Feature

[62/365] Why All The Western Hype Over BTS Is Not Really A Good Thing

Recently BTS walked away from the Billboard Music Awards with the Social Media Artist award in their hands, a testament to the power their fandom has on social media. It’s touted as a hugely historical moment: some Korean dudes winning over the likes of Shawn Mendez, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, and Justin Bieber? It’s a landmark for K-Pop and a step forward for Asian representation in American media. It’s proof how music has no boundaries and can be enjoyed regardless of cultural and/or geographical limitations.  It’s a win for us all!

Spoiler alert: it’s really not.

With their win, a huge chunk of American media’s been tripping over each other to put out the most clickbait articles about the amazing Korean wonder act, from Vogue to Rolling Stone to (as always) Billboard. With all these big names reporting on BTS, surely it must mean they’re getting more exposure, more representation for Asians, especially for Asian Americans, right?

Only in the sense that they’re considered exotic and foreign. What separates them from homegrown Kor-Am artists? Kor-Am artists are so buried in the United States, they had to go to South Korea to have a fighting chance. Jay Park’s mother told him to go to South Korea seeing how much he preferred dancing over studying; he went back to the States after leaving 2PM, but even then he returned to Korea to sing and act, eventually creating AOMG. Eric Nam was invited by MBC to compete in a singing show. Ailee had to use connections to land an audition in South Korea to further her career. John Park auditioned for Superstar K2 after being a semi-finalist in American Idol. All of these talented Kor-Ams, born and raised on American soil, had to leave the country to pursue their dreams. All of them found relative success in South Korea, relative being had they remained in the States, they wouldn’t have been able to achieve any form of recognition at all. This is proof that there are good Kor-Am artists out there, but none of them ever get the spotlight. Why all the media dickriding BTS then?

The answer perhaps lies in their ‘foreignness’; they are not familiar to many in America. They hail from the faraway land of South Korea, a country most Americans probably can’t even place on the map. They’re not Americans. They’re unusual – they don’t speak English and they have a totally different culture. They’re exotic.

And perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but this is why ultimately it’s a net loss for both Asian representation and the image of K-Pop in American media. The American media hypes BTS for clicks, sure, but some also because they’re so unAmerican. They’re the foreign sweethearts here for the first time at an American award show, adorably awkward and fascinating, the exotic visitors. How is this a good representation for Asian Americans? How is this any different from films with ‘Oriental’ characters playing the same old ‘Oriental’ stereotypes: the scheming, backstabbing liars and the demure, submissive women? How do you call this representation when all it is is a modern glorification of the exotic Oriental trope?

That’s the tone I’m mainly getting from some of these articles and interviews. Why glamourise BTS and pay no attention to Kor-Am artists? This is why. No point in highlighting local homegrown talent when it’s nothing fascinatingly different. BTS is not American. BTS is different. That’s why.

(AsianJunkie’s big boss IATFB wrote at length about the next part better than I do, so I recommend checking his piece out too.)

The venerable T.K. from Ask A Korean wrote an excellent piece a while back about what he considers K-Pop; his point was that similar to Latin or the very muddy label of world music, K-Pop does not denote a particular style of music specific to that genre like RnB or rock. It’s a regional denominator – K-Pop simply means music from South Korea. Anything from idols to Psy to Tablo can be K-Pop (Tablo himself is okay with the label). There are derivatives like K-hip-hop and K-indie, but these typically seek to differentiate themselves from what they consider mainstream popular idol-inundated music; either way, it’s still Korean music. It’s a geographical distinction, not stylistic.

It’s not a distinction that everyone understands, least of all B-grade ‘journalists’ rushing to make money off them clickbaits. Jeff Benjamin is arguably the worst out of all of them – most BTS fans like to think of him as BTS’s number one Western supporter, but he’s more trouble than he’s worth. There have been instances of him not crediting people for lyric translations in his articles:

(He went back and credited @papercrowns in the end, but failed to make a note of it in the article like a respectable journalist would when amending their piece.)

Most of his pieces are biased; a legitimate music journalist approaches music impartially – he doesn’t. In a recent article in Rolling Stone, he wrote:

One look at Psy is proof enough that K-pop acts tend to focus on crafting crazy-catchy tracks with an eye toward the Western mainstream…

One point stands that Psy is indeed K-pop, but with an eye toward the Western mainstream? They’re Koreans – their main market is the Korean audience. The hell do they care for Western mainstream audience for? Yes, some companies try to target the Western market (see: G-Dragon and CL, Ailee with her US debut as A.Leean [which absolutely everyone suddenly has selective amnesia about]), but their main market is always, always the immediate Korean audience. What’s up with this bullshit then? K-Pop columnist but doesn’t have the slightest clue how the K-Pop market works, get on out of here.

In the same article, he adds that:

While other K-pop acts focus on songs about heartbreak and partying, BTS have connected with audiences by touching on topics such as mental health … politics … and even female empowerment .

