Korean Movie Review #8: My Wife Got Married (아내가 결혼했다; 2008)

My Wife Got Married 2(Source)

Starring: Son Yae-jin (Joo In-Ah), Kim Ju-Hyeok (Noh Deok-Hoon), and Joo Sang-Wook (Han Jae-Kyeong). Written by Song Hye-Jin (original novel by Park Hyun-Wook) and directed by Jeong Yoon-soo.119 minutes.

Before the mid-1990s, very few Korean movies featured a wife leaving an unhappy marriage. Of those that did, either she would ultimately return to her husband, tail between her legs, or she would face an untimely death, so great was the inevitable spiral into destitution and despair.

So, when Kim Tae-kyun (김태균) directed The Adventures of Mrs. Park (박봉곤 가출사건; 1996), who not just successfully pursued her lifelong dreams of becoming a singer, but found new romance with a second husband too, he softened the subversive social message by making the movie into a romantic comedy. But even then, he would later confess to Cine 21 magazine, he was extremely concerned at how audiences might react to such “an unexpected ending”.

Fast forward to 2008, and My Wife Got Married, about a woman who demands 2 husbands, was one of the most popular movies of the year, and even won Son Ye-jin the Blue Dragon Film Award for best actress. Not quite a comedy, and sparking minimal complaint or controversy (although women were careful not to publicly identify too closely with her character), it’s difficult not to see it as a sign of how quickly and irrevocably Korean attitudes had changed in the preceding decade. I’ve projected feminist empowerment onto it ever since.

It’s somewhat ironic then, that it turns out that the movie is *ahem* actually told exclusively from the perspective of the main male character, Noh Deok-Hoon…

*Minor spoliers follow*

Opening in Spring 2002 with Deok-Hoon bumping into Joo In-Ah on the subway, next they’re at a coffee shop, where he reminisces about missing his chance to ask her out back when they worked together, and speculating with his male coworkers about whether she wore a bra or not (as one does). Discovering a shared love of football, specifically the rivals Real Madrid (him) and FC Barcelona (her; expect many ensuing football/relationship metaphors in the movie), soon they’re having drinks, then sex at her place.

My Wife Got Married 3In a surprisingly erotic scene, Deok-Hoon has the best sex of his life, and instantly makes such an emotional, almost spiritual connection to In-Ah that it’s easy to see how wounded he would be by what audiences already know will come. But, by no means does she merely humor him in response. So, even without that benefit of hindsight, it’s no surprise that they do genuinely fall in love.

Nymphomania a historyThis is more important than it may sound. Because, before falling in love, first they are lovers (what an oxymoron!), with one scene in which she encourages him to very explicitly talk about his sexual fantasies — he struggles; she’s well aware of hers — hinting at her much greater sexual subjectivity, and willingness to act on it. Considering that just 13 minutes in, audiences were — à la Basic Instinct — reflexively craning their necks to get a better glimpse of her exposed(?) nipples, it would have been very natural and easy for writer Song Hye-Jin to have continued on that salacious, titillating basis, portraying In-Ah as a emotionally manipulative nymphomaniac that can’t be satisfied with just one man, with all the double standards that that implies.

Instead, as soon as we’re shown that they’re in love, In-Ah also says that despite that, she can’t guarantee that Deok-Hoon will be the only person she loves for her entire life. Her surprise at his umbrage with that seems both authentic and naive (a constant theme), as is her not realizing how he might feel at her continuing to drink and socialize until all hours as if she were still single.

Not that she can’t or shouldn’t mind you. Rather, it’s how secretive she is about it that is the problem, never answering her phone; it’s only when he eventually, desperately confronts her at her apartment after one such session that it seems to click. Only slightly drunk and still impeccably dressed, you sense maybe she is only testing him when she retorts that she was sleeping with someone. Either way, he leaves her.

After a month of moping around, he’s encouraged by a friend to forgive her, but also to ensure it doesn’t happen again by marrying her and then knocking her up. Surprised at his call, let alone his marriage proposal, she takes a lot of persuading, only finally acquiescing during a World Cup game.

Those that were here that magical summer, will surely understand.

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Domestic bliss ensues, only briefly interrupted by her moving to a different city for 4 days a week for the sake of her job; after all, such arrangements are completely normal for millions of Koreans. This movie being what is though, soon his world comes crashing down when she reveals that she’s not just fallen in love with a second man — Han Jae-Kyeong — there, but she would like him to also be her husband — not just boyfriend — just as Deok-Hoon is in Seoul. Angry, emotional, and this time also physical confrontations follow, with Deok-Hoon resolving not to let her to “win” by divorcing her.

Let’s pause for a moment here, as many viewers may well have needed to take a deep breath at this point in the movie. Because, victim or perpetrator, likely most would also been affected by cheating spouses, partners, or parents at least once in their lives. Equally likely, they resolved to never let it happen again, or to them. So, if Deok-Hoon returning to In-Ah the first time didn’t already, his acquiescing to this new arrangement surely brought many of those same feelings of rage, hurt, impotence, and frustration back to the surface.

