Monday, September 13, 2010

So, how great is your spec?

"Wow, what an impressive spec you have!"

The above is part of an advertisement from the Korea Student Aid Foundation and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. The ad was promoting how both organizations could help students in obtaining the best "spec".
So what is spec? It's a Konglish word based on "specifications", basically meaning notable credentials that would show up on a resume/CV. Let's say you're hiring a new employee, for example. "What's the spec you're looking for?"is a question that you'd be asked.
The word is used even when you're asking info about a blind date. "What's his spec?"

But I'm not posting a language lesson here. That ad caught my eye because of what was written on the graduation cap, the main elements of the "impressive spec" of today's Korean society. From top to bottom the list goes:
TOEIC 900 (n.b. top score is 990)
University student honorary ambassador
Overseas language course
Overseas study tour member
Student reporter
Group internship
Idea contest
Overseas MBA

WTF? When I reached the last item I literally laughed out loud, making the people around me stare. (The ad was on a metro platform.) Is that all what the kids today are striving for? I mean, really. POWERBLOGGING??? And since when did participating (and winning is implied there, too) in an "idea contest" become basic criteria? No wonder the kids are so stressed.
I know I'm old but when we graduated all you needed was a good education, a good attitude and it basically got you where you needed to be. Soooo glad I'm not of this generation; my brain would have exploded by now.

Besides the obvious, what would be considered a great spec in other countries? I'm curious. Anything as utterly ridiculous as powerblogging?

Friday, September 10, 2010

A ride along the Han

I didn't realize how large a river the Han was until I saw rivers in other countries. Like the first time I saw the Seine. 'That's a river????', I thought. It looked like what we Seoulites would call a brook or a stream. You could cross it on foot in 15 minutes or less, whereas I don't think anyone in their right mind would cross the Han by walking, as it'll probably take 40 minutes to an hour.
(I miss the Seine. Crossing a river on foot seems like a quaint luxury, now.)

The Han is flanked by highways on each bank, the 88 Olympic highway to the south and Gangbyeonbukro (literally, North Riverbank Highway) to the north. This clip was taken on Gangbyeonbukro from a bus on a cloudy day, traveling west to east.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Naengmyeon, Chinese style

Autumn is here but the summer heat is stubbornly hanging on, so I'm still consuming naengmyeon to my heart's content. Any sort of cold noodles are good. This time around it's the Chinese version, or to be more exact, the Koreanized Chinese version.

Unlike Korean naengmyeon, the noodles are made of wheat flour like the noodles of jjajangmyeon and jjampong, so if you like naengmyeon mostly because of the texture this dish might not satisfy. But if you're a noodle junkie like me, it's another delicious dish to add to the repertoire. Close up:

The broth is mostly a chicken based stock with lots of seafood thrown in; it varies according to recipes, but almost all have peanut sauce added for a sweet nutty kick. Added toppings also differ by restaurant. The one I went to had a selection of julienned veggies, sea cucumber, jellyfish, shrimp, and soft squid.

As usual, I had a plate of mandu before downing the cold dish. I prefer the small mulmandu (water dumplings, i.e. boiled dumplings) over the pan fried potstickers gunmandu for which Chinese restaurants are well-known.

Had the dish at an ordinary neighborhood Chinese restaurant. (The more fancy places would have higher quality ingredients in the dish.) The food is what you expect from a standard Chinese place in Seoul, not to die for but not bad either. The prices are reasonable and you get your money's worth.

The restaurant is actually a chain and have several stores within the city. (Check out their site seen on the shop sign). The one I went to is in Sinsa-dong but there's no need to haul yourself all the way over here - you can get Chinese naengmyeon at your neighborhood Chinese place.
I don't recommend the delivery-only Chinese places, though. Find a restaurant that has an actual sitting area to be on the safe side, because Chinese naengmyeon can really be a hit or a miss.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Happy Birthday, Yuna

