Tuesday, September 29, 2009

First volumes of Sarasah, Ooku: The Inner Chambers

It’s been a while since I’ve written about any manga or manhwa, except for the volumes I covered briefly in my summer summary, so here are the first volumes of two new series from Yen Press and Viz.

Sarasah is written and illustrated by Ryu Ryang and licensed in English by Yen Press. This manhwa tells the story of an obsessive, love-struck teenager named Ji-Hae, whose unrestrained and u
nwanted attentions kind of push the crazy-stalker envelope. The real story begins, however, on the day the disgusted object of her unbridled affection, a callous pretty boy named Seung-Hyu, accidentally pushes her down a flight of stairs in a careless attempt to brush her off. When some of the guardians of the afterlife (sorry, I don’t know a better way to describe these characters) find Ji-Hae’s spirit hovering between the realms of life and death, they’re not quite sure what to do with her. They’re convinced it’s not yet her time to die, but they don’t know what she’s doing there. On hearing her story, however, they become interested, and decide to send her back in time to the Shilla dynasty, when both she and Seung-Hyu lived as previous incarnations of themselves. And so Ji-Hae embarks on a time-traveling, body-snatching, cross-dressing journey in an attempt to fix whatever went wrong between the two of them the first time around. But it’s not going to be nearly as easy as she thought, as complication after complication ensues.

Ok, so this was a total impulse buy for me. I was browsing through the aisles of Barnes and Noble, with a brand new gift card burning a hole in my pocket, when I saw this title and just decided to buy it on the spot. I’d never heard of the series or the author, but the story looked unusual and interesting, and I’m always keen to try new manhwa. Since purchasing it, I’ve read a lot of negative reviews of this volume from various b
loggers. They don’t like the main character, they’re uncomfortable with her crazy obsession with Seung-Hyu, they don’t like the way she’s drawn, etc. I can definitely understand these sentiments (Ji-Hae is kind a of tough pill to swallow, especially in the first chapter), but I was actually pleasantly surprised by this volume as a whole. Yes, Ji-Hae has some serious issues, but she’s young and has lots of room to grow, which I’m hoping will happen over the course of her journey. If she undergoes no character development at all that could be a deal-breaker for the series, but if not it’ll be really interesting to see. Judging from the artwork and overall execution, this is definitely a more juvenile series. Yet the story is intriguing enough that I’m anxious to see where it goes next. So although volume one of Sarasah was kind of a mixed bag, the positive elements outweighed the negative ones for me. I think this series has potential.

Unlike with Sarasah, the release of the first volume of Ooku: The Inner Chambers was something I had looked forward to for months in advance. There had been a lot of buzz in the manga blogging sphere about the licensing of this new, award-winning manga from legendary author Fumi Yoshinaga (creator of Antique Bakery and Flower of Life), and I was kind of caught up in the anticipation. The word “Ooku” in the title (pronounced OH-ku, not oo-ku) refers to the “inner chambers” of the shogun’s palace, where his harem resided and where no man but him could enter. In this series, Yoshinaga creates an intriguing alternate version of Edo Japan, in which a noxious plague has wiped out most of the male population, leaving the women to ass
ume the positions of power traditionally held by men. The shogun is a woman, therefore, and the Inner Chambers are filled with handsome men. The first volume focuses on a handsome young man named Yunoshin who enters the Inner Chambers in order to provide for his family but soon finds that for all its opulence and luxury the Inner Chambers can be a dangerous and lonely place. Towards the end of volume one, the narration shifts to focus more on Yoshimune, the new female shogun who seeks to challenge established rules and question the order of this new society.

While I wasn’t as completely blown away by Ooku as I expected to be, plotwise, I found the execution and artwork intriguing enough to keep me interested in future volumes. It certainly is a very ambitious work, compared to a lot of other manga I read, and there’s a lot there to draw one in. I especially liked the way Yoshinaga seemlessly incorporated such a complete and total gender reversal into her alternative Edo-verse: the women holding all politically significant offices and the men treated for the most part as sexual objects to be bought and sold. The artwork was also quite stunning – not as ornate and extravagant as Bride of the Water God by a long shot – but very impressive in its own way nonetheless. Yet although the premise was fascinating, the dialogue compelling, and the artwork brilliant, the character of Yunoshin felt very bland, kind of neutralizing my enjoyment of much of the first volume. Shogun Yoshimune, however, was very interesting, and I’m quite pleased that it looks like we’ll be seeing much more of her in the future. Overall, volume one of Ooku gave me a lot to think about, and I’ll definitely be checking out volume two, even though it wasn’t quite what I expected.

