Monday, December 31, 2007

Idiom of 2007 for South Korean academic community

In a bout of year-end optimism, The Professors Times (only in Korea) reported it has chosen the four-character Chinese (chéngyǔ 成語) set phrase: jagigiin (自欺欺人) to describe South Koreas not so brilliant economic, political and social situation in 2007. It means to deceive one’s self and others.
The compound was the winning idiom in a survey of 340 professors, including leaders of the national and private university professor councils, from Dec. 15th to 20th.

The selected idiom is an oblique disapproving comment on the scandals involving large-scale forgery of academic credentials, more specifically art curator Shin Jeong-ah
s enhancing of her university degrees, former Korea University president Lee Pil-sangs plagiarism, and the various corporate scandals (or is business as usual?), the latest and not the least of which being the ongoing (and escalating) corruption scandal engulfing Samsung, the peninsulas biggest conglomerate, or chaebol.




This year’ winners: Shin Jeong-ah, Samsung, Hyundai (Chung Mong-koo). A grand hall of shame

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Kim Yu-na: ice skater, national icon?

Korean figure skater Kim Yu-na has won the International Skating Union (ISU) Grand Prix of Figure Skating for the second time. Probably more fuel for national pride/nationalism. I’m not really into ice skating, but she’s pleasant to watch, I’d say.

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Discreet apocalypse: no surprises

No alarms and no surprises (let me out of here)
No alarms and no surprises (let me out of here)
No alarms and no surprises please (let me out of here)


Magrittes Golconde, 1953 (detail)

So you wonder who you are. You wake up in the morning at 7:15 AM. You need to have breakfast at 7:30 AM, you shower at 7:45 AM and get prepared until 8:20 AM, fortunately you dont live too far from your office plus you can be 5 or 10 minutes late, don’t overdo it no don’t do it again not too often or else, or else you’ll get some nasty comment about coming in late or be talked down to, or at worse get yelled at, because even if you work for a company that can manage its human capital, everything has to be in its own place and everyone needs to have their limits anyway (otherwise it’s a mess).

So you start asking yourself questions. You produce and you consume, in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening. You forge your identity, you need to exist and work makes it possible. You live through work, you think about work, you dream about work, work makes you feel fulfilled because work makes you feel free even though work sometimes wears you down and you've stopped dreaming, you are only having nightmares. You are scared of losing your job because you know very well that if you were unemployed you would go through a major identity crisis, you would feel lost. You tell yourself you build things, and maybe yourself, you tell yourself you build your own well-being and the well-being of your children, you like it when people owe you. You dont like suffering and you dont like making other people suffer, you often understand how your productivity is a contribution to the greater good of the collectivity and you know how collectivity defines your functionality.

So you are afraid of the day after. You don’t like being noticed as much as you don’t like noticing others, you like to fit in and youre lucky because this year, these days, its fashionable, well grey is fashionable, you stumble along you reel along and you wag along the wet asphalt it is so slippery especially when you wear crepe sole shoes.

So you have so much to say. Things that are no heard, things that are not said, the things that cant be said but there you go you don’t care you really don’t give a fuck and you want it all to blow up once and for all so you can start all over again, from scratch. All this violence and all this disgust for the other, all this individualism and this materialism, and all this indifference and all this pressure.

Your life is a whole lot like your youthful dreams.

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I Am Legend: the world without us. A review


The project of a supersize adaptation of Richard Mathesons sci-fi novel (1954) has been one of Hollywoods hot potato games for the past ten years. Ridley Scott, among others, juggled and struggled with a version tailor made for Schwarzeneggers 12 pack. Bringing the film to life was no mean feat, especially considering the seminal quality of the book it is based on, in the field of modern horror fiction. Matheson widely considered to be the spiritual father of Romeros zombies (the filmmaker himself confessed deriving his inspiration from the novelist). Two adaptations were made, at a time when the threat of nuclear warfare haunted (creative and collective) imaginations: The Last Man On Earth, an odd American-Italian co-production by Sydney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona (1964) with Vincent Price, and The Omega Man by Boris Sagal (1972), a half-forgotten flawed (and a tad outdated at that) gem that pitted Charlton Heston against a sect-ish group of hooded zombies, emphasized the sacrificial dimension of a man who managed to redeem what little remained of humankind: the hero became a new messiah.

Francis Lawrence, who signed a few music videos for Justin Timberlake and was the man behind the helm of Constantine (an aesthetic success, if not exactly a great movie), inherited the duty of directing the post-apocalyptic Robinson Crusoe castaway tale by Matheson.

