aapi, asian american, cinema and media studies, Gender Studies, ideology, korea, TV

Sam Okyere’s Racism Anecdote in South Korea on “Talking Street”/말하는대로

Sam Okyere is a South Korean entertainment personality originally from Ghana. Okyere appeared on JTBC’s yeneung talkshow program Talking Street to discuss how he dealt with ignorance and discrimination while living as a black man in Korea. [Please view the YouTube videos on the site for context. On Facebook, a shorter version of the story was uploaded on a page called “All Things K” and generated over 19,000 reactions.]

Initially blending wry humor on ironically responding to ridiculous questions such as “Do you raise lions back home?” he eventually delves into a much more painful anecdote on the time he experienced outright racism on the 2 train. When he was trying to take a seat on the subway, a middle-aged woman forced her way in and sat down instead. She then spread her legs widely, swore at him, and told him not to sit. She then confronted Okyere’s friend and asked why him he is hanging out with a black man. She turned to Okyere and told him to return to his country. While addressing the wrongness of this situation, Okyere goes onto explain that what hurt him the most was the reaction of the other Seoulites on that subway car, and how no one said a word to intervene. All they did was sit back and observe. As Okyere’s story progresses, a melancholic symphony plays in the background.

Throughout this two-minute story, the camera cuts to members of the live audience who are sitting on the floor around Okyere who is seated in a chair, looking down at the crowd like a teacher does when reading to elementary school children. The cutaways focus on audience faces that are frowning with disapproval or pain at Okyere’s story. There are also cutaways to the show’s hosts You Hee-yeol and HaHa (Ha Dong-hoon) who add small remarks such as, “I’ll apologize on her behalf,” “Oh my…” “It’s embarrassing,” and “I feel really sorry.”

Anti-blackness, racism and ignorance are certainly prevalent problems in the ROK (and arguably throughout Asia). They need to be addressed and corrected. Part of what this program does is help address the issues in Okyere’s story as problems. Asking questions based on ignorance is rude. Okyere speaks on the stresses of day-to-day microaggression while living in the ROK. And, of course, being outright hateful to a black man is completely unacceptable and hurtful. This much is obvious to everyone who is sitting on the sidelines as the show’s hosts, as well as the audience.

What’s missing from this program, however, is any comment on whiteness in the ROK. Anti-blackness is a learned racial discrimination that stems from the US’ military occupancy of the ROK since the 1950s. Historically speaking (in US terms), Koreans have no need to hate blackness (no enslavement of African bodies, no emancipation, no civil rights movement), so where does it come from? This question needs to be asked but it doesn’t appear in this anecdote at all. Instead, it goes from point A (Okyere as the subject), point B (the middle-aged Korean woman as the other subject), to point C (racism is obviously bad, and so are bystanders who don’t do anything about it).

Whiteness often goes missing from discussions of racism in the ROK probably because South Koreans are not used to addressing that either. The silence Okyere felt is more complicated than racial hatred; it involves universal urban solipsism (how often in any of the viral racial discrimination videos do we ever see bystanders helping out victims of hatred?), a disconnect from Western hatred for black bodies, a muteness that erupts from the solipsism and disconnect, and a confrontation with confusion at a sight such as that: a Korean woman hating a black man. What makes a middle-aged woman hate a black man?

In the general horizon of the public sphere, South Koreans have mixed feelings when it comes to US military occupancy. The ROK government accommodates the US’ militaristic needs as a means to stave off the DPRK’s aggression. Then again, prostitution, violence and racism are all problems that occur in military camps and camptowns. We can’t discuss South Korea’s racism without discussing prostitution, the cold war, the Korean War and the US military occupation of South Korea.

Whiteness is the hegemonic cloth that cloaks over these matters and silences South Korean programmers from ever shifting blame onto the US. Okyere is certainly a victim of racism in South Korea, but he is also a victim of US military whiteness and its hatred for blackness. Understanding how racism works in the ROK requires addressing global hierarchy.

(A longer piece on this matter is in the works.)

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Art, cinema and media studies, Film, korea, korean drama

The “Uncanny”: Na Hong-jin’s ‘The Wailing’

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[spoiler alert]

Na Hong-jin’s Definition of Evil: The Inexplicable 

The Wailing (2016) aka 곡성 is Na Hong-jin’s third feature film starring the excellent Kwak Do-won, who Na has collaborated with in The Yellow Sea (2010). Na is probably most well-known for his feature debut The Chaser (2008) with Ha Jung-woo playing the terrifying serial killer, and Kim Yoon-seok playing the corrupt detective-turned-pimp trying to solve these unexplainable crimes.

With The Wailing, Na continues his theme of inexplicable evils committed by a being that appears to be fully human but from up close contains no sympathetic soul. In The Chaser, Ha Jung-woo’s character is just plainly a murderer without any rhyme or reason; in The Yellow Sea, Ha Jung-woo’s character is put on an assassination mission without knowing the reasons for why he must commit this crime, and when he finally learns the reason, he is left completely speechless by the superficiality of the incitement, thus portraying–again–evil actions without a justifiable cause. Na brings this concept into the realm of the superego by putting the face and body of the Devil himself onto our screen with The Wailing.

