Sunday, June 30, 2013

Is "Before Sunrise" or "Before Sunset" the better movie? Pt. I

I just recently found out that Before Midnight is playing in Seoul, so I decided to watch both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset back to back before going to see the third part. The first two movies are both great films, and quite different in tone, visual style, and maturity. But I still can't help directly comparing them.

The Case for Before Sunrise

The Telephone Game: I loved this scene so much when I first saw it
I must've seen this one when I was around 20 or 21 years old, and like every lonely (and self-involved) guy who was growing more and more averse to the routines of the college social scene, I just KNEW that this movie had been personally made for me. As in, Richard Linklater had been aware in the early 1990s of my 6-year old self and could predict that about 14 years later, I would really need to watch a movie like this. And for mainly that reason, he made Before Sunrise.

Okay, maybe I wasn't that narcissistic, but nevertheless, Before Sunrise was one of those movies that just sucked me in, especially since I barely knew of it beforehand. In fact, I don't even know why I decided to watch it in the first place. All I knew of it was that it starred a young Ethan Hawke, who after having apparently gotten over Neil's death and Mr. Keating's sacking, had decided to become goateed pseudo-jaded Eurailing slacker.

The horrors of "Hellton" turned Ethan Hawke into a
Gen X slacker
Upon first viewing, so much of the movie rang true to me. Jesse was my hero for being able to fight through his own uphill climb of awkwardness to start a conversation with Celine across the train aisle. I often was engaged in that fight myself, but I usually lost and never said much to the girls who sat near me in class or stood close to me at parties. Maybe I could be like Jesse one day, because all it took was for that first word to make its escape from our inhibitions and fly past our lips, and voila, conversation!

But Jesse wasn't some comic book superhero. For instance, when he is first talking to Celine in the lounge car, his hands can't help but touch EVERYTHING, from the table cloth to his neck to the salt shaker to the lamp... There are times when he can barely look at her, choosing instead to look out the window as he throws out every thought he has, hoping that something impresses her as interesting. Neither of them seem to actually be listening to each other at first, each just thankful for the attention being shown to them by the other. You ever have one of those conversations with someone to whom you're so glad to be talking that you pay absolutely no attention to what they say while you grin stupidly the whole time? Yeah, that was Jesse and Celine.

There was so much that could've gone wrong with this film. A story about 2 attractive and probably somewhat affluent young white people being all young and full of musings in Europe could've easily ended up as obnoxious as any one of Woody Allen's recent films in his Yurp tour (of which Midnight in Paris is the worst). The movie could've ended up as a movie adaptation of Thought Catalog. Its "One night in a city" tale could've ended up cloying as precious shit like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.

But it didn't, miraculously. The roughly sketched characters had enough little details and idiosyncrasies to not be complete audience stand-ins, yet they had no last names and no extensive personal biographies. They could've been any one of us. And the movie didn't glamorize Vienna, and through the camera's rather grainy and washed-out look, the city on an overcast summer day looked almost drab and mundane. This was no Hollywood travelogue that gloated its inaccessibility to us commoners whose own trips to Vienna wouldn't be aided by a prism-eyed cinematographer and an impeccable costume designer.

Does this fill you with optimism and pessimism? It probably depends
entirely on where you are in your own life.
Then a funny thing happens when one gives Before Sunrise a second (or third or fourth...) go, perhaps when one's a little older than the first time. The dialogue, while still spontaneous and naturalistic and uncontrived, makes you cringe a little bit for some reason. Jesse doesn't seem as cool anymore, and in fact, comes off a little bit like an immature douchebag a few times. You still admire the characters' romantic idealism, but you start to have more doubts about them.

The movie hasn't changed, but you have. And you know it when you watch the film.

Far more than Avatar or The Lord of the Rings, Before Sunrise is the greatest fantasy film in modern times. Its premise is so simple yet so unobtainable for most of us. All we can do is watch it again and again and hope that one day, we too will have our own Before Sunrise moment, to the point where it becomes an embarrassing cliche that we would never admit to anybody. But like those who secretly continue to believe in UFOs or hidden magical realms behind closets, we still cling to the fantastical idea.