You want a song about mental health? B.A.P’s rapline track 주소서, or going further back Bang Yongguk’s AM 4:44. Politics? Jay Park’s Raw Shit. Female empowerment? KittiB’s Doin’ Good.

And these are all just off the top of my head. BTS was not the first K-Pop act to talk about these things, and neither are they the only one; for Jeff Benjamin to act as if they’re the ultimate social activist does all these other artists a disservice, and is ultimately an insult to K-Pop in general. He’s basically labeling the entirety of K-Pop as vapid based on the one Psy track that broke out in the West, when Psy also had songs that touched on social issues. How does this in any way portray a good image of K-Pop in American media? There are a lot of fans out there who say as long as it brings K-Pop out of its niche, it’s good enough – but is it really worth the validation when it brings down K-Pop in this manner? It’s not a good image; not for BTS, not for Asian Americans, and certainly not for K-Pop.

None of this is BTS’ fault. I’m not saying it is. What I’m saying is maybe we should all take a step back and try to look at this from a rational perspective. Is this bringing BTS more exposure? Yes, but more exposure doesn’t necessarily mean good exposure. Not when it’s in such a way that lets the American media simultaneously play on their exoticness and puts down the entirety of Korean music. Not when BTS never even needed this sort of cheap, flash popularity in the first place.

I don’t think BTS are naive enough to think this award means anything other than the fact that their fanbase is fucking dedicated; it’s a popularity contest, and they know that ultimately it’s their music (read: sales) that’s important. I do hope they realise this’ll be a flash in a pan thing and I’m hoping they’re just going to milk these eyes on them the best they’re able without biting off more than they can chew,  but it’s a shame that a vast majority of the K-Pop fandom thinks validation from Western media is so important, when actually it isn’t.

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Reviews, Video Game

[60/365] A Review: The Sexy Brutale

Created by Cavalier Game Studios, a team founded by former members of the fabled (ha! Fable-d! geddit?) Lionhead Studios, and Tequila Works, the Madrid-based team behind Deadlight, The Sexy Brutale was one of the more anticipated titles of 2017, with one site calling it the best game at Gamescom 2016 with only a demo to go by. Truth be told, being the out-of-touch video game enthusiast that I am, I wasn’t particularly up-to-date with the latest in video game news and expos, but a brief article in a volume of Edge some time last year had me interested in The Sexy Brutale‘s concept. A neverending murder mystery set in an opulent mansion with masked guests and a stunningly stylish art style? Count me the fuck in.

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In The Sexy Brutale, you play as Lafcadio Boone, a priest trapped in a neverending nightmare and tasked with figuring out how and why the guests in the opulent mansion are being killed off one by one. With every guest you save, you unlock powers granted by their masks and use those powers to advance further into the story, saving more people and eventually uncovering the secrets behind The Sexy Brutale.

Without spoiling too many things (since I’ll be writing another post later about my thoughts on the game’s story!), The Sexy Brutale shines in four aspects: gameplay, dialogue, sound, and art. Granted, there are instances where the game lags and affects the gameplay – there are times when I’m tapping the A button as hard as I can to get Lafcadio to stop diddling about and open the goddamn door – but whether that’s due to my ailing machine or the game itself is anyone’s guess. Questionable lag aside, the very concept of The Sexy Brutale‘s gameplay is an exercise in elegant simplicity. Lafcadio can wander around the mansion unhindered, but if he ends up in the same room as a staff member or a guest he can be tormented by the staff’s or guest’s mask, which will drain his energy the longer he remains in the same room with them. To avoid that, Lafcadio can peek through keyholes into the next room and see what’s going on.

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Lafcadio peeking into the room and listening to the conversation
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Lafcadio utilising the power of a mask to listen to distant footsteps

Much of the game revolves around you running around the mansion, avoiding guests and staff alike, in a rush against time to save the guests from being murdered. Once the clock strikes midnight, the entire day resets back by 12 hours, and Lafcadio is set to begin his quest again. This is where The Sexy Brutale‘s gameplay shines – you’re meant to play through the day over and over and over again, or else you wouldn’t be able to pick up important clues to solve the murder mysteries. The resetting gameplay mechanic is crucial in understanding how the guests are murdered, and subsequently how to stop the murders themselves. This sort of repetitive gameplay can be tiresome and downright irritating if done for too long, wandering through the same damn hallways and dodging the same people again and again, but The Sexy Brutale paces itself well enough that it doesn’t feel boring, and the length of the game – six hours, give or take, without obsessively searching every nook and cranny for collectibles – is long enough to get a good grasp of the story and short enough to not feel too cumbersome to the player. It’s a simple concept that can be tricky to execute, and The Sexy Brutale does it so well so as to seem effortless.

