Wednesday, October 28, 2009

the trip to Tysons Corner, and what happened after

She didn't want to go at first, but this evening, Dad and I took Mom out to Tysons Corner to get fitted for some new, larger, more comfortable walking shoes. We visited the New Balance store and found a very nice pair of NB W811VK walking shoes that have adjustable velcro straps instead of laces.

Should Mom's feet expand further, these shoes will be able to accommodate that. And if/when Mom's feet finally shrink, the shoes can be adjusted downward by tightening the straps, and/or by adding insoles to fill the shoes' interior. We bought the shoes about 2 sizes too large; Mom tried them on at the store and walked around in them. She's not very verbal anymore, but she nodded when we asked her whether they were comfortable.

We ate some faux Cajun chicken in the Tysons Corner "food corridor" (Dad said the mall had a bona fide food court, but it was somewhere else); because lunch had occurred so late, Mom was stuffed after eating only part of her dinner. At one point she looked at me, her cheeks gorged with chicken, and uttered a sigh of defeat, unable even to chew any longer. Dad and I thought this was hilarious. Eventually, Mom was able to down her chicken with the help of a few swigs of water.

The drive home was fast but quiet; we got back in time to catch most of the latest episode of "Great Queen Seon Deok," a historical drama that happens to be about the only Korean drama I actively like. Thank goodness the broadcast is subtitled; a lot of the Korean is both old-style and very formal (the series focuses on Silla Dynasty-era palace intrigue; Seon Deok is the queen who commissioned the construction of Cheomseongdae, one of the oldest observatories in the world).

Dad and I watched the episode with Mom, then Mom watched the other soap opera she follows: "Bap Jweo," which has been given the English title of "What's for Dinner?"* Over the past few months, I've watched a string of "Bap Jweo" episodes alongside Mom with morbid fascination, but have lately been turned off by the various silly and increasingly perverse plot twists.

The nice thing about historical dramas like "Great Queen Seon Deok" is that they can't veer too far from actual history, which minimizes the amount of silliness that can creep into the script. By contrast, regular Korean dramas contain far, far too many contrivances. That's not a bad in thing itself (American dramas and soaps contain their own loads of baloney), but what gets me is that the contrivances aren't played tongue-in-cheek: they are, instead, treated with deadly seriousness (e.g., the idea that a woman can induce her own amnesia, which is based on rather antiquated notions of female hysteria: self-induced hysterical amnesia is of course conceivable, but makes for an awful plot device, especially when used more than once by the same character!).

Korean TV, much like Korean culture in general, isn't big on sarcasm, cynicism, or other forms of layering and subtlety. Koreans love le grand geste, which is why Korean TV acting often looks like stage acting: shouting, flapping arms, clenched jaws, and tears, tears, tears.** Korean movies, though, are a different story. The Korean film industry churns out better and better films every year, and much that goes AWOL on TV can be found in Korean film. In my opinion, Korean movies provide the viewer with a more nuanced view of Korea and Korean culture.

I've gained these insights, especially over the past few months, from sitting with Mom as she quietly watches Korean TV. I'm surprised at how many characters I can now name, and at my newfound ability to describe their backgrounds and the plotlines in which they're involved. There's some shame in this, too: I used to pride myself in disdaining Korean soap operas. In truth, I still do-- most Korean soaps are beyond silly, not to mention endlessly repetitive in their recycling of the same tropes (amnesia being one of them). But I've gained new respect for Korean historical dramas, which can be awfully corny at times, but which make a serious attempt at bringing Korean history to life for the masses. If "Great Queen Seon Deok" is any indication, historical dramas represent the better side of Korean TV.

I wouldn't have known any of this about Korean TV if I hadn't chosen to sit with Mom. It's been a learning experience, and as I continue to watch those MBC America broadcasts, my own perception of modern Korean culture is being altered in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways-- confirming some suspicions and overturning others.

Thanks, Mom. You're still teaching me.

*The Korean title roughly translates as the imperative "Feed Me" (literally, "Give me rice," i.e., "Give me food"); in the context of the show, it's a sexist reference to what a husband might say to his wife when he comes home from work. One character, a very put-upon wife, tells a friend that the words she most hates to hear in her marriage are "bap jweo."

**To be fair, one of my favorite American TV series, "24," is no less unsubtle and un-cynical. Jack Bauer is obviously a cartoon, and the show shouldn't be taken too seriously. But what I like about "24"-- at least the first six seasons of it-- is its grittiness, its willingness to go there, and to tackle major issues of the day, such as the ethics of torture, in a matter-of-fact yet obviously exaggerated manner, all while retaining a modicum of appreciation for the complexities of geopolitics (even as it gets some of its facts wrong regarding US constitutional law). "24" is unsubtle, but self-consciously so.



Charles said...

Believe it or not, but the tendency of Korean television dramas toward "tears, tears, tears" and "over-acting" is in large part a product of the Japanese influence on Korean drama (stage drama, that is) during the colonial period. Both of these characteristics are essential to Japanese drama, and the major elements of what is called "shinpajo" in Korean--literally "new-style melody" or "new-style emotion," and probably best rendered in English as "melodrama." Traditional Korean folk drama was characterized by satire and humor, but when modern Korean drama was in its formational period, it was heavily influenced by imported Japanese drama and failed to see Korean folk drama as a valid source of inspiration. Thus we have the Korean television dramas we see today.

That's the gist of it, at any rate. The rest is in the book of Korean literary history I translated, which you may see if it ever gets published.

Kevin Kim said...


That's interesting. Didn't know any of that.

"Great Queen Seon Deok" contains a good bit of humor, much of it at the expense of the royals and nobles, and that feels pretty Korean to me. The fight scenes, though, seem to borrow their pace, editing, and choreography from Hong Kong action.