Book, cinema and media studies, Essay, Fiction, Film, philosophy

When the Movie is Better Than the Book: Drive My Car and I’m Thinking of Ending Things

A week before my 35th birthday, I kept having a recurring dream involving cars and me losing something significant to me. I was sitting in the back seat of a boxy old red car, being driven by someone I did not know. I pulled out my keys, cellphone and wallet, and placed them on the seat of the car, which had stopped on the freeway. I stepped out of the car, then the car just drove away, joining the myriad of other cars. I started to panic because everything that was important to me was in that car and now lost. I knew where to go though. I went to the airport because, for some reason, I knew that the car would be at the airport. When I got there, however, the airport parking lot had hundreds if not thousands of other cars parked and I could not fathom ever locating this boxy old red car to recover my belongings. Nevertheless, I felt determined to find it, and I began my search. Then the dream ended. I dreamt a similar dream a few days later in a slightly different iteration.

Then one late Saturday night, I felt determined to go and see Drive My Car by Ryusuke Hamaguchi—a film based on a Haruki Murakami short story called “Drive My Car” found in a short story collection called Men Without Women. I stopped reading Murakami books shortly after graduating college over ten years ago. There are many authors whose works I’ve stopped reading after college and it’s generally because I exhausted myself of their works by reading almost everything they’d ever written while I was in school. I read pretty much everything that Murakami published up until 2009, and I did the same with Vonnegut and Bukowski by 2010. Today, when I try to read works by these authors, I find myself losing interest almost immediately from the first paragraph in. It’s because I’ve lost interest in these authors. Even if they write anything new, it wouldn’t feel all that different to me because I feel as though I know their voice at this point, and it wouldn’t matter that they had anything new to say. It would be said in the same way. It’s like watching a Hong Sang-soo film. It’s the same film pretty much every single time. Even if I don’t see it, I know what I’m getting. And the window to access their worlds is now completely shut for me. This is not a sad thing. It’s just a shut window. I have other opened windows where my reading attention is now fully dedicated to.

That Saturday—February 19th—I was quite determined to locate a lamp. I had been eyeing this multi-headed, brass floor lamp from Target for a year now. My floor lamp had stopped working the night before, and I threw it out without any attachment because my heart was now set on this new lamp that I finally had a reason to purchase. I went to my go-to Target on Sepulveda, but they were sold out. I went to another Target in North Hollywood. They were also sold out. A staff member told me that the Target in Van Nuys—a location I was not even aware of despite it being the closest to where I’ve lived these last three years—had just one left in stock. When I went to that location, the one that they had in stock was the floor sample, and it was too big for me to fit in my car, so I left it behind. Instead, I purchased a way smaller lamp to tide me over till I could locate a floor lamp that satisfies me. Then I drove to Burbank to catch the last showing of Drive My Car.

My decision to see this film at such a late hour was very last minute but it came with some culmination. I had been thinking about seeing the film for a couple of weeks but I knew nothing about it. I only knew that there was a lot of Oscar buzz around it, and that it was based on fiction written by Murakami. While I do not choose to read Murakami, I am interested in seeing a filmic interpretation of his works since he is not the one delivering it. Perhaps this is a new way for me to access the authors I’d loved reading many years ago when I was a completely different person.

At the opening scenes, I was a bit shocked because the old boxy red car I’d seen in my dream was exactly what was on the screen. There’s an old red Saab in the film which I guess you could say is partially the film’s protagonist. It’s the subject of the film and the short story. The car. And one of the places that the car drives to is the airport. These are familiar coincidences for me. I’ve had precognitive dreams before, but this is the first time I’ve consciously witnessed a fusion between a film I’ve never seen before melding with my subconscious.

I was incredibly moved by this film. It’s a daring movie. Runtime is almost 3 hours. That’s bold. Even though I’m a film scholar, I hardly have the patience to sit through films longer than 90 minutes. If it’s longer than 90 minutes, it had better be a work of art. Drive My Car is a work of art. It is masterful and full of complex feeling. After seeing this movie, I immediately put Murakami’s book on hold at the library, and I finished reading the short story “Drive My Car” this morning. The fiction is far less interesting than the film, and Hamaguchi’s adaptation of it for the screen is a completely different and massive animal.

