Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Brother One Cell: An American Coming of Age in South Korea’s Prisons

I will be sitting with Cullen Thomas at the Korea Society on Thursday November 29th, for a conversation on his book and Korean history, politics, and culture.

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In 1993, Cullen Thomas was a young man who wanted to see the world and South Korea was one of his first stops. Convicted of smuggling hashish and sentenced to 3 ½ years in Korean prison, the world he ended up seeing—one in which the Confucian customs of Korean society take on a harsh character—wasn’t the one he expected. Reading from his new memoir Brother One Cell: An American Coming of Age in South Korea’s Prisons (published by Viking in March 2007) and taking questions, Thomas will share the gritty reality of an American’s life in a foreign prison: its unforgettable pains and its unexpected and beautiful lessons.

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Cullen Thomas grew up in Port Washington, New York and graduated from Binghamton University in 1992 with a degree in English. While teaching English in South Korea in 1993, Thomas was convicted on a narcotics charge and served a 3 ½ year sentence. Released in 1997, he returned to New York, working as a writer, teacher and editor of The Princeton Review. From 2002 to 2005 Thomas served as a staff writer and assistant editor at Current Biography. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, Salon, Rhythm, Chamber Music Magazine, and the Korea Times.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Discreet apocalypse: untitled

A man who was tired of being true to himself decided to deny himself. He had had enough of himself.
It is one thing to decide to deny one’s self, it is quite another to actually do it.
Becoming a traitor to one’s self is not within the reach of everyone.
To cut a long story short, he tried and tried... over and over again, and eventually did it. He betrayed himself.
He was beyond recognition.
He used to be one dirty rotten bastard. Now he was a good man. He used not to like anyone. Now he was becoming some kind of saint. He used not to forgive himself, and now basked in compassion.
He was reconciled.
It seemed to him as though his life was heading straight for a dark, deep, damp undergrowth.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Book 2.0?

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Anounced earlier this week in New York by CEO Jeff Bezos, the Amazon “Kindle” (strange echo of Farenheit 451 when you think about it) is coming out. They call it a “reader”. It looks like a small tablet, permanently connected to internet and can hold as many as 200 works in its hard drive.

Access is made possible via Whispernet, a high-speed data network related to Sprint, which allows you to connect everywhere, and is therefore not geographically restricted to WiFi access points. Subscription, which is normally 60 dollars a month, should be free.
As for the object itself, it weighs a little less than 300 grams (even after years of living in the US, I still have to use the metric system), the screen is tad bigger than 15 cm. The device comes with a battery that allows 30 hours of continuous reading, a keyboard to annotate the texts, exchange emails, google stuff and surf the www. Provided by e-link , the display technology is the same as Sony Reader. Instead of adopting new (and better) standards, Amazon has unfortunatly stuck to the Mobipocket (a French firm it acquired in 2005) format. In terms of look and design, it's not exactly uber-cute, but Steven Levy who tried it for a few weeks (his feature article is on the cover of Newsweek) says people who handled it liked it, so why not. It also provides an email address through which you can receive documents, which means you can read them on the device (but the supported formats are noticeably scarce). Not only can books be downloaded (within about one minute), but also magazines and newspapers (Le Monde, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal) and even blogs (for which they’ll charge a fee, which is not making everybody happy, far from it) . The texts stored on the device are searchable, the same way as they are on internet. The first chapters of most available books are free.
A few testers have already reviewed the product: BoingBoing and PaidContent whose conclusion is kind of interesting: “Bezos’ speech had most of the audience pretty enthusiastic about the device—the problem is the gap between the description and the device itself.” Joseph Weisenthal writes becore concluding: “With some improvements to the display and a more intuitive navigation system, it could become an attractive product, even at the price” [$400... not exactly a paltry sum, to say the least].

