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PIFF report: Paju

Posted in Culture, Expat life, Film & TV, Images, Korea, Personal, PIFF on October 16, 2009 by Elephant Talk

My final screening at the 2009 PIFF festival was a Korean melodrama called Paju. This was also the last PIFF screening at the Haeundae Megabox theater, so the entire staff of volunteers came out to bow to the packed house of patrons. It was all very cute.

PajuPaju was not cute; it was pretty damned intense. This was yet another taboo romance, with director Park Chan-ok successfully putting her audience through utter hell. As is typical with modern Korean melodramas, a tragic event has occurred, leading to a misunderstanding, and thereby throwing everyone into self-inflicted conundrums of Shakespearean proportions. The story is intended to induce suffering, from the three tragic central characters to the backdrop of forced relocation of homes to a rural community with seemingly no future.

I’ve seen enough Korean movies now. Once I got the Big Answer halfway through the film, I knew what was coming. I won’t give anything away, but it has to do with that very Korean form of sacrifice and heroism. And, as with other Korean melodramas, there is always, always the beautiful girl who makes it all worth it. Actress Seo Woo is indeed almost impossibly adorable, but her character is no saint. She’s selfish and detached, with a bit of a mean streak. Granted, her situation has played a role in making her that way, and she does have a sweet side to her. But it pains me to see what these men go through for the doe-eyed “innocent.”

Still, this is a complicated character and a complicated set of circumstances. Even if the misunderstanding could be worked out, we’re still left with a forbidden love in a hopeless town. Like Romeo & Juliet, even if the message arrives, even if they could come together somehow, reality is still against them.

If I sound like I didn’t like this movie, that’s not it at all. In fact, I’ve really come to like these heartbreaking Korean yarns. Paju is well made, with a very effective time-shifting montage that provides mysteries and then reveals them in a manner that works. This is an edgy art film with big budget production values and an excellent ensemble cast.

And with that, I think my PIFF blogging is done. I lost count of how many movies I saw — 11 or 12 I think. The atmosphere, the films, the weather, the parties, the conversations… all added up to another wonderful week. But I’m tired. I haven’t slept much, I drank too much, and my apartment is a disaster. I feel the need for a weekend of social inactivity, to calm down and get back to normal life.


PIFF: Dust to Dust

Posted in Culture, Film & TV, Images, Korea, Personal, PIFF, Sound, Travel on October 15, 2009 by Elephant Talk

In travel, as Spalding Grey used to say, you’re always holding out for that “perfect moment.” With this year’s PIFF festival, I’ve been waiting for my “perfect film” to come along. It almost happened yesterday. For me to really love a film it has to be what I feel is exceptionally well-made and also hit me personally. In short, I want to be impressed and moved at the same time. Dust, a movie out of Luxembourg, accomplished about 95% of each.

Dust is what good cinema is all about. The great thing about movies as a storytelling device is the way they reveal a story through images and sounds. Film is not really about dialog; it’s about presentation. Books can’t do this, and neither can theater. Director Max Jacoby utilizes the full spectrum of what is available in the form to his advantage. Little is said in this movie because the camera and soundtrack take up that narrative role more than any dialog could. Jacoby, through cinematographer Fredrik Bächar, is an expert in blocking and framing. Every shot seems intended to give you a clue about what these three characters are thinking and feeling. It could be choice in focus, a slow dolly into one character’s face, someone intentionally cropped out of the frame, or someone moving in or out of the frame. The sound design also plays a strong role, with liberal use of offscreen sounds. We hear a door open and we wonder; we hear the crackling of glass under footsteps and realize something happened here; we hear the arrival of a car and we feel what that means.

In essence, Dust is a post-apocalyptic love triangle. But the setting is not simply a device. The environment and situation almost acts as a fourth character. It’s something the other three must contend with. It has a say in their decision-making and it forms the particularites of the relationships that have developed and will develop. Jacoby presents the landscape as monumental in size and scope, both containing and reflecting their own dilemma. This space and setting, combined with the sparse dialog, also gives the audience plenty of headspace to wonder how all of this is going to work out. I found myself a lot of times thinking “well shit, they can’t…” or “oh right, so how…?” The slow pace kept me in suspense and kept me wondering. And when that happens, when you realize how involved you are, that’s when you know you’re watching a great movie.

