Thursday, October 29, 2015


I.Seoul.U.  World Taekwondo Federation.

How did we get here? Sometime in August, I heard Seoul City was taking submissions for a new slogan. Because Hi Seoul was three or four years old, and everybody knows branding works best when the brand image regularly changes into new and inexplicable images and ideas. Already then I winced in expectation of a new slogan choosing process that would be awful and annoying at every step of the way. I wish my call hadn't been so dead-on.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Happy Back to the Future Day!

Yes, it's already October 21 in Korea.

Too bad it's a Wednesday. If it were a Friday, we could call it Marty McFlyday (get it? get it?)

Anyway, today is the day Marty McFly was supposed to arrive in 2015.

We don't have mass market hoverboards. Only fancy rich-people ones.
Though the ones we DO have can go on water.
We don't have self-lacing shoes, or self-fitting or self-drying jackets.
We are still using our hands to play video games.

(hello, young Elijah Wood!)

We can't hydrate a pizza in five seconds.
We can't power our houses with compost (though it's probably best we don't have fusion reactors in every household)
And I can't banter with Max Headroom in an 80s cafe.

We DO have huge wall-sized TVs.
We DO have drone cameras that can record news events.
We DO have shops and cafes where you can order stuff without talking to a human.

Meanwhile, the Back To The Future team didn't imagine terrorism, smartphones, selfie sticks, or social media, beards or skinny jeans.

So... I'm going to go legally obtain a digital copy of Back To The Future 2 sometime today, and go get nostalgic. Happy back to the future day, folks.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

That amazing Star Wars Music

Subtitle: aw heck, why not make it a blog post.

Somewhere around 2011, thoughts that would have become blog posts suddenly became long-form Facebook updates. I have decided to make them blog posts again. It's easier to find them back.

I am currently re-watching the Star Wars trilogy. The original trilogy. I'm glad I was a kid when the original trilogy was still heavy in the pop culture consciousness -- I'm very glad my first experience with Star Wars wasn't the three prequels. I'm not quite old enough to have seen the movies in the theater, but when I was in Kindergarten, one of my classmates used to smash the structures other classmates would build out of cardboard bricks...
While shouting "Return of the Jedi!" AND he had a Return of the Jedi lunchbox. And we rented Star Wars not long after we got our first VHS machine.

As Disney is winding up their pop-culture machine to unleash the Star Wars hype dynamo, they are doing a pretty good job of feeding the beast and letting fan excitement drive it, rather than using too heavy a hand. They are experts at playing their cards well.

But even as those silly star wars viral videos come out (chipmunks) (roadside crash) (Jedi with a gopro) (death star over San Francisco) (Matthew McCognschwarzeneggerghey watches the trailer), the fact remains, and it's something I only realized on these latest re-watchings. If you watched Star Wars as a kid, all you need is this:

That opening hit, the noise and the trumpet: by the time those 6 and a half seconds of fanfare go by, I'm ready for fun and adventure, and the main theme hasn't even started! So... read as many whiny blogs as you want, hate George Lucas as much as you like, snicker away that Lego Count Dooku looks eerily like George Lucas...
no seriously, look at him! The version in the Lego Star Wars animated films is seriously eerie
but after all the griping and equivocating, all it takes is six seconds of trumpets and friends, I am in.

And, for fun, here are my Star Wars and other extended universes prediction:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be much much better than the prequels and will do really well, though

The sheer density of Star Wars properties lined up for release will lead to fatigue before the sequel trilogy is finished. A star wars film every 18 months will wear us out. ANYTHING every 18 months would wear us out. Even Captain Jack Sparrow, who ruined Johnny Depp's brand at least as much as Tim Burton did.

The Han Solo prequel will be either incredible or awful, with no middle ground (I think it will be awful, and they shouldn't try, for the same reason I think nobody should make a biopic of Freddie Mercury: how on earth are you going to duplicate what everybody knew the first time they saw it, was unequivocally a lightning-in-a-bottle perfect alignment of forces. Chris Pratt deserves his own character, and Harrison Ford's Han Solo should be like Al Pacino's Michael Corleone and Michael J Fox's Marty McFly: so definitive nobody should bother trying to touch it).

Disney's Marvel Universe will also continue doing well until superhero fatigue is in full swing (Thanos, because he looks ridiculous off the comic page, might be the straw that breaks the camel's back, as Marvel slowly pushes back the limit of exactly how ridiculous they can make their films before they lose the suspension of disbelief),

But DC's Batman/Superman film, or the Justice League film that's coming after it, will catch the full brunt of the superhero backlash - just please give us one good Wonder Woman movie and one good Black Widow (or Scarlet Witch, or Ms. Marvel, or even She-Hulk) movie before everybody starts canceling Phase Three of their extended universes and starts re-making Die-Hard, please!

As for other stuff... I like Prince's new album, Tame Impala's new album, Destroyer's new album, and Beach House's new album. Go listen to them. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

August Recap at Roboseyo

Earlier this year I said to myself, "Self, if you can't write three blog posts a week like you did back in 2008, you can at least write one a month." Only to fail at doing so. And you know, these days I'm teaching at a university, which means I just had two months off, and still couldn't manage a blog post.

But whatever readers I have are at least used to that by now. Finishing a masters' degree in Korean Studies managed to make me want to write the kinds of blog posts I don't have the time to pull off anymore, with a three-year-old running around making me laugh instead, and jumping on my lap at the computer desk and demanding to watch cat videos.

So here's what's been going on this summer, and some of the year before that, which almost got on the blog, or turned into a Facebook thingy instead.

Mr. Robot is a very very good TV series. Here is the best song from the soundtrack so far (though there have been a whole bunch, and I love a show with a good soundtrack.)

Have barely seen any movies in the theatre, though my son loved "Inside and Out".

One thing I love about that boy is where his heart is. He loves his friends a little too vigorously, but when we watched the Toy Story trilogy together this summer, his spots of concern and worry were all around Andy being separated from his toys, and from his toys not being able to be close to the person they love. Now, you may not have noticed this while watching them, but the Toy Story films (especially 2 and 3) are all about growing up and moving on. Be careful. Those movies are a minefield of nostalgic longing for being a child again, in the best possible way. That theme is hard for a 3-year-old to get, for obvious reasons. As far as he's concerned right now (and he's said so) the best possible thing in the world would be if he and daddy and mommy could all live forever so that we could all live together all the time. Yet when Andy gave his toys to little Bonnie (embedding disabled), because he knew she would love them, and introduced them in a way that affirmed, celebrated, and also put an ending punctuation mark on the years he'd loved them, there my little boy was crying with me, happy that the Toys had found a new person who would love them, and satisfied that (though through the first two movies, he'd nearly cried with anxiety that the toys wouldn't find Andy again) it was now alright for Andy to say goodbye to his toys.