Hamaguchi developed whole new characters with whole new lives and entirely new circumstances for his film. Murakami’s short story is a very lightly etched sketch where the graphite meets the paper with the least amount of force. Hamaguchi’s script is an oil pastel drawing that covers every blank space of the page. Then let that oil pastel drawing sit over a hot plate. Watch the movements of the colors blend, meld and animate on the page’s surface. Then watch the waxy liquid rise and become full bodies with full movements. That is Hamaguchi’s film. The film version of Drive My Car has far more life, thought, question, and feeling than Murakami’s short story. The characters who resonated quite deeply with me are Yoo-na and Misaki. Yoo-na is not in the short story but she is the tender heart of the film. Weirdly, Hamaguchi’s film feels very much like a Murakami short story. The concept of Oto narrating stories in a trance-like state while having sex with her husband and her lovers feels Murakami-esque. The scene with Yoo-na leaving an impression on Kafuku with her sign language delivery in the audition feels Murakami-esque. When Yoo-na is later revealed to be Yoon-soo’s wife who was once a dancer but suffered an abortion which subsequently caused her to quit dancing and find acting feels Murakami-esque. And yet none of these details are in Murakami’s short story. They are all from Hamaguchi’s mind. Perhaps this is what makes a masterful adaptation–to adapt one’s stories into the voice of the author whose work one’s work is based on.

Part of the reason why I stopped reading Murakami is precisely this preoccupation with female bodies and sexuality as oracles into a man’s deeper understanding or knowledge of himself. I see this time and time again in Murakami’s books and stories, and by the time I was 22, I had had quite enough of it. It felt, to me, elementary and a bit exploitative. I wrote a whole essay on the topic which Thought Catalog published. While this hang-up on a woman’s sexuality as being mysterious is present in Hamaguchi’s film, it did not feel abusive. I guess because the stories that Oto narrates felt so allegorical, and serve such a concrete purpose in the film—a concreteness that Murakami’s stories tend to lack. Hamaguchi also melded Chekov’s play Uncle Vanya into his script in such a nuanced and fine-tuned way, more deeply reflecting the souls of each of his own script’s characters, that I was left impressed by his craftsmanship as a screenwriter. Hamaguchi’s film showcases how humanity reveals itself with great might in scenarios where it is grossly absent like when Oto dies and Kafuku develops a relationship with Takatsuki. Or how Misaki’s driving is perfectly smooth because she chauffeured her physically abusive mother around since she was in middle school. How Takatsuki’s acting gains human understanding and substance only after taking away a man’s life. How the theater company remains softly and coldly resolved to replace Takatsuki and go on with the show mere minutes after Takatsuki’s arrest and confinement, which finally draws out a human response from Kafuku who’d remained deadened to human emotions after the death of his daughter and wife.

The scene when Kafuku embraces Misaki and delivers lines of support that reverberate from Chekov’s play is cinematically and theatrically moving. Seeing Misaki play with the Korean couple’s dog as a way to express joy at Kafuku’s compliment of her driving and later seeing her with a dog of her own in Korea while driving Kafuku’s car brings such subtle yet lasting joy, like a distinct flavor in a soup that I can conjure time and time again years after I’ve had the soup but never being able to name what ingredient it was and never wishing to know.

 In the mainstream, critics and audiences frequently say that movies are never as good as the books but Drive My Car is an instance where the film outshines the story. It’s like comparing a star to a candlelight.

I’ve recently had another experience where the film broke all expectations for me compared to the book it is based on and that is I’m Thinking of Ending Things.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a 2020 movie written and directed by Charlie Kaufman that is on Netflix. It came out in 2020—the same year that the world came to a full stop and I had all the time and mental capacity to rewatch the same movie over and over again trying to gain footing in it. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a challenging film but not without brilliance. It’s like trying to read a difficult book. It’s comparable to reading Kaufman’s novel Antkind which came out the same year that his film was released. I’ve been reading Antkind for four months now, and I’ve only now past the midway section. It is a difficult book but also hilarious. It’s Kaufman-esque in the way that I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a difficult film. But I love this film for so many reasons, and after I first saw it, I rewatched it again almost immediately and a couple times more thereafter. Each time I watch it, I can see it with new eyes.

The film follows a woman played by the wonderful Jessie Buckley visiting her boyfriend’s parents’ house in a snowy wintery night, and that’s pretty much the whole movie. But it has so much strangeness and heavy beauty throughout. It’s hard to tell whose mental breakdown we are following because everybody appears to be having a mental breakdown. There is also a mysterious elderly male janitor spliced in there who we follow without being able to connect why we follow him. The film has a poetry recitation, a school musical, and a dance number. They all do the work of making the story more than what it is—a movie.

