빠삐코 + 놈놈놈 = 빠삐놈 (And an Update on the Starcraft Pansori, with Video)

Note: I’ve made a (substantial) couple of edits and additions to this post since it first went up. Those resulting from comments — changes — are clearly marked as updates, but those that are additions of information or observation aren’t, since it reduces readability to have a bunch of EDIT marks throughout. Anyway, apologies to anyone who suddenly notices a bunch of context that wasn’t there before!

Here’s a very odd video that I’d like to briefly unpack for y’all, as an example of very neat, strange, and utterly Korean cross-fertilization of pop culture that goes on here, and especially as an example of Korean pop culture as a product of imported and “remixed” genres, materials, content, and more, a subjet of increasing interest to me because it seems that Korean pop culture is, currently, in a state of, well… pardon the kimchi reference, but it’s in a state of ferment. That is, when I look at pop culture here, from the weirdest to the most tame, what I find is that a great deal of it still consists of derivative creativity.

I want to be clear by saying what I mean by “derivative,” because music and art critics and creative people in general use that word in a pejorative way a lot of the time. We call music like, say, Britney Spears’ music “derivative” in a negative sense, meaning it adds nothing to pop music, but simply repackages what’s already out there to generate more money from the same content. Doubtless, we could also say the same of a lot of Korean pop acts, including those accused of stealing from the derivative work of Americans.

But that kind of discussion is much less interesting than looking at how derivative creation here can be seen as a positive. I’m even more leery, after having seen some older Korean films at PiFan last week, to make pronouncements about the history of pop culture in Korea, but I will say that certain things — like the Korean Western I’ll be mentioning below — seem “new” to the young people I know here. New, not because Koreans have never seen Westerns, mind you, but because Koreans have not seen many (or maybe any) Westerns with Korean characters in them.

Which makes sense, when you consider that Westerns are a kind of American mythology. But if Italians could make it their own — and if Hong Kong could do it — why not Koreans, too? For all the snideness with which some people might criticize this as Koreans copying Western entertainment genres, I see copying as the first step in mastering a creative form. Writers, when they start out, often write stories based on the books or movies they’ve seen. Composers and songwriters start out by imitating the songs they like most. Yes, a point comes when people move beyond that. I suspect it will take a while here; as many old-timers have said to me, all kinds of interesting, unique pop culture stuff was simply killed off after the financial (aka IMF) crisis here. (Though according to author Ch’oe Yun, the worst affected was literature.)

Bits and pieces of foreign culture have been flowing into Korea for hundreds of years, of course… a book on my shelf, titled A Korean Storyteller’s Miscellany, translated by Peter H. Lee, is essentially a literary collection of bits and scraps collected from all kinds of sources, many of them recounting stories set in China. Buddhism, (Neo-)Confucianism, Taoist, and Shamanic beliefs — if you’re talking about the form they have taken in Korea, you’re talking about remixes there, too. The Korean language has been remixed, too, with vast amounts of foreign (Chinese) words injected into it. They remixed themselves an alphabet.

I’m not sure if this is especially characteristic of “crossroads societies” — societies which exist in crossroads points between different, bigger cultures that meet and mingle in their lands — but I can say that, in terms of creative development, ripping off foreign creativity is a well-entrenched stage in the development of a pop culture.

On top of that, whatever the rate influx of foreign pop culture was thirty, forty, or fifty years ago, the realistic thing to consider is that, the internet’s influence on all this probably amounted to little more than a trickle influencing the cutting-edge few back in 1994 or 1995, but by around 1999 or 2000 (according to the people I’ve talked to, including many college-aged students who tell me that’s when they first went online), the trickle had turned into a full-on gush — a sloshing firehose of foreign pop culture and content that people could access with almost as much ease as any domestic pop culture. (Almost, except for the language barrier.)

The implications were profound for fashion, for youth identity, gender politics, the demands made of the domestic entertainment industry (and the offers made by it), and much more. And I think it would be remarkable if we didn’t see a massive increase in derivative creative works in the Korean entertainment industry — all that raw material to be remixed into a Korean form! All that stuff just waiting to be explored, now that both poltical and infrastructural barriers to accessing everything in the rest of the world’s pop culture are gone.

(Sort of. I’m still waiting for Korea to figure out how neat Bollywood musicals are, and start producing the Korean equivalent.)

