Sunday, January 16, 2011

PSY, Attaboy, Hyun-Bin 현빈, and The Ultimate Korean Star Taboo

Soundtrack: PSY: "Right Now" - a K-pop (or thereabouts) song that actually kind of rocks.  I like it.  Hit play and start reading; more about PSY later.

One of the conversation topics I like to bring into my discussion classes is this: what's the worst sin a Korean celebrity can commit?

I usually lead in by referencing a few Korean celebrity scandals - including my all-time favorite celebrity scandal anywhere, EVER: the Na Hoon-a scandal (I wrote about it here) - rumor had it that he'd had his manhood cut off by gangsters for getting involved with a starlet who had been "claimed" by a Korean gang leader.

Repudiating those claims led to what I still believe is the greatest celebrity scandal moment, maybe ever, when Na Hoona held a press conference where he stood up on the press conference table, unbuttoned his pants, threatened/offered to give proof positive his piece was pristine, and then stared around the press room with an "I fucking dare you to ask another question" face until all reporters had snapped their pictures, and had begun, presumably, to cower in fear.  After the press conference finished, I imagine he slew a wild boar with his bare hands, battled an army of ninjas with lightning from his eyes, and tore out the viscera of the reporter who'd first concocted the story, tied a gold bauble to it, and worn it around his neck.  That press conference video: truly epic.

Anyway, the question I bring into class is, "What's the one thing a Korean star must not do?"  (I teach the phrase "career suicide")

In America, it's racism.  And if you don't believe me, kindly let me know if Michael Richards has been getting any work lately.  Even a megasuperduperstar like Mel Gibson was out after two strikes - being shunned from Hangover 2 is a pretty good definition of rock bottom, if you ask me.

Some of the other sins worth comment:

these days, a lot of people in my classes didn't have a problem with stars who were gay (though some would prefer if one kept it to onesself)
domestic violence was seen as pretty unforgivable
alcohol problems were OK as long as they didn't disrupt one's career
drug issues, no surprise, were a much bigger deal here than back home
a surprising amount of resentment for stars who used their fame to get into a good university
plastic surgery?  a great deal of ambivalence, both for males and females

But this was agreed upon almost across the board, and emphatically with my male students: the number one taboo for Korean (male) stars is:

Don't you DARE try to skip your military service.

MC Mong (a singer I liked) saw his career vanish like a puff of breath on a cold day, when allegations surfaced that he had teeth pulled to dodge his military service.  And then, instead of just doing his service (the only way to recover), he stuck to his guns, and kept trying to dodge.  His music was (is) fun.  But he's been erased completely: TV shows where he used to be a featured member edit out any mention of him.

PSY (see the video at the top) was a reasonably successful hip hop star, but when he tried to skip his military service, he ended up, "serving it twice," in wifeoseyo's words.  Since he paid his dues, all is forgiven (not quite forgotten though), and he can now release a song like "Right Now" and run a comeback.  As I said: I like the song.  I also like that he looks like a total ajosshi, that he's so totally out of the K-pop mold, yet he's got a hip-hop career.

but if you don't serve... well, first of all, you can't work any kind of job in Korea without doing your military service... but also, buddy, you're the object of contempt for anyone around you who hears about it.  Ask Korean men around age 30 to 40 (that is, old enough to remember) about Steve (Seungjun) Yoo, a Korean rapper who was really popular until 2002, when, and after spending lots of press time talking about how he'd happily do his military service when the time came, he instead became a naturalized US citizen, and got deported.  He walked away from his music career, and lives in LA.  Even today, Wifeoseyo and the men in my class talk about him with a kind of contempt that's usually saved for Judas, Brutus, Japan collaborators, and Jim Hewish.

And in light of this, there's a fella named Hyun-Bin.   (image)

He's been a popular Korean actor for a while, and his drama, "Secret Garden" is having its series finale right about now.  Not only is he famous for his acting, the song he recorded for "Secret Garden"'s soundtrack is currently number one: this is about the Korean equivalent of being Whitney Houston in 1992, with the number one song and the number one movie at the same time.  He's the buzz buzzy buzzmaster all around the Korean internets and he's twittertastic as well.

Here's "That Man" - his #1 song right now, from his #1 TV show OST.