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Predictably, the launch of this new electronic device has stirred quite a bit of controversy and is generating a lot of talk about the future of the book.
In the current issue of Newsweek (it hit the headlines) Steven Levy emphasizes the numerous assets of the connected book, the interconnected texts, the book as process rather than product, and so on and so forth. He quotes from several sources – among which/whom Kevin Kelly.
As sharp as his usal self, Nicholas Carr observes that Jeff Bezos doesn’t say anything about these futuristic ramblings (that Carr seems to despise) and gives a very classical (conservative?) idea of his love for books when he writes about the launch of the Kindle:
“I love slipping into a comfortable chair for a long read - as I relax into the chair, I also relax into the author’s words, stories, and ideas. The physical book is so elegant that the artifact itself disappears into the background. The paper, glue, ink, and stitching that make up the book vanish, and what remains is the author’s world.”
For Carr, there is no doubt that Kevin Kelly is wrong when he writes that the major virtue of the Kindle is that it is always connected and that “this ability to interact, manipulate, shape, cut, clip, annotate, and mash up is what will keep books great.” On the contrary, Carr declares that “the only thing that will keep books great is respect for the individual author, the individual reader, and the sanctity of the book as a closed container.”

As far I am concerned, if I were to buy the device, it would be out of desire to find a type of pleasure that can be compared with the one Bezos talked about, and also to see new modalities of reading emerge, and concomitantly new forms of literature.
The extraordinary perennity and strength of the book comes largly from the fact that it has refined, tailored, improved, developed for more than five centuries. The opportunity to reinvent it doesn’t occur every day.

It’s not for lack of attempts but the e-book has never taken off. The book as object is a formidable challenge. The question is therefore: how can Amazon succeed where Sony and everybody else have failed.
Perhaps because it is precisely Amazon we’re talking about. They have the means and the audacity to change their own business model. The goal seems to transform the sales of books-as-objects into books-as-flows. “This isn’t a device, it’s a service” Bezos said in the pages of Newsweek. This is why we can speak about “Book 2.0”.
Kindle will start off with a library of 88.000 titles. Being able to download them all at any time is a huge advantage over previous e-book-related ventures. Some people have even mentioned the possibility of an agreement with the chain of W hotels, which would make it possible for customers to borrow (or rent) a machine to read the books of their pick. Quite an improvement over the rental of dime-a-dozen action-packed flicks or pornography.
The cost really is the main question/concern. At 400 dollars a piece, you can hesitate between buying a Kindle, a Wii, two Negroponte laptops (read here, a Nokia N800 or an EEE, the latest ultra-light Asus notebook.) Besides, these machines allow you to do a whole bunch of other things.
The main and true problem of the pricing has less to do with the device itself than with service and the cost of each item. The available titles at the time of the release are around $10. Amazon stands out of the mass of publishers that still sell e-books at the same price as their paper counterparts. If you bear in mind that many books published these days are systematically dgitalized, and that storage and shipping are practically free, it would be natural to expect many readers to demand even lower costs.

Part of the success or failure of the Kindle is at stake on this particular point. But this is not the most important aspect. It could contribute to the success of e-books and sure enough, some attention should be paid to this.
The most important thing is that hundreds of gadgets with the capacity to connect to internet and a screen wider than a cell phone’s are scheduled to come out in the following months. The iPod Touch is an interesting case since it has extraodinary legibility and also comes with a wireless connecting capacity, so that it’s easy to imagine that iTunes might consider offering cheap e-books – Steve Jobs has understood the importance of pricing every single item. this could be the beginning of a tipping point.
The future of the book is pretty much happening now... or so it seems

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Death of an American writer: Norman Mailer, 1923-2007