Before Sunset may be more emotionally fraught, or more realistic, or just prettier to look at. But Before Sunrise is the better film because it'll strike you that first time like no other. No matter how your perception of the characters changes over time, the impact of seeing them in their youthfully unburdened lightness will remain the strongest.

In Pt. II, I will make the case for Before Sunset.

Monday, June 24, 2013

My First Korean Rock Concert Experience: Monni (몽니)

A couple of weeks ago, I met up with my cousin to catch up after not having seen her since last summer. She had tickets to go see this band called Monni, so we went to go see them perform at the Samsung Blue Square Performance Hall. Not being familiar with Korean rock at all, I had never heard of this band before, but I'm very glad that we were able to see them because they were really good. Very pretty and melodic rock, with a good mix of fast and slow numbers. The lead singer, Kim Shin Ee, is an excellent vocalist who also regularly stars in musicals as well.

I don't think the rock scene is very big in Korea, though my brother told me about some very talented bands in Hongdae. He's a total metalhead, so he wouldn't have said that if the bands were just pretty boy posers like CN Blue or something (no offense to any CN Blue fans). I definitely want to check out some of those groups out one of these weekends.

When most people think of Korean music, they almost always think of K-pop or PSY. There's nothing wrong with that, but there's a lot of other music out there that deserves to be listened to as well.

Here are some of Monni's songs that I am listening to now.

"Diary (일기)"

"Rain Shower (소나기)"

"A Boy To Be A Man (소년이 어른이 되어)"

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Makgeolli will be the next big thing

Chestnut-infused makgeolli from Moon Jar
Soju is sort of gaining some notoriety outside of Korea, but I don't think most non-Koreans know what makgeolli is. Still, I do know that some of my non-Korean friends in New York City really enjoy the stuff (I'm looking at you, AK, if you're reading this), though it still pains me to have to pay $20 for a bottle of makgeolli that I could get for about $2 at a Family Mart here. I have nothing against soju, but it's just a weaker and sweeter version of vodka, which itself is a boring liquor that seems to come out with 10 pointless gimmicks every year. There's nothing quite like makgeolli on the other hand, especially the freshly brewed kind.

I had my first taste of makgeolli (Korean rice wine) when I went to Andong a few years ago. It had been a really hot summer day and my relatives had been showing us around the many temples and villages in the area. Needless to say, we were all sweaty, sticky, tired, and just beaten down.

At night, we sat outside to eat a dinner with all the classic Korean staples, most of which I had grown up eating. But there was one thing that was quite unfamiliar to me, and it was in a moderately-sized clay pot. It was a liquid, whitish and creamy in colour. At first glance, it looked like skim milk.

I'll never forget that first taste, though I don't quite remember what the exact sensations were. All I remember was that it was cool, smooth, and a little sweet. Best of all, after a few bowls (yes, they were served in little bowls and not cups), you felt a little buzz that just made everything better.

When most people think of Korean liquor, they think of soju. Some people love it, some people hate it. I'm pretty neutral about it. All I know is that my worst drunkenness tends to happen when I drink soju because I lose track of how much I drink. In America, I measure everything in terms of a single shot of 80-proof liquor. Soju is only 20% ABV, and you drink it throughout your meal, so my whole counting system goes haywire. It's as if I'm used to measuring in the metric system and I find myself using imperial units.

And then by the end of the night, I'm getting into confrontations with cab drivers after I kick their vehicles when they refuse to drive us home...

Anyway, back to makgeolli! It's a great drink, but the bottled kind that they sell on the cheap has that carbonated, Spritey taste that I don't like. For the really good stuff, you should go to a bar that makes fresh makgeolli. It won't cost you THAT much more than the bottled stuff, and it's so worth it.

I've only been to a couple of establishments that make their own makgeolli. Here they are:


My brother and me, enjoying makgeolli, boiled potatoes,
and kimchi
Wolhyang is located in Hongdae, and it's famous for its brown rice makgeolli that's almost as strong as soju. Just keep that in mind as you down bowl after bowl of this supposedly harmless drink.

Moon Jar

Another famous makgeolli joint, this one is in Apgujeong in the Rodeo area. The interior has a very worn-down feel that I think is supposed you remind you that makgeolli is a farmer's drink. I need to go back here many times to try all their different variations.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Drama Reviews, Pt. 2

Boys Over Flowers

Man, it's embarrassing to admit that I watched this. Not only did I watch it, I finished it. All 25 episodes.