When I first saw Adaptation, I was 17. I didn’t know how the film was going to unfold but I was engrossed in it. My classmates started to yell in agony when they saw that Charlie Kaufman had a twin brother Donald Kaufman, and they said, “This had better not be a movie about a guy imagining his own twin brother.” The film is and is not about that very thing, and being that ambiguous is what makes Adaptation a brilliant film. Kaufman is an expert at using hackneyed concepts in his film yet skirting the hack part of it by making it completely and unpredictably new. That’s the service of the poem, the musical number and the dancing in I’m Thinking of Ending Things the film. I read the novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid which the film is based on and the book is far less luminous precisely because the ending reveals this lackluster hackneyed concept so brazenly. Yes. We’ve been reading a single man’s mental breakdown and ultimate suicide all this time. How jejune. But we never come to this conclusion or realization in Kaufman’s film version. No sure nail to the head is necessary. It is never ever necessary if it means the life of a far greater story and its characters. Kaufman’s film does hint at this conclusive possibility all throughout but it could be from anyone’s position—the boyfriend’s, the girlfriend’s, the old man’s, the father’s or the mother’s. Even the pig’s. Even the anxious teenaged employee at the ice cream shop. It doesn’t matter because the film is not about coming to a conclusive resolution. It’s an attempt at maintaining the film’s life, letting that resound and reverberate as questions, possibilities, frustration, sadness, joy, madness, or whatever else and holding it for as long as possible. That resonation continues to ring long after the film ends. It still rings. In that sense, Kaufman’s style is expertly Modern.

I think this is what makes a film so different from a written story. I’m both a writer and a filmmaker, and I sense their vast differences whenever I work on a new project. When I write, I write with such freedom, and the worlding that I produce feels like a privilege. When I make a film, it feels far more difficult to create the worlding because the pieces are so many and it takes an enormous amount of energy to maintain that world in the mind upon creation, but I enjoy it nonetheless because the end result is a true visual manifestation of what I held in my mind and so much more which everyone can see with their eyes and hear with their ears, grounding viewers into a singular collective experience which splinter off into various subjective opinions and emphases. When making a film, though, the writing is what takes place first. The script, yes, but also the artist’s statement, and the synopsis and the logline. The emails. The pitch. The convincing to get the capital. The words come first. The visuals last. Then after the visuals, the words return again, like it does here.

The difference is that the words can be transformed into the most unpredictable outcomes in a film whereas in a story, the words remain as those words, and the worlding that takes place in the reader’s mind is their own private ritual. This is also what makes reading a special activity. In the case with Drive My Car and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, I felt that the worlds that these filmmakers created for me as the reader of these stories far surpasses anything I envisioned in my mind, and for that I feel a big chunk of gratitude this very moment.

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Film, Literature, Novel, philosophy

what’s in a title?–ARRIVAL (2016) and CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017)

since i have a phd in film and tv studies, i guess i’ll leave a couple drops of knowledge (they’re mostly just thoughts) on these two films–Arrival and Call Me By Your Name. my thoughts are unrelated but they could be related if one thinks on it long enough.

it’s really about the titles of these two films.

why is Arrival called “arrival”? the film was actually a short story entitled, “The Story of Your Life,” written by Asian American author named Ted Chiang who writes sci-fi. it was adapted into a screenplay by Eric Heisserer who wrote Birdbox.

Arrival is about a linguist named Louise Banks who gets hired by the US military to figure out what the aliens who arrived on earth want to communicate and for what purpose. the aliens tell Banks that she has the gift of being able to know the future. this is what made the movie so wonderful for me: time is utilized as language. i find this idea quite marvelous and beautiful.

ok–so the title then is not just about the arrival of aliens. it’s about Banks arriving to the future flashes she’s seen or “remembered.” “recall” and “memory” are no longer the past for Banks; they are also the future. thus, Banks is arriving. the film is about Banks’s arrival to her present/future self and her ideations, understandings, catharsis, realizations, etc.

the film Call Me By Your Name is also based on a work of fiction written by Italian fiction writer André Aciman. it was adapted for the screen by James Ivory who has experience adapting literary works; Ivory directed A Room with a View (1985).

well, why did, in fact, Oliver suggest to Elio that he call him by his name and vice versa? what is the point of calling one’s lover by one’s own name?

the ending of the film is a static long take of Elio sitting by the fire staring into it for an extended period of time right after getting off the phone with Oliver. Oliver and Elio both called each other by each other’s names over the phone, just as they had when they first became physically intimate as lovers. after Elio hangs up, he sits by the fire, gazing at it, appearing to be either deep in thought or no thought at all.

and nothing is happening. nothing is being said. we just see Elio gazing into the fire.

suddenly, his mother calls out to him: “Elio.”

then Elio looks up from the fire and breaks the fourth wall.

eureka!

the meaning of the film’s title comes to us full force: because Elio called Oliver by his own name, “Elio,” whenever Elio hears his own name, he will think of Oliver.

and the fourth wall breakage is Luca Guadagnino’s way of asking the audience: “get it?”

this was a brilliant directional choice by Guadagnino. it is subtle yet impactful, hidden yet obvious, and an easter egg only for the ones in the know.