And if you've never cried at the same spot of a movie as your kid, well, that's something to put on your Dad bucket list, I guess.

The Tower Of London scene in Minions was pretty great too. Especially the Hair reference.

We went to Canada and I got to introduce my son to most of the extended family. There were a few people it hurt to miss (sorry Heather and Melissa, Neil and Heather D) and some I wish I'd gotten to spend more time with (well... pretty much everyone, but a few in particular). My son got to meet his great grandmother, and that was really special.

Thirteen-hour-flights with a three-year-old are hard. Especially when the in-flight movies are a weak weak lineup. Insurgent is a terrible movie. And I'm predisposed to liking young adult fiction, because it's my (no longer) secret guilty pleasure.

The 70th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japan passed without any change in the ugly state of Korea-Japan relationships. I enjoyed this panel discussion about it, though it's very much from a US perspective. I'm still working on a blog series about that, and it's getting closer to the point where I'm ready to start stitching together blog posts. Bear with me. Or don't. Whatever.

I remember once when one of those "jaded expat" blogs complained, "Every time you turn on the TV it's nothing but stuff about how Korea's the greatest country and every other country sucks" and a blogger I admired responded, more or less, "I don't know what channel you're watching, but when I turn on the TV, I usually see people singing."

I liked that response, and it stuck with me. But now I'd have to add cooking to that. There are so many cooking shows I don't know what to say. Particularly coming back to it from two weeks in Canada, and realizing that Canada (or at least the way my people live in Canada) just isn't a food culture the way Korea is. I can't imagine my Canadian family planning a trip around the meals they'll eat at a lineup of famous restaurants and amazing foods, the way my Korean family does when they travel. That's not a knock on Canada -- I loved some things about being back in Canada. Especially driving through the countryside, but it was a different way of living with food than I've gotten used to. That said, I'm lucky to be living in a part of Seoul where I can indulge that.

We brought back the nastiest beast of a cold from Canada. My son has basically been coughing for a month now. And I've been coughing for three weeks. And my wife has been coughing for two. Somebody send help!

I was looking through the lego section of a toy department (because that's a thing I do now. No more hot trendy restaurants for me. It's all about the train sets now), and I found this. Lego Korean coast guard. Or ... off-brand lego, stuck in with the lego sets.

Why yes, that's Lego Korean Coast Guard. With names and everything (click to enlarge).
And yes, they seem to be guarding two smallish islands out in the sea. Wanna hazard a guess which two they're meant to be? (I know, I know. I just can't resist. It's like a scab I have to pick.)

And, finally, at Children's Grand Park, there is a children's museum called "SsangSsangNaRa" or "Imagination Land"

South Park references aside, Imagination Land is the best indoor place to bring your kid in the whole damn city. On the weekends it's crowded (what isn't?), and parking is a real beast, so go early (10am opening), but for 4000 won you get three stories of creative and learning play that's richer and better than any kid's cafe that's two times the price (if you have to buy food) or four times, and has a time limit (as they all do). It's so great there that I almost don't want to tell my blog readers about it, so that it's less busy for me, but who am I kidding? The secret is clearly already out.

So... go there and have fun. The only drawback: it's a bit of a walk to get to anywhere with decent food. Also: DO NOT eat the sausages at the little food stands near the entrance. Just. Don't.

Tomorrow my classes start again. Stay well readers. I'll be back... when I'm back.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Mirror Images, or The State of English Language Journalism In Korea

I am intrigued by the way these two articles came across my feed around the same time. Because they are the mirror images of each other.

Hey everyone! Foreigners are all like this!

(that was part two. Part one of Hey everyone! Foreigners are all like this! is here:

And then:

Hey everyone! Koreans are all like this!

I'd love to lock the two authors in a room together, although I have to give the author of the first article more of a break than the second, because living in the country one was raised in, and not seeking out the company of people with different backgrounds than oneself is much more forgivable than moving overseas and doing the same. And frankly, his take on his own culture is about as clumsy. Responsibility is squarely on the shoulders of the Korea Times editor here.

Bottom line: these are both blog posts that are not worthy of publication in places purporting to be media outlets. I'm fine with "Koreans are all rude" on a blog post. Lots of people agree with the sentiment, and that's allowed. But it's not news. There was no investigation going on (unless chatting up the disgruntled corner of expat bars counts as journalistic research now), and the article was so all over the place, nothing useful can be made of it anyway, except catharsis. Jumping from language to parking to subway pushing to sidewalk blocking to thoughtless comments to enforcement of public smoking laws places this in blog rant turf, not op/ed page territory. And that the author wouldn't even put her full name to it again, suggests it belongs on an anonymous tumblr or something, where I would happily ignore it, instead of holding it up to the standard from the site's "about page" -- "The Korea Observer is an online newspaper founded in February 2013 with the support of the Seoul City government by award-winning investigative journalist Lee Tae-hoon with the motto, “Be the voice for the voiceless.”" Anonymity in journalism is OK with me. When you're criticising the president and people with earpieces are hanging around in the park across your street and your writing partner was already arrested this month. But anonymity for "Koreans are rude y'all!" makes it into a mockery.

Complaining that koreans are rude is not giving voice to the voiceless. I've been hearing that voice bouncing around the online expat echo chamber for a decade now, and this piece conveniently gathers every gripe into one place, but has added nothing new other than that. White gripes about Korea are not the voiceless that need outlets like Korea Observer. Get your shit together, Award-winning investigative journalist Lee Tae-hoon!

Both articles are great examples of why it's important to talk with, and listen to the views and opinions of the subjects of one's writing: "Laura" would have found most Koreans are just as offended as she is by the breaches of etiquette she writes about, and Mr. Choi would have been quickly disabused of his stereotyped views of Korea if he'd been listening to the foreigners he met, or meeting more than just a handful who'd "drunk the Korea Kool-aid" (which happens).

So... while we could come up with a mirror image list to go with my "Five signs the author of the article you're reading doesn't know much about Korea" to use for articles like "Differences Between Koreans and Foreigners," (wouldn't be hard, and both lists boil down to this: look for evidence that the author has actually consulted with a variety of people in the group they're writing about, and respects them as humans) for now, let me just mention that e-mailing Mr. Choi with angry rants, or bugging him online, is extremely unlikely to disabuse him of his stereotyped views of foreigners, and perhaps will only succeed in replacing his clumsy stereotypes of foreigners with negative ones, and for people like "Laura" ... I regularly say that it's incredibly unhelpful to say "If you don't like it, go home"... but there are in fact times when, if Korea really does make a person as unhappy as all this, the exit option IS probably the best. Either that, or it's time to go soak in a jimjilbang, climb a mountain, eat some great Korean food, and hang out with people who don't complain. They exist. Or start a complainey blog. That's what blogs are for.