I’ll get into that in later installments on this series — which I’ll get to once I’ve dug away at some of the stuff I want to write about in other series, and once i’ve had more of a chance to research the history of the Net and net culture here — but for the moment, I’ll get back to unpacking that strange little video I mentioned earlier. First, have a look:

Now, if you’ve just watched the video, depending on whether you live in Korea, some of that might make sense. There are a few things mixed in there, some of which I don’t know about, but I’ll unpack the three that are explicable.

The first is the references to the film The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, a recently-released Korean film; indeed, a “kimchi” Western (tribute to spaghetti Westerns, apparently) that sets its tale of three Korean outlaws in the wild west in the lawless Manchuria of the 1930s.

3nom movie poster

This is where the Korean cowboy footage in the video comes from, along with the “놈놈놈” part of the formula: the word 놈 (nom) is roughly equivalent to “bastard” or “jerk” in English, though slightly more fluid in its range, I think — it can be much less negative than bastard, or somewhat stronger, too — and the title of the movie in Korean — 좋은놈나쁜놈이상한놈 — refers to the Good, the Bad, and the Weird (the three main characters) using this word. Thus the 놈놈놈 (nom-nom-nom) reference. Indeed, the movie’s website is 3nom.co.kr. Anyway, that’s what the very pulp-ish Latin guitar music is supposed to evoke — though as far as I know, [EDIT: a version of — see the comments section for more.] that song is part of the Kill Bill soundtrack; I don’t know whether it the same version appears in the Korean film at all, but it suits the cowboy imagery very well anyway.

(EDIT: And it’s worth noting that the film itself being a “kimchi Western” makes it a remix of a remix (the “spaghetti Western”) of a genre that was, in itself, very much a remix of older kinds of stories. Perhaps all the good cowboys have daddy issues because the genre has daddy issues: in every Lone Ranger, there’s a Robin Hood, and in every Billy the Kid there’s a pirate or rebel.)

The second source of content — the drum beat at the beginning where the rapper is saying something about “I’m gonna make ya move… I’m gonna make ya cool… I’m gonna make you dance… I’m gonna make ya move…” or whatever that is, is take from a video by a rapper/DJ named DJ Koo, who apparently is a member of the Japanese group TRF a Korean DJ. (With the same name as several other DJs around the world, frustratingly. But the track used in this remix is called 왜 (Wae) and it’s among the tracks offered up for download here, though I’m not sure which mix the sample comes from — or how different the various mixes of that track are…)

The third, and most interesting, snippet is one that the file’s original maker — and many Koreans old enough to remember it from childhood — found to match very well with the Latin guitar music, especially because of the rhythm in the first half of the voice riff. It’s from a really old commercial for a kids’ popsicle called a 빠삐코 (Papico, which sounds like a Japanese pronunciation of “popsicle” and guess what, it’s apparently a Japanese product), which is documented extensively here, and is also pictured in this ad:

Or in this ad, which features a little (black? or blackfaced?) kid making the same goofy faces as a Japanese woman:

Here’s a more recent Papico ad:

… and a somewhat older one, also from Japan:

…and, hell, here’s one where the previously only mildly suggestive fact that the thing looks like a phallus consumed by sucking on it is shoved right into your face:

(The phallus thing is funny. I remember when I first saw discarded Papico containers on the ground, I thought what I was seeing was discarded condoms, like one occasionally saw in one park near my home in Montréal. One of the people who’d been in Korea longer pointed it out and explained they were from popsicles.)

But anyway, since those ads are all Japanese, they have the Japanese advertising tune. The Korea one is rather different — to my ear, more garish, with much stranger visuals. The following video file includes two versions of the song used in the 빠삐놈 remix, plus a couple of more recent-looking ads — though, still weird and garish!

(EDIT: And note, right from the start, that they are a Korean treatment of how to advertise the same product advertised above in a very different way to a Japanese audience… and though most of the Japanese ads are, I think, more recent, even more recent 빠삐코 ads in the series are radically different from contemporaneous Japanese ones.)

One of the interesting changes is that in the most recent ad, there’s no music at all. Something makes me think that the fashionability of using old-fashioned 뽕짝 music in advertising — as in the first 빠삐코 ads — died out, but that it hasn’t quite been replaced by anything else. What’s left is a vague detritus of music, usually just a tiny hook at the end of ads, usually containing only five of six notes, a single measure with an upward leap at the final pitch, an end-hook so common and stylized that at this point, it is used to end ads for fridges, food products, and loan companies alike. One wonders to what degree the usability of 뽕짝 in advertising and the use of English language catchphrases dovetailed, so that as the latter began to rise in prominence, the former began to fade out. But in any case, the 뽕짝 version must still have been on air by the mid-80s, if people Lime’s age remember it.