The film is a blast on several grounds, but mostly stands out of the recent surge of sprinter-zombie flick fare by the straightforward but modest manner in which it puts the tight and slightly depressive storyline of the book on new tracks, far from standard action-movie pacing and storytelling. It manages to maintain for quite a while (considering it is after mainstream Hollywood stuff) a first-degree, fervent manner of wandering around the possibilities that the narrative opens up, lingering over the dry beauty, with patience and without forcing the , and developing an almost ideal (yes, too bad) dosage of effects.

The plot might seem paper-thin, and can hold in a couple of sentences, but works fine:

A mutated virus designed to cure cancer has gone wrong and decimated the human species. The 10% left alive have been infected with a form of ultra-hardcore rage and transformed into feral, nocturnal creatures that are not unlike vampires, and could actually pass off easily as clones of Klaus Kinski’s Nosferatu. A few (1% of humanity), were miraculously immune against the man-made disease but fell prey to the bald, cannibalistic, infected group. One man, Robert Neville, a military scientist, still entertains the fantasy of finding the cure and “fixing it. In the ruins of a megapolis (originally L.A., here: New York of course, I’ll come back to it), apparently the last survivor of the worldwide biochemical disaster, roams the deserted streets and avenues during the daytime, while the horde of mutants lurk in the lower, darker depths of the Big Apple, away from the sunlight. As night falls, the uglies come out and spread all over the city, forcing Neville to hide in his comfy barricaded Washington Square pad until the flesh-eating loonies get tired of howling at the moon.

What Lawrences film does best is setting a context, as the melancholy camera hovers over the desolation in long, amorphous tracking shots of New York, freeze-framed by the catastrophe. The return of nature and wild life through the cracks of the concrete bestows an almost pastoral, meditative character to the hour-long mise en place of the survivor’s day-to-day existence. The foremost achievement of I Am Legend may be in the lengths to which it expands/extends the post-doomsday chronicle of the lonely times of Robert Neville as a middle-aged idler, one of the main charms of the book. Unhurriedly, the film takes pains to construct a life of loafing around the narrow edge of reason and crack-up, but ordered like clockwork around a set of fixed habits, against the bleak broken down backdrop of the devastated cityscape: Neville pumps gas at an abandoned (of course) station, loots a Tribeca apartment for canned fish, runs some more errands, goes deer-hunting and back home, where he chain-watches dvds and recordings of the Today Show, the futile reminders/remains of an obliterated civilization. Will Smith turns out to be quite the ideal last man on earth, against all odds. Brainy (he’s a virologist after all), brawny (he works out), and musical (he listens to Bob Marley on his iPod), he provides a rock-solid emotional anchor for the viewer and could have carried the whole film on his shoulders, had he been given the chance.

One the most beautiful ideas of the film relies on a minimum of effects : to retain a sense of humanity and social connection, Will Smith talks to mannequins that he has arranged in a mockery of a typical urban life routine, as stand-in shoppers and clerks in a dvd store, where he borrows items every morning. Never had the actor appeared so isolated, devastated, worried, obsessive, desperate, etc. while pulling off the part of the nicest (and only) guy around.

This logic of restraint, patiently established in this magnificent, much talked-about opening, craftily paves the way for the moments of pure, delirious frenzy that drill holes in the vegetative framework: the few overheated (and somewhat underestimated) sequences of confrontation with the enraged ghouls, are impressive displays of digital, hyperkinetic brutality, in the wake of the revisionist trend that Snyders Dawn of the Dead and Boyles 28 Days Later initiated.
In the midst of this CGI fest, Lawrence has nevertheless shot an outstanding but sober in-the-dark scene reminiscent of the videogame Silent Hill (the most formally successful action sequence of the film).


The mushy sentimentality of the flashbacks that punctuate the narrative pales in comparison and constitute the most problematic part of the film: we catch brief glimpses of the chaotic evacuation of New York and terrified exodus that takes place, following the quarantine of the city. But these are less occasions of showing the magnitude of the disaster than familiarizing it (and neutralizing it) as a family drama by showing the protagonist with his wife and kids, in typical Hollywood fashion and establishing the emotional link with the nice little doggy, Samantha (always nice to have a good German shepherd around when you’re the last man on earth).

The film unfolds according to a logic of restraint, fully circumvallated by fear, and the very treatment of the massive zombie attacks, in the mode of pure sideration, underscores the contemporaneity of the tale with today's age of terror/terrorism. The post-9/11 dimension the film is constantly referred to (the devastated site of New York is baptized ground zero by Neville himself), not to mention the post-traumatic, guilt-ridden psychological profile of the character, which speaks volume about the clean break it makes with the 1970s formula - the hero as savior, and so on and so forth. Some might object to the ample rewriting of Mathesons original material, most notably the conclusion, but on the larger scale of the history of the genre, I Am Legend writes itself as a landmark that should not be neglected.

