Monday, February 28, 2011

My Top 25 (1-5)

Sufjan Stevens' music will likely always figure somewhere in my top 25 most played songs. I find his stuff timeless, but that may very well be what my parents once said about Englebert Humperdink.

1) Decatur, or Round of Applause for your Step Mother (Sufjan Stevens)
2) All I Need (Radiohead)
3) MarioKart Love Song (Sam Hart)
4) One Great City (The Weakerthans)
5) Damn this Feeling (Hayden)

Streaming Oscar and Saturday Class Auditions

Well, the Oscars have come and gone, and I wish I could say that I managed to see the show. I was considering myself pretty lucky when I saw that I wouldn't be working on a Monday (the new semester doesn't start until Wednesday) and I would therefore be able to watch the Oscars for the first time in Korea - they would b showing them here, right?

Apparently not. Though people here do pay attention to the Academy Awards and they feature prominently in the ad campaigns for releases here (even Winter's Bone got a release in Seoul), no basic TV network (it may have been showing on cable) was showing the event. Even the Armed Forces Network didn't air it here. I checked AFN's site and saw that AFN Atlantic Region was showing the Oscars, but in the same time-slot, AFN Pacific (of which Korea is a part) was instead showing Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Access Hollywood, and Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? Nice.

I was able to find a couple of sites that were doing their best to stream the show online while ABC and its affiliates were doing their best to shut-down said sites due to copyright violation. I'm not really sure why doesn't have a site where we can stream the show for free - and I mean the actual awards portion of the show - not the red carpet embarrassment. Watching some hack from the Associated Press try to backtrack from a slag on Helena Bonham Carter was funny, in an unintentional David Brent kind of way, but unnecessary just the same.

Anyway, what I was able to see of the telecast was so-so. I like James Franco, and I'm all right with Anne Hathaway, but it seemed as though they weren't delivering what the audience wanted. They were game, but it also seems as though they just need to go back to the drawing board. Next time, I'm hoping for a more classic host with better scheduled presenters (Colbert and Stewart, Gervais, Larry David, etc.) to get the funny taken care of. I know these are "TV people", but the show airs on TV, and Ellen did a pretty bang-up job of it not so long ago.

Not too much of note to say. Happy to see some wins and surprised by others. All in all, this was a pretty strong year for nominated films, so you really couldn't go wrong among them. Though I managed to get plenty wrong - 50% accuracy this year in my predictions. Usually I'm good for 75% or above. Shabby indeed.

In other news, in addition to my regular classes starting-up on Wednesday, my Saturday class also gets going this weekend. I'm excited to have a familiar face join our team with the creative reading and writing class (my friend's co-teacher) and glad to have my other co-teacher back on-board.

Being home during the vacation this time around also gave me a chance to be a part of the organizing and application process for interested students. Last year, I was in Canada for all of this, so it was nice in a way to be able to get a couple of extra days of paid work, and to see some of the fine young people who will be in my class this term.

Let me say a bit about the process. This isn't a complaint, I hope - more of an attempt to illuminate the process for myself - and for anyone who's interested in what I do here as a teacher. As mentioned in previous posts, this Saturday Creative Reading & Writing class is a chance for very advanced (in English) Korean students in the Nambu district to enroll themselves in an English only classroom environment where we will read, discuss and write about various readings on a variety of "hot issues" as chosen by the teaching team. For example, we will be discussing, among other things, Gay Marriage, Social Networking and Privacy, and Tiger Moms. The idea is to give students a taste of what it is like to be in a Western-style English class - at least I'm imagining that is why they have brought-in Western teachers.

Last semester, I found that a fairly high percentage of my students were very reluctant to speak out in class. I wasn't surprised. Though things are changing, in Korea, it's often a challenge to get away from the Confucian centered idea of the rigidly structured classroom - where a teacher stands and professes, and a student listens intently, and both kind of hope for the best. Of course, the outside environment this students face in recent years makes this system seem more and more ineffectual - at least in terms of trying to attain comfort communicating in a second language. I do feel that I was able to make a great deal of progress in this area with most of my students, but not all. In short, discussion, and hopefully a lot of discussion brought on by disagreement is what I'm after.

I'm not convinced that's what the district is after, however. After having experienced the pilot semester of this program, it was clear to me that the essay-writing capabilities of my students was not as "advanced" as promised. I was glad of it - raw material with which to work :) Their writing improved a great deal on the whole. I actually shudder a bit to think what would have happened had my students every one of them been at university level as advertised. Anyway, I was thinking it would be best to keep my expectations low at the intake stage this time. As a result, for the essay-writing portion of the entrance test, I suggested an essay question that all students have an opinion on: marriage - as in do you want to get married, and give me 3 reasons for your answer. In essence, I was trying to get them to guide their writing toward a classically structured 5 paragraph persuasive essay: "I don't want to get married because 1, 2, and 3. Now give detail for each, and summarize in a clever way. Really, that's the best I can hope for in an entrance exam format.

Apparently the question was thought (by the district powers that be) to be too easy for these students, so they were instead given a much more challenging question: "What are the factors that are contributing to Korea's aging population, and what can we do to combat the change?" I would say that maybe 10% of the students were able to write more than a paragraph. I did receive some interesting responses though - the most notable among them being "I think that women want more power and ability to choose their job and make money, so they don't want to have children because children are too expensive to have. So, we must handicap women so that they will want to become mothers and stop working." This student was a female. Clearly, we are headed for some lively discussions in class.

Once past the exam portion, students attended a very intimidating (I thought) interview process. I agree with having interviews, but... well, this was intense. The prospective students gathered in a classroom, then one at a time, were called into the hallway to read a short article about Korean reality TV shows (immensely popular here). They were timed with a stop-watch. They were also given two questions to answer:

1) Why are these shows so popular?
2) Comment on the negative and positive affects of the popularity of these shows.

Students then entered the interview room to face us three teachers and "present" their opinions to us. We were to grade them on the thoughtfulness, completeness, and fluidity of their answers - paying particular attention to their use of grammar and ease of speech. If time allowed (they had five minutes each to respond), I was to ask two more questions - regarding their reasons for applying to the course, and inquiring about their future educational pursuits. All legitimate questions.

After the interviews began however, it struck me just how far this would be from any kind of "hey, how are you" kind of meet-and-greet. Students came in, showed their number sticker (so that we wouldn't have names to skew our judgment, I suppose), and rattled-of their "responses", which seemed to be for the most part by rote.

I realize that this comes-off like I am complaining about the process. What I really want to say though is that I feel that it was an inappropriate process for the class I intend to run. Based on reviews I received for what we did last semester, I can confidently say that our curriculum and lessons born from it were right on the money - at least in terms of how happy they make the parents, which is really of the utmost importance here. I am also proud to say that last semester's students seemed to enjoy the class immensely, and I feel it necessary to add that students seemed to enjoy the class, precisely because we immediate made a point of breaking-down the rigid classroom structure that most seemed to have gotten used to through their experience so far in the Korean public school system. Not saying our approach is better in every way, but in terms of what we were trying to achieve, our approach was unquestionably more effective in every way that mattered.

So, I suppose all I need to say is that the process of allowing students into the class, was horribly at odds with the actual type of class we are hoping to run. There are times when one juts needs to make the necessary adjustments on the fly. For instance, though we were instructed to just let students answer the questions without prompting, I'm not going to let a nervous ESl student who feels like he's bombing in front of three Simon Cowell's just sit there and boil in his own embarrassment - I'm going to prompt him, and ask questions...

"Korean reality shows give us fun and impressions... and they have many impressions and... fun...
Teacher Dave: Do you like to watch these reality shows?
Student: Ummmm... ha ha ha... ummm... not really.
Teacher: Aha! An honest answer! Tell me, why not?

...and so on.

If I'm the one grading him, I'm also wanting to see how he (or she) responds to a teacher trying to enter into a dialogue. The student's success in our class will after all be based on a student's ability to engage in discussion - not his or her ability to memorize a stock response.

