Aug 032012


Best Use of Technology – Radiohead
The British Friday night headliners turned their backdrop into a series of high-def TV screens, overlaying images of their faces with their instruments, dissolving into static, racing green lines and other aptly trippy shit. The show itself was solid but a bit dry; I don’t think anyone there could claim that singing along to “Pyramid Song” is a) fun or b) possible. Continue reading »

Jun 282012


It seems every city in Korea has a ‘thing’—Pyongchang has skiing, Danyang has caves, Chongdo has bullfighting. City tourism officials tend to take these ‘things’ and clutch onto them with a vice grip; one sees billboards for the tea fields as soon as one enters Boseong, for example, or can’t help but be struck by the number of whale statues around Ulsan. Gwangju’s ‘thing’ is democracy—probably a nobler ‘thing’ than whales or tea—and no matter where you are in the city, they don’t let you forget it.

There are photographs and timelines situated on streets and on subway station walls, not to mention the whole whack of memorials dedicated to various uprisings that Gwangju citizens have been a big part of—the most popular being the Gwangju Uprising on May 18, 1980, wherein thousands of university students started what would later become a city-wide protest against then-military dictator Chun Doo-hwan, who in response called the army to siege all of Gwangju for over a week. Before that, under Japanese occupation in 1929, a fistfight on a train between a Korean and Japanese high school student resulted in the city becoming the launching grounds for anti-Japanese protesters. Both uprisings have earned memorial parks, one being the massive May 18 National Cemetery (pictured left), which offers headshot photographs of not only all 144 protesters who died during the week of fighting, but also the 4,000-some who had any involvement at all, many of whom have empty plots waiting for them. It’s all kind of creepy but definitely worth a look.

So if Seoul is the overbearing mom and Busan the cool dad, and Daegu the forgotten lame child, Gwangju would be that hip young cousin who moved out at a young age who nobody thought would succeed but eventually returned home as a famous artist. Gwangju is notoriously liberal, forward-thinking and progressive, a fact its citizens price themselves in contrast to a traditionally conservative country.

Maybe the best proof is the city’s love of art. Gwangju’s famous Art Street is located minutes from its downtown core, and though it was mostly dried up when I visited on an early Saturday afternoon, it hosts dozens of art shops and galleries as well as a weekend market. Every other fall—including this year—it also hosts Korea’s largest art festival, the Gwangju Biennale, which will bring in dozens of international artists from September 7 until November 11.

And then there are the trees. My god, the trees! Gwangju’s streets are lined with them. There’s even a really gorgeous river running horizontally through basically the whole city, and it’s kind of like Busan’s Oncheonjang River, except that it’s much wider, not hideously brown and met on the sides with wide swaths of stone, grass, plants and a comfortable biking/running path. Add this to the number of parks the city has (answer: way more than Busan) and you’ve got a city that feels much more aesthetically modern than Home Sweet Haeundae’s Home.

As for unique food stops, check out the west side’s Ddeokgalbi Street in Songjeong, where you can find around a half-dozen restaurants that serve up some of the most delicious ribs in Korea. (Personally recommended: the big black one that’s been around for 1978, possibly called simply “Songjeong Ddeokgalbi”, at which I had literally one of the best meals I’ve ever had in Korea, plus free self-serve ice cream at the end.) Deeper in the central part of the town lies Yangdong’s Yu-dong Duck Soup Street, which offers reasonably sized but quite expensive bowls of simmering duck soup for around 25,000-50,000 won.

I’ll note briefly that there are a few popular museums in the northern area, such as the National Museum, Folk Museum and Art Museum, but I didn’t go to them, so I can’t say whether they’re lame or not.

It is, however, worthwhile to check out Damyang, just 30 minutes north by city bus. Damyang is a tiny, flat thing on the outskirts of Gwangju but offers Korea’s biggest bamboo forest, including a bamboo museum-sort of thing and gift shop with bamboo wine (a harsh liquor that smells unfortunately of rubbing alcohol) and trinkets that are actually kinda cool. Added bonus: the river outside is lined with vendors willing to rent you small pedal-cars or tandem bikes for 10,000 won per 30 minutes. A bit of a gouge but really, really awesome.

