to normal. However the present dilemma has “possibly shown a split between those that realize that Germany is just a smaller area of Europe/Asia/Africa and cannot ignore if other parts of those continents are at war, live under dictatorships, or in misery. However there is this obstinate lot that still thinks the question is how many refugees Germany thinks “it can handle”, not realizing no one will bother to ask that with their backs against the wall. One immigrant friend (admittedly a Turkish American professor, not refugee) claimed however that while in Germany one occasionally runs into some ignoramus, people are in general more open-minded than in Switzerland, where people seem to generally have the attitude that somehow the system will take care of everybody, and if somebody falls out of the system, it is their individual fault.’

Read Joshua Weiner’s essay on the modern refugee novel, Transit, by Anna Seghers at BODY.



By Joshua Weiner

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders.

This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the “Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


Tuesday, 13 October

In her essay of 1943, “Wir Flüchtlinge (We Refugees),” Hannah Arendt asks the hard question about how Europe allowed the persecution of its Jews, and the even harder question of how the European Jewish loss of identity — the desire not to be perceived as Jewish — is a kind of self-annihilation that leads, literally, to suicide.

“In the first place,” she writes, “we don’t like to be called ‘refugees.’ We ourselves call each other ‘newcomers’ or ‘immigrants.'” Yes, with the current legal parsing of ‘refugee,’ ‘asylum seeker,’ ‘migrant,’ ‘immigrant,’ it’s all too easy intellectually to contain people within an imposed social category. Is it really possible to see people in their full individual humanity, free of that status? Who can one be outside of one’s relation to others? “We lost our home,” Arendt writes, “which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.”

The condition of statelessness, which, in Arendt’s historical reading, European Jews after World War II internalized and converted into an inauthentic assimilation in whatever country they happened to adopt, lead to a profound existential despair: “we try to put up a front, to hide the facts, to play roles.” This condition is now a global situation, a global diaspora. The particular aspects of that condition, of Jewishness, remain stubbornly Jewish — (“A nice little fairy tale has been invented to describe our behavior; a forlorn émigré dachshund, in his grief, begins to speak: “Once, when I was a St. Bernard . . .’’)

The refugees in Goethe’s cycle of stories, Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten (Conversations of German Refugees, 1795), are not Flüchtlinge, not so much fleeing, as migrating — they are migrants, Ausgewanderten–and you can hear the wandering in the word. They are not eternally wandering, but circumstantially on the move, displaced by the French Revolution, changing abodes, as the word migrate indicates. (And you can follow the line of this conceit from Bocaccio’s Decameron to Goethe’s Unterhaltungen to Brecht’s play, Flüchtlingsgespräche (Refugee Dialogues)–finished in 1944, Brecht’s conversations take place in a train station.)   In European lore, the Jews are not given even that uncertain status; they are denied the temporal limits of such movement; they are, rather, the Ewige Juden, “Eternal Jews,” their wandering knowing no bounds, only borders, all foreign. The “Eternal Jew” is forced from a native relation to the land, and into an unending unbound relation to time. The best of what European Jewish culture had to offer the world was born in this double bind of denial and conferral.

There is no need to try to draw equivalences between the Jews of Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s and the Middle East refugees now — for the Jews of Europe then had no homeland to begin with. This difference is all the difference in the world, the difference, you could say, of the difference. Yet Arendt puts forward an understanding also larger than the Jewish situation: “hell is no longer a religious belief or a fantasy, but something real as houses and stones and trees.” For those at Lageso, the houses have been destroyed; the stones they sit on grow cold; the trees they lie beneath are shedding their leaves . . . They are in a different brand of hell, because they know where they’re from.

I receive an e-mail from a friend in Berlin who had offered to introduce me to a Syrian woman she knew. But the woman, once approached, refused. She didn’t want to speak to any writers or anyone from the media about the war or about being a refugee–“there is such a shitstorm about it right now,” my friend writes, and “the media is all over it. She just wants to get on with her life and integrate . . .”

Read Joshua Weiner’s essay on the modern refugee novel, Transit, by Anna Seghers at B O D Y.

20 Yang Lian2

The Insider Outside and the Outsider Inside

By Joshua Weiner

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders.

