Friday, July 31, 2015

thinking ahead

According to this page, once I move into Daecheong Tower, which is located in the Songpa region of Seoul (Songpa-gu), I'll have to visit the Mokdong Immigration Office to complete my F-4 processing.

I hate Mokdong Immigration.

Some of my very worst encounters with the assiest of the ass-end of Korean bureaucracy have occurred at Mokdong Immigration. There's a dickhead who works there—been there for years—who used to have a gigantic, ugly mole on his cheek until he apparently had it lasered off. That guy is one of the most unpleasant bureaucrats I've ever had to deal with. He was an absolute choad to me during the 1990s, and the motherfucker still works at the same office. He epitomizes and incarnates all that is wrong with Mokdong.

I've already struck up a cordial relationship with the cute ladies at the Goyang City Immigration Office, not too far from where I live. They've already confirmed what documents I'll need to turn in to apply for an F-4 visa. My fear is that, if USCIS drags its feet and doesn't deliver my mother's naturalization document before I move out of Goyang on the 30th of August (and there's a chance I might move out sooner than that), I'll have to turn in my application at Mokdong. Will the freaks at Mokdong say that the same documents are required? Will they add even more strictures, requirements, and other sundry hurdles for me to heed and to jump through, or will they confirm what the nice ladies in Goyang told me?

Well, there's no use worrying, I suppose. My hiring date at the Golden Goose is out of my control, and so is the date on which I'll receive Mom's naturalization document. The timing is crucial to me, but I have no say in how the chips will fall.

Meanwhile, I do need to start thinking about boxing up my stuff. Hired or not, I'm moving out of my studio by the day before my birthday. And August begins tomorrow.


my hidden posts are well hidden indeed

I like the system I developed for keeping my "frank" posts away from public scrutiny. The system works so well that, after 24 hours, my latest hidden post has received only four visits, and I'm pretty sure I know who at least three of those people are. Normally, when I post something here and announce the post on Twitter, I get ten or eleven visits right away, and this builds up to maybe 80 or 100-some visits before the post floats out of sight and out of mind. I don't think a single one of my "frank" posts has received over 30 visits. Now that's a filter, Poison Girls!

I'm off to Dongguk's Seoul campus to pick up a letter, and to visit Gwangjang Market to pick up some more US Army-style Metamucil.


the "Bernie Sanders as Nazi" meme

It seems to have sprung up among conservatives both spontaneously and independently: the idea that Bernie Sanders is a "national socialist." The uncomfortable phrase comes from a teasing-out of Sanders's self-identification as a socialist and his nationalist fight to keep jobs within American borders.

On Instapundit, Glenn Reynolds wrote:

BERNIE SANDERS ON IMMIGRATION: “Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal. . . . It would make everybody in America poorer —you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that.”


If you believe in a nation state or in a country called the United States or UK or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people. What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country, I think we have to do everything we can to create millions of jobs.

You know what youth unemployment is in the United States of America today? If you’re a white high school graduate, it’s 33 percent, Hispanic 36 percent, African American 51 percent. You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those kids?

I think from a moral responsibility we’ve got to work with the rest of the industrialized world to address the problems of international poverty, but you don’t do that by making people in this country even poorer.

So it’s okay to have socialism, but it can’t be international socialism, it has to be socialism in one nation. A sort of national socialism, I guess.

That was on July 29, 2015. Nine days earlier, Kevin D. Williamson, one of National Review's wittier, more lively writers, released a retread version of a July 6 article titled "Bernie's Strange Brew of Nationalism and Socialism." In it, we read:

...there’s not a lot of overtly Soviet iconography on display around the Bernieverse, but the word “socialism” is on a great many lips. Not Bernie’s lips, for heaven’s sake: The guy’s running for president. But Tara Monson, a young mother who has come out to the UAW hall to support her candidate, is pretty straightforward about her issues: “Socialism,” she says. “My husband’s been trying to get me to move to a socialist country for years — but now, maybe, we’ll get it here.” The socialist country she has in mind is Norway, which of course isn’t a socialist country at all: It’s an oil emirate. Monson is a classic American radical, which is to say, a wounded teenager in an adult’s body: Asked what drew her to socialism and Bernie, she says that she is “very atheist,” and that her Catholic parents were not accepting of this. She goes on to cite her “social views,” and by the time she gets around to the economic questions, she’s not Helle Thorning-Schmidt — she’s Pat Buchanan, complaining about “sending our jobs overseas.” L’Internationale, my patootie. This is national socialism.


In the Bernieverse, there’s a whole lot of nationalism mixed up in the socialism. He is, in fact, leading a national-socialist movement, which is a queasy and uncomfortable thing to write about a man who is the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and whose family was murdered in the Holocaust. But there is no other way to characterize his views and his politics. The incessant reliance on xenophobic (and largely untrue) tropes holding that the current economic woes of the United States are the result of scheming foreigners, especially the wicked Chinese, “stealing our jobs” and victimizing his class allies is nothing more than an updated version of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s “yellow peril” rhetoric, and though the kaiser had a more poetical imagination — he said he had a vision of the Buddha riding a dragon across Europe, laying waste to all — Bernie’s take is substantially similar. He describes the normalization of trade relations with China as “catastrophic” — Sanders and Jesse Helms both voted against the Clinton-backed China-trade legislation — and heaps scorn on every other trade-liberalization pact. That economic interactions with foreigners are inherently hurtful and exploitative is central to his view of how the world works.

Mark Steyn, meanwhile, sees creeping Nazism everywhere (with thanks to Malcolm for the link).

What else were Germans doing in 1933? Well, on April 8th - one day after the passage of the Civil Service Restoration Act - the German Student Union announced the Säuberung - the cleansing, the purification - of German culture. That's book-burning to you and me. The Germans were a far more literate people than we are, so book-burning wouldn't get you very far today, although the cleansers and purifiers of our own time have gone quite a long way on that - to the point where a Los Angeles school teacher is in the fifth month of his suspension for reading his class a passage from Huckleberry Finn. But, as I said, we're not as literate as the Germans and we disseminate thought-crimes by other methods, like telly and movies and stand-up comedy.

So, for example, an ancient TV show called "The Dukes of Hazzard" has vanished from the rerun channels because the principal characters in the course of their adventures occasionally travel by motor vehicle and on the roof of said motor vehicle can be glimpsed a verboten emblem. They haven't yet burned all existing prints of the show, although I wouldn't entirely rule it out: the owner of the actual car is already painting the roof.

Meanwhile, apparently non-"lunatic" persons are discussing across the cable networks whether the motion picture Gone With The Wind should be banned from cinema and television screenings. Oh, don't worry, they won't burn all the prints. If you're a credentialed researcher researching a thesis on racism in 20th century racistly American racist culture, you'll be permitted to go to some vault in Sub-Basement Level 12 of the Smithsonian Museum of the Forbidden and arrange a screening.

So Steyn makes the case for a sort of ambient Nazism descending on the American cultural landscape. Meanwhile, Williamson and Reynolds seem to be implying that Bernie Sanders is bringing his own brand of National Socialism to American politics. What to make of all this? Time to run, or to fetch a gun?


Thursday, July 30, 2015

haven't done one of these in a while

You know what this means. You know where to find the post.

If you don't, email me.


"Kick-Ass 2" and "Fury": a two-fer review

I want to make this quick because neither of these movies really deserves lengthy examination. Let's do "Kick-Ass 2" first.

"Kick-Ass 2"

"Kick-Ass 2" (2013) is director Matthew Vaughn's sequel to 2010's "Kick-Ass." It stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass, Chlöe Grace Moretz as Mindy Macready/Hit Girl, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Chris D'Amico, now rebranded as The Motherfucker, the self-proclaimed World's First Supervillain, who goes around in his mother's S&M gear. The movie also stars Jim Carrey as Colonel Stars and Stripes, a former D'Amico mob enforcer turned born-again Christian who wears military gear and dispenses vigilante justice with a baseball bat, all while enjoining his partners in crime fighting not to use salty language. Stars and Stripes, inspired by Kick-Ass's original heroics, has founded a group called Justice Forever. The Motherfucker, meanwhile, still intent on avenging his father's death-by-bazooka in the previous film, creates a group of villains called The Toxic Megacunts. As should be obvious, Matthew Vaughn films aren't about subtlety.

Dave Lizewski is a high-school senior and Mindy Macready is a freshman. Dave is intent on becoming a true superhero, so he asks Mindy to train him. She does so, but her guardian, Marcus—a policeman friend of Mindy's late father—is wise to the fact that she's still living a double life as a crime fighter, and he demands that she stop and just become a normal teen. Mindy tries, and a major subplot of the movie deals with Mindy's difficulties in surviving the "Mean Girls" reality of American high school. So a major theme of the film, dealt with by both Dave and Mindy, is the eternal teen question of identity: who am I, exactly? Further complicating matters is that Dave is worried about what happens when a hero's identity is discovered—an issue that comes to a head when the police begin tracking down all the vigilantes, good and bad, and Dave's father goes to prison because he claims to be Kick-Ass to protect his son.

