It’s been a hectic few months. Back when I worked 10-11 hour days simply tutoring, I somehow felt like I had more free time. Even if it was only a couple hours a day, at least my time belonged to me. But now that I teach classes at the community college, there are always papers to grade, lectures to write, and disengaged students to puzzle over. You never really stop thinking about these things. Planning. Making mental lists. Turning mental lists into physical ones. Sweet Santa, you should see the crazy lists I make! I even make lists of future lists that need to be made and sometimes, when progress feels unmercifully slow, I put things on the lists that I’ve already accomplished just so I’ll have something to cross off.
To some people, this level of neurotic list-making would seem to be the mark of a Type A, hyper-organized person, but for me, making the list is often the only thing standing between me and complete chaos. I’m naturally disorganized; a slacker. A friend recently asked me what I wanted out of life, ultimately, and my response was “One good day. One day when everything is done, and there are no more responsibilities, no obligations, absolutely nothing else that I should be doing. I want to do nothing and not have to feel guilty about it.” (I’m not sure what it says about me that my personal life goal is to achieve nothingness, a complete obliteration of ambition; on the one hand, it sounds a lot like Nirvana, but on the other, a death wish.) I spend a lot of time doing nothing, because I’m lazy and I procrastinate, but at least I have the consideration to feel guilt about my non-productivity. And when I do get down to work in a sudden burst of efficiency, I rush, eager to return to my natural resting state as quickly as possible.
Time is like money for me; there can never be enough. I always want more free time, more more more, and yet I squander what I have on things that are not good for me. When confronted with a large windfall, I don’t know where to start, and if I’ve learned anything about physics, it’s that when you try to move in every direction at once, you find yourself standing still. Give me a month of a freedom and I will piss it away. Even the simplest goals wither like forgotten houseplants: read more books, start writing again, organize the closet. But give me an hour of autonomy wedged between meetings and appointments, and I’ll juggle three tasks without missing a detail.
Busyness, then, turns out to be an unexpected blessing. When I work 12 hour days and still manage to cook from scratch, run five miles, maintain a social life, and get eight hours of sleep each night, I feel like a superhero. And I don’t even have a spouse or children! When I work two part-time jobs six days a week and teach two classes, essentially commuting to at least three different locations (sometimes in the same day), plus course prep and grading that must be done on personal time — and yet — I still manage to plan parties, watch movies, and prepare numerous job applications. I suddenly understand just how many hours are in a day. The more finite time becomes, the bigger it feels.
As much as I may lust over the promise of the three day weekend or the two week break between semesters, I also greet its approach with dread. I try to tell myself, “This time it will be different. This time I will work on that project I’ve been saying I would start for the last five years, except every time I’ve had the opportunity, I spent two weeks in bed marathoning How I Met Your Mother or reading about weird crimes on the Huffington Post.” But those are hollow words. Even before vacation begins, I know that the outcome is preordained. Summer ends with the three stages of free time grief: disappointment (It’s really over, just when I was finally working up the motivation to do something), regret (I can’t believe I wasted all of that time napping on the couch when I could have been swimming/seeing old friends/finishing my novel), and finally, shame (I am the most useless being in the universe; I don’t even deserve to have weekends off).
Right now I’m in a weird in-between place. One class I was teaching ended a few weeks ago and the workload for my other class is slowing to a trickle. I still work two part-time jobs and teach one class, but each day ends no later than 6:30 so I have moderate swaths of unstructured time. It’s hard to know what to do with myself when I get home in the evenings, which is an unwelcome state after two months of constant engagement. I never used to fear free time when I was younger. Sure, I felt bad about all the things I could’ve should’ve would’ve been doing, but there was a sense of complacency about it. Time was expansive, never-ending. Somewhere in those billions of seconds ticking away — or still waiting to be ticked — there was a perfect time in which things would just get done. Things would happen. But I’m older now. Not old, just older, and there’s that part of me that is desperate to make some mark on the world, even if that mark is just an unintelligible scribble in an obscure corner. The way to make things happen is simple: just do something — anything — and even if you are going to do nothing, do it with purpose. Shaking off stasis is hard, though. I love to be lazy, but it’s better to remain an object in motion than surrender to rest.
