Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2008, Part Nineteen: Oyceter


I spent over two months in Taiwan for 2008 (and am writing from there now), more than I've been here since freshman year of college. All hail grad school vacation! That helped a great deal with my goal of reading and watching more by POC, although there are pluses and minuses to consuming POC culture in a setting in which that culture is the majority, as opposed to consuming Asian-American culture. I also mean to focus more on non-East-Asian cultures in 2009, along with continuing to try to focus on other POC cultures as well.

2008 is the year I got further sucked into kdramas (Korean television dramas), and the year I watched tons of Hong Kong martial arts fantasy movies to try and prep for the Not Just Japan: Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy Wiscon panel. I also tried to read more manhwa and manhua (comics published in Korean and Chinese, respectively), with a particular focus on trying to find manhua. Manhwa at least gets slightly more exposure in the US, whereas before this summer, I could not have named a single manhua writer or series off the top of my head. Or even known where to start looking.

I decided to focus on non-Japanese Asian media because I consume a LOT of manga already, and plan on creating a best-of list for that on my blog in the near future. My apologies for the US-centricity of the availbility of the following media!

So here are my picks of the year out of Chinese and Korean media, in alphabetical order:

The Bride with White Hair (1993) - I watched this Hong Kong martial arts movie five years ago, but a rewatch improved the experience considerably. Birgitte Lin plays Lian Nichang, a girl who was raised by wolves and later taken by a martial arts cult ruled by insane conjoined twins (minus points for ablism) and trained as the ultimate assassin. She eventually meets up and falls in love with Leslie Cheung's Zhou Yi-Hang, a promising swordsman from a martial arts clan at war with her, and tragedy and betrayal result.

This may not be the best introduction to wuxia movies for people unfamiliar with them, given the amount of cracktastic plot involved, but the core story about star-crossed lovers is wonderful, as is Birgitte Lin as the vengeful bride. I was particularly fascinated by a sequence in which Lian Nichang crawls over hot coals and is whipped by all the members of the cult as an example of unsexualized violence to the female body as a means of showing the woman's strength (of body and of will), as opposed to making the woman a thing to be ogled at and victimized at the same time.

Available on DVD.

Chungking Express (1994) - And as an abrupt change of pace from the above movie, this is a lovely Wong Kar-Wai film that's very slice-of-life and meditative and quirky. Takeshi Kaneshiro and Birgitte Lin star in the first section, in which a heartbroken cop buys canned pineapples with his birthday as an expiration day and a mysterious woman tries to get out of a smuggling operation alive. In the second, Tony Leung is another heartbroken cop, and Faye Wong is the girl working at the take-out place he frequents. Both sections are small and quiet and melancholy, despite the occasional gunshots in the first, and they're about loneliness and connection in the modern jungle that is Hong Kong.

Available on DVD.

Dal Ja's Spring (2007) - This is one of my very favorite kdramas out of all the ones I've watched so far. Oh Dal Ja is a thirty-two year old career woman when she meets the younger Kang Tae Bong. This is at heart a romantic comedy, but I particularly love it for its focus on various women's careers, from Dal Ja's to severeal of her colleagues'. Like many other kdramas, it has a strong portrayal of intergenerational bonds, and one of my favorite relationships is between Dal Ja's mother and her paternal grandmother, both of whom learned to live with each other after Dal Ja's father's early death. Although there are some annoying plot points, and though the drama isn't consciously feminist, I still love having the example of so many different Korean women of varying ages. And the romance is extremely, extremely cute.

This sadly is not available via Netflix, although you can get the DVDs from YesAsia or get the episodes via other sources.

Gourmet/The Grand Chef (2008) - My other favorite kdrama this year, since I counted Coffee Prince as something I watched in 2007. Unlike most of the other dramas I watch, this is not a trendy drama (romantic comedy). Instead, the drama is about Un Ahm Jung, a fictional Korean restaurant that creates gourmet meals based on the court cooking of the Joseon Dynasty. The owner of Un Ahm Jung has two sons, one adopted and one not, and the story follows adopted son Sung Chan as he makes his way through the world. I've only seen 10-some episodes of this so far, but I absolutely love the food talk. I do wish there were stronger women, although some of them may develop further with time, but oh, if you enjoy food, you will love this.

This is available from Netflix (whoo!) under the title "The Grand Chef."

Kim Yeon-Joo, Nabi: The Prototype - This is a lovely manhwa compilation of short stories, all of which are interconnected and presumably take place in the same fantasy world. If you ask me, I can't even reconstruct the content of half of the stories, but it's the overall mood and the art that struck me the most. First, the art is gorgeous. I could stare at it all day and am in fact tempted to buy more of her manhwa in Korean just to look at it (I sadly only have one semester's worth of Korean so far). Second, Kim writes stories about extremely charming children, some of whom turn into lonely adolescents. Everything is delicate and wistful, and I wish there were more.

Available in bookstores.

Mars (2004) - Ling is a rebellious college student who wants to be a motorcycle racer, and Qiluo is a shy and solemn artist. The two seem absolutely wrong for each other, but both of them have past traumas, and despite their seeming incompatibility, they fall in love and stay in love.

Soryo Fuyumi's Mars was one of the first shoujo manga series I ever read, and despite its many flaws, I still love it. Mars was also one of the earliest Taiwan idol dramas (usually romantic comedies, but not always) filmed, and I was afraid to watch it for the longest time because I loved the source so much. To my surprise, the drama is incredibly faithful to the source while improving on it in minor ways. Yet, all the tiny tweaks add up so that many of the irritating factors from the manga are softened, particularly the manga's focus on the hero Rei/Ling over the heroine Kira/Qiluo and the power dynamics in their relationship.

Not sure about US availability.

Nan Kongyuu, assorted manhua - The Chinese language manhua industry is still in its infancy, as most comics read in Chinese are translated from Japanese. But I managed to find Nan Kongyuu's works, which I love. Her art is reminiscent of CLAMP: sparkling eyes and flowing hair and a slightly goth aesthetic. Her stories tend to focus on the bittersweet and melancholy, on people who love too late because they are afraid, on how people accidentally hurt each other while meaning well, and on how people find each other and slowly heal. My favorite of her works are Lonesome Eden, which is about God's favorite doll living alone in a magical garden, and White Garden, about human-looking dogs who need owners. The latter in particular is much less sketchy than it sounds, and it always makes me tear up when I read it.

These sadly don't seem to be available anywhere except Taiwan, which is a shame, because they are gorgeous.

So Close (2002) - This Hong Kong action movie is about an assassin (Lynn), her computer hacker sister (Sue), and the cop going after them (Kong Yat Hong). It's a fairly standard action movie, very slick and pretty with many slo-mo moves done Matrix-style, but what sets it apart is that it's focused on the three women. I'm not sure if I like Lynn and Sue's sisterhood, Lynn and Kong Yat Hong's game of cat-and-mouse, or Sue and Kong Yat Hong's relectant alliance better, but I'm glad I get to pick among the relationships and the characters, as opposed to having the sole woman in an action movie being relegated to the love interest. Fun and stylish, with a lot of cool fight scenes.

Available on DVD.

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