A good gameplay means nothing without a good story, and while I’ll be talking about that in a separate post, I’d be remiss not to point out the delightful dialogues that pepper the game. The writing in this game is phenomenal; again, keeping in line with the theme of simplistic elegance the game seems to go for, the dialogues fill the characters with personality and life to the point where I started feeling not only for the guests, but also the staff members. In a game where it’s so easy to miss even a crucial piece of dialogue, making each line count is important, and The Sexy Brutale succeeds in creating a cast rich in personality and notable quirks with a limited number of dialogues. That’s pretty damned impressive, I ‘d say. As an example, here’s a ghost in the library complaining to Lafcadio about the abysmal quality of the books available:

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After a good three hours of wandering around the mansion and dodging staff and guests alike, listening in on conversations and generally soaking yourself in the eerie, uneasy ambiance of the mystery, this kind of silly humour comes across as relief, even.

As previously mentioned, The Sexy Brutale‘s mechanic revolves not only around spying on those around you, but also keeping an ear out for telltale footsteps coming your way. In this sense, I particularly love how you can tell the exact moment each guest is being murdered by sound cues alone – a gunshot, the tolling of a bell, breaking glass, all these can clue you as to what’s going on at the moment, and I really think that’s a neat concept. Music-wise, the soundtrack for this game is fucking amazing. Seriously, it’s amazing. I might just get my hands on a physical copy just for the soundtrack alone, it’s that good. It’s jaunty and jazzy and fits the casino theme perfectly, but during the more heartrending parts of the game (yes, you read right. this game can break your heart) the soundtrack can be downright melancholic.

Last but not least, The Sexy Brutale‘s art style is a sight for sore eyes. The isometric view doesn’t offer a lot for details, but goddamn is there a lot of details in this game. The levels are well-designed and aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and I personally found it greatly to my liking. The juxtaposition between the cute 3-D renders and the stylised art of the characters was particularly charming to me. Overall, The Sexy Brutale is a wonderful visual experience, and I highly commend the team at Tequila Works for a job exceedingly well done.

If there were to be anything detracting from the experience, I’d have to say the aforementioned lag – it could really make or break your game, especially when you’re rushing against time or trying your damnedest to not get caught by the staff or guests. Also, the transition between gameplay to cutscene and vice versa could be a lot smoother. A minor detail I’d noticed was that Lafcadio’s character model doesn’t have a lot of idle movements during cutscenes – unless he’s handing something over to another character, he turns his head to look around the area non-stop, which doesn’t really make much sense when another character’s talking to him.

There isn’t much replayability to The Sexy Brutale – once you’ve played through the story, there’s very little point in replaying it unless you’re trying to collect all the invitations and cards – but it’s an enjoyable and surprisingly poignant experience that’s well worth your time and money. 9/10 would recommend.

The Sexy Brutale is available now on Microsoft Windows, Playstation 4, and Xbox One.

Recipe

[38/365] Recipe: Chicken Gyoza

Gyoza is a firm favourite of mine – there’s something oddly therapeutic about making them, and I’ve always loved how they turn out nice and golden after cooking. You can use whatever you want for the filling, which makes experimenting with flavours and ingredients so much fun! I prefer beef to chicken myself, but I couldn’t find ground beef in my local supermarket (the shelves were so empty…) and so I ended up making chicken ones.

The recipe I used is based on the Chicken Mushroom Gyoza recipe from No Recipes. I love No Recipes because while some believe that cooking is a science, I’ve always gone with my gut feelings. Measurements don’t really mean much to me – unless you’re baking, because baking is an actual science and it’s really hard to get by with gut feelings alone – and it’s fun to experiment and see how correctly I gauge things. Marc Matsumoto, if you’re reading this, I love your blog!  I’ve tried out several other recipes from him and they turn out really nice! Highly recommended.

Onwards to the actual recipe!

For the filling, you’ll need:

  • 1 small onion, roughly diced
  • 4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • 1/4 cup chicken stock (about 1/2 cube in 1/4 cup of water)
  • 350 grams of ground chicken
  • 12 grams ginger, finely minced (about half the size of your thumb)
  • 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
  • 1 teaspoon potato starch
  • sesame oil, salt, and pepper to taste

These make about 45 gyoza pieces, depending on how generous you are with the filling.

Ingredients in bold are the same no matter what kind of gyoza you’re making – pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, what have you. I added garlic to mine because you can’t go wrong with garlic, and they serve as a mellow complement to the zingy ginger taste. While all the other ingredients are finely minced, I roughly diced the onions to give the filling a nice crunchy texture in addition to the ground chicken. Experiment with different ingredients and textures and see what works for you.

What you need to do:

  • Saute onions and garlic in a pan until tender. Take off heat and mix thoroughly with chicken stock, transfer to a bowl, then leave to cool to room temperature.
  • Once the mixture is cooled, add ground chicken, ginger, oyster sauce, sesame oil, potato starch, salt, and pepper. Mix well, either with your hands or with a spoon.
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I tend to leave mine for a bit to let the flavours sink in, but you do you!

