Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Finished the second half of The Divine Hero, with Korean audio and Chinese subtitles, neither of which I have any fluency -- and here I stumble in my own language--the conservative English speaker in me doesn't quite know how to say that:

"in which neither of which I have fluency"...? Neither of which I understand much of? Editorial nightmare. Suffice it to say I can't understand spoken Korean and can't read Chinese characters. English is challenging enough.

But back to Korean drama. Was mesmerized through episodes 13-24, I was even dreaming in Korean, or dreaming I could comprehend Korean. Though there are a couple of loose ends in the plot, that's probably because I don't have the script. There was some strange business dealing going on, with short-selling and investments and partners that helped to bring down the financial empires of the bad guys. It was pretty easy to figure out what was going on; it's mostly action and character anyway. Or mostly this extremely beautiful man behaving decisively and honorably--his mantra, "I never hurt innocent people," a counterpoint to House, M.D.'s "Everybody lies." And his poignant emotionalism: the scenes where his sister (whom he thought had been killed with his parents) and his gorgeous doppelganger assistant die in his arms are just heartrending. There's something about a serious icy cool martial/action hero who can cry real tears--copious spontaneous tears, sometimes with running noses, seem to be a requirement for all these Korean actors. Even the bad guys tear up.

In the end, the woman who loves him (but who he used to bring her father down) and the woman he loves escape. And he apparently survives the finale explosion in a car, giving hope that he reunites with one of them (or both, why not) having ruthlessly, successfully avenged his family's death. Have heard nothing about a follow-on series, but I would watch it, even in Korean!

Can you figure out who's the bad guy?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

My latest Korean drama escape has been full of surprises and challenges. The Divine Hero-A Man Called God was pressed on me by my Chinatown video vendor, not just because I told her I liked Song Il-guk (SIG), the stunningly devastatingly handsome mega-star from somewhere south of the DMZ, accomplished triathlete, swordsman, horseman, and husband of a Korean high court judge, an Asian combination of Pierce Brosnan, Johnny Depp, Al Pacino and maybe a little Tom Hanks, if any of them were also serious martial artists or athletes.

She was also pushing the DVDs because the first episode of this 2010 Korean TV series was shot in Hawaii giving a little boost to our local film industry and Korean travel agencies, thus promoting two "vital" sectors in our state's peculiar economy. If it focused more on kim chee and spicy barbeque it would also be an aid to our restaurant business, although any potential Korean tourist can get that just as easily at home.

The drama started out like any Magnum P.I. episode, featuring some shady business (an illegal arms trade) going on in an exotic hotel location--in this case not so much Waikiki but a more recently developing area in the dreadfully dry Ewa plain, the last of Oahu's easily exploitable land. An area of former cane fields, an industrial park and a closed Navy base, one of
the hottest, flatest, driest places on the island, it has become home to a new pricey resort/spa/golf area, including a Disney property for visitors who find Waikiki too family-unfriendly. (And hopefully, Koreans who have watched at leaast the first episode of The Divine Hero.) Since most old money had long taken over the cooler higher typhoon- and tsunami-safe ground in the mountains, this area is also site of new, if not exactly affordable,
housing. Fortunately you can't really see the oil refinery from any of the locations, including an artificial lagoon and some very lovely beachfront. I recently attended a baby luau (a traditional Hawaiian one-year birthday party) at one of the naturally preserved spots next to one of the new hotels. Managed by one of the old land estates, it is as you can see here, a nice place to watch a sunset or have an intimate little wedding, below.

Had I been indulging in The Divine Hero at the time, I might have been fantasizing at the party about Song Il-guk, who in the series rescued, repeatedly, a journalist who was investigating the arms trade story, which came to implicate him (in a particularly amusing scene with SIG disguised as an Arab sheik). She later becomes his main love interest in the story, although as is typical in the KD
I have watched (mostly sa geuk, or historical, tales), there are at least three women in love with him (not including all the women viewers) to whom he is chivalrous, if not entirely honest.

After the Magnum/Hawaii 5-0-style opening episode, the series moves quickly into a strange melange of styles reminiscent of Ian Fleming (with SIG as Bond, supported by a couple of loyal and clever Korean science and technology geeks); Mission Impossible, The Avengers (with a particularly beautiful Korean woman in Emma Peel leathers with great martial skills), The Godfather, Noble House, and Spiderman. The series was actually based on a popular Korean comic, and one of SIG's alter egos in the story is Peter Pan, International Man of Mystery and Eternal Youth.


SIG as Choi Kan Ta/Michael King/Peter Pan is the apparent lone survivor of an attack on a policeman's family. At 7, he was adopted by an American couple and became a clever skilled agent (of intelligence or international crime, it is not clear) and becomes dedicated to avenging his family. He returns to Korea to wipe out the unscrupulous buinessmen and government officals involved in a major drug deal theft who killed his father, mother and sister in a fire.