Or perhaps I’m just projecting? Either way, frankly, if I wasn’t already committed to a review, I would have stopped watching at that point, for the same reasons I turn off most Korean dramas within 10 minutes: it’s difficult to be sympathetic to — or interested in — a character you constantly want to grab by the shoulders and just shake some damn sense into.

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Yet, for a time, the trio — well, technically two duos — does seem to work, providing one takeaway message that polygamy (technically, polyandry) is neither as absurd nor as evil as it’s usually assumed to be. Moreover, in the process the movie pointedly questions many of Korean society’s double standards regarding marriage, especially how prostitutes and mistresses are tolerated for men while many wives languish at home, resigned to continuing their — by their own admission — loveless, sexless marriages out of financial dependence and fears they will lose custody of their children. Many reviewers erroneously claim these are shared by Deok-Hoon; however, but for sneaking glimpses of In-ah’s breasts at work, then complaining of her not wearing a bra in public (after sleeping together just one time!), he’s only guilty of firmly believing in monogamy. Indeed, he’s the one that repeatedly lashes out at his male friend’s hypocrisy, although it’s true that he could have done so with much greater gusto at his brother’s.

However, no matter how positively it portrays polyandry, the movie also demonstrates how unfeasible it is in a society where it’s both illegal and there’s strong social prejudices against it. And, coming from a movie which can be described as a romance only by default (to those reviewers that call it a comedy, I’m perplexed at what they laughed at), you’re left wondering what the point of the 2 hours was exactly.

*Major spoilers follow*

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Specifically, it’s the birth of a daughter that starkly demonstrates how the trio’s arrangement simply can’t be sustained in the face of family and official obligations. Questions of paternity aside (In-Ah wants him to love the child regardless of the who is the father, so never reveals that. Later, it’s Jae-Kyeong that reveals that they always used contraception when they were together), it soon becomes apparent that Deok-Hoon and Jae-Kyeong’s families are none the wiser.

This facade comes tumbling down when Deok-Hoon’s colleagues in Seoul see In-Ah, Jae-Kyeong, and daughter in a magazine article written by (unknowingly to them) the latter’s cousin, and assume that he’s secretly gotten a divorce. Fearing he’s slowly but surely losing both wife and daughter, and partially out of spite (really, he hasn’t felt in control of his life since the start of the movie), he responds by crashing the first birthday party Jae-Kyeong’s family has for “their” daughter.

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In response, In-ah disappears with her daughter, and her two husbands — this is much more believable than it may sound — come to live together and even become friends; as they say, they have nowhere else to go. When a postcard from Spain arrives 5 months later, the movie ends with both of them joining her there to watch football games and live happily ever after, as if somehow questions of employment, visas, schooling, custody rights, and social prejudice didn’t also apply there.

*Spoilers End*

Was it too much to ask that the movie delved a little more into some of those questions? Do any movies know any Korean movies that do cover alternative living arrangements a little more realistically, but are still entertaining? Thanks!

Update, Feb. 3: By coincidence, today The Atlantic had an interesting article titled “When Taking Multiple Husbands Makes Sense,” with the byline “Historically, polyandry was much more common than we thought.”

Update, January 3 2014: And today, Salon one titled “My Two Husbands.”

Korean(?!!) Movie Review #7: Air Doll (2009)

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Starring: Bae Doo-na (Nozomi),  Itsuji Itao (Hideo), and Arata Iura (Junichi). Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (original manga by Yoshiie Gōda). In Japanese with English subtitles. 126 minutes.

Less than four minutes into Air Doll, middle-aged owner Hideo has sex with the inflatable doll he’s named Nozomi, with all the crunching of flesh against plastic and washing of detachable vaginas that that implies. It’s as if director Hirokazu Koreeda was deliberately encouraging the squeamish to walk out of the theater.

It’s also ironic, as the very next scene reveals it to be a very erotic, albeit knowingly voyeuristic movie too, the camera luxuriating on Nozomi’s nude form as she magically comes to life (see the telling juxtaposition in the NSFW screenshot below; the subtitle actually refers to some dew she’s touching). She’ll proceed to spend a disproportionate amount of the next two hours topless, even for a movie about a sex-doll.

Yes, still an inflatable sex-doll, not a woman. For as she proceeds to leave Hideo’s apartment in a maid costume, and encounter a succession of sad, desperately lonely characters, her literal hollowness proves to be a poignant metaphor for all their lost, empty souls.

But she deliberately appears palpably, sensually human too, and you just can’t have it both ways. Especially in a movie that already so heavily relies on viewers’ suspensions of disbelief.

So, even if is nitpicking to wonder how she goes from learning speech and what clothes are in the morning, to getting a job at a DVD store in the evening, a scene in which a beautician covers her suddenly visible* seams with make-up is nothing but confusing and distracting. As is another when she pumps herself full of air one morning (naked, of course), yet somehow had a meal at a restaurant with co-worker Junichi the night before. And so on. Suffice to say, her new form is ambiguous, but much more human than not.

When she accidentally punctures her hand and rapidly deflates fifty minutes in then, it’s jarring, and it’s asking far too much of the viewer to pretend that she’s been nothing but a walking, talking balloon all that time.

*With the benefit of 4 viewings, the seams are visible earlier, but only in some scenes. Appearance-wise, the movie is rife with continuity errors.

