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