Sunday, December 29, 2013

Retracing steps

Once I graduate from school, I will no longer have these lengthy breaks to come home that often. With that knowledge, I think I've been trying to "take it in" more this time around. After this winter break and maybe the next, who knows when I'll have a chance to just relax here like this?

Fully healthy now and with no academic obligations in sight, I've been getting out of the apartment more instead of just checking things off my movies-to-watch list (crossed off now: A Man and a Woman, Strangers on a Train, and Brief Encounter). A few days ago, I took the bus all the way to the Apgujeong/Sinsa area, which is the place I used to work a few years ago while I was in Korea. I often took the bus there because unlike the subway, I didn't have to change rides.

I always preferred the bus to the subway. In the summer, it's cold like a fridge, and in the winter, it's warm as a blanket. Yes, the drivers tend to turn the corners a bit too abruptly. But most of the time, you can just grab one of those captain seats and get your own little tour of the city. The best seat is the one right behind the wheel because you can put your feet up a little.

That was where I used to work. I remember when I first started out, I was just so happy to have somewhere to go where I was needed. Before that, being in Korea was kind of like ceasing to exist for a while as I was removed from my friends in the U.S. and I knew very few people here. Of course now, I love having nothing to do here because I've become much more familiar with this place and can find lots to do, but back then, having a job was the most exciting thing ever.

Here's the neighbourhood cafe that I went to almost every day in between that time I left my job and was waiting to enroll in school again. My parents are going to move soon, so this time will probably be my last chance to visit there again. Maybe next time, the place will have shut down or moved elsewhere. I went there a few days ago, but the owner couldn't quite recognize me with my wool cap on. She eyed me curiously, and I wasn't sure if she knew I was or not. As soon as I took it off, she remembered who I was.

The Galleria! This was what I passed every time I took the bus home from Apgujeong. It also reminds me of that brief internship I did at a luxury goods firm, which mostly required me to run errands around the city in cabs. I never realized how many different brands of high-end watches there were. I thought it all began and ended with Rolex, but there are only about maybe 50 others. At that time, I wished that I would be faced with a trivia night question that asked us to name as many luxury watchmakers as we could, and I'd be one of the few who'd be able to whip out all these brands that nobody's heard of. But then I would've looked like a complete tool.

Here's a popular type of self-serving bar where you just help yourself to any beer that you want. Then at the end of the night, you bring the bottles up to the front and you pay by the bottle. The selection is pretty good and it's probably the cheapest way to drink imported beers in Seoul.

A little less than 2 weeks left. Want to do as much as possible.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Drama Reviews, Pt. 4

So I've been back home for 5 days now but thanks to a final paper and a mysterious illness/allergy, I've been indoors-bound for almost all this time. So that means watching a lot of TV.


Sigh... Shin Hye, you're my favourite girl, so why can't you ever be in something that I like? You're Beautiful was annoying, Heartstrings was pointless, and Flower Boy Next Door was promising but so slow in the beginning that I couldn't keep going.

I really wanted to like Heirs, so much so that I was willing to completely overlook its excruciating first couple of episodes that largely take place in California. I will give credit to the show in that physically, the on-location shoots look beautiful. At least the superficial aspects are top-notch. But throw in some really bad non-Korean actors and Lee Min Ho's, um, inadequate English and suddenly, this lavish and expensive production seems cheap.

Lee Min Ho and the Castoffs of "Laguna Beach"
I'd never want to be one of those people who jumps on foreign actors for not being fluent in English. God knows how terrible Hollywood actors would sound if they had to speak Chinese or Arabic. It's just a totally unearned luck of the draw that they happened to have been born into speaking the lingua franca of the world, so it speaks nothing to their personal merit or talents.

But it's still a jarring experience when you see the main character, the one who has been exiled from Korea since childhood and seems to hang out with mostly with blonde Californians, speak perfectly fluent Korean while reciting English phonetically.

As I said though, I was willing to overlook all that because I understand how difficult language barriers can be. What's less acceptable is that the story doesn't improve much when the setting shifts back to Korea. There's a whole lot of nothing. Wait, that's not true. There's a whole lot of overwrought, swelling music when characters we don't really care or know about stare at each other. Intensely. That we have plenty of.

An everyday girl with the everyday problem of being fought over
by multiple hot rich dudes for no readily discernible reason
What's weird is that the cast consists of pretty much an A-list of all the popular young stars and starlets in Korea. It's the equivalent of a Hollywood movie starring Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Robert Pattinson, and Miley Cyrus. Yet nobody really acts young. It's like taking a young and energetic cast and making them behave as if they're in Days of Our Lives. What's the point then?

The one thing that I really liked was Krystal's character, who's this very clingy and self-centered brat but she's adorably and sincerely so.

By around episode 6, the story was just rehashing Boys Over Flowers, and there wasn't much more to hope for. So that's when I stopped.

Answer Me 1994

I loved Answer Me 1997, so I was both excited for and wary of this installment in the series. The thing is that the original drama was never expected to be a hit, so I was skeptical of this sudden decision to expand the franchise. It seemed as though they were just trying to quickly capitalize on unexpected success, as opposed to telling a story that that they actually wanted to tell.

Some of the symptoms of the former are here. For one, the flashback narrative framework is back again, including the whole, "Who's the mystery husband?" riddle. The parents are played by the same actors, which would be great if they weren't the exact same characters in behavior and temperament. The up-and-down relationship between the dad and the daughter was funny and fresh the first time, but this time, we've seen it all before so the effect is much more muted.