One last note about Ooku: the translation was pretty terrible. I wouldn’t expect it from such a new edition, but it was bad. The original was written in an archaic form of Japanese, and the translators tried to preserve the effect by throwing in lots of Shakespearian words and expressions with very unnatural, awkward results. Also, with the emphasis on gender reversal and the exploration of feudal sexual politics, this was definitely a more - er - adult manga than what I usually read. And I don’t have a problem with that, per se, the dialogue of Ooku had way more casual, offhand references to a man’s “seed” than should be found in any one volume of historical manga, in my opinion.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Tamna the Island, episodes 1-10

Oooh, I have such unabashed puppy love for this currently airing MBC drama. It’s not a life-altering, “forever” kind of love – more like just a very serious crush. Which is why it’s such a gosh-darn shame that, in light of the show’s consistently poor ratings, its broadcasting network decided to cut it down from its originally planned 20 episodes to 16. What that means is that because the final 10 episodes had fo0r the most part already been shot, they had to be cut down into a mere six. Needless to say, fans are pissed at the prospect of watching a heavily edited and significantly reduced second half of a series in which they’ve already become emotionally invested. So much of the story must get lost in the condensing of ten hours of material into six! And so, in spite of my love for this drama, I stopped watching after episode ten (the last episode to be aired in its original, unedited form.) I feel that it would be better to wait for the full version (which will eventually air in other countries and be released on DVD) than to watch a chopped-up, mutilated version of it now. And so to reconcile myself with the idea of going completely cold turkey on this drama (for now at least), I decided to write this post all about how freakin’ adorable it is.

Tamna the Island (also known as “Shipwrecked!” or “Tempted Again”) is based on an ongoing soonjung manhwa of the same name and takes place during the Joseon era on an island province called Tamna (present day Jeju Island). Since Tamna historically has a kind of niche culture distinct from mainland Joseon society, a brief explanation ought to precede any discussion of this drama. 17th-century Tamna was kind of like the sticks of Joseon: a remote, uncivilized, backwater region. Nevertheless, the island was valued (and heavily taxed) by the government for its natural resources, most of which came from the sea. In a kind of reversal of traditional gender roles, the women of the island dove for abalone while the men stayed home and managed the households. The female divers, who performed difficult and undesirable work, were not allowed to leave Tamna, and were indentured to the island for life. Also, because Westerners were about as common in Tamna as aliens, any who appeared there were generally viewed as freaks and treated as criminals, even to the point of being arrested, sent to the capital, and executed. One last important aspect of 17th-century Tamna is that it was the place where political offenders were exiled by the mainland government in much the same way criminals of the British Empire were sent to Australia. People who watch a lot of sageuk (period) dramas should recognize this practice. (Remember how Jang-Geum was banished there on a trumpted up charge in Dae Jang Geum?)