Getting There

Gwangju is three or four hours away by bus—you can theoretically take the KTX up to Dajeon and then back down to Gwangju but that’s not very economical. An express bus takes just around three hours and costs around 21,000 won one-way (be warned that it just makes one 10-minute stop, so pee beforehand), whereas for closer to 17,000 won you can add an hour to your trip as you stop in cities like Jinju or Suncheon for a few minutes. The last bus back to Busan’s Sasang terminal leaves around 10 p.m. Damyang is accessible from Gwangju by catching a number of city busses; go to the bus terminal and hop on one there, or find bus 311 (there are probably others, but this is the one I took) and pay a few thousand won to go the whole way.

May 092012


There is no particular reason that Korea’s rural northeast is often overlooked. Rather, there are several small reasons: it’s out of the way from any significant city, the bullet train doesn’t run there, winter brings heavier snowfalls than it does most the rest of the country, and it’s not proximally close to either China or Japan, which could historically account for its underdevelopment. It’s the sort of area one would probably read a book through on a bus ride, though if you glanced out the window you’d notice mostly flat, traditional Korean roofs hovering over a sea of cabbage farms and some of the best mountain views in the country, widely unobscured by condominiums.

Gangwon-do’s southern half is rough and beautiful, like a female bodybuilder; you’re frightened by her toughness, but equally attracted by the challenge. It’s a perfect weekend trip for anyone looking for natural respite free from hordes of fashion-conscious Busanites and, well, white people. Continue reading »

Mar 062012


In anticipation of Busan’s upcoming 5k/10k/half-marathon race near Bexco on March 25 (application deadline Mar. 9; no English website; roughly 30,000 won), some friends and I traveled north to Ulsan on March 1, Korean Independence Day, at the too-early hour of 7 a.m. for an early Spring taste of what running is like in South Korea.

The KNN Marathon Mascot... Wait, what?

  • Five minutes before the race, as we lined up on the starting track, a stout middle-aged man with a slight receding hairline and megaphone began instructing everyone into a dance-style warm-up, which included (but was not limited to) shouting and reaching towards the sky, pumping our fists and yelling “FIGHTING!”, and several awkward massage trains.
  • Because this was Korean Independence Day, the route’s sides were laced with teenaged boys and girls in white t-shirts waving flags and dancing, many boasting the taeguki temporarily tattooed on their cheeks. Some even wore fake facial hair in an effort to represent certain Korean emperors of olde. This distractingly continued on-and-off for roughly the first kilometre.
  • Keeping pace with others runners is not nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. Possibly because I’ve been

    Dave, chugging along at last year's Busan 10k

    running outside along the murky Deokcheon River south of Seomyeon for the last two weeks, or possibly because no Koreans at any gyms run on the treadmills; rather, as any perplexed English teacher can testify, they walk at a 6km/h pace for well over 40 minutes. This act is bizarrely mimicked by only a few on the race day itself.

  • Cute Korean girls waving and cheering on the side of the road force me to, despite my best “look-at-the-white-guy-all-badass-not-walking” intense face, goofily smile back.
  • Korean men have really tight bums. And they all totally, totally know it.
  • By the finish line, the sun had well since risen over the leafless trees on the surrounding mountains, and we each received a gold medal, a water bottle, a stale-but-delicious red bean paste bun, and a small box of soy milk before braving the changerooms, which were really just tents filled with naked Korean men deodorizing themselves in the chilly winter air.
  • Rather than display finishing times on a screen, we each received a text message no later than two hours after the race with our individual time. The whole thing’s in Korean so you probably won’t understand it, but numbers, thankfully, are universal.

Relevant postscript links: There’s at least one other 5k/10k/half-marathon in Busan soon, on May 20th, around the Dadaepo coast in Saha-gu, south of the Sinpyeong subway station. Also note Waeguks Got Runs [all kinds of sic], a Facebook group dedicated to keeping foreigners in the know about upcoming races across the country.

Feb 292012


Seomyeon is the new Nampo, Kyungsung is the new PNU, Haeundae is where white people live, yadda yadda. If Busan is starting to feel a bit stale (i.e., you’re sick of hearing “Want to go to Seomyeon?” / “Sure, meet at The Spot?” or “Fuck it, let’s just go to Thursday Party”), you should know that there is, in fact, a world beyond Blue Monkey and the Wolfhound. It is with this in mind that I have scoured the city, literally walking from Seomyeon to Sasang (it took two and a half hours, but—but—journalism!), riding across the “Who Actually Uses This Thing?” Blue Line to deliver what I consider, in no meaningful order, the five most underrated districts in Busan.

