Thursday, August 28, 2008

I want you to want me

An amazing piece of art, information, and sociology . . . wow.

More great infoviz art here at Visual Complexity. Here's an example of the crazy stuff you'll find: a character rabbit mandala . . .

Friday, August 22, 2008


Now THIS is summer weather I can tolerate . . . in the low twenties and raining!
Been very, VERY busy lately with a number of projects, so there will be virtually no posting - I know, all -what, three, four people?- who read my blog will be very disappointed. But I'm writing a lot of other stuff that may, wonder of wonders, be published and so that has to take priority.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

More 부대찌개 investigation

Eventually this will all go up as a more comprehensive folklore of 부대찌개 on, but for the time being . . .

I've collected a few more folk and personal histories of 부때찌개 both from informants who I've been able to talk to, and a few more over the internet. I'm still getting a great many versions of what I'm going to call "Variant A" in which Koreans are directly taking meat from scrap heaps, or receiving food like spam as food aid, taking home, and cooking. I'm starting to find more and more accounts of "Variant B" which locate the source of the spam, hot dogs, etc. as the black market (the one I currently believe to be closer to the actual historical origins of the food - which I'm still interested in, but for now I'm going to concentrate on the folklore aspects of it.) I've also gotten a few secondhand accounts of how rare some of the ingredients would have been (if available at all), further dating the origins of the stew as we now know it firmly outside the immediate postwar period. I'm going to look for a few people in their 40's, 50's, and 60's (and older) who can give accounts both of what kinds of food were readily available, and their first experiences of 부대찌개. The earliest recollection anyone has of eating it in a restaurant was in the 80's, and they further speculated that it probably really came onto the culinary scene in the 70's as the economy started to take off.
I've been further thinking about the significance of the name, too, and the 부대 part seems to me a bit strange for something that should have had stronger "American" ties. Just a hunch, but it does push me towards thinking that maybe this was something that started with American rations being shared with Korean soldiers, who initially combined ingredients to make the stew, and continued to make it using black market ingredients after their discharge . . .? Maybe? Anyway, for now, I think I'm going to focus on collecting personal recollections of the dish from older informants than I've been using (mostly out of laziness - things have been busy at work and I've been neglecting personal research. We've had more conferences and workshops in the past month than in the previous six altogether! And I opened my big fat mouth and volunteered to organize two more over the next two terms . . . oy vey!) At any rate, the one thing I really have found is almost a total lack of the name "Johnson탕" as common usage. Not a single one of my informants so far has used it, and most of them had never even heard it before - I'm now 99.9% sure that all the Johnson탕 stories are apocryphal.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Today I did a favor for one of the research prof's in one of the other offices at our 연구소, and in return she brought me a copy of her book, The Rhetoric of Korean Films 서사의 숲에서 한국영화를 바라보다 so now I have some lovely but difficult new reading material. I've always had a hard time making my way through books and novels in Korean, for which I routinely chastise myself. I just can't read quickly or easily enough yet in Korean to make reading longer books and novels fun, so I usually practice on news articles or 만화잭. Even then, I have a bad habit of sticking with translations of Japanese manga - partially because I enjoy historical fiction (there's far more choice from Japanese books than Korean) and partially because they're more familiar. Since I already know the storyline of Fushigi Yuugi I'm more willing to drop the cash on that, instead of taking a chance on 궁 or something else I might not enjoy.*
Right now I'm having great fun with the shoujo take on the bakumatsu-era: Kaze Hikaru (바람의 빛) by Watanabe Taeko. Rurouni Kenshin (바람의 검) was a big hit among anime-lovers when I was in college (back in the day when it was not yet quite cool, and everyone watched their favorite series on second-hand bootleg fansubbed tapes, which of course made us way cooler than this day and age's cartoon network babies, HA!) and this has something of a similar feel, but girlish. At the same time, the author has turned into a real history freak, and spends really extraordinary amounts of time and effort researching the period in which the book is set. She also spend a lot of thought on the gender issues raised by her story - a teenage girl decides to join the Shinsengumi to avenge the death of her father and older brother at the hands of Chushu agents. Although cross-dressing and gender-bending are pretty common in manga, Watanabe works hard to maintain some realism and keep it dramatically relevant. It's the only one I know where a truly disguised character regularly has her sexuality questioned and probed while realistically maintaining the fictional gender . . . at any rate, I like the art, I like the story, and I love that at the end of each book the author shares the results of some of her research and admits mistakes. One volume was a lengthy mea culpa for having Edo-style roofs on Kyoto houses in the first few volumes. Another went into explaining the details of Edo-era toilet habits for women, including how to make a rudimentary tampon. How cool is that?!?
The problem is that a) it's not culturally based in Korean, so I'm losing a chance to pick up useful information b) names and whatnot are a complete bitch - titles and groups and just about everything except personal names are given Korean 한자 readings, so it took me forever to figure out that the 신선조 and the Shinsengumi were the same. I'd read earlier volumes in Japanese** and English (in which they simply romanize a lot of the stuff instead of translate because, let's face it "New Politics Group" doesn't sound that cool) so I spent a lot of time wondering who the heck this 귀신부장 was . . .
But I digress.
Back on point: Kids books in Korean bore me. It's not that they're too easy, but they're kids books in the end and the story lines aren't meant for adults. On the other hand, adult novels are generally pretty hard for me to slog through. I had great fun working my way through 조선을 뒤흔든 16 살인사건 because although the vocab was pretty challenging, the grammar by and large wasn't too hard and the chapters themselves are short. It's basically a simple "history with conversation" style book, and not a bad read if you're into history and violence (and who isn't?^^) I was also able to use it as research material for my graduation 발표 at my 어학당 - many thanks to the teachers who finally gave up and let my group talk about 살인사건^^
And that's the problem with reading in another language. It's a delicate balance between something appropriate for your level and something that's actually interesting. I've always found that I'm far more willing to stretch myself and do the work if the subject is one I care about. That's why back in grad school I spent hours translating the "X-File" gossip about celebrities instead of doing my classwork. All the stuff I used to get in class was always so boring:
Korean holidays
Korean food
Historical sites of 경주
and I swear to God, if I ever have to read another thing about 세종대왕 and the invention of 하글 again, there will be blood!
But a bit of celebrity gossip or murder mysteries or a history of plumbing? Now that's fun! And the point is that in order to stick with something, it has to be fun. And, since I'm interested in Korean film, this book looks to be worth the effort of reading through academic Korean. Plus, I can always ask the author to explain bits I don't get^^ She's also invited me to come to some of her weekly film showings for people in our 연구소 AND loan me dvd's of any film she has on hand (AT LAST! All those films from the 60's, 70's, 80's . . . I've been longing to see so many of them, and at last they're within reach!) AND take me with her if she's ever invited to a premier where my beloved 신하균 will appear! She's like the bestest friend ever!