Freud (1919) defines the uncanny as something that is preferably concealed but is later revealed to our reaction of horror, fright, terror, disgust, etc.; the uncanny refers to what is familiar to us therefore familial; for instance, a daughter, who is completely knowable to the parents who produced and gave birth to her, love and care for her, belongs in the realm of uncanny because she is familiar (heimlich); the flipside to heimlich is unheimlich which is the stranger or the ugliness that is preferably concealed; this is when the daughter we know and love suddenly changes because she is possessed by the unknowable. The uncanny may also refer to a the “happy genius,” otherwise known as the guardian spirit of a dwelling–the possessor. Traces of heimlich and unheimlich which make up the constitution of the uncanny is found in Gokseong–the small village in Jeolla Province where the film is set (also the title of the film in hangeul).

At the crack of dawn on a rainy day, officer Jeon Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) gets a phone call from the station alerting him of a murder case. When he arrives at the scene of the crime, he finds that a family’s been stabbed to death by a young man who sits on the edge of the maroo, skin covered in boils and the blood of his victims, with eyes glazed over as though in a trance.

Boils on the skin, mental derangement and subsequent serial killings of those around him/her are symptoms found among several murderers (victims) throughout the village. The noticeable pattern along with the rumors going about town that the suspect who is spreading this disease (or possession) is a strange Japanese fisherman (Jun Kunimura) who lives deep in the mountains, eats deer carcass raw, rapes women and curses people. These rumors start to pile up inside officer Jeon’s imaginary.

One day when Jeon and his partner break into the fisherman’s house, they find a small dwelling densely packed with photographs of the victims, candles, shaman ritual rope, and personal belongings of the villagers such as shoes and clothes. The last straw for Jeon is when he sees symptoms appear in his young daughter Hyo-jin–played by the very impressive Kim Hwan-hee–who appears to be about 10 or 11 years old. It begins with her erratic behavior; the young girl who was once so sweet to her old man suddenly throws fits; she screams and curses at her father leaving her entire family aghast but frozen in fear at the sight indicating everyone’s helplessness. Doctors have no answers. The police are useless. A spiritual intervention is the only answer for them.

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In part two of the film, the child’s grandmother invites a well-known shaman named Il-gwang (Hwang Jung-min, The Unjust (2010), Veteran (2015)) who is apparently quite expensive but rumored to be the best there is from Seoul. Jeon tells Il-gwang of the situation. Jeon explains all of this to his trusty Korean shaman who assures him that he will take care of the matter–put it to rest. Il-gwang tells Jeon that what’s plaguing the town is not a person but a ghost. Jeon asks how a person he’s seen in the flesh and blood can be a ghost, and this is the difficult question he struggles with for the rest of the film, along with the more obvious questions, “Why me? Why my daughter? Why my hometown?”

Freud’s uncanny is a duality–a yin and yang, for instance, which may coexist. Yin and yang are prevalent themes in throughout the film. For instance, during his rituals, Il-gwang offers up white chickens and goats to the spirits whereas the Japanese stranger kills black chickens and goats to cast his curse.

Another spiritual force haunts the town, representing yang, and it is played by the wonderful Chun Woo-hee ((Sunny (2011) and Han Gongju (2014)) who is referred to by the film’s credits simply as “mu-myeong,” which translates into “no name.” Mu-myeong is the first witness that officer Jeon encounters at the second murder scene where a deranged woman killed her entire family then burned the house down before hanging herself. At the crime scene, Mu-myeong tells officer Jeon that the old Japanese man is a ghost who is possessing these people and driving them to commit these murders.

What’s interesting to note is how in these scenarios one person gets possessed then murders their own family members. The killings aren’t random. They are specifically towards their own flesh and blood or clan members. What does that say about the ghost’s intentions? What does that say about the ghost himself who is a spirit but in flesh and blood?

This ghost also appears to have a hobby for photography. He takes photographs of his victims in 35mm with a Minolta camera, which he seems to develop on his own at his creepy house. It nudges against the superstition that existed or still exists in tribal countries that photographs steal a person’s soul. The haunting theme that emanates from the Japanese stranger is that he is not a living person but a ghost–a dead man walking.

At Jeon’s question as to how a ghost could possibly have a body, Il-gwang tells him that when a ghost captures enough bodies for his own, he can eventually become a person albeit not a living one. This image of a strange man staring who appears to be dead or a strange man trying to enter haunts at least several people’s dreams.

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Horror Genre Mashup

The epidemic throughout the town is most certainly an homage to the zombie genre. With that said, the film is not a zombie film necessarily. In fact, at one point in the movie, when a team of men who are out to hunt down and kill the Japanese man-ghost, they encounter a zombie, who was evidently brought back to life although he was initially dead just like the other victims, covered in boils and rotting away like a victim of leprosy.