Writing this is sort of a scribble, at least until I have something more important to offer. There are four items on my list of things to do today, but most of them are not urgent enough to demand my immediate attention. After I submit this post, I am going to cook Aloo Gobi and probably watch a movie that Netflix thinks I won’t like (two stars). The production value will be low and the dialogue laughable, but I will love it. It will be my new favorite movie — this week. At that point it won’t even be 10 pm and I’ll still feel anxious about what to do with the rest of my night. Irony of ironies: the only child, an introvert, has never been comfortable being alone with herself. My constant search for distraction has kept me from ever really putting my mind to something. Maybe I’m lonely, maybe I’m bored. I think I have ADD. Is this ennui? Why does a concept so empty have a word that sounds so glamorous and inviting? I like my life, I like my jobs. I have cat and I like him, too. I started writing a blog post, but ended up with a prose poem. I’ve been remembering all of my dreams for the last few weeks. I think I use “I” too much. I think I should go. Hello, chaos.
The Lance Armstrong doping scandal is pissing me off, but not for the reasons you think. Sure, I think what he did is wrong and that people should not lie or cheat and that athletes should not be let off the hook because “everybody’s doing it” or because “worse things happen.” But what really makes me angry about the whole thing is that we are all responsible for perpetuating the narrative, from start to finish.
Because we put people in positions of esteem and power, be they politicians or athletes or actors, and we give them millions of dollars with the expectation that they be exceptional or even superhuman.
Because, every single time, we get upset when these people turn out to be unscrupulous, and we allow our outrage to fuel a media frenzy that demands reparations, confessions, and apologies.
But worst of all, I’m annoyed that we’ve become a society of people that expects to be apologized to. We completely misunderstand what an apology is, or what purpose it serves. You apologize when you’ve made a mistake that is harmful, or when you cave in to a moment of weakness.
However, when a person like Armstrong calculates wrongdoing, and continues to do so for months, years, embroils others in his schemes and lies and deceives in order to protect himself, that is not a mistake or a moment of weakness. That just makes him a bad person.
Lance Armstrong is a bad person.
Why do we have this expectation of repentance and redemption? Second chances are all well and good, but only in cases where the person has made a genuine mistake — not when someone has made cheating a livelihood.
I enjoy the schadenfraude part. Let people have their punishment and comeuppance, their fall from grace. When someone is exposed as a fake, walk away. Don’t give them anymore attention. Don’t hold the door open for them and start talking about comebacks before the wounds have even healed. Armstrong called himself a bully, so do what you’re supposed to do to bullies and ignore them.
Don’t let them go on Oprah, don’t give them an interview, don’t try to understand why, don’t pay for their PR schemes masquerading as confessions.
Because that sends the message that corruption is meaningless as long as you can hold a press conference and “apologize.” That’s how this whole cycle gets started in the first place. Stop the narrative.
Just let the bad guys (or gals) be bad, and stop looking for signs of regret, contrition, or hidden reserves of virtue. They’ll either experience those feelings or they won’t. But probably not.
We aren’t owed an apology.
First, I should apologize for disappearing in December. Been on the move, like a shark, and haven’t been thinking much about writing and movies. Naughty me. I’m not even self-destructive enough to make some kind of New Year’s resolution that I will blog more (every day!), so the best I can say is that I will try to have something interesting to say at least once a week.
Did I say I haven’t been thinking about movies? That’s a lie. I have seen Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Hobbit, Silent Night, Rare Exports, The Avengers, Safety Not Guaranteed, Sound of My Voice, The Artist, and unfortunately, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Some were great, some were not, some were meh, and others were just really interesting in ways I can’t describe.
I’ve also watched a boatload (buttload?) of a little show called American Horror Story, which you should watch if you haven’t already because of the sheer insanity and also because Jessica Lange is perfection.
Going forth on the blog: I tried thinking about doing a different film genre, era, or director every month (French New Wave! Woody Allen! James Bond!) but in the interest of knowledge, time, and DVD/streaming availability, it makes more sense to play to my strengths — horror movies. Occasionally, I will take on a special month-long project, like I did with Korean films, when the fancy strikes me.
(I call dibs on Fancy Strikes band name)
Hope your 2013 is wacky and pleasurable!
