Wednesday, July 28, 2010

These Korean sa geuk (historical) dramas are completely surprising to me. I thought it was all about swordplay, until in Episode 8, I think, of Emperor of the Sea, the female protagonist, perhaps the first woman I can really identify with, overcomes her odds by deftly wielding a wolf brush.

A dethroned noblewoman raised by a Dragon Lady to become a profitable courtesan to some other Korean nobleman, she decides she doesn't want to marry some rich guy, but really wants to run her own business. To earn her MBA she is lucky to be taken under the wing of the merchant/pirate, played by Jumong's ultra-attractive Song Il-Guk, who is in love with her, the third part of the requisite K-D love triangle. (Never mind that the man she loves is literally slaving to build some extension to the Great Wall off in some desert province of China.) But to earn her business credentials she must pass a test: she must sell five rolls of silk to a nobleperson, apparently not an easy task in 8th century Korea. But she prevails like Melanie Griffith in "Working Girl," with a head for business and a bod for sin, not that K-D ever really shows any of that.

She arrives at her client's palace with her rolls of plain white silk and is quickly rejected by her potential customer who is busy making landscape paintings.

"But I don't want to sell you this silk for clothes," the literate and art-savvy woman says, observing the wall scrolls on display. "I see you like the landscape painting of Wang looks so much better on silk than paper." She is invited to demonstrate her own awesome brush skills on the silk, makes the crucial sale, and earns the respect of the pirate as well as her Madam who appoints her, basically, as CFO for her trade enterprise. I should note she was also skilled in manipulating spreadsheets and creating relational databases that no one had ever thought of before to forecast and plan their business conquests.

I was delighted by this scene. I saw some paintings in the style of the 8th century poet, Wang Wei, in Shanghai on my recent trip (only derivative copies exist). I have actually attempted a couple like this, at right, myself, although not on silk. Korea and China must have been differentiated in the Tang Dynasty mostly by the Yellow Sea, the art and culture are so similar, like medieval France and Italy. The scenes in the marketplace of the K-D actually feature fake 3-color-glaze Tang Dynasty horses and other objets d'art that look lots more Chinese than Korean, not that I could tell the difference anyway.

But the best part was the skill exercised in using a paint brush to win over a difficult client/adversary. You never know what gong fu (skill) is going to get you ahead. And as much as I would really like to study tai chi chuan with Vincent Zhao and swordplay with Song Il-Guk, I think the most interesting skill I may be learning recently is my Chinese brush painting practice with my teacher. The brush may indeed be as mighty as the sword.

The aspiring Taoist in me is trying to let go of the rage over the debacle of Sunday night's cancelled return red-eye flight on Go!, the pesky upstart airline that is held by local folks partly culpable in the death of Aloha, a tradition in inter-island travel. (Although I probably won't fully let it go until I send a letter of protest to the airline, not the sort of thing I usually do, but feel compelled to now.)

It's a tough business, and Aloha was in trouble anyway, the yin or yang, who knows, of a classic Hawaii duopoly. But when cheap flights on small equipment became available, along with some possibly shady business strategizing on the mainland-based carrier's part, Aloha eventually collapsed and the new player in the duopoly was Go! (It's like a board game on tarmac.)

Over the past several years, I flew a couple of the new neighbor island routes, partly because I enjoy the smaller planes, and there is a tropical retro-feel to boarding after walking out on the tarmac instead of marching down a jetway.

Now that I think of it, other places I have enjoyed that unique feeling were Palm Springs and the now defunct Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong where you might disembark a 747 on the runway pretty much in the middle of town. It's more organic, not so homogenized...all jetways are the same, but to be actually out on the ground with the plane stirs my Sagittarian blood.

So for this trip I didn't think to choose the bigger player and even older tradition than Aloha, Hawaiian, opting for the smaller commuter terminal and timing that was convenient for my weekend jaunt to Maui, looking forward to a private film festival with my friend. (She usually has a stack of DVDs for us and her tastes are a little different than mine: she likes British romantic comedies with a twist, and Tim Burton. They're always fun.)

The weekend was over too soon, and my friend delivered me at 8 p.m. to Kahului for my 9 p.m. 20-minute flight back to Honolulu. There was no line at the Go! counter when I tried to check in; I was informed the flight, the last of the night, had been cancelled. I should wait over on some benches while they figured out what to do; she would come and get me. The agent let it slip that there were only 12 persons booked; they had to wait to see if they could get 30 for a flight. Something was up and I think she probably shouldn't have told me that. (It smells illegal. But I haven't read the mouseprint on my reservation.)