You can get gyoza wrappers in the supermarket pretty easily. Some call them dumpling pastries, some say gyoza wrappers, others say potsticker skins, it doesn’t matter as long as you don’t pick up the ones called spring roll skins. Those are different.

How to make gyoza:

  • Put the gyoza wrapper in the flat of your palm. Place a bit of the filling in the center of the wrapper.
  • Wet the edges of the wrapper liberally with water so they’ll stick together, then fold the wrapper in half.
  • Pleat the edges of the wrapper together, making sure it’s completely sealed, to make one gyoza.
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It’s been months since I made these so it took a while to get the hang of it again!
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You can cook loads in the pan at a time so prepare loads in advance!

How to cook gyoza:

  • Heat some oil in a pan. When the oil is sufficiently heated, arrange the gyoza in the pan so that they don’t stick to each other.
  • Fry the gyoza for about 2-3 minutes, then add enough water to cover the gyoza halfway and quickly cover them with a lid.
  • Steam the gyoza until the water’s dried up, and leave to fry for an additional 2-3 minutes or until the bottom of the gyoza is golden and crispy.
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Step one: fry gyoza.
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Step two: steam gyoza.
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Step three: eat gyoza.
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All nice and cooked to perfection.

Gyoza are well-loved because of their unique texture: deliciously crispy at the bottom and wonderfully soft everywhere else coupled with tender and flavourful filling. That’s why it’s best to make sure the bottom is fried to golden perfection for maximum enjoyment.

In the United States, gyoza are called potstickers because unless you’re using a non-stick pan, the gyoza will be bonded eternally to the bottom of your pan. They will stick to the bottom of your pan like they’re superglued together, and that can be one hell of pain to deal with so please ensure that you’re using a non-stick pan when making your gyoza.

So there you have it – a simple recipe for chicken gyoza. Leave a comment if you try it for yourself, I’d love to know how it turns out!

Fiction, Short Story

[35/365] Story: Neverending

The first time it happened, I’d left home to start a new life. I was eighteen and on my way to the city by the sea, where I’d study craftsmanship under a master and eventually return home a master craftsman. I thought everything that had happened was a dream then.

He thinks it’s just a dream. It’s not. It’s real. I’ve been trying to tell him that thirty times already, but I’m not going to this time. I’ll keep quiet, and I’ll see what happens next.

The second time it happened, I met her. The girl with short gray hair, braided on one side, her red coat loose around her shoulders, her eyes bright and crimson and somehow so strangely familiar. She knew me, she said, and she told me it wasn’t a dream. I didn’t believe her. I didn’t believe a word she said. I’d never met her before in my life, but before I fell asleep that night I had a nagging feeling that I had her name at the tip of my tongue and it disappeared without a trace when I rose with the morning dawn.

He doesn’t believe me, like always. It was a little different this time, though – it was as if he vaguely remembered me from somewhere, but is unwilling to accept that fact. On the other hand, I remember all there is to know about him; his name is Dante, and he’s good with his hands. The first time I met him, he was carving a figure of a bird from a piece of wood no thicker than my forefinger and middle finger together. If he remembers even the smallest thing about me, that’s good enough. That’s really good enough.

The third time it happened, I was done. I was sick and I was tired and I met her again, the gray-haired red-eyed girl with her ill-fitting coat. Her name was Maria. This time, I believed what she said.

He remembers my name. That was what he remembered about me in the previous cycle. I nearly cried, but I won’t. I’ll keep silent. I’m happy. He remembers my name, and he believes me now. I can’t wait for the next cycle.

The fourth time it happened, we formed an uneasy alliance. I still harboured a sense of distrust towards her despite her words, for even though I’d felt that it truly wasn’t a dream, who could so easily believe that they were living their life in a never-ending loop? And to be told so by a girl with lank hair and a coat so faded in colour, whose eyes occasionally shone with something that I could only describe as madness, who wore rings on her fingers that sometimes glowed eerily in the dark; she thought I didn’t notice them, but I did. She said they were magic. I said it was only time before she was burned at the stake. It didn’t make her laugh, which made it seem all the more serious, but it wasn’t until she chased away the wolves in the night with fireballs that she shot from the palm of her hands that I realised she wasn’t lying to me. She never had.

He thinks I’m mad, but I don’t mind. I’m not the one who has to live his life over and over again. It must have been tiring, and so infuriating. He tells me about the woman he met at the end of his life, right before it cycles right back to the beginning. He calls her Alba, and she has white hair, white pupils and black sclera, and her touch is ice cold. I can’t imagine her. He’s scared of her, terrified even. I’ll do all I can for him. I won’t let her hurt him again. I’ll find this woman; I’ll find out everything there is to know about her, and I won’t let her hurt him again. I won’t let anything hurt him.