This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the “Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


Sunday, 11 October

Pedaling through the Tiergarten on a bright Sunday in October, you would expect to see plenty of others enjoying the day; but today the park is teeming with thousands of stragglers still in town after yesterday’s massive demonstration against the US-EU trade pact (TTIP/CETA). Hundreds of thousands came out, by the literal busload. The speeches and music floated up several kilometers and over the roofs of the Naturkundemuseum and the new CIA building to tickle my ear through the open window.

I stayed inside, working on these journal entries, studying some German, and losing myself in Joseph Roth’s Weimar-era writing about the city (collected under the title, What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933, translated by Michael Hofmann). Though these dispatches originally appeared in newspapers, they transcend their immediate genre. As flâneur, Roth was not only observant, sympathetic, ironical, and intrepid, paying close attention to the lives of struggling immigrants, displaced Jews, and homeless in the mechanical metropolis with its seedy glamour—his vision is penetrating, his comprehension indelible. “Phenomena and atmospheres and experiences differ,” he writes, “not in their essence, but in secondary qualities like scale.” Everywhere in these reports from the streets of Berlin, Roth shifts the scale so that we can see what otherwise we’d walk right by, “to learn that a slightly bent hand can hold in it the misery of all time.” The novelist is always awake in these sentences. Roth was paid for each one, but a personal relish for the startling detail and comprehensive sweep animates every phrase.

But one cannot always be observing firsthand; one must also stay inside and reimagine, sift, refine, and sharpen sentences. Such was Saturday. And with such a massive demonstration, I would get lost in the scripted sentiments, the replicated postures. But you couldn’t escape the gist: “STOP TTIP/CETA für einen gerechten Welthandel”(“STOP TTIP/CETA for a world of fair trade”). Today, red and green flags still wandered the Tiergarten, the demo anti-corporate/pro-environment/pro-labor/pro-consumer/pro-democracy vibe sustaining a feeling of positive lift.

I pedaled through the aimless political drift zigzagging my way to the Chinese poet Yang Lian (or, as one would say in English, Lian Yang) in Schöneberg, my old Kiez from two years ago. The hookers of Kurfürstenstrasse were already out on a Sunday afternoon, a block or so from Lian’s conspicuously renovated stretch — such is Berlin, where prostitution is legal. They all looked like immigrants from the East, some having perfected their slow sexual strutting, others merely standing in the street as if they were saving a parking space for a friend. Bright high-cut shorts hugged flesh-tone tights—it was getting colder — and made theatrically explicit the parody of flashy mating dance. Maybe women hooking from Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Serbia, Macedonia had the relative privilege of working in the brothels . . . was I seeing a societal labor sub-class? Note to self: ask a German guy in a Kneipe near Oranienstrasse (another street, in Mitte, where I’m living now, also known as a district for sex workers — they hover around the historic Neue Synogogue).

Two years ago, when I was living in Berlin, Lian and I had worked together on translating his verse triptych about Nabokov’s exile in Berlin (1922-37). I hadn’t seen Lian since, though we’d stayed in touch. He and his wife, the novelist and painter, YoYo (Liu Youhong) had lived for many years in exile themselves (first in New Zealand, then London, and now Berlin) having fled Beijing with the growing violence that led to the collapse of the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. Lian is a lot like his poems, full of expressionist intensity and phrasal bursts. Words seem to shoot out of him; he’s like a walking language gun.

Lian and YoYo live in the kind of high-ceilinged pre-war apartment building with big well-lit rooms that were demolished all over the East for their bourgeois decadence. Although they had some difficulty renovating it — Berlin subcontractors, seeing they were Chinese, assumed they were therefore super-rich, and tried to rip them off — it’s now a lovely, warm, spacious flat. Exile has become home.