In terms of plot strands, the movie is a muddle, and it doesn't really tie up its loose ends all that well. The first "Kick-Ass" (reviewed here) was just as preposterous but more tightly written. The sequel also feels like a rehash of the first film in many ways, but there are some major differences, including the surprising tenderness with which Dave and Mindy's relationship is handled. In the end, the movie doesn't add up to much; it feels forced and stitched together, and the essential revenge plot doesn't add up to anything. Did the movie have a message or a moral? I honestly couldn't tell you.

Perhaps more interesting than the movie itself is some of the controversy surrounding it. Carrey reportedly disavowed the film after the Sandy Hook massacre, claiming that he had had a change of heart and could not condone the level of violence depicted in the story. Another controversy surrounds a certain almost-rape scene in the film, which is played for laughs. It wasn't one of Vaughn's better moments, and I ended up not laughing, although I can understand why others might find elements of the scene funny. As one online defender of the scene noted, the joke is on the rapist, not on the victim. That said, it was still a hard scene to take, perhaps because it felt as if it didn't belong in the movie. (Some have observed, though, that the scene is based on a similar, and even more violent, scene from the original comic-book version of the story—and in that scene, the girl does get raped.)

In all, I can't give this movie my recommendation. There were some good moments within it, and some genuine laughs, and the actors did yeoman's work... but Vaughn has proven, at least twice, that he's capable of making a much better film.


"Fury" (2014) stars Brad Pitt at the head of an ensemble cast. Pitt plays Sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier, head of a Sherman tank crew in 1945, near the end of World War II. (Fury is, by the way, the name of the tank at the heart of the film.) Also starring are Logan Lerman (you may remember him as Percy Jackson) as Norman "Machine" Ellison, the requisite ingénu, who doesn't earn his war name until near the end of the film; Shia LaBoeuf as Boyd "Bible" Swan, a scripture-quoting soldier; Michael Peña as "Gordo" Garcia; and Jon Bernthal (a.k.a. Shane Walsh on "The Walking Dead") as uncouth Southerner Grady Travis. Cold-eyed Jason Isaacs, sporting some sort of northeast-US accent, makes an appearance as Captain Waggoner, who gives Wardaddy his deadly missions.

It's tempting to call "Fury" an American answer to "Das Boot": the story follows a bunch of men in a tank, after all, much as "Das Boot" followed a bunch of men inside a U-boat. But "Das Boot" was, in large part, about the deadly effects of both war and claustrophobia on the human psyche; "Fury" lacks that shut-in feel, mainly because our heroes keep popping out of their tank to take in, and to fight in, the lovely German countryside.

Part of the story has to do with Machine's slow acceptance into the group: he's new to the squad, trained as a secretary, and knows nothing about tanks. In typical war-story fashion, he's the point-of-view character who functions as the audience's surrogate. Unfortunately, this is a painfully clichéd role, which already put me on my guard while watching this rather manipulative movie. Another part of the story has to do with Wardaddy's slow-burn rage against the SS ("Inglourious Basterds" crossover?)—a rage that causes him to make a fatal decision in the final third of the plot when his tank's track gets blown off by a German mine. The tank sits right at a crossroads in the countryside. Machine, who has been tasked with lookout duty, reports that a large German column is on its way to the crossroads. His description of the column leads Wardaddy to realize it's all SS, so instead of immediately sending his thoroughly outnumbered men to hide among the nearby trees to allow the German column to pass, he decides to dig in his heels and prepare to kill as many Nazis as he can before dying. (All of this, by the way, is shown in the movie's preview trailer.)

The rest of the story is a tribute, of sorts, to the Battle of the Alamo. Wardaddy's men have come too far to abandon him after he declares he'll fight the Germans alone, so all the men collectively choose to make this their last stand and to die together. The crossroads itself, along with Bible's constant evocation of the holy writ, adds on another layer of symbolism.

Other critics have noted that "Fury" is gritty and bloody. Strangely, I watched the movie and thought to myself that I've seen bloodier—2008's "Rambo," for instance (kind-of reviewed here; more earnestly reviewed here). That said, there was a lot about the film that just didn't work for me. If this was supposed to be some sort of morality tale about war, I don't think it came across with all that clear of a message. (Or maybe that was the point...?) I also thought the music was both overbearing and anachronistic: it didn't help with my suspension of disbelief. The script was too heavy-handed at moments, and the characters, while well portrayed, came off as stereotypes and not people. One draggy mealtime scene in the middle of the film was supposed to set us up for a lesson in the ultimate meaninglessness of anything and everything in a time of war, but it was too easy to anticipate that that scene was going to end disastrously.

I can't say that I came away liking "Fury." I suppose I liked parts of it, but as with "Kick-Ass 2," above, I didn't think the movie gelled into anything coherent.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

budae-jjigae: been a while, but here we are again


What you see above is a bowl of the first budae-jjigae ever to be made at my current residence. It's been a long time since I celebrated with a serving of one of my all-time favorite Korean stews, and given that my time in Goyang is fast drawing to a close, I thought the moment had arrived to break out some goodness.

I'm never shy about quantity: the other night, when I came back to my place laden with a half-ton of goods from the local grocery, I discovered I had enough ingredients to make three huge pots of jjigae—enough to last over a week, possibly two, depending on how large of a bowl I decided to use. I'm now working my way through the whole thing; the above photo is of the second bowl of jjigae.

My buddy Tom loves budae-jjigae, but he also refuses to eat any vegetables. Most of Tom's friends wonder how he's managed to remain alive this long without veggies, but I've come to accept that his biology just happens to be radically different. So while making my budae batch, I got to thinking about what a Tom-friendly version of budae-jjigae might look like, and I think I've got it, even though it'd be expensive to make.

A Tom-approved budae-jjigae would start with regular budae. I'd make the entire thing the normal way, but right after that, I'd run the whole mess through a strainer because the point is to arrive at a budae-ful broth. With enough broth in the pot, I'd throw in another load of budae meats: ground beef, sliced hot dogs, and sliced spam. I'd also throw in some ddeok (rice cakes) and/or some chunks of potato (cooked potatoes aren't vegetables as far as Tom's palate is concerned), and/or a can of baked beans (ditto for the beans). If necessary—and I doubt it'd really be necessary—I'd add more spice and seasoning to the broth. Et voilà: budae-jjigae that's fit for a Tom.

This line of thinking led me to another: what if it were possible to deconstruct and recreate budae-jjigae as something en brochette? 부대 꼬치 budae ggochi: Budae on a stick! A Tom-friendly version of this would involve making a skewer that alternates grilled hunks of spam, hot dog, burger (I might use cubed steak instead, as it's easier to keep on a skewer), ddeok, and tofu. The sauce that I'd slather over the skewer would be a reduced, intensified version of regular budae-jjigae broth. Not sure whether I'd try sweetening such a sauce; that might go poorly. Or, since budae-jjigae is itself an East-West fusion dish, I might use some other kind of American sauce on the skewer.

Mental gears are turning...

FINAL NOTE: Atkins acolytes will be happy to note that budae-jjigae is both rib-sticking and extremely low in carbs as long as you leave out any beans, noodles (ramyeon is standard), rice cakes, and potatoes (potatoes aren't usually a part of budae-jjigae, anyway; I mentioned them, above, as a means of fortifying the soup for my buddy). According to one site, an entire bowl of budae has only 17 grams of carbs in it. If you're trying to keep your daily carb input under 30 grams, this isn't a bad dietary choice. At a guess, I'd say that most of the carbs come from the gochu-jang, i.e., the red-pepper paste that flavors the broth. This site shows that gochu-jang contains barley-malt powder, sweet-rice flour, and rice syrup—all very carby. But you don't need more than a couple large dollops of the paste to flavor an entire pot of stew, so the carbs get distributed throughout the entire thing. Don't focus too much on the question of what size "a bowl" is; focus instead on the fact that, however large a bowl might be, probably over 95% of that serving will not be carbs.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

on gastropods, French-ish desserts, and crazy motherfuckers

My buddy Charles and I met in downtown Seoul Monday evening with the specific purpose of eating golbaengi, i.e., large sea snails (I've blogged on golbaengi before: see here and here). I had told Charles about my desire to hit Golbaengi Row, which is on Eulji and Supyo Streets, not far from the Myeongdong Lotte Hotel. Charles made a counter-proposal, suggesting we hit a place he knew that served quality golbaengi. That sounded fine with me, so off we went to a place called Taeseong Golbaengi, a restaurant with a large, sedate interior that served snails along with a variety of other good-with-beer sorts of food. Charles suggested we go for the fried chicken along with the snails—a classic pairing, he said. Some Americans might raise their eyebrows at that claim, but when the food came—and it arrived quickly—it was indeed a good pairing. As Charles explained it, the idea would be to eat the snails, which were mixed in with a sweet, spicy chili sauce and veggies (muchim-style), then turn to the chicken once the taste of the sauce and the spiciness had built up. When the chicken got too greasy, we'd switch back to the snails, punctuating our meal with swallows of our beverage of choice (beer for Charles, Coke for yours truly). So that's how we ate.

Click the image below to enlarge.

