Alien #166

Ah, immigration. Who doesn’t love a place where you get to experience the wonders of looking around in confusion, walking up and down stairs, queuing, watching with bated breath the digital display that has become your own little world, and eventually being told that you forgot something and to start all over again tomorrow?

Last Thursday, with me still stuck in a “Korea four years ago” mindset, I toddled off wife in tow (or the reverse, more accurately) to the main Seoul Immigration Office in Omokgyo  (great instructions on how to get there here), which has been the only place in Seoul I have ever had immigration stuff done. Handed over all the paperwork for alien registration after a wait of 20-odd people, got a pick up date, and toddled off back to whence I came. All good.

Then my wife gets a call yesterday saying that in fact we had gone to the wrong office, and should have gone to the Sejongno Branch (directions as above), given that we live in the vicinity of Sungshin Women’s University. So today I had to stalk back to Omokgyo (notice the change in verbs there? English is a great language) and pick up the paperwork (which had already been processed by the looks of it) to transport 40 minutes or so to the other immigration office. Fine, work doesn’t start for another couple of weeks, and I’d probably just waste my day trying to figure out how to use proxy servers to watch the rugby back home or something. My wife, demonstrating her spooky ability to anticipate and avoid unpleasant tasks before we are even aware they exist, contrived to catch a cold two days ago, and was as keen to accompany me on this errand as she would be sitting down and watching a Liverpool game with me (that is to say, not at all). So I was all on my lonesome. All good – I like listening to music and zoning out every now and then, with a side of people watching thrown in.

Anyway, picked up the documents from Omokgyo and got back on the subway. About four stops from Jongno-3-ga, where I would transfer from Line 5 to Line 3, I was zoning out just nicely. Suddenly, this foul odor started to penetrate my existence to the core of its being. People around me started to wrinkle their noses, some of them looked like they would pass out. The smell was undeniably foot odor, but of a supremely concentrated sort, the kind of odor you’d expect if a group of reclusive monks in Tibet spent centuries distilling the odor to the highest spiritual principles. It was almost religious, the way it united that carriage of strangers to experience a singular, non-subjective moment of extreme disgust. As humanity, we were one, if only for 15 seconds, which is how long it took the two banks of seats surrounding the culprit – an old Korean grandfather, who all joking aside, may have been mentally ill, who had removed his shoes and was changing his socks – to flee the vicinity.Except, it has to be said, for two girls in their early 20s, who were sitting across from him and didn’t look up from their smart phones. Maybe they had a deodoriser app or something.

I was a block of seats down, about 20 metres away, and my eyes were watering. The only real reward for staying was seeing the people at successive stops get on, look at all the free seats and think “Score!” and then register the smell, and then have they brain go “Ahhhh!”. And then they scurried to the other end of the carriage. Gold.

I made it to Jongno-3-ga and gasped the fresh air on my way out, only to find the grandfather had got off with us. I glanced back into the subway, and saw the most magical thing – he had left his old mouldering socks smack-bang in the middle of the subway floor.

Not the actual socks.

Anyway, got to the Sejongno Branch, figured out what button to push (2 for alien registration) and found that I was 166 in line. That is not a typo; I was 15 full soccer teams away from speaking with one of the Immigration Officers. The time was precisely 2:35pm (it’s printed on the ticket you get, as a helpful reminder of your own mortality as you feel the minutes tick away).

First thought: screw this. Second thought: what if it’s like this all the time? Third thought: you have your iStation. So I think I safely achieved a personal record for the amount of time waiting in a queue today, getting to the window at just before 5pm, for a 2 minute sit down from the surly Immigration guy. (Our conversation: Me – Hi, I went to the wrong office so they told me to come here. They said all the documents were fine though. Him – Where’s your wife? Me – They said she didn’t have to come as they saw here at the other office. Actually, she’s sick and in bed at the moment. *one minute and 37 seconds of silence* Him – Your pick up date (hands me a bit of paper) Me – Thank you. AND SCENE)

Not sure that I want to break this record any time soon.