As we settle on the couch behind steaming cups of tea, I can tell YoYo is antsy as Lian and I slowly lose ourselves in poetry talk. She is getting ready to show her paintings — colorful impressionistic abstract work on large paper, with strong calligraphic elements — to a gallery owner coming later. She excuses herself. Lian and I plunge into our shared obsession — poetry, its cultural history and global reach. Lian, deeply read in several traditions, makes the kind of connections that frame poetry as a trans-historical practice. He carries himself with an elegant modesty, and is instantly recognizable in a crowd with his shoulder-length mane and quick smile. In China, he is famous for joining a native tradition with European modernism, something he shares with other poets from the so-called “Misty School” of late 20th century poetry in China, whose metaphorical language communicated feelings and ideas to Chinese readers that the state deemed verboten. However, as with much of the poetry in communist bloc eastern Europe, the language of poetry is often difficult for the state to prosecute: it’s hard to say, in a court of law, what it means, exactly. The poetry flourished there in its stylistic ambiguities; still, because its subversiveness was understood, it had to be suppressed. Since the collapse of the  democracy movement in 1989, Lian’s body of work has grown in significance; a standard collected works is in preparation in China, and he is translated and published the world over.

Our conversation turned to the refugees. I asked him what he made of the situation given his experiences living in political exile for the last 25 years. Exile, he said, is the grammar to connect people across time and space, it is the grammar of poetry. The real story is the most powerful thing; no one can invent that experience in real life. Tiananmen or Syria now, everyone lives in history, really. We need to see that it is the same story in different countries in order to understand the situation — not only is it their situation, but it is our situation: that’s the most important point. When people talk about China, they often recycle Cold War ideology, black and white — but recycled talking points do not meet the deeper layer of reality of the situation. So in reference to the refugee crisis now, he said, I feel that the reason for the crisis, how IS [Islamic State] has squeezed the internal space within Arabic culture — that’s a real source of worry. Inside of those countries (Syria, Iraq, Iran, even Turkey) the liberal space is getting smaller and smaller. The only hope for the world is that one day a real modern transformation will happen. It has to happen, he says. In 2003, Lian continues, Adonis [the Syrian poet, recognized around the world as one of the great modern Arabic writers] said to me, “I am anti-Islamic because religion is always used to compel people to believe and to behave.” This was so great and such a relief to hear. I see in him, said Lian, one great individual, in his body, speaking for the awareness of this need for this kind of individualism. This kind of thinking has to happen more often with more people. That is the only hope. History goes like that. One person can really decide the direction of history. But we have to think when we see refugees, we are refugees too. We live in a peaceful time and place, but the violent situation driving them from their home is so close to us. I say, said Lian, exile is a grammar crossing time and space — and, really, from our experience after Tiananmen massacre, that grammar helps us to see ourselves and the refugees, both walking here in Berlin.

Why did you guys move to Berlin and make your home here? With our experience in Beijing, said Lian, there is a direct link between Tiananmen Square and the opening of the Berlin wall. The blood in Tiananmen Square [spring 1989] served as the textbook of days for Europe and Berlin [fall 1989]. Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing [that spring] brought students into the street. [Gorbachev was viewed as a figure of increased liberalization, which ran counter to Chinese communist party hard-liners, but excited those involved with the democracy movement]. So all the international TV stations were in Beijing, Lian continued, and that called the world’s attention to Tiananmen Square; and when the massacre happened, it was the first time in front of all the world’s eyes. Tiananmen Square — Berlin Wall: it is almost like one pair of words, each made up of three characters in Chinese, like coupled lines in a poem.

We discussed some of the differences I was hearing at Lageso between the desires of those from Syria and from Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s experience is longer, said Lian, with the question of what can be a stable home. First the British, then the Russians, then the Taliban, then America [took control of the country] — the meaning of home keeps changing — you can live in exile at home. And home is also in this, our body, he gestures to himself, Afghanis are clearer about this than those from Syria, he says.

Why is it so important, I ask, for you to live in exile; after all, at this point, you could go back, right? After Tiananmen Square, says Lian, so many Chinese writers were living and writing in exile. But now, most of them have gone back to China, or to Chinese-speaking areas. It’s a strange feeling. But it is so rare to have a real Chinese writer with open international experience and therefore a larger understanding; and to put in the hand of Chinese people the possibility of a modern transformation of Chinese culture, and to push it. You can be a greater force for change in China, I said, by living outside of it than if you lived there. Lian responded, I don’t want to lock myself in the small space of living in China, but pushing for change from here. We have been called “the Insider Outside and the Outsider Inside.”

