The Mermaid

By Austin Dean

First released in China on February 8th, The Mermaid (Meiren yu) took less than two weeks to become the highest-grossing film in the history of mainland Chinese cinema. The same day it passed that milestone in China (February 19th), the film opened in limited release in the United States. Playing on only 35 screens, the movie brought in just over a million dollars at the weekend box office.

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it put The Mermaid 16th out of the 50 films playing that weekend, and its average take per screen was a very high $29,000. It was actually the biggest opening weekend for a Chinese movie in the United States in more than a decade. By the first weekend in March, the movie had grossed just over $2.5 million at the American box office. The Columbus, Ohio AMC theatre where I saw it on a Sunday afternoon was nearly full, and not just with Chinese viewers.

The Mermaid is the latest in a series of Chinese blockbusters like Lost in Thailand and Lost in Hong Kong to get a limited U.S. release. In fact, the release of The Mermaid was so limited that apparently some executives at Sony — which distributed the film — didn’t even know it was playing in the United States. As critic Simon Abrams wrote, “Sony ought to be ashamed for keeping such a good film from American viewers who aren’t already part of the Chinese diasporic community.”

Directed by Stephen Chow, whose previous movies like Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer are equal parts slapstick and irreverent, The Mermaid has a strange alchemy of physical humor, tragedy, word play, violence, comedic symmetry, and cruelty. Leaving the theatre, it was hard to answer a seemingly common question: What kind of movie did I just see?

Like many aspects of China today, the film begins with a shady real estate deal. Liu Xuan (Deng Chao), a property tycoon who started from nothing and now has everything except morals and taste, acquires a vast tract of land near the fictitious Green Gulf. The other bidders think the land can’t be developed due to environmental restrictions meant to protect dolphins. Liu, no stranger to underhanded tactics, manufactures a solution: the dolphins won’t need to be protected if they aren’t there. He installs a powerful sonar device that drives out the dolphins and secures a permit for reclamation and building. His solution could be a case study in “How to Do Business in China 101.”

The sonar, however, also killed a number of mermaids. The remaining mermaids, led by Brother Eight (Show Luo), a vengeful half-man half-octopus with dreadlocks, want Liu dead. They set up a honey trap using the young, beautiful, and naïve Shan (Lin Yun). After a series of double entendres, slapstick humor involving poisonous sea urchins, singing, and dancing, the two fall in love. Liu decides to cancel the project and turn off the sonar; the pretty mermaid has redeemed the corrupt billionaire. That doesn’t sit well with Ruo Lan (Zhang Yuqi), another property tycoon, who had set up a side deal with Liu regarding the reclamation project. But there are other factors at play. And the movie — interrupted by a Chinese-style traffic jam — comes to a gory crescendo.

The Mermaid is undeniably funny, but the changes in tone are abrupt, especially towards the end of the film. One moment the viewer is stuck in traffic and the next she’s watching young mermaids get shot. It can be a bit uncomfortable. The woman sitting next to me was laughing at the middle but crying at the end.

These shifts didn’t go unnoticed by critics. The reviewer at The Guardian notes that the film often finds itself in “troubled tonal waters.” Glen Kenny of The New York Times doesn’t think the movie falters under its undulating emotional landscape because “Mr. Chow’s signature is so sure that the tonal changes have a unity born of conviction.”

But there’s something more to be said about this. What’s distinct about The Mermaid is that watching the film gives the viewer a sense of what it’s like to be in China: full of incongruities, sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes bizarre. The point here is not to exoticize the country, but rather to say that life there today can be hard to pin down.

Perhaps the most common question an American gets after returning from China is the predictable one: “What is China like?” The only honest answer I’ve ever been able to come up with to this query is to say “Pick any adjective in the English language. China, at a particular moment, is like that. Then, not long thereafter, it’s like another adjective.”

The same thing can be said about The Mermaid.

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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.

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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.


The Cultural Revolution at 50 — A Q&A with Four Specialists (Part Two)

By Alexander C. Cook

[Editors’ note: This is the second of a two-part interview Alexander C. Cook conducted with four specialists in the study of China’s Cultural Revolution. We will have at least one more post related to this year’s anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, in the form of a list of suggested readings that flags recommended books, most of which deal with issues discussed in this two-part interview.]

