Lee Chang-dong’s “Oasis” (2002) And The Undoing Of A Narrative

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Lee Chang-dong's Oasis (2002)

Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis (2002)

I’m often amazed by how little respect the world shows reality, and, by extension, how little respect the people who inhabit this reality end up getting. This is especially true in how kids, the mentally retarded, transgender folks, minorities, the handicapped, and victims (both real and imagined) are treated in the world’s meta-narrative, which is the sum of every bias, policy, opinion, perception, artwork, and the like, available to us. They are at turns fetishized, sobbed over, exaggerated in importance, distorted, and otherwise demeaned by the very same people who claim to be giving them agency and respect. I mean, who wins, here? And how could “winning,” in such an arena, ever be construed as such, anyway, when the gain is so temporary and small?

Thus, in watching Lee Chang-dong’s 2002 film, Oasis, I was struck by how anti-Hollywood it was — that purveyor of the mess, above — in not only how it treats its subject matter, but also how it chooses to present the two main characters: a woman with cerebral palsy (Gong-ju), and a mildly retarded sociopath (Jong-du) who develop a relationship pretty much everyone disapproves of. Jong-du is seen doing all sorts of odd things: eating a block of raw tofu, asking school-girls for spare change, wrecking his boss’s motorcycle, leaving his shoes as “insurance” when he cannot pay for food, walking around in the cold with nothing but a t-shirt, climbing a tree to saw it off, and even attempting to rape his future girlfriend. He is not, then, some caricatured “harmless retard,” but a man with motives (limited as they are) and an unsympathetic streak. Gong-ju more or less stutters through the film, plays with light and glass, and, in a number of poetic little scenes, imagines herself as a perfectly normal girl, living the sort of life she sees others live. Given the meta-narrative described, however, one would think the film would take the banal angle, showing us how “deep” and “utterly complex” such people are, when in fact they are shadows of us, and our wants. It doesn’t, for the best art portrays reality as a corrective to such things, despite what may or may not be “wanted.” Nor are their disabilities glossed over, but are front and center for nearly two hours of oddities that must have taken some time to perfect without turning the two into circus freaks, or degenerating them — on the other extreme — into mere victims. One gets the feeling that they will go on, they will live, even if it’s not in the way that we desire or expect. The film, in short, is their turf; or rather, it is their turf as it gets eaten away by the outside’s bias and expectations.

That said, it is difficult to empathize with the characters, at times, a fact that Lee Chang-dong continually ensures. Jong-du is not exactly evil, but amoral. For the most part, the things he does do … Continue reading →

Recipe: Korean Food — Shrimp, Vegetable, & Brown Rice Cake Stew

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Korean food

Korean food, up close.

One of the best things I like about Korean food is its clear demarcation: the ‘peasant food’ is simple, quick to make, and pretty good for you. The ‘palace food’ is opulent, oily, and — too often — best reserved for an immature palate. As many Koreans have moved over to more Western diets and richer fare, ideas about what makes food food are lost, not only in terms of cooking/ingredient lists, but the historical process of food, itself. This is too bad, since actually KNOWING a few things about why food is the way it is opens you to making wiser dietary choices in other contexts. In short, food has a function, an evolutionary role, and it is safe to say that those that violate some basic precepts have not survived to hand their ill experiences down.

Korean food

Korean food, at distance.

As far as Korean food goes, one thing that has always amazed me is — barring the white rice, and the insufficient protein for some Western bodies — Korean food almost seems engineered for health. Historically, food shortages are/were common worldwide, but in cultures that don’t have much of a tradition in fermentation, these shortages will hit harder. Thus, Korean food makes use of fermentation: pickled cabbage, pickled onions/scallion, pickled radishes, root vegetables, sea vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, soy, and whatever else, which not only extends shelf life, but more densely packs nutrients in a smaller amount of food. Food scraps are easily saved for this, and while they might not hold much value on their own, the fermentation process expands what can be assimilated by the body, as well as opening one up to a variety of healthy bacteria that has, over time, been lost due to sanitation and a fear of ALL bacteria, no matter its ecological role.

