세상에서 가장 무서운 이야기 ° The Scariest Stories in the World

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Pages: 181 . Enjoyment Factor: 4/10 . Ease of Understanding: 5-9/10

I finally finished one of my long-term reading projects. I started reading this collection of scary stories for kids last summer and finished the last story this month. The main reason I finished the book only now is that the subject matter didn’t interest me much. I expected stories about Korean legends of ghosts and mystical beings, but instead got Sherlock Holmes, ghost ships and vampires. Only one story – about a girl who turns into a thousand year old fox and eats her family – was of Korean origin.

I remember having had a lot of difficulties with the book at the beginning. I had to look up a lot of words to understand the stories. Now, almost a year later, the stories are easy reading for me and I enjoyed them more. I bought the book because I thought scary stories would help me acquire a useful new cluster of vocabulary about negative emotions and horrid things. After a few stories I started to remember repeating words and phrases, so it was definitely useful.

개미의 탑 ° Tower of Ants

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Pages: 170 (≈60 in Korean) . Enjoyment Factor: 3/10 . Ease of Understanding: 5/10

Another long-due review. I finished reading the bilingual “Tower of Ants” by Choi In-Ho in February. It’s part of Hollym’s series Modern Korean Short Stories. It tells the story of a man who one day wakes up to find his apartment infested by ants. While he obsessively fights them using various methods, the ants not only continue to take over his apartment, but also his mind.

I like that the book contains two short explanatory texts. By likening the protagonist to the ants in his apartment, the story offers a critical comment on modern society. Just like the ants have evolved into anonymous, specialised labourers whose individual lives count very little, humans might be on the same trajectory through capitalism and specialisation. I can’t say that I enjoyed the story per se, as it’s rather gross, but I concede that it’s well-thought-out. Maybe it is fitting that a Korean author paints the supremacy of mass society in such a negative light. After all, Korea is said to be a highly collectivist culture. This may account for one critic’s opinion that the protagonist’s final acceptance of the ants and self-sacrifice for their nurturing is a positive gesture.

This is the second bilingual book I read in Korean and I had a more positive experience than with my first try. I always read the Korean sentence or paragraph first and then consulted the English text for words I didn’t know. I learned quite a few new words this way. As this book was my second foray into serious Korean literature, it was difficult as expected. The high rate of short, descriptive sentences are a plus, but the detailed vocabulary about a very specific topic (ants, ants, and more ants) prevented the book from being optimal study material.

김씨표류기 ° Castaway on the Moon

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Minutes: 116 . Enjoyment Factor: 10/10 . Ease of Understanding: 9/10

I watched “Castaway on the Moon” a while ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. It tells the story of a guy who tries to commit suicide to get away from his debts, but ends up stranded on an island in the middle of Seoul. Eventually he learns to live on the island, all while being watched by a girl who hasn’t left her room in ages and spends her days online. The movies is great at subverting clichés and being funny, but it would be forgettable without its emotional core. What makes it perfect is the way it shows a very heartwarming human connection between two unconventional, lonely people. It’s certainly one of the best oddball romances I’ve ever watched.

I had no problems understanding the movie, but I have to admit that I cheated a bit and had a look at the subtitles when I didn’t understand a sentence. However, it’s not exactly necessary to understand the movie to enjoy it. Everything important is conveyed in images.

한국의 역사문화 2 ° Korean Culture and History vol. 2

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Pages: 244 . Enjoyment Factor: 5/10 . Ease of Understanding: 3/10

“Korean Culture and History” is a series of four bilingual comic books by SeSe Publishing. I read the second volume, “Medieval History of Korea”. The other titles are “Ancient History of Korea”, “The Korean War and Modern History” and “The New Community Movement and Jung-Hee Park”. The second volume spans from the founding of Goryeo (900) through early Joseon up to the Imjin War (≈ 1600) and includes the two important figures of King Sejong the Great and General Lee Sun-Shin.

I learned a lot of historical facts from this comic. Often it was impossible not to get confused with all the different people that sometimes only got a page or two to describe their life and achievements. The comics make the book a little less dry, but it’s basically just a very compressed collection of historical facts. It helped that I already knew some of the mentioned people from historical dramas. This made it easier to relate to the bare facts the book presents and it was nice to see each of their places in the bigger historical narrative. The most interesting (though least professional-looking) part of the book is the last section which gives short introductions to education in medieval Korea and the Seonbi spirit. According to the book,

“A seon-bi is a practical philosopher with knowledge and courtesy and who pursues virtue as their highest value . . . Seon-bi is not determined by one’s social status, but rather by noble pursuit of knowledge and virtue.”

They were the classical scholars of the Joseon dynasty. Usually their goal was to pass the state exam and serve the nation in a government position, but in times of societal disorder they preferred not to get involved and instead pursued greater learning in seclusion. The Seonbi spirit seems to be an ideal in the Korean cultural imagination today, so it was interesting to learn about it.