Anyway, see you all again in 14 months, the next time two equally dumb articles from opposite sides are published close to each other, and we can go around this hamster wheel again.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Kingsman, the Preposterawesome Scale, and The Welcome Return of Cufflink Lasers

I just watched Kingsman: The Secret Service, the film responsible for the surge in popularity of double-breasted suits in Korea (it was HUGE here).

I enjoyed it a lot. It's everything you want a silly escapist spy film to be (though with more F-words than the 007 franchise led us to expect). A movie like this will always have a chance of doing well, because as James Bond, and every major male film star of the last century except Bruce Willis shows us, people look awesome when they do awesome things in formal wear. (Clickbait list: the 30 best suits in film).

Kingsman is also a great demonstration of what I call the preposterawesome scale.

The principle of the preposterawesome scale is similar to How I Met Your Mother's "Hot/Crazy Scale," as explained by Barney Stinson in his send-up of an incorrigible ladies' man.

Basically, the positive quality of "hot" must outweigh the negative quality of "crazy" when Barney calculates if he wants to date someone. Disclaimer: Barney is a satire, and also a character in a sitcom, and I don't recommend actually thinking of dating prospects in such a dehumanizing, reductive way (sorry, THIS GUY, you're doing it wrong).

But in evaluating an action movie that is being consumed for entertainment, it's a little more OK to be reductive. And my own theory about silly and unbelievable things in movies is the preposterawesome line. Basically, the more preposterous a thing is, the more awesome it has to be, for viewers to forgive the silliness.

Star Wars's laser swords and the idea of monks with telekinetic powers defending the galaxy from villains who build moon-sized ships with planet destructo-beams is forgivable, because light sabers are awesome and so are Jedis and space ship dogfights.

We (or at least, enough of us) forgive the ridiculous idea of giant robots from space that transform into vehicles and then transform back into giant robots carrying huge laser cannons... but who still prefer to beat the hell out of each other with fists and blades and grappling holds, because because giant robots grappling and punching and swordfighting is awesome! 

And of course the best way to steal expensive goods is with a fleet of supercars going at high speed. We went to seven movies about that, and counting (I think the Fast Furious brand might be the next James Bond -- if they manage the brand right, the well might never run dry) because car chases are awesome! Lightsabers are awesome. Neo dodging bullets is awesome, and the Agents are awesome, too. Liam Neeson romping through Europe killing people is awesome. Everything is awesome!

James Bond spent four decades -- from the 60s to the 90s, above the preposterawesome threshold. There are simple reasons for that. Take 18-35 year old men, whose tastes marketers care about more than any other, for some reason, and ask them to brainstorm all the awesome stuff they want to see in a movie, and you'd come out with the elements of a James Bond film. "Uh... spy stuff. Yeah. Spy tech is cool." "Yeah. And like, sweet sweet cars with like, lasers and missiles in them" "Oh yeah. That's awesome. And exotic places." "Yeah. Exotic places FULL of hot women." "Easy hot women." "I thought that went without saying. Hurr durr." So... when Q introduced the newest Aston Martin that turned into a spy satellite and cooked omelettes and washed your cat in the back seat while jetting out oil slicks at baddie cars, and was invisible and also actually an airplane, we loved it, because that's just plain awesome.

The preposterawesome scale is also why Austin Powers almost killed the James Bond franchise -- by doing the loving satire they did, they also sharply underlined just how preposterous James Bond films were from Sean Connery to Pierce Brosnan, and at the same time digital effects sucked a lot of wonder out of special effects, because instead of going "Wow! An invisible car!" We went, "meh. It's all digital these days." The preposterous rating went up, the awesome rating went down, and suddenly Pearce Brosnan style 007 films were below the preposterawesome line. Jason Bourne showed them a way out of the woods: finding the awesome in believability and good writing and visceral action and good acting rather than cool cars and exploding pencaps, but without that, Austin Powers would have been the satire that killed the franchise.

And since Jason Bourne, the preposterous end of the preposterawesome scale was dominated by superhero films and the occasional Mission Impossible sequel. Which is great if you like tights.
and who doesn't?
But as MacGuffins in superhero movies (I'm looking at you, Marvel) keep getting loopier and loopier  (gems that make The One Ring look like a paper airplane have been the power items driving the plots of Thor 2, Avengers 1, and Guardians of the Galaxy. This is what they're building up to. This.

Expect the remaining Infinity Gems to appear in future Marvel universe films, before Thanos, who looks like this, tries to collect them all in future Avengers sequels and end-credit teasers. Credit to Marvel for pushing back the line of what is too ridiculous for live action films slowly enough that nobody noticed that suddenly power scepters and infinity gems were part of a superhero's day's work.

Whether or not superheroes are your taste though, it's fun to see Kingsman, where the evil megalomaniac is regular old human being, with a regular old doomsday device that isn't a jewel that comes from comic books, eventually to be wielded by a twelve foot tall alien with grey skin. It has been long enough since Austin Powers that we are allowed to make silly spy films again without people saying "Oh, come on!" and I'm glad about that, as much as I enjoyed Daniel Craig's 007.

Kingsman delivers, and that's the best thing I can say about it. It is highly preposterous, but also highly awesome, and I am glad to have double breasted suits and battle umbrellas and cufflink lasers and microchips and secret underground fortresses full of henchmen and recipes for martinis back on the preposterous end of the preposterawesome scale again, rather than just charismatic actors wearing silly hats. So... watch Kingsman. It's fun.

Side note: in keeping with the preposterawesome line, I suppose you could also create the funnyffensive line for jokes -- people are a lot more forgiving of offensive jokes if they're actually funny (and if the comedian shows they're not on the side of the assholes). You are welcome to leave a comment and suggest other areas where thresholds like the preposterawesome and the crazy/hot line exist.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Sewol Disaster One Year Later: Still Waiting

It's a year after the Sewol Ferry disaster. Later today I'll walk around a few of the mourning and commemoration sites. Perhaps I will post photos if I deem it fit to take photos. Chances are good that I won't, because people deserve privacy for their grief. [Update: yeah. No photos.]

I wrote this last year, in the original aftermath, after visiting the memorial outside City Hall, which was there all the way from April until December, when they finally took it down to build the outdoor skating rink.

images from my previous Sewol article
Socially and culturally, it's been long enough to fairly assess some of the effects of the disaster here in Korea, and while some would say the one year anniversary is a crass time to do so, because of the families, others would say there isn't a better one. Put bluntly, the Sewol disaster chucked a pipe bomb into the national psyche, and everybody's been scrambling to return to normal, or re-assert the status quo. The status quo has been re-asserted, but those who like to kick back against the status quo are a little larger in number, and their grievance is a little closer to the surface, than it was before.

