Quick Hit: Korean Retro in Paju!


“…[I]n the worldwide retro trend, where is the Korean culture located? Most of the cases, instead of original Korean culture, foreign vintage culture and goods are imported. It is because of the ’70s and ’80s fever for the Westernization then it is hard to find original Korean retro. So you find that only unidentified mixture of retro cultures have mushroomed in Korea without its own color.”

So lamented the Design Journal (디자인저널) back in November 2008. But as it turns out, a veritable treasure-trove of Korean retro has long been available in the Museum of Modern History of Korea (한국 근현대사 박물관) in Paju, just 30km north of Seoul. See here, here, here, and here for some high-definition photos of the exhibits, and here (a PDF) and here for information about the museum in English.

Combined with the Heyri Artist’s Village, and/or the Paju Book City, then you have the makings of a perfect day trip from Seoul, and a very educational and cultured one at that. Any takers?^^

Korean Movie Review #3: Paju (2009)

(Sources: left, right)

I’m not allowed to love this person?

Because you say I can’t, I want it all the more.

With posters like these, then you could be forgiven for thinking that Paju (파주) is about some forbidden, Lolita-like relationship between the 2 main characters. Indeed, add promotional photoshoots of Seo Woo (서우) and Lee Sun-gyun (이선균) necking, or Seo-woo perched expectantly on the side of a bed, then why wouldn’t anyone believe initial media reports that this is basically a tale of an “outrageous high-school student” who, with “a mix of innocent and provocative appeal”, falls in love with her older sister’s husband?

A deep and complex movie that actually features nothing of the sort, Paju (파주) is very much undermined by such prurient marketing, and leads the cynic in me to believe that was designed to counter its otherwise ponderous and depressing tone by titillating audiences. Add that Paju requires: numerous suspensions of disbelief; is often frustratingly vague; and ultimately doesn’t seem to go anywhere, then, despite its accolades, it’s not a movie I can easily recommend to anyone but the most dedicated Korean film buffs.

And yet despite myself, I still agree with reviewer Darcy Paquet that it is “without question, one of the best Korean films of 2009,″ for reasons I didn’t fully appreciate when I first saw it six months ago.

One of those reasons is that, with events unfolding in a sequence not unlike Pulp-Fiction (1994), Paju has a confusing patchwork of flashbacks and flash-forwards that defies recounting here. But while this was very frustrating at first however, the timeline of events does resolve itself in the end, and in the meantime it forces audiences to think for themselves for a change.

Also, although ostensibly about Joong-shik (Lee Sung-gyun), Paju is really about his relationships with three women: first, with Ja-young (played by Kim Bo-kyoung/김보경) eight years earlier, that ends with a harrowing incident involving her baby that sets the tone for the rest of the movie; next in his marriage to Eun-su (played by Shim Yi-young/심이영), whom we soon learn dies in a gas explosion in their shared home; and finally with his much younger sister-in-law Eun-mo (Seo-woo), the relationship which anchors the story. And in particular, these women’s roles (and the skill with which they are acted) are very much one of the strengths of the movie, and something that can be difficult to appreciate for those that aren’t very familiar with Korean cinema (like myself). For, as Elizabeth Kerr of The Hollywood Reporter explains, director Park Chan-ok (박찬옥):

…is able to do something many filmmakers can’t or won’t, and that’s draw a realistic picture of modern femininity that’s blessedly free of the stereotypes that make up movie women. There’s no shrieking or weeping from Eun-mo when she recalls the events that lead to her sister’s death; Eun-su’s reactions within her fragile marriage are empathetic; and Joong-shik’s first live-in lover Ja-young, doesn’t have any ulterior motives when she re-enters his life.