To be fair, I watched it way back in the fall of 2010, which was the beginning of what would be my two-year stay in Korea. I had no idea what was popular here, so I just did some quick research and went for the drama with the most buzz.

Boys Over Flowers makes NO SENSE. The characters are ostensibly high school students in contemporary Seoul, but the universe they actually live in defies laws of physics, chance, behaviorial logic, etc. They go to school but there are never any teachers or even adults around. They go home but there are hardly any parents around, and if there are, those parents are wildly irresponsible and incompetent. It's kind of like an adolescent fantasy where the world truly does revolve around 17-year olds because they are really just that important.

The protagonist, Geum Jan Di (played
by Gu Hye Sun), is the only girl in
her school who is willing to call
out the F4 for the sadistic creeps that
they are and slowly get them to
change their ways
Not that I didn't enjoy the drama, especially as an introduction to Korean pop culture. I also know it's not aimed at me because the show is about a lower-class, pretty-but-not-too-pretty schoolgirl who somehow ends up being at the center of not one, not two, not three, but four hot guys' universe.

And if you're a guy and you feel a little annoyed at this concept, imagine how every girl and woman feels when they watch, uh, every other show and movie ever in which attractive women inexplicably orbit around one remarkably ordinary male protagonist.

Oh, you may want to know the basic storyline, which is based on a Japanese manga. Geum Jan Di becomes a "charity" admit to the exclusive Shinhwa School after she saves a suicidal student from that school. Shinhwa unabashedly caters to the super-wealthy and is kind of an autocratic Lord of the Flies-esque hellhole ruled by the F4, a quartet of the wealthiest and most attractive guys at the school. Jan Di, however, is not impressed by them, and the whole show is about her butting heads with its leader, Gu Jun Pyo.

I think the drama ultimately outdid itself when Jan Di was forced to work as Jun Pyo's servant (complete in a French maid outfit) due to his mother's evil schemings...

Yes, the show doesn't even seem to try to achieve any suspension of disbelief. Yes, the soundtrack is way too repetitive and seems to becoming a running joke. And yes, the plot gets way too ridiculous at the end with kidnappings, secret arranged marriages, and the whole indentured servitude thing.

If I were to watch it now, maybe I'd actually hate it. But I have too many fond memories of it being my first foray to modern Korean pop culture, so I'm probably not being as neutral as possible here. Go watch it, ironically if you have to.

This is basically "Entourage" for tween girls

City Hunter

Based on a Japanese manga, City Hunter is about a young man who is raised by his ex-special forces father to exact revenge on the country that betrayed and abandoned his unit many years ago. Yoon Sung (played by Lee Min Ho, who was also in Boys Over Flowers) grows up in the forests of Thailand amidst outlaws, and his father, Jin Pyo, trains him to be a lethal and remorseless killing machine. When he comes of age, he is sent to Seoul so that he can hunt down and kill all the high-ranking officials who were responsible for that failed military operation.

What City Hunter does superbly is sell the desire for revenge. Without it, the whole premise of the drama would be undercut and we'd just be watching a murderous father-son team with whom we can't sympathize. But the first episode gives real meat and weight to Jin Pyo's bloodthirstiness. It also humanizes him, because you realize that he needs this revenge because it's all he has left after having lost his best friends and his faith in serving his country.

Of course, Yoon Sung doesn't actually become a murderer, and his disillusionment with never-ending revenge becomes another point of conflict as he has to fight back against his father.

The question of who the antagonist actually is in this drama is never fully resolved, even at the end, and I think that's what made this show compelling. Is Jin Pyo a ruthless psychopath, or do the corrupt government officials and captains of industry deserve to be brought down? The storyline also benefits from its episodic nature: Yoon Sung has five targets to kill, so every few episodes, a new and easily identifiable goal is apparent. This prevents the drama from becoming lost in its objectives and sagging in the middle.

