2020년 11월 3일 화요일

A thorny but bright path- Message to my students and young friends on the eve of the 2020 US Presidential Election

Well, my friends, here we are, four years later. You can go back and read my old blog entry entitled “Preparing Myself for a Donald Trump Presidency.” This is the conclusion to that entry: “From November 8 [2016] on, whatever the result of the election is, all you arrogant white male Americans who condescendingly looked down on Japan, Germany, Italy, South Korea and other nations and disparaged their ‘inability to grasp the essence of democracy’ or some such American Exceptionalist crap, stop bullshitting to my ears. American democracy is DISEASED. The young ones are probably up to the task of curing it but meanwhile, kindly stop telling me how ‘great’ American democracy is, while allowing the low-grade charlatan like Trump to become the head of its executive branch. There is nothing ‘great’ about the American system that allows this to happen.” 

This was uploaded a little past midnight of November 8, 2016, pretty much what I am doing right now in 2020, composing this blog entry about half an hour into the new day of November 3. If you are living anywhere in the world, and reading what I have written, you darn well know what has happened in the last four years, and no, I still derive no pleasure whatsoever from being able to say, “I told you so.” If anything, I fervently wish I could go back to that timeline in which Donald Trump had not only been defeated by Hilary Clinton, but in which he simply had not existed at all: not as a host of The Apprentice, not as a con artist businessman, not as anything. 

But the stone-cold reality is that the US (and the world, really) has been ravaged by the most incompetent, self-centered, unempathetic, dishonest, rampantly racist and chauvinist POTUS in modern (perhaps entire) US history. In addition to all racist and white-supremacist forces, behaviors and ideas he actively fostered, promoted and encouraged, all immigrant children and families he destroyed by putting them in dog cages, all foreign policy behavior that openly benefitted dictators and tyrants and alienated democratic allies, and all institutional fail-safes for environmental protection and conservation that he dismantled, he has literally treated the COVID-19 pandemic as if the latter was his ratings competitor. He publicly called CNN journalists who covered the coronavirus “dumb bastards” to the delight of his “supporters:” he seems to think that his mission as POTUS of the US is to ensure that his crazy antics and hatemongering gets more media coverage than COVID-19 deaths and destructions. 

The last time I checked, whatever the fucked-up country he is apparently the executive head of has recorded 236,473 deaths from the deadly virus. My old country, South Korea, has had 468 deaths, even though these two countries had first become aware of the pandemic almost at the same time. For those, including those false-equivalence experts in the “left,” who say “well, at least Trump has not killed civilians in a war with a foreign country,” what do you think these COVID deaths amount to? This guy waged a war against his own countrymen, and, not ironically, including a large chunk of his fans and supporters. Get out of your ideology bubbles, will you? 

I could go on and on about how this orange-colored maggot has damaged the institution of American presidency and torn apart the fabric of American society into shreds, much of which semi-permanently, so that “recovery,” even if possible, would take years on end. But why bother? I am not writing this piece in order to rant about him. 

In 2016, I wrote the entry to renew my resolve about surviving next four years under this man, without losing myself to despair. To my surprise, despite having witnessed so much suffering and agony in the intervening years, I have not lost myself to despair or even cynicism. In fact, the message I want to convey to my readers, primarily my students, mainly Americans but not necessarily only Americans, is that of optimism. I want to reassure you that whatever happens 24 hours from now (or perhaps for days on end until we know the final tally of the votes), things will not remain the same: it will not be the repeat of the same dreadful four years. 

Why am I so confident? Because while I was weathering through the last four years, I was reminded that this had all happened to me before. It had specifically happened when I was a young kid growing up in South Korea. South Korea had toiled under the military dictatorship of that shade-wearing serpent Park Chung-Hee for whopping seventeen years. And when Park was assassinated in 1979, an even coarser and crueler strongman took over in 1980 and ruled the country for several more years under his jackboots. No matter how you cut it, you, young ones in the US, could do so much more than we young South Koreans could then. 

Besides, the COVID-19 pandemic has truly upended the world. It has mercilessly exposed the fault lines of the so-called “developed” countries of Europe and the US. Some of the most horrifying and nightmarish stories related to the pandemic I have ever read so far are from Sweden, where the “herd immunity” experiment has spectacularly failed. Italy and France went though some horrific experiences.  Anti-Asian racism skyrocketed, even in Germany. The US government, under the leadership of a charlatan and a con artist, who knows nothing about nothing, has floundered and crashed around in its dealings with the pandemic. What’s that, the size of economy matters, hmm, like China and the US? Sure, unless that big-size economy is being “managed” by a bunch of incompetent idiots. When the coast is clearer, it would be obvious to all concerned that the relative advantages of so-called “developed nations” are just that: relative. 

And this is not a recipe for prolonged misery and despair. No, this is a recipe for optimism and hope. Let Donald Trump manipulate and cheat his way to Second Presidency if he wants to. What the past four years have shown is that men like him are utterly incapable of showing the world what the future holds, and to point toward that future, even if every atom of their being depended on doing so. 

The COVID-19 pandemic will be with us for the foreseeable future, so will all the difficulties associated with it. But the miseries and pains it has brought us have also torn away some of the façades and veils that have hidden some hard truths from us. 

I will not lie to you and say it is going to be easy. Whatever happens tomorrow, you will have to learn to patiently work at rebuilding this country, face its now-exposed, ugly and festering truths, and address its centuries-old sins and hypocrisies, exploited by men like the current POTUS like the flies buzzing around a chunk of rotten meat. But even if the path is filled with thorns, it is going to be a clear path, with the bright light illuminating it. 