The fifth time it happened, someone different died for the first time. That man, he wasn’t supposed to die. It wasn’t until we’d deviated from the normal routine that we met him, and I can’t shake the feeling that we caused his death somehow.

He tells me he feels guilty the man died. I tell him that it’s alright, that he’ll be back in the next cycle and it’ll all be okay. I don’t believe it myself, but I’ll do anything to make him feel better. Dante’s right, though – that man was not supposed to die. I’ve never seen him before, and neither has Dante; but ever since we decided to change our plan of action and encountered things and people we weren’t supposed to have met, I’ve been getting a strange feeling, a cold shiver that runs down my back. Like something’s telling us that’s it’s just wrong, that it’s not supposed to be this way. I know he feels it too, but I pretend I know nothing. It’s better that way. We have to find out who that woman is. Dante is looking steadily worse with every cycle his life repeats, and I fear it’s only a matter of time before he loses it.

The sixth time it happened, the man didn’t come back. Other people who died in the cycle, they usually come back as if nothing had happened and proceed to die just as they were meant to. This man didn’t. He wasn’t supposed to die. Now he’s gone and it feels like worse things are to come.

He blames himself. The man who died before is not here now. There are no traces of him anywhere; it’s as if he’s never existed to begin with. I don’t know what I can say to him. There’s nothing I can say. There’s nothing I can do; there’s nothing we can do but push on. We have to find out who she is. We have to. I don’t want this to go on.

The seventh time it happened, my best friend died. Nico, he was a good man. He had nothing to do with this entire cycle ordeal. He knew nothing; he had a good life back home, a good job and someone who loved him. And now because of me, he’s dead. He wasn’t supposed to die, and he’s never coming back no matter how many times I repeat this life. Now I have nothing left to live for.

He can’t give up. I won’t let him give up.

The eighth time it happened, more people died. We’re a plague, that’s what we are. We never should have done anything. We never should have tried to change our fate. I never should’ve believed her.

He hates me now, but that changes nothing. I’m not going to stop trying to save him. I’ll never stop.

The ninth time it happened, we found out who the woman in white was. Dawn personified, a duality filled with rage and hatred and the desire to ruin the world; that was her, the woman in the crimson sea standing beneath the split sky, whose hands and eyes and gaze were cold as death and every touch sent me plummeting down to oblivion. I couldn’t care less about her now though, no matter how important understanding her was. We found out who Alba was, but I found out why Maria had never seen Alba before. It wasn’t because she wasn’t repeating her life. She was. She just doesn’t realise it because she died before reaching the poppy field, and she doesn’t know that she dies every time. I can’t let her know about it. If she does she’ll do something to prevent and that’ll mean deviating from the path, and if she deviates from her fated death then she’ll die forever. I can’t let that happen. Never. She’s all I’ve got now.

He’s hiding something from me. I know he is. He doesn’t look me in the eyes when I question him about it, he jumps when he hears me coming, he refuses to tell me anything more about the woman. I’ve never seen her and I probably never will, since I’m not the one living a repeated life, so what does it matter what I know about her? He’s worrying me, and more importantly he’s keeping a secret from me. I won’t rest until I know what and why.

I lost count of how many times it’s happened, but what does it matter? I failed to keep her safe. I failed to prevent her death, and to prevent her from knowing about it. What does it matter now? What does anything matter now? Every time this life repeats itself, someone new dies. Nico is gone. Maria is gone. Anna and Pietro are gone. Soon, my entire world will disappear and still, but still, still this life of mine will keep on repeating. I’m cursed to spend the entirety of my life repeated over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, beginning my days with the deaths of everyone I’ve ever known and ending them with dawn’s cold touch. I’ve come to cease fearing the oblivion, because at the very least when I fall it is a brief respite from this pain and guilt that washes over me every waking moment of my life. When I fall, I no longer feel anything. When I fall, it is bliss. She is bliss. I remember nothing else save her name. I am nothing compared to her, o Alba.

Alba, o saviour, o lady of the split sky, o ruler of this fate of mine.

She is bliss, and I descend into nothingness.

Art by Eclectinique as part of a collaboration.

Music, Reviews

[22/365] A Review: Don’t Make Me Cry by Jessi

Jessi, my babe, my best girl, has finally made her comeback! I’ve loved her ever since I heard her sing – like legit sing and not rapping – and I’ve been looking forward to a comeback for ages. She’s probably right up there with John Park in terms of Favourite Solo Artist, I figure – I’ve always had a thing for jazz singers, apparently. Heh.

She featured in Dumbfoundead’s KBB a while back and IATFB from AsianJunkie has covered that, so I won’t. This time it’s all about Don’t Make Me Cry.