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Where is he now?

Rove Resigns To Spend More Time In Shadows

The Onion

Rove Resigns To Spend More Time In Shadows

Rove claimed he never felt comfortable operating within the visible light spectrum

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Sunday, December 23, 2007


“Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like ways across the earth. For actually the earth had no ways to begin with, but when many men pass in one direction, a way is made.”

Lu Xun, My Old Home.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Hunting the homeless in Seoul

In the middle of the immense hall of the brand new Seoul station, stands a short man in an oversized parka. He drags his feet around but his eyes are sharp. As the sun sets, he walks among a crowd of businessmen on the move, on the make, and elegantly-dressed high-heeled women with their manicured hands on their cell phones: it is time for Kim Kun-oh, 41 years old, to watch for the isolated down-and-out who have come to find a bit of warmth in the station. Outside, its freezing cold.
Kim Kun-oh is also homeless. Except that he earns a living as a hunter of homeless. Every time he finds and introduces one of them to his local neighborhood association, an employment agency that comes to the rescue of the most destitute, he cashes in enough to buy a subway ticket, cigarettes, kimchi, a bowl of instant noodles, some soju.


Kim tries to find men who are neither too old or too damaged. Living in the margins in outdoors Seoul during the wintertime, when temperatures drop to - 20 °C, and threaten to freeze people dead, is indeed quite a challenge. Kim Kun-oh targets the strongest among the poor, the survivors. The mutual aid association proceeds to offer their services as day laborers for construction sites or other labor-intensive work in the underpasses of the city and the underground. Every day, the small organization offers work to 150-odd vagrants.
Kims task is to get four or five homeless a day. The station is the best spot, Kim Kun-oh explains. In the summer, its easy: theyre all over the place. But in winter, when hell almost freezes over, they arrive in small groups, late in the afternoon, unnoticed. They are fully aware of the discomfort and unease that they inspire in other people. The number of homeless in South Kore is growing at a worrying rate: ten years ago, the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which is often called the IMF shock” in South Korea, kicked a lot of people out on the street... some of whom were educated but bankrupt businessmen, who found themselves unable to reimburse abysmal credit card debts. And not just in Seoul. In all of Korea. They lost everything, their job, their family, their home. The solitude of these men who have nowhere to go seems overwhelming. Kim Kun-oh says he wants to help them. Catholic missions are admittedly generous but have different objectives.
Furthermore, in Korean churches, there is a widespread, strong sense of defiance against some solidarity networks, suspected of exploiting poverty and desolation.
Regardless, day after day, unhurried, Kim Kun-oh finds the destitute in the countless underground passages in the vicinity of the former Seoul station. There, beneath the entrance of Nangdaemun market, in a tunnel that turns into a squat after dark, dozens of fortysomething homeless (some of them are hardly thirty years old), can be found, living a hand-to-mouth existence, and sleeping on the ice-cold ground in cardboard coffins. The youngest are the nouveaux pauvres of a country where the social gap is widening quickly and steadily.

Almost 10 million Koreans (out of a population of 49 million) live under the poverty line, left behind by a nonetheless continuous economic growth (according to an OECD report, the relative poverty rate was about 13% in 2000, i.e. a little more than 6 million people). It is now the country that has the highest suicide rate of all industrialized nations.
These days, groups of squatters pop up even in the upscale areas of the capital, like Songpa or Gangnam.
As the country prepares for a major change of leadership, after a decade of liberal rule (on Wednesday). Kim Kun-oh points the finger at the outgoing president Roh Moo-hyun : He promised the construction of public housing. He hasn't done anything.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Louis Menand on why we read diaries