Anyway, there are clear differences in our approach as classroom teachers, as compared to the approach of the district supervisors. Rules will bend as needed, just as they did last semester. I'm excited to know my new students, and it will all start again on Saturday.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscars 2011 - Spreading the Love

Try as I might, I still haven't been able to see all of the contenders for this year's Oscars. Still, due to the rabbit's ticket-booking ability, I have been able to see the vast majority as they've been released here in Seoul - rather late in the game. That's a whole lotta good movie-watching packed into a month - except for The Kids Are All Right, which was somehow released here back in the summer. Truly, these films are a sight for sore eyes.

Sadly, the one I haven't seen is the one that many pick to sweep most categories tomorrow at the Academy Awards. I'm going to call their bluff though, and suggest that the Academy voters are going to spread the wealth around a bit among the favourites. Sadly, I see nothing on the horizon for 127 Hours, but that's not the only film that will be shut-out.

Before I get to my predictions, here (minus The King's Speech, as I haven't seen it) is my own personal ranking of the top 9 films as chosen by the Academy to fill-in the Best Picture category for 2011...

1) Inception
2) True Grit
3) 127 Hours
4) Toy Story 3
5) The Social Network
6) The Kids Are All Right
7) The Fighter
8) Black Swan
9) Winter's Bone

What I'm thinking will win...

Best Picture: True Grit

I'm going to go out on a bit of a limb here and say that True Grit is going to take the big prize. Here's why: the Academy favours films that make them feel. As excellent as The Social Network was, it seemed to work fairly hard to keep the audience at a distance - the only really effective place from which we could properly appreciate Sorkin's dialogue and Fincher's overall construction.

I know that it's an easy out to say that The King's Speech is a sure thing here, and it could very well be, but I don't think so. BAFTA was all over The King's Speech and so have the heavy majority of pre-Oscar awards been. However, come Oscar night, when it's time for the Academy to throw down, they usually place their chips with a nominee from this side of the Atlantic - Helen Mirren got the big prize, but The Queen did not. Academy members cheered for The King's Speech, but my guess is that True Grit has stayed in their heads and has been impossible to shake. That's the mark of a great film.

This could be a surprise on the scale of Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan. In this, the second year with ten nominees in this category, Vegas has True Grit's odds a very distant 4th behind The King's Speech, The Social Network, and Black Swan. I don't think the "been there, done-that" label sticks to True Grit as far as the Academy is concerned - in regards to the recycled story, the Coens, or Jeff Bridges. I think True Grit would be a happy surprise for most. I could very well be way off the mark here, and perhaps seeing The King's Speech myself would throw me off this trail, but I'm sticking with my pick. There you have it.

Best Director: David Fincher (The Social Network)

One of The Social Network's big prizes of the night. Picture/Director split as we've seen a few times in recent years.

Best Actor: Colin Firth (The King's Speech)

The only big award for the front-runner, I'm thinking. It seems impossible to not give it to him. Who doesn't love Colin Firth? From all accounts, its an amazing performance - among many other amazing ones this year, perhaps - and he is more than due.

Best Actress: Natalie Portman (Black Swan)

The most overwhelming performed role I've seen in a while, and she will win, which will be deserved, but Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right was subtle and brilliant. She'd be my choice. But, if they let Hillary Swank distract them from Bening's role in American Beauty, Academy voters aren't likely to pay attention to Mrs. Warren Beatty now either. Black Swan was Cataclysmic breakdown - something director Aronofsky has built a career on, but neither of his previous tour de force actor creations (Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler or Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream) were able to sway voters enough. Portman will be a first.

Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale (The Fighter)

The Joker got his Oscar, now let Batman have his. Yeah, the role was showy as hell, but in my eyes it hit every target. That being said, if Rush wins, then The King's Speech will roll. This is traditionally one of the first awards given in the evening, so if The King's Speech gets this, look for it to get a lot more.

Best Supporting Actress: Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)

I've seen the film twice now, and any initial annoyance that might have existed in the character upon first viewing, completely disappeared upon a second once I had the knowledge given to me by the Coen's denouement. She's brilliant, though Natalie Mack would have been even sassier. For the record, I'll be happy for anyone in this category, though I' haven't seen Animal Kingdom.

Best Original Screenplay: Christopher Nolan (Inception)

Nolan not getting nominated for Director, and Inception not getting nominated for Film Editing seem like two of the biggest oversights in Oscar memory. Here, the Academy will repent and slight The King's Speech as well as early favourite The Kids Are All Right in the process.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)

Hard to believe that this is Sorkin's first Oscar nomination, and his film writing credits include A Few Good Men and The American President, the latter of which may have been a bit soft, but really popped in places. This is a screen-writing clinic - the likes of which we haven't seen since The West Wing went of the air. Go figure.

The Rest (Most of which I haven't seen, so these are largely shots in the dark)

Animated Feature: Toy Story 3 (Incinerator = grown man tears)
Art Direction: Inception ("We're sorry, Mr. Nolan - we really are!")
Cinematography: True Grit (That's one more)
Costume Design: The King's Speech (Alice pissed-off too many with it's shabby 3D)
Documentary Feature: Exit Through the Gift Shop (We know the financial crisis was an Inside Job, Matt Taibbi told us so in Rolling Stone. People want to see Banksy accept an award and give the great reveal)
Documentary Short Subject: Killing in the Name (Sounds like grief - exposed as the nerve in Aaron Rolston's left forearm.
Film Editing: The Social Network (I hope the recipient thanks the other nominees, as well as Inception)
Foreign Language Film: Incendies (Hooray for Canada!)
Make-up: The Wolfman (It's Rick Baker)
Original Score: The Social Network (It's Trent Reznor)
Original Song: "I See the Light", Rapunzel (This is a chance to again recognize Alan Menken - for again reviving the Disney musical)
Animated Short: The Lost Thing (Pixar can't win everything, and shouldn't)
Short Film Live Action: Na Wewe (I have little to go on here)
Sound Editing: Inception (Usually these are split)
Sound Mixing: Inception (Not this time)
Visual Effects: Inception (That's 5 for Nolan's film, and it wins the night)

Carrot Muffins

The rabbit loves bread. As two friends from down south (Neil and Emiko) were returning to Canada a couple of weeks ago, back in December, they offered to give me their really nice convection oven that they had purchased for their apartment here. That gave me inspiration for part of rabbit's bread-themed Christmas gift: a Korean mini-oven cookbook published through a local bakery and the promise that we could attend a chosen baking lesson together.

The oven arrived two weeks ago and tonight was our first chance to use it. Let me begin by saying that I have next to no experience with baking. I can make a mean raspberry chiffon pie, but that's a cold pie. All that I need to throw in an oven for that is a Crisco pie crust. I suppose I have rolled some dough for mom once upon a few Christmases, but I was necessarily supervised.

Rabbit and I started easy tonight. First step was getting the ingredients and supplies (of which I had nearly none) and then we dove into the book. This was rabbit's thing, so we chose carrot muffins and did it all together. A few minor missteps when we mistook a tpsp foe a tsp while measuring salt, cinnamon, and baking powder, but we soon righted the ship. We picked-up a digital scale today as well as the other scale just wouldn't have been accurate enough for such small measurements.

As you can see, our first attempt was a sad and floppy failure, but the second and third batches came out swimmingly, I would say - even if they do look like they're about to flubber right out of the pan. The only missing ingredient: vanilla oil. Oh, well - we had the carrots, and that's what counts.

Baking isn't so bad. I dig the aroma that fills the room, and I love watching the little guys rise. I'm 35 effing years old - why didn't I try this baking thing earlier?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

My Top 25 (6-10)

Happy to have heard #10 live in Seoul last year. Thanks, Johnny.

6) Oxford Comma (Vampire Weekend)
7) Fake Empire (The National)
8) Your New Twin-Sized Bed (Death Cab for Cutie)
9) La Cienega Just Smiled (Ryan Adams)
10) Don't Look Back in Anger (Oasis)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

My Top 25 (11-15)

Thanks for the Interpol introduction, Ian.

11) How it Ends (Devotchka)
12) Leif Erikson (Interpol)
13) Casimir Pulaski Day (Sufjan Stevens)
14) Strawberry Swing (Coldplay)
15) Title & Registration (Death Cab for Cutie)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My Top 25 (16-20)

Thanks, Ne-Yo, for making sure that my top 25 isn't all white guys with guitars...