Two Songs I Obsessed Over on the Trip (i.e. Repeated a Few Times)

On Melancholy Hill – Gorillaz

Damon Albarn knows how to write sweet, simple ballads that never get to saccharine (check out This is a Low by Blur as well), and this is one of his best. I have the first two Gorillaz albums, but would never call myself a fan, just an interested listener, but this still gets me.

Fuckingsong – Jarvis Cocker

Another bit of voyeuristic pop (following on from Pulp’s This is Hardcore), but this instance is less grimy and sweaty, and more libidinous and self-effacing, backed with an absolutely monstrous riff. I mean, check out the lyrics:

I will never get to touch you so I wrote this song instead
Thinking about you lying in bed, it’s gonna get inside your head

And it’s the best that I can do, this is the closest I could get
So let it penetrate your consciousness
Oh oh oh oh yes

Turn it up, turn me on, I’m feeling good but don’t get me wrong
I know it’s just a song

And every time you play it I will perform the best I can
Press repeat and there I am, and there I am, always glad to be your man

And this way, oh well there won’t be any mess
As I assure you that there would be in the flesh
This is my very, very best

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The Grey (2012)

The Theater: Daehan Cinema, Chungmuro. One of my favorite multiplexes in Seoul, for a variety of reasons. First, it is connected directly to Chungmuro Station, which is a transfer station for Lines 3 and 4, so it is a breeze to get to (important in the current Arctic conditions, unless you are a penguin). Second, when you enter from the subway, the ticket counters are right there. You literally can get off the subway and have tickets in your hands within three minutes during non-busy periods. Third, the theaters are clean, comfortable and plentiful. What more do you want?

The only downside is that the surrounding area is kind of boring, so it’s not the ideal place to do the combination of movie and dinner, unless you are keen on Popeyes, which is very close by. There are some restaurants, of course (this is Seoul, after all), but hardly an amazing selection.

The Film: I was in the mood for a no-nonsense action blast, so I went to this on the basis of the unexpectedly strong reviews out of the States, especially given the fact that Carnahan’s previous films, The A-Team (2010) and Smokin’ Aces (2006) were so reviled [Aside: who didn’t love The A-Team TV series? That was like crack for the 9-year old me when it was on. I basically fantasized about being in that team every single minute of the day following a screening. I haven’t seen the movie and probably never will, because why sully such a cute childhood nostalgic memory].

It’s certainly straight-ahead and no-nonsense, but the gruff testosterone-fuelled exterior mingled with a quasi-profound spiritual crisis the characters undergo is merely window-dressing on a rigidly formulaic, conventional engine. In fact, it almost plays as a miserablist entry in the Final Destination series, such is the clockwork-pattern of how the dangers that spring out of the Alaskan wilderness. It plays well enough, I guess, but in the end it’s pretty hollow and doesn’t have the impact it might have had if it had gone off on a few more narrative tangents.

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The Vagaries of the English Language

Man critical after being set on fire – National – NZ Herald News.

Well, you’d hardly expect him to be all smiles and praise, would you?

Gastronomic Adventures So Far…

Not many. Only been back a week and my mother-in-law has been plying me with home-cooked food every waking hour, so we haven’t eaten out a lot yet. (I think it’s because she doesn’t speak English, and my Korean sucks after being away so long, so she needs us to be doing something with our mouths when most normal people would be talking)

I don’t have a phone yet (gonna wait for the Galaxy 3!! which is probably a couple of months away), but when I do, this aspect of the blog will become more interesting, as I will be able to take photos and actually remember what I ate clearly. But still…

Restaurant 1: Some hole-in-the-wall in the underground mall area of Kangnam Station. Seemed busy, but probably because it had like 6 seats and was the only eating place that wasn’t overpriced coffee and cake. I promise I’ll remember names next time. The food was out in less than three minutes (really!) and the staff were friendly.

Dish: Bipbim guksu (비빔국수). Basically thin flour noodles mixed with various thinly sliced vegetables and red pepper sauce (gochujang – 고추장). The noodles are light, and it makes an excellent light lunch.

Looked kind of like the photo above, except with about ten times the sauce. It was almost like a soup. Yes, this was one of those places where they put the sauce on for you, and seem to forget that you are one mere human, not a platoon of army trainees. It was drowned in the stuff. I much prefer it if the sauce is on the side and you can administer it yourself according to your innate wussiness. I don’t find gochujang that spicy, but it’s not something I would drink either, put it that way.

