Book, korea, Korean-American, philosophy, translation

hippie thoughts on Peruvian migrants in South Korea, spirituality, capitalism, shamans and forgetting.

The pastors at Korean churches are the first-contacts with the globe, in a way.

It makes sense.

How did Korea become this bizarre portal country that mixes up and alters established or existing politico-economic expectations (and yet, the country is, ironically, extremely obsessed with conformity)?

I was at a UC Berkeley event where Professor Erica Vogel discussed her book Migrant Conversions: Transforming Connections between Peru and South Korea.

Dr. Vogel spent many years in South Korea documenting the migrant experiences of Peruvians who immigrated there in search of capital gain.

Quite a few of her subjects wound up in Korean protestant churches, found salvation, and spiritual freedom.

Right there. Can we stop for a second there?

Peru (formerly the Inca Empire) was first invaded by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Peru’s indigenous spirituality and religion was suppressed and Christian coloniality began to wipe out ancient modes of spirituality.

South Korea (formerly known as just Korea) first encountered Christianity in the late 19th century, then a little more impactfully during the Korean War in mid-20th century. Even prior to that, during Japanese colonization, there were short stories written about shamanism in Korea. Shamans were accused of greed from the community because they charge money for their services (which isn’t immoral but a basic necessity since that is their occupation) but this disdain for shamans did not emerge UNTIL the white Christians came to Korea. White Christian missionaries brought free food and medicine for free. On the Lord’s dime! And made shamans look completely absurd.

As Park Chung-hee’s military dictatorship brought on South Korea’s economic transformation, a part of him also waged a battle against Korean indigenous religion/spirituality for fear of it making Koreans appear wayward and uncivilized (again, compared to how WASPs would conduct themselves in a church). Literally, watch how a mudang conducts a ritual versus how a Catholic priest conducts a service…and THEN watch how a protestant Korean pastor conducts a sermon during a “revival” retreat).

Korean shamanism and indigenous spirituality isn’t gone. It’s just flocked over to other parts of the cultural realm.

South Korea now has Peruvian migrants who enter the country—this country that was once in the position of being a labor-export has now recently transformed into labor-import; “allelujah amen” cry the Korean church congregation.

As Christianity keeps gaining power and spreading (through its evangelical methods), South Korea keeps on dying; keeps on confusing; keeps on abusing; keeps on suffering.

Buddhism is still prominent but Christianity has successfully taken on its hegemonic position in the nation.

Indigenous spirituality is increasingly going forgotten, hidden, erased, lost, removed, smudged, mixed up, tossed into a pile somewhere then dragged out onto the street for the garbage truck to pick up (and where does that garbage then go?! Lord, help us. Buddha, guide us. to what “underdeveloped” country that suffers the consequences of the material greed and waste of a “developing/developed” nation completely obsessed with trends, e.g., fashion, cosmetics, media, etc.)

Korean pastors in South Korea are some of the first people who encounter migrants from other countries.

Pastors are spiritual leaders. They meet and convert the folks who come to them seeking monetary salvation.


Just as the white missionaries did for indigenous/pre-Christian Korea, present-day Koreans do onto the migrating Peruvians seeking greater financial gain/relief/stability in Korea the land of…rice? and red peppers? (placeholders until I can think of a more clever way to adapt “milk and honey”). 

Peruvian migrants find salvation in the Korean church. Some get community funding to help with their daughter’s heart surgery back in their motherland.

They attribute this to god’s work. But the fact is, wherever there is a community, there is god regardless of religious boundaries.  

Meanwhile, Koreans continue to die. They continue to suffer the plague of “first world” nations; the mental/emotional/spiritual barrenness that drive them to their own demise at their own hands. Drive them to drink. Drive them to abusing others and themselves.

Meanwhile, the country that is mostly responsible for South Korea’s Jesus-freaked state has some of its most wealthy members taking their own trips (micro-migrations/temporary retreats) to Peru in search of—get this—PERUVIAN INDIGENOUS SPIRITUALITY in the form of shamans and their psychedelic medicines.

Political scientists and economists point to the 1970s as South Korea’s economic “miracle.” I wonder what spiritual awakening was taking place during this time as well. Did any South Korean influencers/leaders take psychedelics during their travels around the world? I mean, they MUST have.