16) Where is my Mind? (Pixies)
17) Go on, Girl (Ne-yo)
18) These Girls (Ryan Adams)
19) Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)(The Arcade Fire)
20) Two Weeks (Grizzly Bear)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

My Top 25 (21-25)

Just for poops and ha-has, here are the first 5 of my top 25 most played songs on itunes as of today. Some are on there as a result of being among many play lists or frequently included in an on-the-go Genius mix, others are obviously there because they are frequently called upon as needed through a regular day in the life of Dave. I was lost in thought today, and came across one of these by chance. Got me thinking about what it is that I listen to most. I'm sure the top 50 would be more telling, but that would also be overload. Some on the list I proudly call favourites, and others, well... enjoy, or cringe...

21) Karma Police (Radiohead)
22) Waiting for Summer (Jon Nordstrom, who was too lazy to post a video on youtube. Get on it.)
23) The Shining (Badly Drawn Boy)
24) Swim Until You Can't See Land (Frightened Rabbit)
25) Something Vague (Bright Eyes)

Goodbye, Tree...

My school's name begins with the prefix "Sin" (pronounce "Shin") which means "new" when applied to places such as a cities, or in this case: a school. Apparently, when some of my co-teachers heard they were working at my school, they were a little surprised to see the outward appearance of the place - more than a bit ratty and tattered by the years since the main building was constructed sometime in the 1960s.

As you can see above, the place didn't look all that bad (on a sunny day anyway), that is until you get up-close and see the chipped paint and garbagio hanging off the window ledges (students don't seem to have school pride until after their middle school years).

Anyway, the school has been through some changes throughout the years, including a fairly extensive renovation of the inside floors, hallway windows, and ceilings last year. Over the winter break, the school has been undergoing a face-lift on the outside - stripped and repainted, as well as a new main entrance and sign, and redesigned windows in all of the stairwells.

The results are below.

Unfortunately, also lost is the school's tree which must have been planted long before the school's opening, and which can be seen in the background here.

The school is now breaking ground on its first gymnasium, which is a great for the staff and students, but a sad note for the area's natural history. The tree was extremely rare for the area, and it was universally loved. It served as the backdrop for many school photos and was a school landmark as well - appearing in school notices and featuring prominently on the school's website. In short, in the absence of any school mascot, there was this tree. A few of my grade 3 students, when leaving welcome cards for the new grade 1s chose to talk about the tree: "You will love Cheong Budle, it will give you shade on a hot day."

Well, no more. There's no need to be over dramatic about it. The school is growing in an important way, but I wish there could have been some way to have saved the tree as well. Green can be a rarity here - especially on sandy school grounds. It will be missed.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Hockey Morning in Korea

Had a great night and morning hanging-out with my old Calgary room mate, Ian, in Sanbon. Great dinner with Bonnie and the two cute little tykes, and then some late night reminiscing looking over youtube clips of some of the most nostalgic hockey moments we could think of.

We woke up this morning to watch the 2011 Heritage Classic at 8:00 am with some pancakes, nachos and beer - all of the key pieces of a nutritious hockey breakfast. The game itself was a joy for a Calgary homer - seeing that much attention lavished on one's hometown, and having the home team come away with a big 4-0 win. Rarely have I wanted a Tim Horton's and a Canadian Tire commercial so badly.

I won't say too much. From a fan of this season, I think this win builds well on the past three weeks or so to put the Flames into serious contention for home playoff advantage in the West - at least in the first round. I know that's a whole lotta projecting into April with such a crowded conference, but it shows something we haven't really seen since 2004, that being chemistry and confidence in role players - coupled with very low expectations (for those of us who are realistic). This bodes well, and I wouldn't at all mind if we got a chance to play spoiler in round 1 against Vancouver.

From a fan of the game, this specific game and the feelings leading up to it gave me ample pause to reflect on three things among many that I miss dearly: hockey, Canada, and my dad. My dad took me to my first ever NHL game in the early '80s, just after the Flames relocated to Calgary from Atlanta. If I'm remembering it correctly, the Flames were playing the Montreal Canadiens at the Stampede Corral. I enjoyed the game, but I was a bit of a pouting twit when my dad wouldn't buy me a white hot wheels toy car with the Flames logo on the hood and a #14 on the roof (Kent Nilsson, not The Fleury. I felt guilty after the game, and even more so when I found the car in my stocking that Christmas.

I really could go on, and have before, about the nostalgia surrounding the game of hockey. As a hockey-loving Canadian, it's hard not to let it course through your veins as I imagine baseball does for my friends south of the border. I love the old buildings, and I regret that I never got to see a game played in the Forum or the Maple Leaf Gardens. I would still rather see a game at the Corral than the 'Dome.

If you feel like getting sentimental as I am right now, watch these, and watch them all - including the entirety of Richard's ovation. If you have a dry eye at the end, I'm guessing you're not a hockey fan.

1) The Hockey Sweater - NFB's wonderful animated version of Roch Carrier's classic Quebec hockey memoir.

2) Maurice "Rocket" Richard's 7 minute standing ovation before the last game played at the Montreal Forum.

3) A 2007 report of the current state of Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens.

Go, Flames, go!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Looking Back at Our East Coast Trip

Well, our little jaunt out of town ended much in the same way that it began: rapid transit by bus and subway. As Google Maps tells me, Sokcho on the East coast of Korea is 157.7 KM from Seoul as the crow flies, but to get there by bus means winding in and out of some pretty hairy mountain passages. It should take a fair amount of time, but remember, this is Korea - where bus drivers are always after that 150cc Mushroom Cup. There and back took little over two hours each way.

I've been torn in the past when trying to decide how to effectively blog about any travel that I do. Hopefully, when one is actually traveling, there is little time set-aside for sitting in front of a computer. I suppose if the trip lasts for months, one makes time, but three days and two nights isn't long enough to properly blog on the road.

What compounds the problem then is that after I get back home, I've got a whole bunch of detail to try and recall, all in the midst of getting back into normal life. I'm also somewhat torn about how to handle the photos I take. Not counting the countless photos I've deleted from iphoto over the past few years, I have 8,378 pictures sitting in that program, along with over 5,000 (some of them doubles) posted on my flickr account. I've made inroads of late in my attempt to cull what I no longer care to look at, and what I no longer find that interesting (the everyday of living abroad that once seemed unique no longer holds my attention). Really, someone such as myself needs far fewer photos that I have, and getting rid of some can be therapeutic to say the least. I have a long way to go before it's all organized though.

I was going to blog quite extensively about my recent trip, but then I'm faced with the reality of wanting to support my tales with ample visuals, and there just isn't the room here.

Anyway, for this trip, I took the time to label a flickr set, in the hopes that the photos can speak for themselves. You can find the set here, or by clicking on "My Pictures" on the left hand side of my regular blog page and looking for the set labeled "East Coast Trip (February 2011)". Either way, I recommend doing so after reading this post.

A few highlights before you get to the pictures...

1) As there was a record snowfall on the East Coast in the early morning of Valentine's Day, it seemed as though many people had canceled plans to head East from Seoul. The result was a nearly empty resort - great for us, and obviously challenging for the local businesses. It's off-season as it is, but there was a major dig-out that seemed to be wrapping-up just as we pulled into town. Apparently, the road leading to the water park was impassable the day before we arrived.

2) Seorak Waterpia is a very cool little place. I had no big expectations for the place - I was expecting basically a glorified jimjilbang - so I was pleasantly surprised to see a very well-developed water park with a great design. After doing some searching on the internet, and having heard horror stories about the crowding of other such Korean water parks, I was trying my best to be enthusiastic about the possibility of this:

Thankfully, what we instead faced was this:

Of course, that wasn't the area of the park I was most excited about. The place is very expansive with different buildings housing creatively designed hot tubs and wave pools, all linked by heated "rivers" that are a blast to swim through. Of course, everything was much more fun knowing that we were virtually alone. I was imagining "Uncle Dave's Harbour Tours" with my nephews. They would have had a blast.

Perhaps the best part of Waterpia (at least in the winter time) is "Spa Valley" - an area of the park built down a hillside where narrow pathways lead to rock-bedded hot springs of all sorts. Check the photos for details. All in all, a great place to spend the day with your rabbit (we were there for 10 hours) - especially when it feels like you have the place to yourselves, and when you get in for free (the rabbit's sister gave us a free all-day pass - normally a 58,000 won ticket price). One of the most fan and relaxing days I've had since coming to Korea.