And so, with the stage thus set, the drama tells the story of an English castaway who washes ashore on Tamna. Fortunately for young William, he is found and hidden by a young female diver named Jang Beo-Jin. Despite the language and cultural barrier, the two form a very sweet and innocent friendship. Around the same time, an arrogant and scholarly young noble man named Park Kyu arrives from Han Yang (the capital), having been recently exiled to Tamna, and is given to the care of Beo-Jin’s mother, the head diver of the village. The story of how these three characters collide and come together against the odds in 17th-century Tamna provides for plenty of humor and drama in this unique and fun series.
Pierre Deporte (Korean name Hwang Chan-Bin) as William. Honestly, this guy’s acting takes a lot of getting used to, and even then can be accepted only with a huge grain of salt. And yet I’m prepared to do all this and more, because I like the character so much. He’s a little hard to take at firs, what with his fake blonde hair and even faker English, but as soon as the character starts “learning” Korean (the actor’s pretty fluent) it gets so much better. William may not be the brightest bulb in the box, but he has a sweet, innocent charm about him that completely won me over. It’s fun to watch him and Beo-Jin together because even though they’re a kind of oddly matched pair, they’re basically each other’s first loves, and it really is quite sweet. Plus, it’s hard for me to ignore the fact that this is quite possibly the first time a White person has ever been portrayed in such a positive light in a drama, not to mention taken on a leading role. The drama does a great job, I thing, of incorporating his character in a way that’s both sensitive and intriguing, in spite of the bad hair and accent. For instance, look at this bit of dialogue from episode 5, in which William discusses with his sailor friend a misunderstanding that occurred between him and Park Gyu:
William: Park Gyu… He looked at me like I was a bad person. I think he misunderstood something. I was just trying to save her-
Yan: Don’t expect these people to understand you. You’re just a freak to them.
William: Why do they hate me?
Yan: Joseon has always been a closed country. The locals are afraid of foreigners and try to kill them.
William: I don’t understand. Beo-Jin isn’t like that.
Yan: Yeah, well, she’s a weird one.
William: No, she’s not strange.
Yan: Don’t get too attatched. Sooner or later you’ll have to leave this place.

Seo Woo as Jang Beo-Jin. I don’t have a whole lot to say about the actress, except that she does a great job of bringing a nice, youthful energy to her character without being annoyingly over-spunky or cutesy. Beo-Jin has a wonderfully, open, straightforward, and caring nature that leads her to instantly and wholeheartedly accept William as a basically good person, and to defend him against those who might reject him for being different. I guess she knows how it feels to be different as well. As an unskilled, low-level diver indentured to the island for life, she’s somewhat of a black sheep in her village. She’s always dreamed of leaving Tamna, and in a way William opens up for her the possibility of a world beyond the island’s shores.

Im Ju-Hwan as Park Gyu. Ok, I like the rest of the cast, but I absolutely love Im Ju-Hwan as Park Gyu. I wasn’t really expecting much from this relatively inexperienced model-turned-actor, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s the real standout of the drama. He may be askinny guy with delicate features, but the dude’s got this beautifully deep, manly voice, and totally OWNS his character. As the city-reared scholar-noble, he’s initially dismayed to find himself exiled to the backwaters of Tamna at the beginning of the drama and entrusted to the care of lowly peasants who don’t show him the respect he so obviously deserves! It’s hilarious, really. Nobody really knows the details of his crime, but there’s a persistent rumor that it has something to do with harassing women. Ha! Of course, there’s more to him than initially meets the eye, and we eventually learn (spoiler alert) that he’s actually an undercover official sent to Tamna by the government on a secret mission. Although initially unimpressed with the uncivilized island society and the uncouth Beo-Jin, he slowly comes to respect, admire, and even love both. Im Ju-Hwan is so awesome in this role. He makes the character endearing and funny, but also anchors it with some very deeply felt, vulnerable moments; when he tears up on screen it’s so good I just want to die. You can bet your bottom dollar that if Im Ju-Hwan appears in another drama in the future I’ll be all over it like white on rice.

Before I go any further, I have to say that yes, this drama does feature two guys falling for the same girl, but there’s so much else going on, and each individual relationship between these three people is so distinct and well-developed, and intriguing, that what romantic conflict there is never feel clichéd or contrived or cheap. I just think this drama’s got a whole heck of a lot going for it. Being based on a long-running manhwa gives it extensive source material to work with, and the story’s been really well adapted by the production team. (There are some other manga/manhwa-turned-dramas where this has not been the case. Boys Over Flowers springs directly to mind.) The Tamna setting also differentiates the drama from other fusion sageuks out there and allows for a fresh and unique kind of story. The scenery is breathtaking, and as for the music, this is the first OST I’ve been interested in for a while. It just baffles me that this drama’s been getting such poor ratings. Oh well. I’m really impatient to watch the second part of the series, but I’ve liked the first ten episodes too much to feel ok about watching a condensed version of the last ten. Sometimes it’s the little moments that really make a drama worthwhile, and I’m afraid those are the ones that will get lost in the re-editing. So I’ll just wait. Yet in spite of the fiasco MBC’s caused in this drama’s run, I’m still glad I tuned in for the first half. I enjoyed it that much.

