Archive for July, 2014

The Netflix Research Excuse and South Korean Cinema

I saw a tweet yesterday from Henry Holt with hilarious definitions of words for writers. Most of them are really funny so you should check it out. Two of them are related to Netflix. (What does research mean to writers? Answer: Netflix.) I had been debating writing a column about Korean cinema anyway and figured this might be a good lead in.

Lately,  when I’ve been searching for movies to watch, I tend to favor the South Korean cinema. Although I can’t vouch that the overall best movies are now being filmed in that country, the selection I’ve come across has proven to contain many enjoyable films in many different categories. Certainly not all Korean movies are for everyone. They can be very bloody and violent, sometimes undecipherable, and at other times plain weird. Doing some research about the cinema on the Internet, I found one review that postulated Korean movies are not hits in Hollywood because they often are genre mashups. This may be one reason why they are interesting and less predictable than Hollywood shoot ’em ups.

Today, while watching Musa (The Warrior), the most expensive Korean movie made up until that time (2001), I tried to analyze  some of the reasons I find them engrossing. This particular movie was set in the 1300s and had many similarities to other war movies from the Asian past. The overthrow of bad emperors or conquest by other peoples seem to be a  popular subject.  During this rendition, while watching the adorable JuneWoo-sung and Ju Jin-mu, the older Ahn Sung-ki, plus Zhang Ziyi from Crouching Tiger, I was taken by all the long black hair on these handsome actors. The scenery in various epics ranges from interesting to breath-taking.

The acting may be another reason I find even mundane film offerings more interesting than the standard American movie. I’ve thought for years that the acting standard in Hollywood could be called “the Pepsodent method.” Just smile. Just show your brilliantly white teeth. Asian faces, or at least the way they are filmed, seem to show more nuance and usually rely less on a smile to convey every emotion. Part of my thought that Asian actors are somewhat superior to Hollywood actors may be an artifact of subtitles. Yes, there are times when the voices seem to be shouting, but since I don’t know the language, it’s easy to ignore and think it is due to the language and not overacting.

Most genres of movies are represented in the  Korean oeuvre. There are martial arts films such as Pyongyang Castle, which this short review claims is similar to a Korean Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Plenty historical dramas, including The King and the Clown, are worth a watch. As  film, often considered one of the best, was based on a play, it does have a bit of a stagey feel, reminding me of Japanese kabuki. The love triangle at its heart also places it on gay-themed lists.

Werewolf Boy is a fantasy/romance that some have likened to the Twilight saga but then explained why it is superior. To me it seemed like a fairytale for all ages. It did have some of that Korean weirdness in one or two cartoonish characters ,but the main storyline was enjoyable and touching.

Probably my overall favorite Korean movie is Castaway on the Moon. There seem to be few, if any, reviews of this movie in the press and only a very few reviews by viewers on the Internet. This reviewer called it kooky and sweet, which certainly would be some of the adjectives I’d use, too. I don’t, really, remember the gross parts the reviewer mentions, although I wouldn’t be surprised if they exist. What is worrisome is a comment that says it is being remade in Hollywood as it is unlikely an American movie company will be able to do a good job. Other movies such as Old Boy and The Host have been remade for American audiences but have not gotten good reviews. Although I started to watch Old Boy, it seemed to be pointlessly violet so I gave up.

Quiz Show Scandal is another favorite, although you do have to get over a bit of extreme violence at the start. This movie is often included on lists of best Korean movies.  Snowpiercer is an international effort with a Korean director may currently be at your local theater. It stars Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Chris Evans. It’s mostly in English so if you hate subtitles, no worries. It might be a good place to start if you’re interested in exploring this country’s cinema. I like to call Snowpiercer Max Mad on a Train, and although I fall asleep during 95% of chase scenes, this movie was fun and a bit unpredictable, just like most of the movies I’ve seen directed by Koreans.

There are plenty of lists of Korean movies–the ten best, highest grossing, by genre, etc. What ones would you recommend? What do you think of the movies you’ve seen?




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Relating Opera to Literary Fiction

IMG_0865Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend Central City Opera’s rendition of “The Marriage of Figaro.” As usual, their production was wonderful, the voices great, the energy level high. I knew I was going to like it as soon as I heard Michael Sumuel, bass-baritone, singing on the trailer, and he lived up to expectations. Another opera lover described his voice as sitting in a cup of Earl Grey tea!The other baritones in the opera were all enjoyable and Susanna, soprano Anna Christy, was also great. What I love about the Central City opera company is that they cannot only sing, but most are also credible actors, which makes the silly opera stories that much more enjoyable.