3) Seoraksan - Due to the fact that I'm not supposed to be walking far or at any real degree of incline for the next three weeks or so, we weren't able to really experience much of Korea's most famous mountain range. Luckily for us though, the rare heavy snow in the valleys made for some very picturesque walks anyway. Seoraksan National Park is beautiful, and normally ridiculously crowded in the Fall and Spring. I'm sure they are both gorgeous times to visit, but I'll take the snow and empty trails any day.

Parts of Seoraksan (most of which we couldn't get to) are what seem to have inspired many of those classic Korean ink sketches I've seen at the National museum and all over Insadong. It's not the Rockies in terms of size, but equally impressive. Lookie what mother nature can do! I know that I'll be back there for a real hike someday.

4) Sokcho - with a population of just under 90,000 people, Sokcho certainly feels like a seasonal town, or "small city" as it is officially listed as. The downtown area is very clean and modernized (even a two story Bean Pole store for those fisherman who can't do without the latest tweed blazer), but other parts of the city look very much like the place that time forgot. There are MANY empty and seemingly failed motels here, and you can double or triple whatever number that is to describe the amount of empty seafood restaurants.

This is very much a coastal fishing town in varying states of decay, repair, and shiny newness - depending on which block you end-up on. We didn't have a great deal of time to explore, and I'm sure that the place comes alive and puts its glossiest foot forward for the high season, but as it was for us, Sokcho was a serviceable launching point for the water park and the mountains (only 30 minutes from downtown to the center drop-off point of the National Park. As the rabbit charmingly and optimistically put it when describing our quaint hostel, "they do their best", which is about all that can be expected from a dark-blue-collar fishing town that technically sits just North of the 38th parallel. It felt a bit like Busan, a bit like Gangneung, and a bit like Banff. A mixed bag, really. I'm looking forward to a return visit when the beaches are warm enough to enjoy.

Before I forget, here are the step-by-step photo instructions for ma and pa...

1) Go to "My Pictures" on the left menu of my blog.
2) Open the set (East Coast Trip, February 2011)
3) Click "slideshow" in the upper right corner
4) Click "show info" in the upper right corner of the next screen (to get descriptions)
5) Click on options to choose speed for the slideshow, or...
6) Click the pause button on the lower left and cycle through the photos by clicking on them at the bottom.

It was good to see a new part of Korea for me, it was grand to get away for a few days, and it was a surprisingly effective bit of happy medicine after receiving the disappointing news about Thailand.

I like traveling in Korea, with a whole whack of chingus, or just one special rabbit.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Last Day on the East Coast

It's been a great little trip so far. I have a ton to write about and I will do that when I get home - not now as I forgot to bring my camera USB cord with me and my descriptions wouldn't be as effective without the photos to accompany them.

We've been busy since we got here - 10 hours at Seorak Waterpia (a great water park built to be enjoyed all year long with lots of hot tubs and wave pools etc.), a trip into Seoraksan (mountain park), one of the most beautiful natural areas in the country, and then last night and this morning walking around the coastal city/town of Sokcho to see what small town night life is all about and to try to see the early morning sunrise today (it was a tad overcast).

All in all, great times, and as I will write about extensively, we couldn't have been luckier with the weather. The record East Coast snowfall that was apparently big enough to make the news in Canada was also big enough to scare-off most of the people who might have otherwise made the trip from Seoul. As a result, our bus was half-empty, and so was the waterpark... so were the mountain trails actually (don't worry, mom - we just walked the valley with a very slight incline :)

Anyway, lots ot share and many photos to post. The rare snow made everything more beautiful and much less crowded than it would have otherwise been at this time of year. Lucky are we. Off to one more location before calling it a trip and getting on the bus for Seoul. I'll post again when I get some free time over the next couple of days.

In the meantime, here is a Google image of Seoraksan in the Spring to tide you over...

Monday, February 14, 2011

Gum on the Train

The rabbit and I, as mentioned, did go to see 127 Hours last night. She arranged tickets a few days ago. While we were sitting and waiting for trailers to begin, I asked what she had heard about the movie. She told me she hadn't heard anything. I asked if she knew it was based on a true story. She replied that she liked true stories. When it was all said and done, she thought the movie was great, but she was nowhere near ready for the big scene.

Anyway, we will be heading to the East Coast tomorrow for a couple of days. A 3 hour bus ride to Waterpia at Seorak Mountain resort. We'll be staying 1 night and then heading to Seokcho (a small town on the coast to watch the sunrise on the East Sea on Thursday morning. We are both very much looking forward to a few days out of town.

This afternoon on the train, I had an awkward gum seller experience. A common way for people down on their luck to make some extra cash comes in the form of selling gum. Packs of Xylitol brand gum can be bought at your local Family Mart for 500won (about 50 cents). People buy-up cases of the stuff and roam through the subway cars offering packs for 1000won - consider it a 100% mark-up for a convenience fee.

A couple of weeks ago, a dude on a wheelchair made his way through the subway car and I waved him over. I took out my 1000 won bill to pay the man, he gave me the pack of gum, I gave him my money, and then he told me that he wanted 2000 for it. What am I going to do then - argue with a gum-selling dude in wheelchair? But, for real.

Today, a testy little lady got on the train and was not at all shy about pushing her gum case into people's line of sight - it wasn't enough to simply announce her wares. She saw my foreign self and made a bee-line for me. I was reading a book. She put the gum in my face. I wasn't biting. She nudged my book with the gum. I waved my hand to say no. She then pushed into my effing face with her gum case - like testing to see if I were alive or dead. I said "Annio!" and she moved on - shoving her gum into the face of the lady beside me, but with much less determination.

Word gets out. She had probably heard that foreigners pay double.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Bones and Hair

The rabbit and I are going to see 127 Hours on the big screen tonight. It'll be my second time. Give me a break. This is how I combat the blues of losing my travel opportunity this vacation. It's also how I (in my mind anyway) reverse the effects of the popularity of illegally pirated DVDs readily available on almost every street corner in Seoul.

Anyway, looking forward to seeing this one again.

In the meantime, allow me to share a brief point about two other movies we checked out this weekend...

Winter's Bone - This one is up for a few Oscars and deservedly so, though I have to say that I would have a hard time recommending it to a lot of people. The story concerns a 17 year-old Ree (Best Actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence) living in rural Missouri (looking like the post-apocalyptic setting of Cormac MacCarthy's The Road). She cares for her two much younger siblings as her mother appears to be in a constant catatonic state, and her father has skipped bail after being arrested for running a meth lab, posting the family house and farm as bond. He's missing, the family will lose the house unless dad shows-up at the court case, or is discovered dead. At the beginning, both possibilities seem quite likely - the guy clearly hasn't been taking care of things at home for a while, and word is that he blabbed to the cops about the other members of his backwoods "blood" who have had to put a temporary halt on their own "business" in order to avoid getting locked-up.

This movie is unpleasant as hell, which alone isn't a reason to not like it. The performances are all top-notch and frighteningly authentic. One wonders if most of the supporting players were lured out from behind rotting sheds using extras money - they are all drawls, soiled polar fleece jackets, and lips pursed into permanent expressions of hillbilly toughness. The story contains an ever-present feeling of dread as Ree roams the immediate countryside and confronts her own distant (but certainly inbred) "family" members about her father's whereabouts. Family, in this case would sooner smack Ree across the face with a frying pan than help her on her quest. "Best leave it alone, ya here!" is an oft used phrase in this film. The ending is heavy, but rather underwhelming in a way. Lawrence is remarkable as the protagonist, and she's easy to cheer for. This is just a bit bleak for me to recommend, and its bleakness runs along so evenly that the denouement feels like simply the next in a long line of ankle weights disguised as promises in Ree's sorry excuse for an existence. She's a good person, likely going nowhere.

- If The Princess & the Frog couldn't revive Disney's hand-drawn animation department to its early '90s glory days, it's unlikely that anything will. Technology moves right along, folks, so for the Disney purists out there, the next best thing is likely going to come in a form similar to the one established with Tangled. In South Korea, the film is correctly labeled as Rapunzel - the name that the studio should have stuck with instead of bowing to the fear of another "princess" failure at the box office.