ALEXANDER C. COOK: We left off last time talking about the culture of the Cultural Revolution. Of course we know about the Little Red Book of quotations at the center of the Mao cult, and also the famous model works that were meant to represent the new revolutionary culture. But Yiching Wu also mentioned that artistic and literary works of the period were both more diverse and more successful that we have usually acknowledged.

DENISE Y. HO: In the past, Cultural Revolution culture has been easy to dismiss. Despite Western fascination will objects that we might call “Mao kitsch” — buttons, statues, and posters — and Chinese nostalgia for Cultural Revolution music or plays, we have written off these cultural products as “just propaganda,” or not really culture at all. Recent scholarship has tried to change this view. One historian has suggested that the Communist Party created its own political culture, and that this was a key source of its legitimacy. Others have examined the art and music to show how Cultural Revolution culture was a modernization of both Chinese and Western traditions, part of a much longer project. Still others have focused on audience reception of these works, which could produce meanings beyond their propaganda messages.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What does a better understanding of culture contribute to our understanding of the Cultural Revolution?

DENISE Y. HO: My own research offers an illustration. I examine the use of exhibitions as part of political campaigns conducted before, during, and after the Cultural Revolution. I show that exhibits were a political and cultural practice that taught people how to make revolution. For example, during one campaign in the years before the Cultural Revolution, officials displayed individuals’ personal possessions along with posterboards explaining why they were political enemies. Then, when the Cultural Revolution broke out, Red Guards invaded people’s homes and confiscated their belongings, putting objects on display along with posters describing their crimes. So political culture provided ordinary people with a repertoire, with an idea of how to act and how to describe their actions. This kind of evidence helps us understand where the Cultural Revolution came from, and how such propaganda was deeply powerful — sometimes producing tragic consequences.

YICHING WU: This issue of how ordinary people were provided with political repertoires to be acted on helps account for the characteristically dispersed and explosive character of the Cultural Revolution. While the rebels looked to the Maoist leadership for political guidance, the relationships between Mao and those who responded to his call were tenuous and fragile. With the breakdown of the party hierarchy, political messages transmitted from above were interpreted in different ways by different agents. People responded to their own immediate circumstances, giving expression to a myriad of social grievances and antagonisms. The forces unleashed by Mao took on lives of their own.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What happened to those forces?

YICHING WU: The disorder caused by mass insurgencies from below and paralyzing power conflicts at the top created a crisis. The nation was on the brink of anarchy. For example, some young radicals, invoking the historical example of the Paris Commune, claimed that China’s “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” would have to be toppled in order to establish a society in which the people can self-govern. Mao decided the crisis would have to be resolved. Quashing the restless rebels, the revolution cannibalized its own children and exhausted its once explosive energy. The demobilization of freewheeling mass politics in the late 1960s helped to restore the authority of the party-state, but also became the starting point for a series of crisis-coping maneuvers which eventually led to the historic changes in Chinese society and economy a decade later.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: How did the party-state manage to maintain its monopoly on power after the Cultural Revolution?

DANIEL LEESE: Our present explanations are usually quite terse. Besides the threat of brute force and censorship regarding historical issues, the stimulation of economic growth is cited as the most important factor guaranteeing political and social stability. However, the legacies of the Cultural Revolution forced the party to deal with past injustices in much more detail than is commonly known. While the trial of the Gang of Four and the resolution on party history are common knowledge, below the surface, the CCP was faced with millions of cases that did not easily fit these simplistic ways of dealing with the past. Who was to be considered victim or perpetrator and based on what standards? How were victims to be compensated for their ordeals and what about stolen property and withhold wages? Were party members or groups whose participation was important to reform to be treated differently than ordinary citizens? These questions were of fundamental importance and constitute core issues that can be considered part of what we now call “transitional justice.” Although China did not witness the fall of a dictatorial regime, and therefore seems ill-suited for the application of this concept, nevertheless there can be no denying the fact that the party consciously adopted certain elements and rhetoric associated with transitional justice, even while taking every effort at distinguishing between the Chinese situation and human rights violations in other contexts.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Can you tell us more about transitional justice in post-Mao China?