Here are some of the things that have happened since the disaster. This here is a good rundown as well. This one is a little more strident. Deservedly.

  • The boat has not been raised.
(Hopefully Arirang won't get indicted for defaming the president.) In fact, given the way things have gone lately for critics of the president, I'd better take a moment to say I also think it's a great idea for President Park to leave the country on the one-year anniversary of the disaster that was the biggest embarrassment for the administration so far. (And that's despite the best efforts of everybody taking bribes. You know things are bad when you have to narrow your search terms down so much just to get a news link: Here are the results for "Korea president corruption scandal April 2015." To differentiate from the other corruption scandals.) Buggering off out of country is another in a long line of politically pragmatic or astute moves and/or/mostly non-moves. Really! It's a great idea, so that she won't be around and remind people how long it took for her to show up, and then how much longer to show leadership, and then how quickly before she and hers started shirking responsibility by burying their accusers under rhetorical, political and legal obstacles or rabbit trails again, after the original disaster. This is clearly a politically savvy move to get people looking forward to Korea's next president. Way to inspire hope and faith in Korean democracy, President Park! I hope she and her team get all the rewards they deserve!

  • Investigations into the disaster have been mired in political and legal wrangling repeatedly, particularly when someone wanted to increase the scope of the investigation to anything broader than "let's pin as much blame as we can onto the people who are already in jail, and make sure to avoid any investigation that might discover that rabid deregulation of entire industries was the thing that allowed the Sewol to get so dangerously overloaded, or allowed it on the seas at all. Instead, the ruling party is trying to discredit the families of victims
  • Korea's progressive party badly misplayed the hand it had been dealt, attempting to channel rage and anger over the Sewol ferry into success in the 2014 by-elections, but forgetting to attach a coherent vision and policy goals and, you know, have a platform other than "We're mad as hell, and we're not gonna take it anymore!" leading to a humiliating failure that's a black mark on the records of every progressive leader involved. Since that defeat, the Korean political left has returned to its usual habit of eating itself.
  • This is just an eye test sort of judgment, but shit hasn't changed. Public safety crackdowns, if they happen, are pretty much headline bait, and not sustained enough to actually cause changes in behavior. Like using a flashlight to get rid of cockroaches instead of pesticide. The frequency of news stories about death or injury due to sheer negligence or disregard remains about the same. The leaders you'd expect to effect this kind of change seem mostly to be interested in covering their own asses. And buses run red lights and crosswalks, and people forget to put on their seat belts, and motorbikes go up on sidewalks of dive through traffic at about the same frequency as ever. It'd be nice to at least see leaders going through the motions of acting as if they were going to try to improve public safety, at least. Before the new showcase tower in Jamsil falls over or something. Korea is third in the OECD in work-related deaths. Traffic statistics are equally dismaying.
  • The captain of the ferry was prosecuted, and they're seeking the freakin' death penalty for him, as if this is the thing that will expiate all the grief. You know, rather than tangible evidence of a deeper and more energetic regard for safety over speed and profit starting at the policy level and enforced right down to the rank and file. Which would take time... but again, it'd be nice to see our leaders going after that, rather than mostly just interfering with the investigation as if they have something to hide. (read the last half of this article for a description of what I mean). Now, I have more to say about the death penalty, but even all that aside, I think the death penalty is an embarrassing overreach and an example of populism in one of the very, very, absolute last places it belongs.

There's more, but what started as a messy failure at multiple levels leading to a needless, needless loss of lives, has resulted in a messy political mess that hasn't really accomplished much at all, other than undermining the faith of another generation in its elders to provide wise and long-seeing leadership. I would be happy if our young folks got angry instead of just discouraged, but we'll see how long that lasts. I'm surprised to hear just how jaded I am about this, because normally, in terms of social progress and the arc of history, I am very much an optimist. I do believe that even a messy situation that brings ugly things to light often ends up as a net good, because once ugly things are brought to light, people can start doing things about them. But that's not what I see this time, and it's fucking depressing.

If I were melodramatic, I'd say that every day, every year, every presidential term that goes by when we don't clean things up, root out the corruption and the complacent "it's OK" "just get it done" or "not my problem" attitudes that contributed to this, or at least advance another step in the process of doing so, we're killing these kids again, burying another class of school kids in a watery grave, or another dozen migrant workers under I-beams in an industrial accident, or poisoning another roomful of electronics company employees with industrial chemicals. It's not often that the cost of those kinds of attitudes gets highlighted so starkly, but as I wrote in my last Sewol elegy, we're still waiting for a miracle.

And it hasn't come yet.

Rest in peace, once again, children of the Sewol. May the heroes who push against the complacency and corruption yet arise, and may it take shorter than I fear it will, as the remnants of Grimy Old Korea die off, before proponents of Safe New Korea have their day.

Here are the closing words of my elegy for the Sewol, written (a little less than) a year ago. This is the promise we are waiting for those in power to make good on.

Maybe this tragedy, after so many ignored warnings, will finally be the violent turning of a new leaf. Maybe the shame on one side, and rage on the other, will finally stop settling for band-aid solutions and transmute into real change, real accountability, until Grimy Old Korea is a closed chapter, and public safety is no longer a luxury for the moneyed. That would be a different kind of miracle than we started off hoping for.
There was a promise implicitly made in Grimy Old Korea's heyday, that the nation under construction would be worth the work. That sacrifice and strain would mean future generations enjoy a better nation than the parents inherited. That was the deal. There is a yearning for Korea to be prosperous, but to round that out by also being compassionate, not just toward shareholders, but toward the strangers who live and die, grieve and starve, and still check nervously for Grimy Old Korea barreling toward them at every crosswalk.
I wish that the next generation of leaders, contractors and entrepreneurs would see their neighbors, and moreover their customers, tenants and passengers, as part of the great "We," not just during times of crisis and joy, but all the time. The delivery that we want right now is not the one that buzzed by on a sidewalk motorbike, with a metal takeout box that nearly clipped my son. We'd rather have those in power deliver on that promise made in the 60s and 70s, that one day we will be able to enjoy, in peace and safety, the fruit of the sacrifices and griefs we have been asked to bear for too too long. We've worked so hard and lost so much: why are we still so unhappy? Why do these things still happen?
The takeout delivery always arrives on time, but the delivery that really matters, has been delayed again and again. And with our yellow ribbons waving in the downtown, maybe that is the miracle we are still waiting for.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Pictures From The Old Camera

As I clear out the dropbox photo upload folder, and the iPhoto photo album (which is a pain in the ass to clean up), I come across many photos I took, planning to share on the blog, and then failed to share.