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Norman Mailer, the bad conscience and public accuser of all things American, died yesterday, Saturday November 10th, at age 84, succumbing to renal failure at Mount Sinai Hospital. Author of about thirty books, twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize, he was one of the most flamboyant protagonists of the American intellectual scene, decade after decade.
Born Norman Kingsley, on January 31, 1923 in Long Branch, New Jersey, in a middle-class Jewish family, Mailer, a brilliant student, entered Harvard in 1939, where he graduated in aeronautical engineering four years later, fought in the Pacific during World War II. In 1948, he published The Naked and the Dead, a war novel whose raw realism won instant critical and popular acclaim: the book was translated in twenty languages
Later on, the writer became known as a critical and subversive observer of the US, in works dealing with the ever-changing flow of current affairs and his own life's: An American Dream (1965), Why Are We In Vietnam? (1967), The Armies of the Night (Pulitzer prize, 1969) and Prisoner of Sex (1971). Most of his books stirred some degree of controversy: from Marilyn (1973), a novelized biography of Marilyn Monroe, to The Executioner's Song (Pulitzer prize, 1980), an epic, sprawling narrative based on more than 300 interviews of death-row inmate Gary Gilmore, considered by many to be his masterpiece, and of the best illustrations of his journalistic work, a style of literary reportage mixing fiction and nonfiction.

As years went by, Norman Mailer built his own biographical legend, that of a turbulent literary figure, basking in self-complacency and scandal: a brawler and a boxer, a big mouth and a hard drinker, heavy smoker, and inveterate philanderer, he got married six times – stabbed one of his spouses, Adele in 1960. His last wife was painter Norris Church –, made five awesomely bad movies, ran for mayor of New York (not his smartest move), recited pornographic poetry (no comment) or publicly insulted fellow writer Gore Vidal, among (many) other things...
The co-founder of the Village Voice never stopped writing. And he proceeded to climb more mountains: his penultimate book, The castle in the Forest, released early 2007, is a novel about Hitler's youth, told by a demon, an underling of Satan. His last book, An Uncommon Conversation, was also his last-ditch affirmation of an obstinate life-wish.

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Suspension points

Suspicion point #1:

“I.” is hardly more than a fragment of language.

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Booknotes: Chung Young-iob, "Korea Under Siege, 1876-1945"

Chung Young-iob

Korea under Siege, 1876-1945

This book examines the transformation of the independent and isolated Korean economy into a dependent colonial economy during the period between 1876 and 1945, focusing on capital formation, economic development, and structural changes. During this 70-year period, Korea underwent three distinct stages of economic transformation: the traditional economy before the opening of the country to the outside world in 1876, the transitional economy between 1876 and 1904 under its own sovereignty, and the colonial economy under Japan from 1905-1945. This book studies the combination of changing circumstances, approaches, and experiences in the country, such as the propensities to work, produce, invest, save, and entrepreneurship, as well as institutional and economic reforms that took place during the three stages of development. It also investigates the level and distribution of income and consumption (standard of living), which reveal a number of significant patterns and characteristics of capital formation, economic development, and structural changes in the Korean economy.”

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Sex with the enemy: 'Lust, Caution'

Born in Shanghai in 1920, writer/novelist/screenwriter, Eileen Chang (張愛玲, The Rice Sprout Song, Red Rose and White Rose) died in Los Angeles in 1995. She was nicknamed by a few critics the Chinese Jane Austen (ah, the demon of comparison, but coincidentally, Ang Lee did adapt Sense and Sensibility for the screen). Many of her works described everyday life in Shanghai and Hong Kong under the Japanese rule, while scrutinizing the problematic relations between men and women, her short story Lust, Caution (Si jie) provides the literary inspiration for this brilliant and brutal erotic thriller, the first film that Ang Lee has made in China (since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

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Expectations (including mine) were certainly high for Ang Lee’s new film (which was awarded a Golden Lion in Venice, despite dividing viewers and reviewers) especially after the massive popular and critical success of the gay cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain. With its predecessor, Lust, Caution shares some of the thematic elements, most notably the forbidden love relation. This is where the similarity ends, though. If Ang Lee seems to deal with the same matters here, at least superficially, he does so in a sensibly different manner, and with a more freeform (some would say, loose) cinematic fabric than his previous film.

