Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Jeonju, and a trio of Korean films

Jeonju bibimbap

Fourteen hours in a jet--even a jumbo--is no joke. Thankfully the video screens have a wider range of entertainment--not just your usual multiplex fare (The Pursuit of Happyness, Charlotte's Web) but a few classics (Casablanca, Stagecoach). Intelligent and time-conscious man that I am, I instead spent the hours practicing and cheating my way through electronic mini-golf (I'm a world champion now, and able to break into the game's secret tenth level).

Oh, and there were pop Korean films--hits, I presume. Something called Hearty Paws (I can't find it on imdb) is as if Koreda's Nobody Knows had humped Benjie and produced puppies (orphaned kids and a dog! Who can resist?). It has nothing of Kore-eda's understated mis-en-scene or dispassionate eye, though the child actors were good though (there's a fine scene in a police station where the little girl asks the boy "can you remember my name?" hoping someday they might meet again), and it's interesting to see that Korean films are not averse to showing children or dogs in deadly peril (a chld outrunning a dog, however, is beyond the pale).

Kim Yong-hwa's 200 pounds beauty (they really need to get better translators) has a brilliant premise--an overweight singer named Hanna (Kim Ah-jung, in a not very convincing fat suit) who dubs a famous pop star also doubles as a phone sex worker; when she recognizes the voice of a plastic surgeon as one of her clients, she blackmails him into producing his masterpiece--a slimmer version of herself, so 'natural' (the word is loaded with meaning in this film) a beauty no one can tell she's phony (another loaded word).

Too bad the movie fails to follow up on the ingenious setup--Hanna stays mostly sweet and uninteresting; she fails to identify herself to her father, and she disappoints her best friend on occasion, but those are sins of omission, of cowardice, than anything more active or malevolent. The film seems more interested in pleading for plastic surgery to make deformed or overweight people feel better about themselves--noble enough topic, I suppose, but that's about it--than in being a real meditation on the evils of skin deep beauty.

That said, Kim Ah-jung without the fat suit is stunning. Korean women are beautiful, but she has some kind of lost-waif quality that is electrifying on the screen (even the tiny one I was using). There's something dramatic, even tragic about her expression that makes you feel protective; one of the few actresses I know who can inspire this kind of reaction was the young Sandy Dennis.

Easily the best of the lot was Kim Sang Woo's Seducing Mr. Perfect, a romantic comedy about an assistant who falls in love with her superhandsome boss that for once is funny and sexy. What is it Hollywood's missing that other countries--and this is a prime example--seem to have in spades? It could be that I'm not overfamiliar with these faces, that they're fresh as strawberries to my rom-com strained eyes, that the actors have genuine chemistry together, that the writer and director cook up reasonably clever gags for them to try out on each other. Working Girls is the obvious model (though the only time Griffith really turned me on was way back in Night Moves), but I enjoyed this more. It seems lighter on its feet, less inhibited, more willing to take risks and look silly. Daniel Henney is the heartthrob, and he looks suitably stiff and solemn (he spends a lot of the movie without his shirt on, which irks me no end--what is it with these hairless men who look like flatchested girls that women demand them in movies?); at his best, he's practically a Mr. Darcy (Austen being the true ancestor of this oldest of genres). As June, Eom Jong-hwa reminds me of the best qualities of Vilma Santos, or Santos if she wasn't so damned afraid to take risks--a pretty girl who retains your sympathies no matter how many pratfalls she has or schemes she hatches.

Maybe one more thing these filmmakers have over their doddering Hollywood counterparts is a budget small enough that they need to be more inventive. June at one point has a nightmare where all the men in her life tell her just what's wrong with her; later, when she asks her boss to help her win her boyfriend back, we see him hovering over their dates, and inventive staging and camerawork and editing make it clear that he's a figment of her imagination. Surprisingly sophisticated stuff, considering that this is just another rom-com.

Arrived at Seoul at 4 pm. Took a four-hour bus. Arrived at Jeonju's Core Hotel at ten pm. Not a lot of places open for dinner, but I found an alleyway with a street stall that fried up peppers, potatoes, chicken parts, and squid tentacles; bought a thousand wons' (less than a dollar) worth. Crisp and hot, and good.

Walked into a hole in the wall, the best kind, where the counters are stainless steel cafeteria style, the tables and chairs simple wood furniture and the people totally incapable of speaking a word of English. I knew only one word--bibimbap. A big bowl of hot steamed rice with sliced up carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, mushrooms, bellflower root, spinach, soybean sprouts, bracken fern roots (I'm guessing they're the dark brown shoots I found in the bowl), all seasoned with a bright red hot chili paste, topped with crisp fresh lettuce and a sunny-yolked fried egg.

There's beef in there somewhere, I can taste it, but it's not a major component; I'm guessing this was poor man's fare, rice and a little beef and whatever a farmer could pull out of the ground and slice up to add to the meal. Following the big dish was a constellation of little dishes, including the ubiquitous kimchi, pickled cabbage, hot broth with scallions, and bright yellow pickled radishes that were blessedly sweet and cool.

I've tried this dish in Korean restaurants in Manila and even the US (and lemme tell you, the Manila restaurants were better), but it turns out I haven't really tried it, not this way, and Jeonju is famous for this. Not a lot of meat, but huge, huge flavor, and filling, all for three thousand wons--less than three dollars.

Took a spoon with a looong handle out of a box and started mxing it, as I've seen Koreans do. Apparently I was doing it wrong, or too slowly: the girl took my spoon away and did it for me, scooping the contents of the bowl and mashing it down in circular motions with the spoon's bowl. I asked for tea; the girl pointed to a hot water thermos. I asked for a tea bag; she pointed to a jar full of brown powder. When I spooned it into my cup, it turned out to be coffee. Oh, well.

Walked out very happy; just before I left, two police officers came in and sat down and had what I had. Well, if Jeonju's Finest isn't a good enough recommendation of the place, I don't know what is. Thank god they didn't arrest me for being a terrorist.


Anonymous said...

전주 Jeonju is really famous for that bibimpap.

비빔 bibim by the way means "mix(ed)"

so one could also have 비빔냉면 -> mixed cold noodles


Noel Vera said...

From what I heard. People recommended places where they thought the bibimbap was best, but I could never afford (nor did I have the time) to make the trip. Ah, someday, maybe...