His accomplice, Vivian, the Emma Peel character, (representing the strangely named Castle Resort group and its exotic Hawaii property rented by the first of SIG's victims of revenge -- Castle is the name of one of the original Big Five landholders in Hawaii) is charged with seducing the sleazy fat son of one of the bad guys, a real estate, construction and illegal drug magnate. She succeeds in about 30 seconds, even while whispering endearments like "tub of lard" and "idiot" in English, which he doesn't get. She would do anything for Michael, whom she loves but betrays after he becomes attracted to the journalist he rescued in Hawaii, the daughter of another of the objects of revenge, although neither of them know it (yet). The third woman in love with Michael is the ditzy daughter of yet another of the evil tycoons; he is using her to bring down his empire. A son of of the government official is the Korean "FBI" agent chasing Peter Pan, and is also in love with the journalist. He is working with a savvy and suspicious municipal policewoman who is not (yet) in love in Michael, which is just as well. She is his sister who was unknowingly rescued from the fire by another of the bad guys who raised her as his own daughter. You can just tell there are going to be complications.

All of these developing plot points are surmised. The DVD set I bought was only the first 12 episodes of the series, good quality DVDs with English subtitles, though my Korean DVD vendor insists they must be Chinese rip-offs. (I think he is perturbed that I acquired them in Chinatown.) Volume 1 concluded with a serious cliffhanger, or in this case, a bridge leap by SIG after his shooting enabled by Vivian-Emma Peel's ratting him out to the creepy FBI agent, who is reminiscent of Dave Foley from the comedy group, The Kids in the Hall, and thus hard to take seriously. It seems like sketch comedy when he takes on SIG in any kind of fight.

I unsuccessfully searched the web to find out if Volume 2 of the series had been issued (yet). All I could locate are downloads of the rest in Korean ...with Chinese subtitles. I am left with not so much cliffhanger as Tower of Babel. The Chinese subtitles are not very helpful; I can recognize about 3 characters out of every 3,000, usually "father", "person" and numbers. It might be easier if Korean wasn't so opaque to my ear, so to speak; it has next to nothing in common with any Chinese or even Japanese. It appears to be a language well suited to expressing fiery emotion; maybe it's the kim chee. As I watch the downloads, I can generally figure out what is happening, the first 12 episodes having set up the characters, action and storyline. But I'm sure I am missing subtle clues, if indeed there are any. Still it is enough really to hear SIG's surprising deep sonorous sexy voice threatening a bad guy or wooing one of the women. For some things, you just don't need subtitles.

Wooing or Threatening?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I thought I was going to miss it. Was at Costco getting my usual 84 pounds of cat litter and came out of the warehouse to see beautiful sunset-kissed pink clouds over the Ko'olau range to the east. I turned my back to load the cat litter and when I looked again, the clouds had gone grey.

Driving home, I was probably a little inattentive, looking for signs of the moon through the clouds, but when I turned into my complex I caught my breath. There it was, directly in front of me, touchable almost. Not easily photographed with a phone camera.

I stopped at the gate and told the security guard, "Wait 'til you see that moon!"

"Huh? Is it full tonight?"

I thought everyone knew that stuff, and everyone I told in the elevator was equally indifferent. Most people have become so disconnected with the rhythms of nature, the magic show, and even more so when there is a big flourish like this equinox/full moon simultaneity. Lots of doors open in the apartments -- it is very hot and humid -- and lots of big flat screen TVs playing.

But I think the real action is outside on the really big screen of the sky. I keep pointing, but hardly anyone seems to care about my finger or the moon.

But, when I opened my own door, I dragged the Wizard outside to see it. "Wait, I have something for you, too," he said, presenting me with two tickets to next Tuesday's Chinese Moon Festival performance at the Hawaii Theatre. How cool is that? He says he may not be able to make it; a dentist appointment that day may interfere. And I have a dentist appointment on the next new moon, but probably auspicious; you can only fill something when it's empty.

But tonight, it's fuller than full!
Awoke this morning with my personal barometer/sinus headache caused by low pressure and rain, which will probably prevent viewing the spectacle of the full moon at the equinox tonight, not a common conjunction. Night-skygazing can be a spiritual activity, but is easily hampered by clouds, as a muddy murky mind clouds meditation.

This reminds me of my only "regret" from my last China trip, a failure to observe a particular starry night in the mountains, listening to insects and frogs, away from city lights and traffic noise. We had been out in the courtyard at the kung fu academy, watching the moon set, also noticing a passing satellite. I had washed out some underwear, hanging it on the line in the dark, then did a little qigong, a little standing meditation. I reminded myself that it would be great to come out and do some sky viewing after I had been asleep for a few hours, eyes adjusted to really appreciate the stars after the moon had gone. When I awoke at 3:30 a.m., it was just too cold and damp to leave my finally warm (if hard) bed. I told myself...tomorrow night.