DANIEL LEESE: Previous injustices were interpreted as temporary miscarriages of justice to be solved on an individual basis in a political system portrayed as generally sound. The party tried to preclude the formation of collective claims or the overburdening of local budgets. In both scope and timing, it was inevitable that case revisions saw great regional differences. Just as Yiching has turned historians’ attention to local history, our research group in Freiburg analyses how the party dealt with Maoist era legacies in different regions, ranging from the rehabilitation of former capitalists to the purge of persecutors within the party. Yet despite the political character of the “rehabilitation campaign” and the obvious continuities in the Chinese judiciary, the reversal of verdicts changed the fate of millions of people. Not least, the research leads us to rethink many aspects of what actually happened during the Cultural Revolution.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What is the long-term significance or global legacy of the Cultural Revolution?

FABIO LANZA: It is difficult to generalize globally, because the Cultural Revolution was an example that was interpreted, used, and deployed differently in different circumstances. But, going back to some of the themes I highlighted previously, we can essay a provisional assessment. At the risk of being overly dramatic, I would say the Cultural Revolution (including its global repercussions throughout the 1960s and 1970s) marks the end of Communist project, at least as embodied in the form of the party-state.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Yiching, would you say the same characterization is true for China?

YICHING WU: I absolutely agree with Fabio that the Cultural Revolution and its global repercussions marked the end of Communist project. But it’s also important to note, as Daniel does above, that the Chinese party-state survived the upheaval, and I would add that it has even thrived — however precariously — as the steward of “reform and opening up.” Fifty years ago Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to forestall the slide of Chinese socialism to capitalism, and the emergence of a new ruling elite which might lead China toward a class-stratified society. However, this is exactly what has happened in its aftermath. In order to understand this profound historical irony, I think that we must fundamentally rethink the conventional scheme of historical periodization, which typically portrays China’s post-Mao transformation as a radical break from the Maoist past. I argued in my book that the key to understanding China’s post-Mao shift of course lies in the late Mao era. In spite of its militancy, the Cultural Revolution attacked individual bureaucrats more than the very system of bureaucratic power. While the mass movements that it unleashed challenged the Party, the Cultural Revolution was unable to provide a viable alternative to the Leninist party-state. Leaving a regime in deep disarray and tens of millions of people traumatized and exhausted, the ideological failure of late Maoism paved the way for China’s ruling stratum to reorganize its rule by resorting to market-oriented policies as forms of political appeasement and readjustment. In this view, the post-Mao reform forms part of a continuous process of ideological and political maneuvers to contain, neutralize, and displace the prevalent antagonisms that resulted from the Cultural Revolution, when the mass movements unleashed by Mao threatened to undermine the foundation of the party-state. In contrast to the conventional wisdom that views changes in post-Mao China as in opposition to Mao’s utopian “last revolution” — and dates their starting point to the late 1970s, I therefore would argue that the origins of these changes in fact can be traced to the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1968-69, when mass demobilization and restoration of party and state organizations were in full force.

FABIO LANZA: We usually think of 1989 as the iconic date and the collapse of the Berlin wall as the iconic event in the collapse of Communism. But by then, the promises of political innovation within that framework had already been exhausted. As Yiching mentioned, the Cultural Revolution configured an attack against the Communist Party itself as the crucial element in the reproduction of inequalities in a supposedly class-less Chinese society. Globally, that attack reverberated in the form of radical movements that challenged established structures and political organizations — especially those which were supposed to be representatives of the disenfranchised (trade unions, leftist parties, black leadership in the US). The ultimate failure of the Cultural Revolution, in this sense, signaled the impossibility of change within and marked the end of decades of experiments centered on that model. In this perspective, it is not surprising that, globally, by the end of the 1970s we witness a massive tectonic shift in the political horizon — what Fukuyama called “the end of history.” The result was the apparent triumph of neoliberal capitalism everywhere, including in Deng’s China.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Thank you, Denise, Fabio, Daniel, and Yiching.

The Vegetarian (2/2/16)
by Han Kang

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.

KB - The Vegetarian 3

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.

KB - The Vegetarian 2 (1)

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.

cemitas poblanas


By Jon Wiener

Twenty little kids, two by two, wearing matching blue T-shirts, are walking down Pico and chattering away, watched over by two teachers and five  moms – no dads.  The T-shirts say “Overland Avenue Elementary School, Mrs. Shaffer’s kindergarten class.”

“We’re going to Louise’s,” the teacher in the lead explains.  “To make pizzas.”

At nine in the morning, in kindergarten, you get to go out and make pizzas?

“That’s right,” she says.

Then, to the kids: “Okay pay attention now, this is very important: two by two holding hands crossing the street.”