The time has come for him to serve in the military, and rather than go for some patsy desk job, or work in military propaganda videos like a lot of stars do, he's applying to join the marines: one of the grittiest, dirtiest, frontlineiest, right-up-in-the-shit jobs the Korean military has to offer.  (Article: English Chosun)

The Marines is known to be dangerous, and Korea is known to love celebrities who seem unpretentious - ones who give to charity anonymously, who choose not to use their fame to get into famous universities, who make TV appearances without makeup, and act the fool at a noraebang for cameras, so that people know they're just ordinary folks too.  That Hyun-bin wants to eschew the privileges his fame could earn him, and serve the military the best he can, is admirable.  (Korea Herald reports: since the North Korean shelling of Yongpyeong Island, men signing up for the marines has taking a huge jump.  Attaboys!)

And readers, I guarantee you: when he does finish his service, he will have a couple of years where he can do no wrong, for approaching his military service this way, and if he plays it right, he might stretch the cachet he's earned here even longer.  If you think people love him now, just wait a couple of years until he gets out.

Good for him.  That's all.  Good for him.  And good luck serving your country, sir.


조안나 said...

Interesting topic! The Steven Yoo (?) case is quite a famous one I've heard several times. I wonder if MC Mong will ever have a comeback...

This Is Me Posting said...

Yeah! Fuck all those people who don't want to be part of the military industrial complex! How dare they not be forced to do something they don't want to do! Independent thought in Korea? Fuck that noise! Much better to force people into doing things they don't like to do! Even though half my students tell me they hated their time in the military and they view the mandatory follow ups as a joke and those same students wish they hadn't wasted two years of their life in the military. It's the Korean way!

You know what I attribute that attitude that your students and wife hold to people who dodge military service? It's like those frat boys who initiate other frat boys because they themselves got initiated. It's like: "Fuck these guys. I got initiated, why shouldn't these kids get initiated too? Even though I hated my experience and torturing these kids won't really make me feel any better, nor will it take back what others did to me. But damn if I'm going to let someone else have a pass if I didn't."

Congratulations, Korea. You're in a recurring abusive relationship. That makes a whole lot of sense.

I'll be completely honest here: As someone who's anti-war and would fight tooth and nail against mandatory military service, I view those dodgers as people to be praised. They stood up for their beliefs not to be forced to do something they didn't want to do even at the expense of career suicide.

This Is Me Posting said...

By the way, that "Right Now" song was pretty good.

Roboseyo said...

TIMP: I think it would be nice for conscientious objectors to have a non-combat-ish out. I haven't researched what those other ways are, though I know that some special skills qualify people - somebody I know was an excellent programmer, and spent his years of service writing code for a government agency.

I also think the mandatory military service leads to a whole swack of other problems down the road: James Turnbull goes into it at length in his series "Where do Ajosshis Come from"

But for what it's worth, and the way things are now in Korea, Hyun Bin did right by his country, and when he finishes his service (if he goes through without incident), I predict he'll be an even bigger star on the other side.

When I looked it up, I was startled at how many countries still have mandatory service: the expected (china, egypt, iran, israel) but also Mexico, Germany, Finland, Denmark, Brazil, Armenia, Greece - a ton!

Is it an abusive cycle? Maybe. Does it exclude women from and contribute to the glass ceiling and the poor treatment women get in Korea's business world? Absolutely. But that's how Korea rolls, for now.

The Student's Guide To Nail Polish said...

I like MC Mong too, ignoring his "Indian Boy" blip. I didn't know that about PSY though.

To be honest, South Korea is right underneath North Korea (duh) Military service, while not pleasant, is pretty necessary and I can't blame the public for getting mightily pissed off with celebrities who try and dodge it.

Are you watching Secret Garden? I could only make it through the first two episodes before I decided it wasn't too my taste, though Gil Ra Im is pretty cool.

The Student's Guide To Nail Polish said...

Also, you say that Hyun Bin will be an even bigger star when he comes out - I disagree, to be honest. Military service seems to spell the end of a career for a male celebrity, or at least in the idol world it does. The industry just moves too quickly. If you're not having a comeback or a new movie/drama/endorsement out every three weeks, people just forget about you.

I might be wrong. It's just what I've observed.

This Is Me Posting said...

There's a lot of "non-combat" outs in Korean military. One of my students was a military doctor. They forced him to do three years instead of the regular two, but he never touched a gun the entire time he was there. Furthermore, Korean celebrities are usually relegated to desk jobs and clerical work unless they specifically ask to do combat heavy duties.

As for coders: There's a scene in Good Will Hunting where he talks about writing random code for the military. Something small and basic. But that code is then used in missile guidance systems which are then used to firebomb villages.

