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Variegated Views of the World: What Lies Beyond?

‘What Makes a City?’

By Park Seongwon, Translated by Chung Hwa Chang and Andrew James Keast, 188 pages, $16.00, New York: White Pine Press [2019]

Reading Park Seong-won’s “What Makes a City?” is a unique experience. Each of the stories in the collection could easily stand on its own as an individual work, but taken as a whole they paint a much larger picture.

The collection feels like a carefully woven spider’s web, with various threads that cross and connect. The most obvious connections are characters from earlier stories that reappear in later stories, but there are other threads as well. One that runs through nearly all the stories is that of incessant rain and rampaging water, brought on by the rainy season or a typhoon. If, as Carl Jung states, water is the most common symbol of the subconscious, then these stories are constantly being threatened by floods of what lurks beneath the surface of the mind. This may be why the truth feels as if it is at our fingertips and yet ever beyond our reach. Perhaps, as one doomed character claims, the true meaning is not to be found in the words we read because words only serve to distort.

Another thread that runs through these tales is the author’s meditations on writing, or artistry in general, and its capabilities (or lack thereof). There is the young girl trapped in a nightmare who writes a dark fairytale to justify her sacrifice as necessary for the greater good; the self-proclaimed science fiction writer of the future who begins his masterpiece with the Bulwer-Lytton classic, “It was a dark and stormy night”; the artist who finds himself alone in his disagreement with a critic before he is forgotten by the art world; and a writer trying to write a love story and instead ending up with an uncomfortable tale of a fugitive.

There is also the theme of dreams and freedom, embodied in the fathers who think of time as a cage to imprison people (or again, in the unfortunate little girl). What would it mean to escape time? Would this open the door to true freedom? Or would it, as society claims, simply mean insanity or death?

These are just a few of the impressions that remain after reading, like landscapes frozen in flashes of lightning. It is impossible to capture the whole book in a few short words, and any attempt at summarizing the various plot lines would be equally pointless. But the overriding impression is one of a multifaceted view of the world. By shifting between characters, sometimes even in the middle of a story, the author allows us to see people and events from different points of view. This may prompt a question: which of these perspectives is the right one? Which shows us things as they truly are? It is only upon further reflection that we ask the deeper, more important question: are any of these perspectives truly the “right” one? Or are they just variegated rays of light in a dark and desperate world, guiding our way forward toward a destination beyond what we can see?

A Fresh Approach to Exploring the Korean Wave

‘Pop City: Korean Popular Culture and the Selling of Place’

By Youjeong Oh, 238 pages, $19.95, New York: Cornell University Press [2018]

This is one of the latest works to examine the Korean Wave, or hallyu. However, its unique approach and perspective set it apart from the general body of literature on the ongoing Korean pop culture fever. In short, it looks into the intersection of and interaction between the culture industry and urban practices, resulting in the “selling of place” – the commodification of physical locations by giving them affective value. The author seeks not so much to uncover the causes of the Korean Wave as to determine how it is reshaping the nation.

The book splits the Korean Wave into two parts: the first corresponds roughly to the first decade of the century and was driven by TV drama series, while the second corresponds to the second decade and has been driven by popular music, or K-pop. In the first part, the author looks at how administrative decentralization after the advent of democracy caused local governments to turn to commercial promotion of their respective regions as momentum for development. In the second part, she discusses how K-pop idols are created and how they help sell local hotspots, such as the Gangnam and Myeong-dong neighborhoods of Seoul.

Much has already been written about the Korean Wave, but Oh’s study stands out because it roots the Korean Wave in physical locales; while it is certainly concerned with the phenomenon of the Korean Wave itself, it also probes how this phenomenon in turn changes the land that gave birth to it. This monograph will be useful to anyone interested in hallyu from an academic perspective, and fans of Korean TV dramas and pop music may also appreciate it as an opportunity to deepen their understanding of the cultural products they so love.

An Elemental Nature Shared by East and West

‘Karma’

Black String, CD €17.50, Munich: ACT [2019]

The band Black String consists of geomungo (traditional Korean zither) player Heo Yoon-jeong [Yoon Jeong Heo], daegeum flute player Lee Aram [Aram Lee], janggu percussionist Hwang Min-wang [Min Wang Hwang] and guitarist Oh Jeong-su [Jean Oh]. The band’s name comes from the word hyeongeum, literally “black string,” which is another name for the geomungo.

The geomungo is the most aristocratic and conservative of Korea’s traditional musical instruments, and so inherently characteristic that it is hard to modify in any way. Moreover, it is incompatible for playing the common Western musical scales. But in Black String, the instrument leads a jazz band, certainly signifying an interesting change. What made it possible for three traditional Korean instruments to work with one lone Western instrument? The discovery of an elemental nature common to East and West: namely, spontaneity.

After their first album, “Mask Dance,” which won the Songlines Music Awards in the UK in 2018, Black String released their second album, “Karma,” under the German jazz label ACT. Among the nine tracks on the album, the first two, “Sureña” and “Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” depict a dreamlike, exotic world through stirring rhythms. Even the remake of Radiohead’s “Exit Music,” which has been covered by many famous artists and would not be expected to lend itself to anything new, reveals a unique, avant-garde sound.

In a time when borders between countries are harder to cross due to the coronavirus pandemic, Black String’s music seeks to break boundaries and send a message of “cultural solidarity to overcome the crisis.”

Charles La Shure Professor, Department of Korean Language and Literature, Seoul National University
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