Nevertheless, it is also these relationships – or, rather, Joong-shik’s role in them – that are ultimately the movie’s undoing too. Because, constantly running away from her problems aside, if Eun-mo did indeed both have the hidden strengths and be as mature beyond her years as the movie suggests, then, despite Joong-shik’s fears, (spoilers begin) she would likely have been able to recover from learning that she accidentally caused her sister’s death. But this is moot: in one of Paju’s biggest plot holes, Eun-mo wouldn’t have needed to be told any details beyond the fact that Eun-su died in a gas explosion in their home (only Joong-shik knew how it was caused), and indeed she soon learns that through her own clandestine investigations anyway. Yet by telling her that Eun-su died in a hit-and-run instead, then, rather than protecting her, all it serves to do is lead her to believe that he’s hiding something.

When he professes towards the end that he’s loved her all along then, in fact only marrying Eun-su to be close to her, his apparent deception is the main reason she doesn’t reciprocate (the other, presumably, being how he used Eun-su). And the audience can hardly blame her: not only does his confession seem somewhat forced and awkward, he never expressing anything but platonic love for her previously, but it suddenly diminishes his character, rendering what at one point seemed to be a genuine closeness developing developing between him and Eun-mo into something much more calculated on his part.

But it does at least present us with an interesting enigma: why does he permanently sabotage any chances of them becoming lovers by refusing to tell the truth?


Granted, he doesn’t realize she already knows about the gas explosion. But still, he doesn’t actually ask why she rejects him, which is inexplicable considering how he feels about her. Why not?

One solution, I think, I discovered indirectly, by realizing what so bugged me about an unrelated observation by Darcy Paquet:

In part, it is the film’s willful obscurity that gives it its strength….Personally I liked that the story’s misunderstandings persist through to the end: this is not a film where all characters come around to accept the same interpretation of the events we have witnessed. Because each character carries a different understanding – and no character possesses complete knowledge of what happened – there is a layered complexity to the film’s emotions.

In short, I think this is a fundamental misreading of the obscurity’s purpose. Rather, it’s only really two characters that have different understandings of events, and, like I said, Joong-shik very much possesses enough knowledge to change Eun-mo’s. But he doesn’t because, soon in a jail cell falsely accused of Eun-su’s murder and/or insurance fraud, he readily acquiesces in his incarceration, seeing it as a sort of penance for either the accident with Ja-young’s baby and/or his (oft-stated) insincere social activism. And, in hindsight, this is something he’s been seeking ever since he arrived in the city of Paju, and this gives us a fresh perspective on other alternative motivations for his entering into a loveless marriage with Eun-su too.

Not only is he buoyed by the knowledge that he is protecting Eun-mo from anguish then (a noble sacrifice that reminded me of the ending to The Crying Game {1992}) (spoliers end), but, if you watch the following beautiful scene from Strange Days (1995), which I was very surprised and lucky to find on YouTube, then suddenly what he’s doing really does begin to make sense. Please indulge me for 96 seconds, taking special note of  what Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) says at 1:24:

Unlike Strange Days however, which showed Lenny Nero the ultimate futility of atonement, Paju suggests that therein lies Joong-shik’s salvation. And in that sense, Paju is so much closer to Crime and Punishment (1866) than it is Lolita (1955), and cinema goers in 2009 would have appreciated the movie all the more if its marketing had reflected that.

(For more Korean Movie Reviews, see here)


Korean Gender Reader

E.Via BananaYes, Korean “gender” reader from now on, as despite the name my “feminist reader” posts were really always more on gender and sexuality issues rather than on feminist ones per se, although of course they’re still intimately related and will still get mentioned. I’ve updated the names of all the old posts accordingly.

1) In an advertising tactic that looks set to become a new standard given how popular the recent banning of similar songs and videos made them afterward (see #1 here and #2 here, and apparently the same logic applies to “leftist” books), rookie rapper E.via (이비아) probably deliberately sought controversy with the opening of her song “Oppa, Can I do it?” (오빠! 나 해도 돼?), which – surprise, surprise – begins with heavy breathing and the lines “Oppa…you know…I really want to do it…Can’t I do it once? Oppa…Can I do it?” See allkpop here for more, and here for the song itself (photo source: Diet Life).

