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Outreach: APC Suicide Prevention Campaign

Samshin Halmoni / Samshin Granny (Lee El) meeting Goblin / Kim Shin (Gong Yoo) in a bookstore in Kim Eun-sook's 2016-2017 Korean fantasy drama Goblin / Guardian: The Lonely and Great God

Caution: Indirect spoilers ahead.

If a writer’s work can save a life, should we be finicky about the medium the finished product officially appears in? Quite a number of us must be wishing we could turn back time and dissuade someone from taking his or her own life, however devastating circumstances might have been. Planned for slightly more than half a decade since the year a colleague committed suicide, screenwriter Kim Eun-sook’s hit drama Goblin (available on Dramafever) tells the tale of a Korean mythical being known as dokkaebi, often loosely translated as “goblin,” who longs to end his 939 years of immortal existence only to change his mind when he develops feelings for the human bride sent by God to fulfill this wish. Viewership soared to record-breaking numbers for Korean cable television history as the couple and their offbeat friends confronted the implications of life, death, suffering and co-existence with the miraculous, alongside heartbreaking dilemmas of living for their love versus dying for others. Adding more pathos to the series is the common tragic sin the formidable-looking army of amnesiac grim reaper bureaucrats in their universe are revealed to be undergoing rehabilitation for.

Kim Eun-sook’s love for language is palpable not only in her lyrical sentences, including those used in scene descriptions found only on the script, and humorous wordplay, but also in  Continue reading

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All the World’s a Mimicry

Poster featuring Lee Young-oh (Jang Hyuk) and Gye Jin-sung (Park So-dam) in 2016 Korean medical drama Beautiful Mind

Forging human connections is like running a makeshift theater academy. At times, a man briefly stages in his head the turmoil ravaging another person’s mind. At times, he recalls and mentally rehearses scenes that have brought someone in those shoes a little cheer. Then he walks onto a visible stage, located wherever the other party can be reached, and re-enacts the soothing gestures that show he understands. The title of the script is “Empathy,” but are fleeting plays all we deserve in our very real lives?

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A Geopolitical Reading of Knulp

Train to heaven in 2016 Korean drama Please Come Back, Mister / Come Back Alive / Come Back, Ahjussi

Identity has a peculiar relationship with itself. According to art and literary theorists, the act of naming or otherwise describing something replaces the true nature of the object with a representation which accuracy and comprehensiveness are constrained by human limits. Yet in public consciousness, one may contend, this caricature tends to be mistaken for the real thing in the long run. Thus, when a political subject assumes a cultural or national identity, he may inadvertently lose sight of his deeper identity—that which sometimes transcends ethnic, geographical and other boundaries or at least popular perceptions of such boundaries.

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Strange Waters

The sixth dragon Moo-hyul (Yoon Kyun-sang)'s dragon title scene in 2015-2016 Korean historical drama / sageuk Six Flying Dragons

“The Sixth Dragon – Joseon’s Top Swordsman, Moo-hyul”

Hong Kong fiction and its Korean counterpart, heroism and escapism, the corporeal and the illusory—entities in these pairs nestle within each other in symbioses at times wondrous and at times sobering.

Hong Kong martial arts fiction has made an impact on the South Korean popular culture scene since the 1960s. In 1967, the Hong Kong film Come Drink With Me, which tells the story of a swordswoman pairing up with a drunken kung fu hero to fight bandits, attracted a record-breaking 300, 000 moviegoers in Seoul and whetted the public’s appetite for more tales from the genre. From then till the mid-1970s, importers brought in more such movies from Hong Kong, producers responded enthusiastically with their own action films, major newspapers and publishers tried to out-win one another by serializing martial arts novels and comics, and radio stations aired adaptations of such novels. Hong Kong and Korean film directors also traveled to each other’s country to shoot martial arts series, exchanging professional insights along the way. The bubble burst after that, but in the mid-1980s mainland-born Hong Kong novelist Jin Yong brought on a second boom with his Condor Trilogy, selling over one million copies in South Korea and ushering in new imports of Hong Kong martial arts films.

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Deep Down Inside, Beneath the Clothes of Culture

Kang Ye-rim (Kim So-hyun)'s mirror scene in 2016 Korean horror web drama Nightmare High

Logic broke down when a bare-bodied male philosopher locked eyes with a little cat in a bathroom. That was the scene Jacques Derrida painted of himself alongside a meditation on how the cat was behind him since it was before him. But more precisely, Derrida was referring to the animal world in general and how animality surrounds and pervades humanity since it precedes the emergence of humanity. While he agreed that differences exist between animals and Homo sapiens, he challenged the common philosophical assumption of a sharp, singular distinction between the two. Something in this kind of attitude may also be warranted in other types of debates about the true face and ideal living conditions of the human race.

