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November 23, 2016

Korean Word of the Month: Bi Jung Sang (Abnormal, Not Top)

This Reuters photo of Korean demonstrators borrowing “not my president” from American protestors really caught my eye. Of course, since this is Korea, it comes out as oori (our) President. The sign on the left has a photo of President Park Geun Hye riding piggyback on someone. I assume this is her notorious buddy Choi Soon Sil, who wears sunglasses a lot.

A photo of two Korean demonstrators in a large crowd holding protest signs that say Not Our President in English

I was curious about the Hangeul words on the sign on the right, so I looked them up. Google persisted in translating the first word, 혼이 as “honey.” This annoyed me, since it is wrong in both meaning and pronunciation. 혼 (Romanized “hon”) is pronounced hone (rhymes with phone), not hun.

Luckily, we already know the meaning of 혼 (soul or spirit) from the title of Lee Seo Jin’s 2009 drama by that name. 이 is a subject marking particle. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry about it. It’s not that significant in a two-word phrase.

The really interesting word is 비정상, which translates as “abnormal,” or has the alternate meaning of “not the summit.” I confirmed these two meanings in several sources. This post to a language blog by a Korean English-learner was especially helpful. Check out the comments.

“Not the Summit”

Even with the help of aforementioned comments, I wasn’t sure I understood the significance of “not the summit.” Then it occurred to me to look up 정상 by itself. It means summit. So apparently 비 has a similar function to 안, which can mean “not” when added to the beginning of a word. Therefore, 비정상 literally means not the top or summit.

But what is the implication of top/summit in Korean? In English, “not the top” might imply that something was unimportant or mediocre. I can’t assume Koreans draw the same association between height and valuableness, though it is a common one in hierarchical societies. In any case, I feel fairly confident that the choice of a word with dual meanings is deliberate. Koreans are big on word play. But we are forgetting 혼, and we shouldn’t. As a phrase, 혼이 비정상 says something like “abnormal (and inferior) spirit.”

Korean Shamanism

If you follow the posts on my Facebook page, you know the current scandal surrounding Park Geun Hye is tied to the recent history of native shamanistic religion in Korea. Such religions were violently suppressed (by Park Geun Hye’s father, among others) in the mid-20th century. Thousands of unique shrines across the country were destroyed, an irretrievable loss.

21st century Korea seems ambivalent about shamanism. It is discounted as superstition unsuited to a modern society. However, the unique Koreanness of it is attracting new attention. Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity dominate Korean spiritual and moral life. None of them are native to Korea.

But they can’t really have it both ways with Park Geun Hye. If association with shamanism erodes her credibility, doesn’t that also denigrate traditional Korean spirituality?

Korean Demonstrators, Broken Promises and Bruised Kibun

It has puzzled me that tens of thousands of Korean protestors are flooding the streets (in very cold weather) over Park’s latest scandal. Seeking feedback from a non-political friend doesn’t seem that scandalous to me. Blackmailing chaebols into making donations is certainly illegal, but the money went to culture and sports nonprofits, not slush funds. There have been numerous other scandals in Park’s administration to date that were far more serious. For example, the Sewol ferry disaster and manipulation of government-supported TV networks, to name just a couple.

Then I started to wonder who these Korean demonstrators were. Are they opposition party members who voted against Park, or are they the people who elected her? If they are the people who put her in office, the intensity of the reaction suddenly makes more sense. If you know a little about kibun, that is. Broken presidential promises may reflect far more personally on a politician’s supporters in Korea than in the U.S. When Park fails, that failure reflects poorly on them.

Kibun is a complex, and very important factor in Korean life, which is why I haven’t written about it. It doesn’t have a direct western parallel, and I wouldn’t want to get it wrong. If you never heard of kibun before, the beginning of this article covers the basics, and may shed some light on Park’s 5% popularity rating.

November 17, 2014

KDrama Word of the Day: Ihon (Divorce)

Road sign for a fork in the road ahead - one arrow splits into twoIhon (이혼) – divorce – is our KDrama word for today. Ihon is the common Romanization, but remember that the Korean letter Romanized as “i” is pronounced “ee,” so eehon would be a better English spelling for it. Like 사랑 (love) and 결혼 (marriage), 이혼 becomes a hada verb: 이혼하다 (ihonhada), “to do divorce.”

You may notice the words for marriage and divorce both include the syllable 혼 (hon). As a standalone word, 혼 means “Soul.” We know this because it was the Korean title of Lee Seo Jin’s striking 2009 horror drama. Does it carry the same meaning within the words for marriage and divorce? Don’t know, but that would make sense.

You can find a huge range of statistics for Korean divorce, many of them badly outdated. Non-Koreans living in Korea contribute to this, reporting divorce as extremely rare, because it is not necessarily talked about. However, the statistics show a different story. Although there is still a strong cultural value to keep families together, especially where there are children, Korean divorce has been steadily rising for more than a decade. Until recently, divorced people rarely remarried (probably because they were not seen as desirable mates), but this too has started to change.