Which brings me to the remaining 5% of this movie that I didn’t like, that being the ending. Again, it’s revealed by the camera, and it was… not hugely disappointing, and not unexpected. But it wasn’t enough. We needed a third act and we didn’t get it. The director had done such a fine job of telling this story and creating an atmosphere of tension, and three minutes before it ends I’m thinking, oh crap, now they have to deal with x. But Jacoby let me off the hook. He had me in suspense and I was gearing up for an interesting final 20 minutes or so, but then he let me go. In short, we needed a conflict and we didn’t get one. I warn you that the next sentence is a bit of a spoiler: Yes, the penguin kept the ring, but the spell was broken without the penguin having to face the consequences of that, so it didn’t really matter anyway.

Still, good lord what a beautiful work of art this movie is. Unfortunately, the movie I saw afterward, The Dust of Time, wasn’t. It was horrible. Seriously, my god, I hated this movie. That wooshing sound you hear is the sound of this movie going right over my head. I had no clue who these people were and what was going on. Well, I did eventually, but by the time I caught up to what the director was trying to do, I didn’t care. Willem Defoe is laying it on so thick that it’s almost campy. This movie has so much melodrama — heavy moments, crying, slow motion — that was empty because I didn’t give a damn. It’s so strange to be watching actors on screen pouring it all out and I’m just empty. And I had to endure this for over two hours. I kept thinking “it has to end sometime it has to end sometime it has to end…” but it just kept going and going and going. After a while I’m just staring at a point in the center of the screen like a laser, not looking at anything, just waiting for the damned thing to end. When that didn’t work I tried to open up some latent telekenetic ability so I could peel the corners of the screen in order to make a paper airplane out of it. Anything just to end the damned thing.

Every movie experience is like a relationship between the maker and the audience member. And in this relationship, maybe it’s not about you, it’s about me. Maybe I just missed what all this passion was about. I’d like to give some benefit of doubt and think that. But I could see other people squirming. And when it finally faded to black and those first text images started to roll onto the screen, people practically lept out of their seats heading for the exits. Usually PIFF-goers will wait for the credits to end, clap, and then leave. But not here.

Luckily this isn’t my final film. I’m seeing my last one tonight, the one I was hoping to see — Paju.

How Ginger feels

Posted in Academics, Culture, Expat life, Images, Korea, Personal on June 26, 2009 by Elephant Talk

I just got back from 18 hours in Seoul where I met a friend and former colleage and another friend and former professor. It was time well spent catching up and getting a good poke of inspiration toward a possible new personal project.

The evening out was fun, but it would have been more so had I not been struck by another jolt of insomnia. I met up with a group of four others, all Korean. With the five of us, three spoke perfect English, one servicable English, and the other didn’t say much of anything. Four spoke perfect Korean, with me as the odd one out. I’d say a good two-thirds of the conversation that night was in Korean.

It’s part of life here that I’m occasionally engaged in social interactions where I appear as though I’m involved in the conversation even though the meaning is completely lost on me. When Korean is spoken I watch the person talking, then I watch the person responding. Usually it doesn’t bother me. I’m lucky in a sense that I don’t need to be at the center of things and am far more comfortable observing. I like to watch faces, see reactions, notice dynamic interpersonal shifts, see who’s got the upper hand. But things can get awkward, like when something funny is said and the table bursts out laughing and I’m not—that’s when it’s clear that this guy is not like the others.

People who are considerate—usually those who have spent a lot of time with foreigners—will understand my situation and integrate me into the flow. So things get broken up by an occasional translation for the highlights, and side conversations in English will break off from the main dialog. The times when it sucks are when there’s no break in the flow. That I see as outright rude, not to mention painfully boring. But they’re also rare.

Yes, I know. Learn the language. But that’s much easier said than done. My classes and additional personal study at this stage cover how to ask directions to the bank, what movie we should go see, what I did yesterday, what my favorite food is, do I have a girlfriend. This kind of thing. When conversation shifts to how university professors are becoming increasingly fearful of being blacklisted by an increasingly repressive right-wing political structure, there’s just no chance. I can’t hang. I poke at my food, follow the emotional arcs, look engaged, and wait.

What I hear goes something like this. “Recently, ____ _____ _____ because of the _____ ______. It’s very ______ ______ and ______ _______ which I don’t like. Last week _____ ______ _______ ___ _______. So I _____ ___ ______ _____ ______. Usually _____ ____ _______ ____. But I don’t eat _____ ____ _______.”

I feel like the dog in that Gary Larson cartoon. But I’m getting better. Each week brings a tiny bit more. But it’s painfully, agonizingly slow.

I often wonder why I bother. Given the monumental undertaking that it is, time spent trying to learn Korean might be better spent doing some other kinds of work or research. But everywhere I turn I’m reminded how much certain worlds would open up to me if I had that access. And they’re worlds that I really do want access to.