*     *     *

The Cemitas Poblanas truck parks outside the Pep Boys every morning as soon as the tow-away parking hours end.  They serve tacos, but it’s not your usual taco truck: “Cemitas Poblanas are like a sandwich,” the good looking young guy inside explains, “with meat and cheese but no vegetables, except avocado and chipotle sauce.”

It’s clear he’s said this line hundreds of times to ignorant gringos like me.

At noon, half a dozen guys are waiting for their orders—they seem to be mostly from nearby construction sites.  I’m the only one here speaking English.

The cemita poblana starts with a great big roll, a special kind of crunchy egg bread with sesame seeds, almost six inches across.  They serve twelve kinds, including “Cemita Al Pastor”–marinated roast pork sliced thin; “Cemita de Cesina”–salted beef; and “Cemita de Milanesa”–thin pounded beef or chicken deep-fried in garlic breading.  There’s also “Cemita de Pata”–they say it’s some kind of meat from a cow’s foot.  They all come with shredded quesillo string cheese.

Poblanas, meaning from Puebla. Puebla is south of Mexico City. I ask him, you’re from Puebla?

“My dad,” he says.

I get the chicken Milanesa.  Deep-fried meat, lots of string cheese, with avocado and sauce on a fresh roll—not terribly healthy, but of course it’s terrific.

*     *     *

fire station 92

The big doors are open at LA Fire Station 92—maybe they are waiting for a visit from a gaggle of schoolkids? Last night around eleven we went past a bad motorcycle accident on Olympic and Beverly Glen – the bike was on one side of Olympic, a bashed-in car on the other side, and a guy was lying in the street, helmet on, not moving.  I ask the guys if it was them pulling up.

“Yeah, that was us.”

What happened to the guy?

“Killed instantly.  Speed way too high, misjudged a car turning left in front of him, went right into the side of it, flew 50 feet through the air, broke his neck.  Sad.  But if you have to go, that’s not a bad way to do it.”

Jon Wiener lives south of Pico, near the Pep Boys at Manning Ave. Read the first entry in his diary here.


The Cultural Revolution at 50: A Q&A with Four Specialists (Part One)

By Alexander C. Cook

[Editors’ note: This is the first of a two-part roundtable interview we invited Alexander C. Cook, editor of the well-received Cambridge University Press book Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History, to conduct with four scholars who have been doing important work on the final decade of Mao Zedong’s rule and were part of a recent American Historical Association panel that he chaired.]

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning, and the 40th anniversary of the end, of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Despite the passage of time, the Cultural Revolution remains one of most controversial and least understood periods of modern Chinese history. I have invited Denise Ho (Yale University), Fabio Lanza (University of Arizona), Daniel Leese (University of Freiburg), and Yiching Wu (University of Toronto) to look back and help make sense of what we know — and what we still don’t know — about the Cultural Revolution.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What is the standard “textbook” view of the Cultural Revolution?

DENISE HO: When we teach the Cultural Revolution here in the United States, our textbook version is that Chairman Mao, fearing “revisionism” within his own Communist Party, launched an attack on perceived internal enemies. Our students tend to be most fascinated with the Red Guards, young people who Mao called on to “make revolution” by joining him in an attack on the old world.

YICHING WU: The problem of mass politics has fascinated scholars, as well. Mao’s attempt to cleanse the Communist Party of pernicious “bourgeois” influences involved the mobilization of a ferocious mass movement. Many ordinary Chinese who responded to Mao’s call for rebellion had long been discontented with the established system and were eager to take advantage of the newly sanctioned “right to rebel.” For several decades, we have examined how the charismatic mode of mass politics mobilized existing societal antagonisms and effectively undermined the ruling party’s bureaucratic authority.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: How different is the standard view in China?

DENISE HO: One interesting thing is that the standard view in the West and the standard view in China overlap a great deal. Both our textbook version and the Chinese Communist Party’s official verdict (published in 1981) offer similar explanations: that the Cultural Revolution was Mao’s responsibility, that it was a period of great chaos, and that it was an ideological movement gone terribly wrong.

DANIEL LEESE: As for Chinese textbooks, they contain little or nothing about the Cultural Revolution and render the period as a distant and irrelevant past, akin to Neolithic history. A disturbing consequence is the near complete lack of knowledge about the Cultural Revolution among the younger generation. Nevertheless, there is definitely a standard or official view that still predominates. That view is largely negative. The party resolution of 1981 still defines the boundaries of permissible interpretation, and describes the Cultural Revolution as an aberration of the otherwise correct path of party-led socialist construction.