At the scene of the zombie attack, the film reaches a point of satiric comedy. The men who’ve never seen a zombie before don’t know how to react to it, nor how to treat it. At first they try to help him and speak to him as if he’s a regular person, but when the zombie starts to attack the party by biting them, the men go around taking turns both beating the zombie and getting attacked himself. At least two men can’t bear the sight of another man whacking this apparently ill person with a stick and tries to stop the attack. Big mistake. The zombie then attacks the good Samaritan. It’s a likely metaphor for Korea’s clumsiness at the introduction to any Western concept. The zombie isn’t found in Korean folklore. (The closest to a zombie that Koreans might know from Chinese legends is the Jiangshi or gangshi in Korean which has its own set of cultural rules/references.)

In a way, there is perhaps almost every element of a horror film ever made in this movie; Edgar Allan Poe-inspired cats and crows, rabid black dogs, dead deer carcasses; the possession of a little girl has strong connotations of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973); institutions are critiqued for their inability to make sense or get control of the situation such as the police and the church.

The film, of course, contains a twist in the third act, but it’s a twist on a twist that baffles not only Jeon but also the audience. The manhunt for the strange Japanese man ends when he gets thrown off a mountain hitting Jeon’s windshield. Jeon and his friends toss him on the side of the road assuming he is dead. Jeon later finds his daughter at the hospital who appears to be fine; the symptoms seem to be gone and her normal state appears to have returned.

We come to understand that Mu-myeong is perhaps a spirit if not a shaman herself when we see Il-gwang lose a vast amount of blood from his nose and vomit uncontrollably when he encounters her. Mu-myeong drives him out of the village. Il-gwang, whose hex ritual went interrupted by Jeon who could no longer bear the sight of his daughter’s suffering, tells Jeon that it wasn’t the Japanese man who is the evil spirit; it is a young woman clad in white–Mu-myeong. Jeon’s faith in people’s stories gets tested here when Mu-myeong tells him to trust in her and Il-gwang tells him not to trust her but in his words.

Jeon ultimately doesn’t listen to Mu-myeong and enters the house thus breaking whatever spell she’d cast on the house to save his family. Jeon, of course, finds that his daughter did what he’d feared this whole time and slaughtered his wife and mother to death.

Mu-myeong had warned Jeon that Il-gwang and the Japanese stranger have been plotting together (they share the same loin cloth and similar rituals). This is confirmed when a case full of photographs from the Japanese stranger’s walls are found in his possession. Given Korea’s long history of religious scammers taking advantage of the nation’s superstitious/fatalist tendencies, Il-gwang’s appearance here is the yin within his overall film presence as the yang.

Biblical themes are prominent throughout. There’s the bilingual theologian working his way towards becoming a priest working as a liaison between Jeon and the Japanese stranger. There’s the Father of the church who appears useless at the face of the epidemic and demon that is haunting the town–another indication of institutional incompetence. There’s an attack of moths on a car’s windshield that brings to mind the plague of locusts in the Old Testament. The opening shot of the film begins with a verse from the book of Luke when Jesus reappears before his disciples and asks them why they are afraid of the sight of his body, and challenging their doubtful minds. When Mu-myeong tells Jeon to wait for the rooster’s crow three times before entering his house in order to save his family, it is a clear reference to Christ’s warning to Peter that he will deny knowing Christ three times before the rooster’s crow. When Jeon finally realizes that the Mu-myeong is always clad in the victims’ clothes, he loses faith in her words and goes into the house.

Time is always unfriendly to Jeon in this film. He is temperamental and impatient when patience is of utmost necessity, and frozen stiff, speechless or bumblingly incompetent at times when his actions are completely called for. The film satirizes Jeon’s lack of faith and impatience. Doubt and faith are like yin and yang throughout the film, and they are the forces that maintain the momentum of the film.

The film ultimately confronts the audience with the same question that Jeon is faced with: which story are you going to believe? Depending on who is talking to you–a shaman, a priest, a ghost, the devil, or your daughter–your faith will be tested against the story you’ve lived your life believing in. Religion, according to Na’s film, is no different from a folk tale, a spooky town rumor, or the horror movies you grew up knowing and loving. When what occurs externally doesn’t match with what exists internally, that moment becomes the precarious point between doubt and faith. Na’s film plays with genre, religion and spirituality freely throughout but without ever letting us bring down our guard.

The first act has strong notes of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003)–everything from the misty, rain-filled blue hues, the frightening image of nature, and the slapsticky black comedy–a new quality to Na’s filmmaking which are not present in his earlier two films. The film was shot by Bong’s frequent collaborator–cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (although he did not film Memories). The music is perhaps the film’s strongest quality, scored by Jang Young-gyu.

Reception so far has been decent. Trade reviews remark that Na’s film lacks logic. This may be true but I say that such an assessment is a cop out (we’ve all seen Magnolia)The Wailing is certainly packed with a whole lot to deconstruct but it is not inscrutable. There are plenty of signals and clues. It’s just a matter of interpreting the narrative, and it takes awhile, and that interpretation is likely to evolve. The film’s positioned to be a cult hit that’ll produce a great deal of wholesome dialogue among cinephiles but only among those who’ll bother to take the time to do it.