(Point of clarification: districts automatically eliminated due to popularity among Westerners include Seomyeon, Nampo-dong, Jagalchi Station, Kyungsung University campus, Haeundae-gu, Geumjong-gu [Beomeosa, PNU, etc.] and anything touching Gwangali Beach, because I bet you ten bucks you’ve been drunk in all of them already.)


Beomil Tool Market, Beomil-dong, Busan, Korea

Expats may recognize Beomil Station most from its infamous Dragon Dream bar (a.k.a. “The Cave Bar”), a tiny literal hole in a wall that serves excellent rice wine and scallion pancakes under a roof of dripping rocks. It’s a terrifically cozy spot, especially unique across Korea, but to leave Beomil-dong after having just a few bronze bowls of the ol’ milky white would be a mistake: benchmarked by the towering Hyundai Department Store, Beomil-dong’s massive network of street markets sprawls out from its vastly open central intersection, laced with vendors selling cheap food and socks. The market maze is divided into specific retail areas: the Jewelry Wholesale Market, for example, or the Beomil Tool Market, which is really just three blocks of men hoarding mountains of seemingly obsolete power tools who will furiously overcharge you for a screwdriver if presented with the opportunity. It’s kind of fun in a touristy sort of way. Past that, Beomil’s charismatic side streets offer a huge array of seafood and barbecue restaurants; and if you’re inescapably craving a heavier night out, you can always take the pleasant 20-minute walk along the eastern-border river that leads right into Seomyeon.


Oncheongjang River, Dongnae-gu, Busan, South KoreaFrantic, high-towered and full of life, the middle of Dongnae feels like the middle of a city—in large part because it was once, when it was the bustling centre of Dongnae City, before being absorbed into the industrial port-based Busan during Japanese occupation. Stepping out of the cartoonishly-yellow Dongnae Station today, one finds an understated uptown neighbourhood with city architecture that is a uniquely successfully combination of “developed” and “charming”, with waves of railing-clad walking paths weaving over and under traffic. The excellent use of space is exemplified by its main attraction, a pedestrian path that runs along the Oncheonjang River, lying sunken roughly 20 feet below street level. Though the water is brown and shallow, it is nevertheless a relief just to see a natural respite inside the city, rather than on a mountain two hours away, and is one of the only in-city areas where joggers and cyclists roam free. Tall yellow reeds shoot up against badminton and basketball courts on the sides, where Korean boys in their teens and 20s try carefully not to throw the ball over the merely-seven-foot-tall neon green fence and into the pukey-coloured river. For an added bonus, follow the path north until Oncheonjang Station to find the massive Geumgang Park to the west, near the famously luxurious Oncheonjang Hot Springs at Onjeong-ri.


Gupo Market, Deokcheon-dong, Busan, South KoreaThe first thing you might see when you walk out of Deokcheon Station is the inexplicable alien spacecraft-looking thing that marks the entrance to the Gupo Market, one of the cleanest, richest street markets in Busan. Wander down its narrow corridors and you’ll find usual market fare: pickled this, dried that, something that maybe once lived in the sea. But in addition to being one of Busan’s busiest food markets, it offers within it a stretch of restaurants that serve up arguably the city’s best signature pork soup, dwae-ji-guk-bap (the secret: a teaspoon of ground black pepper, kimchied lettuce and a tablespoon of gochujang sauce which, when mixed in, colours the broth a uniquely rusty orange). Leaving the market, Deokcheon looks like any other centralized neighbourhood—a 24-hour Lotteria across the street from a McDonald’s below a noraebang, itself below a pool hall—but beneath all that lies Deokcheon’s supporting star, the Deokcheon Fashion Street. You must first walk down a set of stairs that seem just a little too steep and narrow (walking down them gave me the feeling of that old psychological prank where my desk chair’s legs were being shaved by a half-centimetre every day), but once downstairs, you’ll find wide square tiles of red, green, yellow and blue, brightly lit in a floor waxed often to reflect the wealth of yellow pot lights above. The walls are lined with clothing shops that actually allow you to walk inside and breathe, a welcome distinction from Seomyeon’s Daehyun Primall, which is sized more for rodents than humans. Cheerfully coloured coffee shops and fortunetellers’ tents pepper the hallway every fifty metres or so, and between the widescreen TVs that hang from the ceiling and the wayfinding poles that indicate where bathrooms are in the manner of a street sign, one can’t help but wonder how much this underground mall cost, which I suspect is what the architects wanted. (Lastly, as a sort of begrudging but valid postscript, this emphatically male reporter will add that Deokcheon’s Fashion Street is notably uninspired when it comes to menswear, with exception granted to “At Home” and “The Leader”, which are at best really sophisticated and at worst awfully expensive.)