Granted, Air Doll is fundamentally an allegory. But, rather than aiding it, here the confusing content simply gets in the way of the message. Koreeda, who borrowed only the initial concept from the original manga, really should have considered alternative methods of conveying it.

One possibility would be having Nozomi become fully human at the beginning of the movie and during the day, but often uncontrollably and reluctantly reverting a little, then changing back completely at night. Indeed, this is actually very similar to what happens in the first half of the movie, and then making her transformation progressively more unstable would suit the second half — and narrative as a whole — very well too.

Crucially, the nagging questions also distract the viewer from fully appreciating one of the movie’s great strengths, which is how Nozomi never really stops the innocent, childlike exploration of her new world, nor finding beauty in it. And her exquisite mimicry of its inhabitants is simply priceless.

Yet despite those, she also shows, as Tirdad Derakhshani of The Inquirer puts it, a sublime progression “from a childlike naif who plays with toddlers in a sandbox to a sophisticated woman who devours books, draws portraits, and philosophizes about life,” (my emphasis) and I’m not alone in thinking that Bae Doo-na is one of the few actresses that has the skill and versatility to pull the combination off (Tom Miles of Midnight Eye suggests Rinko Kikuchi or Hanae Kan, while Yuna at The Marmot’s Hole calls Aoi Yuu “a Bae Doo-na equivalent in Japan”).

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The practicalities of that process are that, despite everything, she soon establishes a routine of leaving for work at a DVD store once Hideo leaves, learning about the world through the strangers she meets on her breaks and/or days off, and especially by constantly asking questions of her unfazed, endlessly patient coworker Junichi, who soon starts taking her out to see the things she asks about. Finally, she has to rush home to lie passively for her “master” before he returns home, finding him increasingly repulsive, but using the time to ponder her discovery that she is/was a cheap “substitute for handling sexual desire;” to learn about love, mortality, and desire; and to determine why she found herself “with a heart [she] was not supposed to have.”

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(Minor Spoilers Begin)

But then, with the combination of a rare form of cunnilingus and strategically-placed tape, Junichi saves her from her puncture. An obvious turning point in their relationship, albeit more because Nozomi thinks she’s found a kindred spirit rather than because of their new intimacy per se (indeed, Junichi is so enigmatic that she initially thinks he is a sex doll too), unfortunately the movie, already convoluted, becomes very difficult to follow. And, crucially, not because of the depth of the message, but rather because Koreeda seems to be deliberately encouraging mistaken readings of the plot. In particular:

  • The morning after the puncture scene, the next 20 minutes show Nozomi symbolically throwing away Hideo’s pump for her, then leaving rejoicing in her freedom and liberation around the city. It very much seems as if she’s left Hideo forever…so again it’s jarring when you see her miserably by his side that evening, as per usual.
  • That last scene above is very brief, and it’s easy for it not to really register (although in fairness, it is technically there). So when you see Nozomi sneaking a look at Hideo bringing a new doll home, it appears that perhaps he’s doing so because she’s actually left him. Not, as, we’re supposed to think, that he’s put the (still fully inflated) Nozomi away in a cupboard.

And there’s many more confounding examples. Perhaps, certainly, the misreadings are just due to my own dull-wittedness, but I don’t think I’d be alone in needing two — actually three! — viewings of this movie just to figure out what the hell is going on. In contrast, Inception (2010), say, has many deep messages, but somehow I still understood the plot in that on the very first try (source, right).

In combination with obvious questions about her human or doll form then, and the problems of continuity with Nozomi’s image, this is a third red flag that points to laziness and/or arrogance on Kareeda’s part. Or alternatively, with a hat tip to Gomushin Girl’s comment in my review of Kim Ki-duk’s Samaria (2004), perhaps he simply got too caught up in his own message to think about how it might look to a less-informed audience member.

But he redeems himself with a powerful message just before the end of the movie, and one that I’m amazed that other reviewers (at least the 25+ I’ve read) didn’t pick up on

.(Major Spoilers Begin).

While, again, it’s delightful to watch Nozomi learning to be human, in the process noticing the hidden joys and beautifies of life that most of us have chosen to ignore, that’s increasingly tempered by her realization that her own purpose is nothing but to sate the sexual desires of the men around her, who do nothing to disabuse her of that notion. It’s vividly shown in the dead expression on her face when the DVD store-owner blackmails her into sex, threatening to tell Junichi about Hideo, and also partially explains why later, having finally left Hideo, she tells Junichi she’ll do absolutely anything for him.

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When he replies that he’d like to deflate and then breathe life into her again, she’s visibly shocked and — I’d say — disappointed that he’s ultimately no different from all the other men she’s met. But of course agrees, and appears to enjoy the ensuing “sex.”

Yet then, when he’s sleeping, she cuts an equivalent nozzle into his own navel, ultimately killing him from, presumably, loss of blood. But not before blowing into it herself, climbing on top of him, and unequivocally orgasming to the ensuing “conventional” sex (which, despite his tremendous pain, he’ll also do his best to actively participate in).