Some music from the soundtrack:

이어사나 (Ending Theme) - Jane Park

Your Tears (Main Theme) - Jane Park

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

True Blood 2.12 "Beyond Here Lies Nothin' "

The above picture shows the cameo appearance of Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, in the season two finale of "True Blood", the HBO show based on said novels. Since I've been watching this show pretty religiously all summer, I just wanted to put in my two cents about the season finale. I found this episode to be a rather lackluster conclusion to what was nevertheless a really great sophomore season. If the episode itself was a bit of a let down, it was probably due largely to the fact that my expectations were so high, and in any case there certainly were plenty of intriguing hints/cliffhangers to invest people (and me) in the wait for season three.

The first half of the episode focused on the conclusion of the Maryann conflict, and culminated in her fi
nal defeat at the hands of Bill, Sam, and Sookie. With Sam’s shapeshifting abilities, Sookie’s mysterious and unreliable supernatural powers, a deeper understanding of what a maenad really is, and a little bit of clever trickery, the three are able to finally defeat her and thereby save the good people of Bon Temps from themselves. I must say, I’m going to miss Maryann. Or rather, I’m going to miss Michelle Forbes, who always played her with wickedly irresistible charm and a brilliant touch of craziness. On the other hand, the time had come for her to die; her character was this season’s big “undefeatable” adversary, so at the end of the season she had to be defeated of course.

The second half of the episode shows the aftermath Maryann’s mayhem and also leads into several storylines for season three. Most of the residents of Bon Temps are in denial about what happened, while Jason and Andy congratulate themselves on being heroes (although t
hey didn’t really do anything but get possessed themselves, but hey, A for effort boys!) The one person who really can’t handle the truth about what he did under the influence of Maryann is Eggs, who completely loses it and approaches Andy with the knife he used on Daphne and others. Jason witnesses the encounter, freaks out, and shoots Eggs in the back of the head before running off. I know, I didn’t see that one coming either. Meanwhile, Sam visits his adoptive parents, the queen warns Eric (quite forcefully) not to let Bill find out too much about the blood cartel, Hoyt seeks Jessica’s forgiveness while a hurt and angry Jessica seeks out victims, and Bill proposes to Sookie before being kidnapped by a mysterious attacker. Yup, this all happens in the second half of the episode.

I have to admit that this finale left me slightly underwhelmed. I definitely expected more to come of the Sophie-Anne storyline, especially since they decided to introduce the queen so much earlier in the story than she ever appears in the books. I also had a huge problem with Bill’s big, romantic proposal to Sookie, and with her readiness (after a moment of hesitation) to accept it. I’m really trying not to compare the show to the books too much, but this scene just felt very wrong to me. I have a hard time believing that Sookie would ever really entertain the idea of marriage to Bill, especially since their relationship has such a glaringly obvious expiration date (no matter how much they don’t want to admit it.) Still, I’m interested to see how this will play out next season, because I don’t think it will ever happen. As for Bill’s kidnapper, I have a pretty good idea of who it might be, especially because while the show strays quite far from the events and characterizations of the books each new season generally retains the main conflict of each successive novel.

Overall, I feel that season two was a huge improvement over season one. While I still think that the Bill/Sookie romance is pretty weak, the show has moved away from resting solely on that concept. It’s at its best, I feel, when exploring the politics of the different supernatural communities, and the extended universe of the different characters. And so, all things considered, I’m very excited for next season. I’m hoping, as always, for lots more Eric-Pam-Fangtasia action, and I also read somewhere that there will be Weres next time around, which is super exciting. It’s also a good thing I like Anna Paquin so much because she invariably makes the Bill/Sookie pairing interesting despite all the problems I have with it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Never judge a book (part 2 of 2): The Picture of Dorian Gray

So, last time I wrote about a book that defied my low expectations by being kind of awesome. Unfortunately, that means part two of this post will focus on a book that defied my high expectations by, well, sucking majorly. I’m going to try to refrain from turning this into a long, whiney tirade about how much I hated the book, because that’s just no fun (although I make no promises). Instead, I’ll try to look at how such a great author could take such a great premise and turn it into such an un-grate novel.