I saw Rapunzel in 3D. Ebert is 100% right about the process. It's fun and exciting, but remove the glasses for a quick peek at the level of brightness that you're missing by paying the extra $5. The 3D glasses unquestionably mute the colours on screen at a rate of about 20% if not more. The colours in Rapunzel are as bold and delicious as they were in UP, but they are considerably dampened by the glasses. Oh, well. Still, some of the effects are fun, It's just a shame that such a bright picture seems to be in a permanent state of cloud cover.

Anyway, this movie is beautiful to look at. Rather than the stylized humans we have seen in Pixar tales, the aesthetic in Rapunzel is much more like the traditional Disney princess design (big eyes, well-placed locks of hair) being fed through a Pixar generator. It's all very familiar, yet updated for today's discerning animated movie going crowd. I won't say much about the story. It was light, funny, well scored and well written. It's also thankfully (aside from that awful American title) free from the of-the-moment references that make the Shrek films so desperately "clever". Most tellingly, the box office of Rapunzel is nearly double that for The Princess as the Frog. After much doubt, there is a new and viable path to a future of well-made Disney fairy tale musicals. For a lot of us, that's great news.

Graduation Day: Part 2

This past Thursday was Graduation Day for our middle school grade 3 students. It's kind of a solemn day, at least it is for me. This year, it's especially so as many of my favourite teachers have completed their final year at the school.

In the Korean public school system, teachers stay at a school for 5 years and then get re-shuffled to a new location. I suppose that serves to keep things fresh, but I feel that it also serves to limit potential friendships to a degree. I would imagine that one of the first questions new teachers ask veteran colleagues is "when did you start here?" or "how many years do you have left?" What would be the point, I suppose, in becoming close to someone who's leaving at the end of semester 2?

Well, for better or for worse, I have become quite close to a handful of teachers who will be leaving after March 2nd. Next year will be very different, and in time I will see that as a good thing, but in the meantime, I try and imagine my daily school life without some of the kindest people in it. It's no exaggeration to say that in my 2 years at this school, I have come-across the complete spectrum of friendliness - from those who couldn't be bothered to say good morning when they are directly in front of me and crossing my path in a quiet hallway (even when I say it in Korean), to one who has invited me to his family home no less than 5 times and is looking forward to the 6th, and one who will drop everything to insist on giving my parents a ride to the airport because such is the level of respect he would automatically have for my ma and pa.

Choi Yong is one such person. He is Jackie Chan and Super Mario. He is the head of the School Discipline Dept., the head PE teacher and soccer coach, and the heart and soul of our school. Students love him, but never want to be on his bad side. When over at his place for dinner during my parents' visit to Korea, he showed us a clip of him competing on one of those physical challenge game shows made most famous from their Japanese incarnations. In it, he got tripped-up and caught by closing mattress walls before he could reach the final goal. With his head and arm barely sticking out, he asked the show's host for one more chance - adding that he was doing it to show his students (from a previous middle school) what they can do if they never give up. He got one more chance, and was the only contestant to make it through the gauntlet that day.

Choi Yong is larger than life, and he is kind. I'll miss saluting his smile each day on my way through the school gate.

As for the students. It's tough to see them go. Of course, if I'm being honest, the great majority of them were very skilled at being a pain in the ass most of the time. But those that wanted to know me, and who wanted me to know them, will be missed. There were a few tears among the students that day, but not from me - if anything graduation day allows me to simply enjoy feeling connected to the students in a way that I can't during the semester. I came close though when the student quartet led in the singing of the Korean version of Auld Lang Syne. I suppose when you're in the teaching business, you're also in the saying goodbye business. Things are in a state of constant change everywhere, and certainly in every profession, but perhaps nowhere are the partings so regimented as they are in school. That's going to be hard for me.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Graduation Day: Part 1

It’s Friday afternoon here in Seoul. I hate to be a walking (or sitting) cliché, but sometimes I just feel the need to pack up my computer, get on the train, and go somewhere else to read or write – somewhere that isn’t my apartment. I am very lucky to have the apartment I have, and I am very grateful to have it be as comfortable as it is – especially for the purposes mentioned above. However, I’ve been spending far too much time of late in my apartment, and I need to get out.

I wish I could say that I am more original than heading into a Starbucks with my laptop, but at least I don’t have a goatee, and I’m not futilely using any version of Final Draft . I am grateful to hear Harry Connick Jr. on the play-list, but more than slightly dismayed to hear some dreadful moody remix of a song whose name I can’t recall, but the only lyric this new artist seems to think bears repeating is “Blue on blue, heartache on heartache”. I’m sure there’s a title in there somewhere.

I wanted to say a few words about the past week. My limbo classes passed without much incident and I actually found that talking to my students about my hospital stay was a pretty effective ice-breaker and served to snap them out of their collective morning stupor. The display of welcome cards looks really nice, and helped me to feel as though something of some countable worth had been accomplished this week. For some reason that I had explained to me multiple times, but still haven’t been able to understand, I wasn’t able to obtain the new textbooks until yesterday – the final day of school until March 2nd – the beginning of the new semester. I’m not saying I would have been able to get a lot done in terms of planning, but having more time to check them over would have been valuable. On the positive side of things, the text books look fresh and fun.

Going to catch a screening of Winter’s Bone tonight with the rabbit. It’s up for Oscars for picture, lead actress, supporting actor, and adapted screenplay, though I am surprised somewhat to see it showing in Korean cinemas with the lack of star power. The King’s Speech comes out early next month, so looking forward to that.

Enough of the update on my hobbled holiday - I wanted to talk about something else.

This past Tuesday, I attended the graduation ceremony for the High School class I had been teaching on Saturdays. As the classes had been, the ceremony was held far from my part of town – down in the Nambu District offices south of the river. There’s not too much to say about the ceremony itself, except to note that students seemed genuinely proud and happy to be there. From what I saw, there were three special classes happening in the fall semester – along with my “Critical Reading & Writing” class, there was an English “Public Speaking” class, as well as one “Advanced Math” class – the only one of the three taught in the students’ native tongue. Names were read aloud, and we sat through a short but spirited video and slide montage. I was happy to see so many of my photos from our Olympic Park trip highlighted in the presentation.

There were a few quick photo ops after the ceremony, students said a bit of a teary goodbye to their teachers before filing-out, a short meeting with teachers, and then it was time to leave and meet the rabbit for dinner.

On my way out of the building, I noticed all of my students gathered around the gate. They weren’t ready to say goodbye to each other. I stopped to chat with them for a time and, tempted as I was to join them, I had a date. They were considering going somewhere for an early dinner, and I find myself hoping that they did.

I look back on that class and I regret only one thing – that I somehow wasn’t able to remember every student’s name. I got about 75%, but after 10 of the 17 scheduled classes had passed, it just wasn’t going to happen. There are only so many students one can be exposed to before whatever part of one’s brain that's assigned to name-recall begins to fizzle and pop.

The rest of the class, however, I couldn’t be more proud of. Segments of instruction time and some of the organization of the whole thing was far from perfect, but as a whole, as I’ve said before, this class reminded me of the reasons I have decided to truly pursue a proper career in teaching – as late in life as it may comparatively be for me. I only saw these students a total of 18 times, but each time was 2 hours on a Saturday, and each time was filled with discussion surrounding topics of some importance that Korean students rarely if ever get the chance to explore in a classroom setting in their own language – let alone in English. I also had the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with these students through their writing of essays and my grading of and commenting on them. I realize that sounds horrifically boring to the majority of people, but to me it was like a life-line. I wanted to know, I wanted to encourage, and I wanted to argue with these kids about things like celebrity culture, body image, socialized medicine, gay marriage, and vegetarianism – just to name a few issues that were on the menu in this course.

It appears to have made some sort of difference at any rate. I’m not sure how many of these students will be pursuing English education at a university level, but if I can be bold enough, I will say that I think this course has better prepared them for it.