Photo from Newsen

Sending sincere birthday wishes to Yuna Kim, who really needs all the support she can get right now. For the past several weeks, Yuna has been the center of a controversy regarding her parting ways with coach Brian Orser, which hasn't been mentioned in the media in a positive light.
Athletes change coaches all the time, so what's the big deal, you might ask? In a country where the coach/teacher - pupil relationship is considered important and loyalty is revered, the fact that Korea's top sports star whom the nation adored and admired ended that relationship so tumultously is quite unsettling. It's like watching your favorite couple go through a messy divorce.
It was a split that was met with dismay by the fans. After all, Yuna & Orser were the "Fantastic Duo" that grabbed the Olympic Gold at the beginning of the year. Many were counting on a repeat or even a threepeat of this feat. Many feel that it was with Orser's vision and coaching that Yuna could reach the levels that she did. So what happened?
Nobody really knows, which is why the whole issue blew out of proportion. Press releases from both parties becomes a messy he said-she said situation, but then there are stories that you hear outside of the press and it gets even more confusing.
It's a closeknit industry. You know people who know people. People who know that there is more to the story than what is being said. Rumours fly. They're not easy to ignore, not easy to believe. The word through the grapevine is that the split wasn't totally Yuna's own personal decision but more her management's (i.e. her mother's), but this is just speculation. No one but the people directly involved know what's going on. All that outsiders can do is guess and speculate, and feel bad about the whole thing.

So it is with a aching heart that many fans send their birthday wishes to Yuna this year. All the more poignant because the DVD of Discovery channel's documentary on Yuna was released in time to celebrate.
I'm plugging this simply because I think Yuna needs a whole lot of love and support right now, and not only in the times of glory.
Hip Korea, Yu-Na Kim : Seoul Spirit

The DVD is available on Korean sites Interpark, Yes 24, Kyobo book, Aladin; Innolife (Japan), and Yes Asia (rest of world?).

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Friday, September 3, 2010

A stroll in Gwangjang Market

North Gate #2, Gwangjang Market

It was a hot and mucky day. The city was hot, the people were hot, the whole country was hot. Our forefathers used to say when it's truly truly hot, overcome the heat with heat (이열치열, 以熱治熱). So when a case of daytime munchies attacked, several friends and I descended upon Gwangjang Market, the street food stall mecca in Seoul, to get something good and hot to eat.

Gwangjang Market doesn't usually top tourists' lists - Namdaemun market and Dongdaemun market are the essential spots to go - but if your main objective isn't shopping, you like to eat, and you find shoulder-to-shoulder crowds scary, this is the traditional market you have to visit.

The market is lined with shops on the sides and crammed with food stalls in the center. You can find every kind of Korean street food available, but also non-street food like hweh (raw fish) and maeuntang, grilled barbeque, various types of noodles, jokbal, juk, and bindaetteok.

I usually go to Gwangjang Market to have maeuntang and drink soju, but this time friends and I headed for a bindaetteok place. Ta-daaa! Scrumptious bindaetteok steaming hot right off the griddle:

And traditional rice wine makgeolli as accompaniment. Who cares if it's in the middle of the day? We only had one bowl each, it's not a alcohol bomb like soju. (That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.)

The market covers a whole block in the Jongno district. The closest metro station is Jongno 5-ga on line 1, and there are many entrances where you can enter so it's hard to get lost. You can also get off at Euljiro 4-ga and cross the Cheonggye stream on foot, which is about a 10 minute walk. All lines of buses that run through Jongno avenue stop at the market.

Unlike the other major markets, the market is closed on Sundays. The shops opening hours are 10 am~ around 4 pm while the food stalls are open until very late (11pm-ish).

Map courtesy of the Korea Times

Thursday, September 2, 2010

My Favorites - Cinema

Forget the introductory prattle, let's get to the point. In chronological production year order:

My mother would put on classical music instead of singing lullabys so seeing familiar music scores play on screen Disney-style really blew me away when I was a kid. Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony wasn't so boring any more, and I was introduced to Mussorgsky.

I love musicals. I love Gene Kelly. I love musicals with Gene Kelly. Singin' in the Rain didn't have as much impact on me as this movie did. The choreography was mesmerizing, the scenery was stunning, Gershwin's music was captivating, Leslie Caron was such an unconventional beauty (in my young eyes) with such lovely movements, and that dream-like ballet sequence? I can watch it over and over again.
Although I can't say that this movie is the reason why I dreamt of being in Paris some day, I do have to say it did play a major role.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

This is probably the first "grown-up" movie I've ever seen. I think I was around nine. It was playing on TV one night and I don't think my parents were paying much attention to what I was watching; I saw the whole thing without interruption. I really didn't understand what was going on, either. All I saw was that Elizabeth Taylor was incredibly beautiful in her slip, Paul Newman a handsome alcoholic, Burl Ives an American version of a Korean patriarch, and that all of them were caught up in a sense of incurable despair. The complexity of adult relationships and problems was intriguing - I really wanted to understand why Newman was drinking so much - so I kept rewatching the film whenever I had the chance.

