Seoul, South Korea
June 28, 2000
So an idea came to me yesterday morning in my ridiculously swank hotel room in Seoul, where I have come to have these ludicrous meetings with all the famous film directors of Korea to discuss...what? They want their films in my festival; if they make a really big movie, I have a better chance of getting them to my festival if I get to know them a bit. So we scrape together enough conversation to feel like we have become friends, smile a lot and fight over the check. It's all strangely imperialistic; I know how the Dutch felt in the Spice Islands, except I am not killing everyone.
But these were not my thoughts yesterday morning. I was showering with my computer qua de facto CD player and Ms. Marcia Griffiths was cranking out her transcendent cover of "Don't Bring Me Down," a cute Beatles song that she made so so much better. It is the sweet, succulent, soulful reggae of the early 1970s, the kind that has become desperately out of fashion in these rub-a-dub-dub times. (Ms. MG, FYI, was the only truly great member of the I-Threes, fratboy pothead superstar Bob Marleys backup singers. She had a pre- and post-Bob career, though, as opposed to his talentless usurper of a wife. Have you heard "One Draw" lately? There is so much production sweetener in that rip-off fraud; she makes Christina Aguilera look like a punk rocker.)
I asked myself why this unusually beautiful form of popular music was trashed in favor of macho homophobes and their "raps." (What's his name? I always forget everything about him except that white suit and those terrified-looking women in the videos.) Then, in a horrifying flash of self-hatred, I realized we are, generationally speaking, responsible for this changing of the guard. It was on our watch that Yellowman and his quirky barks were first heard in clubs, and we were way too indulgent of Rankin' Roger's "toasts" on those English Beat albums.
I tried to explain this cultural loss to Im Kwon Taek, the ancient and venerable master of Korean cinema who has made his name as an archivist of the great arts of Korea. His films are fantastic and totally closed to Western folk, giving them an oddly hallucinatory quality. My favorite was "Run Far Fly High Kae-Byok!", a two-and-a-half hour narrative film about a schism in Korean Buddhism in the 16th Century. The film is all spoken in meaningful sutras, badly subtitled. Riveting.
So yesterday afternoon he got me loopy on a beer called "Hi Lite" (which is quite a bricolage of a name if you stop to think about it). His newest film, "Chun-Hyang," tells an epic love story using the "Pansori" singing technique imagine a cross between Pavarotti and Plant. Apparently Koreans don't really give a shit about Pansori anymore, because the film was a huge bomb in Korea. He had never heard of Marcia Griffiths, but pretended to understand the connection I was making. On and on I went about changing fashions between generations actually acting as unwittingly destructive forces. I thought I had created a wonderful international bridge of cross-cultural criticism until Im smiled at me with his brown teeth and politely asked if I was a musician.
Later that night, I went out with some other, younger Korean directors and took up the topic again while they drunk my sorry ass under the table with a terrifying concoction known as Soju. A kind of Korean sake, it undercuts any argument one might make about clear liquors somehow being safer. I suppose my illness also had something to do with consuming the most confrontational food I have ever eaten. Waitresses in traditional Korean restaurants don't pad around in slippers and kimono like Japanese waitresses, deferentially waiting for a break in conversation to enter the room, apologize and serve food. These girls sport gaudy eye makeup, sweaters with sequined portraits of endangered species and hearty laughs. One slapped me on the shoulder to make me pay attention. She had just brought a bowl of itty-bitty live baby squids to the table. She extracted one, picked up a stiff garlic shoot, and then, with a filthy little smile, proceeded to drive the shoot into the sea creature's brain and wrap the tentacles around the top of the shoot. After a dip into some fiery sauce, she handed me the seafood popsicle, which proved surprisingly good. I had four.
These young people knew about reggae, though not Ms. Griffiths specifically. They thought Mr. Im's problem in "Chun-Hyang" was that he had not re-invented the story sufficiently for a modern audience, and so they perceived it as a didactic exercise. They told me that in the Buddhist tradition, there is a firmly determined cycle of life-death-rebirth that all cultural forms need to follow. They reminded me of a little concept known as the comeback.
Hope all is well in California, where there are no comebacks, because nothing ever goes away.