Jessi, no matter how much she plays that gangsta lady persona, is more suited to jazz lounges than the streets. Thankfully Don’t Make Me Cry plays to her strengths, with its slow-tempo beats that match her soulful singing. The second chorus onwards is replete with guitar riffs reminscent of The Spine from the soundtrack for the game Transistor, further emphasizing the ‘jazz singer’ parallel. Jessi is no broken-hearted lady wandering the city seeking vengeance for her lover’s death, but Don’t Make Me Cry is a story of a woman who won’t let herself be hurt again, no matter how much it hurt to turn her back on the memories they once had and cherished, and it’s no less important than Red’s story.

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, this slow jazz-lounge style, but it’s definitely mine – as you can probably tell – and Jessi’s voice is definitely not wasted here. The song is nicely paced, the instrumentals are simple but effective, and overall it’s an A+ offering from Jessi.

The MV, however, I have a few irks with.

First of all, who the hell orders red wine at a bar? A bar. Not a wine bar because we ain’t classy enough for that, just a regular old pub that probably does live shows every Saturday night – and our douchebag orders wine. It’s weird and I’m not buying it.

Second, our douchebag, well… no offense to his face, but his entire being screams douchebag. Like if I were a bouncer at that pub and I see him flirting with Jessi, I’d be warning her to stay the fuck away from him because that boy is Grade-A fuckboy material. Girl, you’re just asking to be hurt.

Other than that, it’s a clear-cut story – our douchebag meets Jessi at the pub she bartends at, they date and fall in love, he does her wrong, they break up in a symbolic gesture of smashed wine glasses, he comes to the pub weeks later to woo her back, Jessi says no, and he walks out of her life forever. But wait! In the final scene, he sets down the wineglass gently on the bar – a peaceful end to their relationship, one where hopefully they can both move on from. Yay for symbolism! It’s nothing special, but I get to see and hear Jessi’s fantastic voice again so I can sit through her (bad) acting and obvious wineglass symbolisms.

It’s a welcome return for Jessi, and here’s hoping 2017 will be a wonderful year for her musical endeavours.

Still not over the guitar riffs in this song, honestly.

Film, Reviews

[12/365] A Review: A Monster Calls

It’s exam week and the very last of my finals is tomorrow, so naturally I decided to go see a movie as I am wont to do in these trying times. My rationale was that I had yet to fulfill my monthly movie quota – that being at least one film per month – and once I leave for semester break it would be very unlikely for me to get the chance to go to the movies. I had to choose between A Monster Calls, which I’d been somewhat looking forward to, and The Railroad Tigers, which seemed like it’d be a fun and mindless romp.

My decision was helped along by the fact that I am indescribably broke (an exaggeration, yes, but let me have my hyperboles dammit) and thus I figured I should get my money’s worth, which is why I went for A Monster Calls.

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It’s got Liam Neeson. Liam Neeson.

It was worth every penny, and then some.

A Monster Calls is based off a novel by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie, and it tells the story of Conor O’Malley, a 12 year old boy whose mother is dying from an illness. He knows she’s dying, but he’s plagued by the guilt of wanting it all to be over and done with – of wanting his mother to finally pass, so it wouldn’t hurt anymore. When put into synoptic context like this, it all seems so very simple – but A Monster Calls excels in its simplicity by weaving a story that you can’t help but be involved in. It’s a simple story told exceedingly well, and even though you can hazard a rough guess at what’s going on and what’s about to happen next, you can’t help but be sucked into the maelstrom of emotions. It’s a story about guilt and finding the courage to survive, and by god if it wasn’t beautiful.

There are certain moments that highlight how clever – or at least thought-provoking – Ness’ writing is. The monster tells Conor the story of the invisible man who was tired of being unseen, and wonders:

“If no one sees you, are you really there at all?”

Halfway through the movie, Conor’s bully eventually tells him he’ll stop tormenting Conor from now on because he knows that’s what Conor wants – he provokes the bully intentionally because he wants the confrontation. He tells Conor that from now on Conor is “invisible to [him] too,” which pushes Conor off the edge into beating the boy into a pulp.

But why the bully? Why is it so important that Conor is visible to the bully? Why does Conor rely on the bully to make him feel seen, like he’s visible? And then it clicks: teachers treat Conor differently due to his mother’s illness. They’re more gentle, kinder. The other schoolchildren, unused to a person like Conor, unused to the whole circumstances surrounding him, the boy who’s tiptoed around like he’s made of glass, like he’d break at any moment, are unsure of how to treat him, and so they do what children do – they look at him with pity in their eyes and speak of him with condolences in their murmurs. They don’t look him in the eye, they don’t speak to him – they waltz around Conor like he’s a spectre, simultaneously seen and unseen. Only the bully treats Conor like normal – insofar as beating someone up is normal – and that’s the reason why Conor relies on him so much. It’s as much a dependent relationship as it is an unwanted one, and you have to admit it makes you think.

Speaking of the stories the monster tells Conor: the storytelling scenes are marked by a shift into watercolour-esque dioramas that are incredibly reminiscent of the watercolour art of Ubisoft’s Child of Light, and I thought that was a stroke of genius.