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Art, cinema and media studies

“Answer Me 1988” (응답하라 1988, Reply 1988): A Transmedia Text & Manual to Navigate Another Era’s Fandom

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According to Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture, “the emerging convergence paradigm assumes that old and new media will interact in ever more complex ways” (6). Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the show Answer Me 1988 where several forms of media converge in one medium—television. The show includes cinema, video games, music, style (fashion, hair, makeup), internet chat rooms, comic books—even food package designs (iconic brands that are recognizable at a glance)—all of which are set in the 1980s. The main vehicle that Answer Me 1988 utilizes for its transmedia reception is the spectators’ nostalgia: “Convergence occurs within the brains of individual consumers and through their social interactions with each other” (3). Similar to The Matrix example explored by Jenkins, by blending various forms of old school pop culture items into one program, Answer Me 1988 becomes a transmedia text containing the 80s memory belonging to generation x but also one that works to clue in the later generations on the fandom of the past. As Jenkins defines in “Interactive Audiences?”: “Transmedia promotion presumes a more active spectator who can and will follow these media flows” (165). Answer Me 1988 assumes the kind of audience that is willing and able to follow its media flows regardless of the viewer’s age or background. This is evident in the show’s casting choices, music and the show’s ability to function as a manual to guide contemporary viewers through the nostalgia of a different era and culture.

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Answer Me 1988 (2015-2016), written by Lee Woo-jung and directed by Shin Won-ho, is an hour long, twenty-episode Korean dramedy series that aired on the cable network tvN, owned by media conglomerates CJ Media and Fox International Channels. The show’s finale had an AGB Nielson rating of 18.8%, and a TNmS rating of 18.4%–both of which are considerably high numbers for a cable channel.[1] It is notable that although tvN is a pay cable channel, it does not contain any violence, nudity, sex or profanity, which encourages a family viewing experience. What this further suggests is that although viewers under the age of 30 may not recognize the tunes, films, commercial jingles and other media texts played on the show, the parents or older viewers who are watching alongside them might. The show creators bank on this type of audience interaction where convergence spreads across generations by reaching for a wider demographic: “…franchises depend on hypersociability, that is, they encourage various forms of participation and social interactions between consumers” (Convergence Culture, 112). This reach for a broader audience is apparent in the show’s casting.

Lee Hye-ri who plays the lead role—Deok-seon—is a K-pop star from the girl group Girl’s Day. She’s a recognizable face whose singing career spans 5 years with a budding acting career since 2014. The very act of crossing over one’s recognition as a singer to an actor is a form of transmediation; fans who are plugged into the pop world can be led into the drama world via Lee Hye-ri’s career transition. Furthermore, the show adds another dimension to Lee Hye-ri’s initial doll-like pop star image with her character image of Deok-seon, which is that of a normal neighborhood teenager with plain black cropped hair who doesn’t perform well in school but has a kind heart and a goofy personality thus humanizing her appearance. The manner in which a star’s image changes in the spectator’s mind is also a form of transmediation as it moves from singer to actor, but also from unreachable to accessible.

hyeri

The creators of Answer Me 1988 as well as the other Answer Me series (arguably a franchise), e.g. Answer Me 1997 (2012), Answer Me 1994 (2013), distance themselves from assumptions that the subsequent shows are sequels or prequels. However, the franchise does play with the series timeline as defined by Jenkins in Textual Poachers dropping in cameo appearances of actors from the earlier series to suggest a link or connection to one another (163). For instance, Sung Shi-won played by girl group K-pop star Jung Eun-ji in Answer Me 1997 appears in Answer Me 1994 alongside Jung Woo who plays Kim Jae-joon in Answer Me 1994. Kim Jae-joon then makes a cameo appearance in Answer Me 1988. This method of expanding the series timeline to keep Answer Me fans invested in the reality of the story world is a method of attracting viewers through a transmedia engagement (163). The creators’ strategy relies on casting and recasting. However, the recasting strategy also complicates the viewing experience as the protagonist’s parents played by Lee Il-hwa and Sung Dong-il are always the same throughout the series by retaining their dialects, persona, and names. This forces viewers to accept each series as its own text via “cross overs” of the protagonists’ parent figures; the protagonist’s character and actor changes whereas the parents do not (170). What may be comforting to viewers about this is knowing that there’s a through line connecting all three shows, and in that regard, the previous series’ storyline never really ended with the finale episode, thus indulging fans emotionally.

ilhwa dongil

K-pop star images aside, Answer Me 1988 has an original soundtrack album available on iTunes as well as in the form of a music video DVD produced and distributed by CJ Media. The soundtrack includes throwbacks like “Youth,” originally sung by the band Sanulrim in 1981 but covered by Kim Feel—a contemporary artist signed with the record label CJ E&M (a record company owned by CJ Media of tvN network). This is another example of the show’s function as a transmedia text, drawing a “common ground” between the old and new generations through a single song (Convergence Culture, 97). The song works as both a “cultural activator” and a “cultural attractor” through its ability to appeal to a younger crowd that recognizes Kim Feel the artist but also to the older generation that recognizes the tune that brings them back to 1981—the year that Sanulrim released the hit song “Youth” (97). The show transmediates through time, fame and fandom via a single song. While attracting and activating cultural significances for multiple groups, it operates through the older generation’s nostalgia while also creating a nostalgic sensation for the younger generation with songs that have a dated feel but are sung by recognizable artists today.

