Kpop: Guilty Pleasures (or Why It’s Okay to Like Big Bang)

My history with kpop (aka Korean pop music, for those of you new around here) is short and full of 180s. The group that drew me in (Super Junior) is no longer a group I pay much attention to (save one or two of its’ members). The music I used to listen to (by SJ, ss501 and others) changed from the straight up boy band sounds (akin to Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC). I’ve only been a fan of kpop since October of 2011 (just over a year at the time of writing this entry) and the change from the generic boy band sounds to what I like now was a gradual process. If I took some time, I could probably even tell you when things changed, but that’s way more effort than I’m willing to expend.

It really started when I, for whatever reason, started listening to a group called CN Blue. The group is made up of four idols (popstars) who play their own instruments, but are in many ways just like the rest of the boy bands out there. What sets them apart, aside from the fact that they’re an actual band, is that their music isn’t just limited to four voices singing in unison most of the time. Once I realized how much I liked CN Blue, the more I couldn’t go back to the groups where every song sounds the same (I’m only exaggerating a little). I do want to say that there’s nothing wrong with liking boybands and the pop music they present. It was a nice gateway drug for me and I have no regrets. It was just time for me to move on.

And that moving on eventually led me to Big Bang. But first I need to back up a little. When I discovered that kpop existed, everyone was into Big Bang. They were this annoying group with this guy who had teal hair and I was having none of it. I ignored posts about them, I decided that I would never like this group and … well, that should’ve been a sign. But I ignored it. It wasn’t until the spring of this year (after my friend H discovered the wonders if Running Man) that I began to fall under the spell of Big Bang.

I could talk to you about how attractive some of the members are (and they are). I could discuss how much I love their music (a lot). I could even talk about how ridiculous the shows they’ve been on (as a group, in pairs or by themselves) have been. But I won’t. Instead I’ll tell you that I refused to like them. Even after watching their two (hilarious) episodes on Running Man, I refused. I don’t like them, I said. They’re kind of cute, but that’s it. I’ll tell you how I started waiting IRIS (and not-very-good-though-everyone-loves-it-but-me kdrama) not because of Big Bang’s rapper, TOP (no, really, are you saying you don’t believe me?) but because I wanted to watch it since everyone was talking about how awesome it was (it wasn’t, I can’t even bring myself to review it).

And then I can tell you that the true downward slide began when I started listening to Kang Dae Sung (aka Daesung aka my favorite person in Big Bang).  There’s something incredible about his voice. I can usually pick out his part in Big Bang songs, but I love his solo stuff the best (I want him to release a solo album, please). It was his newest song, Wings, that really won me over. It was the beginning of the end. I’ve come a long way. I own some Big Bang albums, I’m waiting for some DVDs and I have no regrets (again). They’re not really a guilty pleasure anymore (as they were when I started writing this entry over 6 months ago. Mostly they’re my favorite kpop group.

Enjoy Daesung singing Wings:

Kdrama Review: Rooftop Prince

Micky as Lee Gak and Han Ji Min as Park Ha

What do you do when four strange men, dressed in historic Joseon era garb magically show up in your rooftop flat? The short answer is that you freak out. The long answer is that you get a pretty hilarious drama which deals with all sorts of issues, include falling in love with someone 400 years older than you and some pretty hilarious scenes where those four strange men try to adapt to 2012. You also get a lot of heartache and frustration, as well as some good drama. Because not only is Rooftop Prince (get it?) a time traveling historical fusion drama, it’s also a family drama because the Joseon era princes is a dead ringer for a missing heir. If it sounds like a lot to handle, it’s mostly not.

But I will warn you, before you put the effort into watching the show (on DramaFever), the ending has some issues. They try to make it work, but time travel dramas are hard and usually end in tears and Rooftop Prince is no exception. But, in spite of the less than satisfactory ending I really quite like the show.  Most of the 20 episodes tend to balance between the drama and the comedy, with some working better than others. It helps, of course, that in this case, it was well done (for the most part).

Do Chi San, Woo Yong Sul and Song Man Bo.