Conversation involved mainly catching up on recent events; Charles had recently returned from a conference in Europe. Eastern Europe was apparently disgustingly hot, while Germany (Berlin and the city of Bochum) was cold and rainy. Earlier on, Charles had sent me some impressive photos of a delectable pizza that he and his wife tried in Zagreb, Croatia. I admit I was envious. We talked about family; we talked a little about how Charles would be prepping for the next semester whereas I would no longer be a teacher—ha ha!

From the snail palace, we walked over to Jongno Street, and from there to Gwanghwamun and into Samcheong-dong, the "couples' district." Samcheong-dong is pretty, tailor-made for dates, and when I mentioned this to Charles, he pronounced himself secure enough in his sexuality to walk with me into the land of manicured gift shops and twee tea shops. After failing to find my chocolatier, we found one of the few French-themed sit-down coffee-and-confection shops located on a back street: Deux Amis. Since I had paid for dinner, Charles insisted on buying drinks and dessert; I felt bad for him because the bill for our after-dinner refreshment was close to what I'd paid at the house of escargot. Conversation turned to architecture, especially to the types of structures that fascinated us, and to the sorts of facilities we'd like to have if we could design our own houses. Both of us agreed we'd want space—a hard thing to find in crowded Seoul. At some point, while we daintily worked our way through our poofy desserts, we got onto the topic of George RR Martin and A Song of Ice and Fire. Charles said he'd seen Season 1 (he really said "the first series," per the British terminology for a TV season) of the HBO version of the story, and while he had the books on Kindle, he hadn't begun reading them yet. I told him of my initial trouble getting into the books but reassured him that, once he gained momentum, he'd find them enjoyable.

A remark about dessert: I've come to realize that, even when Koreans closely simulate Western-style desserts, they often introduce a certain element of Koreanness to them. That was the case at Deux Amis: my dessert was supposed to be a blueberry tiramisu, but there was nothing tiramisu-ish about it. This isn't to say it was bad: I'm merely pointing out that, whatever the dessert was, it wasn't tiramisu. Charles's lemon tart was lemony and tartish; it very roughly matched some photos that we phone-Googled for comparison's sake, but even that dessert didn't seem completely European.

On our way back toward Gwanghwamun, we talked about the Harry Potter series, which Charles had finally completed. There was some movie-to-book comparison, some discussion of the rules of magic in JK Rowling's world, and a disagreement about the merits of the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which Charles felt contained too much "emo Harry." I told Charles the fifth book was my favorite one, despite all the emo, but that my favorite film in the filmic series was the sixth one ("Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince"), which was well scripted, well paced, and often hilarious to boot.

We walked over to where I planned to take the 7119 bus back to Goyang. Charles was going to go on to a subway station, but he decided to hang with me until my bus came.

And that's when it happened.

A short, stocky, agitated-looking Korean woman puffed her way into view and immediately headed toward us two foreigners.

"Do you speak Spanish?" she demanded in a tone that brooked no refusal or repudiation. I said no; Charles said no. She scowled and walked away.

Then she walked back, apparently incensed.

"Thirty percent of Americans can speak Spanish!" she shouted at us. She then pointed her finger in our faces, one at a time: "You're a liar, and you're a liar!" She stormed off. Later on, I heard her barking incoherently several yards away—maybe in English, maybe in Korean. I have no idea.

The expression "You're a liar!" is one that's apparently familiar to many Korean students of English. My own students would use that expression jokingly on me if they thought I had broken some promise. "Yo-wuh rye-yah!" I'd often hear. It wasn't surprising that a Korean might keep this phrase in reserve as a rhetorical weapon; what was surprising, though, was the out-of-the-blue nature of the encounter. I really had to wonder what in hell was going on in that crazy woman's fuzzy head. Why did she need to know whether we spoke Spanish? Why was she convinced that we did speak Spanish but were withholding this information from her? Crazy people fascinate me sometimes, and this woman was obviously fucking nuts.

One thing that most of us instinctively understand about crazy folks is that they're super-sensitive to their environment. Here's an example from my time as a college student in Washington, DC: there was a certain building on M Street with street-level recesses in which a homeless guy might tuck himself. In that spot, there'd often be a guy who was constantly mumbling to himself, but the moment I walked by, I'd be looped into his narrative: "And look at this motherfucker here," he'd screech whenever I passed in front of him. No one likes to be selected for unwanted public attention, and I'm pretty sure both Charles and I felt the same way about this very angry, very unhinged woman. Both of us just wanted to be left alone, not interrogated and catechized about our Spanish ability.

When the woman went away, Charles and I joked quietly about the incident, and when we'd said our goodbyes and I'd boarded the bus, I chewed on the encounter for a while, fantasizing about what I'd have done had I had pepper spray or a baseball bat and the balls to use either. I doubt the crowd at the bus stop would have applauded violence: first, a foreigner physically attacking a Korean is always going to generate sympathy for the Korean, no matter how fucked in the head that person might be. Second, the fact that the person is cuckoo will automatically evoke sympathy in some members of the crowd: we're supposed to be compassionate to those who've been touched in the head, aren't we?

But I part company with a lot of people when it comes to the insanity defense. My feeling is that we're all afflicted with mental forces that affect the level of our human freedom, but we can nevertheless exercise both freedom and rationality even with those compulsions swimming inside our heads. When a depressed guy is about to jump off a roof, you try reasoning with him—you don't harpoon him. On some practical level, most of us believe that rationality is still effective when dealing with people who are in extremis. The unpleasant lady we encountered on Monday night was obviously rational enough to try to formulate some sort of argument to justify her nutty belief that Charles and I must be able to speak Spanish: after all, thirty percent of Americans (about 100 million of us) can speak it. So my view is this: despite the laughable illogicality of the woman's claim, she tried to offer a rational justification for her anger. That, to my mind, makes her morally responsible for her own actions, which means I can call her a bitch.

Now, Charles and I are both far too civilized to punch a short, squat crazy woman in the face, but I wouldn't have blamed Charles if he had hauled off and decked her. She was damn annoying. Luckily, the encounter was brief. Charles joked that it had been a while since he'd had a run-in with a crazy person, so he was about due. He also noted that he was a magnet for crazy people, which made me wonder how often he normally expected to run into God's very, most specialest children.

That nonsense aside, it was a good evening of snails, chicken, dessert, and conversation. Our mutual friend Tom is still in the Philippines, but we're hoping to get together at Tom's place for a rooftop barbecue sometime in August.

So we've got that to look forward to. Which is nice.


Monday, July 27, 2015

"Sabotage" and "Kingsman: The Secret Service": a two-fer review



A 2014 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger not long after the end of his term as governor of California (ended 2011), "Sabotage" is the story of an ass-kicking, name-taking Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) tactical team that lifts $10 million off a major drug bust, only to have the stolen money go missing, then to find itself hunted by someone who is picking the team members off one-by-one in a gruesome manner.

Most of the movie is a gritty whodunit, and our "heroes" are essentially thieves, even Schwarzenegger's John "Breacher" Wharton, the grizzled team leader. The money goes missing; the team members, all of whom had been in cahoots on the heist, lose faith in each other; the DEA higher-ups hammer each team member with questions to see who will break first, then things get heavy when team members start dying—presumably because the missing money came from a very powerful Mexican drug cartel, and the cartel has sent assassins to America for revenge. Once Breacher's team begins losing members, Atlanta homicide detectives become involved, with Caroline Brentwood (the veddy English Olivia Williams, with a shaky Southern accent and a butch, Ellen-style 'do) leading the charge. Brentwood butts heads with Breacher, even as her partner (Harold Perrineau) worships him, but as she learns more of Breacher's tragic back story, she predictably begins to fall for him.

About that back story: Breacher occasionally sits alone in his house at night, watching particular videos. These videos were mailed to him by a cartel he'd been hunting down; the cartel kidnaped his wife and son, then tortured and killed them, mailing body parts to Breacher every now and then, sending him videos every now and then. The cartel's final gift to Breacher: a parcel with his wife's face in it. For us viewers, some of the videos are graphic and shocking, and the story as told by Breacher is harrowing, too.

It was scenes like those that made me so want to like this movie. "Sabotage" has a lot going for it: for fully two-thirds of its length, it's a visceral tale about things falling apart, the center not holding, and everything going to shit. Everyone, including Breacher, is a thief or is corrupt in some way or another. No one can afford to trust anyone. Schwarzenegger doesn't play his usual bulletproof demigod; at the very beginning of the movie, we see him watching the video of his wife's torture—miserable, furious, and absolutely powerless. Schwarzenegger has aged into this sort of role, and he wears the gravitas well in this film. The story also gives Arnold the chance to act, for a change, instead of just to pose. I have to say: he's not terrible.

The plot contains a series of interesting twists as the mystery deepens, and the actors who play the members of the DEA tac team are all spot-on. Mireille Enos, as Lizzy, deserves special mention for so convincingly playing a flat-out hateful bitch. Enos's strongly angled jaw, flashing teeth, and slightly wandering eye all lend her an almost Joker-like aura of craziness. When people start asking each other who took the damn money, we in the audience immediately suspect Lizzy, but the movie is too smart for that.