In his defense, Superman was even lazier with
his disguise
The drama also scores high because of its quality action scenes. It's obviously not at the level of a blockbuster film, but it doesn't seem cheap, cheesy, and obviously fake. Lee Min Ho may have played a foppish rich boy in Boys Over Flowers, but he's fairly convincing as a lethal weapon here.
Oh, and the soundtrack is awesome and varied as well. Yim Jae Beom and Kim Bo Kyung sing two of the drama's main songs, and there are some well-done orchestral/instrumental pieces, which lend to the drama's cinematic feel.

There are hardly any negatives to this drama. One minor quibble is that Lee Min Ho's wardrobe seems to get progressively more outlandish. It's hilarious enough that he's supposed to be an MIT-educated computer genius with that kind of K-pop hairdo. But then he starts wearing pink pants and unnecessarily ornate jackets, and I was, like, "Come on."

Oh, and it's kind of ridiculous of nobody knows the identify of the "City Hunter" when it's CLEARLY Lee Min Ho in a surgeon's mask. I mean, he doesn't even bother to ugly up his hair.

But I'm just taking potshots right now. This is an excellent action drama that's genuinely free of any stooopid factors. Characters behave in believable and motivated ways, and that's what makes the difference.

Elephant = Meaning business

Secret Garden 

I never got into Secret Garden, which was an epic mega-smash back in late 2010, early 2011. You couldn't go anywhere without hearing its signature ballad or seeing some version of the infamous track suit that Hyun Bin's character wears in the show.

Joo Won (played by Hyun Bin) in his running joke of a track suit, and
Ra Im (Ha Ji Won)
The drama is well-written, and its cast is uniformly excellent. Hyun Bin may not be the most versatile actor in the world, but he's pretty unbeatable when playing the cold, rich jerk who's actually kind of a dork behind all the fronting. And there aren't many Korean drama actresses who could convince me that she was a professional stuntwoman, but Ha Ji Won is one of them.

I think I just wasn't captured by the classic "love square" format that was reminiscent of all the classic Korean dramas. The characters are pretty
stock as well, with the wealthy guy and the poor girl. There is an element of fantasy when the notorious body switch between Joo Won (Hyun Bin) and Ra Im (Ha Ji Won) happens, but for the most part, the drama is the classic love square story. No matter how funny or sharp the drama was, it felt a little too familiar and stale.

Cue that Baek Ji Young theme ballad that was everywhere in late 2010 and early 2011

You're Beautiful

There are a couple of problems with the basic plot idea of a girl pretending to be a boy in order to fit into a group. In You're Beautiful, Park Shin Hye plays a girl who needs to pretend to be a boy in order to join a famous band so that she can be reunited with her long-lost family.

First, it's just very hard to believe that anybody would mistake Park Shin Hye for a boy, especially if they are around her for a long time. You can't hide that kind of pretty! Plus, you know, the abnormally high-pitched voice for a dude? It's like how Coffee Prince was almost made completely silly by the notion that someone as hot as Yoon Eun Hye could be mistaken for a dude just because she had short hair.

Yeah, I totally watched Les Miserables and Amelie thinking that Anne Hathaway and Audrey Tautou's characters were both men.

But okay, maybe you could argue that while their feminine features may not make them look like men, their features make them look like little boys, especially since they're shorter than the guys around them. That brings us to the second problem: then why the hell are these male characters hanging around those whom they genuinely believe to be little boys?!

There were other problems that prevented me from liking this drama too. For example, the main male character (played by Jang Geun Suk) was just way too unpleasant at the beginning. There's First-Male-Lead-In-A-Korean-Drama jerkiness, and there's Just-Plain-Jerk jerkiness. He was more of the latter. And his bandmates were just irritating. There's your typical supremely boring manservant of a second male lead (played by CN Blue's Jung Yong Hwa) and the overacting "comic" relief whom you just want to shoot with a double-dose tranquilizer (played by FT Island's Lee Hong Ki).

I never went past the first few episodes, and I won't go back to this one.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Hong Myung Bo is the new Korea manager!

Edit: I may have jumped the gun here because Hong Myung Bo's appointment is neither official nor final. The forums were absolutely certain that he had been chosen, but there is still no official word. Not that anybody probably uses this little blog as a news source, but as of this moment, Hong is not the actual manager of the national team, though my money is still on him. 