Would it be safe if you returned, I asked. For many years, says Lian, when I landed in China and turned on my phone, the first call I received came from the secret police. “Oh, Mr. Yang, you are here again, welcome. We hope we can sit down soon and discuss matters.” In other words, you are being watched. But this has stopped. But this does not mean I feel safe. On the other hand, where is safe? In the West there are commercial pressures, and a huge culture that keeps changing day to day. Always you feel you are a stranger. But I am quite proud to be a stranger. Every new poem makes me stranger and stronger. I abandon my old self to write a new poem. All these challenges make us stronger individuals. I hope this can be shared with the refugees from Syria, but also for those born here, and living here for many generations. It feels like before World War I right now, he said, before the world became separated by two big ideas, capitalism and communism. Exile links everything. We have to be the active Other — that is the point of awareness, he said, the attempt to understand others is part of your own ego, part of your understanding of yourself.

On my bike ride home I thought of the first televised images I saw in 1989 of the Mauerfall. My paternal grandfather, Sam Weiner, had just died, and I was in Hollywood, Florida, for the funeral, and helping to sort out my grandparents’ apartment. Watching Germans from East and West climb the wall, and try, without much effect, to hammer and chip at it . . . It was the end of one era and the beginning of another, especially in light of my grandfather’s own boyhood flight from Russia and his eventual journey into the US through Ontario. With both sides of my family hailing from Russia, I had to wonder about my last name, Weiner: it’s a straight-up German name (related to Wagner, or meaning wheelwright, or in Yiddish, wine merchant) . . .

Read Joshua Weiner’s essay on the modern refugee novel, Transit, by Anna Seghers at B O D Y.

checkpoint charlie

Still as a Tomb

By Joshua Weiner

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders.

This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the “Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


Friday, 9 October

I ride my bike down Friedrichstrasse to the Checkpoint Charlie area to find the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Originally established by the League of Nations, it was reiterated by the United Nations after World War II, with the idea that it would work hard for a few years to solve the crisis of European refugees after the war. But the need for it during that period was renewed when the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Since then, it’s never been out of commission.

I realize quickly after parking my bike and wandering around a courtyard area on Zimmerstrasse that I’ll have to sneak in the building with some other visitors. I loiter a while, and join a small group that gets buzzed in. Luckily, I’ve donned a button down shirt and sport jacket — my official costume — and look like I might have a reason to walk in with them. But I don’t know what floor the office is on. I walk up five stories and find it. Door locked. On either side of the door is a thick glass wall. I peer in. Standing flags and open office doors. A few attempts at ringing the bell with no results. I wait outside the door for 15 minutes, staring intently through the glass. I can’t see into any of the office spaces, even with the doors open, but I can see the sun coming in from the exterior windows, sending shafts of light through the rooms and out the thresholds. I study the dust motes to see if I can make out any swirling disturbances that would suggest a moving body inside. Nothing. Still as a tomb.

Read Joshua Weiner’s essay on the modern refugee novel, Transit, by Anna Seghers at B O D Y.

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Among the Korea Vloggers

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin day 8

Germany Is My Desire

By Joshua Weiner

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders.

This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the “Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


Thursday, 8 October

I head back to to Lageso. It’s been raining on and off for the last 36 hours, not hard, but hard enough to make a day standing outside waiting absolutely miserable. The grounds have turned muddy; large puddles have joined to create even larger pools that the refugees work around as they navigate each other’s haphazard maneuvering. Bassel and Sami spot me; we shake hands. They’re surprised to see me again. Journalists covering this complicated fast-moving story have so many aspects and pieces to put together, they keep moving on to the next site, the next conflict, tension, announcement, ineptitude, disaster . . . Today there are so many television reporters and cameramen on the grounds with their equipment, you can feel how curtains have parted on a new theater of the situation. What publication do you write for, what kind of writing are you doing? asks Bassel. I’m writing for a journal in the US, I say, and show them a letter from Tom Lutz, the editor in chief of LARB, confirming my assignment. I’m a poet, I add, I teach at the university.

Hamraz, a 39-year old mechanic from Herat, Afghanistan, overhears and approaches. I also am teacher, he says. We shake hands. What do you teach, I say. English, he says. He is here with his wife and two daughters, ages 7 and 13. They’ve travelled for three weeks to get to Germany, through Afghanistan and into Iran (where his parents live), Turkey, Greece, to Hamburg, and onto Berlin.