It really comes down to two choices, two ways of looking at the world at this moment: one of despair, believing the men like Orange Maggot will forever manipulate and fool us, and ultimately conceding them power to treat us as they like. We Are the Losers theory. Another one is that, even though they could momentarily and sometimes even for a considerable duration arrest our progress toward the future, they ultimately will end up as losers of history. They Are the Losers theory. And I implore you to choose the second one. 

Go out there and change the world: engage, discuss, agonize, educate yourself, and vote. Don’t say your action or thought doesn’t matter. Donald Trump does not matter. You do. 

Let me leave you with a quotation from a speech by a young man named Kim Nam-jun, with whom I can honestly say I am proud of being a citizen of the same country.  

"Maybe I made a mistake yesterday, but yesterday’s me is still me. I am who I am today, with all my faults. Tomorrow I might be a tiny bit wiser, and that’s me, too. These faults and mistakes are what I am, making up the brightest stars in the constellation of my life. I have come to love myself for who I was, who I am, and who I hope to become." 

Look toward the future. It belongs to you, not to the Orange Loser.   

(Photo credit- Cooper Baumgartner/ UC Davis Humanities Institute) 

2020년 10월 12일 월요일

Discussion of Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo and Its Film Adaptation with Ms. Jang Su Yeon

Continuing our exploration of Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, Ms. Jang Su Yeon and I have sat down to discuss the book’s reception, its continuing impact on South Korean feminist discourse, and the differences between it and its popular cinematic adaptation. The interview was conducted via Skype between Seoul, Korea, and Berkeley, USA, in July 20, 2020 [Pacific US time]. It has been edited for length and clarity. The copyright for the interview content belongs to Ms. Jang and anyone who wants to quote from the interview below should contact Ms. Jang for an explicit permission. The letter “Q” indicates Kyu Hyun Kim, the interviewer, and “J” indicates Ms. Jang Su Yeon

Q: Let’s start the discussion, shall we? I read your essay with great interest and I am sure it will be extremely helpful for [UC Davis] undergraduates who will be reading the novel. What do you think their response would be like, when they first laid their eyes on it? 

J: My initial thought was that this novel was more specifically attuned to the experiences of East Asian women, as in China, Korea and Japan, growing up in cultures with influences of Confucianism, for instance. However, since then I have come to think that the problems Ji-young were subject to are a lot more universal. When I had first read Maria Mies’s Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (1986) in my undergraduate days, I remember resonating strongly with the examples the author discussed in her book, even though they were not based on South Korean society or experiences. So there definitely are experiences of women that apparently transcend cultural differences. 

Q: Well, the Amazon’s sales rank of the English translation of Born 1982, Kim Ji-young is currently [the July 20, 2020 figure] at No. 191 in the “Fiction and Satire” and No. 370 in “Mothers and Children Fiction” rankings. This is no mean feat. And in Amazon Japan, it is currently ranked at, Holy Mackerel, No. 1 in the “Asian Literature” list. 

J: Wow! 

Q: It is also ranked at No. 2 in the “Foreign Literature” category. What are the elements of the novel that would also “make sense” to the non-Korean readers, and what are those that the latter might consider more specific to the Korean situation? 

J: I think especially the sections in the novel where Ji-young encounters various hurdles and difficulties in the transition from school to workplace might have universal appeals. I don’t think Americans use the term like mamchung [see Su Yeon’s essay accompanying this discussion], isn’t that correct? 

Q: Not that I am aware. Actually, this segues into what I consider to be one of the problems I and my wife had with the film version. In the film version Ji-young’s husband struggles mightily with the issue of whether he should take a parental childcare leave from his job. And when he finally does, that is presented as if he had turned a big new leaf in his life. 

*Ji-young (Jung Yu-mi) tries to juggle childrearing and homemaking in a scene from the film version, Kim Ji-young, Born 1982. Source: Lotte Cultureworks/Movist.com.

J: I think the filmmakers tried hard to portray, Tae-hyun, the husband (played by the handsome star Gong Yu) in the sympathetic light. 

Q: But would the Korean men who had no consciousness about these issues change their mind by watching this single movie? 

J: I can understand that as a motion picture the filmmakers had to consider expanding their reaches beyond the readers of the source material. 

Q: Cho Nam-joo’s novel is distinctive from the majority of the novels written by male authors, in the sense that there is little physical description of its characters, especially female characters. You cannot develop an image in your brain about what Ji-young actually looks like, for example. So I can certainly see that this would have not been easy to adopt into a visual medium like a feature film. When a South Korean reader asks about a literary personage, “What kind of person is she?” the answer is really about the socially constituted image of that character-- What kind of dresses does she wear? Does she wear a lot of makeup? Does she drink a lot and talk like a construction worker (never mind that there actually are female construction workers, even in South Korea)? Does she wear her nails all black and matching black stiletto heels? -- these things are usually spelled out in great detail in literary works. 

J: I think that, precisely, is one of the strengths of the novel. Her “facelessness” in fact allows a wide range of women, not just South Korean women, to identify with Ji-young. I think the Japanese and American book covers capture this sense rather well. 

Q: My wife actually loved the novel’s ending, found it superbly chilling yet realistic. I was sympathetic to certain choices made by the filmmakers, such as giving voices to Ji-young’s mother, even if that plot development was a tad melodramatic, but the movie’s denouement was weaker than the novel’s, to say the least. 

J: My mother found the novel, not the movie, “boring,” because she thought that there was nothing that she did not know already. 

Q: That’s an interesting response. So all the hardships and frustrations she had experienced were retold in the novel, and for her, what’s the point of reading something that I would rather not relive through? (Laughter) 

*Ji-young and her "officemates." Source: Lotte Cultureworks/Movist.com.