So, in order to empty out my pockets and finally delete the durn things, here we go... apologies if any are repeats.

A jaunty mannequin I like:

Taken this year: I can't believe people are still doing window cleaning and building work on these things. One of those cases where a method developed for a city with buildings that were four stories high just got carried over until buildings were way higher than the method was built for.

In case 치멕 (chimek -- short for chicken and mekju, or chicken and beer) wasn't a horrifying enough portmanteau, let's add "피멕" - Pimek (or Pi-mac) - short for pizza and chicken.

While we're at it, let's all look for menus featuring "NaMek" (Nachos and mekju), "Wimek" (Wings and Mekju) and... ugh. I have to stop.

Unfortunate name for a skin lotion:

From a christmas event. I got nothing.

Heck of a spelling for Cinderella.

Spotted on a mountain trail.

The projector that is supposed to project mysterious and mesmerizing patterns on the sidewalk of a plaza near Cheonggyecheon had some technical problems.

Something I love about Korea:
(spotted at the Daegu KTX station)

The best "rock & roll" pun in a restaurant name I've ever seen.

This made the 13-year-old in me giggle.

because it looks like a penis.

Proper subway behavior PSA. From years ago. Have things improved?

A few years old. The Hangul museum presumed anybody who'd walk by were Korean. But wrote the sign in English. Despite all the talk of global promotion, sometimes the people making signs and writing brochures accidentally tip their hands. Sigh.

This old man is the best.

Tee hee.

(Insert joke about firecrotch here)

This banana has clearly had enough.

Give a silly man a baby bjorn and this is what happens.

Give a silly man a prop-up baby chair and this is what happens.

My (now second) favorite bilingual restaurant name pun ever. It's "Maek-ju-nal-deu" which is one syllable different from the Korean spelling of MacDonalds ("Maek-do-nal-deu").
However, it is no longer my favorite restaurant name pun because I found a sausage and pork restaurant in Seodaemun named "Seo-dwae-ji and the boys" 서돼지 and the boys" -- SeoTaeJi is perhaps the most important Korean music star in K-pop history, and Dwae-ji is the Korean word for pig.

The very beginning of what would become my favorite coffee shop in the world.

Sorting the coffee beans so customers only get the best ones.

Storing the beans on the wall.

 Still run by this man, who is a hand-drip artist. I am so glad the place is doing really well.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Six "It's the __ of Korea" that drive me crazy.

This is the essence of a list I presented on TBS Main Street, on TBS English Radio, where I do a weekly countdown at 10:30 every Thursday morning. It's fun, and this is a topic I love to rant about.

You’ve probably heard, at some point, the phrase “Korea’s Something” or “The Something of Korea” —for example calling Apgujeong “Korea’s Beverly Hills," which basically fits. Rich people. Italian cars. Plastic surgery. OK. There are definitely some apt comparisons out there. But there are also some that don't fit, or that seem to force the puzzle piece.

Hey, did you hear Quentin Tarantino compared Bong Joon-ho to Steven Spielberg? Well now we have to call him the Korean Spielberg. And I sigh inside with a deep sad sigh. Hyorin does a cover of "Halo" so now she has to be Korea's Beyonce. You know, until Ailee throws her hat in the ring. And then you get places specifically named after more famous places in other parts of the world.

And it starts feeling like the "globally hip" version of this guy.


I was once told this mostly happens when Koreans are trying to describe korean stuff to foreigners who might not know about them, by someone who got defensive as I complained too much about this tendency. As I do. But for whatever it's worth, here are the "Korea's X" that have caused the biggest head-shakes, facepalms and jaw-drops for me.

1. Korea’s Madonna.

MTV Awards, Like A Virgin - 1984.

This one goes all the way back to 1987, when Kim Wan Sun pretty clearly referenced Madonna's performance for this performance, also at an awards show.

Um Jung-hwa has also been called Korea's Madonna. Her dancing and outfits raised eyebrows the way Madonna played her sex appeal in the 80s and 90s, and she also went from singing to acting, and managed her public image very skilfully.

Lee Hyori and S.E.S.'s Bada have also been called Korea's Madonna, and Ask A Korean! makes a plausible case for JYP being Korea's Madonna in terms of his impact on pop music.

But here's what you have to do to earn a comparison with Madonna:

1. Have Jo Yong-pil or Kim Geon-mo level popularity and success.
2. Be a fashion icon.
3. Be sexy as hell, and push boundaries for what a woman is allowed to do on stage, in terms of using her sex appeal, and push them again and again and again, without ever going too far.
4. Keep doing that for 15 years.
5. Have half a dozen completely unforgettable moments and/or performances, even after your relevance as a popstar is mostly faded.
6. Age into a mentor for younger performers.

Has there been a Korean artist who pushed the line on sex appeal, who was a fashion leader, who managed her image with superhuman savvy, and became a mentor for younger artists, while also being one of the most popular artists of her time for an entire generation? Lee Hyori wasn't controversial enough. Uhm Jung hwa wasn't controversial for long enough, and too much of her legacy is in her acting, which really isn't Madonna. Kim Wan sun didn't have the staying power. How much of Bada's cultural impact came from her solo career, and was she ever controversial?

Ladies and gentlemen there is no Korean Madonna, and it does the aforementioned artists a disservice to compare them to Madonna. There is also no Korean Beyonce. Just simmer down now.

Korea's Rain is Korea's Rain. He's not Korea's Michael Jackson. He can just be Korea's Rain. Hyorin is Korea's Hyorin. Lee Hyori is Korea's Lee Hyori. SuperJunior is Korea's SuperJunior, and that's enough!

2. Korea’s Opera: Pansori

Just listen to this.

Now listen to this.

Pansori was called Korean opera during a campaign to establish that Korean culture was just as refined and awesome as the best "high culture" of the west (Opera). There’s a certain type of person who believes that because Western countries were powerful at a certain time, the way to establish non-European cultures as worthwhile or world-class is by comparing them to Western culture. These people like using the word “advanced” and they don’t realise that by insisting on comparing Korean arts and sciences to western standards, they’re automatically putting the West in the superior position.

This means at a certain time in Korea’s nation building project, people were spending a lot of energy showing that before being colonized, Korea was on its way to developing a European style market economy, emphasizing that Koreans invented the movable type printing press, and so forth, and these people shoved Pansori forward as Korea’s opera. I guess because both include performances that can be long, both sometimes retell old folk tales, both require vocal training, and kids these days don't listen to much of either.