When a South Korean corporate friend of mine told me that she and her design company attended Burning Man one year for “research,” I asked if she or any of her colleagues took any psychedelics. She said, “No.” I said, “What was the point of your trip? You guys did zero research. What a waste of money.”

It’s so interesting how Peruvian migrants in South Korea look to South Korea for Christian salvation and associate it with goodness when Peruvians were already colonized by Spanish Christianity centuries before Korea was.  

South Koreans are down with trends and image (hence Park Chung-hee’s suppression of shamans in the country… and what a detriment that was…! think of the money you’re missing out on with spiritual tourism from WASPy nations, Chung-hee!).

The WASP nations and their people are now turning their gaze towards the East for its spirituality, and Latin America for its spiritual medicines. In the meantime, governments of the “global South” are always striving for its economic status to mirror that of the white countries.

Don’t you see the message? There is nothing there. Economic stability = spiritual barrenness and therefore greater chaos, disillusion, confusion, sadness, emotional and mental instability, and death. South Korea should already know this. (It already knows it—just forgot it); these bodies are temporary vessels that we shed; in the end, all we have is consciousness and a desire to connect and make something new that is good and fair.

Even SK’s hang up on Confucian hierarchies. Man! There is no hierarchy! There is no taller than or shorter than, bigger than or smaller than, greater than or lesser than! There is nothing. There is nothing.

But there is something in the colors that you see at your temples. There is something in the thousand year trees in your land. There is something in the records left behind at your temples by those deep meditators—your ancestors and teachers.

And there is something beautiful in the way that Korean spiritual leaders meet these Peruvian migrant workers. Both of them need something from each other and find it. And in that sense, the Christian dogma becomes, almost, irrelevant. They are just finding each other naturally like a mother would find its child or a child would find its father. They just find each other. Across the seas and lands. Past the gates and borders. The way they find each other and meld these histories or dissolve them like sugar in warm water. Like honey in jasmine tea. I find that righteous. That is something to witness (with gratitude).

But I now want for Peruvians to re-enter their own spiritual spheres of history and find that COSMOPOLITAN GLITZY STATUS that they really truly are seeking. Man. It’s right there! You didn’t need to go anywhere! It was right there! You’re the one with all the good shit! These white spiritually lost souls are paying GOOD MONEY to go to your land! Chasing money takes us nowhere! Chasing love, life and light take us everywhere.

I want for Koreans to re-enter their own spiritual hemispheres of ancient wonder, ritual and connecting. Man. It’s RIGHT fucking there. Whenever we chase money, we only always find death, chaos and confusion. Look at us now. After accepting the…I dunno, was it Tylenol? Was it a piece of bread?…look at us after accepting those substances. What is Tylenol and a free piece of bread compared to the prayer of a shaman mother for her shaman daughter and the dreams you have of your great grandmother? What is that compared to you as parents NOT condemning or demonizing your daughter when she gets marked with her spiritual calling to be a mudang?

Why does everything need to get reduced to Jesus or Satan? What good does that ridiculous binary do in our ability to understand the ancient spiritual teachings that were already given to us a millennia ago?

It just blinds us to those words. Just covers up our ears. Turns them into a loud rumbling noise like the sound of a plane engine going off right inside your ear drum—a sound I hear sometimes as I fall asleep at night sometimes, and a sensation that I do not fear, but a sensation that Western medicine pathologizes and reduces to a “seizure” and which Christianity reduces to Satan.

Hey man! We already know what these things are. We’re already connected to the eons that our flesh and blood relatives lived. They’re all in us. Their information and memories and joys and traumas are in us. Live in us. We live them out.  

We have the knowledge. It’s just about accessing them.

We do not need to cross land and sea to get to them. They are in our skin, hair, memory, dream, chair, window, across the street at your neighbor’s house, in the sunset you look at around 5:30PM in the mountains in the late winter/early spring in the hills of wherever you are.  

It’s all there, man. It’s just about accessing it with the right keys.

The right keys are in you. They are in the whispers down below where status/image obsessed dictators drove them to. They are in the Amazonian treasures that Peruvians have known for eons already. It’s there. Just seek them out. Just like those WASPy people are just starting to discover them now, even though we ourselves have forgotten our own indigeneity.

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Fiction, Film, ideology, korea, korean drama, TV

MR SUNSHINE (tvN, Netflix 2018) and Product Placement of 21st Century Brands in late 19th Century Choson/Korea

(Please visit K-Drama School podcast for all my hot-takes on K-dramas.)