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As Jenkins states, “Our lives, relationships, memories, fantasies, desires also flow across media channels” (Convergence Culture, 17). In Answer Me 1988, the show’s creators allow viewers to have a transmedia experience through a visual flashback across media channels experiencing everything from old music via cassette tapes that get visibly inserted into a cassette player, followed by a long montage of the characters’ faces simply listening as the song plays out in its entirety, to live concert shows on TV that the characters watch excitedly as a group. What makes Answer Me 1988 a unique transmedia text is its ability to work also as a fandom instruction manual in the form of a show. The indulgent scenes illustrated earlier inform younger spectators on the fandom culture that existed before their time. In this particular story world, fandom itself converges across generations.[2] The enthusiastic reception of the characters watching these shows informs a younger spectator of the fan culture back when those shows, tunes, and films were at their peak. Fandom gets instructed to younger viewers via this transmedia text, where witnesses (characters) respond with joy to the movie, song or TV show playing inside the show. The show creators consciously designed a story world where multiple generations could learn to appreciate the various forms of transmediated texts throughout. Jenkins states that our society is “increasingly fragmented and multicultural,” however this show’s ability to draw a diverse viewership through a period piece that exploits a recent past and its nostalgic elements is striking (Convergence Culture, 125).[3]

There is a considerable number of articles and research indicating Korean dramas’ global fan base reaching beyond South Korea. K-drama streaming sites such as Viki and DramaFever report higher percentages of non-Korean viewers than Korean viewers tuning in. In the case with transnational fandom for Answer Me 1988, how does a nation’s specific cultural nostalgia translate, especially when “not all participants are created equal,” meaning, when not all participants share the same memory and cultural experience (3)? What makes Answer Me 1988 a transmediated text is that it is accessible beyond just generation X Koreans. There are multiple entry points for viewers to interact with the text: familiar voices, faces, products, and the creators’ signature. Fans who’ve seen the previous Answer Me shows presumably have an appreciation for this one as well, and notice patterns throughout. The show successfully establishes a sense of “common experience” or ground where audiences across generations and cultures can find ways to engage with the text. As Jenkins illustrates, the internet has made fan experience global, and fans on the margins may now partake in that collective “knowledge space” or realm (“Interactive Audience?,”158). Beyond space, transmedia also breaks boundaries across time (generation gaps) as evidenced by Answer Me 1988.

Grace Jung
May 13, 2016

Bibliography

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: NYU Press, 2008.

Jenkins, Henry. 2002. “Interactive Audiences?” The New Media Book, edited by Dan Harries. 157-170. London: BFI.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 2013.

 

[1]Reply 1988: Episode Ratings,” All About Korean Drama, http://www.koreandrama.org/reply-1988/, May 5, 2016.

[2] See also “Analogue Nostalgia and the Aesthetics of Digital Remediation” by Dominik Schrey.

[3] The high reception of the Answer Me series that utilizes nostalgia (created or triggered) as its hallmark influenced MBC’s variety/reality show Infinite Challenge to take on similar tasks by reuniting old K-pop groups that disbanded in the 90s or early 2000s and putting on live concerts which then influenced the music charts around the time those shows aired; 90s hits became the most requested songs on radios or the most downloaded songs at those times. A K-drama’s approach influencing a variety/reality show’s unscripted production is also, arguably, a form of transmedia, where different genres of television share (borrow or steal) a similar concept that eventually impacts yet another industry’s variable—the music charts.

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cinema and media studies, Film, Gender Studies, ideology, korea, korean drama

quick thoughts on 사도/The Throne (2015)

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I needed another fix of Yoo Ah-in starring in yet another dramatic period piece, and this time by filmmaker Yi Joon-ik with Sado (2015). It stars Song Kang-ho who plays King Yeongjo, a father with mountain high expectations of his second son, Jang-jo (posthumously named Crown Prince Sado) who history writes as an insane and troubled soul that went around raping and killing people randomly throughout the palace due to his mental illness largely attributed to the deep anxiety caused by his strict father. Yeongjo’s constant disapproval and disdain for his son’s actions drove Jang-jo mad with rage.

One day, after an attempted murder of the King, Sado is captured and forced into a wooden rice crate and left inside of it for eight days straight until he dies of dehydration and starvation. It’s a dramatic epic, and pretty awesome one at that. Just listen to this music. Beautifully crafted imagery, and truly idiosyncratic performance given by Song Kang-ho. I’ve never seen an actor play a period epic blending cool and casual wit with cruelty, sorrow and passion in such balanced synchrony.