UN Cemetery, Nam-gu, Busan, South Korea

UN Cemetery

It is perhaps unfair to place Nam-gu on this list, because Dayeon-dong is not really underrated at all; it is in fact one of Busan’s top tourist destinations, featuring a cluster of grandly designed buildings and parks which expats may recognize from a visit to the solemnly well-groomed UN Cemetary, or a performance by Busan’s Philharmonic Orchestra at the Cultural Center. But southern Nam-gu is what we’re looking at here, the mini-peninsula, which offers much more: the road to Dayeon-dong’s main intersection is paved with chicken restaurants and upscale cafés, and if nature’s your game, you can follow it to the impressively large Peace Park, or else head further east through Yongho-dong to find the inconspicuous Igidae, one of Busan’s greenest getaways. And odds are you’ve overlooked the largely overlookable Busan Museum, which—aside from looking like a high school built in the 1980s due to its dirt-grey carpet tiles and dimly-lit cement walls—traces Busan’s history in exhausting detail, from 5th-century B.C. “Hammer Stones” (read: very old pebbles) to the number of households in Dongnae near the end of the Joseon Dynasty (answer: 5641) to extensive, begrudging details of Japanese colonization. (Another postscript: It’s worth noting the obvious here, that the Japanese are unilaterally portrayed as racist sex-hungry bullies in said museum. This is most prominently featured in the “Education of Japanese Colonial Rule” exhibit, which is a fundamentally creepy and dark space large enough to fit maybe eight people who can peer through the glass and into a dollhouse model of a Korean classroom, whereupon a projection of real-life actors, one inch tall, reenact the scene of an angry teacher screaming at his students and beating them with a stick. I’m still not sure what to make of it.)


The autumn sun was just beginning to set when I saw the deer on the mountain. It was a mid-sized buck (or stag? Whatever), and as if I were a truck on a highway, it gawked at me, wide-eyed and bemused, for a full three minutes before I took a step forward, causing it to turn and disappear into the bushes. I remember this moment distinctly because I was astonished it occurred on Sujeong Mountain, an at-most 200-metre-high walk (hardly even a “trek” by mountain standards), tucked away near central Busan in an area called Dong-gu. The mountain height pales in comparison to Busan’s flashier mountains, and bleeds into the mightier Eomgwangsan and Gubongsan ranges to the southwest, making it largely overlooked by native Busanites and expats alike. This is for the best, I think. Sujeong Mountain is no great beauty, and overlooks some of Busan’s slummier southern neighbourhoods, but it’s an easy, peaceful nature walk that is one of the few paths virtually undisturbed by other people. Head down one of the mountain’s more popular central paths near Busanjin-dong to find Dong-gu’s “downtown core”, a surprisingly busy swath of restaurants, noraebangs, bars and a street market modest in both size and pricing, which, like the Sujeong Mountain and pretty much everything else about Dong-gu, is charming in its smallness.

Dec 052011


It is inevitable that expat Westerners will miss expat Western luxuries: good beer, a cheap pepperoni slice, fish fillets that don’t surprise your gums by stabbing them repeatedly while you chew. In my case, jazz was that tall order, that distinctly smoky, late-night, sombre music that permeates small coffee shops and my bedroom on less fortunate Saturday nights. And goddamn if I don’t miss the stuff live.

When I’d first heard of Monk, I expected jazz fusion, or maybe acid jazz—certainly not real jazz, the authentic stuff that reminds me of Brubeck or Coltrane, with intricate, low-key melodies and winding improvised sax solos. Certainly not strings of LED lights and small candles lighting an otherwise pitch-black room, and walls plastered in huge old jazz fest posters from across the world.

In short: shit’s good and feels right.

