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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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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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Jordanian Inspiration, Joseon Incarnation

Jang Dan-bi and Queen Soheon placing a hanbok paper cut-out against the starry sky in 2015 Naver Korean web drama / MBC drama special Splish Splash Love / Splash Splash Love / Pongdang Pongdang Love

 詠半月 (영반월) – 황진이 (黃眞伊)

誰斷崑山玉 수단곤산옥
裁成織女梳 재성직녀소
牽牛離別後 견우이별후
謾擲壁空虛 만척벽공허

Translation:

Half Moon Poem – Hwang Jin-yi (Joseon poet and gisaeng)

Who broke off jade from the mythical Kunlun mountains
and fashioned it into a comb for the weaver fairy?
After she and her cowherd lover separated,
it was thrown haphazardly on the blue sky.

It is not unusual to depict scenery through fashion. Clones of T-shirts emblazoned with images of palm-tree-dotted beaches or New York streetscapes have plagued subways and malls, after all. Even among high-end fashion labels, there are the Chanel hemline comprising of glittering motifs of the Dubai skyline, Christian Siriano’s evocation of ethereal vistas of sand and water through his pastelhued prints, Jason Wu’s reproduction of the starry heavens on his diaphanous gown, and more. Jordanian architect and fashion illustrator Shamekh Al-Bluwi, in contrast, is the rare breed who unimaginably accomplishes the reverse.

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Mystical Quintet

Inuksuk / inukshuk / inukhuk / inussuk in 2014 Korean weekend drama Mama - Nothing to Fear

Rock art, remarked philosopher Thomas Heyd, transforms land into landscape by imbuing it with cultural meanings. When someone looks at an old inuksuk, as Arctic researcher Norman Hallenday similarly opined, he is seeing more than a pile of stones—what enter his gaze are also the thoughts of another human being. And depending on how the viewer further engages with the stone structure, he adds new meanings to this landmark.

Traditionally used by various indigenous Arctic peoples as markers for food, direction and danger, as codes for private messages and as decoys that lead animals to hunters, inuksuit (the plural form of inuksuk) can carry a strong connotation of survival. In their unpolished states, they show mankind triumphing over nature by reconfiguring rather than destroying all its key elements. Co-existing on these man-made stacks of boulders, flat stones and/or broken rocks are the rustic beauty of unadulterated mineral formations and the moving beauty of human fortitude. To modern, non-Arctic viewers, these attributes add layers to inuksuit‘s exotic charm, harking back to a long-lost age of simplicity and primitive magic.

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Of Sky Waltzes and Rain Dancers

Kim Shin-hyuk (Choi Siwon) in 2015 Korean romance drama She Was Pretty E4, performing Gene Kelly's "I'm Singing in the rain"

Amidst a sprinkling of American pop classics, She Was Pretty‘s characters live, laugh and love, alternately pulling off hilarious shenanigans and waxing sentimental about work, romance and friendship. Second male lead Kim Shin-hyuk merrily glides through rain puddles and twirls his umbrella to the tune of Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” all by himself on a slightly busy pavement under the city lights. Main couple Ji Sung-joon and Kim Hye-jin bond over the Carpenters’ “Close to You” during a downpour that triggers a panic attack in him and annoyingly curls up her hair. But it is without lyrics when second female lead, Min Ha-ri, daintily holds out her hand to raindrops from a drizzle, smiling brightly at the rain itself. In their asymmetrical love quadrilateral, which tests the ladies’ non-romantic love for each other, the first leads take to blue skies, in quiet unison, whereas the second leads ultimately tune in alone to the music of rain.

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Moondust in Her Hair

Jigsaw puzzle based on Dance in the Country (Danse à la campagne), an 1883 painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, as featured in 2015 Korean drama She Was Pretty

Fairy tale motifs like Cinderellas, wealthy Prince Charmings and beasts with hearts of gold underneath forbidding exteriors are very much alive in modern adult literature and films, as a drama reviewer helpfully pointed out. The titular pretty princess of She Was Pretty gets the raw end of the stick, however, when she grows up into a penniless ugly duckling, while her tubby childhood sweetheart transforms into a handsome and successful man looking like he has stepped out of a fashion magazine. Whereas he used to be the awkward, bespectacled child scuttering away at the appearance of the next-door belle, she is now the one hiding out of his sight and looking on in sadness as he embraces her ravishing bosom friend, whom he believes is her. In her reality, she thinks, she is just a supporting character, perhaps an almost invisible extra.