While it may sound minor in isolation, and I don’t want to be so glib as to take loudness, frequency, and duration of moans as a barometer for women’s sexual pleasure, it is the only moment in the entire movie she imposes her own will and/or sexuality on others, rather than being a mere, literal, receptacle for theirs. As such, It stands as a rare and very welcome final moment of defiance in the somewhat inevitable and predictable path to her coming suicide. (Update: on that last, see io9 for a curious case of life imitating art.)

(All Spoilers End)

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To the extent that it exists at all then, it is precisely here that a feminist reading of the movie could be further explored. In contrast, John Esther’s point at Jesther Entertainment that “Air Doll stands for, among other things, as a metaphor for women who are to look pretty, say nothing, stay home and wait for the patriarch to return home and breathe his breath into her lifeless a(i)rea” is true, but a bit of a dead end. As is Nick Davis’s comment at Nick’s Flicks Picks, which I thought was a misguided — and very forced — interpretation:

If you know anything about the Pacific fronts in World War II and a history of chauvinist disavowals by Japanese governments, the casting of a Korean actress as a Japanese man’s inert, unresisting erotic receptacle can’t help trigger distasteful connotations.

That aside, and in conclusion, while it’s a little harsh for Kelly Vance of East Bay Express to describe the movie as a “dreary, middlebrow allegory,” it is true that the movie is at least thirty minutes too long, many of those spent in vignettes showcasing the emptiness of the characters’ lives, while Nozomi drones on about — wait for it — how empty life is, all to the accompaniment of languid, sickly-sweet music in the background. Also, in a review at Antagony and Ecstasy that I highly recommend, Tim Brayton rightfully points out that the movie only provides observations and not actual insights, whereas plenty of Pinnochio-like movies have given both before, and with much more skill too.

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So, with the important qualification that you may need a lot of help with the plot before watching, Air Doll can a pleasant enough movie, albeit one lacking much of a vision, and inexpertly conveyed at that. Instead, think of it more as an invitation to form your own.

And, in the process, do take time to notice the superb cinematography too. For as Tom Miles at Midnight Eye Review explains, it’s set:

in one of Tokyo’s remaining shitamachi, an old neighbourhood of little independent houses, while ominous high-rises wait on the other side of the river for the aging abodes to crumble, impatient to take over the turf.

On that note, see above for my favorite location in the movie, which even someone as literal-minded as myself could appreciate!

“Kang So-ra! When Are You Going To Stop Being So Fat?!”

(Source: Metro, Busan edition, May 31 2012, p. 11)

One of the great advantages of Erving Goffman’s Gender Advertisements, I tell students in my lectures on gender roles in Korean ads, is that it’s not language-based. Whether the ads are from Korea, Kenya, or Khazakstan, I rhapsodize, it’s all about the pictures, making cross-country and historical comparisons possible.

In reality though, culture and language are still important. The tendency towards positioning men higher than women in ads for instance, implying their superiority (just think of the purpose of thrones), can pale against a seated matriarch’s greater social status. Also, ads may allude to popular books, movies, or songs that a foreign observer is unaware of, and/or the text make a pun about the images that a non-native speaker would struggle to understand.

In short, Korean ads can be far more subtle than they may at first appear to someone like me, let alone less gender-stereotyping.

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With that in mind, I decided to quickly re-examine K-Swiss’s “S-liner Polo Shirt” ad with Kang So-ra (강소라), that I’d previously dismissed as just yet another example of the ridiculous poses Korean advertisers put women in to show their S-lines off. After all, however unlikely, maybe she’s done a humorous Walk like an Egyptian dance at some point in her brief career (say, in the popular movie Sunny last year), and was parodying that? Or maybe there was something in the text to explain her pose?

Alas, no. Judging by the TV commercial above, the ridiculous pose and dance were definitely just for K-Swiss. And as for the text, that doesn’t redeem the ad either…although I’d have never guessed it would have taken me, my wife, and two of her friends nearly half an hour to figure that out!

It looked easy enough: “강소라” is Kang So-ra’s name, “언제까지” is “until when”, and “살텐가” is “will live”, as in the more formal form “살거예요”. But “통짜로”? Literally, it’s the adverb “wholly”, but that made no sense. So, with the logic that perhaps 22 year-old Kang So-ra formerly lacked feminine curves then, but now, as per the dictates of Korean consumerism and gender roles,  she’s compelled to show them off at every available opportunity, we decided it meant “통” as in the Hanja character that means a (usually cylindrical) container (i.e. a body), “짜” which can often mean “thing” or “person” (see pages 263 and 374 of the Handbook of Korean Vocabulary respectively!), and “로”, which in this case would mean “as”, or “in the manner of”.

Putting aside what role such exhortations may or many not have in Koreans’ intense body dysphoria for a moment (uniquely in the developed world, Korean women aged between 20-39 are becoming more underweight than obese), we were pretty proud of ourselves for figuring that out. But then my wife’s second friend arrived, who pointed out that “통짜” is actually a sort-of adjective means “fat”, as in “통짜몸메가 있어”. Specifically, after a lot of time arguing about whether it actually more meant “curved” than fat per se (recall what “통” can mean above), it means a fat waist, regardless of how curved the rest of the body is (or not — it can be used to describe me men too).