One reason for the change is probably that courts have become a little more sympathetic to Korean women. The prevalence of rural Korean men marrying women from outside of Korea with no preparation for cultural differences is also a factor. Divorce is most common among people over 40. Extreme abuse from or of “lineal ascendants” (i.e., parents or grandparents) of a spouse is listed twice in the six grounds for divorce, but abuse of children is not specifically mentioned. Presumably it would be covered under a catchall item.

Couples can divorce by mutual agreement, or take the divorce to court if they cannot agree on terms. There is a division of property acquired or sustained during the marriage, and child support, but no alimony. Child custody is far more likely to be awarded to the father. There is also common-law-marriage in Korea, which does give spouses some economic rights, but no inheritance rights.

Check out this example divorce case.


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May 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Sisters – Korean horror film review

film poster two girls in blood-covered white dresses seated on a vintage couch, a man and a woman dressed in black standing behind them A Tale of Two Sisters or 장화, 홍련 (2003) is an eerie psychological horror film, reminiscent of American films such as The Others and The Changeling. Although it’s set in the present, the shadowy, timeless ambiance of the Korean-Victorian country home gives it a period feel. For atmosphere, on a scale of 1 to 5, this film rates a 6.

The story is about two girls (Moon Geun Young and Im Soo Jung) who return home to their father (Kim Gab Soo) and new stepmother (Yeom Jeong Ah) after a stay at a mental hospital to recover from the shock of their mother’s death. Or is it? As the film progresses, things get weirder and weirder, until we understand less about what’s going on than we did at the start. The ambiguity between reality and hallucination in this film reminds me a lot of the first half of Hon. Since A Tale of Two Sisters is reputed to be the largest grossing Korean horror film to date, and predates Hon by several years, this is probably not a coincidence. However, Hon does a much better job of using the fantasy element to set a tone without drowning in its own murk.

I’m all for suspense when it’s leading to something, but in A Tale of Two Sisters, the build-up loses focus long before the storyline is hastily wrapped up in the final scenes. The film could have made better use of all that tension if elements of the resolution had been woven in more gradually, and much, much sooner.

As one might expect from the poster, blood abounds, and the film meets all horror requirements for sudden moves by scary figures in odd ways and places. However, the true creepiness of A Tale of Two Sisters lies not in a sense of physical vulnerability, but in the utter helplessness of not being able to trust one’s own brain. The plot is loosely based on a Korean folk story. The folk story’s evil and defamatory stepmother must resonate in Korea, as there have been half a dozen other films based on the same story. But the real strength of this version is its chilling portrayal of the cruelest effect of abuse – corrosion of the victim’s trust in her own perceptions of the world around her.

Although the writing isn’t as engrossing as the mood, A Tale of Two Sisters is worth seeing. Even if its shortcomings leave you unsatisfied, it is undeniably visually arresting, and a necessary entry in any survey of the Korean horror genre.

March 20, 2012

Hon | Soul – Korean drama review, Pt. 2

(Pt. 1 of this review is here.)
THIS REVIEW IS PRETTY MUCH ALL SPOILERS….

“Whew,” I said, as the final episode of Soul ended. “That was intense.” Hon is deep, dark and thought-provoking – not for the timid, and the opposite of escapist.

One of the advantages to watching dramas online is that you can pause and look things up. I researched a number of subjects over the course of watching Hon, from Confucianism to psychopathy, not to mention the lyrics to the T-ara song that closes the drama. Even so, I have a feeling there are additional nuances to Soul that don’t translate for non-Koreans. Lee Seo Jin’s character is named after a 17th century Korean general. Many of the lines exchanged between his character and Kim Gab Soo’s arch-villain Baek Do Shik are Confucian quotes. The T-ara song is called “Lies.”

This is not to say that there is anything specifically Korean about the issues of morality that Soul addresses – on the contrary, they cut to the very core of human identity. What does it mean that we can examine and judge our own emotion-driven behavior, and that of others? Are killers still human? Where are the boundaries of responsibility, between stepping up and overstepping? Can violence be contained without more violence? Are we capable of creating harmony just because we can conceive of it, or are we doomed to yearn for a safety that is congenitally beyond our grasp?

If Hon offers any answer, it’s that courage to act on an independent moral imperative without honesty – particularly within oneself – is more likely to be sinister than heroic. That’s not a much of an answer, certainly not one that makes the world a safer place. We can hardly rely on the consciences of real psychopaths, who have no capacity for remorse, and can there be serial killers who are not psychopaths? I hope not, but that’s another of Hon’s questions.

Whether or not such a man could really exist, Lee Seo Jin makes his character all too credible in both of his extremes, breaking our hearts in the process. Though his girlfriend (Lee Jin) is portrayed as naive in her comprehension of evil, hers is the stronger moral compass. She lies for him when she believes he’s innocent, but when she discovers a different truth, she faces it unflinchingly and acts immediately.