I set myself up on the outdoor bench, under a 100% full moon, sent an email and watched part of a Jumong episode on my iPad. At about ten to nine, I thought I might go see if anything was happening. Would they have a plane? Would they put me on a Hawaiian flight? What?

At the counter, the rest of the dozen passengers were gathered (the agent had not come to get me), all in a dangerous mood of rage and resignation. The agent announced the flight was indeed cancelled but they were doing all they could to accommodate us. Which wasn't much. The agents were about as accommodating as the Han emperor when Puyo needed assistance. WWJD? (What Would Jumong Do?)

"You can get a refund and then go find another flight (at 9 p.m. in Kahului) or I can book you for the morning." Someone pointed out, not so politely, that the airline had made no attempt to alert anyone when they KNEW the flight was cancelled (apparently at 7 p.m.); they made no attempt to assist in other arrangements for flight or hotel arrangements. We were advised if we weren't happy, we could write to the head office and "try to get a free round trip or something." WE could try??? This is customer dis-service.

I decided to call my friend, opting to enjoy one more gin and tonic and some more talk, and leave in the morning. I had to cancel a Monday morning doctor's appointment, but no big deal really. (Although that entailed its own struggle with automated messaging...I may have left an obscene muttering on the answering machine when I had trouble navigating the menu with my cell phone.) But I felt bad for the woman who had to return home Sunday to pick up her child from a baby sitter; another woman who had to go to work on Oahu that night;a tourist couple who had already checked out of their hotel and returned their rental car. Maui at night can be desolate and the airport actually closes after midnight.

As the group got more and more emotional --even I complained loudly about the lack of Aloha spirit on the part of the airline that actually wanted to use that name--an airport security officer, a cop, arrived to hover around the 12 angry men and women.

One person opted to take the suggested 8 a.m. flight out

"Well, you 'll have to come in before 7; we'll put you on standby, it's fully booked." WTF??

Several of us waited while others' refunds were processed; I don't know how those folks, some with children, got home. I opted for the open 10:30 a.m flight so my friend wouldn't have to fight the early morning traffic. (There IS a rush hour on laid-back Maui.)

My friend came back to the airport, fortunately from Kihei, just a few miles away, and not, say, very distant Lahaina or remote Hana. We went back to enjoy the full moon from her lanai. "I knew we hadn't had a proper goodbye when I dropped you off," she said.

Next morning, I arrived in plenty of time, about 9 a.m. for the 10:30 flight. I had to be assertive about my checked bag--the only "accommodation" the airline had made for us was to waive the $10/bag charge for us who were inconvenienced (after someone demanded that courtesy), but I had to remind the ticket agent who then had to get manager approval. (I wouldn't have checked the bag except that I'd bought a large jar of expensive and presumably dangerous body butter that wouldn't have made it through TSA security.) Then I settled in at the gate, enjoying free wifi to watch YouTube videos of Vincent Zhao kicking his way through the new airport in Hong Kong, when, despite my noise-isolating earbuds, I heard the announcement.

"Go! Flight 1003 to Honolulu will be delayed. The plane is still on Oahu." It was only a half-hour delay (but really, the flight itself is just 20 minutes.)

Eventually, I got off the rock. Luckily, I work near the airport and my baggage was minimal so I was able to walk -- also about 20 minutes-- to my office. I didn't have my car since on Friday my husband had dropped me at my office, from which I caught a ride to the terminal with a friend. As I walked, I repeated a mantra--"Go! never again." I also thought about the airline's in-flight magazine's letter from the CEO in which he reminisced about the past four years doing business as an ambitious low-fare airline in Hawaii, making reference to "our.. offer...the highest quality, friendliest, and most reliable service." I mentioned this to a co-worker, even more mellow than I try to be, who routinely flies to and from Maui (on Hawaiian).

"That's just PR," he reminded me. Well, yes, but it does lead to cognitive dissonance, something marketing and advertising departments try to avoid. Go! has yet to make its goal. Maybe that's why corporate America is so goal-focused: something to achieve in the future, not necessary to deliver now. At least they didn't send my bag to Hilo; that would have been the last straw.

Lineage is a much regarded concept in martial arts about credibility and authenticity of training and style. It was a travesty of lineage when Go! actually petitioned to use the Aloha trademark after the bankrupt line's planes were sold and its gates were closed. It would be like some Hollywood pseudo-martial artist-actor killing the last of the Wang family and then claiming Wang lineage.

This airline's lineage is poor. From now on, I choose authentic heritage in the islands: I'll fly Hawaiian.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The thing about addiction is, I guess, there's a point where you find you just want more, want it again, can't get enough.