So there you have it: literally, the appalling “Kang So-ra! Until when —  fat person as — going to live?!”. But suddenly, as I type this, I have renewed doubts: was Kang So-ra considered fat previously? Even if so, surely she is indeed no longer living as a fat person, in the ad? And so on.

So by all means, I admit I may be completely mistaken, and would welcome any alternative translations and explanations of the text. But either way, I doubt it provides a very body-positive message.

Meanwhile, if it’s true that 통짜 bodies lack the shapely breasts and buttocks of an S-line, then perhaps there’s something to the photo of Uee (유이) above that show’s that there’s actually two concepts of the term? In the diagram, it says that men think it refers to the blue whereas women think it refers to the red, but the results seem pretty mixed at the original post on Facebook.

Which do you think it means?

Korean(?!!) Movie Review #6: Linda Linda Linda (2005)

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Starring (L-R): Aki Maeda (Kyoko), Yu Kashii (Kei), Shiori Sekine (Nozomi), and Bae Doo-na (Son). Written and directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita. In Japanese (and some Korean) with English subtitles. 115 minutes

As a (very) fledgling film reviewer, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to relying on other, more experienced reviewers for guidance sometimes. So, I’m really struggling with why they made so many glaring mistakes about Linda Linda Linda.

Add to that a number of pithy one-liners that there’s actually no evidence for, and especially the willful ignorance displayed in shoehorning coming-of-age narratives into the movie, then I’ll seriously be taking all “expert” movie reviews with a big grain of salt in the future.

Despite what you may read elsewhere then, the movie is about a high school girl band that has just lost its guitarist (Moe) and lead singer (Rinko) to a hand injury and argument respectively, and opens with remaining members Nozomi, Kyoko, and Kei having to decide if they will still perform at the end of the high school festival week in just three days. As you’ve already guessed, they do, choosing to sing the iconic 1987 punk-rock hit Linda Linda (and 2 other songs) by The Blue Hearts.

But keeping Nozomi on bass, Kyoko on drums, and moving Kei from keyboard to guitar, still leaves them short of a vocalist. On a whim, they invite Korean exchange student Son to fill Rinko’s place, despite her occasional difficulties with Japanese.

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Son gets asked 21 minutes into the movie, and the remaining 94 are about the band practicing (spoilers begin) over the next two days and nights, culminating in them performing on the day as planned, albeit much later and wetter than expected. Yes, that’s it. It’s not an underdog story, there’s no hint of fame and success once the performance is over, no big romances, nor are there any jealous rivals. There aren’t even any major dramas or even mild arguments between the four major characters either (spoilers end). Indeed, it’s probably the most minimalist plot you’ll ever encounter, no matter how much of a movie buff you are.

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While fans of director Nobuhiro Yamashita may appreciate this, his previous works likewise featuring “aimless youth with nothing better to do than walk or sit around”, it’s easy to appreciate why others might find it slow and ponderous. One reviewer understandably wrote it off as “incident-free pic [that] will induce sleep” for instance, while another quite plausibly claimed that there were points when he was watching the movie where he “would leave, prepare part of lunch, and return, to find that literally nothing had happened.”

What’s more, the English marketing for it was very misleading, Rob Humanick at Slant mentioning that the press notes for movie suggested “a foreign regurgitation of stale conventions from the American teenage flick,” and that it was “difficult to not expect something of a J-pop remake of Bring It On that substitute[d] an all-girl cover band for sexed-up cheerleaders.” Also, the US trailer suggested something much quicker and more comical than what audiences ultimately got:

In light of all that, I must concede that I’d probably be far less forgiving of the movie’s glacial pace if it was about high school boys rather than girls. But it takes much more than 18 year-old Japanese schoolgirls to get me to like a movie so much, and I’m sure other heterosexual male and lesbian reviewers likewise aren’t so shallow, let alone everyone else. Why, then, does the movie get almost universal praise?

One reason is Bae Doo-na. A long-time fan, I can’t be objective about her myself, so consider Tom Mes’s description of her performance at Midnight Eye instead, which is quite representative of the accolades she has received:

…[a] major factor to the film’s success is the casting of Korean actress Bae Du-Na in the role of Son. Several years older than her teenage co-stars [26 in 2005] and more accustomed to mature roles in the likes of Park Chan-Wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Hyeon Nam-Seob’s Saving My Hubby, Bae easily outshines the rest of the cast.

Or, as G. Allen Johnson of the San Fransisco Chronicle put it:

Not conventionally beautiful, with gamin-like features and a seemingly permanent mope, Bae is the Christina Ricci of South Korea, with a similar ability to inform a simple character with many layers, most notably in the Korean gem Take Care of my Cat. That makes her a perfect fit for the minimalist milieu of director Nobuhiro Yamashita…

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I beg to differ on her not being “conventionally beautiful”: mirroring her acting abilities, a quick Google image search reveals she can be as feminine or as androgynous as her role requires, but let’s not go there. Rather, that “seemingly permanent mope” is a good way to describe Son’s social awkwardness as both an exchange student and — I suspect — a natural geek, and through conveying this so well she ironically makes a far more convincing teenager than her real-life teenage co-stars (although to be fair, their characters didn’t call for it).