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Book, cinema and media studies, Fiction, Film, ideology, Novel, Short Story

Meditations on Tony Takitani, The Great Gatsby, and Tears in the Presence of Materiality

I read Haruki Murakmai’s short story “Tony Takitani” in his collection of short stories Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman when I was in college.

A couple years after I graduated college, I stopped reading Murakami’s works altogether because I found his depiction of women too painful. I could say “problematic” here but I’ll just go with my feeling rather than social commentary. It’s really a personal decision. I’m still not fond of any literary, filmic, or televisual works that use women’s bodies and psyche as playgrounds for male fantasies.

In my in-between stage between college and “the world,” I was living in Seoul. A childhood friend of mine asked me out to a movie at an art house cinema located in a basement somewhere. I remember seeing the poster for the film The Vegetarian, which is a film based on the book that won the Man Booker Prize for Han Kang a few years ago. The film was out way before Han Kang gained international recognition for her book.

There was just one film playing at this art house cinema, and it was Tony Takitani—Jun Ichikawa’s adaptation of Murakami’s short story.

Ichikawa had just passed away a year prior to when I saw this film at this theater. The theater didn’t have theater seating. They were just a couple of chairs. My friend and I were the only audience members. The film played on a projection screen. The theater wasn’t even really a theater. It was more of a small art gallery space. The room we were in was about the size of a small studio apartment.

I recall liking the film very much. I found the aesthetics of the film very pleasing. I liked the soundtrack, too, which was by Ryuichi Sakamoto. The choices that Ichikawa made for the film like letting the voiceover narration transmute into the actor’s line-delivery to blur diagetic and non-diegetic narration, and the staging for each shot were so lovely. They stimulated artistic pleasure for me. The friend I went to see this film with—also an artist, and now a creative director at a luxury sunglasses company—also commented on these stylistic and directional choices.

As soon as the film ended, another film began to play. It was a documentary on the making of Tony Takitani. I learned that all of the sets were created in an isolated urban space outdoors so that Ichikawa could make use of the city lights glimmering or blinking in the backdrop. This adds a great deal of mood to each scene in the film, and a sophisticated aesthetic to the picture that matches the high-end luxury clothes that Eiko was obsessed with.

Tony Takitani is about a man born to a jazz musician—trombone player—who was nearly killed as a POW during WWII. Tony was named after an American soldier that his father had met. Tony’s mother died 3 days after his birth. Tony became an illustrator, but his works were often critiqued for lacking a human touch or warmth. Tony is a loner. He is used to being alone all the time. He is so alone that he doesn’t even register his own loneliness. He meets a younger woman named Eiko, falls in love, and proposes. She rejects him initially but he explains how he feels—that he might not be able to live with his loneliness without her. She marries him, and their married life is blissful, but Tony eventually takes note of Eiko’s shopping addiction. She cannot stop. Eiko one day dies in a car accident. Tony is back to being alone again. He cannot withstand the isolation so he hires a woman who has the exact measurements as his late wife, and asks her to wear his wife’s clothes whenever she comes to do housework as a uniform.

There’s a scene in the film when this hired woman goes into the room where all of Eiko’s clothes are. She looks at them and breaks down into tears saying she’s never seen so many beautiful clothes all at once.

This scene reminds me of the scene in The Great Gatsby—both the Jack Clayton version and Baz Luhrmann version, and of course, the line in the original book by F. Scott Fitzgerald when Jay starts throwing his shirts into the air overwhelming Daisy who starts crying, saying she’s never seen such beautiful shirts before.

This made me wonder—what is it with men imagining women crying at the sight of clothes? Is it like men celebrating themselves when a woman cries during sex thinking that she came, and crediting himself?

I’ll say that both filmic interpretations of The Great Gatsby and Tony Takitani were all directed by men. Both the novel and the short story were written by men.

Do men think women cry when they shop? Do men think that women are crazed by clothing? Do men really think that women fill their “emptiness” with clothes and accessories?

In Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, she calls out the patriarch’s hypocrisy when they criticize women for being materially occupied. Woolf points to parishioners and priests–men–who wear ornate garments in the church—gown, hat and all—to impress who? god? Is god a materially-occupied being? According to that logic, god really is a woman….

In the modern era, women’s material occupation was shaped and constructed especially after WWII in America and moralized. The woman’s place was the home—back in the domestic sphere. Forget about the fact that she worked while the men were gone. She ought to do nothing but sit at home and purchase what radio, television and magazines tell her to purchase, and she ought to be the most right and responsible household manager, and the only way to do that is to buy the best stuff on the market for if she did not, she would be letting down her entire family, and there is no greater shame than that.

And who were the people in charge of these material goods at ad agencies and corporations? We’ve all seen the show Mad Men, so we know who they were.