I read Tennessee William's original play years later, but the movie was so firmly implanted in my mind that I couldn't imagine the characters any differently. Although A Streetcar named Desire may be called Williams' masterpiece, I find this play (and movie) much more interesting.

The Sound of Music (1965)

I know. Sappy, sappy, sappy. But this was my favorite movie when I was seven and it just stuck around, mostly because of familiarity. I know all the lyrics from every single song of the soundtrack except for the yodel one. (I can't yodel.) When I went on the guided tour of the filming locations in Salzburg, everyone on the tour bus was singing along so I know I'm not the only nerd out there.
Pet peeve: how in tarnation could the Von Trapps cross the Alps on foot? Even as a kid I thought it absolutely preposterous.

Bless the Beasts & Children (1971)

The title soundtrack is more well known than the actual movie, but along with Dead Poet's Society, I'd say this is one of the best coming-of-age movies. You know how there are instants in life when you realize a certain chapter of your life is over? The revelation that your childhood is over may be the most memorable moment and watching a raw portrayal of that moment is equally moving.

Everyone who had a crush on Han Solo, put your hands up! (Gah, my pre-teen self had such a crush. I still think he's hot.) Don't care for any of the sequels nor prequels, this is the one and only. Never understood Leia's double-bun hairdo, though.

Cliché. Can't help it. What's a movie list without the Brat Pack? Who cares if all the characters are blatant stereotypes? Teen angst is universal.
(Their detention looked mild and even fun to my Christian school attending eyes - we were sent to prayer room after class to kneel and pray for forgiveness for hours under the supervision of the hawk-eye Bible teacher. It was hard not to fall asleep, not to mention the legs turning numb after a while.)

Bagdad Cafe (1987)

The theme song is profoundly beautiful, I can visualize the cafe inside and out, the first and last scenes are etched clearly in my memory. Happiness isn't a big deal, is it? A job, a hobby, friends with whom to share laughs and tears, a bit of music and some coffee. Would that life was that simple.

Beetlejuice (1988)

Day-O! Da-a-a-ay O! Daylight come and me wanna go home! I just love that dinner scene. If I had a group of friends who were willing, it's a scene that I would like to recreate at a fancy-schmancy restaurant, flash mob style. Instead of dispersing, we'd resume eating like absolutely nothing has happened.
The simple fact that the story revolves around a clueless ghost couple who are totally inept at haunting is enough to keep me entertained. After all these years, this is still my favorite Tim Burton movie. (Am I the only one who was bitterly disappointed with Alice in Wonderland? Such a waste of pretty cinematography.)


Léon (1994)

Besson is another cliché director that I like. (Burton, Tarantino being the others.) Le Grand Bleu was the first Besson film that I saw, which prompted me to see Subway. I like both movies, but it was the characters in Nikita and Léon that made me care, that made me watch the movies repeatedly. Nikita and Léon are both unusual characters to be what they are doing but their vulnerability seems plausible and convincing, and not just a quirk for dramatic effect.

The genius of editing. I had never seen a movie with a non-chronological order of events that wasn't dream sequences, so the story and acting and soundtrack all aside, it was the editing that completely bowled me over. There isn't a single lagging moment, your attention is caught at all times, yet it's not as if you have to hold your breath the whole time either.
Great dialogue, great timing, great casting. So much lighter than Reservoir Dogs (which, although a great movie, made me endlessly cringe when I saw it), yet with enough of the impact. Liked the movie so much I cosplayed as Mia Wallace for several years, reenacting the dance scene at events and parties. (Incredibly easy costume, all I needed was tons of heavy makeup - I already had the haircut.)

A teenager asked me last year what the fuss was about Wong Kar Wai. "There's nothing special" was the comment. "It was back then" was my reply. Days of Being Wild was released in 1990, which was followed by Chungking Express in 1994, when Wong's lush, highly stylized cinematography in Asian color palettes was refreshing and unique; I immediately fell in love. (There has been a gazillion music videos made in similar styles since then.)
Fallen Angels is my favorite. Disillusion, emotional detachment, wandering endlessly in the city night, self contemplation, people all linked together unbeknownst, obsession and cans of pineapples. All angels, all fallen. Such and so we are.