Well, it turns out there’s a grand tradition of making mashups with this song, in fact. Here are a couple involving Tom Jones and Asian pop group I’ve never seen before, but which looks Japanese to me:

Anyway, there’s the majority of the content in the 파피놈 mashup. (But I still don’t know who the guy talking at the end is! Sorry!) It’s a single tiny example, but it’s part of the very odd UCC storm that’s still spreading through the Korean internet even now — a storm in which copyrighted and non-copyrighted materials, foreign and local media, are all mashed together to create something rather like Korea itself has become: a hodgepodge of the garlic-scented old days and the media-saturated tomorrowland alike. And yet a great deal of what’s in there is a direct result of Koreans interacting with imported content, goods, genres, ideas, and so on — since even the now out-of-fashion 뽕짝 seems to owe much to older Japanese “enka” and pop music (which in turn owes much Western music of some kind or other, though I don’t know the trajectory there.)

This track has really caught on, too; it gained popularity when it was posted at DCInside, a website I’ll be posting about sooner or later, as it’s very important to the early formation of the Korean internet and yet so many foreigners here have never heard of it. Anyway, if you search 빠삐놈 you can find the video or track crossposted to a number of blogs, myspace, and of course several times to Youtube. In fact, I believe the video up above is a later creation of someone other than the person who remixed the tune on a lark, apparently in just a couple of hours.

And it’s just one example of remixing “kid stuff” and “grownup stuff” I’ve noticed over the years. One of my students, as a remixing assignment, did an arrangement of the Teuli theme song, from this cartoon:

… as a passionate R&B piece, and had everyone (except me and the foreign students) in utter stitches. (She somehow didn’t realize that she was supposed to remix something in English, but ah well…) And then there’s the infamous Starcraft Pansori I posted about here (there’s a downloadable clip there, too), though I’ve since located a video of a performance, here:


The remixing is this crazy, nutty, and fascinating process. James mentioned in a recent post how this is also being used consciously by advertisers, and it seems to be on the rise in the fine arts too (this paper mentions new pansori on modern themes, including the same Tuli cartoon I mentioned above), but I’m more interested in how and why non-professionals are doing it.

(UPDATE: As for 빠삐놈, I think someone’s already re-remixed the remix, throwing in some Lee Hyori (among other things, though I can’t make the file play in Linux, and Windows won’t even boot up anymore. (Gah! I think I need a new hard drive, too…) Go see for yourself, and report back, if you feel so inclined…)

Right, that’s as much of the story of 빠삐놈 as I care to dig up for you tonight.

And now for the bonus round!The same J-pop singer from the Papico ads, now singing a (very) vaguely Latin song: This has got to be the most disturbing advertisement I’ve ever seen:

Last but not least (slightly less relevant since Koo is actually Korean, not Japanese as I originally though, but still true; this song could be played at any club in the world and people wouldn’t miss much):

Ever notice how Noncommunicative English Slang and Hummable Riffs have essentially intersected to form a single universal language of intercultural dross-based cooperation? That’s what made songs like “I’m Too Sexy” and “Barbie Girl” possible, and actually, ABBA, too. Which is not to be too critical — better we cooperate on dross than on blowing one another up, right? Anyway, the following video, by the aforementioned DJ Koo and some Korean singer who goes by Hana, directly references at least one early 90s track — by C&C Music Factory, of all things — and has other riffs that just barely invoke other songs — I hear that little signature mixolydian riff from Madonna’s “Material Girl” in the tune, as well — and I’d wager someone more knowledgeable than me could probably reference a number of the dance moves and especially Hana’s so-familiar slow-walk prance routine directly to some 1980s or 1990s performer, American or otherwise.

13 thoughts on “빠삐코 + 놈놈놈 = 빠삐놈 (And an Update on the Starcraft Pansori, with Video)

  1. the song is “don’t let me be misunderstood” by Santa Esmeralda. It was also the theme song for the pilot of an old gameshow called “bullseye”, if wikipedia is to be trusted.