But I think Tony Takitani and The Great Gatsby also point to the male protagonists’ sense of emptiness without a female presence in their lives, too. So for these men, they need to fill their emptiness with another person—a person who is not right for them or good for them. They feel that they can do this because the woman they admire is beautiful, and knows how to doll herself up through beautiful materials such as clothes, accessories, shoes, etc.

So these works are pointing to the cycle of material despair, and how none of us can fill this void with any noun—a person or thing.

I was thinking about Jay Gatsby, and wondering why the title of that book calls him “great.”

Jay Gatsby is far from “great,” really. He’s a liar and a crook, but most of all, a stalker. Wait, what? He saved clippings of Daisy for 5 years? He kept throwing huge lavish parties hoping she’d show up? He told people that he went to Oxford and inherited his wealth from his family before they died when those things aren’t exactly true? He says he’s a business man when he’s actually running business from the underground?

I just feel like the word “great” here is used in a confused way. Jay Gatsby isn’t that different from the characters that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book appears to be critiquing (at least in high school standards); if people like Daisy, Tom, George, and Myrtle appear immoral because of their life choices, Gatsby is just as easy to judge. But Nick regards all of them as victims of desire, then the playing field is level. They are all lost souls trapped in longing and wanting. “Desire leads to suffering.”

I question Nick’s character, too, because he sees only Gatsby as the victim in all of this. Gatsby was a nut. He was out of his wack and obsessed with a married woman. There’s nothing great about him. Fitzgerald was right to punish him. I question Fitzgerald in letting Tom and Daisy off scott-free though. Perhaps this where the expression “scott-free” comes from. From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s questionable plot choices where the poor and destitute are punished for being poor and destitute, and the lives of the rich remain uninterrupted no matter what immoral act they commit.

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asian american, cinema and media studies, Film, ideology, korea, korean drama, korean film

how to not be microaggressive at an academic conference

i attended an academic conference virtually to present a paper on The Wailing by Na Hong-jin and how the film is an extension of anthropologist Heonik Kwon’s concept of “decomposition” in reconsidering the “ends” of the “cold war” through the metaphor of zombies, and processing national traumas around massacres and mass rape during the Korean War

when the floor was opened up for questions, initially, nobody had anything to ask me. this is often the case whenever i present at any non-Korean studies related academic conferences where the majority of attendees are white academics discussing Western-centric texts. when there are no questions, i usually wonder if anyone was even listening–if they regard my work as completely irrelevant to their work and therefore is not worth listening to.

as if my work is not related to American empire—a concept that is familiar to all, and affects us all, and is highly present in my work, and yet no one seems to recognize it as a real thing.

after presenting, when someone finally did ask a question, it came from a white male scholar who was hosting the panel, and he asked me if i’d seen the film Seoul Station.

i laughed internally because so many white male cinephiles ask me if i’d seen Seoul Station as some kind of test, like, “did you see this obscure animated film because i sure did and let me tell you something you don’t know!”

he wasn’t really asking a question but rather telling me that he’d seen that Korean film and if what he’d seen has anything to do with my work. how is that a question? what have i been arguing this whole time? what was my paper about? does he even know?

Seoul Station is not made by the same filmmaker I am dealing with. the way that Yeon Sang-ho handles zombies as a metaphor to critique capitalist urbanism is completely different from how Na Hong-jin utilizes zombies to convey the chaotic confusion and disturbance of post-Korean war trauma.

then another male scholar tells me that he’s seen Kingdom and asks me if the “Korean zombie” is one that always hates the Japanese.

again, a completely different text—in fact, not even a film because it’s a serialized show on Netflix—and written by TV screenwriter Kim Eun-hee. Kingdom is not even set during the same era as The Wailing. it’s set in pre-modern Korea whereas my text is about modern Korea.

this person was asking me about Kingdom, again, to convey that he’d seen some Korean thing related to zombies, and wanting me to connect the dots for him when in fact there are no dots to connect.

the notion of “Korean zombie” is not even real. how each auteur utilizes the zombie in their text for a specific purpose varies greatly per text but these guys were just conflating all Korean media as one thing and streamlining them into the “Zombie” category as if a single national identification exists.

it doesn’t.

in Kingdom, the zombie is used to critique government neglect of the welfare of citizens, and classism issues. Seoul Station is a critique of capitalist ideology and its entwinement with local patriarchy and urbanization. The Wailing, as I said, is about necropolitics and decomposition.

each text varies greatly in their use and expression of the zombie. but these people wanted me to give them an easy explanation of “the Korean zombie” as if it’s a thing, and wanted only to tell me what they’d seen that happened to be Korean and happened to be about zombies.