J: Right, but at the same time, her mother, my grandmother, and in many ways, I, her daughter, have had so many experiences overlapping with those had by my mom, and the responses to this novel across these generations show how little has really changed. 

Q: It is interesting that the book inspired such a virulent backlash from some Korean men, to the point that a popular k-pop singer such as Irene of Red Velvet was subject to stupendous levels of vilification and personal attack, just for admitting to having read the book! 

J: I think if the book had dealt with an extreme case of physical or emotional abuse by men, it might not have inspired such a backlash. Then these angry men could safely set it aside as a treatment of an “unusual case” and easily deny that they are complicit in creating this kind of frustrating and oppressive experience for someone like Ji-young. Some female readers of the novel have reported to me the feeling of suffocation while reading it, so they had to take a breather or two in the middle just to keep going, even though nothing really violent or extreme takes place in the pages. I mean, none of the male behaviors described in the novel, including the truly scary episode of stalking and the disgusting incident of the company bathroom “molka (hidden cameras),” would be considered serious felonies in South Korea. And that recognition is plenty frightening for many Korean women. 

*Irene of Red Velvet, who got into a boatload of troubles by simply citing Kim Ji-young as a novel "she has read." Source: Huffingtonpost Korea.

Q: Isn’t all this vicious anger in a way copping to the fact that these angry men are well aware that their behaviors toward women are, you know, wrong? 

J: I agree. [Laughter] 

Q: As you have already hinted at, one of the unique features of Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 is that there is no division between “good men” and “bad men,” unfortunately a standard practice for many, perhaps the majority, of the allegedly “progressively pro-woman” works of literature or cinema, although things are changing. I think this is one of the reasons that so many Korean men get angry at the book. 

J: Right. As I have suggested in my essay, I really do not think it is possible to be a “good man” by remaining a “regular guy” in a rigged and exploitative system like the one described in the novel. So I must agree, yes, the men who have faithfully followed and never questioned the way things work between men and women in today’s South Korea are “bad.” They are all “bad,” unless they want to experience at least some levels of discomfort, if not outright persecution, through the acts of recognizing, criticizing and challenging the kind of mentalities and practices chronicled in the novel. 

Q: Another great thing about the novel is that it refuses to distinguish between “domestic” and “workplace” labor for women like Ji-young. One thing that the movie version did well was that Ji-young’s mother came to her defense, taking up a fight against some of her tormentors unlike in the novel. Yet, that section of the movie inadvertently illustrates that Ji-young’s husband, because he is a son, has many, many social and cultural resources he could mobilize, the least of which is the unwavering attention the family members give him whenever he demands it. So why do some young men of South Korea think that they are the ones who are persecuted and treated unequally? 

J: It is partly economical. South Korea has gone through a long phase of economic growth, but that phase is now pretty much over. The competition for jobs and comfortable lifestyles is much fiercer today than it was thirty years ago. 

Q: But if the anti-feminist men’s argument is that women are unfit to work, presumably compared to themselves, so they should stay at home and raise children, then why do they in the same breath put down those women who do exactly that, and call them “mom roaches” and otherwise denigrate them? 

J: Well, it is a schizophrenic behavior and attitude on their part. On the one hand, they hate capable women to be their competitors in the labor market and allegedly take away their jobs. But at the same time, at home, they act as if they are the victims of the cruel society, who work their butts off to “bring home the bacon,” and see their wives as freeloaders who should go out and make money for the household. Which they vilify other women for doing anyway.  

Q: [Deep sigh] “They are being illogical and self-contradictory” just isn’t going to be enough, I reckon. 

*Ji-young comforts her husband Tae-hyun. Source: Lotte Cultureworks/Movist.com.

J: This is why I think so many women today, and not just in South Korea, refuse to get married and have children. Not necessarily because of some ideological commitment or something like that. I remember confiding to one of my ex-boyfriends that I rather not have a child in a social environment like this. His response was “Oh no, we should have children.” From there we went through the whole cycle of all too familiar arguments step by step. I told him I would need to work outside home. He said but women must raise children, and men cannot take care of them properly. Okay, I will be a stay-home mom then. To this he said, oh no, my income would not be sufficient for us to have a decent lifestyle, so you should get a job too. All throughout this discussion, he had an absolute zero inkling of self-contradiction in his arguments. Absolutely none. 

Q: The novel is also unique in the sense that it refuses to blame “Confucian culture” or some such “traditional” boogieman for the plight of contemporary South Korean women. Cho Nam-joo does not drag in all the historical sufferings of Korean women with the clandestine purpose of demonstrating to her readers that, yes, it has been women’s fate to suffer like this from the time immemorial, boo hoo, and “ameliorate” their frustrations in a great cauldron of tears, the gimmick many popular Korean movies and novels still resort to. I anticipate such a question from an American undergraduate who has read this novel, “Professor, the Korean society’s treatment of her is the result of Confucian tradition, right?” or something to that effect. 

J: To be blunt, the “Korean” or “Asian” background of the novel is not that important. I believe it is the novel’s strength, and again one of the reasons for its cross-cultural appeal, that it precisely does not seek to pin its issues down to “Korean culture,” however it might be defined. I firmly believe that South Korea’s “women’s problems” today originate mainly from sociological and structural factors, not from some ill-defined cultural traits, not to say, of course, cultures and ideologies do not play a role at all. 

Q: Thank you so much, Su Yeon, this will be very helpful for the students! Good luck on your continued academic pursuit in the fields of sociology and women’s studies. 

J: I am so happy to help you out! I hope the [UC Davis] students find the novel (and the film adaptation) intriguing, disturbing and ultimately educational.