  2. My wife and I saw 놈놈놈 this past weekend. It was pretty good, actually. Probably not the best film of the year, and I don’t know if it will win any awards, but we both liked it for two reasons:

    1) It wasn’t tragically sad, and
    2) It didn’t have some weird moral or lesson at the end.

    As I’m sure you know, a lot of Korean films suffer from one of these two problems, if not both. But 놈놈놈 was free of them, and we could just sit back and enjoy the over-the-top ridiculousness of it for two hours.

    Incidentally, the music is not from the Kill Bill soundtrack, although it is reminiscent of it. I actually liked the music a lot, and I think I might pick up the soundtrack at some point.

    Finally, 놈 is a difficult one to translate. “Jerk,” maybe, but probably not “bastard.” When translating negative terms, slang, or curses, I always submit the word to the “polite company test.” In other words, would I say this word in polite company? If so, then I choose a word in English that I would feel comfortable saying in polite company. This is why I will almost never translate 똥 as “sh*t,” even though a lot of Westerners seem to enjoy doing just that.

    Anyway, the meaning of 놈 depends a lot on the modifier that precedes it. It definitely has a rough, not entirely positive feel to it, but it can also be used to convey familiarity rather than negativity (in some cases, I might even translate it as “dude”).

    I have babbled enough, I think.

  3. Robo,

    Thanks! That put a piece of the puzzle more clearly in place, though now I’m left wondering what version was sampled — it seems to be the one from Kill Bill, but with the handclaps cut, but the film version here:

    … is a little more ornate. I wonder if there’s an instrumental version of them theme appearing in the film’s “score” somewhere. (And I’m just barely resisting the tantalizing job of tracing the different popular versions of the song back to the Nina Simone version, here:

    Also, I still don’t know whether it’s in the Korean film’s soundtrack. (Charles, you saw it! Was it?)


    Yeah, man. Though the “moral” thing sometimes can make a film interesting as a critical viewer — 하녀 and 바람난 가족 being two films separated by approximately 40 years, with remarkably similar moral messages — though in the end, the woman’s response to it is to sin the same was as her husband in the newer movie — it can be a little tedious.

    I find tragically sad films are okay, but I also find Korean films that try to be tragically sad often end up over-the-top or muddled with melodrama, and that doesn’t entertain me. I’m convinced that’s a recognized dramatic style here, though: I’ve seen young people filming melodramas for drama classes, or whatever, and they were doing the same thing: long shots of one actor saying, essentially, “Hey! Hey, Chulsoo! Wake up! Are you okay? Wake up! Chulsoo! Please, wake up! Please be okay! I love you! Please! Please!…” for so long that you keep thinking the shot will end, but they keep going. It’s found a cruddy homemade drama worldwide, I’m sure, but it’s been in so many TV shows I’ve seen as well.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing the film, even if it is just for kicks.

    Maybe it’s a different version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstod” that’s used in the Korean film — was it all instrumental? I tried to listen to a preview but none of the Korean websites seemed to like Lionux enough to play it for me — but that is the same song from the Tarantino Volume 1, the bit with the fight in the snow at the end, I think.

    As for 놈, good point. I used “bastard” because it’s a word my friends and I used to use in the same way — it could be “f*cking asshole,” or it could mean, “buddy.” Maybe that’s too idiosyncratic, though. (I’ve occasionally gotten into trouble with the more priggish older people I’ve known for the way I speak around them; I’ll tend to assume a word like bullshit is 100% acceptable, and a phrase like “son of a bitch” is permissible when highlighting extreme distaste for someone. Others have disagreed. So I guess the easiest way is to triangulate on how permissible it seems among others in this or that usage? You being more polite than me, I’m sure your instincts work well. (Though, come to think of it, I’m way more polite in Korean until someone pushes my buttons hard.)

    I’ve heard the word used in such a range — from calling someone on to a fight, to someone slapping his buddy on the back in approval for someone winning a prize or “getting the girl” — that only a range of words can do as translations.

    As for 똥=shit, I think they have a prurient pleasure in the fact that the word just isn’t a cuss here. Then again, I think a lot of them are in that generation and class where the forcefulness of the cuss is rather watered down. Hell, I am to some degree myself. But even I rendered it as “Dog Poop Girl.” (Though I can, in that one case, almost understand using the word “shit” as it captures some of the really vicious emotion that the backlash against her was fueled by.)