The Quiet Family
Kim Jee-Woon’s dark comedy from 1998 arrived pretty early in the Korean New Wave and was popular enough that it inspired a remake by the Japanese director Takashi Miike called The Happiness of the Katakuris. The storyline is simple: a family moves into a large house in the mountains with hopes and dreams of running their own hotel. They wait patiently for the occasional visitor, but the guests all die soon after arriving. As the bodies start to pile up, the family scrambles to protect themselves, their business, and their reputations. Despite the grim premise, the movie feels a little lightweight at times. It’s certainly a “smaller” film than the rest of Kim’s filmography. He is responsible for the Korean horror classic A Tale of Two Sisters (which also inspired a remake, the American The Uninvited), the silly, big-budget Manchurian “Western” The Good, The Bad, The Weird, as well as the gory and intense serial-killer movie I Saw the Devil. Kim is an impressive director who has shown a lot of variety in the types of movies he makes while proving he can make good use of a large budget. Like the work of fellow South Korean director Park Chan-wook, his movies are quirky, graphic, and visually stunning. Compared to his more recent work, however, The Quiet Family seems downright quaint. Another fun thing about the movie is that it features Song Kang-ho (The Host) and Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) very early in their acting careers.
Speaking of Song and Choi in early roles, they both appear again in 1999’s Shiri (or Swiri as it is sometimes spelled), the movie that has been most credited with kick-starting the New Wave. Director Kang Je-kyu would later make Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, a film about the Korean War that I covered here earlier last month. Shiri, thankfully, is not as saccharine as Tae Guk Gi, but it is still just as offensively clichéd. North Korea’s best sniper (a woman!) is sent to South Korea as a spy to assassinate various government officials and orchestrate a large-scale terrorist attack. Meanwhile, a couple of South Korean agents investigate this situation. The movie tries to play coy about the identity of the female sniper, only showing her from behind or wearing sunglasses, but this is largely unnecessary because the big reveal is telegraphed from the very second she walks onscreen. Spoilers – she’s the fiancé of the guy who is investigating her! (I immediately recognized the actress, Kim Yun-jin, and spent a good portion of the movie trying to remember where I had seen her/ heard her voice before. When I figured it out, I nearly kicked myself: in America we know her best as Sun from Lost.) In any case, Shiri is a goofy but kind of fun action movie that was obviously influenced by Hollywood conventions, so it’s easy to see why it was popular, opening the door for better, more creative South Korean films to gain attention throughout the world.
Everyone drinks beer, even small children.
Everyone smokes, and they really like Zippo lighters.
The preferred mode of suicide is jumping off things, and people jump off things a lot – even things that aren’t that tall. They seem very sure about the fatality of jumping from a second floor window or balcony.
In fact, lots of death by falling in general: suicide, homicide or accident. Probably because guns are largely unavailable to Korean civilians… come to think of it, the only people I’ve noticed carrying guns in the movies are gangsters and military. Even the cops have to use tasers.
Hey, DHL delivery men are everywhere!
The cities are corrupt and full of dark secrets.
Rural communities are corrupt and full of dark secrets.
Do not go into the woods for any reason, unless you are a ghost or a killer looking for places to dump dead bodies.
If there is only one woman living in a remote area, there’s a 100% chance that she is the regional prostitute.
Movies are more like novels, cycling through several different plot lines, shifting conflicts, and large casts of characters. This is why so many films are 2 1/2 hours long, yet seldom feel boring. There’s always something happening. This is a big difference from American movies, which can often belabor a single thin plot-line for 80 minutes and still feel too padded out.
There’s always that one person who wails and carries on at a funeral while everyone else is stoic and silent.
Snipers always turn out to be pretty ladies. Subversive! Also subversive: female cops and serial killers.
Eyelid surgery is never not creepy, and bad things usually happen to the girls who have it (those vain whores!).
So many people play piano.
People in small towns really don’t like outsiders, especially if they come from the big city.
Buddhist traditions seem to mesh well with the more benevolent aspects of Christian ideology. Sure, you will always have judgmental, fire-and-brimstone bible-beaters, but you also have prayer through meditation, and serenity and generosity as a form of spiritualism.
