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.