    “Dude”… unfortunately that seems to be becoming a Korean word, at least among trend-setting netizen otaku of Lost who hang out over at DCInside (and rapidly fansub, in real time) the show and post episodes and fansubs the same day a new episode comes out.

    Babble more if you like — your discussions of translation are fascinating.

    PS: More remixes of remixes. Not great, but interesting as part of the social process.

  4. Ah, crap (똥!)… neither of those videos work. The first one is no longer available, and the second just refuses to play. Anyway, the version in 놈놈놈 is all instrumental, and it sounds almost like a dance remix. I suppose I should admit that I’m not familiar enough with Kill Bill to say if it’s the same mix–I saw the scene you refer to, but I just don’t remember.

    As far as gnome (hah, I made a funny) goes, I think what it ultimately comes down to is that Koreans will often use the word with a modifier, and the modifier makes all the difference. When used without a modifier, it is almost neutral, but still definitely leaning toward the negative. Of course, it also depends on who is doing the talking.

    I was deliberately vague on the two things I enjoyed about 놈놈놈. Granted, it’s not the kind of film you watch for the plot twists, but I still didn’t want to spoil it. To qualify it a bit, though, I would change “weird moral or lesson” to “sappy moral or lesson,” and add the idea of over-the-top melodrama to the tragically sad part.

    Still, though, I’m not really one for sad films. Did you ever see Taegeukgi Hwinallimyeo? I thought it was a really good film, but I bawled my eyes out in the cinema watching it. We bought the DVD shortly after it came out, but we haven’t been able to work up the courage to watch it. So I think a film can be tragically sad and still be good, but it’s going to be something of an ordeal for me to watch it–and that’s not generally why I go to the cinema.

  5. OK, so apparently the YouTube problem is with FF… no YouTube videos are working at all now.

    I watched the second video in IE, and I have to honestly say that I don’t recognize anything that might be similar to what appeared in the film. There was a moment when I thought I might have caught a musical phrase that sounded similar, but then it was gone.

  6. Charles,

    Yeah, I’ve been having weird Youtube errors too — of the “This video is no longer available” type.

    Which probably makes me posting this silly, but anyway — does this sound familiar? It’s the Santa Esmerelda track as used in Kill Bill 1:

    (I should add that I’ll be seeing the movie soon anyway, so I’ll be able to say whether it’s the same track then.)

    The 빠삐놈 thing seems to be lacking the handclaps, or else they’re submerged in the noise of DJ. Koo’s beats, I’m not sure, but it’s (relatively) easy to cut percussion if you know what you’re doing, and if you have something else to fill up the space and cover for residual noise.

    What’s hilarious is that your discussion of “nom” reminds me of how people explained Japanese phrases to me back in undergrad, as if it was all so utterly mystifying and impossible for foreigners to understand. But here we are, discussing the various ways in which the meaning of a Korean word can vary according to tone, context, speaker, qualifiers, and so on.

    I think I first figured out “nom” could be polite when someone smiling widely slapped his buddy on the back and used the word when the buddy confessed to having gotten himself a girlfriend. And in some movie, a teacher was whacking kids on the head and called them “nom,” as he terrified the kids. Then of course, gangster movies have the best modifiers for “nom.”

    (I have to admit that my favorite is one I heard in Jeolla, where I noticed people often pronounce 씨 as 쎄 (ie. “shay,”) or so it sounds to me. Nobody I’ve mentioned it to believes it until I point it out while someone else is doing it, though. Anyway, rough-spoken guys in Jeolla would say “아이, 쎄~발!). It has always sounded a little harsher and more, I don’t know, 시골 (countrified?) to me. :)

    I’ll let you know what I think of 놈놈놈 once I’ve seen it. But it seems our tastes may differ in Korean films, anyway — Taegukgi didn’t do so much for me. It was alright for a war movie, but it didn’t move me to tears, for various reasons I can’t quite remember and which I apparently didn’t write about here at the time. (I thought it was sad, I thought it was well-made, but maybe I sensed a degree of, uh, manipulation one expects from, say, Lars von Trier, but which just pushed me out of the movie too often? I think that was the gist of my feeling. But it’s so long ago I saw it that I can’t remember.) I’d like to see some older Korean war films, to see how they depict things.