But the next night it was rainy and cloudy, a condition that continued until we left the mountain. It's always better, I think, to regret things you haven't done (as opposed to what you have). You can't change what you've done, but you can always try something again, the way I finally, after several visits to Beijing, managed to spend some time at the Temple of Heaven. It had been on my to-do list for years. (Is that the "bucket list" people talk about? What is that? And the Temple of Heaven itself wasn't all that great after Wudang, though the wandering around in the park on my last day was pleasant.)

Temple of Heaven (for solar festivals)

In any case, I have already seen the Taoist mountain stars in great glory, Big Dipper and all, on a painful dark descent from the main summit of Wudangshan in 2007. I just thought it would be nice to see them when I wasn't suffering from leg pain and exhaustion. That was the real regret. But I got over it.

The falling barometer may also have caused some bizarre dreams for me (or it could have been a lot of really bad, if yummy, food I overate yesterday. (A chai latte from Starbuck's, a pumpkin cream cheese muffin, a Beard Papa cream puff...a Korean chili-cheese dog with jalapenos. What was I thinking? I'm fasting today, more or less, and Longjin tea has calmed my stomach.)

The dreams were only in my muddy murky cloudy mind, but they seemed meaningful. In the first, a version of the "exam in class you haven't ever attended" dream, I was among a group of peorsons to be presenting scientific abstracts for proposals. When my turn came to present, I realized that instead of a proper paper, all I had was a couple of pencil doodles on a scrap of bond paper.

"I propose," I said,"to posit an imaginary universe." I went on to discuss something about imagination, imaginary things, all fluid and fluent, it was really good, like a successful Toastmasters speech. When I was done everyone applauded. The next speaker up, said "You're a hard act to follow."

"Why don't we just take a little break, " I asked the moderator. And we did, and I woke up.

Only long enough to remember the dream and fall back to sleep again, when next I was on some sort of job interview, trying to talk to people who didn't really understand me. I was having a wardrobe malfunction, no nudity, just all tangled up, so I threw the uncontrollable bits of my costume (which may have included a sword) over my shoulder like a sari. Then as I was leaving, I met my boss on the way in. This actually happened to me once. She got the job, I got hers.

Practically everyone I know is in some state of distress over relationships, job pressure or lack of such, health puzzles...seasonal existential despair. Perhaps once past the equinox and its unusual associated full moon, things will begin to change. Partly because in past years, this is when I ordinarily would have been returning from China and I have a nagging longing to be returning (one way or the other), and partly because I am having my own share of existential despair, I hope the dreams actually mean something. In any case, "I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours."

May we all have sweet dreams tonight.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

After so many hours this summer with long Korean dramas, it was probably time to return to a regular Chinese kung fu flick. My video queen reserved me a copy of "The Legend is Born," the prequel to Donnie Yen's homages to Ip Man and Wing Chun, the martial art form he developed and passed on to Bruce Lee. I watched it last night. (What, only an hour and a half??? Seemed like there should be at least 25 episodes in this ongoing Ip Man saga. There have been rumours of a fourth, where Bruce Lee comes under the tutelage of Ip Man, but Donnie Yen is denying it.)

The prequel features Dennis To as Ip Man, a wu shu champion and virgin actor, who resembles Donnie Yen so much that I thought it was him on the DVD cover. But not. So new there is not even a Wikipedia entry about him. He was good, very gentlemanly, cultured and a little naive, well cast as the young Ip Man. In the film, which also features Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao (but no Jacky Chan), To actually has a couple of fight scenes with the real Ip Chun, Ip Man's oldest son, now 86, not really an actor, but a serious scene stealer. (So agile: here is proof that martial arts may keep you young. I can't imagine my father, who died at 86, doing any of this physical stuff at that age.) Ip Chun was in fact Dennis To's actual sifu for eight years. These scenes made me want to travel to early 20th century Hong Kong in a kind of dreamy nostalgia. Was this a previous life of mine?

One of the interesting things about Wing Chun is that it was developed by a woman, at least according to Ip Man; in the film, the kung fu academy Ip Man is attending includes a lot of hot shot girls, leading to the plot's tragic love triangle. Don't know how much is factual, but it was a good plot and an interesting introduction to this martial art and the culture of kung fu studies. Dennis seems to be channeling Bruce Lee in his attitude toward his work:

"I hope to spread Chinese Kung Fu around the world (through his films). In a way, I do feel like I'm representing the Chinese, just like Bruce Lee did," he said. "Someone who isn't Chinese can practice Kung Fu and even be good at it, but they can never be as authentic.** Kung Fu is one of the most precious things in Chinese culture."