none of their questions had anything to do with my paper or my argument. so what was the point of me sharing 20 minutes of this conference presentation? what was the point of me working on slides and condensing my paper down to a powerpoint presentation when nobody was going to give two shits but only talk about themselves and their knowledge?

these conference organizers always talk about diversifying their presentations and being more inclusive as an afterthought, but they have no tools or any clue as to how to be diverse and inclusive. the way to do it is to actually LISTEN. to actually HEAR what the argument is, and come up with a question or a comment that benefits the presenter when they go back to revise their paper based on NOTES given at the conference.

this is something i always set out to do when i attend panels, conferences and workshops, but the evident lack of interest and attention to my work makes me really question my belonging to these kinds of spaces. that is microaggression. dismissal of a paper before they even hear it out because it’s related to a non-Western country is xenophobic and racist.

so for those of you attending a conference next time, pay attention to the works that discuss issues of the “global south” and empire. pay attention to what’s being discussed on colonization, war trauma, and massacres. really listen to the argument that is being made, and ask questions that relate to that person’s paper and might help them expand on their thoughts rather than stifle their ideas because now they’re clouded by cynicism and pessimism based on the rather aggressive whiteness and maleness of such a space.

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cinema and media studies, Film, korea, korean drama, queer studies, TV

Queer Korean Television Studies

My most recent work on Korean television and queer studies is now available in the latest issue of Jump Cut!

Thank you for reading.

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cinema and media studies, Film, korea

meditations on Minari (2020) by Lee Issac Chung

[spoiler alert]

My first encounter with a Lee Issac Chung movie was in Busan at the Busan International Film Festival. I was aware of Chung as a filmmaker because I’d worked in film exhibition, distribution and production back in New York and pretty much any Korean American or Korean filmmaker was a part of our awareness or community.

I was at BIFF 2012 in the capacity of a buyer working for a New York film distributer at the time, and the Chung flick I saw was Abigail Harm (2012) starring Amanda Plummer who you’ve seen perform brilliantly in films like Pulp Fiction (1994) and The Fisher King (1991). I was excited to see a Korean American film director’s interpretation of the Korean folktale I’d read as a child–선녀와 나무꾼 or “The Woodcutter and the Nymph.” But it was too daffy of a flick. It felt imbalanced and a bit too experimental and weird for distribution even at a niche/boutique company like the one I was working for at the time. I wanted to like it.

I’ve been aware of Minari for about a year now after reading about it in the trades but when the film started its early release screenings I was hesitant to see it. Part of this has to do with a short clip I saw–the scene of the Yi family at their all-white church in Arkansas. It felt traumatic. Too close to home. I could feel the weight of emotions and mind state of every single Korean character in that short clip.

I finally mustered up the courage to screen it today through UCI’s Korean studies screening event, and I’m glad I saw it. The first thing that left an impression on me is the music. The young composer Emile Mosseri scored Chung’s film with such dreaminess, a moving quietness and sensitivity. Mosseri also scored Miranda July’s latest film Kajillionaire (2020).

The casting was also brilliant. I’ve been following Han Yeri’s performances since 2011 when I saw her in Korean indie films like 다시 태어나고 싶어요, 안양에 (2011) and the indie web-series sit-com 할 수 있는 자가 구하라 (2011) by Yoon Sung-ho. Han played a character with 2 personalities in Yoon’s web-series.

Han’s played diverse roles over the years. You’ve seen her in TV shows (K-Dramas) like Six Flying Dragons and Hello, My Twenties! She’s a versatile actress with great composure and control. I love her work.

Another brilliant casting choice is veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung. She was like a breath of fresh air carrying the family through stuffy and difficult moments. If you want to see Ms. Youn perform in English, check out Hong Sang-soo’s film In Another Country where she’s featured alongside another veteran actress Isabelle Huppert.

Youn’s role as Grandma in Minari got me thinking about all Korean grandmothers’ transgressiveness; how their laxness relative to their children when it comes to the grandchildren breaks open new worlds for the family. Much like how she strays the path to plant minari seeds by the creek where others avoid because of snakes. Much like how she encourages little David to be more active despite his mother’s worries. Much like how she burns down the shed. There is a wisdom to a grandmother’s recklessness. In fact, it’s not at all recklessness. It’s all wisdom.

The film’s editing felt philosophical. The cuts from one scene to the next had seamless transitions and very clearly and directly communicated the filmmaker’s voice (edited by Harry Yoon).

Part of the reason why I said that the film felt traumatic is because of its deep familiarity for me as a Korean emigre and Korean American who’s assimilated over the years (still assimilating/still resisting). The success of Minari is how well the characters collate. I, too, grew up with a younger brother and a mother and father. We moved around often since we landed in Brooklyn from Busan. Went to Jersey for a few years then to Rockland County, New York where we had to adjust to an all-white community.