The Monk Jazz Club is tucked away in a dark Kyungsung-area basement, with a chalkboard calendar greeting you and potentially as few as three other patrons in the bar itself. We went on a Tuesday, and the crowd—entirely Korean, though I’m told this is somewhat unusual, as Monk rightfully attracts an expat crowd—grew to a maximum of 10 persons by around 11:00. It is a small space, but the owners have maximized it well by adding a second level of what is essentially a low-ceilinged catwalk nine feet off the ground. The tables up there are small, candlelit, and barely fit three people. You could also sit on the main floor couches, or else shove into a semi-private booth on the catwalk.

On Tuesdays, the house band plays—Page One, a small, saxophone-led quintet with no weak links. The band at this point is entirely Korean (they have endured a revolving door of mixed race bandmates in the past), and the ease with which they bounce off each other, lending solos and nodding along is really comforting.

Other nights offer swing jazz and solo performances, too, but the calendar changes every month. And don’t be surprised by the cover charge when they add it onto your first drink purchase. Tuesdays are 5,000 won a head, other nights may vary.

Directions: Kyungsung University metro exit 3. Go straight out past the Starbucks and take your first right. Walk down the street 3 blocks and turn right. Monk’s is right there on the right, in the basement. 

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Nov 082011


In my school, the nearest boys’ bathroom offers two styles of toilet: one is a Western, “regular” style; the other, squat-style, common in Korea and across Asia. These two roads diverged in a white porcelain mark, for me anyway, a significant leap in cultural immersion, and for weeks I wilfully ignored the issue altogether.

I can’t remember the exact moment I lost my squatting-virginity—it was probably in a Seomyeon subway washroom, against my better judgment—but I can remember my apprehension. And I remember that the moment I gave the squat a shot, I was hurled into a frighteningly stark realization that enveloped me all at once in terror and intrigue.

I fucking love squatty-potties.

Above: Squat-pooing with your pants on is not advised.

I have not used my school’s Western-style toilet in nearly a month. In fact, I just used the squatty-potty in between writing that last sentence and this one right here and it was awesome.

There are three reasons for this adoration, and I’ll note here that some specifically apply to public restrooms. (I’m not saying I’d necessarily pay US$150 to purchase a squatting apparatus to install atop my home toilet, but the option would be nice.)

  1. Hygiene. Yes, it is a hole in the ground. But it’s not an outhouse. The poop and piss gets flushed down the same sewers as everything else. I still recall my mildly germaphobic father instructing a younger me, upon my first visit to a public restroom: Son, always—ALWAYS—put toilet paper on the seat, or else you’ll catch something you’ll wish you hadn’t. His words haunt me to this day, and the thought of my bare bum on a seat freaks me out as much as the thought of my penis touching the inside of the toilet bowl rim. (To any men reading this: you know exactly what I’m talking about.) I still abide by my father’s rule, especially in subway bathrooms and elementary schools, where a child’s notion of “cleanliness” is to high five his friend in lieu of using soap and water. Whilst squatting, my bum ain’t touchin’ nothin’—squat, drop and flush. (Plus, the flusher is right by your feet—no hands necessary! Brilliant.)
  2. Shit falls out easier. Some sort of science has proven that the squatting position makes pooing easier. I can’t explain it myself, but I hypothesize that it has something to do with a purer spreading of the ass-cheeks, as opposed to when one is sitting on a toilet seat, and one’s ass-cleavage sort of gets pushed up against itself sometimes, y’know? (…Y’know?) Simply put, toilet paper records prove that my anus is consistently less brown after a squat than a sit. Less time spent wiping my ass = more time spent reading webcomics at work.
  3. I won’t get colon cancer, maybe. As Wikipedia’s entry on “Squatting Defecation Posture” (a sub-section of “Human Defecation Postures”) points out, squatting while pooing reduces the likelihood of getting colon cancer and constipation. It kind of makes sense, when you think about it: all your digestive organs work best when you’re standing, because we’re not built to sit all the time, and if you want something to fall out of your ass you’d best smooth out all your tubes first.

As the above image shows, “chokes the rectum” is a wholly disgusting phrase.

I concede two of the squatty-potty’s failures: one is that, if I’m having a really bad number two, and it’s super-messy and not at all very pleasant, I would rather sit down so I can just hold my head in my hands and feel shitty about everything that’s happening right now. For at least 20 minutes.