    Like you not going to films for an ordeal, I tend to prefer not to be told what to think. One of the first Korean films I saw was 결혼은 미친지시나, which was not so great, really, as a film — nothing brilliant — but it also was a bit of a The Lady and the Tiger story, in that you’re left not with judgment, but with a question: ought one to marry for stability and comfort, or for sexual passion and attraction? (I’m not sure “love” comes into it in the story, to be honest.) I had a long discussion with the friend I’d seen it with, and we differed in opinions. It was kind of cool that a film could spark a discussion like that.

    But films that have that affect are relatively few and far between, so I settle for laughing my guts out, being surprised, and sometimes, the good old pleasures of watching characters doing the only thing they could do, even if it’s a little predictable. But like you, weeping’s not a regular attraction for me.

  7. I also saw taegukki,, and while yeah, the production values were high, and the cast was pretty famous, frankly, it lost me at “hello” — the first twenty minutes of the movie made life before the war out to be so perfect, idyllic and ideal that I was laughing sardonically right from the start, kind of like in the first twenty minutes of a TV movie of the week, the kid that gets cancer is just too perfect a kid for them to get through an entire movie without something awful happening to them (cf Bridge To Terabithia) — and we all know, the better the person to begin with, the worse their end will be, for the sake of pathos.

    I put Taegukki in the same category as “Top Gun” — either the best bad movie ever made, or the worst good movie, but, like you, I don’t like being told what to think, so in the end, I didn’t buy the beginning, and watched the whole movie through a bit cynically after it tried to manipulate me at the get-go.

    On the other hand, I think it was an important movie to have made in Korea — I think that movies are one of the ways a culture collectively gives itself permission to grieve, and you can see that all through Korea’s war-themed movies — from Welcome to Dongmakgeol to Taekukki, in the same way you see it in Platoon for VietNam, Spielberg’s (and so many others’) WWII movies, etc.. Good or bad, those movies had to be made.

  8. Robo,

    I know what you mean, though I can’t remember enough of the opening to say if I felt that way when I saw Taegukgi.

    Sometimes, though, when I look at idealizations — Welcome to Dongmakgol being a major example! — I have to stop myself and say, “Wait a minute! Isn’t that how it is in Hollywood too?” The idealization of the past has been so effectively carried out in some Hollywood films that we forget life wasn’t like that, either.

    I think there’s even a kind of manipulation that invites you to a game, like, for example, in 효자동 이발사, where I felt like a lot of history was being glossed over not to hide things, but as part of the game. How much sympathy can you develop for Park? How idyllic can we make the past — even a torture session — look? It’s the kind of manipulation that’s all out on the table, and interesting.

    (And for example, like superhero movies. The Superhero never is tempted to use his powers to make big bucks? Never loses his shit and commits a crime of passion? Well, at least we have Watchmen coming…)

    Anyway, when it comes to a film like Welcome to Dongmakgol or The Barber of Hyojadong I just think literalist readings miss a great deal of the point, which is that they’re more like fairytales about modern history.

    Anyone whose brain is working doesn’t think that life in 1948 in Korea was idyllicly perfect — or that those of differing ideologies in Korea were all buddy-buddy until the bad Americans (and, er, Russians who made no appearance in Dongmakgol) stepped in and messed things up. But the movies mythologize the same kind of loss and longing that from what I’ve read of Korean lit has long been a recurring theme. Read as being a fantastical exorcism of Korea’s contemporary anxieties and identity issues, there are still problems with Welcome to Dongmakgol but fewer and less awful than if one decides to treat it as some kind of moronically-conceived historical drama. Which, really, it doesn’t advertise itself as being, at all. It’d kind of be like a Korean critiquing the first Shrek movie as monarchist, Eurocentric, and anti-modern, when really, it’s making fun of old fairy-tale tropes, about remixing the media landscape we live in, and as much about being different in our world today, and about contemporary changes in gender roles and all kinds of stuff. If you miss all that when you talk about Shrek, you kind of look like a tool. But increasingly I suspect Western viewers are missing all kinds of things in (some of) the Korean films we watch, too.

    That’s not to say Dragon Wars is great cinema and the Anglo world (and rare Korean critics) are fools for having missed it, but rather to say I suspect that sometimes the language barrier (한국어) isn’t the only “language barrier” to understanding certain Korean films. Like, for example, nearly every movie in which I’ve seen Moon Sori. (Sigh: Moon Sori rocks.)

  9. Gord,

    For some reason, the video works for me in IE (but not in FF). Whatever. Anyway, it does sound familiar, but I think it’s a different mix. It’s not just the handclaps. There is something else, but I can’t quite say what.

