Archive for February, 2012

#10 Samuel Beckett – Waiting For Godot

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‘A tragicomedy in two acts’, declares Amazon. Well, it’s certainly tragic, that much cannot be disputed. However, I failed to find any comedy whatsoever within the pages of this stageplay. And I studied Measure for Measure (which shall, I think, take the spot as my favourite tragicomedy studied, though I despised it at the time).

It’s not possible to declare this as a piece of ‘bad writing’ because, put to the test, many of us would find it nigh on impossible to replicate this ourselves or even finish a written piece of our own. This is simply boring. It’s about men going nowhere in life and nowhere in geography. ‘Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes’ states Jean Anouilh. The ‘nothing happens’ part is right – unless Pozzo, Lucky and the boy are figments of Estragon and Vladimir’s imagination.

The text centres on ideas of existentialism but as I am a terrible philosopher, this was a little out of my depth (you do not need to understand something to enjoy it although it may help). Even without the philosophical and psychological interpretations to bulk this narrative up, I still found this a long, tedious read. The short time it took me to read dragged – and all the while I felt as though I was running in circles or in a maze, similar to Estragon and Vladimir: stuck and unable to get out.

Perhaps not my favourite piece of literature ever. I’m now waiting – not for Godot but for the hours of my life back that I spent reading this.


#9 Korean Cinema

So today I thought I’d briefly cover a few (South Korean) films that I’ve watched in the last week:

  • Thirst (Park Chan-Wook, 2009)
  • Maundy Thursday (Song Hae-Seong, 2006)
  • Haunters (Kim Min-Suk, 2010)
  • Duelist (Lee Myungse, 2005)
  • Secret Reunion (Jang Hun, 2010)

A recurring theme in four out of these five films is the actor Kang Dongwon, currently enlisted in the Korean army. Firstly, I’d like to say that he’s not just a pretty face; man, can this guy act. In the majority of these films, he doesn’t speak too much. It’s a credit to him how much he is able to convey through his eyes alone. Another actor, whom you may have heard of before, is Song Kang-ho who acted alongside Kang in Secret Reunion. You might recognise veteran Song Kangho from Thirst if you’ve seen it or, at the very least, from Park Chan-Wook’s monster epic The Host.

Each of the above films has reduced me to tears, particularly Maundy Thursday, a tale of a convicted murderer on South Korea’s Death Row, awaiting his execution. The film takes you through his journey of wanting to die and a suicidal woman with whom he grows close to, both of them meeting weekly on a Thursday in the prison and each working through their own issues. The film touches on a lot of sensitive issues (the death penalty, suicidal tendencies, forgiveness, trust and dependency) with Kang Dongwon and female-lead Lee Nayoung bringing incredible emotional tension to the screen in their performance. Although the ending is somewhat predictable (as with much recent South Korean cinema although that’s not to say this is a bad thing), this is definitely worth a watch. Just ensure you have a packet of Kleenex to one side as it’s a real tear-jerker, churning your emotions and throwing your own outlook on criminals into a perspective that you question throughout the narrative.

Haunters, Duelist and Secret Reunion are probably more approachable from a Western cinema-fan’s point of view.

Duelist is a period martial arts film with a stunning backdrop of modern music with gentle touches of traditional East-Asian instrumentals and colourful scenery, edited in an entirely fascinating manner throughout. The most appealing scenes have to be the swordsmanship display at the beginning and the final battle-scene between the lovers, although this can be interpreted more as a dance, a type of mating ritual perhaps, but a little more tender.

Haunters, also known as Psychic, is a particularly tense cinematic ride although this is eased up on by frequent interjections of humour; you probably shouldn’t laugh but you’re going to anyway. There’s also an interesting representation of foreigners in this film and it’s generally a positive one. The protagonist is best friends with two extremely fluent Korean-speaking men; one from Ghana, the other from Turkey. Surprisingly, they play a major role and it is their bond with the protagonist that helps to progress the narrative and also offer some light comic relief.

Secret Reunion was one of the most successful films of 2010 in South Korea, dealing with North Korean defectors and both North and South Korean spy agencies seemingly battling each other. It proposes an interesting tale of tentative and cautious friendship between a shamed South Korean ex-agent and a shunned North Korean spy. The on-screen chemistry between these two is wonderful whilst highlighting the problems families encounter because of the separation between the two nations. Perhaps this could have been explored in greater detail but all is forgiven when you encounter Kang Dongwon wrestling with a chicken as Song Kangho screams and tries not to crash their car… The twists at the end of this film ensure you leave on a light-hearted high, leaving you feeling mostly satisfied that, for once, a certain actor is not sticking to his convention of dying in every movie he partakes in.