So, kimchi is a staple of my household, and if it’s not homemade (the best choice), it is store-bought (which is ok). Basics run cheap, so 2 lbs of picked vegetable matter with great ingredients runs you under $5, while making it yourself can be as little as $1-$2. So is wild shrimp, which is bought in bulk and frozen (since it’s rarely available), mixed cooking leaves, shiitake, carrots, and other items that often just need to be thrown together without much thought. Given the robust and complementary flavor of sesame oil, soy sauce, and Korean red pepper, pretty much any vegetable choice is fine, and the brown rice cake eliminates any need to cook or pre-cook rice, or do any sort of clean-up afterwards.

Korean food uses a huge diversity of vegetables, and, after some experimentation, I’ve settled on the choices, below. I’d recommend trying it out as is, first, before making any alterations. Don’t worry about the sodium content if you usually cook food, as opposed to eat pre-made meals. 8 tbsp of soy sauce split across 4 people comes out to less than half of the salt that you should be … Continue reading →

Review Of Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Like Father, Like Son”

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Hirokazu Koreeda's Like Father, Like Son

Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son (2013). Image via Flixist.

Having now watched most of Hirokazu Koreeda’s feature films, it seems fair to divide his work into two categories: that of timeless observations on relationships (Still Walking, Nobody Knows), penetrating, and all-relevant, and his far more numerous, yet minor tales that flesh out those greater films’ peripheries (I Wish, Air Doll, Maborosi). The first, while absolutely awash in contemporary Japanese life, transcend such limits by adapting characters to situations that can appear anywhere, while the latter are observations of a far smaller nature, even if quite uniform, and well done. 2013’s Like Father, Like Son is, no doubt, one of these small works, but while its faults might keep it out of better company, they are, ironically, the very elements that keep the film afloat, and even help build up to a few excellent scenes when they are most needed.

The narrative follows a young, seemingly happy couple that, soon after the film’s open, are informed their six year-old child, Keita (Keita Ninomiya), is not theirs, having been switched with that of another married couple in a hospital mix-up. Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama), Keita’s life-long dad — as opposed to biological father — is the prototypically wealthy but overworked Japanese, demanding but absent from his son’s life, while Keita’s mother, Midori (Machiko Ono), is the dutiful but neglected spouse. The three interact quite well, it seems, but after a while, their jabs are only too visible, even as no one else seems to notice. Meanwhile, the couple’s ‘real’ son, Ryusei (Shogen Hwang), is being taken care of by Yukari (Yoko Maki) and Yudai (Riri Furanki), a lower-class couple who, by contrast, seem to hate and nag each other to no end. After much internal conflict, they all finally agree to exchange kids, cut off contact, and hope for the best. The original bonds are just too strong, however, and the families drift back to one another, even as it’s revealed that Yudai — crude, lazy, and overly concerned with the hospital’s reimbursement — is the far better father, and Ryota, seeing his own deficiencies in Yudai’s goodness, decides to ‘do better’, and be the sort of father he’s never had.

If the film sounds predictable, that’s because it is, not only in its narrative arcs, but also in that each and every character is a stereotype — or rather, that they seem to be. Nor does it help that the hospital reveals its mistake at the ten minute mark of this two hour film, thus ensuring certain conflicts must play out, if not the film’s various resolutions, in a back-and-forth manner expected of such a difficult situation. For all that, however, the film is saved by how these arcs dip and go, and not merely where they lead the viewer, because while so many scenes are barefaced cliches, as far as the content goes, they are still uniquely presented, and with enough detail … Continue reading →

Recipe: Chopped Mai Fun

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Chopped mai fun.

Chopped mai fun: crispy, and unorthodox.

Although pasta is still tops, for me, I’m still a fan of Asian noodles, especially if I can get them in whole grain. A few years ago, I discovered Annie Chun’s brown rice mai fun, which looks, tastes, and feels exactly like the white variety, to the point that I doubted their actual nutritional content. Over time, however, I did notice the discrepancies, but only because I’d train myself to — as with different pasta varieties, and the like. Typically, mai fun is dominated by, well, mai fun, and is more or less a simple starch with vegetables as an accoutrement. I can’t really eat like this, but if you’ve got the right ingredients, you can ‘chop’ the mai fun and fry it to a good crisp on all sides, without worrying about degrading the oil, then add as many vegetables as you want. It’s not exactly mai fun, in the way it’s traditionally made, but has much more substance, with the crisp giving it a Western feel, to boot.