With such a focus on her though, it’s surprising that Johnson would write that “Son can barely speak a word of Japanese, let alone sing it”. This is simply not true: while she does sometimes struggle with her words, or needs people to repeat themselves, she never has any real difficulties communicating. Nevertheless, Johnson’s assertion is echoed by virtually every other reviewer, which leaves me wondering if there were some mistakes in translations, and/or if there are other versions out there? Humanick at Slant, for example, mentions that the funniest scene in the movie is when Son attempts “to overcome her language difficulties in a restaurant where only paying customers are allowed to use the restrooms”, something which is strangely lacking in the file I downloaded (which, as always, I’ve watched twice).

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Another potential misunderstanding is that, unless you’re familiar with either Korean or Japanese, it’s not always clear which language Son is speaking (Korean was only indicated by brackets in the version I watched). This becomes relevant (spoilers begin, including image below) when she sings by herself in a karaoke room, revealing her to be much more confident in her native Korean, and especially in a later scene (see here for a video) when Son is approached by long-time secret admirer Yusaka (nickname Makki) to confess his love for her. When you realize that he does so in halting Korean (which even astute reviewers like Didion at Feminéma missed, and Johnson of the San Fransisco Chronicle mistook as poetry), then you can’t help but feel much sorrier for the guy when Son quickly rejects him, especially if you’ve ever had your weeks of unrequited love and wooing preparations dismissed in an instant yourself.

Because of that, I was much less sympathetic to the spin Alyx Veseyputs on Son’s reaction over at Feminist Music Geek:

The rest of the girls look through the window of an abandoned classroom, watching their lead singer choose the band, and her friends, over some guy who happens to like her but that she doesn’t know.

I don’t mean to single out Alyx, who otherwise writes an excellent review. It’s just that it points to the tendency of many other reviewers and commenters to overstress the female homosocial elements of this movie. In the New York Times for instance, Jeannette Catsoulis is so gushing about how “the film’s sweet, slow rhythms bind them together” that you can be forgiven for thinking that they don’t think about boys at all. Admittedly, Catsoulis is clearly pressed for space, but still: the reality is that not only is Son very inquisitive about Kei’s history with Yomoki, her ex, but Kyoko’s attention is just as much on her own crush Kazuya as on her band-mates. And indeed it’s precisely that which the four of them talk about — and bond over — during their last communal meal (spoilers end).

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But don’t get me wrong: I am definitely not saying that the boys in the movie should be given more attention, that it’s in any way about them, or that the movie’s main focus isn’t indeed about high-school girls bonding. After all, that last is the second reason the movie has received such high praise, especially from, naturally enough, women.

This presents an interesting question however, which I’d like to pose to female readers: just how genuine are the situations and the dialogue? I ask because following Jane Austen’s example, who never has two male characters talking alone to each other in any of her novels, I’d be very hesitant to ever do the same with female ones (something to consider with — but not apologize for — male-written and/or directed movies that fail the Bechdel Test). If they ring true though, then male director Yamashita, and crucially also writer, somehow has really hit the spot.

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A related question is raised by Burl Burlingame’s review at Honolulu Star Bulletin, which opens with:

I have a friend who used to play in an all-girls punk band. She said rehearsals took forever because they’d play one song, talk about their feelings for an hour, play one song, talk about their feelings for an hour … which pretty much describes Linda, Linda, Linda, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s slacker success story about girls who form a band for a high-school talent show.

Taken out of context, I would have condemned Burlingame for perpetuating gender stereotypes, but now I’m not so sure. What do any female musicians amongst you make of it?

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Either way, I can understand all the one-liners on grrrl-power bonding then, but can’t overlook the blinders some of the reviewers seemed to have on. Humanick at Slant, for instance, describes the movie as “an emotionally attuned look at adolescent life amid the invisible social structures of high school with an underlying emphasis on gender and cultural barriers to boot, all surprisingly free of manipulation”, but I’m at a complete loss as to what those barriers are myself. Likewise, Catsoulis asserts in the New York Times (yes — she’s an easy target) that “the irritations and tedium of high school life are staged with refreshing simplicity”, whereas in reality these are glaring for their absence, the unregimented nature of their school life greatly puzzling me until I realized that the movie began already well into the school’s festival week.

(Update — I forgot to mention that one minor flaw in the movie is that it would have been unlikely for Son to have bonded so well the other band members in just over two days; starting the movie a couple of weeks earlier, giving a more realistic time-frame for this, would surely have required only minimal plot and technical changes)

It also puzzled Alyx at Feminist Music Geek, who wrote:

I’m also not entirely clear about the nature of Japanese schools. I came through an underfunded, less-than-superlative Texas public school system. Thus, Paran Maum’s school seems like a tony liberal arts magnate where teenagers are given considerable support and resources for their artistic inclinations, thus implying that the students come from respectable middle- to upper-middle-class families. But I’m not sure if this high school is exceptional in Japan….while I initially feel the need to mention the classed dimensions of privilege that allow the girls the fine arts education and leisure time to form a band (instead of, say, take jobs or quit school to support their families), I don’t want to suggest that what I see as an American viewer is in accord with Japan’s classed realities.