*ok, yes, there are bazillions of 만화방 all over the place, but even comics take me a bit of time to slog through and I shudder at the late fees. I might as well buy the darned thing. Then I can mark in it or draw devil horns and mustaches on the characters if I want.

**well, sort of . . . more like I painstakingly translated kanji until I couldn't take it anymore, and begged my Japanese friends to read it to me and explain it.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Cinema Craptastica: Mummy 3

Way back when, for my friends' entertainment I used to intentionally seek out the world's worst movies and review them. Welcome, friends, to CINEMA CRAPTASTICA!
I must confess to having an inordinate amount of affection for the Mummy series. Back when I was teaching, the only thing that saved me from mutiny in my ill-fated "American Cinema Appreciation" class was showing the "Scorpion King" (oh, and Janet Leigh in her underwear at the beginning of Psycho - for some reason the class captain was captivated by that 50's brassier.)
Let's get the plot, such as it is, out of the way . . . umm . . . .hmm. There was something about Rick and Evelyn O'Connell having a son who magically sprang straight from the birth canal into adulthood to uncover Jet Li and his play-doh army, which is being guarded by Michele Yeoh's immortal love child. No, really. There are repeated chases for mystical objects that will prevent or promote Li's mummified conquest of China and the rest of the world.. At least, I think that's what it's about.
But let's face it, if you are in the theater viewing Mummy 3, you are not looking for a plot. If you are looking for a plot, please direct yourself to the next theater over. If he was smart, the director would have just asked Noland if he could borrow a few plot twists from Dark Knight - it would have made both movies better. But if you are there to see lots of things explode and watch mummies run amok, well, you're in for a treat. That's basically all that happens. There's some yeti that show up and wreck havoc, a chariot chase through the streets of old Shanghai, and a big dustup at the great wall. It is a big, glorious mash up of second-rate special effects and bad acting on sets leftover from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
If I have to admit to any problem with the film, it is the dork they have playing Frasier's kid. I mean, they even got away with switching the actresses who played his wife, but this was too much. I do not watch the mummy movies for fresh-faced "talent" or to see young men dash about trying to look dashing. I watch to see Brendan Frasier fight mummies. If I can't have Brendan Frasier looking dorky, I want to see the Rock looking bronzed and buff. Don't bore me with anybody else.