One thing to watch out for is wet ingredients, as they’ll prevent a good crisp from forming, or at least make you overcook things in your quest for such. Rinse all ingredients in a colander, shake off the excess water, and cover with a paper towel to soak up the rest a few hours before cooking.

Chopped Mai Fun  Recipe (Serves 2):

  • 1 package of brown rice mai fun
  • 2 fistfuls of fresh bean sprouts
  • 2 fistfuls of chopped cabbage
  • 1 large red carrot, chopped into 1/2 inch sticks
  • 2-3 oz frozen peas, rinsed, thawed, and completely drained
  • 8 oz shrimp, thawed in salt water, drained
  • 4 quality eggs
  • 3-4 tbsp of rice bran oil
  • 3-4 tbsp of soy sauce
  • a few shakes of cayenne or Korean red pepper

Instructions:

  1. Boil noodles for no more than 2 minutes, drain completely, and set aside.
  2. Add rice bran oil to a large wok or pan, and saute carrot for 5 minutes.
  3. Gradually add cabbage, peas, and bean sprouts, until cabbage is translucent.
  4. Break 4 eggs into pan, add 2 tbsp of soy sauce, and a few shakes of the pepper. Mix until egg is fully cooked.
  5. Add shrimp, mix well, and cover pan for 2 minutes.
  6. Throw in the mai fun, alongside another tbsp of oil, soy sauce, and more cayenne.
  7. Mix well, then turn the heat up to high. Listen for the ‘crisp’ and smoke from the bottom, 3-4 minutes.
  8. Mix again, chopping the shrimp into pieces with your spatula. This will chop the mai fun, as well.
  9. Let final mix crisp some more under high heat, until the mai fun is brown in many parts.
  10. Cool the thing a little, and you’re done.

 … Continue reading →

Review Of Jessica Schneider’s “Quick With Flies”

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Jessica Schneider's Quick With Flies (2013)

Jessica Schneider’s Quick With Flies (2013)

[You can purchase Jessica Schneider’s Quick With Flies via Amazon, and access her personal website here.]

“I hope it goes beyond race. You’re trying to narrow it down to race. Yes, race is involved in it, but it’s not entirely about that. [As for the subject,] everyone’s an adult here. They know how to deal with it.”

– Steve McQueen on 12 Years A Slave

“Maybe it’s better to not inconveniently speak of certain things you know others will disagree with, for the sake of harmony. Perhaps we shouldn’t speak at all then, and leave it to silence to make the decision, which could be an ugly thing. Silence is ugly, for it meant a death of the hope to be understood…What would be left, then, to feel a motivation for, if everything is already how it is supposed to be: uncorrected? I did not know how to answer these questions, and it was these very questions that succeeded well in taking up my nights, void of sleep or dream, wondering if I was just destroying my own well-being for thinking any of this at all. Where were we to arrive? I couldn’t say, other than me wanting something to change, to end, or to begin. And it is with this thought and want that would enable me to someday begin.”

– Jessica Schneider, Quick With Flies

Last week, I was able to catch Steve McQueen’s latest film, 12 Years A Slave, but left the movie theater a bit “down.” It wasn’t because of the film, itself — at least, not really. It wasn’t a mood, or some vagary of weather. The fact is, I’ve always felt a little sad walking through a movie theater, and sadder, still, walking out. Inside, I’d hear all sorts of comments about the film, which missed the point or outright damned it to stereotype in that half-empty room. Outside, parents walked around with their kids, who yelled for the latest blockbuster as the parents smiled, perhaps remembering how they, too, once demanded the same exact thing, and knew no road, no exception, now, but to give the same to their own kids, as the way of the world. I was sad, I guess, because of the fatalism, that people could do so much more, if they’d only want to. Yet, watching what goes on in movie theaters, and — what’s often worse — coming home to read what others have written about these movies shows that they don’t, and that the word “want,” said so casually, so abstractly, above, is little more, I guess, than a reflection of my own desires.

Then, there’s Jessica Schneider’s early novel, Quick With Flies, published by Omniversica Press at Amazon.com. I wonder, sometimes, what it would be as a film. More often, however, I wonder what people will (and will not) say about it. For while 12 Years A Slave is precisely about alienation, loneliness, nature, and … Continue reading →