As for me, I am too old and busy with a job to do much more than some qigong practice and meditation (and watch a lot of kung fu film); maybe when I retire I can concentrate on some tai chi chuan, and I would love to learn some basic tai chi sword, even bagua. But I will always be a beginner and inauthentic. (And sometimes I see Westerners practicing these arts and they look a little silly, like hippos doing ballet; it gives one pause.) My interest in these martial arts came from my deepening interest in Chinese culture in general. So if as To says, kung fu is a precious element in the culture, it at least deserves some consideration and study, like brush painting, tea and the Tao Te ching. To is certainly a new kid on the scene and has lots of time to develop; I'll always be an old kid.

**I used to work with a guy, one of the hundred names, who was a Wing Chun student. He was compact and wiry, a little shy and modest. But I always sensed a strange strong power radiating from him. Like it would be best to have him on my side in a fight.

Friday, September 03, 2010

As I have mentioned before, one of the delights of foreign films can be the subtitles.

Here's a clip from Song Il-Guk's drama, The Kingdom of the Winds, the one where he plays his own grandson (i.e., Jumong's grandson); the great subtitle is at 15 seconds in.

Now I know how to say "Arrrrggggghhhh" in Korean. Otherwise I would never have understood this scene!

And above, at right, like grandfather, like grandson.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Rushed to work yesterday but still found time to stop along the freeway and smell this rainbow. I thought I took this photo this morning, but as "faint ink is better than the best memory," my journal verifies it was yesterday. But the feeling remained today, when I also rushed extra early to work to meet an important deadline.

Which I did, and so felt justified to take a longer lunch to run in to Chinatown to pick up a movie my vendor called me about earlier this week, the prequel to Donnie Yen's Ip Man series. I also wanted to buy a nice lei for a coworker who is moving on, so I captured two birds in one cage. The lei vendor gave me a handful of fragrant white ginger flowers as she was packing the lei. "It's hot today, these will make you feel cool." I love Hawaii.

At the video store the vendor's aunty brought out a bag with my name on it. The Ip Man movie was there but also several other series and films she knew I would like. Little notes were affixed to the items: "Really Good, Hard to Find." "Ching Dynasty, Kung Fu."

"Got any Korean drama," I asked. She pointed to a couple of big boxes along the wall. Ah, the new drug of choice. How could I resist "Damo," the undercover lady detective of 17th century Korea with "dazzling special effects, breathtaking cinematography and mystical martial arts scenes." The Mma Ramotswe of Silla.

"I spent the summer with Jumong and Emperor of the Sea," I told aunty, who then plucked "The Divine Hero: A Man Called God" from a shelf. "You'll want this!" she grinned. Song Il-Guk as a contemporary Korean Central Intelligence agent. I prefer the historical stuff, but this was partly filmed in Hawaii, perhaps why it is readily available. No swords, horses or ponytails here, but who could resist the "new body" of SIG, looking like James Bond meets Tony Jaa.

So my new haul, with a huge "baek-log" of Korean drama, complicated my decision to invest time in Condor Hero or even House, M.D. Season 6. I wanted to kick back with something short and sweet, after the rushed deadlines and exhaustion of the job that allows me to buy all this stuff. So I avoided the decision making and popped the Netflix movie of the moment in my laptop DVD drive, Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. I've enjoyed Holmes done by Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett....and there have been so many others. Robert Downey Jr. brings a nice credibility to the character in an interesting rendition.

I didn't know that Holmes (from whom the House, M.D. character is derivative) was a martial artist. Downey opens with a scene that is as interesting as any Chinese kung fu duel. I asked the Wizard, a serious Sherlock Holmes scholar, if he really was a boxer. "Sherlock Holmes was EVERYTHING," he said. I later interrupted him to share a choice piece of dialogue: Holmes says to Watson, "Your gift of silence is what makes you an invaluable companion." The Wizard just gave me a dour "duh" kind of look.

I was dreading coming back home tonight, despite the morning rainbow, because the tree trimmers were scheduled to be at it again. The butchery wasn't as bad as I expected, and we are far from Sherlock Holmes's industrial revolution London where there was, at least in this movie, a serious lack of anything green, like a tree. It almost seemed black and white, a set full of chains and machines and slaughterhouses, a dark occult plot and serious sewage. But, a great script, good acting, and more action and special effects than Basil or Jeremy brought to the table. I've recommended it to the Wizard, not a big movie buff. But he doesn't want to talk about it. He can take his time. The Netflix mailing is hardly urgent, and I've got plenty of other stuff to entertain me.