Maybe I shouldn't have stopped when I did, because from the reviews that I've read, the show is very good. But I don't know, it was just too familiar and wasn't compelling enough in its own right. Even though many of the characters between 1997  and 1994 were similar, I still vastly preferred the ones from 1997. I liked Jung Eun Ji's version of the stalker-fan teenage heroine more than Go Ara's version of the stalker-fan teenage heroine, and so forth.

The Prime Minister and I

After giving up on Heirs, I was in search of a new show. And since History of the Salaryman was my second favourite drama of all time, and its star was Lee Beom Soo and he was also in The Prime Minister and I, I figured that there was a decent chance that I'd like this show too.

And I do! The Prime Minister and I takes a familiar plot concept—the fake, contractual marriage—and puts its own spin on it by pairing the much older Lee Beom Soo with real-life pop queen Yoona. It's a coupling that put me off at first, but the show makes it work by recognizing the incongruence of such a pairing. In the drama, Lee Beom Young is a Mr. Smith-type of politician, one who is feverishly committed to principles and doing right, often at the expense of other things such as his own family. Yoona is a tabloid journalist whose main concerns have to do with celebrity relationships and scandals.

Naturally, they're just made for each other, right?

Lee Beom Soo has moved up in life, going from a lowly and unskilled
wage-earner in "History of the Salaryman" to a prime minister now
The circumstances that force them to enter into a fake relationship-then-marriage aren't terribly realistic, but the actors play the characters with enough emotional investment that it's believable enough to sustain the storyline.

Now, Lee Beom Soo is a great actor whom you'd always expect quality performances from. But here, Yoona actually does a good job as well. Her character is fun, charming, ambitious, self-aware, and a little bit devious, almost reminding me of a heroine from a Miyazaki movie. It's also great that I don't have to fear that she'll suffer from TV-land stupidity, which is when characters (often female ones) are made to act bizzarely or irrationally just to prolong the story or maintain the drama's tension.

Yoona makes hipster clothes look cute instead of insult-inducing
At this point, there've only been 4 episodes, so I can only hope that this drama's quality remains as high as it is now. And while it's fun watching opposites like the Steel-Rod-Spine Prime Minister and the Frivolous Tabloid Girl begin to shed prejudices against one another, I don't know if I want them to end up together. It's not that bigger age gaps haven't been overcome in real life, it's just that I don't want this drama to be the one where the middle-aged guy gets with the pop princess half his age. But I will be impressed if the drama has me rooting for the couple towards the end.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Korea draws Belgium, Russia, and Algeria for the 2014 World Cup

This was my first time actually watching the World Cup draw, and though it was confusing as hell, I was completely spellbound when they started drawing from Pot 3. I thought it'd be cool if Korea got drawn into Group A because we'd get all the added exposure of playing the host nation, Brazil. But that's probably too much pressure against too talented a team, though this is probably one of the most uncertain (though laden with potential) Brazilian teams in quite a while.

I was anxiously hoping to avoid Group D because it already had Uruguay and Italy and looked certain to be a Group of Death. When the paper was unrolled and I saw that the name of the country consisted of more than one word, I was ready to shout out some curses. But thankfully, it turned out to be Costa Rica. Considering that the other team in that group turned out to be England, it is a huge relief that Korea managed to stay out of that group.

I have to feel bad for Australia, though I have a grudge against that team because I remember when they joined the Asian Football Confederation from the Oceania Football Conference back in 2007 and they were all cocky as shit for no real good reason, thinking they'd run roughshod over their Asian opponents. The fact that they've won absolutely zero continental tournaments since then has greatly humbled them, but I still sort of enjoy watching them struggle. Still, it's a death sentence to be grouped with Spain, the Netherlands, and Chile, so I do feel for them. This randomized process can be really unfair and ruin years of hard work.

I'm delighted that Japan is in a relatively easy group as well with Colombia, Greece, and Côte d'Ivoire. Both Korea and Japan progressed to the Round of 16 in 2010, and that helped build up the respect and credibility of Asian football. I hope the two leading Asian teams can do it once again.

And let's not forget about Iran! They actually drew into a group that greatly resembles the group Korea was in 4 years ago, with Argentina and Nigeria. Greece has been swapped for Bosnia & Herzegovina, which likely makes the group stronger considered how bad Greece was in South Africa. As in the last tournament, Argentina should be clear favourites (especially since Maradona is nowhere near the team), but 2nd place should be up for grabs.

Brazil appears to have drawn a relatively easy group that has no peer threat. But Croatia, Mexico, and Cameroon are all quality sides and there's no obvious minnow. However, that often makes groups easier, I think, because without a team that's basically a free victory for everyone, you can count on your opponents cancelling each other out. But if I were Brazil, I'd be worried about the fact that I'd very likely have to play either Spain or the Netherlands in the first knockout match.

It seems awfully convenient that both Switzerland and France drew into arguably the easiest group in the tournament with Ecuador and Honduras. Do I smell a Blatter-Platini conspiracy? This gets even more suspect once you realize how screwed the Anglophone countries of England, the U.S.A., and Australia got in the draw.

The amount of contempt and distrust that people have for Sepp Blatter makes James Dolan
look like Art Rooney

I'm really happy with Korea's draw in a group with Belgium, Russia, and Algeria. No group is ever easy, but considering that we could've easily been Australia or the U.S., we lucked out. Bad news is that if we do make it out alive, we're going to likely have to face either Germany or Portugal. But I think having the chance to slay a giant on the world stage should be relished, because if your team can't win the World Cup, the next best thing is to make a splash by playing spoiler and breaking hearts. I would love Korea to be the team that further delays/prevents the ultimate deification of Cristiano Ronaldo by keeping "World Cup champion" off his resume. Also, it's interesting how this group is almost identical to Japan's group in the 2002 World Cup, except instead of Tunisia, there's Algeria.