What is South Korea's Next Step for Gender Equality? Reading Kim Ji-young, Born 1982- Special Contribution by Jang Su Yeon

Ms. Jang has graduated from Ewha Womans College and recently completed MA program in Demography and Social Analysis at University of California, Irvine. Her MA thesis, “Gender and Marriage in Neoliberal Capitalism: A Case Study in South Korea,” won the Best Paper of the Year prize: she is currently preparing for a Ph. D. degree. 

Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 depicts various aspects of discrimination and violence against women. This book goes over the life course of its main character, Kim Ji-young, in its each phase as she ages: as a daughter, a student, a worker, a wife, and a mother. In the early years of her life, her brother always was given a priority at home only because he was a boy. Then, when she went to school, boys were allowed to be rude to girls and do everything first, such as standing first at the food distribution line for school lunches. As she grew older, daughters of low-income families were pushed into factories so as to enable their brothers to be educated. Subsequently, female students were persuaded to choose “feminine” majors because they were expected to take care of the family once they marry. Companies, similarly, prefer male employees because women ought to put their family in front of their careers. A woman experiences a career break once she has a baby because the company does not provide any support for childcare. But at the same time, a stereotype persists that women who sacrificed their careers have made little contribution to society. The sad thing about this book is that my mother, born in 1962, and I, born in 1995, have had strikingly similar experiences with those Ji-young goes through in the book. In other words, the Korean society has not changed significantly in terms of its treatment of and expectation from women in the last three decades. Furthermore, we now know that women across different countries are resonating and feeling sympathy for Ji-young’s story.

[Figure 1] Source: Lee, K. M., & Lee, H. (2019, October 14), "Bestseller ‘Kim Ji-young, Born 1982’ soars in global popularity," Korea.net (Retrieved from http://www.korea.net/NewsFocus/Culture/view?articleId=178612)  Note: From top left clockwise are the book’s covers from Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Hungary, Thailand, China, and Spain.

Love and hate for Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 

The popularity of this book in South Korea and other nations shows that those frustrating experiences described in the book are almost omnipresent across divergent cultures and geographies. An English version of the novel is ranked at 12,000th among all books sold at Amazon.com: in Amazon Japan it is the ranked first among Asian literature publications (as of July 20, 2020). Why is this book so popular? How did this book win sympathy so widely? 

First, Kim Ji-young does not have a specific characteristic. This lack of particularistic features implies that the story told in the novel encompasses everyday lives of many, if not all, women. A lot of books convey the personality of the main character by describing how he or she looks like. This book does not do that. Even the book covers usually deletes the face of Kim Ji-young as Figure 1 illustrates. If Kim Ji-young was an exceptionally beautiful or conversely a “plain” woman, the stories in the book could only represent the life of that particular woman. Kim Ji-young’s anonymity in a way enables most women readers to identify with and feel sympathy for her.  

Also, extreme episodes do not occur in the book. Main characters of many books that criticize the discrimination against women experience exceptional tragedies. Kim Ji-young is never subject to any severe form of violence. The only overtly criminal incident in the book involves a male student who stalks and threatens physical harm to her teenage self. But in the end, she is okay. Her father and husband love her, and the other male characters also tend to act reasonably. However, as one reads through the book, the reader feels that something is wrong. The social environment subtly pushes Ji-young and other female characters toward the lives that they did not initially dream of living. For example, Ji-young and her sister both give up their career aspirations to become mothers. No tragedy was needed to change their minds. At the time they had made those decisions, they appeared to be the only and the best option available to them. The consequences are also “normal.” Their experiences as mothers are what we (South Koreans) can see all the time around us. Nonetheless, we can feel how those are choking the women. I think banality of Ji-young’s story really is a key to the power of this book. The book shows that most mundane experiences force women to sacrifice their lives for their brothers, husbands, and sons. 

As much as this book was loved by many readers, it was also subject to vilification and condemnation. Irene, a member of the famous k-pop girl group Red Velvet, was widely criticized by publicly mentioning that she had read the book. Why do some people blame her for reading the book? I believe it is because that the novel, in the critic’s minds, implies that all South Korean males, including the most exemplary and generous ones, are in fact perpetrators of injustice. The book does not have a villain who specifically aims to ruin Kim Ji-young and other women’s lives. Even the stalker and the male teacher who sexually harasses female students are not exceptionally wicked. Instead, some characters such as Ji-young’s father and husband seem to be good persons. However, they still end up contributing to Ji-young’s mental breakdown. 

In the denouement of the book, the psychiatrist, to whom the book’s contents were narrated, seems to feel sympathy for Ji-young. However, apparently without any further thought, he goes on to state horribly discriminatory things against married nurses, and he does not take any action to stop her intelligent wife from losing her career due to childrearing obligations. The lack of separation between good and bad male characters suggests that the everyday actions people take can contribute to the solidification of structural discrimination against women. The male readers may feel like they are blamed for their ordinary, everyday actions that they feel are not malicious or badly intended, which explains some of their negative reactions to the book. 

The cycle of discrimination inside and outside the home 

Among many episodes in the book, what especially caught my attention were the interconnections among Ji-young’s experience as a worker, as a wife and as a (potential) mother. Women are expected to leave the work once they marry, so they are paid less and their jobs are harder to hold down. At the same time, as a result of their low salary and job security, they are chosen as caregivers within the family. However, Korean society does not recognize her social contribution as a caregiver. Mothers are sometimes vilified as “mamchung (mother-roaches, “infesting” public places with their loud, uncontrollable children in tow, to follow the excellent English translation by Jamie Chang).” It was painful for them to give their career up, but many Koreans think that they are wasting their time at home. So, women’s experiences at home and work reinforce one another in a vicious cycle: women cannot find a good job because she will one day become a mother and leave the company, but at the same time, they would be the one to give up their career in the family once the time comes because the male partner is more likely to have a better job. 