All Korean dramas rely on product placement. The concept of product placement, or PPL as they abbreviate in Korea, isn’t new, and of course, it doesn’t originate in Korea. Embedded marketing in media can be traced back to as early as the late 19th century starting with novels. In terms of visual media, the US (surprise surprise) included cars (Ford, Plymouth, Chevy, Packard), beverages (Coca-Cola) and cigarettes (Marlboro) in early studio films–some as early as 1916.

The tradition of conspicuous brand placement continued into television, of course. Entire shows would be sponsored by brands.

But this all changed with Sylvester (Pat) Weaver at NBC in 1949 (fun fact: Pat Weaver is Sigourney Weaver’s dad!). Weaver shifted the operation of network television by ensuring that programs get controlled by the network and ad time get purchased by companies through commercial breaks. BOOM. This turned the table completely. Companies were now at the mercy of networks and popular programs. This relationship continues to this day.

The difference in Korea is that commercial interruptions do not pervade the show as frequently as they do in American TV. An entire program can run without an ad break in the middle. (The downside is a prolonged series of ads in between separate programs; but this is also changing with the growth of cable in Korea.) Thus, product placement still plays a major role in a series production. And it’s not just one brand that owns the entire show. Multiple companies sponsor the show (percentages of how much screen time each product gets and the frequency of the product varies).

Writer Kim Eun-sook’s earliest major hit is Lovers in Paris (SBS, 2004). I can still remember the characters going to Baskin Robbins to eat a ton of ice cream and I recall Soo-hyuk (Lee Dong-gun) telling the Tae-young (Kim Jung-eun) how many songs he has in his MP3 player. In Descendants of the Sun (KBS, 2016), they eat ton of Subway sandwiches and those ginseng squeeze packs; Song Hye-kyo wears a lot of Laneige lipstick and she keeps lighting that freaking 2S candle. We saw the same level of conspicuous product placement in Goblin. I watched that show multiple times already not so much because I think the storyline is the greatest thing since sliced bread but more so because the fashion, jewelry and makeup are such wonderful eye candy. Of course, Goblin had a lot of PPL from perfume to handbags, lipstick to Subway sandwiches to fried chicken to furniture to beverages. Both Descendants of the Sun and Goblin had a go-to meeting spot for emotionally draining meetings between lovers and it is Dal.komm Coffee.

Cafes become a natural PPL strategy because so many K-drama storylines include one-on-one meetings at cafes. It only makes sense that a cafe be included as part of the production so why not make it a sponsor? Makes sense in terms of business. All that is well and good but how do you cram in contemporary brands into a show that is set in  Choson the same year as the Gabo Reform?

Korean audiences are savvy, and they’re already talking about it. In fact, a number of them are saying that the PPL in Mr. Sunshine is non-disruptive. Viewers are expressing their appreciation for the slick embedded marketing that the show makers have worked into this period piece.

But product placement is never not noticeable. In fact, the beat that show takes when they are about to take a moment for their sponsors is very detectable. When Eugene Choi (Lee Byunghun) raises his Odense teacup in the middle of his quiet meditation looking out his window, he makes an observation that is out of character: “Is this style of teacup in fashion now?” Like, dude, you’re a former slave boy/orphan/Korean American military man. Since when do you give a shit about trending chinaware? Let’s be real.

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Paris Baguette is very obviously a sponsor. We know this because it is one of the first banner bumpers to appear when the end credits roll, but we also know this because in episode 2, its characteristic blue and white label appears where lady Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) makes a stop to enjoy some sweets. (The sign posts and lamps all read, “French Bakery.”) In fact, Paris Baguette is currently selling special Mr. Sunshine specialty goods. 

And what would a K-drama be without a cafe/coffee sponsor? Dal.komm makes, perhaps, the most obtrusive display in Mr. Sunshine. Not only do the characters really push this 가배/gabe (Choson lingo for “coffee”) stuff but the napkins and even background sign straight up reads “Dal.komm Coffee.”

Hey. It’s all good though. No need to get all worked up over how a show takes us “out of the moment.” That sort of thing is nonsense. The nature of TV is self-reflexivity. We as audiences couldn’t possibly believe that late 19th century Korea had a guy named Eugene Choi acting as a military representative of America. So eye-roll all you want. PPL in Korean dramas aren’t going anywhere. Not even in a period piece.