And needless to say, the U.S. got the worst draw of them all. Not only do they have to play Germany and Portugal, but the "easy" opponent in their group is Ghana, the team that's knocked the U.S. out in the last 2 World Cups. In fact, Ghana continues to haunt former U.S. manager Bill Bradley as they knocked out Bradley's Egypt in the African qualifiers. I often get irritated by the arrogance of some American fans, such as when they say things like, "The World Cup won't become popular in the U.S. until we win one," as if they're so entitled to a World Cup that they feel that they can grab the trophy without even really caring. Mind you, there are nations, like the Netherlands and Mexico and Portugal and Cameroon and Colombia and Ecuador, who have cared A LOT for a LONG time who have never won one. These fans seem to have cause and effect backwards. I also think that some Americans are hesitant to fully embrace a team sport in which countries like Ghana are legitimate peers, even perhaps superiors at times. Nah, they'd prefer to stick with American football and call themselves "world champions" even though nobody else plays the sport.

The undisputed best QB in the world, beating out all those talented
Russian, Egyptian, and Chinese QBs. Amirite?
But that aside, no national team deserves to be in such a difficult group with such arduous travel conditions in a comfy little place called the Amazon rainforest. But on the bright side, if the U.S. does manage to advance, it'll be a huge story.

Monday, December 2, 2013

5 Christmasy Movies That Are Way Better Than "Love Actually"

As you can probably tell, I'm not a big fan of Love Actually. Call me a grump, but you know the saying that underneath every cynic, there's a disappointed romantic? I think I dislike the movie because I wanted to like it so much when I first saw it, and I did enjoy it a lot the first couple of times that I saw it. Then I kept seeing it every Christmas and realized how full of shit it is.

Just a quick checklist of the things that bother me:

- The unbearable and cloying Pax Britannica patriotism in the Prime Minister's speech. Portraying England as some underdog on the world stage, even though we're barely decades removed from its imperial era and still to this day, things like British accents are automatically associated with wealth, class, and sophistication? And god, THAT MUSIC. Ugh. And fucking up geopolitics for sex is not romantic, just childish and selfish. It didn't fly for me in The English Patient, and it doesn't fly here.

- Poor Emma Thompson really gets screwed, huh? Where's her happy ending? Everyone seems to get at least something except for the middle-aged housewife.

- Never understood why Laura Linney's mentally challenged brother had to prevent her from hooking up with her hot co-worker. A contrived obstacle.

- Liam Neeson and his son sure got over their very recently deceased wife and mother quickly, huh? How heartwarming.

- That "best friend" sure was kind of a dick, huh? I mean, I understand the inner turmoil that must come with being in love with your best friend's wife. But did he really have to do that stupid title card thing? To me, it seemed like he was mainly trying to make himself feel good by doing this supposedly awesomely swoon-worthy thing and, therefore, become the great romantic lead in the movie of his own life. What if she liked that a little too much? What then? He could've just written her a short confessional letter and left it at that.

- London is one of the most diverse cities in the world, yet the London in Love Actually is still stuck in Churchill's time or something. Even in a freaking ensemble piece with no central character, not a single major character is a person of colour, unless you count the Portuguese, and that's really a stretch. Besides, they're just portrayed as boorish peasants.

But I'm here to be positive, not negative. Here's a list of movies, in no particular order, that I think do a better job of evoking the Christmas spirit than Love Actually. Only one of these movies is actually heavily centered around Christmas, but all of them have significant elements of Christmas in them.

Tokyo Godfathers

Tokyo Godfathers revolves around children, but I probably wouldn't call this a movie FOR children because it's about 3 homeless people in Tokyo during Christmas who find a baby in a dumpster. Led by the extremely maternal Hana (oh, who happens to be a a tall, ugly dude who's convinced he's actually a woman), the grizzled drunkard Gin and the troubled teenager Miyuki try to find the baby's parents and return the child to them.

The movie is very funny in both a dark and warm way because the main characters live such wretched lives. But they're also good people with complicated pasts, and as you get to know their stories more, you stop seeing them as these grimy hobos and more of a dysfunctional family that you want to see succeed in the end. You also get to experience the urban jungle of Tokyo, which not a lot of movies allow you to do.

Christmas Emotion Evoked: The spirit of friendship and family

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Most of this movie is not set during Christmas, but its big centerpiece, the Yule Ball, is. That's why it's on this list. I've always enjoyed the Harry Potter books more for the "normal" elements than the magical ones. The story of Harry finding a surrogate family in the Weasleys and in the Hogwarts community was much more interesting to me than all the dragon battles and wand fights (which, to be honest, look kind of stupid on-screen, don't they?) put together.

That's why The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favourite book in the series, because it's the first book where Harry's family story takes center stage instead of a cartoony villain and his super evil quest to rule the world. And that's why The Goblet of Fire is my favourite movie, because it deals with the awkwardness of puberty so well, especially during the Yule Ball part. Christmas at Hogwarts has gotta be pretty cool, and Goblet of Fire portrays that the best out of all the movies.