I’m not saying all of these things are true of life in South Korea (any more than Hollywood movies represent the life of the average American), but the movies create their own reality revealing what a different culture finds entertaining. Hint: it’s not that different from what we do. Sex, violence, explosions, anxieties over failure and the search for a good life.
I had hoped to make a post about “Korean War Movies” this past weekend, but then I got struck down by the world’s most annoying head cold, which left me unable to do anything except watch movies and stare at Cracked.com for hours straight. Another hitch in my plan: the four movies I had chosen for War Weekend, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, R-Point, Silmido, and The Front Line, weren’t all about the Korean War, at least not directly.
Only two of the films dealt explicitly with the war. The first was Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War, and the second was The Front Line. The Brotherhood of War is about the relationship between two brothers and how they are affected by the war. The older brother, Jin-tae, is a shoe shine who wants a better life for his younger brother, Jin-seok, and works to send him to college. At the start of the war, Jin-seok is coerced into the army; Jin-tae boards the train in an attempt to retrieve his younger brother, but the military forces him into service, too. Jin-tae does everything he can to protect the vulnerable and intelligent Jin-seok, taking on riskier and more challenging missions in the hopes that Jin-seok will be sent home to preserve the family line. Eventually, Jin-tae’s recklessness pays off, not in sending his brother home, but in helping himself ascend the military ranks; soon it’s no longer clear whether the humble shoe shine has turned ruthless and ambitious or if he’s just making necessary sacrifices.
The Front Line delivers less family drama and more political intrigue. Taking place closer to the end of the Korean War, the film focuses on the numerous battles that would define the exact border between the two states. Specifically, the two armies fight over Aerok Hill, which changed hands continuously throughout the war. Following the commanding officer’s death by friendly fire, an agent from the Defense Security Command is sent to the front lines to investigate a possible mole in the Alligator Company, the group of South Korean soldiers tasked with defending the hill. The investigator soon finds that there is no mole; instead, soldiers from the North and the South have been exchanging messages and gifts by way of a secret compartment as the hill changes hands from army to army.
Of the two war movies, I enjoyed The Front Line the most. Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War was an important, expensive, and popular film when it came out, and it’s worth noting that the battle scenes are spectacularly made, with all the explosions and horrific gore. But if J.S.A. was a Spielbergian political drama, Brotherhood of War is a war movie by James Cameron. The battle sequences go on far too long, so impressed with themselves that one battle sequence is immediately followed by another battle sequence, while everything else pertaining to the relationships between characters is schmaltzy and melodramatic. Every time the choral, string-laden, emotionally manipulative theme music started up, I wanted to gag. The development of the main characters didn’t go much beyond “stoic, protective big brother” and “trembling, doe-eyed little brother.”
The Front Line also had impressive battle sequences, but this movie had the advantage of being anchored to an interesting and specific location. The image of soldiers climbing up the steep hillside as it literally crumbled beneath them was very striking. The plotline was mostly formless, moving from conflict to conflict: clandestine trading between enemies, repressed traumatic memories, a mysterious sniper, betrayal between friends – but this kept the film moving along at a nice pace, unlike Brotherhood, which spent two and half hours beating the same dead horse (I have to protect my brother!). I also enjoyed the assortment of characters more (as well as their camaraderie), especially the enigmatic, almost serpentine, morphine-addicted acting commander.
In between watching these Korean War movies, I took a little detour into the horror genre with R-Point, which actually takes place during the Vietnam War (Korean soldiers fought on the side of the U.S.). R-Point has a great premise, but the movie is so convoluted in the second half that I’m not even sure what I watched. The movie begins at a South Korean base in Vietnam when a soldier’s voice comes over the radio, pleading for his platoon to be rescued. The catch? That whole platoon was killed six months ago.
A troubled commanding officer is sent to the “R-Point” with eight other misfits to investigate the situation and bring back any soldiers who might somehow still be alive. When they arrive, they find a stone marking a mass grave; a hundred years earlier, the Chinese slaughtered scores of Vietnamese and threw their bodies into a lake, which was later filled in to become the site of a temple. The stone warns that anyone with blood on his hands will not return. Naturally, the soldiers ignore the warning and trudge on, setting up camp at an abandoned French mansion. So creepy, so far.