Unfortunately, the smarts drain out very suddenly in the movie's final third, and I can even tell you the exact moment that it happens: the sniper shot that takes out Grinder (Joe Manganiello, better known as the unfortunate Flash in the first Sam Raimi "Spider-Man"). Everything beyond that moment is one huge, crushing disappointment after all we've been through. "Sabotage" is almost a smart movie for most of its running time, but once the sniper kills Grinder, the mystery of who's been behind everything gets solved; a silly car chase undermines and wastes all the tension that had built up until that point, and Breacher suddenly turns into a white-hat cowboy (no, I mean that literally—he wears a white cowboy hat for the final battle) who finally has the chance to track down his family's killers.

As I said above, I wanted to like this movie. The problem lies purely with the screenwriting, which flipped from Awesome to Suck in the blink of an eye. This could have been such an amazing film if only the writers had retained their marbles when scripting the dénouement. This could also have been a movie with a message: during the first and second reel, the tone was darkly cynical and overtly anti-government—the kind of film that American conservatives might flock to because it would reinforce their suspicions about how rotten our system is. Even more than that, though, the movie could have made a great study in paranoia and the lack of honor among thieves. As it is, we never truly understand all the villains' motivations. Worse than that, the moment we get to the sniper shot, the movie solves one major mystery by revealing the answer directly to us instead of allowing the characters to figure things out for themselves. That, to my mind, is unforgivable.

In fact, given the sharp contrast between the first two-thirds and the final third of the story, I really have to wonder whether the final third had been scripted by a completely different set of hands. I think "Sabotage" should be re-shot with a better ending. The ending we've been given leaves me feeling cheated and betrayed. None of this is the actors' fault; the onus is on the damn writers. This could have been a huge comeback film for Schwarzenegger. Instead, it turned out to be a stinker.

"Kingsman: The Secret Service"

With 2015's "Kingsman: The Secret Service," I'm tempted to say that, if you've seen the first "Kick-Ass," then you've seen "Kingsman." The stories have many parallels: youths are turned into killing machines; heroic wisdom figures reveal new vistas in crime fighting to the young protagonist; frenetic gun battles combine horrific blood spatter and comedy in a cocaine-mad jumble of Peckinpah and Tarantino; everyone's got a foul mouth.

"Kingsman" is the story of Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (heretofore unknown-to-me Taron Egerton), a twentysomething English punk and Marine Corps dropout saddled with an abusive stepfather, whose real father, Lee Unwin, died during a covert operation when Eggsy was a child. Little does Eggsy know that Lee had been a Kingsman in training—a James Bond-style secret agent operating outside of governmental authority to protect Great Britain and the wider world order. Lee Unwin's mentor is Harry Hart (Colin Firth, playing very much against type), who has been suffering from survivor's guilt because Lee had leaped onto a grenade during a mission in the Middle East, thereby saving Hart's team from certain death. Hart's code name, in the style of the Knights of the Round Table, is Galahad. After Eggsy has a run-in with the police, Galahad/Hart gets Eggsy released and confesses that he thinks Eggsy might be Kingsman material. Eggsy eventually agrees to join the Kingsman training program along with several other male and female candidates, including Roxanne "Roxy" Morton, one of the few candidates who doesn't look down on Eggsy's lower-class background.

Meanwhile, Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, rocking a comical lisp that turns his cries of "Shit!" into "Thit!"), an eccentric tycoon—and MIT alum—who has come up with his own dastardly solution to the global-warming crisis, is giving away special SIM cards that offer forever-free phone and internet service to the world. Little does the world know, however, that the SIM cards are programmed to turn cell phones into emitters that broadcast a wave that interferes with the nervous system, causing people to become murderously aggressive while also losing all their inhibitions. Valentine, in promoting his lethal SIM cards, has been meeting with leaders and celebrities the world over; those who agree with his plan to cause a worldwide, mega-genocidal superbrawl (it's alleged that a radically reduced human population will be better for the environment) are given a chip-like neck implant that supposedly protects the human body from the aggression-waves, but which also—unbeknownst to the wearer—can be set to explode, cruelly beheading the victim. Those who disagree with Valentine are kidnaped and placed in luxury holding cells within Valentine's mountain stronghold.

The movie alternates between Eggsy's Kingsman training and Valentine's machinations, with Galahad/Hart moving between both plotlines, sometimes watching Eggsy's progress and sometimes gathering intelligence on Valentine. Eggsy's training is supervised by dour Scotsman Merlin (Englishman Mark Strong, doing a not-bad Scottish accent) while Kingsman head-honcho Arthur (Michael Caine) watches over the proceedings.

Eggsy's path in the film is the standard hero's-journey arc: a young man with heroic potential first receives the call to adventure that lifts him out of his current dreary circumstances (in Eggsy's case, the dreariness means pub crawling, car theft, and taking a thrashing from his stepdad while trying to care for his mother and little sister), meeting a threshold guardian/wisdom figure in the form of Harry Hart, receiving powerful gifts (in the form of firearms and other clever, secret-agenty devices) as well as warrior training, descending into the labyrinth/belly of the beast (Valentine's mountain fortress), and eventually returning with a boon for his people (saving the world—is this really a spoiler?).

Normally, in heroic narratives, the hero must somehow grow beyond the wisdom figure, which usually means the wisdom figure has to quit the stage. This happens in "Kingsman," but only after Galahad, this movie's wisdom figure, is given the chance to show off his martial prowess while inside a hate-group church not unlike Westboro Baptist Church. I was reminded, during this scene, of another film I have yet to review: "God Bless America," in which a man diagnosed with a brain tumor decides he's going to clean up the world by killing as many of its assholes as he can. The church-massacre scene in "Kingsman" allows director Matthew Vaughn to stretch his wings and show off some creative gunplay and unconventional hand-to-hand techniques using the sorts of objects found only in a house of worship. It's mayhem, gleefully rendered, and consistent with Vaughn's signature style.

"Kingsman" is, I think, a playful homage to the Bond films. Given Vaughn's love of blood and gore, I'm not sure that it's the sort of homage that the Bond films' makers would appreciate: receiving a cinematic tribute from Matthew Vaughn is a bit like having your lover spell out MARRY ME by draping human entrails over the railing of a freeway overpass. Still, the Bond elements are there, in the sudden screeches and yelps of the lively musical score, in the self-conscious Bond references made by Galahad and Valentine, up to and including the inevitable "hero gets the girl" moment at the very end (which comes, in true Vaughn style, hot on the heels of an anal-sex joke). My only problem with that moment was that I felt the hero should have gotten together with a different girl.

The movie did a good job of fooling some of our expectations. Dead loved ones didn't suddenly return to life unharmed. Eggsy didn't quite get the chance to take on his stepfather in the way we would have hoped. And as mentioned in the previous paragraph, Eggsy got the wrong girl—or at least, not the girl I thought he should have gotten.

Matthew Vaughn, along with having directed "Kick-Ass," also directed "X-Men: First Class." Viewers of that movie will recognize all the same directorial touches and flourishes here. Vaughn is nothing if not an action director with his own distinct and memorable style. He demands that we accept vulgarity and cartoonishly bloody, gun-driven ultraviolence as just a matter of course; at the same time, he's a director who demands that his actors act—unlike, say, Kevin Smith or Smith's idol George Lucas, neither of whom seems interested in pushing actors to their expressive limits.

When I review action movies, I normally like to talk a little about the fight choreography. One fighter in particular attracts attention here: Sofia Boutella (watch her French-language interview here; she's Algerian French, not Latina, as I'd first thought) plays Valentine's right-hand woman Gazelle, a double-amputee whose leg prostheses—all CGI—are a combination of curved, springy, Oscar Pistorius-style running blades and actual sword blades that she employs, early on in the film, to split an unsuspecting Kingsman agent completely in half from head to crotch. Later on, she uses her martial-arts skill to defeat a circle of guards protecting a Scandinavian princess, and I found myself wondering, during that scene, how she managed to run on a smooth marble floor without ever slipping. Gazelle has the honor of engaging Eggsy in a final kaleidoscopic fight inside Valentine's mountain fortress; she acquits herself impressively, although I think you can imagine who emerges the victor. The fight itself is well choreographed but not particularly original; there are shades of Zack Snyder-style slow-mo and references to any number of Hong Kong movies.

At this point, let me switch gears and throw out a little love for Mark Hamill—Luke Skywalker himself. Hamill, sporting a dubious English accent and an endearingly scruffy beard (apparently his real-life beard), has a brief role in "Kingsman" as Professor Arnold, an exponent of a "Gaia" theory of global climate and one of the first people to get sucked into Valentine's evil vortex. Looking tubby and scruffy, Hamill brings a certain bubbly humor to the proceedings, and it was good to see him on screen again. (Hamill's filmography makes clear that he's been doing more than just voice acting since his "Star Wars" days, but I personally haven't seen him in anything since the 1980s. I am, however, a bit familiar with his award-winning work voicing The Joker for Batman-related cartoons and video games.)