Christmas Emotion Evoked: The awkwardness of having a crush, worsened by the fact that all the snow and twinkling lights puts more pressure on you to do something bold and romantic

Catch Me If You Can

Home Alone is one of my favourite Christmas movies (I just didn't include it here because I thought it was too obvious), and I think that explains why I like Catch Me If You Can so much during the holidays. Because it's really a kind of grown-up version of Home Alone, isn't it? Neglected kid gets carte blanche (quite literally, in this case) to do whatever he wants, but he just ends up lonely around Christmastime and wants a family more than anything. Except in this movie, Frank's family doesn't get chaffeured to this house on Christmas morning by John Candy.

This is actually a pretty bipolar movie, now that I think about it. On one hand, you have the giddiness of watching Frank hoodwink all those people into thinking he's a pilot/doctor/lawyer/whatever. Then you have the parts where he's all alone on Christmas with no friends or family, with only his nemesis in the FBI to call. It strikes a good balance, and despite it being considered one of Spielberg's lighter films, I still think it's among his best work.

Christmas Emotion Evoked: The desire to spend Christmas with family while opening presents by a big fireplace... and the melancholy that comes when you don't have that

The Apartment

C.C. Baxter is the schmuckiest schmuck who ever schmucked. He's like Willy Loman meets Kirk Van Houten. He's an office drone at a soulless insurance company, and he's the type who'd eat TV dinners on Christmas Eve. Well, that's if he's lucky and actually gets to spend Christmas Eve in his own apartment, as opposed to wandering around outside as he waits for his bosses to finish using his place as a discreet motel for their flings with their mistresses.

It'd be a stretch to call this a Christmas movie, though Ms. Kubelik does attempt suicide on Christmas Eve and that's when the movie really gets going. But The Apartment does capture that sense of neverending loneliness that tends to fester for many at this time of year. For a really dark movie that presents a rather bleak world full of lies, corporate conformity, spinelessness, self-harm, and the rigid social hierarchy in which the top dogs get to do whatever they want, the mood is nevertheless endearingly optimistic. Maybe it's just Jack Lemmon's ceaselessly earnest demeanor or Shirley MacLaine's proto-manic pixie dream girlness, but somehow in the end, you feel that the tread-upon schmuck and the suicidal girl are the luckiest people in the whole city.

Christmas Emotion Evoked: Feeling like a lonely nobody, but with the hope that maybe there's somebody out there for even you

You've Got Mail

And just in case you thought I was a heartless bastard who couldn't stand romantic comedies, here's one! A lot of the appeal behind Christmas is the nostalgia as the best Christmases tend to be the ones we had when we were very young, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to chase those experiences again. You've Got Mail gives you a nostalgia fix that's so pure that Heisenberg would be proud. It has aged wonderfully precisely because it's so dated now. It's a contradictory statement, but the movie is now such a perfect artifact of the 1990s: AOL, Tom + Meg, the very idea that a books superstore is some kind of unstoppable business juggernaught... Listening to that dial-up song as Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan connect to the internet can't help but bring back warm memories of being a kid and discovering the internet for the first time. And not to mention the very quaint idea of interacting with an online friend with long confessional missives through email, as opposed to a "wut up?" on Tinder.

This movie also portrays one of the most pleasant versions of New York City ever, where everybody lives in cozy apartments and works in cozy bookstores and has cozy friends. There's absolutely no stampedes of pedestrians, even during the holiday rush. And actually, though this isn't an obvious Christmas movie, almost half the movie takes place during the Christmas season.

Christmas Emotion Evoked: Nostalgia, lots and lots of nostalgia

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Drama Reviews, Pt. 3

There was a great article on Slate about why we should watch more foreign TV shows. I think it's a bit unrealistic because of how much of a time sink TV shows are. I can barely scratch the surface of American shows, let alone foreign shows. But it's a great ideal.


Shut Up Flower Boy Band

tvN is quickly becoming my go-to network for quality dramas. They were responsible for Answer Me 1997, and now we can credit Shut Up Flower Boy Band to them as well. On paper, these dramas shouldn't be that good since their casts are usually young and unproven. Even worse, some of them are, gasp, pop stars! In Answer Me 1997's core cast were pop idols Jung Eun Ji (A Pink) and Hoya (Infinite), yet the former did a great job carrying the show as the heroine and the latter did a very good job of portraying a conflicted supporting character.

But at least that show had some major adult characters that were played by veterans. It didn't rely 100% on its young and inexperienced cast to make or break the show. On the other hand, SUFBB (initials will be used from now on) seems to do that. The story is entirely focused on teenage characters, many of whom have absentee parents. School is a major setting in the show, but it's one of those only-in-TV schools where teachers don't really exist (except to appear out of nowhere to bust the chops of the main characters).

Everyone looks cooler in sepia tones

SUFBB works because as in Answer Me 1997, it finds enough dramatic tension in the everyday lives of its young characters. As it tells the story of a high school rock band that has a chance to make it big, it's a little more glamorous than, say, the story of a teenage girl obsessed with a pop group. But for the most part, the story is still centered on the friendships between these 5 kids with dim prospects who don't have much support outside of each other. It becomes clear that they don't play music in hopes of becoming rich and famous, but because being in a band lets them be part of a family that they lack at home. Music is really just the method of bringing them together.

That's the real key to making high school shows work. You have to strike a delicate balance between making high school seem like everything, but also nothing. Take Friday Night Lights for example. On one hand, the stars of the Dillon Panthers are treated like gods and kings during their prime playing years. But even though a character like Tim Riggins is this star jock who does whatever he wants and gets all the girls, FNL still conveys the sense that he's still kind of a loser with no future, which makes it easy to root for him.

Jo Bo Ah as Im Soo Ah, the female lead. So cute!