The prince I’ve mentioned, Lee Gak (as well as his look-alike, Tae Yong), is played by JYJ singer Micky (real name: Park Yoochun). I was actually pretty surprised by his acting, as what I’d read wasn’t really appealing. But this drama looked entertaining enough to give it a go and Micky did a pretty decent job. The other half of the lead couple is Park Ha, played by Han Ji Min. Park Ha is an aspiring business woman (she wants to open her own shop) and it’s her apartment that those four men appear in. Lee Gak brings with him Lee Min Ho (the younger) as Song Man Bo (advisor to Lee Gak), Cho Woo Shik as Do Chi San (eunuch) and Jung Suk Won as Woo Young Sul (bodyguard). It’s these three characters that really make the drama a lot of fun.

Their, and Lee Gak’s, exploits as they learn about modern culture are priceless and mostly hilarious. It is also their inability to lose some of their Joseon era habits that also causes much amusement for the audience (and Park Ha, though also some embarrassment). But the drama isn’t just the boys and their attempts to fit into 2012. There’s the drama to contend with.

Prince Lee Gak ends up pretending to be Tae Yong, a rather rich young man, whose grandmother wishes for him to inherit her company. There’s also sorts of drama involving Tae Yong and his cousin (played by Lee Tae Sung). Unfortunately this is the weakest part of the drama. It’s not bad, not really, but the drama tends to dwell a little bit too much on the business side of the story  for my liking. That being said, the plot thickens when we learn secrets about Park Ha’s background and that Tae Yong’s former love interest (played extremely effectively by Jung Yoo Mi) may or may not be related to Park Ha herself. The show twists characters around so that sometimes it’s hard to hate them as much as you should.

And that’s just a taste of what happens in the modern part of the drama. There’s also the whole Joseon era stuff that Lee Gak and his three retainers escaped from. In their world, the Crown Princess has been murdered — and to solve that murder the four men travel through time. We’re treated to flashbacks where we slowly realize that not only is Lee Gak a dead ringer for Tae Yong, but Park Ha and Jung Yo Mi’s character, Hong Sa Na are dead ringers for characters in Joseon. I won’t tell you who, because that would spoil the fun. Suffice to say that the answers to the murder are both note quite as satisfying as one would like and satisfying in that at least we got a conclusion.

Obviously there’s much more to this drama, since it is 20 episodes. Not everything works, some of it fails spectacularly. But as someone who’s watched some pretty bad dramas, Rooftop Prince holds it’s own. I might not want to watch it again, but I did enjoy watching it. I recommend it, because it’s fun and cute — just don’t think too hard about the ending and you’ll be fine. And, of course, why pass up the opportunity to watch these guys in action?  They really are just as fun as they look.

Choi Woo Shik (Do Chi San), Lee Min Ho (Song Man Bo), Micky (Lee Gak) and Jung Suk Won (Woo Yong Sul)

not quite book review(s)

I’ve recently read three books related to people growing up in China during (at least in part) the Cultural Revolution. Two of the books were biographies, the third was a more general book on China (modern and past). I want to talk briefly about each of the three books first, before talking about all three of them together.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang

ff107c7b7e3c446597731585341444341587343This is more than just Jung Chang’s biography. The book is actually about three women, Chang’s grandmother (who lived in pre-Communist China), her mother (a CCP party member) and herself (a member, if briefly, of the Red Guard). Each of the three women’s stories are, in many ways separate as they all lived in very different worlds, while all still living in China. Chang’s grandmother was born and grew up, at least for a time, in the world of bound feet and royalty.  Her mother, on the other hand, grew up during the Japanese occupation of China and grew to support communism under Mao (though not in the end) and Chang was born in the midst of Mao’s ruling and bought (again, for a time) into the whole Red Guard/CCP world. All three women’s lives were entangled with Communism, rules and, of course, each other. The book is long, but both inspiring and heartbreaking (and very revealing, at least to me).