For them and for the rest, what’s even more valuable to me is that I think these students gained some confidence in the practice of exploring and sharing ideas with their peers. There still exists in Korea a fairly universally held belief that the best atmosphere for education is teacher as authority figure, as defined through Confucian thought and practice. Of course this is changing. But, for my students – who are all of them the highest English achievers in their district – the strict line between student and teacher was likely enforced even more so through their education. Knowing this, I did all I could to make their time with me guided with a more student-centered approach. I dare say it worked – at least in terms of being something different. I will allow myself a small measure of pride in the knowledge that at least a few thoughtful, caring, and academically superior young charges of mine perhaps considered the other side of important human issues more fervently than they had before been given an excuse or even permission to. Good.

On a more personal note, I will miss these students, and it means the world to me that they will miss me. I have already received a couple of sweet emails and requests for photos from class, which I will respond to later today. I'll share a couple with you, because I don't think doing so quite crosses (even if it does begin to toe toward) the line of self-congratulation. G (I will name him thus so as to keep his identity somewhat secret for anyone who may have come across this blog) was one my best and most dedicated students. He studied German before he studied English, he is a history and war buff, and these among other things have surely contributed to if not been directly responsible for his likely social awkwardness in his regular school. At any rate, it says more about how this student feels about his own class experience, as opposed to me as a teacher. G addressed me by last name first. The first time it ever happened, I was so surprised and curious that I didn't bother correcting him. By the time our course was complete, the other students had looked far past G's awkward surface to see a really smart and caring young man who has value as a friend and classmate. That was entirely G's doing.

Here are three of my favourite emails from G through this past semester. For anyone who wants to jump on me for blowing my own horn, remember that the primary reader of this blog is my mother - who is always asking me some variation of the question: "what did they say?!!!" whenever an opportunity has arisen for praise directed at her son. Here ya go, mom... look - I'm a real teacher! G says so...

(November 6th)
Hi Dave~~
This is G***. Well, I was really interested in today's class. I originally liked(?) the war, but, I have changed my mind since last year. Because I saw the death of my friend - fall from the 5 floor. At that time, I felt extreme fear. And at his funeral, I could know about the sorrow of the bereaved family. It was very hard to pass my valued friend away. I was really sorrowful. I hated the death. Some times later, I reminded him, and thought that it would be same to the war bereaved. Cause war makes the lots of deaths. At that time, I became a pacifist. Today's Poem - The Flanders Field - makes me think lot about war, living, and death again. Pepero Day will be different this year. Thank for the instructive class.

(December 25th)

Frohe Weinachten meine bärenstarke Lehrer~~
Und Gutes neues Jahr~~~
Next year, finally, I become a 고3 (high school grade 3 student). Disaster..........
I really don't want to be....
Anyway, even though my future is not very good, I think i should enjoy the christmas.
And I also wish you a merry christmas.
Felis Navidad~!

(February 9th)
Hi, Gagnier!
Well...... After closing ceremony, I felt really sorrowful. And home, with arranging my CRW book, I was really sad that I don't have any more class to use this. As you know, This was joy of my life. I was really happy that I could meet you, other teachers, and friends. I never forget this memory. And I'll really miss you.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"Who watches this trayash?"

In addition to the Oscar-related flicks I've seen in the past couple of weeks, I've also taken the time to watch a handful of Korean films. I'll mention two briefly, and spend most of my efforts on the third.

First, the good...
The Man from Nowhere (아저씨)2010

This one feels like a cross between Leon: The Professional and Man on Fire and to me that's mostly a good thing. Won Bin (who recently played the mentally-challenged accused in Mother) plays a pawn shop owner with a past, who gets involved when his crack-head neighbor's daughter (and apparently, his only friend) gets kidnapped by criminals who reveal deeper and deeper layers of sinister intentions. Well-choreographed gun play and tension surrounding characters that are easy to care about and cheer for. This was the top earning South Korean film of last year. Won Bin is cool and, for the ladies (or in-that-way-inclined gentlemen), is one sexy cat. Also, he's a believable action hero. Sandy - this movie is for you.

The Loveliest Week of My Life / All for Love (내 생애 가장 아름다운 일주일)2005

This is one of those ensemble rom/coms where multiple stories collide with varying degrees of success. Consider this one of a few attempts at a "Korean Love Actually", and a fairly enjoyable one at that. Most successful for me was a story about a bravado-spouting cop (Hwang Jeong-min from A Man who Was Superman) who gets romantically entangled with a cute doctor and reveals some surprises about his background. Most confusing for me was a story about a young nun who struggles with her feelings for a failing K-pop star, and ends-up sharing a hospital room with him after she attempts to take her own life, and he succumbs to the physiological affects of depression. All of it however was interesting and fun, if far from aiming for realism. I have a feeling that in English this would have been achingly cloying and saccharine, but the Korean subtitles make it charming as all hell as far as I'm concerned.

I Saw the Devil (악마를 보았다) 2010

I remember badly wanting to see this film last summer. Truly, I will see anything with Choi Min-Sik, who played the title character in Oldboy back in 2003 - still the most memorable South Korean film I've seen. I was warned however that I Saw the Devil was being banned in its home country and having its release delayed again and again over controversy surrounding the violence in the film. How bad could it be though, right? I mean, in a time when "torture porn" movies like Hostel: Part 3 and Saw XXIII are making enough box office to demand yet another sequel, what could be so objectionable about this?

Turns out - a lot. The story involves Kim Soo-Hyeon (from The Good, The Bad, & The Weird), a secret service agent who opens the movie chatting to his beautiful young fiance who happens to be stuck in a snowstorm on a moonlit rural road outside of Seoul. A school mini-bus approaches her car, and a hooded man offers her a ride. Soo-hyeon advises her over the phone to just wait for the tow-truck. The man, rebuked, wanders back to his mini-bus as the two lovers continue their talk. When the conversation ends, the girl is surprised to see that the van hasn't left. It's brake lights are still on. More surprising is the fact that the hooded man is now standing outside the passenger door, ready to swing a lead pipe.

In movies as graphic and disturbing as The Silence of the Lambs, there is still employed a sense of taste and respect. Buffalo Bill might be wearing his woman suit, but we never see him "harvesting his materials". We see him abduct his prey with force, and it IS unsettling, but we don't ever see (in this viewer's opinion) any violence that isn't justified in terms of advancing the story or defining who the characters are, ie: we need to know that Hannibal Lechter is capable of ripping another man's face off, but we don't need to see the entire visceral act in question to feel its impact. Of course, this is the difference between Johnathan Demme and Brett Ratner. Even Quentin Tarantino understands this (and he even employs it from time to time).

In I Saw The Devil, the camera doesn't cut-away from this first murder at the side of the road. Instead, it follows each blow to the head, the body being dragged to the mini-bus, leaving a wide red road in the snow, back to the killer's hide-away, where her naked and near-death body is splayed out on hooks and... well, I need not go on.

I will describe a following scene however where pieces of the body are dicovered in a nearby river hours later: news cameras follow the distraught Soo-Hyeon and the dead girl's father (who happens to be the police chief) down to the river where a head is discovered, boxed, brought up to shore, and then dropped by the tripping forensic specialist where it bounces around the grass for all to see. I think back to Se7en at this moment, where the director of I Saw the Devil might have made the choice to do the same with Gwyneth's blond locks rolling toward the high tension wires. One wonders here if the film is now moving toward parody. It's horrific, yes - but so over-the-top that as viewers, we're not sure how to feel.

The story progresses with the grieving Soo-Hyeon given 2 weeks vacation to "get over" the death of his fiance. 2 weeks, we are told, is all he will need to "do what must be done". Soo-Hyeon has promised his dead fiance that he will avenge her death and hunt down the 4 major suspects who the police have been following for some time, determine her killer, and "make him suffer as she did". With the help of his friends in the service, he is given a tracking device and a GPS reader. 10 minutes of film time later, after brutalizing the first 3 suspects, he finds his fiance's true killer: Kyeong-cheol (Choi Min-sik from Oldboy) just as the latter is poised to rape a teenage girl. Soo-Hyeon beats the piss out of Kyeong-cheol, and is about to finish him off with a large rock, when he calms his rage enough to remember his mission. He forces the killer to swallow the tracking device and leaves. No mention of where the bound and violated school girl went off to, by the way.

What follows is about an hour and a half of vigilante agent following the killer, beating him senseless and delivering all manner of injuries (remember that ankle tendon slicing scene from Pet Semetary? This is much worse), and then dropping him off at a clinic where the tormented killer can get bandaged up and ready for the next round.

