September 26, 2016

Reach for the Sky: In Defense of the Humanities

To Our Robot Masters and Alien Overlords,

Please accept Reach for the SKY as Exhibit A, for this trial determining our continuance as a species. We feel that it accurately depicts who we are and who we've been as sentient beings for a long time, in terms of our strengths and our weaknesses. And yes, we recognize that it's set in the year 2016. Some things never change, I guess. Or rather, they're slow to change. We're working on it! And as to why we've opted to submit this documentary about the South Korean education system, particularly its national university entrance exams (instead of The Journey of Man or even Boyhood), the reasons are many. But primarily because we feel this film showcases the importance we can accord our young. See how the South Koreans open businesses late, stop all air flights, and usher students to their testing sites in police cars if need be. We're not totally selfish beings!

And yes, we know that we can have a tendency to value facts over feelings, and that we sometimes compile data and spin it instead of seeing things as they are. The truth can be so hard to grasp! In the words of the great Confucius, "Learning without thought is labor lost. Thought without learning is perilous." But we hope that you also recognize here our fierce determination. We can accomplish great things when we put our heart and soul into it. We believe in the future!

Finally, we would also draw your attention to the artistry behind this documentary. Everything from the chalk drawings introducing the primary subjects to the music — both old (Luigi Boccherini) and new (Regina Lok Yan To) — shows the thoughtfulness and care of its directors Steven Dhoedt and Choi Wooyoung. They could've made this a satire of Mega Study guru Kim Kihoon. Instead they've created a heartfelt study of our formative years when anything feels possible. And pressure is great.

Sincerely yours,

Drew P.

September 24, 2016

I AM.: SMTOWN: B-Bring The Boys Out

Random notes after watching I AM.: SMTOWN, the promo/doc/concert from S.M. Entertainment — the South Korean company behind the teeny bop sensations f(x), Girls' Generation, H.O.T., SHINee, Super Junior, TVXQ, and the queen of K-pop herself, BoA.

My preference for dark hair knows neither gender nor ethnic boundaries. My affection for really nice haircuts is unaffected by hair color.

Bubblegum pop may be reaching its apex in South Korea. I am currently listening to "Sorry, Sorry," "The Boys" and "Genie" on repeat.

All young famous people go through a crisis during which they ask "Is that all there is?" and "Who am I really?" then realize "It feels good to matter to so many people" and "Geez, isn't it nice to be popular."

Do not belittle the time and labor that goes into being an international superstar. These performers work hard (and have since they were pre-teens).

Am I hanging out with the wrong people? And if not, where are all my friends who want to recreate Toni Basil's "Mickey" video or SHINee's "Lucifer"? No more food pics. We're wasting time!

You can't beat a really nice sweater.

I'm not interested in what you think the main differences are between your stage persona and your real self.

I'm going to listen to K-pop to learn the language. That'll work, right?

I look forward to the day when ALL men and women dab their eyes when they're emotional because we're all wearing mascara.

God, I need a new outfit.

September 9, 2016

Zen Buddhism: In Search of Self: 1000 Years in the Making

The camera doesn't skillfully linger over the three golden Buddhas, the founders' painted portraits, or the architectural details of the Baek Hung Buddhist Temple which dates back to the 10th century. That isn't the point. The editing doesn't create a flashy montage of eating, bowing, praying, meditating, chanting, cooking, walking, and rolling the dice. Because that isn't the point either. For the first six minutes, there's no dialogue at all! So what do we see? Basically, two dozen nuns, mostly with heads shaven, generally silent, going through an age-old ritual that takes place ninety days in the winter and for one week lasts literally round the clock. (A nun with bamboo sticks taps the backs of those whose lotus position has lost form or who have fallen asleep.) What are they contemplating out here on Palagong Mountain for three months? Eternal questions that almost read like poems (and which are superimposed for us here on the screen):

"One thought rising, it is hell.
One thought reversing, it is heaven."
"Where did I come from?
Where am I going?
Came with the cloud.
Going with the wind.
Then what is this
that is coming and going?"
As the head nun at this zen temple suggests to the now-departing nuns at the end of the retreat, today is the same as yesterday which is the same as ninety days ago but how time flies. And so at the end of this documentary, you are still where you were when you started it and yet you are not. Do any of the nuns emerge enlightened? Let's hope a few! Do we share that enlightenment by witnessing their rigorous practice? Perhaps a little. And for that, I give thanks.

September 7, 2016

Vista Point - SEOUL - South Korea: The Road Less Traveled

The travelogue is a form of armchair tourism, in which someone who's been there relates what's it's like to be there to someone who hasn't gone there and isn't likely to go. With pictures. This style of multimedia storytelling gained favor in the 19th century, back when people (with a new device called a camera) could actually go to places that no one had heard of or seen before and take pictures. But today, few places aren't near an airport. And if we're too lazy or too poor to go abroad, we can still see the world much more simply in a click. Sometimes we can even go online and explore locations in 3-D, choosing what doors to enter, what doors to pass. It seems a strange anachronism, this visiting of tourist traps via someone else's poorly produced video. And yet here we are — in Seoul, no less — with a mildly informed British narrator guiding us through a number of temples, a couple of museums, a shopping district, and the North Seoul Tower (the Asian counterpart to Seattle's Space Needle, perhaps). While our bought-in-bulk videographers try to spice things up by touting a pseudo-cooking performance art piece entitled NANTA, none of this journey feels exciting. Or even relevant. I don't know how to explain it except to say, watching Vista Point - SEOUL - Korea felt like someone had watered down NYC to St. Patrick's Cathedral, the 9/11 Memorial and Blue Man Group. Are any of those quintessential New York experiences? Well, if you think they are, stay at home.

Depresingly, there are Vista Point travel videos for over 100 cities — both stateside and international. From where comes this need? Are the people who watch them heavily medicated nursing home residents, dreaming of going places far beyond the institutional walls? Are they college students, stoned out of their minds and doing their best imitations of an English accent? Or are they travelers who don't want to experience a culture so much as take their pencils to a checklist? In all my years of reviewing Korean movies, I can definitely say, this was the least Korean thing I've ever seen.