SUFBB does the same with its main characters, who are these good-looking guys who get a chance at stardom. Yet they're still kind of pathetic and pitiable in their own unique ways, so it doesn't just look like it's the cool kids winning at life.

As you can probably tell by this lengthy review, I really enjoyed this show, even though I'm probably not the target demographic (just look at its title!). Even some of the songs the band comes up with are pretty catchy.

This song is called "Jaywalking," and is featured as the band's breakout hit

Queen Inhyun's Man

Another tvN show! On paper, Queen Inhyun's Man sounds ridiculous: some guy from the Joseon Dynasty 300 years ago gets a mystical talisman that allows him to jump time into present day Seoul, where he meets the woman who could be the love of his life. Generally speaking, time travel is one of my least favourite story devices because it's often lazily and sloppily done, which results in a lot of self-contradiction and plot holes. It also feels like a literary cheat code that lets writers take shortcuts to solving complex real-life problems. But surprisingly, Queen Inhyun's Man stays quite grounded in its fantastical elements, and as outlandish as the premise of time-travel love is, it admirably abides within its parameters so that the time-travelling rarely feels like a crutch or a gimmick. 

My main issue with this show is that there's not a whole lot of dramatic tension because the attraction between the two leads is so apparent from the beginning (in fact, the actors are now dating in real life) and they profess their feelings quite early on. I can at least give credit to the show for not pointlessly stringing along the "Will they, won't they?" storyline beyond its realistic lifespan, as a lot of Korean dramas tend to do. While it's undoubtedly fun to watch the relationship between the scholar-aristocrat Kim Boong Do (played by Ji Hyun Woo) and the modern-day actress Choi Hee Jin (played by Yoo In Ah), there is a noticeable lack of real tension. They just seem to be two attractive people with good lives who have some relationship barriers to work through before living happily ever after.

Awwwwww! You'll be saying that a lot in this drama.

Maybe that's being a bit unfair because the threat of being permanently separated by 300 years is a real barrier, and towards the end, this danger is really amped up. But Kim Boong Do is such a badass that it's hard to doubt that he'll come up with a solution. In fact, his character is a real pillar of this show because he's not like most typical Korean drama male leads. He's not the prickly and selfish first lead, but he's also not the saintly but spineless second lead. The best parts of the drama are when he and Hee Jin make fun of each other, because as high-born and intelligent as he is, he's still absolutely clueless about modern life (though he's a fast learner).

It's a well-made fantasy romance though, so if you're looking for that, this is one of the best. The chemistry between Yoo In Ah and Ji Hyun Woo is worth watching. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Young James Shigeta: Holy moly, how is something in black and white LESS racist than what we see today?

I thought that this post would be relevant right now because of the Katy Perry AMA incident. I don't think she is a racist for wearing a cheongsimono (or whatever her outfit was supposed to be) in her performance. But I do think our society's racist for thinking that the only time it's acceptable for non-Western culture to take center stage is when White people are wearing it as a costume. It's like when you show up to a dinner party, but only your bottle of wine is welcomed. Oh thank you for your culture! Please leave it on the doorstep and go away because we can't stand your ethnic faces.

But astoundingly, the problem seems to have gotten WORSE over time. The video below shows various clips of a young James Shigeta in his days of wine and roses, and it's confusing as hell. He's an Asian actor. In a Hollywood production. And he's acting all normal and suave and shit. This isn't supposed to happen!

I mostly recognize James Shigeta in his various Old Asian Man roles in the past few decades. Most notably, I remember him getting shot in the face by Alan Rickman in Die Hard. You know, it's always eye-opening to see what old Hollywood actors looked like back in the day. A young Paul Newman or a young Warren Beatty pretty much makes every leading man today look like a troll.

Same goes for actresses. Here's a young Joan Fontaine in Rebecca.

Who said you needed Technicolor to be hot?

But it's infinitely more weird watching someone like James Shigeta be all handsome and mack daddyish in his heyday because he's Asian. Can anyone here name a single mainstream movie in recent memory in which an Asian man was a traditional leading man? Some may come up with Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle because Harold ends up with Maria in the end, but that's only because he overcomes his inherent Haroldness to finally talk to the cute girl he's been eyeing since forever. He is the anti-leading man.

Seriously, I'm still waiting. TV has been somewhat better with characters like Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) from Lost and Glenn (Steven Yeun) from The Walking Dead, but they're far from the main characters of their shows.

Sessue Hayakawa, whom I mostly remember as the antagonistic Japanese officer in The Bridge On The River Kwai who is forced into submission by Alec Guinness' heroic Britishness, was also quite the leading man in the early days of film (we're talking World War I era). Believe it or not, some film historians regard him as the first male sex symbol in Hollywood. The tragic reality is that many of his early silent films are lost, so it's almost as if his leading man career has been erased.

This cat's got style

It just makes me wonder how it was possible that in the early 20th century, when the U.S. was just a couple of decades removed from the Chinese Exclusion Acts, the American film industry still somehow cultivated an Asian male sex symbol. Yet today, many people will argue that America is simply not ready for Asian characters who don't fit comforting stereotypes such as man-pleasing geisha girls or emasculated comic relief buffoons.

It's not as if things were all that enlightened back then. There were still the Hop Sings and Mr. Yunioshis and all those other stereotypical characters. But it's all about balance. I wouldn't mind at all the Ken Jeong and Matthew Moy and Gedde Watanabe characters if there were at least some healthy counter-balance.