But, seriously, go listen to those clips again. The comparison makes no sense to anyone with ears. I’m in total awe of the way Pansori singers can do anything they want with their voices. But Opera it ain’t. That doesn’t diminish Korea’s cultural heritage in any way.

Korean opera exists. It does. But it's being performed by Jo Sumi, not by Ahn Suk Seon.

3. Korea’s Olivia Hussey

Olivia Hussey is an Argentenian actress who was a real beauty in the 60s and 70s. She is best known for starring as Juliet in Franco Zefirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” a film made in 1968.

She was 100% flawless in her day.

Here in Korea, beauty Han Ga-in, the actor/model (or model/actor), had a breakout role in the film "Once Upon A Time in High School" (말죽거리 잔혹사)-- a 2004 film set in 1978 (back when Olivia Hussey was a big deal). A character compliments Han Ga-in's character by telling her she resembles Olivia Hussey. Fair enough. It fit the time period.

Resemblance? I'll let the reader decide.

But it fails as a comparison. Because almost nobody knows who Olivia Hussey is anymore. (This sounds unkind... let's say instead that Olivia Hussey isn't a relevant enough celebrity anymore for that to be a useful comparison today.) The first time I'd ever heard her name was when I asked some students which Korean actors I should know about, and one identified Han Ga-in as Korea's Olivia Hussey, and I looked Olivia Hussey up. If a comparison involves looking something up, it's failed as a comparison.

So... if you told me that Taylor Swift is America's Lee Nan-young, it wouldn't mean anything to me until I looked up Lee Nan-young, or you explained it to me. And any comparison that obscures rather than enlightening has missed its point, in conversations like this.

(Lee Nan-young was a big deal in her day as well)

4. Korea’s Manhattan

Now, to call something Korea’s manhattan, here’s what I want: I want it to be the beating heart of the city. I want it to be the place where most of a city’s culture, art, commerce, and tourism happen. I want it to be the place where you can find the must-see places, attend the events, and also where all the really meaningful history happened. If an island met all those conditions, I’d think about calling it Mexico’s Manhattan, or Greece’s Manhattan, or Japan’s Manhattan.

Korea’s manhattan, of course, is Yeouido. While it does hold Korea’s national assembly, one of the city’s most famous buildings (the 63 Building), and a few TV stations, I have a big problem with calling it Korea’s Manhattan. Because here is what it looked like as recently as 1952: (source -courtesy of Popular Gusts)

Here is Manhattan Island in 1952: (source)

Yeouido didn't have a bridge to it until 1970. Manhattan Island had bridges to it before the Revolutionary War. If you can't be bothered to even build a bridge to it until 1970, Yeouido is clearly not the beating heart of Seoul. In fact, according to wikipedia, the name Yeouido means “Useless” and it was used as nothing but a pasture for sheep and goats until an airport was built on it in 1924.

I like Yeouido well enough. The IFC mall is a good place to go see a movie, and the park is nice when it’s not crowded to the gills. But if there’s an area that’s the beating heart of Seoul, it’s Jongno/Myeongdong/Gwanghwamun/City Hall — THAT’s where the culture, the history, the commerce and the political power all converge, if anywhere. Yeouido is sometimes called Korea’s Wall Street, which might be closer to the mark, but Korea’s Manhattan, it just really ain’t. So stop pissing on my leg and telling me it's raining.

5. Korean Pizza

In what world is this:
and this:

in any way at all similar to this:
It isn't, that's what. A few shared ingredients (like flour) and a flat disc-shape is it for similarities. The recipe, the preparation method, the way of consuming it, the toppings and sides, are all utterly different. This stands beside "Korean Opera" as one of the biggest misnomers, and one of the worst bits of expectation management out there, for introducing Korean culture. If you have to compare it to a western food, my favorite description of Jeon is "a savory pancake" (with green onion and sometimes seafood in it) -- which sets a diner's expectations about where they should be. But calling it Korean pizza... it's just inaccurate and misleading. And dumb. So stop!

6. Korea’s Machu Piccu

Of all the Something’s of Korea on the list, Korea’s Machu Piccu has got to be the biggest reach of them all.

Taegukdo or Gamcheon-dong, in Busan, is a pretty hillside village of colorful houses. It was founded by a group of religious refugees during the Korean war. Since then, blank walls have been painted with murals, and empty houses have been converted to cafes and galleries. It has a nice view of Busan Harbor, according to the write-up. Here is a picture.
Can you believe it's even prettier at night?
from flickr

It looks like a lovely place to wander around and get lost in winding back alleys, which is one of my favorite things to do, so I'd actually really like to go there!

But it’s been described as The Korean Machu Piccu on the official Korean tourism website. (They also describe it as Korea's Santorini, which is at least closer to the mark.) It's not just the official tourism website, either.

Now, here is Machu Piccu: (source)

The only. fucking. thing. the two have in common are walls, and slopes. That's bloody it. Whatever they were smoking when they came up with Gamcheon-dong as Korea's Machu Piccu, I would very much like to try some!

Machu Piccu is abandoned, it was built in the 1400s, and is 2400 meters above sea level (triple the height of Bukhansan's peak). Machu Piccu is a UNESCO world heritage site, a Wonder Of The World, and a relic of the very peak achievements of a lost civilization. Gamcheondong is a pretty hillside that had a good idea for how to stave off the redeveloper's bulldozer, but still probably doesn't even appear in most visitors' top five lists of "things to do while visiting Busan" (unless it was recently featured in one of those comedy shows where famous people tour local attractions.) I wish the citizens of Gamcheondong good luck, and I actually do hope to visit there some day, but I haven't come across a single "Korea's X" comparison more misleading than this one.

And that’s the problem with every one of these comparisons: by making a comparison, I immediately start thinking about ways that the Korean version isn’t as good, is smaller or less impressive, or just plain different, than the original, and that sets the Korean one up for failure. It’s the very worst kind of expectation management, because it makes me expect that the thing I’m going to see will be better than it actually is, and it’s an unfair burden to put on a charming place like Gamcheondong, a perfectly nice business district like Yeouido, or an artist like Uhm Junghwa, who’s perfectly respectable in her own right. We don't need to call Song Gang-ho Korea's Tom Hanks, or Baekdusan Korea's Everest, for them to be awesome. In fact, it makes them less awesome when we do!

For more on Korea's X, I always go back to this Dokdo Is Ours bit... and a thingy from Brian in Jeollanam-do that seems to have been removed from public access, unfortunately.

So, readers: in the comments, what are your favorite/least favorite "___ of Korea"?

Please share!