“The impulse to keep a diary is to actual diaries as the impulse to go on a diet is to actual slimness. Most of us do wish that we were slim diarists. It’s not that we imagine that we would be happier if we kept a diary; we imagine that we would be better—that diarizing is a natural, healthy thing, a sign of vigor and purpose, a statement, about life, that we care, and that non-diarizing or, worse, failed diarizing is a confession of moral inertia, an acknowledgment, even, of the ultimate pointlessness of one’s being in the world. Still, rationally considered, what is natural or healthy about writing down what happened every day in a book that no one else is supposed to read? Isn’t there something a little O.C.D. about this kind of behavior? Writing is onerous (especially with an ultra-thin pencil)—writing feels like work because it is work—and, day by day, life is pretty routine, repetitive, and, we should face it, boring. So why do a few keep diaries, when diary-keeping is, for many, too much?
Three theories immediately suggest themselves. They are theories of the ego, the id, and the superego (and what is left, really?). The ego theory holds that maintaining a diary demands a level of vanity and self-importance that is simply too great for most people to sustain for long periods of time. It obliges you to believe that the stuff that happened to you is worth writing down because it happened to you. This is why so many diaries are abandoned by circa January 10th: keeping this up, you quickly realize, means something worse than being insufferable to others; it means being insufferable to yourself. People find that they just can’t take themselves seriously enough to continue. They may regret this—people capable of taking themselves seriously tend to go farther in life—but they accept it and move on to other things, such as collecting stamps.
The id theory, on the other hand, states that people use diaries to record wishes and desires that they need to keep secret, and to list failures and disappointments that they cannot admit publicly have given them pain. Diary-keeping, on this account, is just neurotic, since the last thing most people want to do with their unconsummated longings and petty humiliations is to inscribe them permanently in a book. They want to forget them, and so they soon quit writing them down. Most people don’t confess; they repress.
And the superego theory, of course, is the theory that diaries are really written for the eyes of others. They are exercises in self-justification. When we describe the day’s events and our management of them, we have in mind a wise and benevolent reader who will someday see that we played, on the whole, and despite the best efforts of selfish and unworthy colleagues and relations, a creditable game with the hand we were dealt. If we speak frankly about our own missteps and shortcomings, it is only to gain this reader’s trust. We write to appease the father. People abandon their diaries when they realize that the task is hopeless.
These are powerful, possibly brilliant theories, and they account for much. But, though they help explain why people generally don’t like to write diaries, they do not explain why people generally do like to read them. The obvious assumption is that we read diaries because we want to know what the diarist was really like as a person, but how plausible, even in the case of famous diarists, is this? It’s true that we read the diaries of Virginia Woolf because they were written by Virginia Woolf, who, in addition to being an interesting novelist, was an interesting character. But (a paradox of representation) we would actually feel that we had a more intimate sense of Virginia Woolf if we read about her in someone else’s diary. Woolf described from the outside by another person is likely to give us a more vivid picture of what Virginia Woolf was really like than Woolf described from the inside by herself. Introspection is not as reliable as observation. (That’s why we have shrinks.)
Inside, everyone sounds, more or less eloquently, like the same broken record of anxiety and resentment. It’s the outside, the way people look and the things they say, that makes them distinct.”

Louis Menand, “Woke Up This Morning”, The New Yorker, December 10th, 2007.
Full article: here

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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Cormac McCarthy: sanguinary sublime

“A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets . . . and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.”

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

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Monday, December 3, 2007

The Omega Man: last man on earth, the Charlton Heston version

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With the new adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I Am Legend coming up amidst the surge of post-apocalyptic narratives popping up here and there (vampires, zombies, and other creatures of the night and bite), perhaps in reaction/conjunction with growing anxiety about the future in general, and the sudden “World War III” rhetorical escalation in particular, my attention was caught by a similarly-themed film, The Omega Man (1971), by Boris Sagal. As it turned out, it happened to be an earlier cinematographic version of the book (preceded by The Last Man on Earth, with Vincent Price in the lead role in 1964).

Robert Neville roams the deserted, rubble-strewn streets of Los Angeles, the only survivor of a world war that has wiped out mankind. Neville, who has survived the nuclear and biological devastation, injected himself with an experimental vaccine. As the phrase goes, “the last man on earth is not alone”: a few people who call themselves “The Family” have been spared by the engineered plague, but have mutated into a nocturnal, regressive black-hooded lot, afflicted with a quasi-vampiric sensitivity to light, albinism, and homicidal tendencies. Neville fights a desperate, lonely war against the Family, from the safety and exile of his fortress-island of art and science, the derisory remains of a dead civilization. A dated, flawed film (Rosalind Cash's afro, the bad make-up job(s), the soundtrack, etc.) with an interesting edge (Charlton Heston).

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Sunday, December 2, 2007

Epitaph: brief notes

Last month, at Columbia University, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute (WEAI) and the Center for Korean Studies organized a one-day interdisciplinary colloque dedicated to Korean pop culture and its impact/influence in East Asia and in the rest of the world, judiciously entitled “Korean Waves [note the plural],” featuring some of the most respected and prestigious names of academic research on contemporary Korean culture and cinema: Richard Pena, Darcy Paquet, Charles Armstrong, Nancy Abelmann, Kyu-hyun Kim, Kyung Hyun Kim, Wondam Paik, TV-host-turned-graduate-student Park Jungsook, and others.
Supported by the Korea Foundation and the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, the symposium opened on Friday, November 16th, with the premiere screening of the horrow film Epitaph (Gidam), in presence of the directors, Bum-Shik Jung and Sik Jeong, who introduced their first work, arguably the most remarkable film of a somewhat dull year (for an industry that prosperred for so long both locally and in the rest of Asia). A masterpiece that brilliantly connects beauty and horror, history and psychology.

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