A non-believer, Hamraz is fleeing religious persecution. In Afghanistan, his atheism puts him in life-threatening danger; were he to move his family in with his parents, his life would be in danger there as well. Here in Germany, he says, is democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of opinions. Germany is my desire, he says. My mind is like the culture of Europe, my opinions are the same. I like the law, my security here is good. I am relaxed here. I cannot be persecuted for what I think. I can wait here. Twenty days. One month. Two month. It’s not a problem. My children are safe. They play every day. My future is here. I want to work. I have to continue my lessons. What is your work, I ask (maybe he teaches English on the side, or as a public service). Big autos, he says, trucks and vans. My father is a mechanic; I learned from him. I learned English in Kabul. You speak well, I say. I reach into my bag. Here, I say. I put a Langenscheidt German-English dictionary into his hand. The bright yellow cover of durable plastic is practically an icon of foreign language study. For me? he says. His gratitude for so little embarrasses me. In an instant three more guys join us, talking to Hamraz in Dari and gesturing at me. They want to know if you have more, he says. I wish I did, I say. I get a troubling cold stare from a square-jawed big-boned guy. I don’t like the look of him. I say good luck and call it a day.

Audio: S7 train from Alexanderplatz to Bellevue, the S-bahn stop for Lageso


The Problem of the “Problematik”

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders.

This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the “Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


Wednesday, 7 October

Die Flüchtlinge = the refugees. You see and hear the word everywhere. (You can hear it at the beginning of the new opening montage for the fifth season of Homeland). The Flüchtlingekrise (crisis) has created a stage for the virtuosity of the German language to invent compound-nouns, new substantives that one keeps stumbling over in German newspapers and magazines.

We are involved in this new Flüchtlingswerk (work), to provide Flüchtlingshilfe (help) to those Flüchtlings making their way on the divergent Flüchtlingsroute, at least when they don’t run up against a Flüchtlingssackgasse (impass). The Flüchtlings have created a Flüchtlingsproblematik, by virtue of the Flüchtlingsandrangs (crush), the Flüchtlingssturm (onslaught).

Both Flüchtlings fleeing existential threat and what they call the Wirtschaftsflüchtlingen (economic refugees, those from the Balkans seeking better wages and working conditions) are living in Flüchtlingsunterkunft (camps). The new situation in Germany is driven by Flüchtlingspolitik, and is leading to what they’re calling the Flüchtlingsfrage (question).

This last neologism is the most troubling in light of German history, the great problem of the problematik, and it echoes down the worst of the nation’s tragic corridors. For prior to the current Flüchtlingsfrage, there was, and still is, in Germany, the Ausländerfrage (the outsider question), and before that, the more pointed Judenfrage (the Jewish question). The Jewish question, which had been floating through European anti-Semitism (and its corresponding Zionism) since the 18th century — what to do with Jews, what to do to them, and to what degree they belonged to any nation — culminated in a solution to the question, the Final Solution of the Wansee Conference in 1942.

The see (pronounced zay) in Wansee means “lake.” Into it flowed the question, which resulted in an abyss we call the 20th century, home of Leviathan, the monster of our methods. Is it any wonder that now we face what we’ve become, a Flüchtlingsströmen (ceaseless streaming). 60 million displaced, globally, and growing . . .


The Next Unicorn?

By Austin Dean

It’s hard to keep up with Chinese economic news: CEOs being detained by the public security apparatus, the release of economic statistics that no one believes, the fluctuations between the Chinese yuan’s value on the mainland and offshore, the day-to-day gyrations of the stock market. It’s enough to keep you up at night, or for those of us in the United States, get you out of bed early to see what happened in Asia while we slept.

No one knows what will happen next. The cautious optimists do not see a Chinese financial crisis around the corner, while the pessimists think a hard landing is imminent. If you want to find the real optimists, though, watch Chinese reality TV shows about entrepreneurs.