PS: from somebody's facebook comment:

Update 2: Commenters mentioned the most disappointing comparison of all: that Jeju Island is Korea's Hawaii. I like Jeju Island, don't get me wrong. And in that people go there on vacation, and it's an island, they have... two points of similarity. But... no. No no no no no. Every person who's mentioned going to Jeju Island after being told it's Korea's Hawaii has also reported it being a bitter disappointment.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Asian Food, Western Food

By random coincidence, these two videos just appeared right next to each other on my Facebook feed.

Actually enjoyable song, musically. And a pretty comprehensive tour of the Asian foods people call "weird."

And this one: "Korean girls eat American snacks"

My favorite part was when one started asking the person filming, "Did I do something wrong to you?"

Monday, January 05, 2015

Thoughts on "The Interview"

You've read, no doubt, about The Interview, and the Sony hack. The Sony hack that was blamed on North Korea, which people are now doubting was actually done by North Korea.

This piece talks about how uncritically people accepted the government line blaming North Korea.

The Economist goes into more detail about why people are now questioning North Korea's culpability.

VOA News talks about the interest (or lack thereof) South Koreans have in seeing the film.

This one by "The Daily Star" discusses North Korean defectors' response to the film, which is very interesting.

Another one I liked: "I Watched The Interview With a North Korean Defector."

Vice has an interview with a former member of the Kim family's inner circle, who defected, talking about the impact the film might have in North Korea.

Most interesting (to me) Babara Demick, author of "Nothing to Envy" (on my reading list), discusses the film in "A North Korea Watcher Watches 'The Interview'"

At Ask A Korean!, The Korean! suggests this piece from The Atlantic as the best thing to read about the fiasco: basically, if this tempest distracts from the human rights violations going on in North Korea right now, that's really bad, and benefits the North Korean regime. And also... some rich Canadians making fun of North Korea isn't brave, when people are having their entire families sent to prison camps in North Korea for doing the same.

Here is a panel Q&A including a Korean-American filmmaker, members of a few North Korea-focused groups, and a North Korean defector who now works for "Justice for North Korea"

I watched every minute of it. If the movie's interesting to you, or the idea of the movie, watch it.

I've watched the film now. In fact, it's playing right now, while I type this. This won't quite be a "live blog" of the film, because it's not actually much of a film, but as things come up, I'll type about them. Hopefully this will lend a sense of immediacy to the proceedings, but apologies if the post is scattered.

You know what? I'm not going to tag spoilers... it's a Seth Rogen comedy. You're not watching it for surprises, are you? Given that the media frenzy has been about the film's climactic moment, where Kim Jong-un's head is blown up, we already know how this thing ends, don't we?

If you really don't want to have plot points spoiled for you, well, you're watching Seth Rogen comedies for the wrong reason, for one thing, but if it's really important to you, watch the film before reading this, or skip to the next Kim Jong-Jackson, after which I will not have any more spoilers.

1. The people making this movie were definitely, clearly making the film specifically about North Korea, not pinning North Korea onto a basically undefined dictatorship. Somebody who knows a lot about North Korea has given the script a few passes. Details like the fake grocery store and the film opener, with the little girl's song about the death of America, while fictionalized, ring true to what we know about North Korea, and Barbara Demick notes several other spots where the filmmakers were at least factually correct or accurate to what's known about North Korea in her article linked above. You know, when they weren't making butthole jokes. The fake grocery store (as discussed in the panel above) is a fiction, but it puts the entire idea of much of Pyongyang being a giant potemkin village into one, quick and accessible video image.

2. Yes. They make fun of Asian accents. And despite the fact possibly the two smartest characters in the film are both female -- North Korea's propaganda head, and the CIA agent -- they are also the only two, and they are both treated as objects of desire first and foremost.

3. It's a bro comedy. Along with the "are they or aren't they" homoerotic undertones between James Franco and various cast members, (which are underlined by the Eminem interview at the beginning talking about "homosexual breadcrumbs"), there are numerous (yes, numerous) rectum jokes. Penis jokes, anal penetration jokes, and topless women. Part of the Kim family cult is even turned into a butt joke, as Seth Rogen and James Franco (the characters have names, but I don't care) are told that Kim Jong-eun has no butthole, because he works so hard for the country that he burns off the waste before he can excrete it.

4. The movie also actually approaches some important questions about the existence of the Kim dynasty and it's figurehead position in North Korea. Only barely -- when they're first asked to assassinate Kim Jong-un, Seth Rogen asks, "If we kill him, won't they just get another chubby dude with a weird hairdo to replace him?" The CIA plan of cutting off the head is supposed to empower a faction who wants change in North Korea, to take over.

5. They drop some facts about North Korea in -- money it spends on weapons vs. money given in aid, the number of people in political prison camps. I have no doubt they're accurate, and those lines are delivered during the crucial scene. It's hard to decide whether this is tone deaf because it does such a disservice to the real tragedy of what's happening in North Korea, or because such massive human tragedy is going to be cold water on frat boys' laughing high. I guess it depends on which you care about more: massive-scale human tragedy or a shart joke's ability to extract maximum chuckles from men in their 20s.

6. I am a few years past being the target demographic for this movie. But I could totally see my university-age self, who winced and chuckled through American Pie and There's Something About Mary snorting and chortling through this as well.

7. The film cuts to the quick on US foreign policy as well. "Kim must die. That's the American Way." "How many times can the US make the same mistake?" "As many times as it takes." "Killing Kim won't change anything. He will be replaced."

This conversation could be held regarding any number of regions where boogeyman dictators' removal royally failed to unfuck their regions, and it turned out more was needed than just removing the guy at the top.

That said, this exchange was probably also on point "People need to be shown that he is not a god, that he is a man. Then they will be ready for change," which is what Sook, one of the James Franco and Seth Rogens' handlers explains, in order to change their main strategy from straight up assassination, to, more or less, get Kim to cry on air, and people will know he's not a god. This is actually very interesting, and I'll get to it later.

8. The "Kim Jong-un is a fan of our show" inciting bit seems to echo Kim Jong-il's love for Western film and whiskey, while visiting and getting the "seven star treatment" seems to echo Dennis Rodman's visits.

9. I am much more interested in the idea of this film, than in the actual film itself. It is more or less what you expect from a movie starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, and if you're a fan of that, it delivers exactly what you expect, except this time the bad guy is a sitting world leader instead of a drug dealer or a dick boss or (were it the 80s) the preppy frat who wear argyle sweater vests. It's not much of a film, really, and if your daily dose of semen jokes is what you came for, "This Is The End" was a better film. But the fact this film was made, the reaction to it, the idea of delivering information about North Korea in this package, of all packages, is interesting to me. I am quite conflicted about it.