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A frame from Child of Light‘s intro, to give you a rough idea

The animated watercolour scenes segue into the next smoothly, which is always something I greatly appreciate. It lends a fairy-tale-esque to the stories the monster tells Conor, further obfuscating the heavy meaning behind each of the stories. Even the watercolour dioramas serve a purpose – at the end it’s revealed that the watercolour dioramas that Conor sees from the monster’s stories are similar to paintings made by his mother when she was a child, and at the very end of her art album is a painting of a little girl on the monster’s shoulders. It’s shown that his mother knew the monster, evidenced by the way she looked at it in her final hours, but what are the odds of mother and son knowing the same monster? Of having the same monster walk by their side?

And if the monster saved Conor from his guilt, what did the monster save Conor’s mother from?

Keen eyes will notice Liam Neeson in a framed photograph, hoisting a little girl on his arms – it is implied that he is Conor’s grandfather. Liam Neeson is also the voice of the monster. Is it a little piece of meta or something else completely? Nobody knows, but it certainly adds another layer to one’s interpretation.

There is another aspect of Conor’s relationship with the bully that still niggles at my mind. From the beginning it’s made clear that their relationship is different from a normal victim-bully relationship in that Conor is the one who provokes the bully – Conor stares at him for any amount of time until the bully looks back, and then the beatdown commences. Until the part where Conor loses control, there was an underlying current of – attraction? a budding sexuality, perhaps? – in their actions concerning each other. I don’t rightly know and it’s hard for me to explain, but it’s definitely not the typical victim-bully relationship. There was a scene where the bully pulls on Conor’s tongue, warning him not to be a tattletale, and later on he says that he and Conor had a deal that only he could touch Conor. It’s as sexually charged as much as two children fumbling over their feelings can be, taking those tentative steps into adolescence.

Like I said, it’s hard to explain. I don’t rightly know if Ness planned for that kind of innocent exploration – insofar as pulling on someone’s tongue is innocent – of the boys’ sexuality, and at the same time I wonder if it’s not just me projecting these thoughts because I know Ness is gay. It’s not that I have a problem with that, because I don’t, but you do wonder to what extent does your interpretation of a work of art is influenced by what you know of the creator, and if it’s fair to them that those influences exist. Would I have thought the same if I didn’t know Ness is gay? Again, it’s an interesting point to ponder.

Sometimes I wish I’d never taken psychology in foundations.

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Fuck you too, Freud. Wait. Fuck.

Character-wise, and I suppose this is really more praise to the book than the movie, all the main characters are interesting, with none of them feeling like mere cutboard cutouts. Conor is a smartass with an artistic streak and possible anger issues. Conor’s mother wanted to go to art school and is loved by her friends and family. Conor’s grandmother works as a real estate agent despite her late years. Conor’s father is described as an all-start-but-no-finish kind of guy, who gives up on his family and goes to the other side of the pond to start a new one. They’re interesting little snippets that breathe life to a cast of characters that would otherwise be monotonous and plain. It helps you be invested in their stories: the shared pain Conor and his grandmother go through dealing with Conor’s mother’s illness; the frustration Conor feels with his father, who doesn’t seem to offer any legitimate way out; Conor’s desperate attempts to save his mother from death even though deep in his heart he’s already let her go; the guilt when Conor finally tells the monster the truth. If they were flat characters, we wouldn’t feel for them this way, but we do, and it’s another testament to the quality of Ness’ writing.

A Monster Calls was screened in a relatively tiny theatre, which I initially balked at because most of the time these tiny theatres are reserved for movies that don’t seem they would do well – The Wailing was one, if I remember correctly. Later I realised that the tiny theatre served to impart an almost intimate feel – there were only about seven of us in that hall, but it felt more like we were watching an arthouse film than a typical commercial-entertainment-heavy one. It was a good experience.

There was a delightful old man at the far end of my row who laughed out loud at Conor’s smart mouth and didn’t bother to muffle his sniffles during the more tearjerking parts. He sat there at the end of the row, armed with crisps and mineral water, content to enjoy the movie by his lonesome, and never have I felt more like I’d found a kindred spirit in my life. Whoever that old man is, I wish him all the joys the world has to offer, for he brightened up my day considerably.

A silly final observation: in the film, Conor uses a pair of very old Skullcandy headphones – or something that certainly looks a lot like it! – and for some reason seeing my favourite headphone brand on screen made me really happy.

Final verdict: A Monster Calls is a beautifully told story of overcoming guilt and finding the courage to move on and live on. Well-paced, stylish and thought-provoking, it’s well worth seeing. 9/10 would recommend.

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[11/365] K-pop, Where Not Everything Is As It Seems Pt. I

Thought it’s a shame to leave this topic hanging when I’ve specially made an intro for it a few days back, so here I am with today’s topic: K-pop, and the machinations that make up your favourite idol groups.