While listening to the singers, I started mussing about how story and music interact and how this relates to literature. Many operas have rather silly plots, with characters dressing up as someone else, or hiding in spots where no person could really hide. In the dramas, everyone seems to die. A lot of the plots are eerily the similar. Many of them are based on the same play(s)–The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville. A number of Shakespeare’s plays are represented. For instance, Verdi operas include Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff. Both Gounod’s Faust and Boito’s Mephistopheles are based on Goethe’s Faust. 

Although not universally true, most composers did not write the librettos for their own work. Often the librettist was a well-known poet. I suspect that most people, like me, do not have the slightest idea who wrote the words for the operas they like. The score is what is usually well known and loved, although when examined, librettos often contain wonderfully evocative phrases.

My thought while listening yesterday afternoon was that the music of opera can often be like the prose in the most lyrical of literary fiction, often covering up the faults in the storyline. Or, like the best poetry, the music evokes a feeling and the listener is less concerned about the plot making sense.

Reference book used to verify the ideas in this post.

Reference book used to verify the ideas in this post.

The cast list

The cast list




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It’s all in the Voice

It seems that most of the new bands/singers I’ve found and liked recently have one thing in common; I love the singer’s voice. It’s possible that I like the music surrounding their songs, too, but the primary reason I bought an “album”/sought them out” was because I was mesmerized by the voice. One of the most entrancing voices I ever heard belongs to a man I can’t locate again. I was in Santa Fe during some kind of festival. There were musical acts in the square across from the portico where the Native Americans lay out their wares. I was in the art museum’s gift shop about a half a block away when I heard a singer. His voice almost literary scratched at my brain. I had no choice but to put back the item I was looking at and walk, almost run, as if he were the Pied Piper, to see who it was that was singing.

This was two or three years ago, and voice is difficult to describe. I’d say his was a purr like the best of Elvis Presley or Jim Morrison. And who was singing? A short, maybe 5’2″, rotund, slick-backed hair,  middle-aged  or older Hispanic man. I would have bought a CD, but they were sold out. “I’ll remember the band’s name,” I thought, but of course, I didn’t. They had recently won a competition in New York City, but that is all I remember. What category of music did they play? Salsa? Tejano? Mariachi? I don’t remember that, either.

Mid afternoon on Friday I was driving to work. I tuned in public radio, because I was too lazy to look for another station. As I got close to my office, a song came on. I had a similar reaction as I had to the Santa Fe voice, although I wasn’t 100% clear if it was a male with a somewhat high voice or a woman with a deeper voice. All I knew was that I was in love again. The song was “I Don’t Want to Be Loved,” and my car stereo said it was by Me and Appollo. Okay, I could remember a name as simple as that, especially since Appollo was spelled wrong. When I got home, I put that into Google and found a band called You Me and Apollo. (Maybe the ticker had the band name right, and I thought the song was called I Don’t Want to Be Loved by You.) Although an acoustic session, it determined the singer was a male.

The band played a recent show in my town! A little  more research turned up that this was a local band! And they would be playing at our free weekend of music, Bohemian Nights in August! I also found a Facebook page. I liked it and posted a comment, and they responded almost at once.

When I scroll through my limited online library, I do find examples of songs/artists whose music I like even if I don’t think voice is the primary attraction. Here Comes the Mummies, Fela Kuti, and others feature a lot of horns, which might substitute for voice, but others have different characteristics I respond to.

For me, voice is all important in fiction, too. Voice is most often the characteristic that makes me read a book beyond the first page. It’s an intangible quality that can’t easily be quantified and not every book with great and appealing voice exhibits the same characteristics. Of course, all books I read and like don’t have what I’d consider a great voice. The book I’m currently reading is science fiction. I’m not sure it has a voice I’d be able to identify, but it has an intriguing enough premise and odd enough alien characters I’ll probably read the whole book.

I’d attempted reading two other novels before I settled on this as my next read. Two of these I picked up as freebies at the recent Crested Butte conference. One is a fantasy set in early 1900s San Francisco and is another candidate in my search for women’s fiction. The idea of ghosts attaching themselves to people and the woman who was able to see them seemed intriguing, but I didn’t get far before I decided it wasn’t what I wanted to read at that moment. Maybe I’ll never go back to it. The synergy between character/voice/story wasn’t there for me. The book before that, Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and in Shadow, very well might have extreme voice, but it’s another tome. Although I found the voice mesmerizing, I knew it was going to take awhile to read, and I wanted to get in at least one more quick book before tackling it. My thoughts after only reading about six pages is that the voice is magical, a bit old-fashioned as befits the time period of the novel, and full of astounding language.