So, is this just a revenge movie? No. Kyeong-cheol is found and beaten repeatedly through the film, but just before he gets his (admittedly well-deserved) ass-kicking, he has, in a fit of new rage, started to "act-out" - perhaps knowing that he's going to get caught anyway, so he may as well wreak more havoc in the process. Each time, before Soo-hyeon lays the beats, Kyeong-chul is already half-way toward raping or killing someone - half the time, he succeeds before the agent can intervene.

In one particularly repulsive scene, Kyeong-cheol comes-across a "friend" (colleague?) who has, with the help of his drugged-up female accomplice, broken into a rural mansion and is in the process of slowly offing the family members in the kitchen. Kyeong-cheol has a dinner with his friend, and then - when said friend heads downstairs to get ready for another killing, Kyeong-cheol graphically and violently rapes the girlfriend in the kitchen. To top this all off, the director makes the choice to show us that the girl, who fought him off at first, is actually starting to enjoy it. Anyone "titillated" yet? I ask because this seems to be the film's raison d'etre.

Similar lack of directorial restraint is shown shortly after when the killer gets into a shared cab on a country road, notices a knife-wielding thief in the back seat, and in short time dispatches both driver and passenger in a literal multi-knife bloodbath as the camera swoops around the taxi's interior, barely able to film the scene for all of the fountains of arterial gore coming at its lens. At times like this, I find myself wondering: does someone, somewhere, consider this to be "Art"?

Who is this movie for? It's certainly not for me. It stars two of Korea's most highly respected and visible stars and in the end, it amounts to no more than murder and rape porn. There must be moments in the making of a movie like this where a director has to make an important choice: "Do I need to simply show that the pursued killer has an unsuspecting girl in a compromising position, or should I given enough screen time to the killer to explore this uncompromising position, with full-frontal quivering nudity and crimson highlights?"

I think that somewhere during the conception of this project, script-writers were thinking that they might want to explore the often-trod story dynamic of the "man who has to become a monster in order to catch a monster", but this thing just falls apart, or (more accurately) descends into smut. The director wants us to be horrified, but by what - the acts on the screen, or the way in which the film makers chose to frame them? I Saw the Devil forcibly side-steps any thought-provoking social comment that story as a basic structure might have been capable of making. I have seen more jarring violence elsewhere, and elsewhere it had a purpose. Here, the result is offensive garbage. When you show a killer and rapist de-robing a terrified young woman the first time, queasy as it may be, you can argue for its value as a piece of plot or character development. When you show it a second time, with the same consequences or lack thereof, it's called rape pornography. I know that "smut" and "garbage" make me sound like prudish conservative grandfather, but watch this movie and tell me I'm wrong. Or, you can disagree and get excited for the release of Eli Roth's next "project", or spend your time wondering what Jigsaw is up to these days.

There is nothing to take away from this viewing experience aside from the revulsion you feel at having subjected yourself to it. Se7en, Reservior Dogs, Natural Born Killers, Straw Dogs, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, or even The Exorcist are all examples of films that employ gruesome violence and repulsive acts for greater purpose - even if that purpose is simply to tell a better story. I Saw the Devil is not one of those films.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Limbo Classes

I suppose that, in the face of the usual countless options, this year, I kept my New Year's resolutions down to one - "I won't get angry in class this year." It's a seemingly modest goal, but in practice...

Anyway, this week is easy. I'm only teaching a couple of classes each day, and being that these are shortened classes, and the students' hearts and minds will not be won over until March 2nd (when regular school resumes), we instead find ways to "endure" our time together.

Remember, the curriculum is finished and exams are all done. These are filler classes. Other English teachers "fill" their classes with videos and crossword style worksheets. For these three days, I've decided to not fight against the students' complete lack of desire to be awake. It's enough that we've forced them out of hibernation for a week, there's no way we could actually be expected to make them learn.

So, I considered a "project". I thought it might be worthwhile for me to redecorate the giantish display that hangs in the hallway outside of my classroom. I asked the grade 3 students who join me in my classroom this week to write welcome notes to the new grade 1 recruits who will be joining us in about 3 weeks. I asked them to remember how they felt on their first day here in middle school: how it felt to wear a uniform for the first time, how it felt to be the smallest students in the school again, etc. Those who took interest treated the request with respect, those who didn't, either slept or simply stared blankly at the big screen which was showing popular English pop-songs to keep everyone entertained as they wrote and illustrated their notes in table groups. As a side note, there are few things cuter than the genuine excitement that comes from middle school girls swooning at Justin Bieber's "Baby" video, and mouthing the words as they colour their cards. You see what happens when you let the cynic's robes slip off your shoulders for a day in an attempt to not get angry at disenchanted students?

I would say that so far about 25% of my grade 3 middle school students took the exercise seriously. I had some really nice notes with beautiful and creative illustrations and sweet messages such as:

"Welcome to Middle School! You will love Choi Yong Teacher. He is very kind and he is the best soccer player. We love him!"
(accomapanied by a drawing of a short teacher and a soccer ball)

"Welcome, new students! We love our library. There are many books and it is warm!"
(accompanied by a drawing of sunshine and books)

For those who didn't take it as seriously, this example represents the group accurately:

"Welcome! You will have to eat this... GOOD LUCK!"
(accompanied by a drawing of some brown glop on a plate, surrounded by purple skull signs and flies buzzing through the steam)

I'd post pictures, but I think you get the idea.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Lunar New Year's Gifts

The Year of the Rabbit officially began in Korea on Thursday, February 2nd, this year. Nice that the rabbit and the groundhog can share the spotlight for a day.

Gifts are common at this time of year, and usually food or household products of some kind make a convenient (if well-overpriced) option for families on the go. Kids get cold hard cash, and adults get practical stuff. Food is best. These large 30x50 cm boxes can be seen everywhere in Seoul at this time of year as people move about from family home to family home.

I got some fruit juice and some soap from my Hagwon supervisor during my first year in Korea, and this year I received a box of bathroom products from my rabbit's sister, as well as box of traditional Korean snacks from one of my school's PE teachers when he and I met for lunch on the weekend. The treat box must have cost nearly 100,000 won. Seriously. If it's not in a special New Year's box, apparently it's not worth giving, and retailers take full advantage of this sentiment.

Anyway, I was surprised and touched by both gifts. Now that the New Years holiday has officially come to an end, Happy Year of the Rabbit, everyone!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Movies for Mom & Dad

It’s the holidays – Lunar New Year, to be specific. This means that Seoul is a bit empty as many families saunter back to their far-flung hometowns to ring-in the new year with relatives. I started writing this post in a mostly empty A Twosome Place on Friday. It’s now Sunday, just after noon, and I’m finishing writing this post in a central Starbucks in Myeong-dong and it’s EMPTY. Nice. Cushy seats and a wall outlet for me.

I’ve mentioned this before, but recently I read something that helps to put things in proper perspective. Korea is a country with a significantly greater population than my home country (48,875,000 to Canada’s 34,345,000). Considering the area, that equals a population density of 491 people/km squared compared to Canada’s 3.41 people/km squared. That’s pretty crazy. Know it would be more accurate to measure the corridors of Canada as opposed to including the areas of permafrost, but it’s far more impressive the other way.

Anyway, roughly 75% of South Koreans live in the Seoul metropolitan area, and at least 50% of them head out of town at this time of year as well as Chuseok in September of October. It makes for a much easier time getting a seat on the subway, that’s for sure. Just try and imagine the clogged roads throughout the peninsula – winding through all of the mountains and hugging the coastlines. Imagine all Canadian citizens (plus 14 million more) cramming the highways and by-ways of a place about just this side of twice the size of Nova Scotia all at once. It sounds very unpleasant to me. Especially considering that they all leave and return in the same direction at roughly the same time. Yeesh.

Anyway, as it turns out, I’m going nowhere – nowhere, that is, except to meet-up with some friends for some games, going to movies, and heading to the hospital for the odd blood test. It’s a very low-key time off. I’ve been low-key Dave for some time now, actually. I don’t mind it – I suppose it’s necessary. After-all, I’m old and my legs don’t really work, so I may as well conduct myself accordingly. I was very busy in the fall, and I’m about to get very busy again, so if I want to sleep-in each day while I’m not working, then so be it.