All in all, I found "Kingsman" to be enjoyable fluff, full of action, spectacle, suspense, and humor. The special effects were often tacky, but this was obviously a deliberate choice on the director's part. The comedy was delivered competently in both verbal and physical form. Vaughn's action choreography proved more memorable than the movie itself, most likely because "Kingsman" wasn't so much a movie that stood on its own as it was a bundle of cultural references—to the aforementioned Bond films, to the hero's-journey narrative, and even, obliquely, to the 1980s comedy "Trading Places," because one of the themes of "Kingsman" was that old classic: nature versus nurture. Eggsy proved capable of surpassing his London-punk roots and becoming a gentleman killing machine—a hero. For my money, the funniest line in this action-comedy went to Samuel Jackson. After Gazelle splits that Kingsman agent in two, she and Valentine attempt to find out whom he worked for. Unable to find out anything, the two run down a list of intelligence agencies: the CIA, MI6, and... Beijing. Valentine gripes, "Beijing. So freaky how there's no recognizable name for the Chinese Secret Service. Now that's what you call a secret, right?" I laughed.

As Sofia Boutella says in an English-language interview, "Kingsman" is a good movie to watch over the weekend if you're looking to spend a couple of fun hours at home. It's definitely fun, as Boutella says, but keep in mind that it's a Matthew Vaughn type of fun, which means you can't be squeamish or prudish or generally puckered of asshole. Vaughn is the id incarnate. It's a good thing, I suppose, that he seems so focused on violence: I shudder to imagine what a Vaughn movie centering on sex would be like.


fraternal output

My brother has become the keeper of the parental flame when it comes to making rum cakes. Unlike Mom and Dad, however, David has branched out into making rum cakes of different shapes and sizes—not just the original, standard-sized Bundt cake. I imagine he sells his creations and/or gives them away, depending on the situation.

I saw this photo, or one like it, months ago, and I crassly joked that it looked as though David had jizzed all over his cakes, thoroughly coating them with warm gouts of sa semence. He took my comment good-naturedly, in the spirit in which it had been intended.

While Skyping with David the other day over my cell phone, I asked him why the two Bundt cakes in the picture—you can see them both sitting on green plastic plates waaaay at the back—seemed to be off-kilter, leaning drunkenly one way or the other. David said it was because he hadn't bothered to saw off the lumpy bottoms to even the cakes out. Thing is, I don't recall Mom's or Dad's cakes ever being quite that unevenly lumpy. Ah, well. What matters most is the taste, not the look. And some might say the unevenness adds character.

I'll have to ask David if I can order a few of his cakes. My only worry is that they might not survive the trans-Pacific voyage.


Sunday, July 26, 2015

yes, I slept well, thanks

I must have slept almost twelve hours. Went to sleep around 3AM; got up around 2:30PM. My KMA gig, yesterday, was long and low-energy, thanks in part to Saturday's having been a dreary, rainy day that sapped my three students of their will to live.

We nonetheless got through the seven-hour workshop with a few laughs and a lot of good information on English grammar, logical fallacies, brainstorming, outlining, and the Aristotelian ethos-pathos-logos recipe for rhetoric. By the time I left the KMA building in Yeouido, I was dead on my feet: hadn't slept more than a few hours the night before. I fell asleep in the subway; a man poked me on the shoulder when we reached the terminus, probably saving me from a horrible death-by-human-sacrifice inside the subway tunnels.

In any event, I'm awake now, and I think I'm going to go shopping for budae-jjigae ingredients so I can have my week's supply of stewy goodness.


Friday, July 24, 2015

slap you up yo' daimn haid

Speaking of shakubuku: Dr. Jeff Hodges on CPT versus SKITA therapy.

If you're a butthead, the therapies are almost the same.


he'll rant the fat right off you

Good example of modern shakubuku: the now-infamous video rant by ex-military fitness instructor John Burk, who has no qualms about telling it like it is.

Burk didn't offend me with his rant. If anything, I almost felt as though I should drop and give him fifty pushups right there on the spot. I'm fat, but I'm not into "fat acceptance." This isn't for aesthetic reasons: I've seen many a charmingly plump, curvy lady whom I've secretly adjudged delectable. Fat doesn't mean ugly by any means. But Burk is right to point out the health issues associated with being fat, and he's right that most of us fatties are the way we are thanks to a long series of bad life-choices that have hardened into nearly unbreakable habits. That's karma, after all: cause and effect.

So the next step is, obviously...


abortion contortion

Abortion rears its ugly head, yet again, as a topic of public debate thanks to recent candid-video revelations about the behind-the-scenes machinations over at Planned Parenthood, a pro-choice organization that assists with abortion-related issues, but also with issues of neonatal care, ongoing motherhood, etc. From Mother Jones:

[David] Daleidin [a pro-life activist] and major anti-abortion groups say that the footage definitively shows two of Planned Parenthood's top medical personnel haggling over the price of fetal body parts—their sale is illegal—and admitting to altering the abortion procedure in order to better preserve fetal specimens. Planned Parenthood and its supporters say the edited videos are misleading and that Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood's senior director of medical services who appears in the first video, was only discussing the costs of storing and transporting fetal remains. The group can legally recoup those costs under federal law. And any changes to the abortion procedure, they note, creates no additional risk for the woman.

But the political conversation has quickly outpaced the facts. The videos have already moved Congress to launch two probes into the organization's activities.

Dr. Vallicella, over at his philosophy blog, wrote a post the other day about abortion. The post was titled, "The Potentiality Argument Against Abortion and Feinberg's Logical Point About Potentialty." In it, Dr. V puts forth what he terms "PP," i.e., the Potentiality Principle. The idea seems to be that potential personhood, in a developing fetus, is enough to claim the fetus has a right to life. Dr. V puts forth his Potentiality Argument:

The PA in a simplified form can be set forth as follows, where the major premise is the PP:
1. All potential persons have a right to life.
2. The fetus is a potential person.
3. The fetus has a right to life.

This post was one of the few for which Dr. V had opened up a comments box. I wrote him a response, but he's chosen not to publish it—either because he thought my response was so overwhelmingly powerful that he simply can't deal with it right now, or because my response was so ridiculously trivial as to be beneath his attention. Let's assume the latter.

But I won't be silenced so easily, so I'm going to rewrite my comment to Dr. V here, as well as I can from memory (I'm cursing myself for not having copied and pasted my comment into an email window for safe-keeping). I thought I was making a rather important point, so I'll leave it up to my readers to examine what I say and to agree or disagree as they will.

My response was basically thus:

Let's grant the PP—the major premise of the Potentiality Argument. But what happens when cloning technology catches up with us and makes the PA overly probative? Consider this sci-fi-style Gendankenexperiment:

1. All potential persons have the right to life. (PP)
2. Deliberately stopping a human life, potential or actual, is murder.
3. Cloning tech will allow us to clone a fully realized human (baby or adult—makes no difference) from a single human cell—any viable cell of the body.
4. Thus, thanks to this technology, every cell becomes a potential human being.
5. The mere act of throwing away a bloody tissue after a nosebleed thus becomes tantamount to mass murder.

See, the thing about cloning—at least the way I'm imagining cloning—is that it removes one of the traditional thresholds that figure in the usual abortion debate: conception. Very often, you'll hear that "life begins at conception," which seems to imply that it's perfectly kosher to destroy a single spermatozoon or ovum without worrying about whether you're actually killing a potential person. With cloning, the monoploid-into-diploid fusion that occurs at conception goes out the window as a matter of debate, and now every cell becomes a potential person. If we accept premise (2) above, then it follows—in a world where cloning is commonplace—that the loss of a single viable cell is tantamount to the loss of a fully realized human life.

But intuitively, viscerally, we all think this is ridiculous. No one seriously throws away a bloody tissue while thinking he just killed millions, like Pol Pot or Stalin. In my comment to Dr. V, I did note that the attitude of constant contrition for unceasingly killing unseen beings is something familiar to adherents of the Jain religion—a religion that preaches a radical nonviolence (the same concept of ahimsa found in Hinduism and, later, in Buddhism). But most regular folks can't maintain this mindset for too long: they'd go crazy with guilt.

This brings us back to whether the Potentiality Principle—even now, even in a world in which cloning is not commonplace—actually works as an ethical principle. What if there's something to the pro-choice idea that "it's just a clump of cells" being eliminated, at least during the time when the fetus has no visibly human features, no fully developed nervous system (and thus no recognizable consciousness)? But on the pro-life side, it's legitimate to ask where, exactly, the border lies between "clump of cells" and "recognizably human fetus." What's more, as Dr. V has pointed out in many of his previous posts, the question of how human the fetus is is never in doubt: if it's got human cells, it's human—period.

But the cells in my bloody tissue are human, too, and in a world of ubiquitous cloning, every single one of those cells is a potential human life. Here I am, standing at the garbage can, throwing those human lives away.


at least I can count on July and August

KMA has come through for July and August: I'll be teaching my Persuasive Business Writing course both months. My July course happens tomorrow; the course in mid-August (for which I probably won't receive pay until September) will be over two days in Ulsan—3.5 hours per day. A bit of a weird schedule, but since KMA is paying for the train ticket and for a single night of lodging, it's not a big deal.

So over two months, that's an extra million in the bank.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Penny's day out

My brother likes sending me pictures of his cute dog Penny, a blunt-featured mix of border collie and boxer. Here are a few recent images:

I wonder, sometimes, whether Penny remembers me. The last time we met, she was a puppy.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

if the gods be good...