In many ways, the superb opening sequence defines and predetermines the rules and nature of the game that serves as a metaphor for the film as a whole, writing the fate of the main characters in advance, and single-handedly making the film worth a watch: a metaleptic moment during which four chipao-swathed ladies swiftly handle tiles in what appears to be a very intense mahjong game (yet, not a bead of sweat is dropped), while their expressions give out volumes of mute tension, beyond the banter and the bustle of their adroit hands expertly dealing and slapping down the pieces. It soon appears that the youngest of the players, Mak Tai-Tai (Tang Wei) is involved with Yee (Tony Leung), whose wife (Joan Chen) regulaly hosts the social/mental games. On the most banal level, this sequence reveals a beneath-the-surface type of hinter-drama, stoically hidden behind a casual bourgeois décor. More importantly, like all games, the incipit casts the roles of the losers and the winners, a world of shifting identities where something, someone will lose something, him/herself, somehow or other. It is then revelead, in the following scene (a noir-ish French café sequence), that Mrs. Mak, supposedly a rich and bored businesman’s wife, really is Wong Chia-Chi, a young university student turned actress/seductress that might have already long lost her cool, and abandoned her cause in the arms of a villain, as the past flashes back into focus, making it clearer how she came to this.

From then on, Lust, Caution offers a poignant and passionate spectacle that slowly stages the passage à l'acte (in both the sexual and the criminal sense of the expression) by which the loss (of identity, control, caution, etc.), necessarily devastating, will take place and strip the characters from everything, but suffers a bit from the syndrome of over-stretching (the sex starts one hour and a half into the film). A little like in Hou Hsia-Hsien’s Good Men Good Women, (just a little bit) Lust, Caution gives the viewer a glimpse of the lives and times of a small group of students who like the stage and their country (or the idea of it), and get naively infatuated with the idea of killing Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), a high-level official and traitor during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, from 1937 to 1942, at the onset of World War II, before closing up on the dangerous liaison of the spy and the opaque Yee, which is really what Lee seems to be interested in, first and foremost. The narrative proceeds to follow the young (and not so bright) idealists as they decide to take the leap from theatrical representation to political action. Lead by nationalist enthusiast Kuang Yu-Min (a somewhat bland Wang Lee-Hom, famous Chinese pop star), the group amateurishly organizes the murder of the local collaborator, who’s in charge of interrogating (and torturing) his rebellious compatriots. Acting in the name of an ill-defined greater good first, the troupe finds itself back on track a few years later, after the first phase fizzles out and a man gets lamentably and clumsily stabbed by the terrorist wannabees. This time, they come under the stricter supervision of an older resistance leader. Again, in the name of the cause, Chia-Chi accepts to assume the part of the lethal weapon, worldly Tai-Tai: innocence, illusions, and lives will be lost.

To bring down the bodyguard-surrounded Yee, Chia-Chi has to play the role of the sophisticated married woman to win his trust (like a con artist), his heart (like a courtesan) and insinuate herself into his inner ring. One thing leading to another, the young woman winds up surrendering to the game of seduction and letting herself be seduced by her “victim”, and perhaps by the game itself as she succumbs to the passion of playing and being played, which leads her (them?) astray and afar, further and further from her comfort zone, into the dark territories where desire and death lurk at every corner.

Ang Lee’s mastery of the twists and turns of a tortuous narrative is impressive. The most fascinating aspect of the film is the certainly the way he captures auras and intangible atmospheres, the lying eyes and the unspoken truths, as costumes (and masks?) eventually come off and the flesh gives way to an ecstasy that wreaks havoc on the moral certainties of the unlikely couple. The filmmaker relies more on the skin-deep ambiences than dialogues (mostly in Mandarin, with snippets of Shanghaiese) to convey meaning. The result of this is a handful of very compelling sequences, particularly the erotic scenes, in which Lee captures the sense of a relationship based on an intricate mixture of fear and desire.