I found Thirst to be an extremely refreshing watch. There are no sparkling vampires and a priest is forced to question his morals and his very nature when an accident occurs during a blood transfusion, resulting in him becoming a vampire. This is one of the most explicit films I’ve watched recently – there’s a lot of nudity and sex although, again, this is refreshing to see that vampires haven’t been toned down in an attempt to lure in a romantic teenage audience. Of course, the film does have its fair share of romance although this causes no end of trouble to the priest. The ending is satisfyingly tragic because, after all, nothing in reality is perfect and this is a trait that most filmmakers seem to forget, often ending with happy, fluffy endings, particularly in the West.

It’s hard to watch South Korean cinema without being shouldered with a lot of emotional baggage. But it is this convention that adds to its charm. Instead of the physical fear of a monster you can see, it is the psychological fear and violence in a character that brings us, the viewer, the more intense feelings of fear and, occasionally, happiness. I can walk away from films like those above feeling refreshed, challenged, happy and even emotionally drained. And I enjoy it.

Most people I speak to dislike world cinema simply for the fact that, uh, ‘subtitles equals no’. I’ve never understood this, particularly if they enjoy reading as a hobby. You read books so it can’t be so hard to read a screen, right? Since I was young I’ve switched the subtitles on, on the TV, and turned the volume down a smidgeon. With world cinema, I relish the subtitles; I am constantly adding to my vocabulary not only words from another language but also phrases. World cinema teaches me about different cultures, different life lessons, alternate perspectives. It challenges me to leave single-mindedness behind.  Exposing yourself to different genres, cultures and people can only open up an entire new world for people. This is especially true of writers. All cinema is inspirational, as are books and music, and we should do our best to consume as much of other cultures as we possibly can, even if it’s only to say that we tried it and don’t like it.


Questions? Leave them as a comment and I’ll get back to you 🙂

#8 Haruki Murakami – Norwegian Wood

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At first I avoided anything and everything Murakami. Everyone and their mother seemed to be reading it and I thought that I would at least wait until the hype had died down.  That didn’t stop me from passing his books in the high street book shops and wondering whether they were worth the read. Even the covers had piqued my interest but, as it was, I couldn’t really afford to spend time and money on a book when I was busy with work. Now I wish I’d picked one of his books up earlier.

By rights, Murakami’s novels should be frustrating and annoying; at first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly special about them and, even now, I still find the endings to leave far too much to be desired. There is never quite enough satisfaction in the conclusion.

That, however, is part of the charm of Haruki Murakami’s writing style though. You need to have a certain charisma to your work if you can end without closure and still have a huge worldwide readership, still desperate to buy as many of your translated works as possible.

Norwegian Wood draws on Murakami’s talent to write frankly and directly about subjects without over-complicating matters. The book itself addresses, like much of his work, the themes of sex, death and the rites of passage of growing up. Normally, such topics are taboo or difficult to engage but Norwegian Wood tackles them with a quiet sense of simplicity. There is no dancing around with euphemisms or awkward pauses. Things just simply are.

Certainly there are moments where things feel repetitive and dragged out which can potentially slow the novel down but with that comes a sense of realness; life may be fast and hard to keep up with but most of us live a life full of repetition. We do the same things every day for years upon end and change isn’t always rapid. Sometimes change never occurs at all. Murakami captures the essence of humanity and the relationships we create in all three hundred and eighty six pages of Norwegian Wood.

The novel itself has a sense of timelessness. Although it begins in 1986 and the narrator spends the majority of his time back in 1969 and the 70’s, it feels almost as if you could take Norwegian Wood and use it to describe even a current university student’s life. Though time and culture are far removed from our own, Murakami is easily able to create a universally approachable story which I was captivated by.

Although Murakami’s writing style is simplistic, it is also enigmatic. Perhaps Norwegian Wood isn’t the best example of this, however. After reading Norwegian Wood, I became enamoured by his writing and decided to pick up several more books, namely Kafka on the Shore and the trilogy of 1Q84. The enigmatic, puzzle-like quality to Murakami’s work is much more evident in these and, if you simply read them as is, they can leave you feeling more disoriented than when Norwegian Wood comes to a close. To truly appreciate his work requires returning to the text again and again, much like a film; hidden secrets and missed signals become much more obvious after repetition.

Norwegian Wood is the perfect starting point for any Murakami-virgin, not quite as full on and head-tripping as Kafka on the Shore. Proof of the novel’s success lies not only in its translation in forty languages and its impressive sales both locally in Japan and internationally worldwide, but also in the recent 2010 film adaptation directed by Ahn Hung Tran. Norwegian Wood is definitely worth a read and probably worth watching on the big screen too if the cast list is anything to go by.