The Given Day, which I wrote about in an earlier post, had a voice that at first interested me, but which I tired of toward the end. I’d Know You Anywhere had a mixed voice, part dull and boring, part exasperating, each attached to different characters. The other book I spoke of recently, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, had a smart-ass voice that made me not like the first person narrator but probably did keep me reading.

Can you identify books that you read mostly because you liked the voice? What sort of qualities would you say the voice had? And is that one of the reasons you like the artists and songs you do?

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On Death Row–Literary or Women’s Fiction?

I’ve mentioned my quest to figure out what women’s fiction is, most recently in a blog on book covers. I picked up I’d Know You Anywhere at a recent bookswap, thinking it was women’s fiction. The title sounded like one my WF writing friends had mentioned. Also, the paperback cover  features two pictures of the backs of women in what appear to be raincoats. Not the dead giveaway of flowers or children, but hinting it might be for and about women. The book did receive accolades from the likes of Stephen King, as well as decent reviews.


This cover looks even more representational than the real one due to the glossy nature of the material. I had to use a flash.

A month or so prior to reading the above, the Board of the Friends of the Colorado State Library sponsored a talk by Elizabeth L. Silver. She spoke about her 2013 novel, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton. At least two versions of the cover of this novel include a partial face of a woman. What I take to be the hardback edition features only text, with some of the words crossed out. This, too received good reviews, although I am not able to unearth a review on the NYTimes.IMG_0844

What do these novels have in common? Each has a female protagonist. Both have murderers on death row facing dwindling days to their execution. Laura Lippman’s story is told in alternating past and present chapters recounting the story of Eliza’s kidnapping, and what she’s doing now. A few other points of view are included. Occasional sections are about the mother of the young girl for whose murder Walter is to die. Sections of  Noa P. include letters the mother of Noa’s victim wrote to her daughter.

How would I categorize these two novels? Are either women’s fiction?  In a short article, Rebecca’s Rules: Defining Women’s Fiction  (Booklist, March 15, 2013), Rebecca Vnuk suggests that women’s fiction deals with emotions and relationships of a female protagonist, and that “the main thrust of the story is that something happens in the life of that woman.” She then tries to set romance, women’s fiction, and literary fiction apart. One clue, Vnuk says between women’s fiction and literary  is if you pay more attention to the beauty of the words than the story. She notes that the two can be confusing to distinguish and also says there is nothing wrong with filing a book under “general fiction.”

Although a large portion of IKYA is from  the male antagonist’s point of view, the above definition allows both books to fall into the WF category. Somehow or other, I would never think to call Noa P. a work of women’s fiction. Probably IKYA was published as suspense or crime fiction, but to me, a non-expert on WF, it seemed very much like a novel that could be called women’s suspense fiction. What marked the difference between these two books and their classification?

Both deal with the aftermath of a murder on both the perpetrator, the families of the victim, others involved in the subsequent legal case, and the death penalty itself.  Another clue Vnuk gives to distinguish between women’s fiction and literary or general fiction is if the main character can be substituted with a man. Probably this would not work, or would be a completely different story in the case of the Lippman book. In the case of Noa, it might be possible, although it would again make it a much more common story.

The main difference between the two books, and where I would classify them, is in  the writing, but not necessarily because I spent more time “admiring the use of language” in Noa than enjoying the story. I didn’t much like the character of Noa. I didn’t like Eliza, either, but for different reasons. Noa was unpleasant but, as someone with at least psychopathic tendencies, interesting. Eliza was plain dull, a wife, a mother, with few interests or thoughts outside of that role. If Lippman’s purpose was to show how being the victim of a crime dulls the senses and impacts the personality, she may have done an excellent job, but it seems to me if that was the intent, there should have been some way to show us that that was what she was doing. Every once in awhile Eliza would know something or show interest in something that seemed to me, as a critical reader, more to advance the story of make a more interesting observation than as something this character would actually say or do or know.

The other characters in the Lippman book–with the exception of Walter whom I felt was well portrayed–were right out of central casting. So many books have a best friend/older sister who feels like every other best friend or sister in every other book in the world. In Eliza’s case, the older sister might be described as “lovingly bullying,” but possessing all the expected traits: the Golden Girl to Eliza’s housewife, the smart one to Eliza’s dropping out of her masters program, the single career woman to Eliza’s long marriage with the “perfect” children. Noa’s only friend, who died in childhood, did not seem like her traits had been purchased in the stock store of characters, although her early demise did not flesh her out.