Although Hon isn’t ultimately about their characters, the performances of Im Joo Eun, Park Ji Yeon and Park Gun Il must not be neglected. They are all essential to the storyline. Im Joo Eun walks a very fine line between vulnerability and helplessness – if she were less skilled, Lee Seo Jin’s investment in protecting her innocence (even as he exploits it) couldn’t have worked. Her connection with Park Ji Yeon is particularly sweet – we don’t see loving sisters very often in Korean drama. Im Joo Eun also does a great job with her spirit possession/psychotic break scenes, which can’t have been easy.

Poor Park Gun Il plays a more familiar character, the devoted and overlooked lover. Yet, we wonder for a time whether he’s the real serial killer. He doesn’t seem to have graduated to larger roles yet – I hope he’ll get that chance. Chun Jung Myung, recently of Young Love Jae In fame, has a brief but effective turn as the young Shin Ryu, where his ability to project open-heartedness enhances the poignance of the backstory.

One of the things I learned during Hon-related surfing was that Korea has produced a crop of extremely violent revenge films during the last decade or two (which were disturbingly popular, inside and outside of Korea). This saddens me, but shouldn’t really surprise me, as revenge and violence crop up in all but the most trivial Korean dramas. The cultural, spiritual and geopolitical pressures that Korea is now grappling with and attempting to integrate boggle the mind. Something’s gotta give.

Perhaps that is why I continue to be riveted. I do ask myself “Why Korea?” What is it about this culture that mesmerizes me and so many others from widely divergent cultures? Korea is a puzzle I’m compelled to try and assemble, even knowing that I may never find all of the pieces I need to see the whole picture. Somehow, Korea’s questions are my questions, urgent and essential human questions upon which the very persistence of our planet may depend. I can’t ignore them, as my own culture seems determined to do. I don’t know whether they can be resolved, but I have to care. That’s my own definition of being human.

March 17, 2012

Hon | Soul - mid-series Korean drama review

Soul, aka Hon (혼), Possessed, and Ghost, is a 10-episode 2009 MBC Korean drama series. Since I’m on a Lee Seo Jin kick, it was a natural choice for my next drama (on DramaFever it’s called Soul). I couldn’t wait to see what Korean drama did with the horror format.

After 5 episodes, I can report that there are plenty of horror staples in Soul – angry dead people with zombie make-up and gravity-defying locomotion, lots and lots of blood, baby-faced psychopaths, mirror tricks, innocents in white and villains in black, and, making a late entrance, religious references.

For the first couple of episodes, I wasn’t sure I’d continue watching. From the opening scene, the story is disjointed, leaping from dream to hallucination to reality (or is it?), and across multiple, seemingly unconnected storylines. The timeline jumps around too – flashbacks, flash forwards, alternate timelines, you name it. We are never quite sure who is who, or what is what.

I wondered whether the multi-episode drama form could sustain the customary horror tension over such a span. It does, not only with the non-sequential elements mentioned above, but through a pervasive sense of isolation and alienation. Although Soul is set in an urban environment, the streets are often curiously empty, or when there are bystanders to witness abnormal behavior, they glance and move on. Authorities are conspicuously absent.

I was initially unimpressed with Lee Seo Jin in his role as a renowned forensic psychologist. After LSJ, self-loathing vampire, and LSJ, self-reforming gangster/lover, LSJ as a successful professional seemed superficial, too normal. I actually thought his ability to delve into inner conflict was wasted. Hah! By episode 5, I was ROFL at the irony of my earlier impression. This may be his most twisted character yet. Whereas the vampire and the gangster knew they had issues, and were inspired to confront them when an innocent was endangered, this LSJ has a different reaction to “purity,” as he calls it, and justifies to himself some very immoral and unethical behavior indeed. Watch out, LSJ – don’t become that which you seek to destroy!

And yet, the morality of this series is complicated, and that is really what it has to offer. It tackles issues like the boundary between mental illness and spiritual experience, between law and justice, and most importantly, between growth and innate personality. It’s no accident that of the several Korean words that translate as “soul,” “hon” refers to “inner character.”

So it won’t surprise you to hear that Soul is not light entertainment. I’m not sure it’s entertainment at all. But if you are interested in Korean culture, or in what makes people tick (or both), you will find it fascinating. One character says to LSJ, “The world is a giant mental hospital. No one’s sane. There’s no need to be smug about being less mad.” As the series progresses, we’re not at all sure that LSJ IS less mad. But how sane is it to let monsters walk the streets?

There’s no genre like horror to reveal a culture’s collective subconscious, and Korea clearly has some major guilt about prospering on the ashes of unavenged ancestors, and similarly neglecting present-day victims. So far, neither law nor vigilantism is a satisfactory solution. Will Hon offer us a third path? Stay tuned. (Review Pt. 2)

P.S. – Note to Lee Jin: when your BF gives you a demonstration on helplessness by holding a knife to your throat, RUN! Don’t EVER come back! Seriously, girl!