Watching Jacob (Steve Yeun) get in touch with the earth and wanting to pursue farm work is another familiar thing I grew up with. Many Koreans have seen this, in fact, and it’s hard not to considering the agrarian country that Korea is. Most folks from the countryside in Korea know what farming is.

My parents had gardens all throughout the years we spent in America. Even in Brooklyn, I recall my parents forcing their way through the locked gate next to our apartment building and growing perilla. In Jersey, they tilled soil in our backyard and grew everything from red leaf lettuce to tomatoes to red peppers to cucumbers, and we ate what we picked all summer long.

They did the same when we moved to Rockland County.

I was particularly struck by the church scene when the white kids ask Anne and David insensitive questions but with open sincerity and earnestness. It was handled with such realism. That’s usually how those moments are. No one’s really mad in the moment or wishing to offend in the moment. It’s just a moment. The categorizing and emotional response to said categorization come way later when we are adults and looking back.

There were so many shots that struck me as messages from one Korean American to another Korean American. The shot of the wedding photograph, for instance, felt especially authentic–the unsmiling dad. The angry dad. The dad with his ego and dignity. His 자존심 (read arrogance). The scene of the parents screaming/fighting was also very familiar. The young immigrant parents with two young kids in tow, feeling worn out. Feeling hopeless but wanting to survive. Wanting to live a happy life. But feeling trapped. Feeling lost.

The shot of the television screen with Korean singers singing 사랑해 (I Love You) was another philosophical moment. In the early post-Korean War years, there were so many photographs of Korean war orphans or Korean war brides watching television as part of their assimilation process–to make them familiar or palatable for white Americans. But here I saw something quite different–the television as a way back home.

This is a constant for me. Whenever I watch Korean TV, it is me finding my way back home–and not even back. More like catching up. I’m staying apprised of what’s going on in Korea (I am still assimilating/still resisting). This gives me another way to consider TV. It’s a tubed screen that takes immigrants back to their homeland, back to the emotional place they completely left behind and forgot. This is why when Grandma tells the kids that their parents sang this song while staring into each other’s eyes with ga-ga eyes, Monica replies that she can’t remember. The hardship of living abroad has brought a fog over her mind and heart.

Whenever Jacob told David to go get the hwechori it brought back memories of my own beatings. There’s a hilarious pathos to the way that Korean parents forced their kids to go and find the weapon they were going to use in order to beat them with. I loved it when David brought back a lame weed in place of an actual stick for his father to beat him with.

The scene when Grandma pulls out gochugaru and myulchi which brings tears to Monica’s eyes brought tears to mine as well. To this day, my own grandmother sends gochugaru to my mother. Whenever I visit my grandmother back at her farm, she packs me a bottle of cham gireum and a jar of gochu jang.

There’s a big love story in Minari. While Monica lacks confidence in Jacob’s attempts at farming, and on the surface, they both believe that it is all about him and his ego, another way to see it is Jacob wanting to bring a taste of home into his own home for his wife who misses these flavors by insisting on raising Korean crops.

It’s interesting how even though the Yi family left Korea to live in America, they are always seeking Korea in food and in television–a way to be Korean or be in Korea. (Still assimilating/still resisting.)

Maybe mukbang is really an amalgamation of Korean immigrants’ desire for home: watch the food you miss on a screen. Watch it on TV.

I recall seeing Steven Yeun in a mukbang video alongside Sandara Park and Park Hyuk-kwon years ago.

I found Minari to be a deeply meditative experience. It’s an exemplary Korean American movie, and an extremely unique one.

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aapi, asian american, cinema and media studies, comedy, Film, korea, korean drama, Korean-American, TV

a new video for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM)

in honor of the late Korean American comedian Johnny Yune, I made a “drunk history” video (an homage to Derek Waters’ Drunk History).

enjoy.

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Fiction, Film, ideology, korea, korean drama, TV

MR SUNSHINE (tvN, Netflix 2018) and Product Placement of 21st Century Brands in late 19th Century Choson/Korea

(Please visit K-Drama School podcast for all my hot-takes on K-dramas.)

All Korean dramas rely on product placement. The concept of product placement, or PPL as they abbreviate in Korea, isn’t new, and of course, it doesn’t originate in Korea. Embedded marketing in media can be traced back to as early as the late 19th century starting with novels. In terms of visual media, the US (surprise surprise) included cars (Ford, Plymouth, Chevy, Packard), beverages (Coca-Cola) and cigarettes (Marlboro) in early studio films–some as early as 1916.

The tradition of conspicuous brand placement continued into television, of course. Entire shows would be sponsored by brands.