In fact, given how SVOD streaming companies such as Netflix and Amazon don’t have commercial breaks as part of their distribution operation, product placement is now an integral part of their original episodes. In this way they are taking influence from K-drama productions and their business strategy.

Seeing as we TV lovers don’t simply rely on broadcast and cable television to receive our shows but also subscription to digital streaming, our lives will now be dictated by both commercial interruptions and embedded marketing in the programs. And that’s what I realized while working out at the gym yesterday. The absurdity of capitalism and our addiction to TV has turned us all into a bunch of suckers. Wait, I mean, “consumers.” 

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korean drama, TV

Netflix is Getting a Better Handle on Korean Dramas with its Latest Acquisition MR. SUNSHINE (미스터션샤인, 2018): ep. 1, July 7, 2018

Netflix and Korean TV have gotten close. Although I’ve been seeing Korean dramas on the site for some years now, I always relied on other sources like DramaFever, Viki and OnDemandKorea to keep up with all the shows I wanted to see. This mostly had to do with exclusivity rights that some of the sites had.

For instance, in the US, DramaFever has exclusive rights (for the time being) to Goblin (2016-2017). I recall signing up for Viki for a couple of months last year to catch Chicago Typewriter (2017). I keep my subscription to OnDemandKorea because it’s pretty reliable for watching most Korean variety shows the fastest since they show everything an hour after the air time of the program in Korea (but because of this, OnDemandKorea does not always have subtitles for their programs and their quality assurance is subpar; their site has a lot of bugs, even though relative to Viki and DramaFever, their subscription rate is $2 more expensive).

TVN’s latest big program written by Kim Eunsook is Mr. Sunshine (2018). It started airing in Korea on Saturday, July 7th, and will air as a weekend drama every Saturday and Sunday. It hits Netflix (in the US) 24 hours later. Kim Eunsook is the writer of beloved K-dramas such as Lovers in Paris (2004), Secret Garden (2010), A Gentlemen’s Dignity (2012) and, of course, the two mega hits of the last couple of years Descendants of the Sun (2016) and Goblin (2016-2017). Mr. Sunshine is getting international release around the world via Netflix.

Netflix has been releasing “original” dramas on its platform for about a year now, but their curation has been quite shoddy. Shows like Man to Man (2017) and Black (2017)–despite their star power–are extremely tedious (if not flat out bad). Both shows, which aired on cable channels in Korea, have struggled to make waves locally. Even the highly anticipated show Prison Playbook created by Lee Woo-jung, writer of the hugely successful Reply series, is extremely slow. Prison Playbook failed to impress Korean audiences as well, and did not reach the level of popularity that her earlier work achieved.

Notably, the trend is that Netflix is pushing to acquire content that airs on Korean cable channels. This has to do with the fact that cable channels in Korean television tend to push boundaries a bit further to include more violence (action) and vice (sex, cigarettes, and alcohol). While public broadcasters like KBS and MBC, and even commercial broadcaster SBS, are under greater scrutiny by the KCC, cable channels enjoy more leniency since the audience is smaller. Netflix, which isn’t bound by censorship regulation given its online status, is thus likely to go for more sensational content. Korean cable content finding a home on Netflix, thus, makes a lot of sense. Given the rising trend in stars signing up to participate in more cable television programs, narrowcast shows are starting to compete (if not outcompete) broadcast shows.

This is not to say that KBS, MBC and SBS do not have content on Netflix. In fact, a lot of the content from 2016 or prior are from those channels (Descendants of the Sun being one of them). But as Korea’s cable content is getting more demand among audiences, Netflix is making moves to acquire exclusive rights for content like Mr. Sunshine.

While Mr. Black, Man-to-Man and even Prison Playbook failed to impress, Mr. Sunshine is being strategized differently. Rob Roy–VP of Content Acquisition, Asia–mentioned the “pedigree of a title like Mr. Sunshine.” The pedigree mentioned here in refers to whether or not a show like this may be palatable to American viewers. Mr. Sunshine features Lee Byung-hun–one of Korea’s first major stars to impress Hollywood, and appearing in films like The Magnificent Seven (2016, Antoine Fuqua) and presenting at the Academy Awards in 2016. He is also one of the few Korean actors to have his handprint on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Although not by any means mainstream, Lee is, at the very least, a Korean actor who has recognition in Hollywood. Lee’s opposite in this K-drama is Kim Tae-ri, who impressed international audiences with her performance in The Handmaiden (2016, Park Chan-wook). The film reached international audiences easily through AmazonVideo. In addition to this, Descendants of the Sun is available on Netflix in the US. Despite Netflix being notoriously secretive of its data, anyone can guess the popularity this show has on the platform considering its international success due to the star power of Song Hye-kyo and Song Joong-ki.