I had to question how we can escape from this cycle. Some feminists today in South Korea argue that women should not marry and should not have a child under these circumstances. Can this be a solution? A low fertility rate is compelling the South Korean government to look for a way out of this cycle. Still, so far, they do not seem to understand the fundamental issues underlying the phenomenon. The government has been merely blaming women for the low fertility rate, rather than trying to understand why women choose not to have children. The real solution, I am afraid, is acknowledgement of structural discrimination against women that cannot be blamed on “bad behaviors” of certain men, and to find ways to dismantle it. The private and public sector should both change to deal with gender discrimination. First, companies should stop viewing women as temporary workers bound to quit their jobs once they marry and provide them with continuous opportunities to work even after marriage. Also, systemic support is needed to coordinate division of labor within the family and release working mothers and wives from the double burden. Equal shares in house chores and childrearing should be normalized culturally. Only when these two issues are properly addressed, in my view, the discrimination in the domestic as well as public sectors will stop reinforcing each other.

2020년 8월 26일 수요일

Thoughts on ROAD TO KINGDOM - Part II: Evaluating The Boyz & Pentagon Stage Performances

Continuing our discussion of the Road to Kingdom show from Mnet, I and Alessandra are now ready to look at some samples from the shows. Again as before the texts are copyrighted to Kyu Hyun Kim and Alessandra Kim and cannot be cited without explicit permission from both authors. All screenshots are copyrighted to Mnet/CJ E&M and used under the fair use rule pertaining to the US copyright laws.

Q: Let’s talk about their stage performances individually, then, shall we?  First up is The Boyz’s creative adaptation of Taemin’s Danger, uploaded on May 14, 2020, the video of which is currently pulling approximately 2.83 million views (as of August 23. 2020: the full performance version is at appx. 2.1 million views).

A: This is an ambitious reinterpretation, as the original is done solo by Taemin, with back dancers.

Q: The intro is superb.  It is mysterious and pulls the viewers right in, along with the visually arresting imagery of a pocket watch swinging like a pendulum, and the members striking poses like mannequins, hiding their faces.

A: I feel that the idea of “phantom thieves” is much more clearly articulated here than in Taemin’s original MV.

Q: They seem to deploy the references to “Western” cultural tropes very well too.

A: The Boyz has some excellent English speakers among its members.  However, linguistic fluency is not the same thing as cultural fluency.

Q: So true.

A: Kevin Moon (and also Jacob Bae) among the members is originally from Canada, and he contributes much to the English- or American-culture-inflected staging done by The Boyz. 

Q: I wonder how much they had the control over the camera angles and movements?

A: I am sure the latter had been pre-coordinated with the choreography. No matter how elaborate and ingenious the choreography is, if the dance is seen only from the front, it could get boring.

Q:  Would you say that certain aspects of their choreography, such as use of hand gestures, are distinct from those of other boy groups?

A: Their choreography is certainly not like that of girl groups, who usually put a lot of delicate movements into their hand gestures (the opening of Twice’s Feel Special, or the ending part of IZ*ONE’s Secret Story of the Swan, for instance). Nonetheless, they make use out of most of their body parts in precise and intricate patterns.  Their dances could get insanely complex, but their synchronized symmetrical formations somehow never strike one as chaotic or confusing.

Q: Do you think The Boyz present the narrative or theme of their stage presentations well?

A: They were really the group with a consistent theme that ran through all of their presentations. Their performances of Danger, Reveal, and their final stage, Checkmate, were, for example, threaded through by the themes of the loss of kingship, its retrieval and new challenges to it.  

Q: I think they understand the essential point, or core message, of the myth they are taking on much better than other teams.  Verivery’s reinterpretation of Mamamoo’s Gogobebe was well done, but its evocation of Aladdin and his magic lamp was really based on the Disney film, not the story of Aladdin himself in The Arabian Nights (which, according to some sources, was apparently a later addition to the collection with no evidence that an authentic Arabic text of the story had existed, not to mention that Aladdin was originally supposed to be a Chinese!).

Q: Let us then look more closely into Pentagon’s performance of Monsta X’s Follow, uploaded in June 11, 2020, and currently (as of August 23, 2020) registering just under one million views (the full-length version records approximately 752 thousand views).  I happen to really like Monsta X’s original, and the changes Pentagon have made to both the music and choreography are intriguing.  The tempo has been slowed down considerably, which suits Pentagon’s current style. Hui also as usual showcases his great range as a vocalist not to mention virtuosity as a music producer-arranger.  Do you think perhaps he is too much of a dominant figure?

A: I think Hui adds a lot as a leader and a musical talent to the team’s identity.  It is in a way inevitable that he sometimes overshadows individual members, given his strong personality and emotional power he projects.

Q: Some leaders are like orchestra conductors, more concerned with how each member does with his or her instruments (vocals, dances, rap, etc.) and bringing them into a total harmony than his or her own performance, but Hui is definitely more of a lead singer of a band.

A: Yes, but it is also true that without him Pentagon would probably not retain its distinctive color. 

Q: How about the choreography?

A: Some of the set pieces they put together for the Follow performance are quite terrific. The spreading-multiple-hands routine is actually very difficult to pull off.  I feel, though, that it and other set pieces are not as organically linked to one another as they could have been.


Q: Was there any concern about cultural misrepresentation or appropriation among international fans about the stage’s “Egyptian” motif, as much as Verivery’s Gogobebe adaptation generated?