China In Ten Words by Yu Hua (translated by Allan H. Barr)

Yu’s book is ten sections about ten different words he finds that describe and encompass China. He fills each section with0307379353.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_ anecdotes about his life and people he knows, along with his evidence (I can’t think of a better word) to explain why he choose the ten words (which are: people, leader, reading, writing, Lu Xun, revolution, disparity, grassroots, copycat and bamboozle). He talks about growing up (his parents were doctors) and being a dentist (of a sort) before figuring out what he really wanted to do, which was write. My favorite parts, aside from his descriptions of his childhood, were the ways he tied writing (and his love of writing) into each of the ten words. China In Ten Words isn’t a long book, it’s not a detailed history nor a focused study on “modern” China. But it’s a richly written portrait of the country. If you only read one book on China, I’d recommend this one.

Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-li Jiang

0060275855.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Jiang’s biography is geared toward young adult readers, but is in no way restricted to that age group. Red Scarf Girl is Jiang’s coming of age story — during the Cultural Revolution. While in the previous two books, the Cultural Revolution is part of a larger story (or stories) being told, it is the story in Jiang’s book. The writing style is easy to understand for such a complicated subject, which makes it ideal for teens not yet ready for more heady stuff. That being said, Jiang doesn’t hold back and talks about everything she experienced as the daughter of a ‘black’ family (her grandfather was considered a landlord, which was a very bad thing in Communist China, even though he was long dead before Jiang was born). She talks about her friends and family — and how they were directly impacted by their poor standing in the Communist party.

It was only when I was halfway through Red Scarf Girl that I realized something about all three of these books. Though each of the authors grew up during the Cultural Revolution, their stories were quite different. With Red Scarf Girl and Wild Swans you have two extremes. Chang’s parents were relatively high up (especially her father) in the CCP and she lived, for most of her youth, in a compound and had no real knowledge of the famine (which came before the Cultural Revolution). She was sheltered from the worst and was a mostly willing participant in the Red Guard. Compared to Jiang in Red Scarf Girl who suffers at the hands of her classmates (her parents at the hands of the Red Guard and other Party members). Jiang, in the end, courageously picks her family over the Red Guard and the CCP. Then you have Yu’s China In Ten Words were he experiences some of the worst (his family, though doctors, were not rich, but at the same time they managed to take care of themselves), but not completely. His story falls somewhere in the middle.

That’s not to say that one of these authors is more qualified to tell the story than the others or that Chang’s story is better or worse than Jiang’s or Yu’s. What struck me was how I could read three different books about similar periods in China’s history and get three very different stories. People tend to view those who aren’t similar to themselves as vastly different and all the same. As I’ve gotten more and more interested in Asian culture/history (as a whole) and Chinese culture/history (specifically), I’ve begun to realize just how little I actually know (about the world, about Asia and about China in particular). These three books, along with the others on China that I’ve read, have helped me learn and grow.

But I think the thing I really love is the idea that there are so many stories to be told — not just these, but hundreds of millions more. There are stories about the Cultural Revolution, about the famine, about life in modern China that are just waiting to be told — that need to be told. And to be able to read three different books, written at different times and to find both similarities and profound differences is pretty enlightening (and kind of awesome).

Books that make me think are the best books.

Back after a long absence.

Mao-The-Real-StoryI know, it’s been a while, but I’m back. I’ve scheduled a few posts that I’d written, but not posted, so keep an eye out for those over the next week or so. I do want to try to keep posting here regularly, so here’s my attempt at trying this again. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep this up.

Currently reading: Mao: The Real Story by Alexander Pantsov and Steven I. Levine

I’m not very far into it, maybe 30 pages or so, but it’s pretty good. I photoed copied the pronunciation guide from the beginning of the book because I kept flipping back as I was reading. This’ll save both time and the book itself (I also, of course, made a copy for H, who is reading the book as well).

Music I’ve been listening to: Big Bang, 乔任梁 (Kimi Qiao), Céu, 方大同 (Khalil Fong), 周定緯 (Judy Chou), 許仁杰 (Stanly Hsu) and 潘裕文 (Pan Yu Wen).

It’s mostly Mandopop, with a couple others stuck in there. I’m awfully predictable.

What I’m watching: Time Between Dog and Wolf (kdama), Nice Guy (kdrama) and rewatching Story of a Man/A Man’s Story (kdrama). I’ve also watched The Hobbit (it was okay and yes, it was just okay).

And now, some links of note:

Happy Holidays, everyone!