It’s hard to go wrong with Bibim guksu, and it pretty much tastes the same wherever you go, so it’s hard to complain when you order such a universal, safe dish. But complain I shall: less sauce next time!

Side dishes: None that I recall

Cost: 4,500 won (from memory)

Recommended?: The dish itself, absolutely, but not from this restaurant. However, the other dishes may be worth a try here. It’s certainly fast and cheap.

Restaurant 2: One of the ones on the 7th floor of the Lotte Department store in Anyang. Again, I forgot to note the name, but if you stand at the Subway counter, turn your back to the Subway clerk, it is the restaurant on the far left in front of you. Probably had a Korean name, or something. Not a huge range of items to choose from on the menu, and most were for a minimum of two people (i.e. you had to eat what your partner was eating)

Dish: My wife’s not here at the moment, and she could easily tell me, but I think it was on the menu just as Ssambap (쌈밥) or maybe Modu Ssambap. Anyway, this dish is basically a bunch of various lettuce leaves (or similar), which you use to wrap a little parcel of rice, meat (marinated pork or beef being the two most common) and ssamjang (쌈장), and it is served with a number of side dishes that you can also cram into your wrap so that it becomes so big that you can’t really fit it into your mouth so juices just go all over your fingers when you are forced to bite it in two when it should just be one simple mouthful, like I do, or eat separately, like most normal people.

Someone else's ssambap

(PS This photo was taken from here). Our one wasn’t nearly so lavish, as befitting one of those moderately overpriced department store versions of traditional Korean food, with only about 8 different side dishes, but they were tasty enough. The marinated pork (in a spicy sauce; Dweji bulgolgi [돼지 불고기]) was much better than the marinated beef (bulgolgi – 불고기), which I thought was too both too watery and sweet.

Dweji bulgogi

Your little vegetable taco (normal person style)

I think this is a great go-to dish to have at a regular haunt, so it would pay to order it at a few different restaurants and find the one that has the best meat and side dishes. Because it really is a healthy lunch/dinner and great fun to eat.

Side dishes: Given what we ordered, lots.

Cost: 10,000 won per person

Recommended?: Not sure about the usual cost of this type of meal, being the first time I have ever ordered it, but except for the watery bulgogi, the rest of it was delicious. I’ll definitely be looking out for ssambap again, but the restaurant itself is disposable.

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The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

The Theater: Seoul Cinema, Screen #7

Not the most cozy of theaters, the foyer is big and airy with not a huge collection of seats for all the people that have to wait for the elevator that takes them to most of the screens (not sure if this is a regular thing, but the escalators going up were shut down and roped off so that only the elevator could be used, and the ticket takers did so before people got on the elevator. This lead to two groups of people coming into my screen by mistake, one a father and his two young sons who fortunately figured out their mistake before the rape and murder began)

The Film:

In a nutshell: Fincher needs to find better material. He remains a genius in terms of pacing and editing – this thing moves lithely through the screeds of information that is drip-fed out, much like his excellent Zodiac (2007). But whereas that earlier film had at its core the unsettling aura of unknowability and unconsummated obsession to help give the numerous telephone and interview scenes an accumulating emotional resonance, here we are pretty much left with a half-baked CSI episode without any of the spazzy twists that the show likes to throw in there. Indeed, the resolution of the mystery (both parts, actually) is totally shrug-worthy, and could probably have been solved in about an hour with a long dinner conversation and a reporter who was half-way decent at asking questions. It is rather cynically spiced with biblical references and gruesome crime details, but they don’t add anything to the pathology or character of the criminal – they are used as seasoning to help us get the whole painless meal down.

Back in the 90s, Fincher was willing to take on genuinely risky and/or original material. Seven (1995), Fight Club (1999) and to a lesser extent, The Game (1997) all have fantastic underlying premises elevated by Fincher’s direction. But since Panic Room, Fincher has more or less seemed to make it his mission to try and elevate mediocre material into an engaing whole, but unfortunately there are limits to how much the direction can make a crappy screenplay, or premise, fly. Now, you would argue that Zodiac doesn’t belong in that second group, and you’d be right – except that it actually paints a more depressing picture, that Fincher the potential auteur par excellence has his head turned too easily by financial returns. Witness Fight Club, easily Fincher’s funniest, loosest, most anarchic picture. It flopped, and three years later he follows it up with his most stripped-down, basic B-movie yet, Panic Room.