Whether this surprising freedom the girls have is the norm or just for the duration of festival week however, that they behave more like they’re in university than high school is crucial for the movie’s last major source of appeal: the ability to project coming-of-age narratives onto it (spoilers begin).

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As I stated in the introduction, I actually think this is quite misguided: the girls (re)form a band, they practice, they perform, the end. Where’s the coming of age drama in that? But I can empathize (spoilers end). Given how free the girls are to do things under their own initiative, to set their own hours, and to come and go between activities as they please, things utterly denied to most Japanese (and Korean) teenagers, it’s difficult not to see them as near-adults. In particular, although Nozomi’s background is woefully underexplored (you know no more about her by the end of the movie than at the beginning), Kei above seems to to have had quite a history with — and lingering feelings for — much older ex Yomoki below, yet stoically accepts that he’ll be moving on to Tokyo (personally, it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized life was like that).

Combine that with being the de facto leader of the group, and things like getting the band, sans permission from parents or teachers, halfway across town to get some extra practice at Yokomi’s studio, then in short she seems much more capable and assured than your average 18 year-old.

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Mention must also be made of ThrownMuse’s comment here (difficult to find on the site; look for the 6 June 2007 entry) that “the movie has a very subtle feminist and punk-rock aesthetic that I don’t think every viewer picks up on”. Which would include me, and, again, it’s annoying that it’s not elaborated on. But perhaps Alyx of Feminist Music Geek fills the gap:

I do find the girls’ fandom of The Blue Hearts, whose songs they cover, to be quite interesting. For one, girls identifying with a fast, hard-rocking all-male rock band, while at no time talking about how cute certain members are, seems to suggest a wider range of possibilities for who can influence a girl. The band even goes so far as to call themselves Paran Maum, which is “blue hearts” in Korean (an indication of Son’s importance to the band). There’s a lot of talk on this blog about the importance of women and girls influencing one another in popular music. However, we shouldn’t short shrift what it means for girls finding their sound and voice through boys and men or ignore the progressive and possibly queer potential in girls identifying with boys. Like Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, and Sleater-Kinney before them, these girls don’t plug in and rock out to be with the band — they are the band and want to thrash just as hard as the boys.

I find any queer potential here a little forced though, both because of the characters’ random choice of the band in the movie and the mundane reason Yamashita chose to use it, as he explained below in a Cinema Strikes Back interview. But I’d be happy to be persuaded otherwise:

CSB: Was Linda Linda Linda always the main song or were there other possibilities you considered?

Nobuhiro Yamashita: Linda Linda Linda is such an iconic song done by the Blue Hearts. Everybody knows it. When you hear the Blue Hearts, it’s the song that first comes to peoples’ minds. It was always the first choice for the main song we were going to use. (With respect to) other songs (in the film), we did have many choices we had to go through.

Finally, no matter how cliched, I’d be lying if didn’t admit that the music didn’t immediately remind of me of some scenes from Kill Bill Volume 1, most notably the 5.6.7.8’s in “The House of Blue Leaves” nightclub:

Even if — ahem — it turns that they don’t actually sing any Japanese songs in the movie, I’m definitely more curious about Japanese rock now (it helps that I’m also heavily into retro-themed Japanese artwork like this too {source}, but which I could obviously never put up on a Korea-related blog). And perhaps you too, for nobody watching can’t help but sing along to Linda Linda by the end of the movie.

And on that note, this music video isn’t from the movie, so don’t worry about spoilers. Sing away!^^

The original Blue Hearts song for comparison:

Korean Movie Review #5: Saving my Hubby (2002)

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Has there ever been an actor you’ve really liked, but couldn’t put your finger on why?

For me, that was Bae Doo-na (배두나), much on my mind since I heard she would be starring in Cloud Atlas. Later, I’d also stumble upon a…let’s say “eye-catching” movie poster of hers from 2003, which I remember constantly distracting me as I looked for jobs around my new home of Busan. And finally this week, when my family and I decided we’d go the 2012 FIVB Volleyball World Grand Prix on Saturday, I suddenly remembered that she’d played a former volleyball star in Saving my Hubby (굳세어라 금순아) too.

It was time to investigate. Just what was it about her that I found so compelling?

To my surprise, I soon realized I hadn’t actually watched many of her movies, including The Host (2006) and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) for which she is best known. I had watched Take Care of my Cat (2001) of course, twice, but in hindsight I probably missed a great deal without subtitles, no matter how good my Korean used to be.

That just left the coming of age movie Plum Blossom (2000) then, probably best known for its numerous sex scenes — not quite the answer I expected or wanted. Still, it is a very affecting movie, with Bae Doo-na’s performance more much memorable for her character’s spunkiness than her frequent nudity. That’d be the image of her I’d bring with me to Saving my Hubby.

And who can blame me with a poster like the opening one above, or trailers like this?

As Wikipedia describes the plot (slightly edited by me):

Former volleyball star Gum-soon (Bae Doo-na) is now a married housewife with a baby daughter. Her husband, Joon-tae (준태, played by Kim Tae-woo {김태우}),* is starting the first day of his new job, when Gum-soon receives word that her in-laws are going to visit the following morning. While she struggles to get their house ready, Joon-tae is taken out for a drink with his new colleagues. Later that evening, while preparing her home for a visit by her in-laws early the next morning, Gum-soon gets a phone call from a nightclub owner who is holding her husband hostage, claiming that he has run up a huge bill and doesn’t have the money to pay for it. Strapping her baby to her back, Gum-soon sets out to rescue her husband.