So last night, when my latest swordplay acquisition arrived in the mail, it didn't take me long to get hooked. The Korean TV drama from 2004 , Emperor of the Sea, also stars the highly addictive Song Il-Guk, this time in a role that promises to be less benevolent and magnanimous than his performance as Jumong. But already, the first three episodes, where he has
yet to appear, have set up the background, two young kids, ( SIG as an already accomplished pirate, and his protege and rival, a gladiator-to-be), and the inevitable tragic love triangle (two sides of which shown here.) It's Pirates of the Yellow Sea, with a Korean playing Johnny Depp, without the childish Disney-esque wit. It's bloody serious, and based on some real history.

In the tortured English of the DVD description,"Drama 'Emperor of the Sea' will show historical figure Jang Bo-go's growth, the emerging as Emperor of the Sea and love, and add artificial figures madam Jami and Jeong-hwa to add more spices." The historical Jang Bo-go is not Song Il-Guk's role: the former Jumong is an "artificial figure" and pretty spicy really.

Also in the mail was something from my Amazon wish list, Condor Hero, based on a Louis Cha novel. Hard to choose. I have a sort of warm feeling about Louis Cha, pen-named Jin Yong, a highly popular wuxia novelist from Hong Kong, shown at left, drinking Longjin (Dragon Well) tea in Hangzhou. When I saw this photo at the tea plantation we visited in May (where other notables were also memorialized sampling the famous cha, including Zhou Enlai and Li Peng, I think) I felt a connection while developing a bit of an addiction to the qing ming-picked green tea. I really want to make a joke about doing the "cha cha." But it's not coming to me.

Probably some pesky Freudian among my readers will wonder, "What's with this old woman and her preoccupation with Asian swordplay?" (Let's not go there.) In any case, Emperor of the Sea opens with a flashback, not on the sea, but in the desert, in scenes reminiscent of Tsui Hark's Seven Swords TV Drama (also based on a wuxia novel, not written by Mr. Cha). Song Il-Guk is the most attractive man to sit on a horse in the middle of the desert, even in Emperor of the Sea, since Richard Boone as Paladin (not quite have sword will travel). And SIG gives serious competition to my other obsession, Vincent Zhao, who also looks damn good on horseback, although his specialty is serious kicking martial arts, not really archery and swordplay; not sure this clip shows him on a horse, but it is romantic.

Some time-manager among my readers will also wonder, "Where does she find the hours to watch these long extravagant soap operas?" In my defense, I would point out that I never watch real commercial television; this is intimate engagement with DVDs on my laptop, fortune cookie-style, in bed. And I do read, quite a lot really (you can review my reading list on the Yang Side), usually in the morning, unless I'm writing. This video entertainment is a night-time (down, silly Freudian) thing and serves to populate my dreams with things far more interesting than the spreadsheets and proposals which occupy me during my day job. Who wants to dream in Excel anyway?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

It's like the end of an era! Finished the 81-episode (the same number of verses in the Tao Te Ching) Korean historical epic Jumong last night and feel like I ought to have a post-season party. Bring on the kim chee and Korean BBQ hot wings!

I noticed that in June 22, 2006, just four weeks into its first TV run in Korea, Jumong achieved a 30% rating share, even during the FIFA World Cup. So history repeats itself (which may be one of the themes of the drama). In my house, just four years later, it got a 100% rating share, totally eclipsing the World Cup, which I never would have paid any attention to anyway. (Soccer, right?)

If I want to see hordes of buff men running around a field trying to score points for their team (and who doesn't?), I kinda prefer the beautifully costumed swordsmen, archers and horsemen with flying hair and topknots to the athletes dressed like toddlers kicking a ball around a stadium. (Although I do notice that guy to the left has a pretty nice ponytail.) To say nothing of the drama's political intrigue and suspense of kingdoms rising and falling, uniting and splitting, and romance with strong women contributing in their own way. Of course, I guess soccer fans find all this in the World Cup, too. (Those romantic Beckhams!)

Yes, history repeating itself...Jumong's extremely popular Song Il Gook/Guk/Kook (above, right) plays his character's own grandson in the drama that picks up more or less where Jumong left off. Maybe I'll catch it during the next World Cup.


In the meantime, it's time to read a book.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


I just added, courtesy of my new Netflix account, several Western movies to my recently watched list. Not exactly Westerns (compared to my ongoing festival of Easterns which I tend to purchase), but interesting topics.