Posted in Film & TV, Images, Lost on May 1, 2009 by Elephant Talk

Given the events of the most recent episode of Lost, I thought this was a good time to revisit the crash that started this whole insane TV show. I found an excellent video on Youtube. Someone edited together several episodes across several seasons to create a linear timeline of events of the crash from three different perspectives: Desmond at the hatch, the central characters in the plane, and the Others on the ground.

As for “The Variable” itself, I’m worried. If Lost ends with everyone erasing their pasts and winding up landing in LAX, I’m going to be very disappointed. Not quite The Wizard of Oz, but close.


Posted in Expat life, Images, Personal on April 27, 2009 by Elephant Talk

I never played darts before I came to Korea, but it’s a fixture in the foreigner bar scene here so I’ve picked it up recently. I told myself I’d never buy my own set, mainly because I’m not good at darts. I lose just about every game I play. There’s the added pressure aspect as well. If you approach a board and whip out your own set, people will expect that you’ve got some game. I do not have game.

But I tried this here set of Japanese Prisma Azda darts just for kicks. First throw, I hit a double bullseye. Second throw, I hit another bull. They felt great in my hand and I figured it was a good sign. They weren’t cheap at 79,000 won, but what the hell. I spend a good chunk of my social life playing, so why not?


So, how did I do in my first game? I lost, came in third among three people. Second game, lost again. For the third game we had four players. Lost again. So I still suck. And I look like an idiot. And I’m out 79 chon. But they’re so pretty.

New phone, new TV

Posted in Culture, Expat life, Film & TV, Images, Korea, Lost, Technology on April 24, 2009 by Elephant Talk

This is my new TV. It’s also my new cell phone…


I haven’t owned a TV in over two years, ever since I moved to Korea. When I finally get one, it winds up being an accessory item. Technology is weird.

The picture quality is outstanding for such a tiny little thing. And it’s easy. I plug in the antenna, flip up the screen, hit the TV button, and cycle through channels. It’s got about 10 channels and the broadcasts are free. I don’t watch it very much though. Korean TV leaves a lot to be desired. It primarily consists of three types of programming — melodramas, news, and variety shows. If I’m able to figure out how to get Lost and Lotte Giants games I might watch it more.

So why did I get it? It was free. It’s Samsung’s brand new product (the SPH-W6450), and from what I could understand through the translation, Samsung wants to get it out there for people to see. So with a 2-month contract I walked out without paying a single won. I think the list price on it is 650,000.

There seem to be a lot of buried features that I haven’t figured out yet. The camera is great, but I’m still tweaking with the settings. It also does video calls, but I haven’t even touched that yet. One thing I do not like about this phone is that the battery lasts for about two days. The screen is so big and bright (even on lowest setting) that the energy gets sucked out of it pretty quickly.

The feature I am excited about is the Bluetooth capability. I finally figured out how to connect it to my MacBook. The problem is it took about 5 minutes to bring one solitary mp3 over to my phone. That ain’t gonna work, but maybe I’m doing something wrong. Tweak, tweak, tweak…

Naeyeonsan and Bogyeongsa

Posted in Culture, Expat life, Images, Korea, Outdoors, Personal, Travel on April 8, 2009 by Elephant Talk

dsc010071The cherry blossoms are in full bloom, and the unusually long winter has finally run its course. Time for a trip to the mountains to take in fresh air, green hills, a temple, and some village life. I know that when I leave Korea, these trips to the countryside with friends will be my best memories of life here. So I try to escape the concrete and crowds of humanity as much as possible.

This journey took us to Naeyeonsan mountain and Bogyeongsa temple. It’s an area about a half hour drive north of the east coast city of Pohang, itself about a half hour north of the popular tourist destination, Gyeongju. Seven of us left Friday evening around 8:30 and arrived in Pohang, where we meandered in search of a place to stay. We found a hotel and crashed out early.

It’s difficult to get seven people motivated in the morning, so we got a late start. It took a bus ride and a couple of ripoff taxi drivers, but we eventually arrived at the mountain village around noon. We quickly found what must be the coolest minbak in South Korea, with tons of character, huge open windows letting in light, a balcony overlooking the main drag, and a piano in one of the rooms. We unloaded our things and went downstairs to gorge on homemade kalguksu.

After lunch, we headed down the cherry-blossom-lined road and entered Bogyeongsa temple. It was a fairly humble complex, set in open land, with no real discernable identity to it. This was probably the shortest temple visit I’ve done. But the day was beginning to grow old and we had other, more important destinations in mind — namely, the series of waterfalls along the trail up Naeyeonsan.

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