He, on the other hand, feels that the degree to which a person basks in the limelight does not cement his/her status as a main or supporting character. A change of perspective may reveal that the narrative is really about the emotions or personal development of someone lurking in the shadows. In Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Dance in the Country (1883), the central figure may not be the beaming, flamboyant woman whose bright red bonnet, floral details and voluminous dress draws attention to herself, or her dapper dance partner. It may very well be the woman watching outside the terrace where they are dancing, the railing of the terrace and tree leaves framing her face to the effect that she looks trapped in a neglected forest prison. Like the star-crossed lovers, the screenwriter Jo Sung-hee postulates, she is harboring a secret love for someone. Jo has her male lead entrust a jigsaw piece with the lovelorn woman to the female lead at their last childhood meeting, while he keeps the remaining puzzle of the painting. How she will find her way back to the picture and into the hole in his heart is the focus of the story.

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Back to Heaven

Baek Ma-ri (Kim Seolhyun) in 2015 Korean Drama Orange Marmalade 오렌지 마말레이드

Thoughts drift on and on, in Orange Marmalade‘s 18-year-old male lead‘s mind, to a fresh-faced and slender transfer student who slows down time every so often when she enters his vision, as night segues into day and the guitar ballad crooning about love through the passing seasons in the background segues into a classroom recitation of the last stanza of Cheon Sang-byeong (1930-1993)’s well-loved poem:

귀천 (歸天)

나 하늘로 돌아가리라.
새벽빛 와 닿으면 스러지는
이슬 더불어 손에 손을 잡고,

나 하늘로 돌아가리라.
노을빛 함께 단 둘이서
기슭에서 놀다가 구름 손짓하면은,

나 하늘로 돌아가리라.
아름다운 이 세상 소풍 끝내는 날,
가서, 아름다웠더라고 말하리라…..

Back to Heaven

I will go back to heaven.
Hand in hand with the dew
that vanishes at the touch of dawn light,

I will go back to heaven.
Together with the dusk light and nothing more
should the clouds beckon me while I play on the slopes,

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The Sketch of an Eternity Through the Arts

 Hana (Han Ji-min) visiting Kim Kwang-Seok Road in 2015 Korean Drama Hyde Jekyll, Me

Street mural featuring the song “The Love That Cannot be Spoken” on Kim Kwang-seok Road

Marcel Proust opined in his magnum opus In Search of Lost Time that memory is a critical wellspring of personal identity and the substance of all relationships. It is what restores a person to himself after a spell of unconsciousness ends and the only place where interpersonal bonds truly exist. Echoing these sentiments, psychological drama Hyde Jekyll, Me featured memory as a recurring theme in its story development. Memories defined the boundaries of the split personalities of its mentally unstable protagonist and gave life to romance. Losing an arm or a leg, one of the personalities pointed out, would not change his identity, but once his memory was gone, he would no longer exist. The inability to share memories thwarted relationship building, whereas the flow of them rekindled love. Should memories then be recovered and preserved through works of art, as Proust did with his 4211-page tome, on behalf of a person so that he can at least live on in people’s minds for generations after his demise?

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A Doll’s-Eye View of Japanese Aesthetics

Kokeshi

It is remarked that women hold up half the sky. Propping up one particular outstanding woman, in turn, was a peculiar little woman: a top-heavy wooden doll without arms or legs.

Japan’s asadora (“morning dramas”) is a tradition stretching back to 1961 at national broadcaster NHK (Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai / Japan Broadcasting Corporation). For half a year to one year at a time, the television series tells the story of a heroine fighting for her dream under adverse circumstances. Massan, which aired from September 2014 to March 2015, for instance, depicted a Scotswoman who married a Japanese man and helped him realize his aspiration of producing genuine whiskey in Japan in the 1920s-1940s. Along the way, she battled with social hostility against foreigners. Often, the stories are modeled after real-life women. In the case of Massan, this was Rita Taketsuru, the Scottish spouse of Nikka Whiskey founder Masataka Taketsuru.

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