I formed a favorable first impression of Oscar Wilde as a child when I read “The Happy Prince” in the Provensen Book of Fairy Tales (whose awesomeness I’ve already discussed), and I never found cause to revise my good opinion of him until now. In addition to “The Happy Prince”, a story that while perhaps a little preachy has at least the redeeming quality of being beautifully tragic, I’ve also enjoyed his plays in the past, specifically An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. His plays are witty, quippy, and endlessly quotable comedies of manners that rarely fail to amuse and generally delight. Wilde also wrote extensive poetry, and was an erstwhile philosopher to boot. Was there anything the guy couldn’t do? Well, write novels, apparently. After finishing the only novel he ever wrote, I can’t help but wish he’s have stuck to what he knew.

The Picture of Dorian Gray tells the story of a wealthy and beautiful young man who sits for a portrait and, on seeing the finished product, makes an impulsive wish that he might remain eternally unchanged, and that the picture might bear the mark of time in his stead. When he discovers that his bold wish has been granted (by the powers that be?) and that he has effectively sold his soul for eternal youth and beauty, he begins a double life of hedonism and excess, with only the portrait to bear the signs of his true physical and spiritual degradation. This sounds like the premise of a great gothic melodrama, right? Unfortunately, Oscar Wilde is not Mary Shelley. His dark tale of corruption still reads, on the surface at least, a lot like his drawing room comedies, with very odd results. I guess you could say that this book was tonally confused.

Yet my problems with The Picture of Dorian Gray don’t stop there. I also found the book to be quite muddled thematically. It appeared in many ways to be a cautionary tale against vanity and pride, except for the fact that the author spends a great deal of the novel waxing poetic about the philosophy of hedonism and self-indulgence. The chronology was also very rough and ready; the book consists of only a few significant evens/conversations interspersed between awkwardly long jumps in time. And perhaps my greatest complaint with the novel is that the main character is seriously underdeveloped. I’d call him one-dimensional, but honestly he’s not even that well defined. Easily swayed by the slightest influence, Dorian Gray has almost no character of his own. Conveniently spared the burden of guilt for his crimes (which the painting also assumes), he is no more capable of being satisfied with his fate than he is of truly repenting his many transgressions.

I think that, given its chronology and character development issues, The Picture of Dorian Gray could still have made a really great short story. It could have been a good novel, perhaps, if only somebody else had written it. Or maybe if Wilde had had a decent editor. As it so happens, Wilde wrote the book on his own as a full-length novel, and I thought it fell pretty flat. Sheesh, what a bummer.

One last little note in conclusion: whatever else I may say about this book, I cannot deny that, like Wilde’s other works, it is very quotable. It is chock full of witty and original remarks ("All crime is vulgar, just as all vulgarity is crime"), but I believe it takes more than clever little turns of phrase to sustain a worthwhile novel.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Never judge a book (part 1 of 2): The Great Gatsby

Question: Why should I never be too hasty to judge a book (by its cover or by anything else)? Two reasons: 1) The Great Gatsby, and 2) that other novel that I will be discussing in part 2 of this post. So contrary to my expectations were these two books as to prompt me to question not only my tastes in literature, but also my estimation of one of my favorite writers. When will I ever learn not to decide if I like a book before I even open it? Probably never. Darn.

Anyways, I’ll talk about The Great Gatsby first, and then about that other novel later. I ended up reading The Great Gatsby sort of by accident; I actually went to the library that day on the hunt for a completely different book. As fate would have it, the book I sought proved to be among the missing at my library, and I had to order it from another town. Unwilling to return home empty-handed, I began to wander aimlessly throughout the shelves in search of some little something to tide me over in the meantime. And that’s how I found myself in the “F” section, staring at a copy of The Great Gatsby. Now I’m a little ashamed to confess that what primarily drew me to the novel was its apparent brevity. I didn’t actually expect to like it or anything (I imagined it would be bland and unengaging), I just thought I’d be able to get through it quickly. I guess the idea was to breeze through it and then feel good about myself for having read a classic. Not very admirable, I’ll admit.