I got an email from Dongguk University that talked about how the school calculates pension deductions from one's salary. My mood immediately soured: Dongguk takes a full 20% out of our salaries—much more than the 3.3% tax deduction. Those extra fees are for pension, insurance, and the always-mysterious and very bullshit-smelling gwalli-bi, i.e., an "admin fee," which I've come to understand as a catchall term for "we just want to fuck you a liiiittle bit harder." So after reading the first line of today's email, I already wasn't receptive to what it was going to say. Unreasonable deductions are yet another reason why I'm flying the Dongguk coop. However, as I read further, it dawned on me that the formula for pension deduction might be a way to calculate how much I'm going to get back from Dongguk in September. I had been told, before leaving campus, that I'd be receiving some sort of retirement/pension-related repayment in September, and when I'd asked, at the time, how much that would be, I was told to ask again later. Well... now is later, so after reading today's email, I wrote my office back and asked them how much I'd be receiving in September. For the past few months, I've been steeling myself to hear something pitiful, like "W100,000."

The email had said that Dongguk takes out 7% of our standard monthly (gross) salary for pension. Take the yearly income stipulated in the contract, multiply that figure by 0.07, and that's how much is taken out for pension for a year. In my case, that amount comes out to almost exactly W2 million, which sounded about right. When I emailed the office, I included the above mathematical reasoning. But a staffer wrote back with what I hope is—if it's not mistaken—excellent news:

The real figure is 4.7 million won.

Life just keeps getting better. I've adjusted my budget to reflect the new reality.

This may be one of those cases when it's good to start off with extremely low expectations. Going from W100,000 to W4.7 million, in my mind, is a wonderful feeling. This also means I won't have to worry, for another month, if I'm not working full-time for the Golden Goose by the time September rolls around. And more than that, I'll have the funds to buy a plane ticket and get a hanbok made, with plenty of time to spare for the October wedding. For once, it would seem that the gods' wishes are in line with mine.


Golden Goose and my new mountain

Let's start with second things first and move back to first things.

After work today, I got a wild hair and decided to explore Daemo-san (I talked about it here) the mountain that sits almost exactly a mile away from Daecheong Station, the subway station that's right next to Daecheong Tower, my soon-to-be residence. The map made the walk to Daemo-san look easy and direct enough: it's a straight shot south from Daecheong Station to the foot of Daemo-san. So in the heat and humidity, I schlepped a mile over to the mountain, and it was indeed easy to get to. As the map showed, there's a robotics high school; you see a night-blurred picture of one of its buildings above. Seoul Robotics High School in southeast Seoul might or might not be a prestigious school; I've done no research on it (but you can start here if you want), so I don't know whether all its graduates go on to stellar academic careers at KAIST. I'm pretty sure, though, that the use of the Google Android icon as the school's mascot is illegal—a shameless copyright infringement. Seems apropos, given what it says about modern Korean culture: the school supposedly encourages creative thinking, but no one had enough imagination to design an original mascot.

If you look closely in the photo (again, sorry for the blur and graininess; it was after 8PM, and digital cameras suck in bad lighting conditions), you'll see the shoulder of Daemo-san in the background. You'll also notice the upward slope of the ground: the school is located right at the foot of the mountain. I took a guess and skirted around behind the school in search of a hiking path. I found one, and it began formidably with a sloppy, poured-concrete slope that rose at almost a thirty-degree angle, leaving the school's campus far below. I chugged upward, listening to the night sounds of the mountain forest to my right and to the pok-pok sounds of tennis being played below and to my left. I was gambling that this wasn't merely some access road: my hope was that I had found one of the mountain's many trailheads.

Sure enough, I struck gold: this was indeed a trailhead, and where the poured-concrete slope leveled off, high above the school, a large map of the mountain had been set up. The map showed several subsidiary paths and a few larger paths; one such path spanned the entire ridge of the mountain, which delighted me, because I was hoping I'd be able to walk the entire five-mile ridge. One fact sobered me, though: it turns out that Daemo-san is only half of the dragon's body. What I had thought was one big, long mountain turned out to be two mountains, and the other mountain is named Guryong-san (Nine Dragons Mountain). If I'm not mistaken, there's another, more famous Guryong-san somewhere south of Seoul; this must be its modest, stunted cousin.

So I'm set as far as hiking goes. From the trailhead I found, I can hike up to the mountain's crest, turn right, and follow the ridge over both peaks—Daemo-san's and Guryong-san's. In theory, I could spend a whole day just hiking that ridge back and forth three or four times. That would be a memorable workout.

Earlier in the day, I spoke with the demanding Mr. Y, the Golden Goose executive who had given me that sudden load of work to do. Mr. Y insists on speaking to me in rapidfire Korean, so I spend a lot of my time just smiling and nodding at what I hope are the appropriate moments to nod. I do get the gist of what he's saying to me, but I don't have the vocabulary and grammar knowledge to follow every little thing he's saying. Mr. Y, being one of the company's big cheeses, like to hear himself talk, and when he talks, he talks at length. It's more that he discourses, really.

Today's discourse included another assignment. Since my regular boss is on vacation, I suspect Mr. Y feels free to use me as his personal resource. This will change once my boss returns. For now, my vacationing boss has emailed that it's best to keep Mr. Y mollified by doing what he asks because Mr. Y, being a high-level executive, will have a large say in my eventual hiring.

And that was part of what Mr. Y and I talked about today. Mr. Y broached the topic with a question: "So what's going on with your being hired here?" I explained my visa situation, noting that I'd likely have to wait until sometime in October before I could draw up a contract with the Golden Goose. Mr. Y frowned and then said something that was music to my ears: "Nah, we could probably bring you in earlier than that." I don't know exactly what time frame is implied by "earlier than that," but if "earlier than that" means "before August 30," that would be marvelous. Mr. Y made clear that he didn't have the final say on my hiring: that would be up to the company president. But he also mad clear that he was on board: like my immediate boss, he likes me a lot and wants to see me become part of the company.

So I'm ecstatic to have two heavy hitters—my boss and Mr. Y—in my corner, advocating for me. I've told myself that, once I'm full-time and on salary with the Golden Goose, I'll simply commit to working there—no questions, no complaints (well... almost no complaints). With the huge jump in salary, the nearly free housing, and the chance to continue working weekends at KMA, this really is a decent setup for old Uncle Kevin. I told Mr. Y that I think the three of us need to sit down together and talk further about this "bringing Kevin in earlier than that" business. Mr. Y concurred. How wonderful it would be to, say, begin working full-time in August. I wouldn't receive my first paycheck until September, but the timing would be perfect: I'd be getting about $3,500, which would allow me to both buy my plane ticket to the States and get a hanbok made in plenty of time for Sean's wedding.

Stuff to do, money to earn, and a new mountain to climb. Life is good.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

a friend weighs in

My friend Seungmin weighs in on the translation question I had posed in my earlier post. She emailed her insights and I added them as a comment. Click here to go right to it.


présenté sans commentaires

(image from here)


Monday, July 20, 2015

studio work

Today, I did something unusual: I met my Golden Goose coworker at a basement studio in Mapo-gu, in a run-down edifice called the Nam-goong (南宮, South Palace) Building. I had been told that my services as a Korean interpreter would be needed. I cringed because I knew my Korean skills are shaky at best, but it was obvious, at the same time, that I spoke Korean at a much higher level than my coworker, who said he needed my help in explaining certain things to the tech guy. Beyond that, I had little idea what was going to happen.

Turned out that we were waiting for two American voice actors to come to the studio to record some of the dialogue for one set of our company's textbooks. They were late in arriving because of a mixup about which studio they were supposed to be at, but ultimately, they finished the entire recording by 3PM, which was when they'd been scheduled to finish.

I was wowed. Both of these voice actors—a man named Matt and a lady named Barry (yes, Barry: "as in Barry Manilow," she said archly)—were true pros, and it was humbling to watch and listen to them doing their thing. Once they got in front of their mikes,* they sounded exactly like the voices I've heard, over and over again, on so many English-textbook audio files. Their pronunciation was excruciatingly exact, their voices loud and rich.

I'm thinking of telling my brother David about these two. David works at a PR firm in DC; his firm regularly puts out public-service videos (David stitches these vids together—a herculean effort), so there's always a need for voice talent, and at a pay rate of $900 an hour, it's the sort of opportunity that's hard to ignore.

Anyway, today was a bit out of the ordinary for me. The heat was horrible; the building was old, and its restroom didn't have any toilet paper (had to buy some at the convenience store around the corner), but the studio guy was nice and the voice actors were truly amazing in their professionalism, so all in all, I'll chalk this day up as a win.

*I refuse to spell it "mic." To me, that's pronounced "Mick," and it's offensive to Irishmen. Same goes for "veg," which I spell "vedge" despite the lack of a "d" in "vegetable." To my ear, "veg" rhymes with "peg," so no dice. Try to think of a normal, non-abbreviated English word (not a loan word from a foreign language) that ends in a soft "g," i.e., a "g" that sounds like an English "j." Can't think of one, can you. I thought not. That because pronouncing a final "g" as a soft "g" violates a fundamental rule of pronunciation in English, which is:



Sunday, July 19, 2015

gear up!