Random thoughts:
Does Michele Yeoh age? I'm beginning to think that the whole "shangri la" stuff they had going on in this film might well be true, and Yeoh really IS the guardian.
I can't even start talking about Jet Li. I'll hyperventilate. He's also responsible for one of the least believeable parts of the movie. Not to ruin it with spoilers or anything, but does anybody really believe Brendan Frasier could kick Lee's ass? I didn't believe it of Mel Gibson, and I certainly don't believe it about George of the Jungle.
Brendan Frasier . . . I'm so confused! You're such a big dorky lug of an actor. Here you're doing exactly what you always do, and God bless you for it. I'm still trying to figure out how you managed to be the most compelling figure in that awful dreck that was "The Air I Breathe" (which deserves it's own wholly separate entry into Cinema Craptastica)

In the end, I have only this to say though:
It is a HOOT!
In a way, this film is almost perfect. It delivers EXACTLY what it promises. Jet Li, Michele Yeoh, and Brendan Frasier run around with some other pretty people and fight and blow things up. It doesn't try to bore you with little things like complex interwoven human stories and quiet moments of beauty. It knows its purpose, and brings you souped up mummy fights with cheesy FX. It not only groks itself, it revels and exults itself to ever increasing cheesiness. And after all the ponderous darkness of Dark Knight, it's a grand and marvelous thing to have a film that is pure popcorn.