DENISE HO: In China the standard narrative is one of chaos, describing the Cultural Revolution as a “turbulent decade” in which not only were lives lost but also lives wasted. The official Party line is to lay responsibility at Mao’s feet but also to rescue his legacy; despite the Cultural Revolution being a mistake, the Party says, Mao was still a great revolutionary. Was the Cultural Revolution an aberration? To answer yes is to say that this was an extremist period and China has since returned to a path of modernization and development. To answer no is to suggest firstly that the Cultural Revolution came out of longer traditions, and that it has left a lasting imprint on Chinese politics, society, and culture. As historians I think we’re all trying to look for elements of both change and continuity.

DANIEL LEESE: Yes, and while Mao is blamed for having committed many mistakes, not everything of that 10-year period is officially negated. There were many continuities. It was not all chaos. The party continued to exist. Economic growth picked up as of the early 1970s. Also, China achieved foreign policy successes such as its 1971 entry to the United Nations.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: So the real picture is more complex than we have previously assumed?

YICHING WU: Very much so. First of all, the sociological interpretations that previously dominated the study of mass factionalism have been seriously challenged by a new wave of scholarship. This new research contends that mass political conflicts were not derived from preexisting sociopolitical grievances, but rather were shaped by contingent events and dynamic interactions between the masses and the political leadership. Second, scholars interested in the ideological aspects of the Cultural Revolution have challenged existing views for their tendency to over-systematize and over-interpret late Maoism. The newer works highlight areas of incoherence in the official ideology and explore how ambiguities became exacerbated by the chaotic political circumstances in which ideology was interpreted and deployed.

DANIEL LEESE: While a powerful coalition of party members and intellectuals victimized during the Cultural Revolution has dominated public discussions of the period — and, understandably, emphasized the ordeals experienced — some other aspects of the period are remembered and even romanticized. The recently purged politician Bo Xilai tapped into heroic memories of revolutionary fervor and revolutionary idealism for example by way of singing “Red songs.” Former Cultural Revolutionary activist Qi Benyu recently expressed the hope that current Chinese president Xi Jinping would become a second Mao Zedong, meaning he would curb corruption and lead China back on the path of socialist revolution.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: The Cultural Revolution has been romanticized from the beginning, and not just in in China. Why is that?

FABIO LANZA: In the 1960s, Maoism provided the vocabulary to describe and express new political ideas around the world. The global fascination with the Cultural Revolution has usually been viewed as orientalism of a sort, with Gauloises-smoking rive gauche intellectuals mesmerized by a revolutionary East they really did not know anything about — the “China in our heads.” But I believe we should take seriously the interest that activists and intellectuals around the world demonstrated for the experiment of the Cultural Revolution. Why should we? Precisely because they took it seriously at the time and because, no matter how misunderstood and misinterpreted it was, the experience of the Cultural Revolution seemed to be tackling head-on many of the issues of the day.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What globally relevant issues did the Cultural Revolution touch upon?

FABIO LANZA: First, the Cultural Revolution addressed directly the relationships between learning and teaching, politics and education, theory and practice. It was then not strange for student protestors in Paris, Turin, or New York to see similarities and connections between the Red Guards’ attacks against stultifying university learning and their own actions against the school system in the spring of 1968. Similarly, the integration of politics and education that the Cultural Revolution proclaimed echoed the political challenge that student organizations spearheaded against supposedly “neutral” pedagogy in Mexico, Chile, and across Europe. Second, the blossoming of the Red Guards in 1966 signaled that people could independently organize themselves outside of the Party-State and even use those organizations to attack the Party or other centers of political power (“Bombard the headquarters,” as Mao said). Third, Maoism seemed to embody an alternative to the existing development models, either capitalist or Stalinist. This was an alternative that was described and perceived as more humane, one that potentially could produce progress without sacrificing the quest for equality.

DANIEL LEESE: In China in the early 1980s former participants in the Cultural Revolutions began to argue that the elite power struggles between Mao and his rivals need to be differentiated from the “public” dimension of the movement, with its salutary elements of mass democracy and anti-bureaucratism. These aspects are still held up by many old and new critics of capitalist exploitation as an alternative path to modernity.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: So they feel there are positive things we can salvage from the Cultural Revolution?