Here's the thing, that kind of thing actually happens. I know two coders personally that work for companies that have direct or indirect ties to government agencies and they both tell me that they've worked on projects in which they have no idea how their code is being used, but they could fathom how it could be used for terrible things. Again, not that they're saying it is, but how it could.

Just because you're working a desk job doesn't mean you're not helping the war effort. And while I understand that in our global culture military strengths are necessary, I absolutely and completely feel that this should be on a volunteer basis and NOT forced upon unwilling individuals.

Yes, the sheer number of countries that still mandate military service is ridiculous and I'm glad that I come from a country where military service is optional but I'll tell you this much, I would rather get arrested and thrown in jail than be forced to work in the military. And then if the government forced me to go anyway, I would do everything humanly possible to get myself thrown out. Mandatory military service takes away a freedom of choice and by God, I'll personally fight for my own freedom no matter how much people will try to force that upon me.

That's what upsets me about this whole issue: If someone does not want to be a part of the military industrial complex, you shouldn't force it upon them. Period. Korean men are upset about celebrities who dodge because they were too scared to do it themselves and are bitter about someone getting a pass. Korean women whine about it ignorantly because they know that they get a pass and they don't have to do it if they don't want to. They have a choice. Much easier to point fingers and say: "He's a bad Korean." Yeah? Here's something. Tell those female students of yours that if they're so upset about those celebrities not enlisting to go sign up themselves; make up for the loss of man power. Go ahead, tell them. Watch them fall over themselves as they back step and shift the goal posts. Oh no! Not them! They don't want to serve. But chastising men for dodging? NO PROBLEM. Bunch of hypocrites.

So here's what I'm getting at: A celebrity beats his wife? Bad. Drugs/alcohol? Bad. Uses his clout to gain special privileges? Not cool, but inevitable. But in all of those situations, they can still live in Korea, they can still rebound their career and their fan base will forgive them. Hey, everyone makes mistakes, right? He only gave her one black eye, right? Could have been worse.

But a guy who doesn't want to join the military, doesn't want to contribute to the war effort, doesn't want to help other people kill other people? Well then, let's ban him from entering Korea ever again, erase every record of his existence and disgrace his name (and his family) and whatever else the fuck they do there. When all this guy wants to do is work and entertain.

In Korean society, you get reprimanded for beating your wife (or a slap on the wrist if you tell the judge you were drunk) but EXILED from the country and the social culture if you don't join the military.

Yeah, that sounds completely fucking sane and reasonable to me.

Roboseyo said...

I'm glad you're on my comment board today, TIMP. :)

I DO actually suggest, from time to time, that if men should have to, then Korean women should also serve in the military. It's one of the most controversial postures I take during discussion classes, for the sheer fun of it. I think it'd go a long way towards breaking the glass ceiling if suddenly the one thing that Korean men can ALWAYS hold over the heads of Korean women, was taken away.

And yes, the mental calisthenics are sometimes entertaining; though other times it's a flat "no." The best response I got was from one lady, who said "Sounds good. For other women."

Roboseyo said...

Student's Guide: Jo Seung-woo came back bigger than ever after his military service. His musicals have been selling out their entire runs before opening. I have no doubt that if I started looking around, I'd find others.

Finishing military service strikes me as a good opportunity to go from being an idol star to a more mature star who appeals to adults as well as kids.

This Is Me Posting said...

@The Student's Guide To Nail Polish - I agree with your point about the fans sticking around and rewarding Hyun Bin. I've actually argued before that I feel that Koreans use the word "fan(s)" incorrectly; like their incorrect use of "famous."

It took me a while to realize that a lot of my Korean students use the word "famous" when they really mean "popular." Soju, for example, isn't famous. It's popular.

Likewise, Koreans use the word "fan" when they really mean "poser." I've noticed that Korean "fans" are only "fans" so long as the celebrity remains relevant and in the public eye. The second there's a moment where the particular celebrity isn't permeated in Korean awareness, they lose interest and completely forget about them. Perfect case in point: My students back in the day would not let up about how important Rain was and how even Time *cough* was recognizing him as one of the most important people in the world. Now? Half my students don't care about him, the other half claim they were never really big fans in the first place. None of them even knew he was in a new drama recently. Uh huh.

There's very few Korean bands that remain relevant pass their second album (let alone have an entire career spanning 8 or 9 records) and very few actors that people follow based on talent. When I tell my students that I think Choi Min-sik isn't just one of the finest actors Korea has produced but one of the best actors of our generation, their typical response is: "But why do you like him? He's so old!"

