Peripatetic Postcards

From South Korea, sans Seoul


Dear All,

It's been a long time since I've written home. Sorry. It's on account of the two manuscripts that have kept me scratching my head every waking hour for the last ten months. But they are both at the point where I can get them out to publishers; hence, I have begun to hear strains of the road's siren call, beckoning, once more.

Today I'm holed up in a hotel somewhere in South Korea and so, thought I'd catch you up. Even though it is a two hour flight into Incheon from my abode, one country over, it took me about twelve hours to get from my apartment in Sendai, over to Daejeon, which is where I'm sitting now. For those of you who haven't traveled here -- do! it's still all good -- but just so that you know: the airport in Incheon is a one hour limo ride outside Seoul; and Daejeon -- known as South Korea's Tech City -- is another hour by train to the south. So if you are coming this way, be prepared for some seat time.


As an aside, you'd have to think that the one hour trip to work is one drawback for the pilots, stews and stewards based in Seoul who work for Korean Air. Looking at that bus ride either before or after the long day of riding the jet stream to and fro, here and there, would get old rather quick. For those of us with short commutes, that falls on the list of blessings counted.


As for me, the day didn't begin without surprise. Into November and Sendai train station is still flying its tanabata decorations. Seems as if the city elders have decided that this festival, which is celebrated in July in most Japanese cities (though in August in Sendai), might just be the perfect symbol for a city devoid of many natural landmarks or -- aside from Date Masamune, the ferocious one-eyed warrior-chief -- moments in cultural history.



Then there was the revamped Narita Express. Now in its eighteenth year, and getting a bit long in the tooth, new trains have been unveiled, with lockable luggage racks (I always worried about people jumping off the train with my bag at the stop prior to mine -- and judging from the locks, I guess that probably actually happened once or twice in the past). There were also video consoles with not only the latest news, but the kinds of information that few savvy travelers actually need (since they've already checked it before leaving the hotel), such as weather updates from around the world, and flight schedules for various carriers at the two Narita terminals.



Once in Korea the biggest surprise is not how unattractive the environment can be:


or how hard and militaristic the architecture often is:

We all probably know some of that. This is still a country trying to grow into itself, and cultivate an indigenous identity alongside the encroaching global identities that touch and seek to speak to it.

No, the biggest surprise was the art in public spaces.

For instance, the Korean ceramic urns at the airport:


. . . and the Chinese and Japanese art in the subway station:


The latter, the Japanese pen and inks, coming as a pleasant surprise -- given the residual anger Koreans often express over the colonial legacy.


Still, perhaps the day's greatest surprise was in my encounter with a subway station staffer, who inadvertently provided me with some more information about where South Korea stands in its quest for greater internationalization.

As the sun had long set and I was hankering for the warm confines of my hotel room, I was hoping to avoid marching out of the wrong subway exit and in the wrong direction to my final point of rest. So, I approached a woman in her early twenties, seated behind a desk labeled "Information" in English. Directing a map with my Hotel name written in roman script under the glass partition, I asked (in English) "which way, please?" She squinted through the pane separating us, then turned her eyes skyward, in thought. After a couple beats she held up her hand, universal gesture, one supposes, for "just a sec". She then reached for a white, glossy book, which she opened to a page somewhere in the middle, moved her finger down the page until she had what her hand was searching for, then looked at me, then down at the book for reassurance, and then raised her outstretched hand -- all fingers splayed and pointing upward.

"Five," she said aloud. Simply. That one word.

Then she extended one digit past my shoulder.

Following the direction of her finger I spied a warren of tunnels, all leading toward exits, all numbered -- from 1 to 8. So, Exit Five, I would imagine is what she had meant.

I thanked her, with a bow, then headed off in the direction of "Five" . . .

and onto my next Korean adventure.


Music

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

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1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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