FABIO LANZA: The global appeal of Maoism was made possible by the fact that it did not offer a fixed model, a set of steps to follow, or a rigid scheme to apply. Rather, Maoism presented itself and was viewed as a method of analysis of reality and as the lived experience of revolution. The lesson of the Cultural Revolution was not one of easily transferrable programs, but one of a massive, and still open experiment; a localized but inspirational experience. In this sense, it was not a “Chinese thing”: as one French Maoist worker quipped at the time “we don’t give a f — about China.”

DENISE HO: And yet the Cultural Revolution was, and continues to be, very much a product of Chinese culture. The Cultural Revolution has “culture” in the title, and yet in the past scholars have often written off cultural explanations for why the Cultural Revolution happened. Recent scholarship has tried to put culture back into the conversation.

YICHING WU: That’s right. Conventional wisdom has portrayed the Cultural Revolution as merely an era of chaos and violence, in which culture, education, and literature and art were ruthlessly destroyed. The reality, however, was far from one-dimensional. Several recently published studies have carefully examined films, drama, music, dance, fine arts, and popular literature during the Cultural Revolution, arguing that Mao’s last decade, rather than a cultural wasteland limited to a few hyper-politicized revolutionary plays, in fact witnessed considerable cultural innovation and artistic success.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Then we will pick up next time with the problem of culture….

KB - Night Journey 5

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.

KB - Night Journey 2

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.

KB - Night Journey 6

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.

KB - Night Journey 1

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.

KB - Night Journey 3

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?

KB - Night Journey 4

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.


Coming Home

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.


Saturday, 24 October

The taxi is waiting for me in early morning dark. I’m on my way home. It feels like it will be a dry day in Berlin after two solid weeks of light rain. The driver and I begin in German, but he’s from Thailand, I discover; he shifts into English. He’s been living in Berlin for the last 26 years.

Where are the refugees, I ask him. They’re everywhere, he says, a big problem. Yes, but in Berlin, I say, where are they. Oh, you can find them at Lageso and at Bundes Allee, he says, do you know where that is? Yes, I say, what do you think of the situation, should Germany be letting them in? Germany has opened its arms, he says, and it is a nation that keeps its word. The refugees that come here need to learn the language and become German. They need to stay, not just come for some years and leave. But the problem is (he speaks English slowly and carefully, making sure to articulate every syllable fully) that there are some who come and they are jihad, they are being paid to come over here, to bring the war here. Who do you think is paying them, I say. He shrugs. (Did I miss an issue of Time magazine or something; is this on an episode of Homeland?) The government, he says, needs to check everyone very carefully. It’s a lot of people, I say. He nods.

What will happen, he asks, in your presidential election. Ha, I bark. I like American individuals, he says, but I don’t like American international policy. I’m not so sure, I say, that I always like the individuals. Americans, he continues, are open, direct, candid, friendly, very warm. Who do you think, he says, will be the next president? Hillary Clinton, I say, and she’s none of those things. She will get along well, he says, with Merkel. We laugh. I close my eyes.

My family needs me to come home, it’s been too difficult to have me gone a whole month. And of course I can go back home, whenever I want; that was the first condition of my leaving. I planned to come to Berlin to work on my German, read literature and German newspapers (a fantasy, that last part, newspapers are hard), write, reconnect with friends, work on translations, and re-immerse myself in the capital, its particular jagged rhythms and the dark psychology of its spaces.

In August, I realized I had to turn my attention to the crisis, it was too big, too encompassing, and happening with terrific speed and violent energy. I was going to Germany in a moment of historical transformation that would affect the rest of the world. I decided to relearn Berlin through the experience of the crisis, and to try to tell a story that was rather unlike the one mainstream media is telling so dramatically. Mine would be a perpetual crabwalk, personal, a winding detour, like my experience. Returning to the States now, earlier than planned, brings home the awareness of freedom and privilege — with a US passport, I can go wherever I want in Europe, while many I’ve been speaking with in the last three and a half weeks cannot. They cannot go back, not if they wish to live; and, in many cases, they are also blocked from going forwards. While capital flows freely across borders, bodies — laborers — are stopped.  To what degree is diaspora a result of global capitalism? We’re living with the evidence.