But this all changed with Sylvester (Pat) Weaver at NBC in 1949 (fun fact: Pat Weaver is Sigourney Weaver’s dad!). Weaver shifted the operation of network television by ensuring that programs get controlled by the network and ad time get purchased by companies through commercial breaks. BOOM. This turned the table completely. Companies were now at the mercy of networks and popular programs. This relationship continues to this day.

The difference in Korea is that commercial interruptions do not pervade the show as frequently as they do in American TV. An entire program can run without an ad break in the middle. (The downside is a prolonged series of ads in between separate programs; but this is also changing with the growth of cable in Korea.) Thus, product placement still plays a major role in a series production. And it’s not just one brand that owns the entire show. Multiple companies sponsor the show (percentages of how much screen time each product gets and the frequency of the product varies).

Writer Kim Eun-sook’s earliest major hit is Lovers in Paris (SBS, 2004). I can still remember the characters going to Baskin Robbins to eat a ton of ice cream and I recall Soo-hyuk (Lee Dong-gun) telling the Tae-young (Kim Jung-eun) how many songs he has in his MP3 player. In Descendants of the Sun (KBS, 2016), they eat ton of Subway sandwiches and those ginseng squeeze packs; Song Hye-kyo wears a lot of Laneige lipstick and she keeps lighting that freaking 2S candle. We saw the same level of conspicuous product placement in Goblin. I watched that show multiple times already not so much because I think the storyline is the greatest thing since sliced bread but more so because the fashion, jewelry and makeup are such wonderful eye candy. Of course, Goblin had a lot of PPL from perfume to handbags, lipstick to Subway sandwiches to fried chicken to furniture to beverages. Both Descendants of the Sun and Goblin had a go-to meeting spot for emotionally draining meetings between lovers and it is Dal.komm Coffee.

Cafes become a natural PPL strategy because so many K-drama storylines include one-on-one meetings at cafes. It only makes sense that a cafe be included as part of the production so why not make it a sponsor? Makes sense in terms of business. All that is well and good but how do you cram in contemporary brands into a show that is set in  Choson the same year as the Gabo Reform?

Korean audiences are savvy, and they’re already talking about it. In fact, a number of them are saying that the PPL in Mr. Sunshine is non-disruptive. Viewers are expressing their appreciation for the slick embedded marketing that the show makers have worked into this period piece.

But product placement is never not noticeable. In fact, the beat that show takes when they are about to take a moment for their sponsors is very detectable. When Eugene Choi (Lee Byunghun) raises his Odense teacup in the middle of his quiet meditation looking out his window, he makes an observation that is out of character: “Is this style of teacup in fashion now?” Like, dude, you’re a former slave boy/orphan/Korean American military man. Since when do you give a shit about trending chinaware? Let’s be real.

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Paris Baguette is very obviously a sponsor. We know this because it is one of the first banner bumpers to appear when the end credits roll, but we also know this because in episode 2, its characteristic blue and white label appears where lady Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) makes a stop to enjoy some sweets. (The sign posts and lamps all read, “French Bakery.”) In fact, Paris Baguette is currently selling special Mr. Sunshine specialty goods. 

And what would a K-drama be without a cafe/coffee sponsor? Dal.komm makes, perhaps, the most obtrusive display in Mr. Sunshine. Not only do the characters really push this 가배/gabe (Choson lingo for “coffee”) stuff but the napkins and even background sign straight up reads “Dal.komm Coffee.”

Hey. It’s all good though. No need to get all worked up over how a show takes us “out of the moment.” That sort of thing is nonsense. The nature of TV is self-reflexivity. We as audiences couldn’t possibly believe that late 19th century Korea had a guy named Eugene Choi acting as a military representative of America. So eye-roll all you want. PPL in Korean dramas aren’t going anywhere. Not even in a period piece.

In fact, given how SVOD streaming companies such as Netflix and Amazon don’t have commercial breaks as part of their distribution operation, product placement is now an integral part of their original episodes. In this way they are taking influence from K-drama productions and their business strategy.

Seeing as we TV lovers don’t simply rely on broadcast and cable television to receive our shows but also subscription to digital streaming, our lives will now be dictated by both commercial interruptions and embedded marketing in the programs. And that’s what I realized while working out at the gym yesterday. The absurdity of capitalism and our addiction to TV has turned us all into a bunch of suckers. Wait, I mean, “consumers.” 

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cinema and media studies, Film, Gender Studies, ideology, philosophy

re Lars von Trier’s NYMPHOMANIAC (2014)

I wrote a piece on Nymphomaniac (2014, Director’s Cut, Vol. I and II) and on what it means to be “A Radical, Vulnerable and Agentic Body.”

nymphomaniac

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