That made enough to give him a bit of leeway with the studio bottom-liners, so he went and tried something a little less mainstream, more personal (Zodiac). That flopped even harder, and was basically abandoned by Paramount when it may have been able to generate a little Oscar heat had they believed in it enough, so what does Fincher do? Goes full-on Oscar-hungry with his most polished, award-baiting, epic film yet (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button [2008]) which was nice enough but lacked a narrative urgency that caused the emotional nuances to exhaust themselves too early (and boy do I hate that bloody framing device. Can we get framing devices registered as a terrorist threat and Guantanamoed?). And the two films that followed, safe, high-brow mainstream movies with little of the energy or creativity Fincher can bring to bear on a film.

Basically, I want to see Fincher to something visionary, where there is just as much chance he could crash and burn as make a masterpiece. Because I’m kind of tiring of these nice, engaging, decent airplane movies.

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The RoK

So I’m back. My wife and I, back to the land of her birth, the land of my girth.

[Aside (get used to them): I gained about 6kgs from my university weight (walking around looking for spiders in forest is an underrated exercise regime) when I was here last.  Then I gained 7 more when I returned to NZ for three and a half years of staring at high school kids in bewilderment at whatever sociopathic utterance just escaped their lips. However, three months of the patented “Shit, I’m going back to a country where they don’t hesitate to point out how fat you are” panic workout plan, and I’m back down to the original weight I was when arriving back in NZ in 2008…and plan to go further once I find a gym here]

It was a brutal last couple of weeks in NZ, as the To Do list spiraled into a To Do novella, and you realised just how much assorted crap you accumulate in all the nooks and crannies of your house, put aside with solemn vows that “This will come in handy one day” and then taken out again with exasperated curses of “Why the hell do I still have this piece of crap?” and flung into yet another big black rubbish bag.

With the sending money and getting visas and selling goods on Trade Me and cleaning the apartment before the inspection and packing up separate boxes for air freight (need immediately) and shipping (two months later is cool) and buying several boxes of Greggs spices and so on, some things go lost in the shuffle. I never got round to getting my international drivers license, not that I plan on buying a car that soon. I didn’t buy a three year supply of that skin-toned Clearasil stuff that I like for combating the once-every-two-month gloriously angry mega-pimple that takes up residence on my face and mesmerizes all that are foolish enough to glance in its direction.But we got here and we have money and we’re safe. Yay.

Spent three nights in Singapore on the way over (NZ = warm and wet, Singapore = hot and humid, Seoul = freezing and dry, so we basically had a very expensive trip to a sauna) and I kind of fell in love with the city. Maybe in a one-night-stand, give-out-out-a-fake-number-in-the-morning kind of way – we saw a punnet of 10 strawberries for $16 NZ dollars, for God’s sake! – but my is it a beautiful little fling while it lasts. Beautiful waterfront, lots of architecture porn, easy to get around, lots of great food. It’s a very limited type of vacation spot – urban grazing with additional ethnic enclaves to wander around and large shopping malls to burn money in – but it hit the right note at the right time and that’s alright by me.

My favorite part was just sitting back on the short water cruise along Singapore River on a Saturday night and seeing the throngs of people eat and drink and be happy. No wait, my absolute favorite thing was my wife absolutely devouring a chilli crab at Jumbo Seafood (I don’t eat crab as a rule because it’s a bloody pain in the arse and I don’t think it tastes amazing enough to be worth all that cracking and sucking and poking. Not that I am against cracking and sucking and poking in other realms of human endeavour), and a couple of elderly American ladies watching in astonishment as this petite Korean woman turned into a Tasmanian Devil for half and hour. So cute.