I’m getting tired easily these days. I’m going to blame it partly on the grayish weather and the fact that I haven’t really been able to get-around as freely as I would like for some time. It was 3 weeks of hobbling plus a week in the hospital, plus a week of bed rest at home, after all. I’m also going to blame it on these blood-thinners that I’ve been taking everyday. My ankles are much better, but I still have this big, colourful sack-o-pills to enjoy. Had blood tests today, and will see the doctor again tomorrow for an update once the results are in.

Wow – reading that over, it seems as though I’ve been leading a bit of a boring life. Mayhaps. But it’s re-grouping time, it seems. Gotta do what I gotta do. I suppose I should also mention that a week tomorrow was the day I had scheduled to go to Thailand. I had to cancel do to my illness, and it’s highly unlikely I’ll be seeing any money back from the canceled ticket. That makes me sad, but I’m equally sad about the fact that I won’t be in Thailand in a week. The trip that had changed in focus more than any other I’ve ever planned just won’t be happening. The whole deal just got more and more disappointing, until finally, it doesn’t exist at all for me. That sucks. I was looking forward to seeing some friendly fish and would have appreciated the chance to travel with a friend. Oh, well.

In the meantime, I have been doing a lot of reading, relaxing, and I have seen a lot of movies. I used to review them all, but haven’t had the time or energy these days to review any of them properly. Anyway, I’m not going to write any proper review here either, mostly because I don’t have the time. Instead, I’ll offer the titles of some movies I’ve seen since the summer, at home or at the theatre, along with very short review (how I liked it), and a recommendation to my parents on whether or not I think they should see it. Aside from the first one, I hope that you guys check them all out – head over to Auntie’s and take advantage of the Blue Ray and the big screen. Sandy and Jay, you too…

Here we go…

Movies I Saw in the last few months that mom and dad might like, plus one to avoid. – some were suggestions of the rabbit’s, some were suggestions of mine…

Eat, Pray, Love

Julia Roberts breaks-up with her husband because she’s bored, so she inexplicably gets a 6-figure advance to travel around the world, have unremarkable experiences, and write a book about it. There was talk of another Oscar nomination for Roberts. That talk was short-lived.

Bill Maher said: “If your girlfriend gets to take you to a movie called ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, then you should be able to take her to a movie called ‘Football, Jerk-off, Nap.”

Mom & Dad – there’s very little here aside from some nice scenery of Italy and Bali. The rest is well beneath you, unless you enjoy stories about privileged pretty people who cry about their lot in life. Don’t bother. Auntie, you’ll be tempted because of the Itlalian locales, but no… just, no. Re-watch Roman Holiday instead and then be glad that you once saw all those cool things in-person, and in colour.

Last Chance Harvey

Dustin Hoffman loses his job, flies to London to attend his estranged daughter’s wedding, meets Emma Thompson, and they admit the romantic potential between them in the middle-to-twilight of their lives.

Roger Ebert says: “Last Chance Harvey is a tremendously appealing love story surrounded by a movie not worthy of it.”

Mom & Dad – I found both lead characters to be captivating, charming, and real. I think you’ll see them the same way. Emma Thompson will make you cry as she did in Love Actually. Rent this one for Valentine's Day.

The Social Network

Bill Maher said: “Nobody wants to see a movie about Facebook. What's the big Second Act crisis, a server going down? If this is a hit, what next? "Google: The Musical?" "Craigslist 3D - The Search For A Slightly Used Rowing Machine?" They might as well make a sitcom out of that blog where some guy just repeats shit his dad says.”

Mom & Dad – This is the story of a Harvard student who gets dumped by his girlfriend and uses his negative feelings surrounding the experience to fuel him toward the creation of facebook, stepping on a number of friends and colleagues along the way. The script is by Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing, so mom – you’ll love the dialogue. Also, with all of the deposition hearings, it’s like the 2nd act of Law & Order without the murder. It says a lot about who we are as social animals today.

The Fighter

Mark Wahlberg is a small town Massachusetts boxer and Christian Bale is his meth, oxy cotton, heroin, and crack-addicted brother who is living for his own former boxing glory. Wahlberg fights against his insanely trashy family to decide what’s best for his future.

Roger Ebert says – “Micky Ward has less personality than the hero of any other boxing movie I can remember. Maybe that's because he can't get a word in edgewise. He has a motormouth crackhead for a brother, a mom who acts as his manager and seven blond-headed sisters who seem to be on a break from a musical being filmed on the next sound stage. It's easy to imagine Micky growing up in this family and sitting ignored in the corner.”

Mom & Dad – This movie has some fantastic character performances. The family is so strange and unlikeable, but you can’t take your eyes off of them. You feel like a part of the odd-ball crew by the time it’s all over.

127 Hours

James Franco plays-out the brutal 5-day period of Aaron Rolston who, in 2003, got trapped by a boulder while solo-hiking in Utah, and after 5 days, realized that his only way out was to cut-off his own arm with a multi-tool and hike on out of there.

Roger Ebert says – “Is the film watchable? Yes, compulsively. Films like this don’t move quickly or slowly, they seem to take place all in the same moment. They prey on our own deep fear of being trapped somewhere and understanding that there doesn’t seem to be any way to escape.”

Mom & Dad – don’t let the possibility of gore scare you. This is up for Best Picture and Best Actor for good reason. It’s about family and waking-up. I really hope you guys see this one.

True Grit

A remake of the 1969 Oscar-winning film, this time starring Jeff Bridges instead of John Wayne. A 14 year-old girl hires a drunken lawman to track down the varmint that shot her pa. Classic western movie ensues.

Roger Ebert says – “The story hinges on the steely resolve of a girl who has been raised in the eye-for-an eye Old West, seen some bad sights and picked up her values from the kind of old man who can go and get hisself shot.”

Mom & Dad – I watched this movie and thought of you guys the whole way through. The dialogue is wonderful and the characters - so colorful. You’ll be giggling like twits from beginning to end. Such a good movie.


Leonardo DiCaprio hires a team of specialists to follow him into constructed dream scapes to retrieve information from targeted human beings, or to plant information there.

Roger Ebert Says –“We are always in the Now. We have made some notes while getting Here, but we are not quite sure where Here is. Yet matters of life, death and the heart are involved--oh, and those multi-national corporations, of course. And Nolan doesn't pause before using well-crafted scenes from spycraft or espionage, including a clever scheme on board a 747 (even explaining why it must be a 747). The movie is a perplexing labyrinth without a simple through-line, and is sure to inspire truly endless analysis on the web.”

Mom & Dad – This was maybe my favourite movie this past year. You will NOT understand what the hell is going on in the first 15 minutes, but give it time. It’s such a rewarding movie-watching experience – you’ve never had to work so hard in a movie, and you’ll be rewarded for doing so. It’s exciting to feel your brain racing in the red for 2 hours.

Shutter Island

Leonardo DiCaprio (Teddy) is a cop who recently lost his wife in a fire. He is asked to accompany his new partner to a remote, civil war era, island prison off the Massachusetts coast to uncover a mystery of a missing inmate. He discovers something more sinister possibly being conducted under the watchful eye of the prison’s doctors.

Roger Ebert Says – “It's clear that Teddy has no idea what he's getting himself into. Teddy -- such an innocuous name in such a gothic setting. Scorsese, working from a novel by Dennis Lehane, seems to be telling a simple enough story here; the woman is missing, and Teddy and Chuck will look for her. But the cold, gray walls clamp in on them, and the offices of Cawley and his colleagues, furnished for the Civil War commanding officers, seem borrowed from a tale by Edgar Allan Poe.”

Mom & Dad – This movie is so involving – mostly because you will have a whole new set of questions to ask every 15 minutes or so. There are many high tension moments, as well as a handful of spooky scenes, but there is a whole new feeling that will wash over you when it all wraps-up. You will want to watch this movie again IMMEDIATELY after you finish. I saw this twice in the theatre and it was fun to piece it together with all of the new information I had from the first viewing.

So there ya go, mom & dad. Do as Ricky Gervais says and avoid The Tourist. It may be in the cheap theatres, but it sounds like a waste of time. Check these movies out and let me know what you think.