If I had to take one movie to a deserted island, this is the one. People living on the edge. Music. Mindgames. Guns. Spiritual families. Fragile, yet badass characters. Hope within the boundaries of reality.
Love Letter may be the most popular among Iwai Shunji's work, but I prefer his darker films - All about Lily Chou Chou is my second choice.

Black Cat, White Cat (1998)

Kusturica's movies are so intricately woven in bright colors that watching them is like trying to decipher secret messages in layers and layers of silk tapestry. There is always another story lurking within a story. Love, death, marriage, crime all come together in a puzzling farcical way, but since life isn't ruled by logical series of circumstance, this movie just may be more realistic than a heavily edited documentary. Every single moment is interesting.

Fight Club (1999)

I once heard that if you can name detailed reasons why you love a certain person, that you really weren't in love because "true" love is blind and unconditional so you shouldn't completely understand why. This explains how I feel about this movie. I have difficulty trying to express why I like it so much, I just do. The plot, storytelling, cinematography, characters/actors, editing, everything.

Attack the Gas Station (주유소 습격사건, 1999)

A comedy, but not without depth. Koreans carry a lot of baggage. Our darn long history of suffering and pain, and the emphasis in history class on that darn long history of suffering and pain reminds us every single day of our lives that we are a people with a lot of baggage, that it somehow defines us, we are taught to embrace that pain as a driving force ; a character trait for a whole country. Consequently the individual tends to get lost, which means that there are many people who are completely screwed up.
Four screw-ups decide to rob a gas station in the middle of the night but things don't go as planned as a whole deluge of people turn up to inadverdently foil their plans (Seoul is the true city that never sleeps) in pausible but comical situations, and you realize that everyone's life is screwed up in one way or another, it's just a matter of how you deal with it.

Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain (2001)

Although I would like to deny it, I'm a complicated person. My mind is constantly running, even at night when I'm supposed to be sleeping; my dreams can rival those in Inception, there are so many layers that sometimes I wake up with a headache.
So that's why Amélie is positively charming. She finds joy in the most simple things in life. She enjoys the moments. And when she thought she needed something more, she set out to find it, and she did. What else do you need in life, really?
The cinematography is just so pretty and makes me nostalgic for Paris.

Memories of Murder (2003)

Now this is a movie. The best of Korean cinema. Oldboy is for those hardcore cinema buffs, My Sassy Girl for those who appreciate Korean comedy, but Memories will probably cover all types of cinema-goers. Based on the true unsolved Hwaseong serial murders in the 1980s, the movie portrays many aspects of the society during those years; the good, the bad, and the ugly that we would like to forget. The cinematography is beautiful, the acting superb, the storytelling raw but not too bone-gnawing to be uneasy and disturbing. Excellent in all aspects.

Stranger than Fiction (2006)

I watched this movie purely by accident. It was playing on TV and I only stopped from switching channels because Emma Thompson was in it. She was playing a writer. With writer's block. Whose writing is far closer to reality than fiction. My attention was immediately caught. I was surprised to discover Will Ferrell quite convincing, with no shadows of his former comic characters. The movie moves at a steady, non-rushing pace, with no predictable dramatic peaks nor pauses - like life.

Take the most twisted emotional dilemma that you have felt and multiply it over and over, you might get what the protagonist in this film is going through. It's something I can't truly understand, tangles of mind and heart of that proportion; absolutely fascinating. And I swear I don't like this movie just because Tony Leung is drop dead sexy in it.

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Spanish Buzz! Badass Barbie! Do you need to say more? An absolutely perfect ending to a trilogy that didn't have a single lame chapter. Made me want all my childhood toys back again.

I realized while compiling this that I have very conventional taste when it comes to movies. Had I made a 'best' list perhaps it would have been a different selection, but 'favorite' doesn't necessarily mean 'films with notable artistic and/or entertainment value' so the list is what it is.

Shortlist: Giant (1956), Blade Runner (1982), Paris, Texas (1984), Back to the Future (1985), The Nightmare before Christmas (1993), The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), Green Fish (초록 물고기, 1997), The Incredibles (2004),

Notably omitted? The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter series. The LOTR movies are extremely well made but I don't find myself freely immersing into them as much as the book. As for the HP series, absolutely none of the HP movies are memorable to me, despite my being a hardcore Harry Potter geek. I see every single movie as it comes out and adore the cast, but cinematic value-wise? Nope.