*Not the former g.o.d. member of the same name, despite what what Wikipedia says!

So you can imagine my surprise and disappointment when, just a couple of minutes into the movie, both Gum-soon and Joon-tae are having tantrums more befitting of preteens than young parents. But then they are young — Gum-soon the character and Bae Doo-na the actor are both clearly in their early-20s, only marrying because of her pregnancy, and this youth and unpreparedness for domestic life is a central theme of the movie (Joon-tae’s age is less clear, while Kim Tae-woo the actor is a youthful-looking 31). A parent at 30 myself, it took some effort not to project that more typical age onto the couple, and to judge them less harshly for their childishness. Especially as adult women constantly behaving like children is a pervasive, grating part of Korean popular culture.

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Ironically though, it’s also precisely some of those childish domestic scenes, which dominate the first 20 minutes, that are among the most endearing parts of the movie. Viewers with Korean partners are likely to find much about the couple’s interactions that warmly resonate with their own relationships (mine is at 18:10 when — squeee!— Gum-soon says “정말?!”).

But don’t get me wrong: this is no romantic comedy. Nor, despite Gum-soon’s heroine role, can it remotely be described as a grrrl-power flick. Rather, once Gum-soon receives that phone-call, it’s all slapstick from there, complete with the mandatory inept gangsters, chasing her for accidentally getting their boss’s suit dirty. All of which you can see for yourself via this alternative trailer, which gives a much more accurate impression of the movie:

For the next half hour or so, the ensuing antics are amusing enough. The movie also really captures Korean nightlife well. In particular, when she can’t find the nightclub her husband is in, her lost wanderings readily evoked my first few months in Korea: when smartphones didn’t exist, and all the bars, clubs, norae-bangs, and 24-hour haejang-gook restaurants of downtown Jinju seemed to blend into one vast neon blur…even though they were just a few blocks in reality.

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Indeed, ultimately it becomes too realistic, for about halfway through the movie the gags suddenly seem to dry up, and we’re left with Gum-soon literally running around in circles as she avoids the gangsters and looks for the nightclub — minus the gangsters, it’s like watching me trying to find my hotel in Insa-dong one drunken early morning last summer. When things do finally pick up again, unfortunately it’s so late in the movie that there’s no time to build up the momentum of laughs that would compensate for the long lull.

That said, it’s still worth seeing (you can watch it online here, with English subtitles) — it has its amusing moments, and others that will likely remind many readers of why they’re with their Korean partners, or at least of their Korean newbie days out on the town. But don’t be fooled by the promotional material into thinking that it’s anything more than that, and I’m certain that there’s much better movies with Bae Doo-na out there.

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Any recommendations? :)

The Korean Media’s War on Women (and Men)

Via 10 Confessions, here is a short but quite rare “expo on the focus of the mass media and internet news sites on superficial looks of the entertainers in the industry, and how this trend needs to change.” Sorry that it’s all in Korean, but 10 Confessions provides a good (English) description of it, and it’s the least I can do to pass on the videos themselves (especially after spending half an hour looking for them!).

To see the segment, jump ahead to 2:30 in the first video. It lasts until 4:10 in the second.

The Korean Ad Industry’s Celebrity Obsession

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See Busan Haps for the full article. It was prompted by Yoo In-na (유인나) and then Kim Sa-rang (김사랑; left) endorsing Gillette razors last year, when suddenly a lot of celebrities seemed to be endorsing products not normally associated with their sex.

Granted, women have been used to sell things to men for as long as advertisements have existed. And as for using Hyun Bin (현빈; right) to advertise a tea-drink that supposedly gives you a “V-line”, that’s just common sense: not only will he appeal to women, but so too might some men be encouraged to think about their own, hitherto exclusively feminine V-lines, thereby creating a whole new market.

But still: I’d wager that there has indeed been a great deal of gender-bending in the Korean advertising industry in the last couple of years. For instance, I’ve definitely never heard of a guy advertising bras before, no matter how dishy I’m assured this one (So Ji-sub; 소지섭) happens to be:

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Was he chosen just because he’s a pretty face? Or was the reasoning much more subtle than that? I can’t say in this case. But I do know that celebrities have a much greater effect on our consumption choices than we all like to think. Please read the article for more on how and why…

For some hints, here is the interview with Fame Junkies author Jake Halpern that I refer to in it. If for some reason that the video below doesn’t immediately take you to it though (it’s at 34:30), then please click here instead:

Finally, if you’ve read this far, then I heartily recommend watching Starsuckers in its entirety. For me, it was especially what the narrator says at 45:45 that sold me on it, and which I encourage you all to refer to the next time someone accuses you of reading too much into anything you see in the media:

p.s. Sorry for sounding so mercenary, but please let me remind everyone that any donations for my writing, however small, are very much appreciated. Unfortunately though, I haven’t actually received any since January 21(!), and I don’t get paid for my Busan Haps articles!^^