    As for Taegeukgi, all I have to say is this: you are all too cynical. I’m not going to get into an extended discussion of the point now, though, so I’ll chalk it up to differences in tastes.

  10. using superhero powers to make big bucks? Isn’t that what PP did at the beginning of Spiderman 1 when he fought “bone saw” in that weird wrestling scene?

    but that’s the thing, isn’t it, Gord — the idealization of the past — I mean, movies are the purest, fastest form of mythmaking a culture’s ever come up with — nobody knows or cares about william wallace’s real story, because Braveheart was more gripping — I’ve picked up that idea a few times here and there, that a good story travels faster than the rigors of truth, and I think it’s true — you can quickly learn the true story of the “angry german kid” who went viral on the internet. . . but it doesn’t make as good copy, and isn’t as likely to make me hit the forward button. a good story has more legs than fact. . . apply to numerous situations in numerous countries’ politics.

    i didn’t mean that Welcome to Dongmakgeol ought to be taken as a historical drama, of course; however, emotionally, I think that movie puts the Korean feeling of loss of innocence in that war, and the unresolved hurt of a divided Korea, into a package that communicates those feelings extremely well, in a way that outsiders can understand more easily, and that children can tune into more readily, than a Korean language screed.

    sometimes I wonder about that, too — whence the preponderance of ambulances, wheelchairs and hospital beds in breaks in Korean ballads, and even sex comedies? Is that just a goofy fondness for melodrama, or is there something I’m missing — if I look at something like that and decide to judge it, I’ll lose respect for Koreans, so I try to look at stuff like that as a chance to learn something about Korea, but what can be learned from it? I don’t know. (yet, I suppose) and yeah, there’ll be nuances that can’t make it past the language barrier, that I’d have to learn Korean well enough to get, but I think there’s enough there in the main gestures to make useful observations, as long as they’re qualified.

    somebody once told me that “radio star” — that korean film about the washed-up popstar — somehow channeled something about Korean friendship that she didn’t think I could understand. I found it a touching story about loyalty between friends close as brothers. So didn’t I get it? or is the Korean idea of Jung not as mysterious as it’s cracked up to be? or did I get enough of it to THINK I got it, but missed the crucial je ne sais quoi that really got to the heart of things, and made it a uniquely Korean film?

    ditto for “The King and the Clown” -the lee jun ki movie. Somebody told me I probably wouldn’t be able to get it, and I’m pretty sure that I got whatever was there to be gotten. . . ???

    anyway, enough about that for now.

  11. charles: you’re right. I probably am too cynical. sometimes I like to set my mind in “receive” mode and just take something in, but Taegukki didn’t make me want to do that, for aesthetic reasons on which we probably do differ. It was a well-made movie, though. One of the best-made Korean movies I’ve seen. Up there with Shilmido and The Host.

  12. Charles,

    Weird. But you’re in Windows, right? Here in Linux-land, I had to fiddle to get Youtube to work in FF in the first place, but now that it works, I still sometimes get those “unavailable” error messages — even for videos I know are available.

    Well, I’ll be checking out the 놈놈놈 film tomorrow before I see you, so I’ll tell you my impression (and whether I recognize the song) then. Oh, if only I could listen to the damned file sample from the 놈놈놈 soundtrack.

    I don’t know if cynicism is a good exaplanation, seeing as I turn into a little kid (i.e no complaints about continuity or plot holes) when watching any Bollywood film, for example. Perhaps having seen Taegukgi on a small screen in a DVD-방 didn’t help — I imagine it’s more moving on the big screen. But yeah, it’s also probably partly a taste issue: I’ve never been very big on war movies. (Maybe favorite was Le Grand Illusion which was, anyway, about escaping a prisoner camp, more than about war.)

    I’ll have to ask Lime what she thought of it, as I remember her also being a bit so-so on the film. (I couldn’t be mixing it up her reaction with Silmido, which we were both less impressed by, though it was a well-made film too.)


    Ha, I missed the Angry German Kid thing when it went around. Ah well…

    I should note that I think fantasy is for grown-ups too… that repackaging emotions and mythologies is what adults do all the time, we just demand a few more “literal” facts thrown in. Isn’t Pan’s Labyrinth as “realistic” as any war film, in a sense? Just, realistic about things have have little to do with history.