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When Mathematics Meets Politics in a Lunchbox

Magic square lunchbox in 2011 Korean historical drama / sageuk Tree With Deep Roots

Every time a grisly murder ordered by his father, King Taejong, takes place, King Sejong despondently buries himself in magic squares—n x n matrices in which each number from 1 to n2 appears just once and the sum of numbers in each row, column and main diagonal (a value known as “magic constant“) is identical. But the troubling news would not leave him alone in this introductory portion of Tree With Deep Roots, a political thriller depicting the invention of the Korean alphabet, Hangul. Couriers, guards and his mournful queen storm his problem solving chamber, where a gigantic and incomplete 33 x 33 magic square reflects the scale of his woes.

Taejong, who has abdicated but continues to wield power, invites himself in as well, proposing an easy solution to the conundrum. He throws away  Continue reading

The Meeting of the Face and the Gaze

Yoo Jung (Park Hae-jin) and Hong Seol (Kim Go-eun) in 2016 Korean drama Cheese in the Trap

On the lush grounds of frizzy-haired college girl Hong Seol’s campus roams a bunch of green-eyed beings—stalkers, thieves and one copycat—accusing one another of being weirdos who think of normals like themselves as weirdos. There is also the Mr. Nice, Yoo Jung, whom Seol catches betraying a faint smirk when a flirtatious schoolmate trying to strike up a relationship with him at a party “accidentally” has beer poured over herself. Jung, in turn, catches Seol catching on to his trick and stares back. Such is the chilling tone of the lead couple’s first encounter in 2016 Korean drama Cheese in the Trap. In the time to come, Seol suspects Jung of more misdeeds, while he subtly maneuvers people into harassing her—or at least she thinks. One year later, though, Jung starts acting friendly to Seol too and pestering her to have lunch together. At first flustered, Seol discovers the real culprit behind a misdeed and acquiesces out of guilt, only for him to propose that they date not long after that. But the audience gets to see the incident from the culprit’s perspective and find out that Jung is the puppet master after all. Just what is Jung scheming now?

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The Dark Sides of Education

Tomohiko Doi (Haruma Miura) in his soccer ball scene in 2016 Japanese drama Never Let Me Go / Watashi wo Hanasanaide

Kazuo Ishiguro is no Michael Crichton. Lying at the heart of his dystopian world in the novel Never Let Me Go, where human clones are raised as organ donors, is not futuristic speculation about biotechnology, but a metaphor for how awareness of the finitude of life influences ordinary people’s treatment of love and friendship. What also intrigues him are the stories we manufacture and share among ourselves to come to terms with mortality and accept our fate. Hauntingly, some of these stories and storytelling habits, together with constraints on human potential, may be propagated right in our education machines.

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Lost Heroines

2015 Korean drama Midnight Diner / Late Night Restaurant

“Is there a taste you want to remember?”

In a quaint alleyway in the heart of Seoul, a scarred, reticent chef known only as “Master” operates a low-key eatery from midnight to seven in the morning. The menu has just one modest dish, but patrons are free to order whatever they want. Night after night, various sorts of workers drop by and share their woes and joys over the hearty dishes, while Master looks on with a small smile from the kitchen, rarely interjecting a remark except to serve food.

One regular, a down-and-out musician, has this ritual of burying a chunk of butter under white rice, letting it simmer for half a minute there while he sits back contentedly with folded arms, lightly adding a few dashes of soy sauce after that, and then mixing everything together. Looking on in admiration, the other patrons would imitate him and this small place in 2015 Korean drama Midnight Diner, adapted from a Japanese comic series of the same name, becomes a cocoon of simple bliss. In lieu of cash, Master permits the musician to repay him with a guitar performance, bringing more cheer to everyone. These happenings make them momentarily overlook a haughty food critic invited to the eatery one night.

The twist you are waiting for is this: the crowd-pleaser in the room and the most irksome man there are Continue reading

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Icing on the Bytes

Wind Chimes in a Bakery

If you believe you have graduated from Korean dramas of the early 2000s or take pride in never having been part of the fandom, you would probably shrivel in mortification at yourself in the event you fall for the following tropes in 2013 web series Wind Chimes in a Bakery: cancer, amnesia and parental opposition to courtship. Few, though, would consider the symbolism of love through wind chimes a banal storytelling device.

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