A: I honestly do not know.  In the show, Hui and Yuto disclose a funny exchange about how the latter misheard “Follow” and “Pharaoh” and inspired the former to come up with this Egyptian motif, but I don’t know if that’s entirely true.  Perhaps the original song’s “Middle Eastern” flavor has possibly inspired Hui to go to that direction.  There is also good use of camera direction that appropriately highlight some members doing rap interludes and Hui’s high-note vocal performance.

Q: It is interesting at least for me to observe that Pentagon’s performance is as masculine and aggressive as Monsta X, yet somehow feels different in flavor. I mean, different types of masculinity and aggressiveness.

A: Pentagon’s is darker. 

Q: Interesting you say that.  What would be a good word to describe Pentagon’s darker orientation? Resentment?  (Laughter) Maybe the French concept ressentiment, which was my choice for the translation of the Korean word han.

A: How about angst? 

Q: Wow, that’s really perfect. (Laughter) 

A: You have previously talked about Stray Kids in their songs like 19 and Chronosaurus the young people’s anxiety and trepidation as they are forced to grow up and become responsible social members. I think Pentagon’s songs and performances might project a similar but perhaps more distilled and focused sense of angst that resonate with many of their fans. 

Q: I find interesting that Woo-suk, not Hui, sits on the throne at the end of the performance. Is there a hidden message that he is the future king? 

A: Perhaps. I still feel that this was a very direct transition, from point A to point B, compared to what The Boyz have done throughout all of their performances, connecting all of them through a grand narrative of the kingship stolen and recovered.

Q: Any final thoughts on Pentagon’s Follow presentation?

A: I think they presented a solid performance. Their fans would be very pleased, but perhaps it has more of a cult appeal than something that could reach out to and convert non-fans into their devotees. 

Q: Let’s then talk about The Boyz’s adaptation of VIXX’s Quasi una fantasia, also uploaded in June 11, 2020 (viewed approximately 1.4 million times as of August 23, 2020, while the full performance version records approximately 1.6 million views).  It is not as flamboyant as their version of Danger, but it is equally impressive in the sophistication of design and harmonious presentation with every member participating fully.

A: Really wonderful.

Q: Would you consider their version “feminine,” with the striking visual set piece in which each member transforms into a flower petal.

A: Hmm, I don’t think they are quite “feminine” in the traditional sense, although for sure their dance moves are sinuous, fluid and beautiful.  The Chinese traditional dances and the Korean fan dance come to mind as I look at them. Truth be told, Ateez and The Boyz, among other K-pop groups, have always embraced a wide range of sexuality in their MVs and stage performances. 

Q: So have Monsta X, but the absence of, or perhaps more accurately, deviation from the Western sense of masculinity does not seem to affect their aggressivity.

A: True.  In any case, the formations are exquisitely worked out, without any enforced sense of rigidity, as in a military formation. 

Q: The use of props, as usual, is ingenious.

A: Yes, the flowers gradually blooming, expressed through a dolly movement of camera over the group members dancing with different versions of a tree branch, for one.  This is my choice for the most beautiful performance put together throughout the whole Road to Kingdom show of this season.


Q: I almost wish that The Boyz could put up a stage musical, or even a musical film that simply takes the old and new kings and the “growth” motifs they had deployed throughout the show and fleshes them out into a straight narrative.

A: That would be legit fabulous.

Q: Well, thank you so much for this highly entertaining and educational conversation.  I hope we can come back for more discussions of various aspects of the contemporary K-pop, visual, performative and musical, the whole pizza, crust, cheese, toppings and all.

A: You are most welcome, Professor! 








2020년 8월 25일 화요일

Thoughts on ROAD TO KINGDOM: The K-pop Boy Groups Compete Against One Another, and Present Some Amazing Performances- PART I

Hello, for fellow fans of and those curious about the current popularity of k-pop as a cultural phenomenon as well as a genre of musical performance, I am planning to upload a series of pieces on k-pop throughout the remainder of this year and early next year.   I would like start with a discussion of the South Korean TV show Road to Kingdom.  Joining me as a researcher and a discussant is Alessandra Kim (pictured on the right), Senior majoring in History and International Relations at University of California, Davis, and a longstanding member of the EKHO Dance team, a k-pop cover dance group (you can check their latest [August 18, 2020] performance video here.    

Road to Kingdom, aired from April 30 to June 18, 2020, was a TV show developed by the major Korean music entertainment company, Mnet, and aired on its broadcasting service, in which seven k-pop boy groups competed against each other to secure a spot in the upcoming show Kingdom, which will begin later this year. The seven groups were chosen due to their supposedly “lesser known” status among Korean music fans, and included Pentagon, ONF, Golden Child, The Boyz, Verivery, Oneus, and TOO. Every round of performances had a certain theme that the groups were able to interpret freely and creatively, allowing them to showcase specific talents in the composition, production and performance.  Q indicates Kyu Hyun Kim, and A indicates Alessandra Kim below. All texts herewith are copyrighted to Kyu Hyun Kim and Alessandra Kim and cannot be reproduced or used without permission of both Kims. All screenshots are used under the fair use rule applied in the United States and are copyrighted to Mnet/CJ E&M, unless otherwise indicated.

Q:We can begin with what Mnet had in mind when they created this show Road to Kingdom, as a sequel to Queendom. Obviously, they would not have come up with it if the latter had not been successful. However, as we all know, they were subject to extensive criticisms due to the big scandal involving the manipulation of the rankings of participants for their previous hit survival audition programs, the Produce 48 and 101 series.  Have you read and heard any criticism of Queendom or Road to Kingdom regarding this issue?  In other words, the complaints that the rankings of the participating teams have been “rigged,” or otherwise do not accurately reflect the input from the viewers?