Anyway, now that I’m back in Korea, the main focus of this blog will be reviews of Korean dishes I eat, movie theatres I visit and any other interesting things I stumble across, as well as gripes and moans and observations expected of a coddled Westerner living in a particularly Asian country. I work at a university here, but won’t be discussing that on this blog, because I don’t think it is fair to be discussing my students while they are still in my class. Though you may find a few posts crop up discussing the wonders of teaching high school in NZ now that I am safely situated far enough away to be reflective and constructive.

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Morning Glory (2010)

Sometimes an actor can drag a mediocre, MOR project up into the realm of moderate entertainment through sheer force of personality and commitment to the role. Consider William Devane in Rolling Thunder, for example, which could have been a Death Wish rip-off but became humanized and was given depth due to the sterling work from its lead.

And God knows Rachel McAdams does her best in this. She is so appealingly spazzy as the enthusiastic workaholic, limbs flailing, dimples working over time. She’s a great physical comedian in the making, assuming someone bothers to give her funny jokes to dance to. McAdams is one of the most assured, effortlessly charismatic of the younger generation of starlets groomed to be the next Julia Roberts (compare, for example, to the vacuum that is Kristen Bell). But unfortunately the deck is stacked too much against her, and she ends up being crushed by the sheer weight of banality exhibited by both the script and the direction.

Montage, montage, something bad happens, montage, something that looks bad turns out good, something that looks good turns out bad, montage, sudden third act obstacle to be dismissed once everyone learns their lesson – scored, of course, to the worst radio station in the world. And as good as McAdams is, almost every other part is either miscast (Goldblum just cannot be sincerely angry – you always assume he’s sarcastically screwing with you before he flashes that grin of his), mishandled (Keaton is totally wasted) or just a complete and utter vacant space (Patrick Wilson must not ever be considered as the romantic lead for any mainstream movie ever again – seriously, he drains the energy out of every scene he appears in here. He needs to be smarmy, psychotic, weaselly or nothing). And Ford is saddled with a sadly one-note caricature that exists only to keep the movie from being over in 30 minutes.


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Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Weirdly fractured on a scene-by-scene basis, the story of a prisoner of war camp for the British run by the Japanese and how the arrival of an enigmatic stranger impacts on those stuck playing the roles circumstance or culture insists upon. There is a lot of great material here – the collapse of empires, duty vs. desire, individual responsibility within a dispassionate war machine – but the film never really coalesces around these themes, instead hammering these points almost at random from moment to moment.

But that’s not to say it doesn’t eventually get the job done, and the final epilogue is a remarkably emotional farewell to both the characters and the whole mess of warfare and the sticky issue of punishment and how much it is actually meant as retribution, and how much it is meant as a reflex to act as a sort of delineation between past and future regimes. A young (well, relatively) Takeshi Kitano makes the most of his chance to poke his head out of the comedy ghetto, and would go on to remarkable things himself.


The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Starts off amiably and with a spring in its step – the Technicolor backstory is interesting, and it’s pretty funny at times, mostly intentionally. The hokiness of the whole thing befits a genial fish-out-of-water tale. But then we get caught back up to the present, the stakes increase, and we suddenly get thrown into the fantasy realm which expands the hokiness and makes it unpalatable.

The lightness of touch disappears and everything becomes a bit of a grind, the directors struggling to make the special effects come to life, and not really being able to join the different methods (models, superimposition etc) into a cohesive whole. Maybe a better clutch of set-pieces would have help gloss over the awkward effects, but they are pretty bog-standard, and the sword fights are look as if the actors were afraid to break a nail.



Ballad of a Soldier (1959)

One of those films that drifts along, seemingly satisfied with being a gentle humanist observation of human behaviour in trying conditions. As such, it can be a little clunky at times – such as the initial meeting between the young soldier on his way home on leave and the girl on her way to see her fiance, which is awkwardly staged and rather broadly performed by the otherwise winning actors – and lacking in a genuinely cohesive artistic vision.

But the there are little moments that make the journey worthwhile – the soldiers in the train car sharing cigarettes and joking about our heroes exploits, and the galvanizing effect that has on an injured, self-pitying soldier along for the ride; the hardening of a the expression when it becomes obvious a wife left at home hasn’t been just waiting around for her husband to return – and the destination is remarkably affecting, casting the previous 80 minutes in a more positive light.