As in Brokeback Mountain, the main achievement of the film lies in the outstanding performance of the cast, beautifully enhanced by Rodrigo Prieto’s (who is working with Lee for the second time) dark and cold cinematography. Beyond all formal aesthetic considerations, it is truly the the two leads, Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Tang Wei, who breathe life into the film and bestow its true dramatic dimension, and therefore, value on a narrative that wouldn’t transcend the conventions of the wartime spy drama plot otherwise. Leung, who has built a career on showing an incredible range of deadpan-but-hurt-deep-inside faces, from Andrew Lau’s crime thriller masterpiece, Infernal Affairs, to Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046, offers here a first-rate performance as he explores, through the taciturn character, a broad spectrum of emotions. Alternatively surly and sour, always sinister, and sometimes suddenly flaring up, Leung gives an excellent countrapuntal réplique to the spectacular newcomer Tang Wei, who shines through the film.

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Despite the heavy historical dimension of the narrative, the filmmakers hardly lingers over the context and skips most of the ideological and espionage small talk (reduced to the ponderous and midly prepostorous “China will not fail” that set off the intrigue), leaving it as a mere backdrop or pre-text, to really get down to the business of characterization. At 136 minutes, the film is mostly structured around the psychological joust that sketches out between the lovers, who discover and uncover each other in a spinning arena of mixed emotions and contradictory feelings. It takes some time for the pieces of the puzzle to come together and the impatient viewer might find this very lengthy and laborious in the end.
Despite what some viewers and critics have seen as problem of pace, Lust, Caution is still a fascinating piece that makes a consummate shows of the fatal strategies that are set up along the way, in parallel to the march of history. Progressively and painstakingly, the process of sexual seduction develops into the locus and sole engine of pure emotion. In fact, James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang’s scenario takes meticulous and perhaps excessive care not to rush anything, building up the emotions into a surprising apex: the quasi-rape of the ingénue, who nevertheless gives in to the ruthless and sadistic thrusts of Mr. Yee, with careless abandon in the heat/paroxysm of the moment.

The thriller aspect of the narrative, once the characters lose themselves to each other, become ancillary and should probably have effaced itself from the screen to leave more space for these thrills (even though they come aplenty). Indeed, the film truly finds its raison d’être in the sexual duality of the two protagonists, one that admits no third parties (or loyalties for that matter)
In Brokeback Mountain, the love story took center stage and the sex was almost peripheral. Here, things work the other way around. Sex, raw, real (visibly unsimulated), and shot in the most carnal manner possible, accounts for the psychological undoing of the characters. It constructs the labyrinthic tale of a steamy/stormy liaison in/by which the couple fucks each other (and themselves) to their doom.
Nothing short of fascinating in this respect, Lee’s Lust, Caution is a film that adeptly blends the sexual and the sublime, favoring the personal at the expense of the historical. Strangely, the conclusion seems to say, feelings are not enough to sustain the blend... and Mr. Yee’s eyes let a few helpless tears bleed and concur. Love’s labour’s lost, said somebody.

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Technical info:
Production Company: Mr. Yee Productions LLC
Executive Producer: Song Dai, Ren Zhong Lun, Darren Shaw
Producer: Bill Kong, Ang Lee, James Schamus
Screenplay: Wang Hui Ling, James Schamus, based on a short story by Eileen Chang
Cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto
Editor: Tim Squyres
Production Designer: Pan Lai
Sound: Philip Stockton, Eugene Gearty
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Principal Cast: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Tang Wei, Joan Chen, Wang Leehom

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Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Sound of Ecstasy

I had the chance to attend this event yesterday at the American Museum of Natural History:

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The Sound of Ecstasy and Nectar of Enlightenment

Buddhist Ritual Song & Dance From Korea
Celebrated by Buddhist Monks from the Young San Preservation Group

The program notes redacted by my colleagues are pretty interesting.

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Brief notes on Nanking

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Directed by Bill Guttentag & Dan Sturman

Saw it yesterday night.
Bleak catalogue of war atrocities.
Dramatized, dead voices played by high-profile celebrities: Mariel Hemingway, Edward James Olmos, Michelle Krusiec, mingled with the testimonies of the survivors.
Re-enactment of the tragedy.
Manifest desire to make the event, unique, irreversible, non-repeatable.
And yet, echoes everywhere: the Holocaust, the Armenians, Darfur, and so on...
The same, yet always different: human horror.

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