The other concession is that I sometimes like to read while I poo, and that’s pretty much impossible to comfortably do while squatting. But on the plus side, no one else can do that, either. Case in point: I once lived with a guy who would spend literally a half-hour in the bathroom, sitting and reading on the toilet, while I’d be too polite to knock angrily on the door and instruct him that I would fill his pillowcase with my feces if he didn’t get off the fucking toilet in the next three seconds.

Now, if he were in Korea? That shit just wouldn’t fly here.

Oct 182011

BY MICHAEL FRAIMANIgidae, Nam-Gu, Busan, Korea

To Westerners, Yongho-Dong’s Igidae Park is one of Busan’s lesser-known scenic trails. It’s basically the city’s “other coastline”—look straight and you can see Haeundae beach; look left and you face the Gwangali bridge. It’s also teeming with native Koreans out for a two-and-a-half-hour afternoon stroll, or setting up fishing posts along the rocks by the water, so don’t expect a solitary jaunt.

Its lack of popularity among non-native citizens might be owed to the fact that it’s a little tricky to find (we took a taxi), or that the hike itself is really more of a rugged walk. Igidae is a testament to the amount of money and effort Korean governments will pour into natural infrastructure: there are loads of clean stairs (they look freshly painted, even if they actually aren’t), naturally-integrated benches and frightening-to-some suspension bridges overhanging small cliffs. Basically, you’re surrounded by greenery the whole time, but you never feel like you’ve left the city. Igidae’s vibe becomes a lot more casual than walking around any mountain.

The whole trek is essentially a line, and you can approach it from either end. You can trek inland or around the coast, the latter of which gives you plenty of chances to walk right down to the water and bound across giant and precariously balanced boulders, which, as I mentioned to my company at the time, truly made me feel like a kid again. (Partly because it’s fun, and partly because I became a terrified child when looking down at the jagged rocks and rushing water only a few feet below.) If you hop far enough along the rocks, you’ll inevitably disrupt some peaceful solo Korean’s lunch, which also brings up the idea of picnicking along the rocks by yourself or with friends. (Thanks for the idea, grimacing Korean man!)

Igidae is made to be a casual hike, and it works. It’s relatively short, relatively easy, and exceptionally beautiful—and on top of all that, we were the only Westerners in sight. I think that legitimately qualifies it (for foreigners) as one of the city’s best-kept secrets.

Directions: there are two ways you can go:

1) A LONGER WALK TO IGIDAE: From Namcheon metro, get off at exit 3 and take your first left. Walk down till the road dead-ends, turn right, and then turn left onto the busy road. Continue past the big intersection at Mega Mart, and continue for a while till you get to Igidae.

2) BY BUS; SHORTER WALK: From the Kyungsung subway, get out exit 5, do an about-face, and go around the corner. Walk straight one and a half blocks (you’ll pass a Paris Baguette) till you get to the bus stop. Take any bus EXCEPT the 10 and 155 (so YES for the ones in the 20s (24, 27, etc) and also the 131). You’ll go about 5 stops to the IGIDAE stop. The bus will turn right just before you need to get off. You’ll be able to see a big mountain.

Get off the bus, backtrack a lil, and cross the street (you’ll be walking towards an eyeglasses shop with a blue sign). Follow that road till it keeps winding around to the park. It’s a 5-10 minute walk just to get to the park, so keep at it. 

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Oct 112011


The Busan Cinema Centre is Bigger Than Jesus, Almost

Busan Cinema Center, Busan

A Beast of a Building

Let’s get one thing out of the way: the Busan Cinema Center is a ridiculous thing. It is a metallic mammoth, a flowing steel maze of platforms and escalators. It looks big in pictures, but that is not enough. Not until you look up and see its North Star—the centre of the outpouring rainbow of lights that covers the 30,000-square-metre outdoor ceiling—do you really understand what’s going on here.

The whole thing cost 1,678,500,000,000 won, or approximately a billion and a half US dollars.

At least two things need to be addressed here.

The first is the initial sense of wonder that one feels when looking up at this titanic jungle gym. It is an overwhelming feeling, and impressive in itself that the various levels of South Korean government agreed to invest so much money in this cultural experience.

The second consideration did not hit me until I reached the front of the popcorn line. Seeing all the ice cream and candied popcorn concession options forced me into nostalgia mode: the last time I had popcorn was in Halifax, Canada, at the classical and iconic Oxford Theatre. The Oxford has one screen, and not nearly as many options for frozen desserts.

