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.

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