The film is ultimately a family drama. The women in the film, again, don’t have it easy. There’s tension between concubines, and among the queens, although in general, the women seem to look after one another a little better than in the Hui Bin drama…

Yoo Ah-in, in Sado, plays the grandson of King Sukjong, which he himself played in Jang Ok-Jung (2013). Yoo’s performance is excellent as well albeit I feel like I’ve seen his range already in Jang Ok-Jung. Also, great cameo appearance by heartthrob So Ji-sub.

For more info on the film, please refer to this great review on The Hollywood Reporter. 

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cinema and media studies, Gender Studies, korea, korean drama, TV

rewriting a woman’s history with JANG OK-JUNG (2013): (Yoo Ah-in just like Leonardo DiCaprio in my heart)

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I haven’t felt this kind of depression after watching a Korean drama series since Autumn in My Heart (2000)/가을동화.

Jang Ok-Jung, Living by Love  (2013) is a period piece from SBS. It is based on the historical novel work of the same title written by Choi Jung-mi, and is directed by Boo Sung-chul. The series is set during the Joseon Dynasty in the late 1600s.

The show centers on a young, aspiring fashion designer Jang Ok-jung (Kim Tae-hee) who is born of a middle-class rank (중인) but falls in love with King Suk-jong/Yi Soo (Yoo Ah-in) and becomes his favorite concubine. It starts off as a lovey-dovey tale simply about a young woman and man whose affections for each other seem pure and eternal, then of course shit hits the fan when every single person around each character has a political problem with their getting together. Drama ensues.

Jang Ok-Jung is not only an intense political drama, but also an interesting critique on Joseon’s classism stemming from a caste system that damns a person’s life according to who s/he is born from and what the parents’ ranking is according to Joseon’s societal standards. This is the show’s primary critique–the rigidity of a society that make class mobility near impossible. But the protagonist Ok-jung makes it up the ranks (4 to 1) as a consort, eventually even taking over the dethroned Queen In-hyeon’s place as Queen herself for a short term reign. But In-hyeon returns and Ok-jung is demoted back to the place of consort Hui Bin. She eventually is framed for having placed a curse on the queen and is forced to kill herself, ordered by her beloved King.

Ok-jung in her early appearances takes a fascination to Joseon days’ erotic illustrated novels, which are essentially just some softcore sketches of men and women caressing. Ok-jung takes a liking to the way the women’s dresses flow depending on their sensual positions. The drawings inspire her vision. Sexuality is where Ok-jung sees beauty, and the show has plenty of coded sex talk throughout that compares women to flowers and men to bees.

The drama relies heavily on the female characters’ catty tension throughout, mostly rooted in jealousy over things like beauty and male attention. There’s really just one man who all the women desire, and that is the King. Around Ok-jung, however, there are men galore. She has three different pursuers but the King is the one she wants and eventually gets.

The women on this show all must rely on their only agent of power and that is their body. The women must be beautiful. Her face is the main selling point. After that, she must know how to dress well.  If the King desires her, then she has found “favor” by him, meaning that he sleeps with her. Her vagina is the access to bringing her status and power–it is her only agency towards class mobility. From there, she can move up by becoming pregnant but her status upgrade is only a possibility if she births a son–a potential heir to the throne. Ok-jung accomplishes all of this. She even maintains her favor with the King until the end of her days.

Throughout the series, Ok-jung and Lee Soo’s romantic theme is their little promise to each other that they would never let go of each other’s hands. (Ring a Titanic bell much? Yoo Ah-in is the Korean doppelgänger of Leonardo DiCaprio. They remind me of each other so much that I can hardly contain myself; they have the same nose, the same voice, the same trembling mannerisms that have a danger of appearing trite/overused at times; a tendency towards frequent explosions in their performance that oozes thick passion.)

What depressed me at the end of the series is that ultimately the King does not overcome the political powers that be and allows his beloved consort to be put to death by poison. Her crime is breaking the palace rules of having no shamans make an offering on site; at the desperate situation of possibly losing her son to smallpox, she brings the shaman in, gets caught and is blamed for the death of Queen In-hyeon by placing a curse or some bullshit…

What then added to my depression is how after Ok-jung dies, the King mourns her at Chwi Seon Dang (Ok-jung’s place of residence and the King’s gift), and the drama immediately cuts to King Sukjong’s grave site,  calling him one of the greatest reformers of Joseon history. Be that as it may, the namesake of the show seems almost completely forgotten at this point. Later, another title card appears, explaining that Ok-jung’s damnation was lifted in 1965 and that her grave was moved to be placed beside Sukjong’s.

Anyway, what made me so sad was how awful, limited, and impossible a woman’s life was back then. What the hell’s even the point of rewriting the history of Hui Bin this way? Even if there’s the mediated, dramatized effort to make her appear a little less evil, and make the relationship with her and the King more meaningful, it doesn’t change the fact that she was a victim of rigid circumstances and was ultimately killed by the man who was supposedly in love with her.