First off, congrats to Iran. Welcome back to the World Cup.

Yes, that was a pretty miserable loss for us tonight and it was pathetic how we only made it to the World Cup on goal differential. If we had conceded 1 more and Uzbekistan had scored 1 more, I think we'd have been out. That's cringe-worthy.

But I'm not even that mad. It was a fitting end to the increasingly nightmarish Choi Kang Hee Era, which shall be henceforth known as the Dark Ages. The fact is that in 270 minutes of match time, Korea had exactly zero goals scored from open play. And this wasn't against exactly elite competition either. Against Lebanon, we got a last minute free kick goal that salvaged a draw. Against Uzbekistan, we won because of our opponent's own goal. And against Iran, we created some decent chances but failed to finish.
Vintage Hong Myung Bo, circa 2002

This shouldn't be happening on a team this talented. Remember that Korea has 3 young players (Koo Ja Cheol, Son Heung Min, and Ji Dong Won) who are thriving in the Bundesliga, now arguably the best league in Europe. Son Heung Min will become the most expensive Korean player ever, breaking the record set just last year by Ki Sung Yueng of Swansea, who has himself become a solid starter in the Premier League. He will be joined by Kim Bo Kyung, who played well in his first season at Cardiff City, a team that just won promotion into the Premier League. Lee Chung Yong is still a dangerous winger and hasn't lost much following his disastrous leg break. Kim Young Kwon, Hong Jeong Ho, Jang Hyun Soo, and Kim Chang Soo are all promising young defenders who may move to Europe in the near future.

In terms of individual talent, this young team is clearly on the rise.

Just last year, the Olympic team won bronze in a pretty loaded tournament that featured some major superstars like Neymar, Edinson Cavani, and Juan Mata just to name a few. They beat a Team GB that had legit players like Aaron Ramsey, Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy, Joe Allen, Scott Sinclair, Tom Cleverley, and Micah Richards. They lost to a Brazil squad that was essentially the senior team, then went on to beat a pretty talented Japan team that had the likes of Hiroshi Kiyotake, Maya Yoshida, and Hiroki Sakai.

Ah, London 2012: Good memories
So why has the national team suffered so much? Well, there's a whole variety of reasons that I don't want to go into here.

But the important thing is that Hong Myung Bo is apparently the new manager!!!!!

This is great because not only is it inspiring to have a real Korean legend managing the national team, but because he's already familiar with most of the players due to his stint at the Olympics, he won't need a lot of time to implement his vision. There aren't many older players who deserve a spot in the starting 11, so his main job now is to integrate the core of the Olympic squad with players like Son Heung Min, Lee Chung Yong, and maybe Kim Shin Wook and Lee Keun Ho.

Still, he only has a year to prepare for the 2014 World Cup. I think that we should acknowledge that he has been given a tough hand with so little time to prepare, and be willing to accept perhaps a shaky performance. The real goal now is 2018 in Russia. Our young Olympic players will be veterans by then, and the Korean kids at the Barcelona youth teams might pan out by then.

Finally, some real hope.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Korean celebrities that people have said that I resemble

One of the big perks about being in Korea for me is that I don't feel racially estranged from pop culture. If you're white in America, then you have an endless catalog of famous people, either real or fictional, to use as references. And even in foreign countries, people will probably compare you to Brad Pitt or Audrey Hepburn or Harry Potter. But most Americans don't reciprocate that kind of attention to foreign pop cultures.

In America, when my friends start playing the celebrity lookalike game, I'm usually always excluded because I don't look like Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. In fact, since I don't look like them, I'm glad to be left out because the only major references left are William Hung or Mr. Chow or Kim Jong Il.

No thanks.

But in Korea, I get to experience what it's like to be in the majority group, and to not be ignored in the media. I AM NOT SAYING THAT I AM ANYWHERE NEAR AS ATTRACTIVE AS THESE FOLLOWING CELEBRITIES.  I'm just saying that at some point in my life, some people have noticed that the following celebrities and I share at least one set of features that are alike to some degree.

Lee Jun Ki

My grandmother always compares me to him, and some girls have done so as well. I can sort of see it, especially around the eyes and lower face (though I'd obviously have to work to get that glorious black mane of his). Lee Jun Ki is an actor/singer, but I've never really seen him in anything. He was really popular a few year ago but had to go to the military. I think he just got out. I don't know much more about him.