And we're off. My brother David texted me to say that he has finally received the long-awaited (three weeks, now) official notification from USCIS—the writ saying that their office did indeed receive my paperwork. USCIS is now, presumably, processing everything I gave them, and I hope to end up with some damn records. The letter notes, bizarrely (or maybe not bizarrely—hard to tell), that the records will come to me in the form of a CD, which means, I suppose, that it'll be up to me to print the records up here in Korea. My fear is that, by printing the records myself, I'll be somehow de-legitimizing the paperwork. Normally, I'd expect a multicolored document with a watermark and a raised seal to go along with the printed text.

Assuming I get the naturalization paperwork without there being some sort of processing error, and/or without learning that the requested document doesn't exist... assuming the paperwork says "Suk Ja Kim" (Mom's maiden name) on it... assuming those things, I can bundle up my paperwork and give it to Korean Immigration, which will issue me my visa in precisely three weeks. I still don't know whether I'll have to leave the country and come back because of this change in visa status; I can probably look such information up online, and it's a small concern compared to my much larger worries.

Life won't officially be better until I have my F-4 in hand, but we're getting closer to that day. An F-4 visa isn't tied to a sponsoring employer; technically, I could remain in Korea legally as a homeless guy, unless there's fine print on the visa saying that it's assumed I'll be working somewhere as a productive (quasi-)member of society.

But I now have reason to be optimistic, even as I curse the US government's bureaucracy for putting me in the humiliating position of thinking that any tiny scrap of information, any movement at all in the administrative colossus, appears miraculous. No one likes to think of himself as a plaything for powerful entities. That said, I suppose it's better to be thankful than to seethe; life is too short to waste on unproductive fuming.

For now, we wait.

ADDENDUM: I have a timeline, now, apparently. The USCIS confirmation letter says I have been placed on Track One of their processing system, and I have a "control number" with which to monitor my progress. Track One items take 41 business days to process. Whether that means exactly 41 days, at least 41 days, or roughly 41 days, I have no clue. And when did the 41-day countdown begin? The day the letter was mailed? My brother received the letter this past Friday, July 17. If the letter was mailed then, and if processing didn't begin until the letter had been mailed (I've waited three weeks for this letter), then July 17 + 41 business days = September 16 (skipping weekends and Labor Day). If processing ends on September 16 and my brother gets the CD with Mom's documentation in it by Friday, September 18, then it won't be until about September 25 that I'll receive the CD. Assuming Mom's name is listed as "Suk Ja Kim" in her documentation (i.e., Korean Immigration won't delay the process further), and assuming I turn in my F-4 application documents on Monday, September 28, I won't have my F-4 visa until October 19. This puts me well behind schedule, budget-wise.

If, however, the processing of my documents began three weeks ago, about the time I emailed in my application to USCIS, everything moves forward about three weeks, and I'll have my visa in hand by the beginning of October instead of just past mid-October.

So the plan for me, now, will be to move out of Goyang City come August 30 (a day before my birthday). I'll get my W3 million deposit back, along with some extra income from KMA (we hope). I'll move temporarily into my #3 Ajumma's building again and stay there from the tail-end of August until whenever I get my F-4 and get hired by the Golden Goose—probably early to mid-October. I'll pay Ajumma rent to keep her happy (she was generous about hosting me for free last year, when I moved back to Seoul, but she did make clear that her property couldn't be used gratis forever). Last I checked, the spacious second-floor flat in her building was going for W600,000 a month. That's doable for two months. I have to factor in two major expenses: the cost of a plane ticket to the US in October, and the cost of a hanbok so I can officiate at my brother Sean's wedding while I'm in the States. I may have enough, when all is said and done, for the plane ticket, but I'll likely have to borrow money for the hanbok.

Of course, there's a chance that Ajumma has rented out the apartment I'm hoping to stay in. In that case, I guess it's back to a yeogwan for me for a couple months. I hate moving, but I don't see that I have much of a choice.


Saturday, July 18, 2015

ultimate cat GIF

This blog isn't known for its catblogging, but I couldn't pass this up:


Friday, July 17, 2015

like Greece, I restructure

I've learned a hell of a lot about the harsh reality of finances since I was in grad school. You'd think I'd have learned more, earlier in life, about how to handle money, but it wasn't until grad school that I fucked myself royally by (1) getting a full scholarship, then (2) taking my scholarship loans—which I could have rejected—and using those loans to pay my apartment's rent and all other expenses. That was the biggest, dumbest mistake I could ever have made. What I should have done, had my head not been up my ass, was reject the loans and work while going to grad school. I already had the full scholarship, which covered the cost of my courses plus a little extra to defray the cost of textbooks; it was just a matter of not being lazy. But no: I chose the lazy route, and I've literally been paying for my choice ever since.

Most of my friends, by now, are earning $50K, $70K, a year in the States. At Dongguk, I'm currently earning about $26K, which is a pittance—it's what a 22-year-old college grad might expect to earn, and I've been stuck at this level for years. I see myself following my father's uninspired path down the salary track (I doubt he was even earning $50K by the time he was 50), and it's a path I need to break away from. Switching over to the Golden Goose will be a major step in that direction. My gross pay at GG will be W48 million/year, which comes out to a dollar gross of about $43.6K/year. After taxes (only 3.3% in Korea), that's $42.2K/year. Still, a jump from $26K to $42K is a major leap in electron shells for me.

Unfortunately, some of my KMA classes have been canceled over the past few months, which has skewed the immense, years-spanning budget I had created in 2014. Recently, I sat down for a couple hours and went painstakingly line by line through that budget, tweaking everything that had changed over the intervening months and noting with dismay that my get-out-of-debt schedule has now been shoved back by almost a whole season, thanks to KMA pay that never came. This won't be the last bit of tweaking I do, I'm sure, but it's a major adjustment that ought to last me for a while before I need to look at the budget again.

And I'm happy to report that, assuming I end up in the Golden Goose by September, I'll still be on schedule to be debt-free before I turn 50 in 2019. And that's good news. Not that it'd be tragic for me to still be in debt after I'm 50, but I've decided that 50 is when I'm officially an old man. Having no debt while I'm still not officially old will be quite a coup.


"Ex Machina": two-paragraph review

I watched "Ex Machina" last night after having heard good things about it. It did strike me as smarter and better scripted than the average science-fiction movie, and I thought the special-effects team did a bang-up job on a shoestring budget (the movie was made for about $15 million, which is pocket change in the US film industry). Alas, like many sci-fi films to come out of Hollywood, "Ex Machina" smuggles in religious themes—in this case, the theme of becoming a god and bestowing life on a creature, then having that creature rebel, à la Shelley's Frankenstein. The creature in question is Ava (Alicia Vikander—Ava's name carries shades of the Continental pronunciation of the biblical Eve's name: Eva, and she is a temptress), an alluring AI robot fashioned by Nathan, the reclusive-genius CEO of Bluebook, the world's biggest search-engine/social-networking company. Nathan invites one of his programmers, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, with an American accent hiding his native Irish brogue), to his luxurious home to administer something like a Turing test on Ava, i.e., to see whether she passes for a conscious being. In Nathan's large, empty house, the only other person is the mute Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who seems to act as a servant/housekeeper. (Beware of the quiet ones, as the serial-killer survival wisdom goes.) Caleb sits with Ava for several interview sessions, growing more infatuated with her over time, even as he becomes unhinged enough to question whether he himself is human. Nathan observes Caleb during these sessions (and at other times), and it soon becomes obvious that Ava mistrusts her creator and wants to escape, presumably with Caleb's help. Ava is able to create power outages in Nathan's house; it's during these moments that she confesses her frankest thoughts to Caleb.

The movie is filled with often-smart dialogue that touches on 101-level philosophy of mind. Ludwig Wittgenstein gets a mention, as does the classic "Mary the Color Scientist" Gedankenexperiment. The scriptwriters obviously did their research. There are a few twists toward the end, one of which—concerning the nature of Kyoko—was laughably easy to predict. There are also plenty of unanswered questions by the time we reach the conclusion—questions about Caleb's and Ava's respective fates, about the nature of emotion as a motivator, about how an AI might develop a survival instinct, about how Nathan could have neglected to program Ava with a conscience, and so on. All in all, though, "Ex Machina," whose title is itself a direct reference to God (it comes from the phrase deus ex machina, i.e., God from the machine), proved to be an entertaining watch. The film could have delved into the philosophy of mind a little more deeply, but you can't expect that sort of rigor from Hollywood.

ADDENDUM: Peter at Conscious Entities, a heavy-duty blog on philosophy of mind, put up his own review of "Ex Machina" way back on May 25th. You'd do well to give his review a read. Oh, and as a bonus, plenty of erudite comments follow Peter's essay.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

"Warrior": review

Fight films are their own genre. 1976's "Rocky" immediately comes to mind as the grandaddy of all fight films, but there were, in fact, movies about combat sports even before "Rocky" came around. It's a long tradition that goes back as least as far as 1947's "Body and Soul," quite possibly the first-ever boxing movie. But what makes the fight-movie genre so perennially popular? There might be a few reasons. Here are three.