I will stop short of turning this article into a “woe is the old cinema” rant, because you can piece together the contrast for yourself. Old moviehouses are slowly and sadly being closed down across North America. It is worth noting, however, that the Busan Cinema Center’s sleek grey and beige leather sofas, coupled with the subtle floorlights and beautiful contemporary design by Austrian firm Coop Himmelb, forced me to despite myself by acknowledging that this shit is pretty fucking mindblowing. The place literally smells like a new car. I dunno that it’s worth US$1.5 billion, but I’ll accept it.

Never Assume, Or You’ll Make an Ass of Yourself Exclusively

“Excuse me,” a Korean woman said, walking up to me as I wandered aimlessly outside the Cinema Centre. “Do you have time?”

“Oh, it’s around 7:05,” I said, unintentionally racist in assuming she meant to say “do you have the time?” Turns out she wanted me to write out my impressions of the BIFF in a single sentence on a flower-shaped post-it note for one of the festival’s projects. Caught off guard and embarrassed, I simply wrote, “This building is very big.” As soon as I walked away, I realized that was the dumbest thing I’ve ever written in my life, and I hope she realized that and ripped it up immediately.

At 20 minutes to 8:00, the theatre hadn’t opened yet, so I stood amidst a crowd of mostly Koreans with my small popcorn in one hand and ticket in the other. I notice that there is another Caucasian person, a light-haired girl with red glasses, to my left. We silently acknowledge that we are the only solo white people in the vicinity and sort of awkwardly half-smile to each other and say a few words. On the escalator, I ask her if she’s seen the movie before, and hear her speak a full sentence for the first time—and it is not in a not-North American accent. Turns out she’s Italian. Moral of the story: WOOPS LOOKS LIKE I’M RACIST AGAIN APPARENTLY. (If you’re reading this, Barbara, it was very nice meeting you, and I’m sorry I assumed you were American.)

Don’t Believe the Hype

BIFF Stars, BusanMy Monday night movie choice was The Host in 3D, a 2006 Korean monster thriller/comedy that has to date been one of the country’s most successful exports, transferred to 3D for the first time. (I’ve ranted about acclaimed filmmaker Bong Joon-ho already on this website.) So it was a thrill to realize, once the program director’s introduction had every Korean gasping and whipping out their cell phones, that Bong Joon-ho may actually be here, and sure enough, out he walked, alongside Park Hae-il (who plays the protagonist’s brother, Park Nam-il), the film’s producer and the 3D director.

Suddenly, mass excitement! A visionary director! A handsome actor! A rich producer! “Thank you for seeing [this movie] again,” the translator said for Mr. Bong. “It feels kind of weird.”

The only things said of course, were as boring as everyone’s dark, pixelated cell phone photos of four men standing far away in front of a blank screen. Mr. Bong thanked some people, the producer thanked some people and the coordinator thanked them all. Then they sat down in the front row to watch the movie, and left during the darkness of the end credits.

So, I can now say that I’ve seen one of my favourite directors, and it was the most underwhelming experience of the entire festival.

There’s a message in all this, folks: keep your expectations low, and don’t be racist.

Oct 012011

Busan International Film Festival


Also check out our BIFF FESTIVAL GUIDE.

BIFF Overview: Movies Worth Keeping Your Eye On

One must be superficial when choosing what movies to see at a festival. It sounds harsh, but aside from the name and maybe a trailer on YouTube, there’s very little to effectively distinguish one film from 306 others. I recommend instinct— take a look at the program and find something you like. Failing that, just take my word for it and pick one of these.


The Host, one of the most famous South Korean films (AKA film nerds in North America have seen it), is a politically-charged sci-fi monster movie by Jong Boon-Ho, whose entire body of work I have seen and can qualitatively state is near-fucking-flawless. The Host wasn’t made in 3D, but the producers seem pretty excited about the translation. And by “pretty excited” I mean they admit that it’s kind of dumb. From the BIFF website: “On the downside, some of the graphics are hard on the eyes, and the focus is inconsistent. But on the upside are a fast-paced plot and spatial elements of the Han River that merit 3D effects.” Points for honesty, guys. It’s still an awesome flick.