    And in that vein, Hobsbawm and Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition is a great book for showing how so much of tradition everywhere is recent inventions granted an aura of historicity. I’m reminded of a post I made long ago — though, please, forgiven my know-it-all-ness, as it was my first year here — about how Chuseok apparently was a far different affair in the distant historical past.

    Anyway, yes, I’m beginning to think there are some “genres” in Korean film that we don’t have in exactly the same way. There vast number sexual morality plays is an interesting one — one that snapped into focus as something that had a long tradition behind it when I saw 하녀 in the cinema last week, and found myself strongly reminded of films like 바람난 가족 — which I think deserves looking at, though I should see if any academics have had anything to say about it, and I think there may be similar thngs going on in melodrama, too. Sort of like how “Reincarnation drama” was at some point a mainstay in Indian film (understandably, given the widespread belief in it, and its prominence in Indian literature — there’s at least one major plot twist I remember in the Mahabharata that turns on reincarnation and revenge), but never became a genre in the West, despite having featured in one or two films (like Dead Again or Made in Heaven or What Dreams May Come. (Or in Korea, either, despite 번지점프를 하다. Which is by the way the oddest reincarnation drama I’ve ever seen.)

    Kind of like how Westerners kind of scratch their heads at how so many Koreans think of “ballads” as a musical genre… I suspect the configuration of genres here follow subtly different forms. Not exclusively different, just, with different points of overlap that let lots of people assume there’s no difference, and that the odder Korean examples are really badly-done versions of foreign genres. Some are, of course — Korea hasn’t been kind to SF, for example — but some may be bad examples of foreign genres because they’re playing by a different set of rules and conventions, which, if you’re not familiar, will make the thing less penetrable.

    (Sort of like how someone who’ve never read a fantasy novel would probably find things in contemporary fantasy mystifying. One example I can note as an SF author is about “the rules of magic.” Being that I almost never read fantasy as an adult, only SF, when I arrived at Clarion West to find people critiquing the fantasy pieces we critted sometimes in terms of what seemed a pretty universal understanding: that use of magic always has a price. I was like, “Huh?” but all the well-read fantasy people argued it was just a fundamental, important genre convention which, you know, I don’t think we have in SF.)

    Of course, I’m still dubious that this makes such films impenetrable to us: human intelligence extends farther than most acknowledged — but it is hard work, the hardest of all being that first step of recognizing that the language barrier isn’t everything — that culture barriers can exist in creative works that run deeper than mere language barriers.

    But of course, then we can do the homework and soak up the culture enough to see past that. So no, I don’t think it’d be fair to tell someone, “Meh, you’ll never understand X,” though, “Unless they really try hard, I think understanding X is going to be beyond the grasp of most Westerners,” might be fair.

    I haven’t seen Radio Star but as for 왕의남자, I’m already convinced that there are things in the film I just didn’t get, which link up interesting to the stuff I discussed here about popcultural feminizations of male forms. Because not only was I shocked at how it outperformed 청연 (which I found a vastly superior film that flopped during 왕의남자‘s run, though maybe not for the reasons I suggested previously), but also because, you know, in a Western context, a male like Lee Jun-Ki would, if he managed to get into films at all, be cast as a bad guy of ambiguous sexuality, reminiscent of the sexually ambiguous indulgence-hawking Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales. So yeah, I’ll definitely admit there are subterranean things I just didn’t get about 왕의 담자 though I don’t think they’re permanently inaccessible to me, any more than superhero films are to Koreans. But misconceptions and muddiness are probably to be expected along the way. (And language study would help me a hell of a lot, well, us, with the exception of Charles, you clever 놈.)

    Which reminds me, I’ve been meaning to watch that series
    네 멋대로 해라 for the longest time, since both Lime and my old friend Sang Jun both recommended it to me in the span of a week as “the best TV drama” they’d ever seen (as of 2005, I think it was)…

  13. UPDATE: Charles confirmed (via email) that it is indeed the same song as the instrumental version used in Kill Bill. The track can be heard here. (For now.)

    [And it totally blows me away that someone out there heard this and somehow thought, “Damn, remember that 빠삐코 advertisement song? That would totally fit with this!”]

    And I’ve added a link to the DJ Koo EP which is online for download — maybe illegally, but anyway, you can hear the track among the files here, and then delete them, if you like. It’s track #2 or #4, I’m not sure if the relevant bit is different.

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