So please, let's never hear of the "American audiences aren't ready for an Asian..." argument bullshit ever again because apparently, back when interracial marriage was illegal and immigration from non-European countries was strictly controlled and it was perfectly cool to say gook or chink, people were still willing to make and see movies that didn't feature Asians in stereotypical roles. Don't tell me that we've regressed from that.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Christmas in Korea: Or Why I Haven't Celebrated Christmas Since 2006

It was 2006 when I last celebrated Christmas. This occurred me a few nights ago. Even though I knew it had been a while, I didn't realize that it had been this long. And yes, I suppose that we can all celebrate the "true meaning" of Christmas (the birth of Saturn Santa Jesus) in our own private way, but come on, that's not what I mean. I'm talking about the pomp, pageantry, gifts, TV marathons, and so forth.

No, I haven't been on some figurative hunger strike against the commercialization of Christmas. It's just that I've been in Korea for every Christmas starting from 2007 when my family moved back to the motherland, and Christmas just isn't that big of a deal there. A few municipal decorations here and there, a few special menus at restaurants... Most businesses don't even take the day off, and the day seems to just be an opportunity for couples to go on dates. Almost everybody lives in apartments, so even if people were inclined to put up gaudy Christmas lights, they wouldn't be able to. I once went to Seorae Maeul during the holiday seasons because it has French roots, so I thought there'd be a little more Christmas influence there. But there was nothing.

Anyone else hate those eerie blue LED lights?

I remember the first Christmas I ever spent in Korea. I forget how old I was, but I was fairly young. I was still at an age when I believed in Santa Claus, so I was wondering how the hell he was going to find me halfway across the world. Damn, I knew I should've left a forwarding address in my stocking. But Korean addresses are so complicated and long. Also, there weren't any chimneys in apartments! This was a huge problem.

Santa did show up, however. Only he walked in through the front door, after presumably having taken the elevator. We were all awake too. Santa also spoke Korean, which was jarring to me because we all think of Santa as some old fat White dude who speaks only English. He gave us our presents, which for me consisted of a tan coat and some kind of pencil set (which I didn't care too much for).

Now that I think about it, I have to wonder who that Santa was. Was it one of our uncles? It couldn't have been my dad because he was there with us. I'm pretty sure it's not normal for all Korean families to be visited by roaming Santa Clauses like that.

At first, it was hard to adjust to my Christmas-deprivation, but I've gotten used to it now. It's also made me see just how American the holiday is, at least the holiday as I knew it. All my favourite Christmas songs like "The Christmas Song" or "Silver Bells" were written by modern American songwriters like Mel Torme and Jay Livington, respectively. The image of Santa Claus as a jolly grandpa was popularized (though not created) by Coca Cola, which operated on the duh hypothesis that a happy Santa was more marketable than, say, a stern Santa or a gaunt Santa or a creepy elf Santa. My go-to Christmas soundtrack is "A Charlie Brown Christmas," which was written by Vince Guaraldi in that most American of musical genres, jazz. Dr. Seuss? American too.

Christmas defined in my imagination

So from that perspective, it'd be very strange, even disconcerting, to see Christmas-as-I-knew-it celebrated in Korea. I'd love to have the opportunity to see how different countries celebrate Christmas, as I'm sure it'd be very different everywhere. How does Brazil do it? The Philippines? Poland? France? Kenya? Algeria? What about countries that don't celebrate it at all?

Christmas mainly exists in my memories now. I always like to reminiscence about my favourite Christmas present that I ever got, which was this Lego set:

Pharaoh's Forbidden Ruins!!! I still have this as I couldn't bear to sell it
at our garage sale many years back

Ah, times were simple back then, when everything I wanted in life could be bought at a Toys R Us. Now, I don't even know what I want anymore, at least in terms of material things. Embarrassing story: once, I was at a Thanksgiving dinner at a friend's house, and when the conversation turned to gifts, I said something like, "What I want can't be bought in a store." The table went dead as everybody thought I was talking about sex or something. Took me a few seconds to realize that and correct everyone's misunderstanding. Awkward.

Ever since I got my own bank account, the thrill of receiving gifts has been lessened somewhat. Lacking any sort of purchasing power really made Christmas a make-or-break time to satisfy all your materialistic needs. But now, I can just lazily go on Amazon and be my own Santa Claus (though all I ever seem to buy are textbooks).

I'll probably get a chance to celebrate Christmas again sometime soon. But for now, it doesn't bother me that much anymore.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Types of Karaoke People Who Can Ruin A Night

Having lived in Seoul for a couple of years, I've done a lot of karaoke (the picture above is of me and some of my friends). I love karaoke, but sometimes, a few elements prevent a night out at a noraebang from being 100% awesome.

Here are some of the those people who sometimes constitute those "elements":

1) The James Dean (aka The Too Cool Guy)

The James Dean sometimes chooses to sit disdainfully in the corner, sipping drinks and smirking at everybody else. But the other sort will actually participate. That's a good thing, right? Well, sort of. The James Dean will only sing songs by "respectable" groups like Nirvana, Muse, and Radiohead. Yeah, that'll really get the party started. The more obscure and/or depressing the song, the better. Oy.

2) The Celine Dion/Michael Bolton (aka The Non-Stop Power Balladeer)

This girl or guy's got pipes and is not afraid to show it. I'm always impressed if you can belt out an Alicia Keys song or a super-sappy Korean ballad, but by the 5th time in a row you're singing such a song, it kind of slows the evening to a deadening crawl.