A respected traveling companion recommended The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to me, something I had avoided, not being a big Brad Pitt fan, but its association with F. Scott Fitzgerald lent it some credibility. It poses interesting questions about aging and time and relationships. From there I went to The Time Traveler's Wife, more Indie than literary, but produced by Mr. Pitt, it plays with a vaguely silly sci-fi time-travel topic in which a man with some kind of genetic disorder spontaneously pops in and out of the present in both directions. It would be like having memories at the same time as having premonitions, never knowing which was which. Like real life in a way. Confusing.

I don't remember putting the next film in my queue...maybe I did it in the future. But the next red envelope was Crazy Heart with Jeff Bridges playing, quite exquisitely, an alcoholic country-western singer/songwriter who becomes involved with a younger woman, a journalist, in an affair that changes his life. It precipitates his rehab and recovery. They don't get together in the end, but it was a nice story, with very good music. I didn't know Jeff Bridges could sing.

The movie was like a memory, because for a time, many years ago I worked as an entertainment columnist for a local newspaper in Idaho. There were always guys like the Jeff Bridges character, and a lot of young rock and rollers, coming through town on the way to Seattle or Portland or San Francisco, stopping at our local Holiday Inn or country bar for a weekend gig to pay their way further west. I never had any kind of an affair with any of them, but there were some memorable characters. (Like an attractive Greek who resembled Cat Stevens and advised me that playing the harmonica was simple: "All you need to do is blow and suck.") So, watching Crazy Heart felt like time traveling. I could REALLY hear the music, smell the booze, sense the sadness and frustration of a creative life steeped in beer and bourbon. I'd been there.

While considering these films, today I revisited in detail, for the first time really, my little Moleskine notebook of jottings from my trip. Two months down the road, I was amazed not only at how much we crammed into each day, but at the details I would have forgotten if I hadn't written them down. They were more poignant and vivid to me than other times when I kept my notes on my laptop. I remember wondering if I should take a video camera with me (in the end I didn't) to record memories, but instead I relied on my little Casio (for which I had to buy a lot of extra SD cards). But even the photos fail to trigger the same breadth of recall than my handwritten observation or note does. The written memory opens up some other path in my brain: the photo seems to limit it. Like the difference between reading a book and watching a video. Maybe it's the difference Marshall McLuhan was getting at between hot and cool media. I think my journal notes are cool (requiring more participation) and my photos are hot, although it's probably not useful to make this "binary" distinction. Just like yin and yang, they combine to establish a vivid memory....which is hardly distinguishable from my vision of the future. It's all dreams anyway. But as Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) says in Crazy Heart, "Ain't rememberin' wonderful?"

One of the themes of Jumong, the 81-episode Korean drama I have become addicted to, set several decades B.C.E., about the development of a major kingdom in Korea, has to do with the "migrants," mostly Koreans who have no home to call their own who are enslaved by the evil Han. Jumong's quest is to save them and establish a free Korean state.

Some things don't change. Beijing is establishing "gated communities" for its huge population of migrants, rural workers (not necessarily all Han Chinese) who have come to the cities to work. Where's Jumong when we need him? Freeing the slaves, no matter what nationality or ethnicity, is just an ongoing struggle.

Saturday, July 03, 2010


As I recall, this was the title of a soap opera I watched for a time in the early '80s when I was living in Appalachia, on a six-acre "farmette" with a small child. I was indulging a weird fantasy that fluctuated between Chinese peasant to back-to-the-land hippie, while the Wizard had a busy job running a county library system (supporting more or less illiterate families of a coal mining culture). To escape from the isolation and boredom (which, quite frankly, I would welcome at this point in my life) there was the soap opera--Another World.

I suppose it is no different that I should now be escaping into another world of 37 B.C. Korea, the historical epic/soap opera of Jumong, the 81-episode tale of the founding monarch of an early kingdom of Korea.

Korean history, whatever, it's still wuxia. Swords and chivalry and swords and familial conflict and loyalty and weird father/daughter, mother/son relationships and swords and very interesting hairstyles. Did I mention swords?

The father/daughter-mother/son themes frequently come up in wuxia. I recently read something in a Taoist commentary on the I Ching that explains this. It's a yin/yang thing. (And if you don't think old Korea was under the spell of yin and yang and the bagua, just look at the flag, to say nothing of the tail art on Korean Air 747s.)
According to Master Alfred Huang (no relation to Master Chungliang Al Huang), when the mother seeks a union with the father for the first time, she recieves a son: the Arousing, Thunder. When the father seeks a union with the mother for the first time, he recieves a daughter: the Penetrating, Wind. This can go on for generations. Mothers get sons, fathers get daughters. This is all about family relationships in the bagua. But it explains something in all these Asian family dramas.