Park Hae Il

I only heard this once from a male acquaintance of mine. Park Hae Il is a very respected actor who's considered more of a thinking woman's heartthrob. I've seen him in the films Memories of Murder and Eun Gyo. The former was very good, and the latter was kind of boring.

Park Shi Hoo

Er, I'm not sure how I feel about this comparison because Park Shi Hoo was recently embroiled in a date rape controversy that has come to a very shady conclusion. He's a somewhat popular actor, but I've never seen him anything.

Andy (Shinhwa)

A girl once told me this. Back then, I had no idea what Shinhwa was (they're a very famous boy band from about 10 years ago), so I had to look this guy up.

Park Yoo Chun (TVXQ)

Nobody's actually told me this. I just got a 97% match or so from a Korean smartphone app that compares your face to those of celebrities. That was the highest match rating I ever got with any celebrity. Park Yoo Chun was a member of the now-split TVXQ, which in its heyday was like the Backstreet Boys plus 'N Sync of Asia.

So Ji Sub

Honest to god, this is the one I've heard the most. Seriously, I'm not just being delusional and making stuff up in a pathetic attempt to boost my self-esteem on my own blog.

I remember the first time someone made this comparison many years ago, and it seemed like the greatest compliment I had ever received, or would ever receive, in my life. Because, okay, I've never been one to question my sexuality, but if So Ji Sub asked me out on a date for whatever reason, I'd probably say yes and rush home to figure out what to wear.

Regardless of one's sexual orientation, a guy should be allowed to admire another guy's looks, even if only from a purely artistic point of view. And I feel that if, say, the Hagia Sophia were a man's face, it'd be this dude's face.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Challenging Beauty of Seoul

Some people like to slag Seoul as an ugly city because it's not the easiest city in the world to appreciate at first glance. There aren't many obvious tourist destinations, and the overall look of the city seems to reflect functionality and practicality over aesthetics. But these people should keep in mind that this is a city that had to rise literally from ashes in order to foster the fastest economic explosion of any country in the history of the modern world. So perhaps the city planners and architects had to worry about things such as building apartments and offices as quickly and affordably as possible, as opposed to debating how best to gentrify a neighbourhood block with cute brownstones.

That being said, Seoul is a world city now, so it's time for the city to look to not only be a commercial capital but also a a city with a distinct architectural fingerprint. I dream of one day seeing a Seoul that'll embrace its Korean architectural heritage and show the world that a beautiful city does not have to look like New York City or Paris or Bruges.

Since I'm Korean, I am probably too biased to make an objective analysis. But I think there's a unique beauty to Seoul, one that's perhaps more tied to its narrative and sense of possibility than to aesthetics. One has to work a little harder and use a little imagination to appreciate the city, but because of this, it's more rewarding. Even when I look at the most generic, plastic-and-glass clone-tiled building on a block, I am reminded of the fact that just a while ago, there was probably nothing there. If something could spring up in so short a time, what could be around the corner in just a few decades?

Plus, it's always exciting to be in a city that remains wholly yours to be discovered, as opposed to being a gallery of postcard cliches that draw the same breed of tourists every year.

Here are just some pictures that I took last year when I had a lot of free time and had the luxury of just wandering around the city. All these pictures were taken on my Fujifilm X10.

The surrounding walls of Gyeongokgoong

An alleyway in the Bukchon Hanok Village

Gwanghwamun, the front gate of Gyeongbokgoong

A cafe in Samcheongdong

A building in the Bukchon Hanok Vilage

A food cart in Apgujeong

A couple of curious-looking buildings near the Banpo Bridge

Insadong at sunset

A Seoul street

Near the river at Yeouido

Sunset at Yeouido

A train crossing the Han River
A view of Suwon from the Hwaseong Fortress
A crosswalk in Sinchon, near Yonsei University

A barbecue joint in Sinchon

A food vendor (pojang macha) in Gangnam

A view of Olympic Bridge from the Seoul metro

A street bend in northern Seoul

A peek into a coffee shop

A back alley in Apgujeong