Friday, August 8, 2008


I'm trying to figure out how to type this review up without unintentionally allowing for some really bad Two-face puns. You see, I'm of two minds about The Dark Knight.
Shall we get the unhappy half out of the way first?
This film has some problems: The plot is way, way too cluttered. There's a lot of elements that show up for only tangential reasons, and do little to actually advance the story. They're really just Nolan and co. showing off how very clever they are. But really, five minutes after you step out of the theater you'll be hard pressed to remember exactly what they were or why they happened or how they were supposedly important to the plot. On the other hand, important bits of information are not only off-screen, but almost totally unexplained. I suppose some of that was to heighten our sense of surprise when the events came to light, but in my mind it really cheapened things - how can I fully admire an evil genius when I don't know how those evil deeds were set up? I like knowing the little details of how things were accomplished, even if it's well after the fact, and this movie cheats. Often. Perhaps they thought that with all the stuff going on on screen that an audience wouldn't have the patience or ability to follow, but really, it is a cheap and lazy way of film making. I think a little more careful editing, or another once-over of the script could have pushed this film into a higher class. I put all the blame for this on Nolan, who can be elegant and complex and masterful, but I don't think has reached the level of control where he can maintain it throughout an entire film. He exercised the most control over Memento (in my mind, still his best film) but has gotten a little slipshod and careless since The Prestige (which I found beautiful, wonderful, and ultimately unsatisfying.) I'd like him to start making his plots a bit more spare, which I think would make him control these elements better. It's not as deep or meaningful as they're pretending, and I wish they'd either rewritten it to make is what it promised to be, or relaxed a little and let it flow a little more . . .It seems like they're still relying on the tricks he used in Memento and The Prestige, but they're not always appropriate or necessary here. Ultimately, all this does is make everything seem less urgent, immediate, and emotionally involving (with a very important caveat.)
Fight scenes are horrible, horrible, horribly - muddy, poorly shot, and muddled. I felt nauseous during a few of them from all the jerky camera movement. I know this sort of footage is very much in vogue, but it is time to cut it out. It had origins in the need to portray how a fight actually feels to the participants (Rocky does an admirable job of doing just this) but since we're not really being asked to identify with our protagonists in this very intimate way, it's just annoying. Even in the still images of the comic book, you're often given some sense of the choreography of the fight. You know who punches and how and in what direction and to what effect. Dark Knight has nothing but jerky camera movement and blur and the faint need to upchuck. Just the other week had a marvelous slide show about just that problem. . .
I hate to say this, but I'm getting more and more disappointed in Bale's Batman. As Bruce Wayne, he's not too shabby - debonair and frightfully handsome. But I don't think the Bruce/Bat balance is quite right. Honestly (looks left, looks right, dodges tomatoes) I really thought that Keaton's performance did a better job in connecting those two personalities while making it believable that other people around him couldn't. I wish they'd left this Batman just a tad more Lamont Cranston-ish in his Bruce, it would fit better with this incarnation of Batman. As for him as Batman . . . well, I find the faux bass growl they use for him distracting and wooden. I'd rather have a mute Batman. Can't they find something less artificial? I snickered every time he said more than two words together. Met has posted a wonderful bit of youtube fun about that here.
Eckhart is a bit weak in his role, but I blame a lot of that on the cluttered script not devoting enough time to his story arch. It should be at the very heart of the film, but it really gets shunted to the side a little too often to really work the way it ought. He really isn't given as much to do with his character and role as he needed. I'm torn here, because the end of his story arch should have much, much more impact than it does. But in all fairness, it's not really his fault . . .
What to say about Gyllanhaal? I adore her, and she's such an amazing step up from that nothing actress Holmes that of course I want to embrace her moxie laden performance that turns Dawes into something more than a doe-eyed do-gooder. But she's so wasted in this role! The actress is worthy, but there's nothing for her to do with all of it. The script for Dawes is just as bland and boring that Holmes actually suited the role better. Gyllanhaal just has too much umph for her. Actually, she's got too much umph for Bruce or Dent in this little triangle,but little chemistry with either. I hardly cared who she chose to be with, she was too good for either.
Oldman is just what he ought be for Gordon, and Caine and Freedman are, as usual, magnificent. Really, I don't need Batman . . . I could just sit around and listen to Alfred and Fox sit around and plot things on Batman's behalf all day long. Even when their dialog is pretentious and over the top you swallow every word they say because they are the masters of this kind of thing. I would, without question, believe anything Freedman told me as Lucius Fox, including tri-weave titanium dipped diapers. And if Alfred is warning you about something? That's as close as gospel as you're going to get. They're both such delights!
But what really, really makes this movie?
Good God. Heath Ledger scared me witless. When he's on screen, it's like watching an entirely different movie. He owns this film, and every second he's not on screen is a second wasted. Audiences were justifiably horrified by his Joker. And not once during the movie will you think the least bit of the divergences from the comic book, nor fleetingly remember Jack Nicholson's Joker from the 1989 film. This Joker appears to emerge whole and entire, a living, breathing thing of such utter evil . . . well, I just don't have the superlatives to describe his work here. He's also wickedly, terrifyingly funny. You'll feel evil laughing along with it, but laugh you will - even at silly, throwaway lines that have nothing funny about them. Ledger gets a big laugh out of just saying, "yeah" at one point. But as soon as the Joker exits the film, so does audience interest. Dent, Gordon, Batman . . . they're all so frightfully dull compared to the Joker! Without this manic, incredible villain, the film just goes slack. I know I'm not saying anything here that anybody else hasn't said, but it's a big revelation. After years of seeing tepid, boring, pretty boy stuff from Ledger, I'd thought that his performance in Brokeback Mountain was a fluke. It wasn't. This man had some serious craft.
So go see Dark Knight. Spend the 10,000원 to see it in IMAX (the action scenes filmed in this format, unlike the fight scenes, are marvelous - some as crisp and clean as the film format itself) and try not to close your eyes too much while Ledger is on screen.

In a somewhat related side story . . . it's so embarrassing to go see American-made films here sometimes. I'm always laughing at jokes that nobody else in the theater seems to realize are there. My laugh is loud enough to attract attention, and distinctive enough for people who know me to figure out where I am. Once I was sent into hysterics by a line in Ratatouille ("We hate to be rude, but after all, we are French!") only to find that I was the only person in the theater laughing at all. This time it was even more embarrassing, because not only was I the only person laughing, the things I laughed at were the same things that at first sight are pretty damn horrifying. The "disappearing pencil trick" is monstrous the first time, but funny the second. Well, my second viewing was most people's first, so I looked like a homicidal maniac.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Holy Legislation, Batman!

Old news, but amusing: Senator Leahy was the old coot who is threatened with a Glasgow Smile by the Joker in the new Batman movie. Funny, I don't know why, but I would have pegged the democrats more as Marvel Comics types . . .