This is the latest from Luc Besson, the dude who gave Natalie Portman her big break at age 12 in Leon the Professional way back in 1994, and then nailed sci-fi action with The Fifth Element, then did a bunch of other French stuff and eventually Angel-A which was absolute pretentious shit. The Lady stars Michelle Yeoh as a woman at the forefront of the Burmese 8888 Uprising (a topic Wikipedia could tell you more about than I). Might be worth a shot if only because Besson himself will be floating around the festival to shed some interesting commentary on his work.


For anyone interested in Korean history, you might dig this latest film by Im Kwon-Taek, who has directed literally 100 films before Hanji. (This is his 101st.) It’s a fictional docu-drama about a people who try and restore Jeonju Sago, the annals of the Joseon Dynasty that were burned hundreds of years ago, using the traditional Hanji script. Director Im is effectively South Korea’s Robert Altman/Sergio Leone/Akira Kurosawa, a director who’s been making films since the 1960s, but whose style is so delicate and deliberate that it might be deemed too slow for anyone not immediately grabbed by the phrase “restoring traditional annals”.


This Egyptian film, fresh from praise and controversy at Cannes, is like if Paris, Je T’Aime or New York, I Love You were radically political and actually apropos of something. 18 Days is the result of collaboration between dozens of different filmmakers, actors and writers who compiled 10 short films about Egypt’s political uprising earlier this year. Based purely on the history of the “collaborative filmic smorgasbords” genre, odds are you’ll love some of the shorts and be bored to tears by others, but the intense timeliness of its topic gives the movie a certain attraction.


These two low-budget 3D Korean indie films are being screened separately, but I am cramming them into one paragraph because they both fall under the genre “low-budget 3D Korean indie films”, which is a genre I flatly did not know existed. A Fish is Park-Hong Min’s directorial debut, about a professor who hires a private detective to search for his former wife-turned-shaman. Persimmon, meanwhile, takes place entirely within a rural town’s public toilet, and tells individuals’ stories with allegedly good use of its 3D effects. I’m sold on both.


A documentary on Japan’s porn industry. Yep.


This is a documentary and essentially one-man-show featuring acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who is currently serving a six-year house arrest sentence and 20-year filmmaking ban in Iran for alleged political and social subversion. (He denies all charges.) Because he cannot legally make a movie, his moviemaking friend, Mojtaba Mirtahasebi, showed up to his apartment and filmed what he does in an average day. General response from Cannes: “You think it’ll be boring, but it’s actually really interesting.”


A politically charged action movie directed by director Hong Juhn-Jae (Beautiful) and writer Kim Ki-Duk (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring). Poongsan deals with a smuggler who runs across the North/South Korean border to deliver a North Korean woman to Seoul, but gets caught up in gun fights and Mexican stand-offs along the way. Stylistically similar to 2010’s The Man From Nowhere and those other movies where badass loner Korean killers get mixed up in politics they’d rather avoid.


There isn’t a lot written about this film, but the premise is immediately intriguing for anything with any interest in North Korea. It is a fictional series of snapshots showcasing children in a small North Korean village, with purportedly amazing child actors. It’s director Kim Sung-hoon’s debut feature, but he’s worked as assistant director to Kim Ki-Duk (one of the festival’s key guests), so he can’t be that bad.


There are a few Chinese/Hong Kong action movies to watch out for, but these three get points for being wildly different in style and direction. The Sorcerer and the White Snake is a magical CGI romp filled with dragons and tsunamis and Jet Li; Let the Bullets Fly is the latest Chow Yun-Fat flick, a slower-paced, more brooding sort of violent landscape that takes place around the turn of the century; and The Sword Identity is a debut effort by a film scholar and novelist, taking a decidedly more philosophical approach. Take your pick.


This year’s retrospective will be on director Kim Ki-Duk (the 1934-born filmmaker, not the 3-Iron director mentioned above), featuring eight highly different genre films, including Buy My Fist (1966), a classic boxer-comeback story; Monster Yonggari (1967), a Godzilla-style monster movie; and his most influential work, the post-war The North and the South (1965).


There are literally hundreds more—including a Vietnamese gay prostitute love story, Terrence Mallick’s recent hit The Tree of Life and an Estonian adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot—but we’ll leave the list alone here because you can figure things out for yourself. Worst comes to worst, choose one at random and see what happens. For six bucks, the worst that happens is you’re bored for an hour