3) The Vanilla Ice (aka The Rapper)

The Vanilla Ice, like the real Vanilla Ice, is a horrific rapper. Lots of ignorant people (who also coinkily-dinkily tend to be old and White) think that rap takes no talent, and that it's all just involves talking really quickly. Once the Vanilla Ice takes the mic in the karaoke room, however, this notion is laid to rest. Watching him struggle through Jay-Z's repertoire is like watching someone try to sprint in ski boots.

4) The MTV Countdown (aka The "Ugh, Not THAT Song" Person)

The MTV Countdown loves the overplayed and the unsurprising. I have an unholy trinity of karaoke songs I've come to despise. They are, in no particular order: Don't Stop Believing, I Don't Want To Miss A Thing, and A Whole New World. They're just too overdone. I particularly gnash my teeth when somebody chooses A Whole New World. It's a song that should bring back happy childhood memories of when you thought magic carpets could be real, but instead, all you start remembering are all those nights when you heard stupid drunken frat boys butchering the song as they lumbered on home from that sports bar on campus that served Miller Lite in tube towers.

5) The Michael Cimino (aka The One Who Never Skips Intros, Interludes, And Outros)

Michael Cimino was a once promising director whose career was destroyed by a little movie called Heaven's Gate. And by "little," I mean "stupidly long," as in, the original cut was over 5 hours long. Like his namesake, the Michael Cimino just doesn't know when to cut something out. Some songs have really long intros and interludes that just wastes everybody's time in general. Please do us a favour and skip them.

6) The Jean-Luc Godard (aka the One Who Always Skips Intros, Interludes, And Outros)

Jean-Luc Godard was one of the most famous of the French New Wave directors, and one of his signature touches was the jump cut, which is essentially when you slice up a single sequence so that it jumps abruptly from Point A to Point C, with Point B cut out. Like his namesake, the Jean-Luc Godard cuts and zips through everything. Okay, at least you're not wasting time like the Michael Cimino, but some intros and interludes are too awesome to just skip over, and by doing so, you actually eviscerate the power of the song. This nogoodnik chops up karaoke songs with the gracelessness of Harvey Weinstein cutting up Asian films.

7) The Concept Album (aka The One Who Picks The Long Songs)

The Concept Album picks such long songs that are positively Beethovenian by pop standards that it gives you a tailor-made opportunity to sneak in a visit to the restroom without feeling the guilt of walking out on your friend's loving rendition of Maroon 5. So I guess she has some merit. But getting back to the point, some songs are great yet are just too long for most karaoke nights out. Hey Jude, Hotel California, and American Pie, I'm looking your way. You're more suitable for a long road trip with the buds than in a karaoke room where the time limit is ominously ticking down like a death clock.

8) The Barbara Streisand (aka The Mic Hog)

Barbara Streisand isn't ever giving up center stage for anybody, and neither is this person. Enthusiasm is a key ingredient to a great karaoke night out, so I can't begrudge the over-eager too much. But please, show some courtesy. It's a pretty big faux pas to queue up 2 of your own songs in a row. It's an aggravated capital felony to do 3 or more. Try to keep an eye out and make sure that everybody who wants to sing is getting in on the rotation.

9) The Kramer (aka The Uninvited Duetter)

Duets are a great way to share in on the fun of a song with a friend. But sometimes, damn it, I want a solo because this is my signature song. However, the Kramer is pretty oblivious to such cues and will come whooshing in to grab the second mic. If I make a mistake and accidentally extend a cold offer to join in, well, I guess I can't fault you for not being able to read my mind. But don't butt in when I look all pumped up and ready to go.

In all seriousness though, any night out with karaoke is a fun night out. I hope people don't read this and start disinviting me from karaoke night for being too critical. This is all in good fun, I swear!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Things I'm looking forward to doing this winter in Korea

Thankfully, I'll have a much lengthier winter break than last year. And unlike a year ago, I hopefully won't get sick as my body gets shocked by the cold Korean winter.

Here are the following things that I'm looking forward to doing:

1) Walk in from the cold to eat something hot and/or spicy

Piping-hot kalguksu. Sizzling samgyeopsal. Tongue-scorching spicy galbi-jjim. I can't wait to come in shivering from the harsh winds, melt my hands by the searing coals in the middle of the table, and guzzle down some hot hot food.

2) Take the metro across the frozen Han River

I live just on the southern banks of the Han River, so if I take the metro and want to go north, I have to cross the river. I just really like that long and uninterrupted glide from one side of the river to the other. It kind of reminds me of that part in Spirited Away when Chihiro and her friends take that train across the ocean.

3) Order jjajangmyeon (noodles in black bean sauce) when it's too cold to go outside and I'm sick of eating ramen

In case you don't know, jjajangmyeon is to Koreans what pizza is to Americans. It's the omnipresent default delivery food and eating too much of it all the time is usually a sign that you're a broke student or perhaps failing at life in some way. Jjajangmyeon is even the official food of Black Day, which is a sarcastic "holiday" for people who didn't get anything on Valentine's Day or White Day (which takes place a month after Valentine's Day and has girls giving chocolates to guys).

But regardless of its connotations, jjajangmyeon is delicious and I can't wait to eat it when I get home. I just feel a bit bad for the delivery guys who have to scooter through the snow to deliver the foods AND return later to pick up the dishes. It's too bad that it's against Korean custom to tip because these guys deserve it.

4) Get caught up on Korean TV and Korean celebrity gossip

ZOMG, did you see who was holding hands with whom out in public this weekend?! Who did you say had a secret marriage from a decade ago?! Who accused whom of plagiarizing his music?!