A:  I think these two shows have different methods for generating their rankings.  For a rundown of how votes were calculated for Road to Kingdom, you can take a look at hereThe contest results of the show were generated from a point system that consisted of four rounds of gaining points: Round 1 and 2 set the maximum points at 10,000 each, and Round 3 for15,000 points, but each round had different scoring criteria. Round 1 was entirely based on votes from the contestants. Round 2 was based 30% on contestant votes and 70% on online audience votes. Round 3 was similar to Round 2, but the extra collaboration stages had a different calculating system wherein contestants and online audience voters would rank the collaboration teams from 1st to 3rd.  A fourth round, called the “comeback round,” was absent from Mnet’s female version of the show, Queendom , and consisted of the points being awarded for online streams from fans on YouTube and Naver TV. This was done to replace the live audience votes, who could not attend the performances due to COVID-19.

(Road to Kingdom publicity still photo showing Pentagon: copyrighted to Mnet/CJ E&M)

Q:Yes, though it still makes little sense that Golden Child was dropped.

A: I totally agree.

Q: When The Boyz did the third-round competition of Sunmi’s song…

A: The Heroine.

Q: Yes, The Heroine. They made sure that Golden Child’s name was included among the shouts-out to the participants, even though the latter had already been eliminated. They (and other teams) continued to refer to them as “seven teams.” I think there is a subtext that the participating idol groups are perhaps not happy with the elimination process, not so much with the idea of competition itself or how the rankings are generated. And I think The Boyz was trying to express that unhappiness, within the limits of what was allowed in the program, of course. I would love to watch an interview, maybe years later, in which they could frankly discuss what they really thought of the survival format of this program and programs like this. 

A.  Some fans have raised the issue of TOO participating in with these teams because they just were too new, having debuted on April 1st, 2020, less than one month before the show formally begun. Of course, it was due to no fault of their own that they ended up there: it’s not like they insisted on being picked. It would have made more sense, though, had other groups been rookies as new as them.

Q: I almost felt sorry for them. It was clear from their attitudes that they found having to compete against such seasoned groups intimidating or awkward.

A: Right, there was a sense of sympathy among the fans for TOO that it was rather unfair for them to have been burdened with this situation.

 Q: There was actually a scene where TOO’s leader, Lee Jae-yun, wept after seeing Pentagon’s Shine stage. I felt really sorry for him, because I don’t think it was just because he was moved by Pentagon’s performance and tribute to its oldest member, Jin-ho, due to be inducted into military service. He looked actually distressed and was probably reminded that even if everything went all completely successful in their future career, they would still have to face this moment of unwilling parting due to the military service. Who could have been the alternate group had they gone for more experienced one instead of TOO?

A: Ateez, maybe, but then again, they are already rumored to be a contender for Kingdom, the upcoming series in which The Boyz will compete as the result of winning the Road competition.

Q: Interesting, you like Ateez, right?

A: I do!  But their fandom is perhaps smaller than other well-known boy groups, and some thought that they should have participated in Road to generate publicity.

Q: The Boyz did an amazing job with their performances in the show. Is that a consensus opinion among those you know?

A: Many of my friends are already fans of The Boyz and Oneus, so they were predisposed to root for these teams, but yeah, many do agree that The Boyz did the fabulous job.

Q: Pentagon is very experienced but perhaps seen as a perennial underdog?

A: Yes, they went through a lot of hardships, their original member E’Dawn departing not too long after their debut, and so on, and now their oldest member is going into military service. I think they have a very strong and dedicated fandom, but the latter’s size is not expanding much.

Q: Why do you think that is the case?

A: I think some people I know, and maybe fans I have observed, prefer Pentagon’s sunny, optimistic songs like Shine, Naughty Boy and Humph!  Many of them became fans of Pentagon due to these songs. But they are a bit befuddled, perhaps, by the dark, psychologically tormented music recently put together by Hui, the team’s super-talented leader.

Q: What about Oneus?

A:  They had a lot of fans carried over from survival shows, including Produce 101 and Mix Nine. My favorite Oneus song is Lit: I mostly love it for its interesting choreography. In my view they need some kind of clear-cut concept or signature style. 

Q: Hwanwoong is much praised for his dance skills.

A: Yes.

Q: In the show, they come across as so young and cute.  Especially compared to, say, Pentagon, who looked grizzled and, like, full of han (Korean word for ressentiment, although difficult to translate). [Laughter] ONF is supposed to be read as “On and Off?”

A: Yes, I do think their dance skills are great.  Unfortunately their existing fandom has been comparatively smaller in size. They are still not very well known.  I hope Road has made some impact in publicizing their talents to the general public.

Q: Personally, I feel their music is really great, especially Moscow Moscow, which does not sound like a k-pop idol song at all.  Now we come to Golden Child.

A: I think they are disadvantaged because they lack a senior team, like BTS for TXT at Big Hit, who could serve as a sort of locomotive that has laid out the rails for them to advance on.Their MVs are clean, pleasing and illustrate the skills of the members pretty well, but perhaps could have been made a bit more attention-grabbing.

Q: For the performances in Road, I really loved those of The Boyz, ONF and Golden Child. Those were my favorite teams in terms of the appeals of the stage performances they put together. Did you think the things that The Boyz pulled off in the show, for instance, were also present in their previous outings, such as MVs?

A: I think they have had much greater access to resources this time around. But The Boyz had always boasted one of the cleanest, most harmonized choreography styles among boy idol groups. I would choose Astro, Seventeen and The Boyz as my top three teams in the cleanest, neatest choreography category.