10. Yes, they make a dog eating joke.

11. Randall Park's Kim Jong-un is probably the best thing in this movie. He's likeable and convincing as a manipulator with daddy issues, going from star-struck to preening to a little frightening, he makes us believe the character is a mad dictator, but also that James Franco might hesitate to drop the hammer on him because he just likes him so much.

Spoiler warnings from here on.

The big stuff:

The thing that bothered me the most about the film is how little attention was paid to the really horrific things happening in North Korea. The more you read and learn about North Korea's concentration camps for political prisoners (which are in operation as we speak -- so much for "Never again"), or starvation or mass corruption in the provinces, the more this movie rings hollow -- as if it's a hollywood scenario instead of an actual place where actual people are actually dying right now. Of course, dick jokes fall flat in the face of this stuff.

It's a pun on the word rectum. You know, rectum... wrecked'em? Get it?
Oh never mind.
Photo source.
The bit with the grocery store was a simple and visual stand-in for that bit of storytelling, but it's interesting that an image is used instead of actual humans, that the film resolutely sets its gaze away from the human cost of the Kim dynasty.
They couldn't put that into a comedy. At least, not this comedy. But it still bothers me that they didn't, because I want to have it both ways I guess. It suggests to me that North Korea was still mostly just a backdrop for James Franco to do James Franco stuff, and Seth Rogen to do Seth Rogen stuff, rather than something either of them actually cared about. It would be annoying for Rogen and Franco to be going around playing "White Jesus" to North Korean concentration camp victims, but it's also disappointing that the closest they ever get to addressing what's actually going in in North Korea are a few statistics mentioned in passing in prep for the big interview and comments like these: (rolling stone) "Are we gonna just make movies about guys trying to get laid over and over again? Or, now that we have people's attention, maybe we can focus it on something slightly more relevant – while still doing shit we think is funny." I'd feel better if I at least heard that the filmmakers were supporting NGOs devoted to North Korea or something.

Two spots of self-reflexivity I noticed as well: in the same way a celebrity gossip journalist wants to be taken more seriously, and takes on an interview with Kim Jong-eun, this film can be read as a group of frat boy filmmakers who want to be taken more seriously, and take on a film about an interview with Kim Jong-eun.

Secondly, and this is the biggie: after meeting someone in North Korea who doesn't like Kim Jong-un, the boys change their goal from killing Kim (which would just lead to another figurehead being installed) to embarrassing him, humanizing him, and thus puncturing the personality cult that holds Kim up as a god. {SPOILER} they achieve this in the film by revealing that Kim Jong-un likes Katy Perry, has daddy issues, and then by making him cry and poop his pants on television while the entire world, including every North Korean, watches. This proves he does indeed have a butthole, like a normal human, and that he is subject to human emotions.

Funny thing... releasing the movie achieves almost the same thing, depending on who sees it. It reveals that Kim Jong-un is a joke to the world, rather than a dire threat the whole world fears, which is how he's been packaged in the domestic propaganda. And this is important, when it comes to North Korean people's consent to be governed.

In the long term, it is impossible to indefinitely govern a population who does not wish to be governed. Military or police oppression and surveillance are expensive, and build up a sense of grievance that eventually becomes explosive. Governments can also co-opt a segment of the population, and put them above others, so they have something to gain from keeping the status quo, and those at the bottom focus on class injustice instead of leadership (for example Colonial Japan and the "collaborators"). Promising economic benefits for cooperation with the regime (South Korea 1970s, China now) can work. So can setting up the leader as the best possible leader, perhaps ordained from heaven (this is why dictatorships often include personality cults), or developing fear of an external or internal threat to the people, or the values, or the culture, and fashioning the government as the best protectors from these real or imagined fears (Cold War rhetoric in South Korea today, the War on Terror). Promising enhanced national status vis a vis other countries is probably the one most often used in South Korea. Building up institutions and promoting "national" values and/or a sense of justice and rule of law, so that people believe the going system treats them more fairly than other systems would, and running elections which give leaders a nearly unassailable veneer of legitimacy, is the tack democracies use. These are all ways to convince populations to consent to being governed. 

If the government cannot deliver on the promises they make, their legitimacy is in danger, and when people reject their leader, revolutions happen. This is the corner Kim Jong-un is painted into. The only two institutions North Korea has really developed, now that socialism has collapsed, are the Kim Dynasty, and the military. Because they can't deliver their promise of economic prosperity, the Kim regime has been forced to position themselves as the best leaders to protect North Korean people from the dangers of a hostile world outside the borders. Launching missiles, militarizing the culture, and releasing bellicose rhetoric isn't really for the world audience, though the world media's kneejerk response helps their propagandists. Those actions are a performance for North Korea's people, demonstrating why and how Kim Jong-un is the best leader to protect North Korea from hostile threats. The idea that the world fears North Korea's nuclear weapons and leaders, is the key to Kim Jong-un's legitimacy. If it is revealed that Kim Jong-un is not in fact the source of terror for Western nations and the USA, but an object of ridicule, Kim Jong-un's last strong source of legitimacy is gone. That is why North Korea has responded so overwhelmingly in defense of Kim's dignity. Because his rep is all he's got left, except perhaps his birthright, which people might quickly forget if it looks like he doesn't measure up to his father and grandfather.

The film is not a very good film. But if it manages to convince North Koreans that the world looks on North Korea and Kim Jong-un with pity and scorn, not fear and trembling, that is very very bad for North Korea's national stability, because it means the dictatorship has delivered on none of the promises they used to gain consent of the populace for their method of government. Without the Kim family as figurehead, the rest of the government is just a corrupt and oppressive kleptocracy that has failed to deliver either safety or prosperity to the people they serve, and people who feel their leaders have utterly failed to deliver any benefit for being governed, sometimes decide to dispense with those leaders. 

This movie punctures the personality cult of the Kim family, and that is why it is dangerous to North Korea, and why, in their eyes, their response to the film was justified.

Read similar thoughts in this article, "Why Kim Jong-un Can't Take A Joke"

Was it a good movie? Not really. The movie was much less interesting than the bare fact it got made, and provoked the response it did. The Interview has gotten way way more attention than it deserves as a film, and I dread to think which other shitty filmmakers are watching this and thinking "Look at all the free publicity that film got!" and what godawful films might come out of that. 

But if this film means people start talking about a 90 minute string of anus jokes instead of talking about the UN's Inquiry into the Human Rights situation in North Korea, that is a tragedy. If the film means people are eventually led into talking about that kind of stuff, where they otherwise wouldn't care at all, I suppose that's a net good, but the noise to signal ratio is pretty damn high, and a better filmmaker and writer wouldn't have needed to flinch from the most important thing about the North Korea situation: the real-life suffering of actual North Korean people.