5) Travel somewhere else in Asia

This is obviously something I can't do in Korea, but since the break will be a lot longer this year, I'm hoping to travel somewhere else in Asia that I've never been before. I would really like to go to Vietnam because I really like Vietnamese food and I want to see the countryside. I'm not a beach person so perhaps places like Thailand and Bali aren't going to be my destination. I've been wanting to go to Hong Kong for the longest time though. So many places!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Son Heung Min nets hat-trick against his old team

Son Heung Min scored his first ever Bundesliga hat trick against his old team, Hamburg SV. Having come to Bayer Leverkusen for €10 million, he is both the most expensive Korean player ever and the most expensive player that Leverkusen has ever bought. So far this season in 13 games, he has 4 goals and 4 assists, and his team is in 3rd place in the Bundesliga. Last year for HSV, he scored 12 goals and had 2 assists.

I remember when it used to be rare to see Asian athletes succeed at the most elite levels. Ichiro and Yao Ming were the exceptions. Now, it's getting more and more routine. Good Asian pitchers in the MLB are so blah now: Koji Uehara, Yu Darvish, Ryu Hyun Jin, Hiroki Kuroda, Hisashi Iwakuma, Wei-Yin Chen, Junichi Tazawa... And let's not forget position players too like Shin Soo Choo, who is due for a massive contract after establishing himself as one of the best leadoff hitters in the game.

In basketball, Jeremy Lin has gotten off to a great start, posting a PER of 19. Pretty much everything he was criticized for last season (shaky jump shot, ho-hum defense, inferior left hand), he has improved upon over this summer. It's really impressive how much this guy one-ups his game all the time.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Watching Disney in Foreign Languages on Youtube

One of the things that I've always wanted to know is how English and Korean sound to people who don't speak them. It's one of those things that are infinitely fascinating because unless I get amnesia or something to lose my language capabilities, it's something that I can never know.

I think it was in my attempt to answer that question that I, sometime early in freshman year (or perhaps senior year of high school), discovered that there was a treasure trove of Disney musical sequences in foreign languages on Youtube. Ever since then, I've been listening to these things over and over again to the point where I used Youtube converter websites to download them as MP3s so I could listen to them on the go.

I'm not quite sure what makes them so captivating. I think the biggest thing is the pleasure you get from mixing something so familiar with something so indecipherable. If you sat there and listened to a conversation in, say, Turkish, it would be interesting but also frustratingly incomprehensible.

But put the same language in the magic carpet ride sequence from Aladdin, and whatever language is being sung, it becomes immediately understandable because we all know the lyrics and context. That also allows us (or least me) to enjoy the musicality of the language itself. Yeah, it's all foreign to me, but there's a big difference in the ways that Icelandic is impenetrable from Mandarin, and I can relax and try to appreciate those qualities.

It just makes me sad that out of all the languages in the world, I'll probably only end up knowing two of them.

Russian: Part of Your World Reprise from The Little Mermaid

Korean: God Bless The Outcasts from The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Arabic: Beauty and the Beast from Beauty and the Beast

French: Reflection from Mulan

Zulu: I Just Can't Wait To Be King from The Lion King

Portuguese: A Whole New World from Aladdin

Thai: Once Upon A Dream from The Sleeping Beauty

Italian: I Won't Say I'm In Love from Hercules

Hindi: Kiss the Girl from The Little Mermaid

Turkish: Colors of the Wind from Pocahontas

Icelandic: Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid

German: Go the Distance from Hercules

Japanese: Son of Man from Tarzan

Romanian: Something There from Beauty and the Beast

Swedish: One Jump Ahead Reprise from Aladdin

Cantonese: So This Is Love from Cinderella

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Houston Rockets look dangerously good in preseason

The NBA regular season kicks off in a couple of weeks, and it looks to be a fascinating season with tonnes of juicy storylines. Will the Dwight-loaded Rockets launch into the stratosphere of the Western Conference elite? Will the Heat have enough for a three-peat and cement their status as one of the greatest teams of all time? Can the Thunder cope with the temporary loss of Russell Westbrook, or will it become more apparent that the James Harden trade has been a disaster of mythic proportions? Will the Celtics' Nets' expensive attempt to win the 2008 2014 championship work?

This preseason, the Rockets have looked very good. In the last 2 games (which were played in the Philippines and Taiwan), they were able to pretty much dominate the Pacers. That was the team that pushed the Heat to their limit in last season's playoffs. And I know that preseason doesn't mean much, but remember how the Lakers sucked in preseason last year and it basically foreshadowed their upcoming season? At least we know that the Rockets will most likely not totally flop in similar fashion.

The game in Taiwan was, to borrow a phrase from U2 (or more accurately, the Romanian poet Paul Celan), Jeremy Lin's sort of homecoming. It was a massively anticipated and pressure-filled situation for him, and he delivered with an excellent stat sheet of 17 points, 4 assists, 3 steals, 2 rebounds and 1 BEASTLY block. He shot 6/8 from the field, including 3/4 from 3-point range, which is the kind of efficiency you want to see in a player who also has to share the ball with James Harden, Dwight Howard, and Chandler Parsons.

From what I saw in the game, Howard still hasn't been smoothly integrated into the offense yet. And there's still the question of what to do with Omer Asik, who deserves to be a starter on any team in the league (except for perhaps any team that has Dwight Howard or Roy Hibbert) but could make the Rockets ridiculously deep if he becomes cool with coming off the bench.

But still, if I were the Thunder or the Spurs, I'd be very anxious right now. The Thunder especially, since I would be directly responsible for spawning this monster.

Highlights from the Taiwan game... LeBronesque chasedown block on Danny Granger
at 1:15