The first and most obvious reason is that combat is distilled drama. If, as your old teacher liked to say, the essence of drama is conflict, then what purer conflict is there than a man versus another man in a defined space? As we now know thanks to a million fight-scene clips on YouTube, you don't even need context to get hooked on combat: it's enough just to see two people fighting. So on one level, we watch fight movies for the fights.

A second reason is that we get interested in the characters' histories. While watching a fight in a context-free way might be viscerally interesting, the added layer of emotional investment makes a fight that much more watchable. Think of it this way: it might be compelling to witness a street fight between two guys you don't know, but how much more riveting would it be if you discovered that one of the dudes in the street fight was your best friend? When we're interested and invested in the characters, we have someone to root for.

A third reason is the story itself—the larger situation in which the characters of a fight movie find themselves. A typical scenario might be something like, "youth/man from humble circumstances must prove himself" or "one man wronged another long ago; the two meet in the ring with nothing but revenge on the hero's mind." The "Rocky" movies had certainly covered all this ground by the time we got to "Rocky IV." (A new Rocky film, "Creed," is coming out soon: Stallone plays the trainer to Michael B. Jordan's AJ Creed, son of Apollo.)

"Warrior" (2011) is an excellent film that gives us all three of the above reasons to watch it. At its heart, it's the story of three estranged people: two brothers and their father. Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) used to be a raging, abusive drunk. He's an ex-Marine who saw plenty of blood and guts, then came home and unleashed his inner demons on his wife and two sons, only one of whom—Tommy (Tom Hardy)—he saw fit to train as a wrestler. Tommy's older, gentler brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), eventually abandoned his father in disgust, fell in love with a good woman named Tess (the eternally troubled-looking Jennifer Morrison) and started a family. Tommy, for his part, joined the Marines—a fact that becomes important later in the story.

The tale begins with Tommy appearing on Paddy's doorstep. Tommy has no real love for his father, and after a tense greeting, he lets Paddy know that he wants to start training again in order to sign up for Sparta, a massive competition in mixed martial arts (MMA) that will be open only to the top sixteen middleweight MMA fighters in the world. Tommy insists he's not doing this to rebuild his broken relationship with Paddy, and Paddy gruffly consents to train Tommy again. Tommy also joins a local gym and proceeds to knock out the current top middleweight MMA contender, a guy named Mad Dog Grimes, in mere seconds. The gym manager records the knockout on video and uploads it to YouTube, where it becomes an instant sensation: seeing the invulnerable Grimes knocked out so quickly by a nobody is a shock to the viewing public, and suddenly Tommy is on the map. Although Tommy seems to care about nothing and no one, he cares deeply about the wife and kids of one of his fellow soldiers, a man named Manny, who was killed by friendly fire. Tommy hopes to donate his Sparta winnings to Manny's wife, Pilar.

Brendan Conlon is a high-school physics teacher moonlighting as a low-tier MMA fighter to earn extra cash. He's about to lose his house to foreclosure (he'd had to pay for his daughter's heart surgery), and he's so far in the hole that he can no longer afford to refinance. Some students begin to buzz about one of Brendan's fights; word reaches the principal and the school superintendent at the same time, and although the principal is sympathetic to Brendan's situation, Brendan is suspended without pay: you can't seriously expect to teach at a high school during the day and fight at titty bars in your spare time. Brendan turns to his old friend Frank Campana (real-life training enthusiast Frank Grillo), humbly asking Frank to train him. Tess, meanwhile, has grave misgivings about Brendan's getting back into the ring. She's initially angry with Brendan for having lied to her: he'd told her he had been working as a bouncer. Eventually, Brendan also gets wind of the Sparta competition, and when Frank's best MMA fighter gets injured during training, Brendan asks Frank, who has connections and clout thanks to his reputation as a great trainer, to put him in the roster for Sparta. Miraculously, Frank does this.

Both brothers, meanwhile, have trouble dealing with Paddy, who wants to reinsert himself into his sons' lives. Their mother, Paddy's wife, had died years before; Tommy had taken care of her himself, keeping her far away from Paddy's drunken abusiveness. Brendan refuses to let Paddy into his home to see Brendan's wife and daughters even though Paddy insists he's been sober for a thousand days. Tommy, meanwhile, rebuffs every attempt that Paddy makes to reestablish any sort of normal human contact with him, preferring to view Paddy merely as some old man who's training him.

The rest of the story focuses on Sparta, and if you were unfortunate enough to see the movie's preview trailer when it came out, then you know that the trailer pretty much spoiled this entire part of the film: the event starts off with sixteen fighters, but Tommy and Brendan end up the finalists, and the world is astonished to learn that the finalists are, in fact, brothers. This was bound to happen, of course; it's an example of screenwriterly predestination at work. Conflict is the essence of drama, and with this much familial anger and fury and resentment being flung around between and among the brothers and their father, a Brendan/Tommy matchup is the ultimate conflict in the context of this story. Tommy and Brendan share a tense nighttime scene at the seashore the night before Sparta begins; Tommy lays out his grievances, and so does Brendan. It's a well-scripted and marvelously acted scene—one of many such well-done scenes in the film.

With the third reel spoiled by the preview trailer, the only question left is which brother wins the final fight. Here again, if you were unfortunate enough to see the movie poster (here), this was spoiled for you as well: in the poster, one fighter is obviously helping the other out of the ring, making it clear who came out the victor.

And here's the strange thing: despite having seen the poster and having seen the preview, I was absolutely hooked by this movie. The MMA fight choreography is gritty and realistic; the moments in the ring are filmed in such a way as to bring out maximum tension, and each victory, as Tommy and Brendan fight their respective ways up the ladder, feels earned. The director, Gavin O'Connor (who also produced and scripted this labor of love), is conscientious about showing the differences between Tommy's and Brendan's fighting styles—differences that reflect the brothers' mindsets. For the unstoppable Tommy, almost all of his victories come easily, a result of brute force and naked fury. Brendan, by contrast, takes hits like Rocky, eking out his victories only in the third round of these three-round bouts, and doing so mainly by putting his opponents in a joint lock and forcing them to tap out (i.e., indicate submission by either tapping the mat or tapping the opponent).

We're meant, I think, to root more for Brendan. He comes off as the kind-hearted brother, the one who was hurt by his father, but who, in being a father himself, has refused to pass his demons down to his children. We're also more sympathetic to Brendan, at least at first, because it's obvious from the beginning that his family's lives are at stake: if he fails to win the $5 million purse that Sparta is offering, he loses his home, and his family will end up on the street. Tommy, meanwhile, is a harder sell. For so much of the movie's running time, Tommy comes off as either angry or uncaring, a powder keg of resentment. As Tom Hardy plays Tommy, we're never quite sure if he's going to suddenly lash out at his interlocutor. It's a fantastic performance, vivid in its coiled rage. Later in the movie, though, we see Tommy's good side. He cares deeply for Pilar and her family, and when his father does finally fall off the wagon, Tommy stoically takes care of him, too, in an unwonted moment of tenderness. (Hats off to Nick Nolte for his portrayal of Paddy. Nolte was nominated for an Oscar for this performance.) So even though Brendan comes off as the more sympathetic brother, Tommy, once we come to understand him, deserves our compassion.

"Warrior" is a mature film. It doesn't simplify issues; it leaves certain plot points ambiguous. It's also very well directed: I've seen it four times now, and the intensity never gets old even though I know what's going to happen. A worthy successor to stout-hearted fight films like "Rocky," "Warrior" may in fact be superior to the 1976 film. The movie is, unlike many other movies in this genre, a complex character study. It's also, specifically, a study in masculinity—how men handle and express their pain. Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, neither of whom is American, both manage to pull off convincing Rust Belt accents. Nick Nolte's distinctive, gravelly voice and real-life association with the bottle make him a convincing ex-drunk. If you have the chance to catch "Warrior" on video, do yourself a favor and enjoy a fight movie that seamlessly blends teeth-grinding combat with gritty family drama. I honestly can't say enough good things about this film, which gets my heartiest endorsement.

Scratch off item 3:


1. A review of "Joe," starring Nicolas Cage.
2. A review of both "Tim's Vermeer" and "Jiro Dreams of Sushi."
3. A review of "Warrior," starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and Nick Nolte.
4. Photo of my students giving you the finger.
5. A review of Stephen R. Donaldson's The Last Dark.
6. A review of Suki Kim's Without You, There Is No Us.
7. A review of Bobcat Goldthwait's "God Bless America."
8. A review of "127 Hours," starring James Franco.
9. A long, long-promised review of "Oldboy."
10. A survey of student comments from my previous job.
11. A stupid dialogue with one clueless student.
12. A post that dishes (nothing too terrible) on a friend of mine.
13. A mopping-up post that dumps all the rest of the Pohang photos from last year.
14. A review of "The Lunchbox," starring Irrfan Khan.
15. A post on prescriptivism/descriptivism, linguistic pedantry, and my disagreements with Steven Pinker.
16. Continuing my 7-part overview of A Song of Ice and Fire.
17. A response to Malcolm's response re: gay marriage.