As they start their search for the missing platoon, however, things get less scary and more nonsensical. The characters make stupid decisions, relying too heavily on the “lets split up!” method of search and rescue, even after this proves to be a bad idea time after time. Also, everyone deviates from every plan, with predictably disastrous results. Didn’t these soldiers learn any kind of discipline in the army? It’s also hard to tell, after a while, who is haunting whom. Which may be the point, I guess. War is bad for everyone, the Koreans, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the French, that sniper girl they killed on their way in, the lost and now possibly spectral platoon… Atrocities must be punished. Those with blood on their hands will not return. Maybe I wasn’t paying much attention (I was sick and probably a little delirious), but it just didn’t work from me. However, I did like the bleeding radio with the spooky voices coming out.
The most pleasant surprise of my “War Weekend” was Silmido, a film that isn’t even about war. Loosely based on real events, Silmido is about “Unit 684,” a team of death row inmates and other convicts who were assembled by the military in 1968 to assassinate Kim Il-sung of North Korea. The film documents, in brutal detail, the rigorous and inhumane training regimen the thirty-one men underwent, not only so they would be in peak physical condition, but so they could withstand torture without revealing information if captured during the mission.
They are finally sent on their intended mission, after months of physical and psychological abuse, eager to carry out the assassination – but they are immediately called back because the powers that be have decided that the country’s political climate has changed. Rather than upheaval and revenge, the people want peace and reunification. The team returns to the military camp and the men are forced to stay there until a decision is reached. Suddenly lacking a purpose, and extremely uncertain about their fate now that the mission has been cancelled, the men of Unit 684 grow increasingly restless.
My memory of details is a little fuzzy (again, sick and delirious) but I was completely engrossed in the story of these men, the treatment they endured from the military, their hopes of redemption through political sacrifice, and the complete anarchy that occurred when their one saving grace was ripped away from them. The military is a huge force. The government is a huge force. This group of thirty-one criminals tried to rebel against the reality they had no agency of their own in the face of such institutional power. They only barely comprehended that they were pawns in the bigger game. They thought participating in the assassination would give their lives meaning beyond their crimes and ruined reputations. But, naively, they never considered that they were disposable until it was too late.
Anyway, this was War Weekend. Thanks for following along.
A few of my friends have approached me about this month’s topic — South Korean movies — somewhat befuddled. Why Korean films? they want to know. Is this “a thing?” The short answer is, yes, this is a thing. All of the movies I’ve watched this month were made within the last fifteen years, the result of a movement called the Korean New Wave.
In the article “New Wave of Pop Culture Redefines Korea,” writer Andrew Salmon outlines the factors involved in creating this new wave. At the end of the 80s, South Korea started the process of democratization, and within a few years the strict censorship laws started to loosen up. Not only did the free flow of information across borders allow South Korea to absorb more Western culture, it also became easier for Korean film, music, and television shows to get distribution in other countries – including the U.S (Salmon).
By the time the late 90s rolled around, many of the filmmakers who would be crucial to the New Wave had come into their own, feeling liberated to take greater artistic risks that would have been prohibited in the earlier, more authoritarian era. The first big hit that ushered in the wave was 1999’s Swiri (or Shiri, as it’s also called), an action movie that became an international success and allowed for bigger budgets and a global market.
Salmon’s article claims that the New Wave more or less ended around 2005 when Korean films became mainstream enough that they were no longer novel, but simply part of the international cinematic landscape. An article from Yahoo! Voices, “The Rise (and Wane) of Korean New Wave Cinema,” partially attributes the bust to changing screen quota laws. The screen quota law was another crucial factor that had encouraged the wave: the law required that Korean films be shown in theaters for 146 days of the year, giving more exposure to burgeoning local talent. But in 2006, the quota was reduced to 73 days, meaning that all the other days of the year, theaters were free to show Hollywood and other countries’ movies (“Rise”). Even in South Korea, the demand for native filmmakers had declined.