The comic was not easy to read. The vocabulary is very specific and often historical and I would have had great difficulty to understand the book without the English translations. I just read casually, seeing how much I understood of the Korean sentence and then checking the English version. That was easy to do, but I would have learned more words if the comic hadn’t been bilingual. But in that case I might never have finished it and also would have learned a lot of rather useless vocabulary.

간첩 ° The Spy

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Minutes: 115 . Enjoyment Factor: 6/10 . Ease of Understanding: 4/10

“The Spy” is the first movie I watched for the Super Challenge. It explores the premise of what happens to North Korean sleeper spies in South Korea who suddenly get an assignment after 10 years of silence. In this imaginary case it assembles a rag-tag team of people who just want to get on with their lives. The protagonist is a regular Korean Ahjussi who sells fake viagra and gets scolded by his wife for drinking too much, in front of the kids! The other team members include a single mom, a cow farmer who protests against American beef imports and a retired senior citizen who is nostalgic about his old adventures and his home country. They are forced into action by their ruthless bosses while being tracked by the South Korean secret service and madness ensues.

There is a distinct difference between watching series and movies: series give you a lot of time to adapt to specific vocabulary, manner of speaking and the scriptwriter’s preferred expressions. There are many cliched phrases and the storytelling is usually slow and not every detail counts. Movies have none of these helpful characteristics for language learners. In “The Spy” speech is more natural than I’m used to, which means no cliched drama phrases, slurring and dialect.

Fortunately all this didn’t matter much. Even though I’m still wondering if I understood the ending correctly, I enjoyed the movie. The storytelling was very visual and the acting superb and the notion of spies as ordinary people with predominantly ordinary lives and eccentric characters was intriguing enough to sustain my interest. I find that spy movies set in Korea are much more intriguing than those set in the U.S. or similar. Just recently I watched a report of a North Korean spy returning home, dragging her unsuspecting husband with her and making the community of refugees anxious about being reported to the North Korean authorities. That background makes it easier to engage in the type of ‘what if…’ scenario “The Spy” portrays and makes the movie a little more than light entertainment by raising some serious questions – even if it’s done in a superficial manner.

드라마의 제왕 ° King of Dramas

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Episodes: 18 . Enjoyment Factor: 7/10 . Ease of Understanding: 8/10

I’m a little behind on reviews, so I’ll keep this short. I watched and enjoyed King of Dramas, a series about the behind the scenes of Korean Drama production, full of tongue-in-cheek meta references. I greatly enjoyed watching this series and it could easily have become one of my all-time favourites. The characters were hilarious, very human and well-acted. The directing and editing was stylish and well-done. Unfortunately the ending disappointed me severely and left a bitter taste. I don’t want to give away too much, so I’ll just say that it managed to be discriminatory in at least two different ways.

Language-wise I had a hard time to understand the drama in the beginning. Fortunately I worked on it as a subber on Viki and acquired all the subject-related frequent vocabulary in the early episodes and was able to sit back and enjoy the series for the rest of its running time, with 80-90% understanding. It was quite useful for learning TV-related and general vocabulary. My new words range from “viewer ratings” and “producer” to “comeback” and “persuasion”.

나는 나를 파괴할 권리가 있다 ° I Have the Right to Destroy Myself

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Pages: 134 . Enjoyment Factor: 6/10 . Ease of Understanding: 5/10

I finished my first Korean novel this weekend. It’s called “I have the Right to Destroy Myself” by Kim Young-Ha and is about a guy who makes a living by helping people commit suicide. It was a pretty heavy, at times bizarre read. I enjoyed the book – especially Kim Young-Ha’s style of writing and the scenic presentation – but in the end I’m not sure how much I’m actually taking away from it. This might be partly because of the bleak subject matter and partly because reading a novel in Korean is still much different from reading one in my better languages.

It was certainly challenging to read this novel and it reminded me of how many fairly basic words I still need to learn. But my reading skills quite a bit throughout the book. At the beginning I was often lost, having a hard time to understand some scenes in their entirety. I had to read most paragraphs twice or three times to really understand them. Then I started to get into the story, got used to some words an expressions and looked up more unknown words. I was able to understand some paragraphs without any look-ups – usually those with a lot of dialogue. Some of the descriptive and philosophical passages were the most challenging and I looked up a lot of words for them, because I wanted to understand what the novel is about apart from the rough plot.

I’m glad I took to leap and started reading literature and I’m looking forward to more of it. “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself” is not a bad choice for starting to read literature in Korean. Although literary, thhe language is rather straightforward and the sentences aren’t too long and complicated. It’s not historical, so the words are quite useful. There are also quite a few foreign terms from English and other European languages – part of the story takes place in Italy. That made the book a little easier to understand for me, although there was some guesswork involved with the Hangeul rendering of words I know in their original.