The taxi was pulling up to Tegel Flughafen (airport) — the word for refugees, Flüchtlinge, once again audible, legible, all too apparent. I think of the breaking news about Berlin beginning to house refugees at the Tempelhof airport: no departures, just arrivals, and by the thousands. I can imagine the big white tents inside the even bigger hangars, where the US, for years after the war, landed a plane every five minutes, dropping supplies to aid the reconstruction of the city. After reunification, Tempelhof became a flashpoint for the differences between East and West Berliners — those in the East remembered the airport as a Nazi site, but for the West, it was a site of renewal, reconstruction, revival.

The division of memory turned divisive and so pronounced that the airport was never reopened for planes, but rather became the most unique playground in Europe: imagine getting to ride your bike on a runway, or run your dog, or fly your kite at a defunct airport. Just this past summer, it was the concert site for Lollapalooza. With unusual foresight, I had heard, the city kept all the porta-potties in place after the festival was finished. The fun-lovers who had to piss between Paul McCartney and Metallica are gone. Those fleeing their homeland will soon turn Tempelhof into a concert of the desperate. Maybe a good time to go, the driver says, reaching forward to pull a lever and pop the trunk, the situation here is a bomb, but no one knows when it will go off.

In the security process, I’m singled out for an additional “explosives” check. The computer cables, external disk drive, and adapter plugs I’m carrying home have set off protocols — the Germans are much more thorough than our TSA. They lecture me about my liquids, and the wand outlines my entire body without missing an inch of seam. A lot of these guys are old Stasi; they know what they’re doing.

Half-hour into the flight, I get up to use the toilet. I’m in a row near a lavatory that separates economy from business class. I head for the closest vacancy. A stewardess stops me. Are you sitting in business class or economy, she says. Economy. These are for business class, she says, there are four lavatories in the rear of the plane for economy. But these are all empty, I say, pointing to the folding doors, and I’m sitting right there, I point to my seat, a few feet away. You can walk to the rear of the plane, she says, as if offering a helpful suggestion. I’m permitted to go somewhere else, I say. Yes, she says, you can back there. That’s where you can go.

De-boarding at Newark. Passport control, nothing more than an exchange of silent looks. Baggage claim: a beagle walking with a customs officer points his nose deliberately at the plastic bag in my hand. What’s in the bag, the officer asks. Bread, I say. Anything on the bread? What, I say. Seeds or anything? (There probably are — it’s a half-loaf of Alpenstückbrot that I bought at the Swäbisches bakery where Karsten and I sometimes met). No, I say. The dog is praised, they move on. Newark is chaotic and dirty. TSA guys yell at passengers going through security, and yell at each other for creating havoc with new lines to expedite the process that actually lead to nothing but more confusion and slower lines. Der Prozess. The title, in German, of Kafka’s The Trial.  Systems. Borders. Permission. Control. What kind of society do we want to live in? What is necessary for meaningful life?

In the circular theater of gates to commuter flights at Newark, people seem to swim round and round like fish in a bowl, consuming snacks and media. A pigeon has found its way inside and wisely sticks to walking, following its own bobbing path, pecking at the crumbs. Is there animal control at the airport to remove unwanteds?

Humans are too busy here moving from one place to another to pay much attention. When it’s tired, the pigeon will find a place to sleep, tucked in the crotch of two steel beams. Maybe it will meet another pigeon. They will start a new life together here, flying creatures caught inside the vast structure of a complex system designed for flight.



Refugees Bring New Energy to Germany

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, 23 October

Karsten Eckardt, the language instructor at Humboldt Universtät, and also a filmmaker, has been meeting me in the mornings for a Deutsche Stunde, or lesson; we’ve become friends over the course of only a few weeks. (When you make a friend in Germany, I’ve been told, it’s usually for life — a fine notion, and something to realize). Karsten has encouraged me to keep speaking German without fear, and to continue to push myself into the refugee situation in Berlin, to try to make some kind of small difference.

He is the best kind of idealist: disabused. Tall, lean and strong, he has a mountaineer’s physique, and his eyes are always bright with the energy of engagement. Like many great teachers, he finds out about his students, and he cares how they see and think about the world. After our first meeting, I told him my motto for the month was the German verb, versuchen (to try, to attempt; to essay, one could say); he recognized it as the key word, maybe the word our friendship is now based on.