Through watching these movies, I’ve come to know many of the big name directors associated with the wave. The two most prominent figures are Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho. Park made a splash in his home country with the release of J.S.A. (which I covered here earlier in the month), a film that deals movingly with the forbidden friendship between North and South Korean soldiers at the border. But he gained international recognition when Oldboy won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. His style is flashy and often violent, brightly colored and full of dark humor. It’s easy to put his films in the same class as Quentin Tarantino’s arty/ultraviolent ouvre (and Tarantino himself has championed Park’s films), except Park doesn’t make distracting or self-conscious references to other movies like old Q does. Basically, he makes movies that are endlessly entertaining and badass in ways that a 15-year-old boy would love – but creative, unpredictable, and sentimental enough to elevate them beyond the sometimes gruesome material.
Bong Joon-ho’s films are a little harder to describe. Often darkly comic, his stories tend to focus on covert actions that ripple out to affect an entire community and then dissect the relationships within that community. He made a breakthrough with his 2003 film Memories of Murder, a true crime drama about a rural serial killer in the 1980s. I saw it a year or two ago, so my impressions are hazy, but it was impressive and chilling, an interesting character study on the local police and detectives who were investigating the case. Very reminiscent, in some ways, of Fincher’s Zodiac. American audiences would know Bong best as the director of 2006’s The Host, a big budget genre-hopping monster movie with elements of horror, slapstick, and political satire. This was the first Korean movie I ever saw, and it left me curious to see more. His best film, however, is probably 2009’s Mother, about a murder that may or may not have been committed by a developmentally disabled teenager and his mother’s attempts to cover up the crime.
Other notable Korean directors include:
Kim Ki-duk (Samaritan Girl; Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring; and The Isle, which I’m writing up soon)
Kim Jee-Woon (A Tale of Two Sisters; The Good, the Bad, the Weird; and I Saw the Devil)
Im Sang-soo (The Housemaid, and The President’s Last Bang)
Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine and Poetry)
Kang Je-kyu (Swiri and Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War – which I plan to watch this weekend).
So, again the question: Why Korean movies? The average American moviegoer often feels alienated by foreign films, especially ones from Asian countries. We feel that we lack the cultural literacy to understand the customs, character motivation, the sense of humor, and sometimes the difference in culture even changes the way we recognize emotional expression. It doesn’t help that much of what finds success through the festival circuits lean toward the “arthouse” side. I think Korean movies are interesting because, based on what I’ve seen, they’re generally more palatable to Western audiences’ tastes. There’s a lot of quirkiness, humor, action, and schlubby, underdog characters who are easy to identify with. The films show that the country probably has a ways to go as far as sexism is concerned, but otherwise they defy the Western stereotype of the coldly aloof, conservative overachiever. It’s hard to say how much of the filmmaking style and characterization in modern Korean cinema is the result of Hollywood’s influence and how much of it reflects the true local culture. At this point, it’s probably a chicken-egg question.
The way the films meld Eastern and Western attitudes and aesthetics makes them feel fresh, even if you’re watching what might ordinarily be a garden-variety crime thriller or revenge fantasy. Many of the tropes (cops, murderers, prostitutes, ghosts, mental institutions) are familiar, but we’re seeing them through a new set of eyes with a different set of cultural circumstances. The way Hollywood clashes with Seoul, Communism with Capitalism, and Buddhism with Christianity all makes for a viewing experience that’s one part thrilling and one part comforting. Not all of the movies I’ve been watching fall under the New Wave umbrella — as many of them were released post-2005 — but they’re clearly carrying on the legacy as they broaden their appeal and assert their right to compete in the global market. For better or for worse, Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho are making their Hollywood debuts in 2013 with Stoker and Snow Piercer, respectively. And the cult popularity of Oldboy has prompted an American remake headed up by Spike Lee, a development that has been very controversial among fans of the original.
Recommended Places to Start
I’d advise checking out something by either Bong or Park, since they’re the most popular — and with good reason; both make films that are sleek and accessible. For Park, I recommend either Oldboy or Joint Security Area (avoid starting with Thirst. It’s great, but kind of messy and inscrutable). For Bong, watch The Host. If you like that, proceed to Mother and Memories of Murder. If you like horror movies, check out A Tale of Two Sisters. It’s a little on the confusing side, but eerie and beautiful. The American remake, The Uninvited, was apparently terrible.
Until next time, annyonghi-kjeseyo.