Because age is completely relevant to talent.

They only like their celebrities when it's important or hip or fashionable to like them. That's not being a "fan." That's being a "poser."

This Is Me Posting said...

@Rob - Thanks, man.

I've mentioned this to Brian@JND too: I know I probably come across as angsty, bitter, jaded or whatever, but I do appreciate that the two of you have allowed me to blow off steam in your posts, not just now but in the past too without, you know, outright banning me or something.

There's a lot of things that bug me about social and cultural stances in Korea, but I try to remain much more understanding and balanced in real life. Online is where I get to rant about it.

The way I see it, I wouldn't get involved if I didn't care about it.

Anonymous said...

Be as angsty and bitter as you like, TIMP. You've always supported your points reasonably, and been respectful to me and other commenters on my site; you're in my good books for that.

Generally, I expect my commenters to either be respectful and logical, or really really funny: if they fill one of those criteria, they're golden.

-Roboseyo, too lazy to sign in.

JIW said...

I think I enjoyed more this video than reading the rest...ooops! Anyways I'm going to comment on the video. It has a great rebellious spirit that hope somehow shows the sentiment of the 20-somethings here.

The Student's Guide To Nail Polish said...

I stand corrected, Roboseyo. I agree with your point about becoming a more mature star, too.


I think I agree with you there. I'd say the most popular idols/actors are the ones that are good looking and incredibly heavily promoted. Obviously, not living in Korea, I can't tell what the idol climate is like there but from an international point of view, the kpop fandom is riddled with "relevancy" arguments and people are constantly trying to second-guess how important and relevant their chosen idol is to the general public.
"You hear 2NE1's new album being played everywhere."
"TVXQ were never really that popular with the Korean public"
So on, so forth.

When a group takes too long in releasing their new album (by too long, I mean like half a year) you see their fancafe numbers slowly but surely dwindle to nothing. When they return to music programs, it's almost as if they're rookies again - they have to work their way back up from the bottom in terms of sales and endorsements.

Jin said...

One thing I would add to this discussion is that many Korean women do not take a hard line on the issue of mandatory military service. I guarantee that if you survey a group of men and women about Steve Yun or MC Mong, it will be the men who more strongly about this issue, only because they are required to serve and feel, rightly or wrongly, that it is not fair if the rich and famous get certain perks. As for the impact of military service on an artist's career, it really depends on style and talent. In the case of Hyun Bin, it will depend on how well he can adapt as an older actor. Since his acting is a little one-dimensional, there is no guarantee that he will ever achieve the success or popularity he has now. However, in the case of the very talented Kang Dong Won (who just entered military service), there is little doubt that he will be able to continue to do solid work once he comes back.

Anonymous said...

Interesting how this topic is discussed in particular since Hyun Bin is going. Switzerland has too mandatory military training of 17 weeks min., and it continues if you want to climb a higher level, like corporal, lieutenant etc. The average age is 18/19 yrs old but if you are in college you can do later, then every year you have to go for 3 weeks a repetition course, if you have a justifiable reason not to go you pay a fine. In general every man has either a rifle or a pistol in household in case of emergency mobilization so they have already a weapon. Not that long time ago they changed some rules for people who dont want to shoot or carry a weapon for religious reason. Once in a while some young recruit dies because of the strengh exercise like crazy long marches! There is a saying that a man becomes a man after the army's training. Young recruits can sometimes leave home for the weekend thats nice, always in uniform. The Marines have high expectations I just hope he will master it without complications and the political situtation North/South Korea is quite worrysome. This will be a remarkable milestone of his life, any military life experience is tough on a person there will be good and bad memories that will shape a persons life. Much respect towards Hyun Bin and God Bless him while he's serving.

Anonymous said...

Many Korean women who dislike celeb draft dodgers have sons or other loved ones who can't escape the draft. They might not be patriots, but that doesn't make them hypocrites either.

Which celeb beat his wife, and people said it was OK because she only got one black eye? This is news to me.

I'm no fan of militarism or sexism, but count me out of sensationalism also.

-Not Anon But Lazy

Anonymous said...

Hyun Bin couldn't dodge, but no one was expecting him so far as to join the Marines. As far as I can tell, his motivation seems genuine, so good for him.

-Not Anon But Lazy

Anonymous said...

Hi! I am not from Korea but I know Hyun Bin as a good actor. I've been following his movies and dramas. I've read in one article that hi is soon going to serve military. But what is the difference between serving marines and serving military?