2) Abortions in South Korea: Legality, Morality and Public Opinion from Ask The Expat.

3) The ballad singer “U” created a stir with a lesbian kissing scene in an MV teaser for her new song, “Suddenly” (울컥).

4) School violence appears to be on the rise, although Korea Beat notes it may just be institutions are better at ferreting out cases that would previously have gone undiscovered. See Brian in Jeollanam-do also for a legal case where a student hitting a teacher in retaliation for corporeal punishment was ruled as not being legitimate self-defense.

5) Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling discusses the a Korean groups’ attempts to link foreign teachers with AIDS, and despite all the evidence against this, their efforts are having impacts on Korean legislators.

In related news, an English guide (possibly satirical) on how to pick up Korean women is generating complaints in Korea, as is another website devoted to that purpose, but regular revealing and/or “upskirt” pictures of underage girls in the Korean media strangely get much less attention, as do naked news presenters (see here also).

6) A good look at the nightmare that is trying to find quality, affordable childcare in Tokyo, with obvious parallels to Korea. See here also for how Korean kindergarten teachers are underpaid and overworked. In fairness though, my own 3 year-old daughter goes to a very nice and affordable kindergarten (and our family makes much less money than your average Korean middle-class ones!), so they are out there.

Paju Movie Poster Seo Woo

7) Although the movie itself isn’t set to come out until Autumn, with its Lolita-themed storyline and especially the poster with actress Seo-woo (서우) above (source), then Paju (파주) is already getting a lot of attention: the orange text, for instance, says “If (you) say (I) can’t, then (I) want to do (it) all the more.” See DramaBeans here for a synopsis (actually, it sounds quite interesting).

Update: Come to think of it, Seo-woo’s passive look in the poster and the assertive, risqué text give completely opposite impressions of her character in the movie. I wonder why? From what I’ve read at DramaBeans though, the latter is the more accurate.

8) Chris in South Korea visited Haesindang Park (해신당 공원) in Gangwon-do, which is apparently full of penises.

9) An Acorn in the Dog’s Food provides a harrowing tale of a mother suffering from depression who killed her son and tried to make it look like suicide, and only by chance was unable to kill her daughter also.

10) Chinese Chic provides a good quick summary of queer cinema and the state of LGBT rights in various Northast-Asian countries.

Daniel Henney Abs11) PopSeoul! and allkpop discuss the case of newbie actor Lee Si-young, who was dropped from an upcoming drama for falling in love and making public her relationship with fellow actor Junjin. This will have a big negative impact on her fledgling career (she is already said to have lost some advertising deals as a result), but, lest this be taken as indicative of Korean management companies slave-like contracts with their stars  (see #6 here) and Korean companies’ strange stipulations about the reputations of stars modeling for them (ie, if you get beaten up by your husband then be sure to hide it from the public), the decision was made solely by screenwriter Im Sung-han (임성한), apparently notorious for that sort of thing.

12) Korea Beat discusses discriminatory Korean textbooks. Meanwhile, Miss Korea feels the pain of interracial Korean families, and the government plans to tighten the rules on foreign spouses of Koreans getting citizenship (see here also).

13) As allkpop discusses here, recent advertisements featuring Lee Hyori are creating jams in Korean subway stations (apparently not here though!).

14) Good on actress Kim Bu-seon (김부선) for standing up for the legalization of marijuana in Korea and drawing attention to the Korean public’s often bizarre attitudes towards it (considering that 46% of Korean men and 9% of women are considered binge drinkers, then you may be surprised at Koreans’ rather dogmatic attitudes to other drugs). See Michael Hurt at Scribblings of the Metropolitician for a wider discussion of those.

15) Finally, as Omana They Didn’t! tests your knowledge of Korea’s best abs here (helpful example above), it behooves me to present my candidate for the best female version below. And in related news, some form of contest for former Men’s Health Korea magazine cover models will take place at the ‘4th Men’s Health Cool Guy Contest’ on July 2, 2009 at the Grand Hilton Convention Center. See here and here for the details.