Eliza’s parents were both oh-so-perfect psychiatrists; again, more a role than real characters. Noa’s mother is quite awful. Her father is a reformed convict and not much like fathers in other books. Both are believable, but not particularly likeable. Eliza’s husband is too good/smart/understanding to be true. I kept expecting him to fail her, to in some way make her perfect life a lie. That would have made the story more complex and interesting, but in the end, he’s left home so that the sister can finish out the novel with Eliza.

Noa P. was told in the first person while Eliza’s story was all third. Eliza’s thoughts and feelings were explained and then explained again, while Noa held back information and lied, making you have to work to figure out what was going on in the dialogue as well as the rest of the story.  This telling of emotions very well might be what I most objected to in the Lippman book. This over-explaining with dialogue that seldom rang true was for me what made this a less interesting read. I wonder if this problem might have been fixed if Eliza had told her part of the story in the first person.

I have to continue my search for “real” women’s fiction. I hope that some of what, for me, are deficits in the style of writing do not define the “genre.”





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The Hidden Unlikeable Character

Recently, I suggested The Given Day by Dennis Lehane to a writer friend. He blogged about one of the characters here. I recently finished the book myself, but part way through it, I started realizing I really didn’t think much of most of the characters. The one B.K. talks about, Luther, is probably my favorite imagined character. I also like Babe Ruth, who is used as a frame for the novel, but this device was not universally thought to have worked. (review by Jonathan Yardley.)

First, let me say I did like this book. The writing was always good, sometimes wonderful. The history is incredibly interesting, especially since I didn’t know much–or really any–of it. It demonstrated that problems in our current age have had counterparts in the past. There were terrorists before Oklahoma City. There was labor unrest that wasn’t related to mines. Neither AIDS nor Ebola were the first diseases to wield fear in the populace. Molasses tank explosion injures 50 and kills 11 [Boston Daily Globe, January 16, 1919]

For the most, part the story is riveting. Even though Mr. Lehane, in a 2012 interview,  stated he didn’t think the novel would ever be filmed, it would make an interesting mini-series. One top of all that, the WWI time period is one of the most fascinating to me. I didn’t recognize my problem with the book until I was close to done. It is just over 700 pages and took me quite some time to finish. I’m not sure where I started to realize I didn’t like most of the characters. Luther Lawrence was interesting, possibly due to this flaws. As referred to in the blog post mentioned above, I did care about him and wanted him to be okay. The sad thing is, I didn’t care about the main character, Danny Coughlin.

Now, I don’t think characters, even the main character, has to be likeable in order for me to read a book or to like a book, but in this case it wasn’t really a question of likeable; it was more a question of believable. He seemed to be one of those characters who is in almost all ways perfect. Handsome, smart, an honest policeman, good in bed, a ladies man who loves the one lass he eventually wins. He stands up to his father, tries to maintain contact with his brothers. He befriends Luther, who is a black man on the run and a one-time servant of  the Coughlin family. Why, he even has the perfect name as his real name is Aiden. True, he has a few flaws. He is less than generous toward his one-time police partner who contracts the Spanish flu and ends up destitute.  He also has a bad temper and bashes in a man’s face. Possibly that act was what made me start to question, then realize even in his anger he was just too close to perfect. One character of this sort would not normally be a problem for me, but most of the other policemen seemed to be from Central Casting, especially those in Danny’s immediate family.

What probably nudged me to the edge of shutting the book was the less-than-stellar portrayal of the women. Most of them are, again, just about perfect, or if not that, barely there. Danny’s mother is mostly off scene, in bed. There is an Italian who likes sex, doesn’t care about her baby, and can’t speak much English. She isn’t who she appears to be and none of her stories add up, yet she never becomes more than words on the page. One not fully developed caricature might not be noticeable, but most of the secondary characters seem to be cut from the same cloth. The love interest, for me, was the most egregious as not just Danny, but one of his brothers, and possibly all other men she encounters, love Nora. Why? I know almost nothing about her, how she thinks, why she does what she does. Most mysterious is why Danny’s father rescued her and brought her home naked? She then becomes the family maid who also works a second job but fascinates the brothers. I didn’t buy her for a second.

In many ways I hope Dennis Lehane’s prediction that this book will never be filmed doesn’t come true. The story is all there and with good actors playing the various parts, the characters might come alive and stop being cardboard cutouts of perfect people.

Below is a documentary about the period of history illustrated in the book. It contains many photos, but it is long.

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