The rules back then were insane. Truly, truly insane.

Now, I have to refer to the Wikipedia page because it’s just so fascinating how it writes about her (FYI, Wikipedia’s citations link back to website descriptions written by museums, government sites, cultural sites, etc.), and the general consensus is simply that she was an awful woman. Historical references even blame her son King Gyeongjong’s illness and infertility on her (Gyeongjong’s illness, according to these records, made him an unsuited King, and he was replaced by his half-brother Yeongjo, who held a very long tenure on the throne). This type of blatant misogyny on a lower status historical figure is just more evidence of patriarchal sexism and bias. In a lot of ways, the drama rationalizes some of those accusations of evil that is frequently placed on her while also moving against the grain of patriarchal injustice. Some of the best dialogues are the ones shared by Queen Inhyeon and Ok-jung when they discuss the King’s flaw which is being male.

Anyway, what a great show. The costumes were utterly beautiful. Color coordination, head pieces, lipstick shades–all of it–utterly beautiful. (Think Marie Antoinette (2006) level of costume beauty.)

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Art, cinema and media studies, Film, ideology, philosophy

combining the ‘Enlightened’ Pilot Episode w/ Excerpt Chapter “Industrial Auteur Theory”: production sets & breakdowns

I wrote this back in late November for a classroom blog post. I am reposting it here now because some of the thoughts are relevant to my current situation. More on that later.

I was glad that we got to see Enlightened in class today. It’s one of my favorite shows, and I was bummed to learn that it wouldn’t get a third season, especially because season two ended on such a huge cliffhanger.

When I first watched the show, I’d already listened to interviews given by Laura Dern and Mike White—on separate occasions—on what the show is and how difficult it was to make it, and then watch it get canceled, so I’d already begun my viewing experience with some information (either at the forefront or lingering in the back) in my head. In any case, in my first viewing, I watched Amy with a lot of tension in my shoulders because she was such a train wreck with almost little to no self-awareness. It was stressful. I had to keep watching, though, because I dug the show (I’m also a fan of Mike White), and I genuinely wanted to believe in her optimism as much as she seemed to. But if you continue on with the season, and finish season two, you’ll see that she’s always the same in each episode—an idealist who is wired to be incapable of improvement—and she’s always going to make things worse for herself and those around her no matter how much she believes in her heart of hearts that there is hope for a better future and greater change.

In my second viewing of the pilot, I tried to see it differently. I tried to see it as if Amy is the normal one and everyone else is the crazy one. This made the show a lot easier to watch, and a lot more heartbreaking. She genuinely believes in a better future, change and improvement. Nobody else in her life does. Everybody thinks she’s crazy. But if I watch her as the normal one, everyone else seems completely out of line. Why doesn’t Diane Ladd’s character just let Amy read the letter? Why doesn’t Charles Esten’s character just meet with Amy in person to reconcile? Why doesn’t the company just give Amy her job back and take her up on her suggestions on fixing up the company’s reputation by making environmentally sound choices? All of these things have something to do with time and boundaries. Amy is someone who doesn’t believe in the restrictions of time and boundaries among individuals. She’s someone who wouldn’t function well in a society that holds those two things close to heart. This is what makes her the show’s heroine, and it’s what makes her constantly run into problems in her society. It’s also what causes her to be exploited later on in season 2 (no spoilers), which breaks my heart even more.

Amy is the protagonist of the show whether we like her or not. She is the one that’s given to us and we have to accept this, or we can continue to watch just hating her (lots of people have commented on how much they hate this character that Dern plays, which eventually led to the show’s demise, although Dern herself says she loves this character). I kind of love this character, too. I’m a big fan of this show because it’s a female antihero who is dressed not as a cynical, unfaithful, sex-addicted, alcoholic man (Sopranos, MadMen) but an idealist who had a lot of letdowns in her life (again, no spoilers, but she’s had it rough, hence her borderline personality) but continues to strive for optimism and hope in a world that continues to let her down and conflict with her.

With that said, reading Caldwell’s “Industrial Auteur Theory” bummed me out a lot. It’s heavy stuff. Especially the paragraph on the writer’s room culture that basically leads to symptoms of PTSD among employees, who later get told by the production company!—to go and get therapy. I can empathize to some mild degree. Working in production where pressure and stress run high (because there’s never enough time, and time so equals money here) does lead to a lot of scarring, emotional trauma, mental duress, conflicts, etc. Without therapy, there’s no way that people could survive. Makes sense why so many industry people are into Eastern religion, yoga, meditation and all that (basically all of the things Amy turned to after her breakdown). Every single actor/director friend of mine claims to be Buddhist, and they all read some new kind of self-help book, which they go around recommending me any chance that they get.

The idea of producers who take advantage of younger below-the-line crew members’ broken minds and bodies + eagerness to still make it in the industry and exploit that emotional vulnerability because they know that the young and eager will still be grateful for the opportunity to work alone is also a monstrous/ugly thing that is rampant in the industry. In a lot of ways it is rampant precisely because so many people are fighting their way to get in, and so many people are willing to make that kind of sacrifice as a form of “paying one’s dues.” Personally, I am very against this concept. I wish it didn’t have to be this way.