The original show in this genre was Win in China, which aired on CCTV 2, the business and finance channel. As James Fallows chronicled in 2007, the program pitted entrepreneurs in a series of challenges to win funding for their ventures. As one of the producers told Fallows at the time, the show wasn’t just about money. There was a larger purpose: “We want to teach values. Our dream for the show is to enlighten Chinese people and help them realize their own dreams […] There is no religion in China, so it is very important to promote the right kind of values. Today for our society, the entrepreneur can be our hero.”

After the season finale in 2007, Fallows hoped the show’s place in China’s cultural landscape would eventually become “an unsubtle and perhaps over-sincere effort to teach people the rules of peaceful prosperity” and not “another bit of evidence about the Chinese bubble: the way people behaved when they thought the good times would always go on.”

And that’s still the important quandary.

A more recent entry in the genre is We Are The Hero (Chuangye yingxiong hui), which began in late 2014 and also airs on CCTV 2. The most noticeable difference from Win in China is the age group — We Are The Hero is much more youth-oriented and aimed at the post-1980s and post-1990s generations. As one entrepreneur said in an early episode, his generation of post-90s youth is not only interested in making money, but also in doing something that that will make people remember them. Some might say this attitude comes off as arrogant, but it might simply reflect that people born in post-1990s China have only known economic growth. For them making money is a given. They want more.

Unlike Win in China, which followed contestants on a week-to-week basis, We Are The Hero runs through three to four entrepreneurs each episode. In that way, viewers don’t have as much of a chance to identify with a particular candidate as they did in Win in China. Win in China was more like The Apprentice, while We Are The Hero is a bit closer to Shark Tank.

After taking the stage on We Are The Hero, entrepreneurs give a pitch to a group of twenty investors who decide whether or not they’re interested in the idea being offered. The contestant moves on to the next round if they reach a certain threshold of investor interest. In the next segment, the contestants interview with two “tutors” (daoshi), who themselves are famous entrepreneurs. People serve as tutors on a rotating basis, and there have been some pretty big names, such as Yu Minhong, the founder of the English-language training school New Oriental, and Lei Jun, the founder of Xiaomi, often called the Apple of China. If the entrepreneurs are able to convince the two tutors they have what it takes, they move on to round three, when investors from round one can make offers. It is at this point that other members of the company take the stage (they’re backstage during the first two rounds). If the entrepreneurs and investors agree in principle to a deal, they sort out the details off camera.

The other big difference between the two shows is what types of ideas entrepreneurs pitch to investors. In the first season of Win in China, one contestant wanted investment in order to expand production capacity for making lingerie; another wanted to get into “direct-response marketing,” which, as Fallows wrote, was “the polite name for the infomercial business.” In We Are The Hero, it’s all about smartphones and the app economy.

We Are The Hero is actually a bit tame compared to a show currently being filmed, The Next Unicorn (Xunzhao dujiaoshou). The point of this show is to find the next billion-dollar company, which in the lingo of Silicon Valley and venture capital are known as unicorns.

The Next Unicorn is also explicitly international in ways the others shows are not. Although Win in China had a handful of international contestants, most famously Henry Winter, it was still very much a China-based show. The Next Unicorn, on the other hand, is filming in Shanghai, Taipei, Singapore, Tel Aviv, Silicon Valley, and other locales. Produced by CBN (Diyi caijing) and offering a $2.5 million dollar prize, the show will feature entrepreneurs based around the world. The Australian creator of an app that allows users to rate clothing flew to China at the beginning of the year to begin filming. As the founder said, “We’ve given our pitch a complete overhaul while keeping it obviously true to our vision. But it’s very tailored to the Asian market, its problems and how we would tap into that.”

Of course, The Next Unicorn is filming at a time when many are beginning to talk about “dead unicorns” or “unicorpses”—companies unable to continue raising money at high valuations that have to drastically shrink or close down their operations. In what venture capitalist Bill Gurley called a must-read article, Reuters chronicled the story of Shequ001, a Beijing start-up that delivered groceries ordered on smartphones. In less than a year, the company went from 2,000 employees to fewer than three dozen, with many of those who left still owed pay.

Maybe it is this show and not Win in China or We Are The Hero that will represent “the way people behaved when they thought the good times would always go on.” Stay tuned. The Next Unicorn is set to air in early April.

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

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KB - Robot Sori 3

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

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

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

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

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