Q: It was really interesting to compare The Boyz’s MV of Reveal and their stage presentation of the same song in the second round of Road. I felt that their official MV was more about internal struggles, about the gap between what one retains inside and what he (or they) allows to be shown to other people.  And the visuals reflected that sense of walled-off anxiety. But the performance version was altogether different. It was really like watching a series of classic paintings: it came off as not a plea for love, but a confident declaration of power. They had all members and dancers were captured in a magnificent vista at the climax. After seeing this, I am thinking like, hey, they should just make their own MVs from now on. [Laughter]

A: I think The Boyz just took all the available resources and made full use out of them. In my view they made most of the fact that they had a lot of members: eleven, I believe. To be sure, there are advantages and disadvantages for having a large group as opposed to a small one. Having said that, like Seventeen, The Boyz designs elaborate formations and moves that highlight seamlessness and sophistication of their group choreography.

Q: They do not seem to rely too much on aggressive gestures or what I would call “martial arts” dance moves. [Laughter]

A: It is important to have a good range of intensity in dance moves: if you keep your dances “powerful” and fast all the time, it could become tiring and repetitive. The “quieter” moves are not necessarily easier to execute and require a lot of coordination as well.

 Q: Let’s talk about storytelling, or narrative elements embedded in the stage performances, conveyed through singing and dancing. The Boyz-Oneus collaboration stage was interesting to me, because it was self-reflexive: they took Sunmi’s song and made it essentially about being an idol singer.

A: It was a great idea, in the sense that the staging was already taking place in the context of all the prefatory steps they were taking, which were shown as a part of the Road to Kingdom show. So the viewer’s awareness of this context created a level of extra depth to the performance, rendering it more meaningful. 

Q: Do you have some sense of how non-Korean/international fans perceive the result of the competition?

A: I think most of them agree that The Boyz deserved to win.  But a sizable number of those whose opinions I have surveyed felt that Oneus should have ranked higher.

Q: What do you think is the reason for such low scores for Oneus? 

A: I just feel that they cannot do as many things as some other teams, because there are only six members, and with an even number of members, making formations could be a challenge. The audience has to be able to see all members, and I think Oneus has to go an extra mile than, say, The Boyz does, to design an impactful performance in a confined stage simply because of these physical reasons.

Q: Road to Kingdom was initially advertised as a show in which rookie groups compete to make themselves known. In reality, the only group that met that criterion was TOO. The rest were actually industry veterans, especially Pentagon, more or less unfairly treated by the whole system, I think, and I could feel that there was this added subtext to the whole show, almost a sense of rage, like they were all internally screaming “We have all been unjustly neglected for all these years!” while posing and smiling for the camera.  In a way, this hyper-competitive situation is analogous to the Korean social system, or Korean educational system. You are so frigging talented to begin with but you nonetheless work like a mule for three years, five years, and finally you get a chance to sit on this one chair reserved for only one winner, in a place already teeming with equally talented and hardworking competitors.  [Laughter and Sighs]

Just for fun, can you speculate who would be competing members for the Kingdom show?

A: Well, the internet speculation ranged far and wide: Ateez, Monsta X, Seventeen, NCT 127, Stray Kids, Astro, Nu’uest, TXT, SF9, and iKON.

Q: Who would you root for?

A: Ateez, but there is a worry about the significant gap between Korean and international perceptions of the group.

Q: Can you explain to me why such differences of perception have arisen?  You are in a unique position to see this issue from both sides.

A: When they debuted, I think their MVs, dances and music were conceptually very strong, but perhaps considered too edgy for some Korean viewers.  International fans embraced their hard-core hip-hop styles and I also think they are extremely versatile. Still, I do not really know why they are not as popular in Korea. They never score well in the Korean music show competitions and it is frustrating. 

The brand reputation rankings the Korean Business Research Institute releases (and reported here by soompi for the month of May, 2020, for instance, does not even include Ateez in the top thirty (in fact, no team that had participated in Road to Kingdom, including The Boyz and Pentagon, is included). The groups ranked in the top ten are BTS, Oh My Girl, EXO, Blackpink, Twice, (G)I-DLE, NCT, Red Velvet, IZ*ONE and Seventeen.  There is also the Billboard Social 50, which is a popularity chart based on followers, online engagement, and streaming. I do not have access to the official lists, but Twitter accounts dedicated to charting and streaming a certain k-pop group will provide weekly or daily updates (For instance, https://twitter.com/ateez_charts). Other notable rankings include number of Spotify streams, Apple Music rank, Twitter mentions and trends, Gaon album chart, Naver real time search, Genie music streams, and so on.   

Q: Despite suspicions about the ranking system and vote counting that Mnet is saddled with now, Road to Kingdom seems to have served some useful purposes for the participating groups. They had many good arenas to showcase their talents. I am truly happy for The Boyz in particular and the way they made the best out of this opportunity was impressive.  I also must say I was very touched by the camaraderie and respect the boys (not just The Boyz but all boys ^ ^) displayed toward one another, as the young people engaged in the same profession and life-goals. I really admire their professionalism and dedication to their music, dance and performances. The Boyz is right, they are all in this together and they deserve each other’s support.

A: I agree that it is refreshing to see k-pop groups interacting on this level and being not only respectful, but encouraging and supportive as well. In an industry that seems so territorially divided by entertainment companies, it is nice to see all the groups together, in a show that is less brutally cutthroat than, say, the Produce series. However, since some of these groups were more of “rookies” compared to others, I still feel as if there was a barrier of respect and seniority. If Kingdom manages to put together a lineup in which all participating teams have the equal footing and the comparable level of experience within the industry, it will be interesting to see how those groups interact, since I’m sure some of them are already friends.

(In Part 2, we look in detail into select stage performances!)