The thing with K-pop fans is that they’re most often too focused on their idols, they don’t stop to consider how the industry works. And the Korean entertainment scene is an industry – a huge one, at that. Like all industries there are marketing strategies and economics involved; it’s where money changes hands and image becomes a hot sellable commodity. There’s no denying there’s talent and hard work put in by the idols themselves, but for the most part we can’t deny there’s plain old economics involved too.

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God bless xkcd, honestly

If anything, the management part of the industry is what’s worth paying attention to. oniontaker, for all the drama that surround him courtesy of salty fans and crazy folk, is a surprisingly accurate source of information. He’s not an informer, just someone who’s well intimated with the industry, and folks like him are worth paying attention to because he knows what’s what. He’s worked with some of the bigger names in the industry; hell if I’m not reading it wrong he’s also a key part of it. Who would you rather believe, an anonymous nobody or an anonymous somebody who’s consistently proven that he’s got the connections to back up his claims? Yeah, I’d go for oniontaker too.

I mentioned oniontaker because if you were to go through his posts that aren’t about dating gossip or rumours, he actually tackles them with the business part of the industry taken into consideration. What would profit the company? How would the company cover their losses? Is it really true Minzy leaving 2NE1 changes nothing for YG Entertainment? He looks at it from the business point of view, and that’s fascinating to be honest. He’s prime proof that the Korean entertainment industry is, above all, a goddamn industry – it’s ultimate purpose is to generate a huge-ass income and I think fans would do well to remember that.

There’s a fine line between, say, supporting your idols and being blind to the industry machinations. Did you know, for example, that most entertainment companies pay variety shows to have their idols featuring on it? It’s not your favourite idols giving up their precious rest time to help struggling variety shows become more popular – it’s your idols doing their job, putting themselves out there to promote themselves. It’s part of the reason why fans hate TS Entertainment so much, because they won’t let B.A.P take part in variety shows; it does seem to be getting better lately, with One Fine Day and the members have since been appearing in variety shows over the past year, but with the whole lawsuit issue and hiatus, it’s hard to say if a few measly variety shows are going to be helping B.A.P get back their spotlight.

That’s another thing fans don’t consider – not all companies treat their artists fairly. B.A.P put up a fight and went on a hiatus, severely hurting their popularity in the mean time – don’t try to lie to yourself, the hiatus helped no one. They went on hiatus in 2014 and during that time EXO and Bangtan surged up the popularity ranks in their absence. The hiatus hurt them a lot, and it was all because TS Entertainment wouldn’t pay them fairly. We don’t hear about these cases a lot, mostly because the artists don’t usually try to fight back – B.A.P did and they eventually went back to TS Entertainment, didn’t they? The few successful groups to have fought back against their unfair contracts are Shinhwa and JYJ who left SM Entertainment (not to mention ongoing lawsuits by Wu Yifan, Huang Zitao, and Luhan, and complaints from f(x)’s Amber and Super Junior M’s Henry – just how shitty is this company really?), and Block B filed a suit against their old agency Stardom Entertainment because the company didn’t pay their wages for an entire goddamn year. Minzy didn’t renew her contract with YG Entertainment because Yang Hyun Suk focused so much on new groups he’d basically left 2NE1 to stagnate for years – the members each made roughly $50k in 2015 without any new material or promotions, and that’s about what a normal dude makes in America from his white collar job. If I were Minzy, I’d be pissed the fuck off too. Right now BEAST is fighting against Cube Entertainment to have the rights to their group name, much like what Shinhwa did, and cases like those take decades to settle. And these are the more high-profile cases where the artists basically went, “You know what? Fuck it,” and put up a fight. What about SEVENTEEN, who had some of their songwriting copyrights taken away by Pledis Entertainment? The oldest among them is born in 1995 – that’d make S.Coups 22 years old this year – so how would you expect them to deal with a lawsuit? Unfair work environments and dodgy deals surround these idols on a daily basis, and it’s all the more unfair when you think about how most of these new generation idols are just kids.

Let’s not even get into the nitty gritty mess that is the trainee years. You can’t help but think there’s something wrong when you hear idols reminisce about their trainee days where they slept in a pile in packed rooms and spent hours upon hours practising, all with no wage or no allowance. They’re trainees – they’re an investment made the company. If they make it, they make it. If they’re lucky, they make it big after years of training and only after debut can they hope to think about getting paid. If they’re not particularly lucky, they end up in some nugu group that take years to gain recognition and aren’t even very well known outside their fandom. If they’re super unlucky, their group falls down by the wayside mere months after debut – and this is just the groups that do debut. What about the hundreds of groups that don’t even make it past their debut? Groups that don’t debut at all? What about trainees that spend years training since they were teenagers only to have no career at all? For every successful rookie group on the market right now, there are at least fifty that have fallen by the wayside. It’s a fact worth bearing in mind.

Next part: albums, chart rankings, and how the Korean entertainment industry milks the idol fandom of all their money.