Thus, the pedigree mentioned by Roy is not only in reference to Kim Eun-sook’s writing, which has consistently found success among K-drama lovers, but also the recognizable names of Lee Byung-hun and Kim Tae-ri among global audiences, and especially in the US.

[SPOILER ALERT] The first episode of Mr. Sunshine which dropped on Netflix today (July 7) was alright. It flaunted a lot of beautiful cinematography. Similar to the way Descendants and Goblin were shot, Mr. Sunshine attempts a level of camerawork that is comparable to an epic film, and it is successful particularly in the beauty shots taken in the mountains during sunset. Given this, the DPs on shows like this should be given name recognition. (In fact, K-drama DPs are probably the best ones to hire for any Hollywood film that features a lot of Asian faces like Crazy Rich Asians which is so poorly lit.)

The set designs and direction for scenes including American soldiers are interesting although not always convincing. I take issue with hallyu K-dramas and films that feature white actors as Americans; why do Americans they select always have a tinge of Australian or some unidentifiable accent? I understand that there are a lot of Aussies living in Korea that may be easy to hire, but they really should be given proper training to acquire an American accent to keep viewers convinced of the storyworld, especially viewers who have an ear for both languages and given the increasingly international player K-drama producers/distributors are becoming. This problem, of course, is rampant all over Hollywood, too. Whenever Hollywood films feature “Koreans” speaking “Korean” while butchering the language and so clearly cueing native ears that this person is not at all Korean (e.g. Black Panther [2018], Lost [2004-2010]), it becomes a major distraction (this phenomenon is applicable for all nationalities and languages in Hollywood films).

The part when American soldiers tell the Korean traitor to release the POWs because America is a “righteous country” made me laugh out loud. Anyone who’s read American war history would know why. Why does Kim’s writing make America appear so noble in this episode? Is this a form of political lip-service? Are Korean productions pledging some loyalty to American distributors?

Another thing I note in this show is the fetishization of violence; gunfire, knife wielding, explosions, death–all of these shots are given long takes and slowed down by FX and music. I don’t particularly care for these long shots romanticizing violent deaths. It’s a bit unsettling. The aesthetic is similar to what we get from Hollywood war movies like We Were Soldiers (2002) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). There’s nothing beautiful about war or death, and I take issue with this type of aestheticization over such images.

Lastly, the motif of dropping Korean bodies onto non-Korean soil in periods before the 21st century is consistent in Mr. Sunshine. As we’ve hilariously seen Kim Shin (Gong Yoo) buried in Canada in Goblin, we now see Eugene Choi (Lee Byung-hun) grow up as a Korean American soldier in New York ( DUMBO specifically) fighting in the American military. This is an example of “worlding” (eds. Roy and Ong, World Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global) as Korea aspires to situate itself in the global capitalist order as a worthy competitor, and a nation to be reckoned with. K-dramas are constructing Korea as an international player and rewriting history; no, it wasn’t Japanese colonization or the Korean War that began the nation’s international relations; in Goblin it’s centuries before that, and in Mr. Sunshine, assimilated Korean Americans existed long before boeings. Such is the trend. But it’s also a tendency of the writer. Kim Eun-sook’s first major hit is Lovers in Paris, and production did take place in Paris back in 2004 when this drama aired on SBS. It could simply be that Kim likes international travel.

With that said, we do note that her dramas aren’t exactly taking place with non-white nations. Considering the preferences of European or North American countries these dramas have, Kim Eun-sook’s dramas do play a political role in the nation’s first-worlding process through serialized television. The political move here is to associate Korea with first world nations through televisual display.

**As I’m sure fans have already noted, the intertext of Kim Ji-won and Jin Goo reappearing as a couple (parents to Ko Ae-shin [Kim Taeri]) and Ji Seung-hyun as a comrade to the couple is a wink to the audience/fans of Kim Eun-sook’s earlier drama Descendants of the Sun. Given this, can we expect a cameo appearance from Goblin? Perhaps Lee Dong-wook + Yoo In-na? 🤷🏻‍♀️

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