We meet for a last time in another great old Kneipe, Schwarze Pumpe, in Prenzlauer Berg. We ride bikes in a fine rain to get there, and the atmosphere inside has a sweet humidity thickened by big steaming bowls of Korbis Suppe. So, Josh, he says, is there anything you’ve learned about the situation that’s surprised you. Everything about it surprises me, I say, because when you’re talking to actual people, there’s an energy of communication that’s part of the situation. The migration of refugees from the Middle East seeking political asylum and traveling, I say, each of them, thousands of miles, is a situation born from a great political explosion building over many years and culminating now.  A potentially terrible energy. Just think of the energy the refugees themselves have exerted to get here! But energy is not ideologically fixed. Maybe it can be harnessed to do something good? An energy generated by cataclysmic change, directed to become an energy for positive change? God, that’s too hopeful by half, I’m obviously dangerously naive . . . I haven’t learned anything, I guess. I’m making connections, I say, but I don’t know what they mean, like in a poem . . .

I am not so hopeful, says Karsten, I can’t be, about the crisis. The problems are permanent because we are the problem. I don’t think things are necessarily getting worse, but things have always been problematic. Maybe now, however, the problems are coming closer, so they look bigger. And we ask ourselves, are we able to change and move our minds and grow, or are we stuck. Tomorrow, he continues, I will meet a student, 28 years old; he is on a mission, to become a professor — he is a Marxist thinker, really competent. He made a presentation to the class arguing for open borders worldwide, and of course he couldn’t convince anyone in the class because we are thinking in borders, they are in our mind. How do we reach ourselves — that is the question I will put to him tomorrow.

Big ideological sentences can be convincing, Karsten says, but only rhetorically; they are not convincing on an emotional level. On a political level, however, I see no hope. I too was a kind of refugee, he says. I grew up in the DDR, and I fled the DDR and entered the West by way of Hungary. Karsten takes a drink and I break in with something I remember Rabbi Rothschild saying about the triple axis of ironies in a divided Germany: Germans who shot Germans fleeing Germany in order to enter Germany. Yes, Karsten continued, I’m coming from a system that broke down expecting the breakdown of another system. We all live in systems. How to build up the human community, the human family — that is the question. But what are we experiencing individually in whatever system we find ourselves in — we have to start with ourselves, and that opens the world. Of course there are good willing people in Germany who want to try to open the society; at the same time, we are regressing with extremist violence. But there is always hope, we have to hope, there’s nothing without it. We look for a few seconds into our empty soup bowls. You’ve come full circle, I say.


europe 1954

the netherlands border on germany and belgium
belgium borders on the netherlands, germany, luxembourg
     and france
luxembourg borders on belgium, germany and france
france borders on belgium, luxembourg, germany, switzerland,
     italy, monaco, andorra and spain
monaco borders on france
andorra borders on france and spain
spain borders on france, andorra and portugal
portugal borders on spain
italy borders on the vatican, san marino, yugoslavia, austria,
     switzerland and france
the vatican borders on italy
san marino borders on italy
switzerland borders on italy, france, germany, austria and
liechstenstein borders on switzerland and austria
austria borders on switzerland, liechtenstein, italy,
     yugoslavia, hungary, czechoslovakia and germany
germany borders on germany, austria, switzerland,
     france,belgium, the netherlands and denmark
denmark borders on germany
norway borders on sweden finnland and
     the soviet union
sweden borders on norway and finnland
finnland borders on sweden, norway and
     the soviet union
the soviet union borders on finnland, norway, corea,
     china, mongolia, afghanistan, iran, turkey, rumania,
     hungary, czechoslovakia and poland
poland borders on the soviet union, czechoslovakia
     and germany
germany borders on germany, poland and
czechoslovakia borders on austria, germany, germany,
     poland, the soviet union and hungary
hungary borders on yugoslavia, austria, czechoslovakia,
     the soviet union and rumania
rumania borders on yugoslavia, hungary, the soviet union
     and bulgaria
bulgaria borders on rumania, yugoslavia, greece and turkey
yugoslavia borders on bulgaria, rumania, hungary,
     austria, italy, albania and greece
albania borders on yugoslavia and greece
greece borders on albania, yugoslavia, bulgaria
     and turkey
turkey borders on greece, bulgaria, the soviet union,
     iran, irak and syria

—Gerhard Rühum
(translated from the German by Rosmarie Waldrop)


” . . . the border is an in depth concept, not a line.”
—Jonathan Littel, Syrian Notebooks