The Great Gatsby recounts the summer of 1922 as told by Nick Carraway, a young man who settles on the North Shore of Long Island and gets caught up in the lives of the wealthy, if somewhat shiftless, society that characterized the time and place. I did struggle, in the beginning, to really get into the novel. Maybe it just went right over my head at first, but it seemed to me to be a lot of random details with very little emotional content or plot. I didn’t especially want to read a book that was all atmosphere, no matter how deftly or brilliantly that atmosphere was captured. It was brilliantly crafted, though. The genius and great discipline of Fitzgerald’s prose shines through practically every sentence, such as this little gem:

Her eyebrows had been plucked and then drawn on again at a more rakish angle, but the efforts of nature toward the restoration of the old alignment gave a blurred air to her face.
As it turns out, I only found the narrative flow to be bland and disjointed in the very beginning, before the “full picture” of the novel began to emerge and all the seemingly random details began to build upon one another to create a frenzied, tragic, and somewhat pathetic climax. I'm having difficulty articulating exactly what I mean, but I guess you could say that it started out slow but ended up being a pretty intense ride.

Anyways, getting back to the setting and atmosphere of the novel for just a moment… I’ve never been to the Hamptons (and I certainly wasn’t there in the ‘20s), but I did, just prior to reading the book, tour the Newport mansion where the 1974 film version was shot. So I already had a full, sensory conception of the backdrop of the novel, which made it that much more of a treat to read. In reading I was drawn in spite of myself into the luxurious-but-not-altogether-savory world of parties, excess, human folly, and human frailty that Fitzgerald captures so well. And while I didn’t necessarily care about the characters ad much as I might do with a more sensationalized novel, I did nevertheless empathize very strongly with them, so real were even their ugliest and most foolish emotions. I suppose I’m still grateful it was a short book, as I don’t think Fitzgerald’s style would sustain a longer novel. Overall, I thoroughly and quite unexpectedly enjoyed The Great Gatsby, a book that turned out to be not at all boring. In part 2, I’ll elaborate on a book that by all rights should have been awesome, but instead turned out to be a total drag.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

“9”, film by Shane Acker finally coming to theaters!

Yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes! Ok, so I’m really excited for this movie. Almost two years ago someone sent me a link to a short (ten minutes) animated film by Shane Acker, entitled 9. I watched it, and was completely blown away. It was sort of like something from a person’s dream – somebody’s dark, bizarre, superawesome and intriguing dream. It was the only short film I’d ever seen that left me wanting much, much more; I felt as if ten minutes were not nearly enough to explore the universe Acker had created. You can image, therefore, how psyched I was to find out that the short was to be made into a feature-length film! And now that film is finally here! And with an amazing, all-star cast too! I’m already overdoing it with the exclamation points, and this is only how I felt before even watching the trailer!

How cool is that? 9 takes place in a sinister, postapocalyptic world where evil and frightening mechanical beasts threaten a group of sentient rag dolls who band together in an attempt to survive and find answers about themselves and the world that was. I was surprised at first that Elijah Wood was voicing 9, but I’ve come around to thinking he might be kind of perfect for the part. He can definitely do the whole earnest, innocent, underdog hero thing (à la Happy Feet, Lord of the Rings, etc) and he’s already done a lot of voice acting. Then we have Christopher Plummer as 1, coming right off his last big voice role with Pixar’s Up. He’s got a sweet voice, and I like it when he does animation, because then I can imagine the guy still looks like Captain von Trapp. I’m kind of neutral on Jennifer Connelly, but her character 7 does look pretty badass. The rest of the cast is pretty star-studded as well, but those three were the ones that jumped out at me.

One of the cool things about this film, aside from it’s unique design, is the fact that it seems to have the best action sequences I’ve ever seen in any animation anywhere. Check out this scene:

Although animated, 9 is not a kid’s movie. It’s dark and weird and features characters who fight what is essentially a losing battle. The beasts in this film are of the same brand of creepy that made the other mother in Coraline such a great villain. Check out this one, the Seamstress:

9 is directed by Shane Acker and produced by Tim Burton. In theaters September 9th. I am so there.