In the few indies I’ve produced, nearly all of the crew members did the work for no pay—just meals—because people enjoyed the filmmaking process. If it wasn’t for that then no one would’ve participated. It came from a place of passion and the desire to work with one another. We all genuinely liked being on set. After a production wraps, a lot of the times the cast and crew stay in touch for years—unless somebody really didn’t get along with another person, which also happens. These people will almost never speak to one another for years. After going through something as intense as shooting a film, it’s impossible to not become close. So there is some pay off to the agony, but making a film is an agonizing process. As it is with TV. I’m sure many people have seen that documentary 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park (2011) by Arthur Bradford. I think it’s a good film to complement what Caldwell discusses.

Speaking of desperation, I can see some parallels between the desperate, rock-bottom state that Amy is in which drives her full-force into the arms of the spiritual, incense waving, hippy-dippy world + random sea turtle spotting, which she applies epic meaning/significance to) and the desperate, zero experience unpaid interns/PAs who willingly—very passionately—run towards film/TV sets for little to nothing and get screamed at all day by the department heads and the above-the-line crew members simply because they believe in the magic of show biz. Yikes! This is super depressing to think about. Probably because it is too real, and very true of our industry.

Anyway, I still like to believe that there is light at the end of that tunnel.

 

 

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cinema and media studies

on ‘The Big Short’ 

I remember what 2007-2009 looked and felt like for me. I had just transferred from a public university to a private one in 2006 for a better education, and by 2007, my parents’ business was heavily on the decline. By 2008, they were facing bankruptcy and by 2009, the house they bought in October 1999 was under foreclosure. 

When the financial crisis actually hit, I was a junior in college facing an economy that offered no prospects for me. Bush was still President but Obama was campaigning and eventually won. 

When I saw the trailer for THE BIG SHORT, I was most intrigued by the fact that a comedic director (Adam McCay) was making a film about finance. I was also drawn by the interesting medley of actors: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and pleasant surprise actress appearances by Melissa Leo and Marisa Tomei. Leo and Tomei’s screen times were very little compared to the rest of the male casts’ in this sausage fest film. Furthermore, I found it really strange that the movie’s protagonists were also part of the giant problem. Rather than being whistleblowers, they benefited off of the detriment of the crisis which hurt families of lower income the most. 

There were maybe three distinct moments where actors show a sense of conflicting morale but just because they appear to struggle with their morals onscreen, does that image overpower the fact that they’ve profited a huge sum from the crisis?

The film has at least two allusions to Scorsese’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET: 1) Gosling’s narration breaking the fourth wall 2) Margot Robbie’s cameo (she’s sitting naked in a tub drinking champagne, btw… just another dimensionless actress whose function is to literally appeal to the male gaze, as though this film is solely for the male audience…)

  
What worked in WOLF… is that the protagonist simply has no moral crisis or dilemma when it comes to the money game. He doesn’t care at all that he’s exploiting the working class and he doesn’t change at the end of the movie, either. 

What THE BIG SHORT does, however, is to attempt humanization where no humanity can be taken from. The men who were part of this real estate bubble–the ones who contributed to it then took from the blood bath after it burst–are still bastards no matter how much the film tried to appeal to me as a human film. 

Just because Gosling’s character admits onscreen that he never claimed to have been the good guy doesn’t make these characters any less villainous in my viewing. In fact it pisses me off even more that a movie with a $28 million budget was dedicated to humanizing thieves and trying to convince the ticket buying public that these guys are on our side.

  
The film does attempt to demystify financial talk for the viewers. Does it do it successfully? For the most part, no. But it seems to applaud itself for doing such a great job. It’s almost patronizing in this way. It’s filled with pop icons to dumb down the educational experience for the sheep colony audience. 

With that said, what was most remarkable about this movie was the editing. It keeps the viewer engaged and does bring insight into the lives of working, bill paying people who were affected by the crisis. On that same note, it tries very hard to distinguish the bad finance guys from the good finance guys. This is a directing problem and in that regard, I view the movie as hypocritical on its foundation. 

I’m not interested in hearing about who saw what coming and made what. Did they fight for the working people’s cause? Nope. 

That’s the point of the movie. The fact that the film masquerades as a morally just story that is a voice of the people is appalling to me. 

At the very least, the film does alert the viewer and say that the problem has returned and puts the onus on the audience to seek out change. Again, I take this push for moral values with a grain of salt. How can working, bill-paying, ticket buying viewers impact the financial system? It’s too tremendous of a question. 

Had this excellent cast and budget been put into the story of those who did pioneer a strategy that has shown success in affecting the financial system then the audience would have tools to begin something at the very least. But what this film seems to do is simply say, this happened and this will continue to happen. It doesn’t offer any real solution. Instead it makes us laugh it off. Because it’s a comedy, right? 

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