Monday, 23 April 2018

Peace Breaking Out on the Korean Peninsula

A lot of this stuff is cut-pasted, mix-and-matched, or snatched from the ether that is Twitter: it's great for getting bite-sized insights, but really hard to find back a comment read one time, so parts of this post will be combinations of things other people have said, but which I can't find back. John Delury, Sino NK, Jonathan Cheng, Robert Kelly and Ask A Korean's twitter feeds have been covering this stuff in detail, so do take a moment and spend time clicking the links they share, and if anything here was in a tweet you saw, please leave a link so I can attribute it properly.

News outlets reported that North and South Korea are working on officially ending the Korean War, a war fought from 1950-1953, but which never moved beyond an armistice to an actual peace treaty or normalized diplomatic relations. After announcements of planning a summit, and indications that denuclearization is on the table, Kim Jong-un's visit to China, and Mike Pompeo's visit to North Korea, it is starting to look like the ducks are getting in a row for some actual, substantive progress in the area, something I have not suspected to be possible pretty much since I came to South Korea.

Now, prognosticators have been wrong time and time again about North Korea, both when it looked like things were headed toward normalization, and when it looked like things were headed for war. In fact, on this very blog, during my Pyeongchang Olympics downer post, I predicted that nothing would come of the two nations marching together at the opening ceremonies, and fielding a unified women's ice hockey team. Of everything I've written on this blog, and I've stuck my foot in it a whole bunch of times, I don't think there is anything I've ever said, predicted, or concluded on which I'd be happier to eat crow.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves or anything!

While we try to keep our hopes guarded at Roboseyo whenever it could just be that Kim Jong-un opened a new box of girl scout cookies and "All The Single Ladies" came on the radio at the same time, there are indeed indications that this is not your run-of-the-mill repeat of North Korea's patented "Global Media Attention Maximizing Friendly/Unfriendly Yo-yo Diplomacy" actTM. Let's go through some of them, and let's read/write quick, before everything goes squirrelly again.

North Korea's Strongest Position Ever

First of all, let's start off with the notion that getting together for the Pyeongchang Olympics laid some groundwork for this.

In fact, let's go a little earlier than that. The point at which the Obama Administration was using the phrase "Strategic Patience," and Park Geun-hye's official North Korea policy was some weird modge-podge of trust-building language, greedy "bonanza" lip-smacking over potential riches to be gained upon unification, and inaction supposedly forced upon them by an unmet demand for an apology over North Korea's sinking of a South Korean boat in 2010, while North Korea recycled boilerplate threats without backing away from their weapons development program, I got the feeling that South Korea and USA had played every card they had, and didn't know what to do next. North Korea, too, seemed to be working from the same playbook they had used since the "Axis of Evil" speech. It was an uncomfortable stalemate, and North Korea was clever enough with its brinksmanship that they always backed away from the line before drawing too serious consequences, while also always pushing the envelope and getting away with further nuclear tests and missile launches.

With their final successful test of a missile that could deliver a nuclear payload to the continental United States, however, the situation had changed for good. North Korea had the negotiating chip it had been working towards all this time. Previously, I've written on this blog that developing nuclear weapons is mostly a dumb show for North Korea's domestic politics: its own people need to see NK's leaders working to defend the nation, because that's the only type of legitimacy available to NK's leaders. Meeting an urgent military threat is a great way for a government to deflect criticism of its leaders, create a sense of national unity, and justify or at least hand-wave deprivation if there are shortages in areas like material goods or freedoms. Until North Korea had that final, ultimate bargaining chip, it made sense for North Korea to play the hot-cold game to buy time, run a little distracting brinksmanship to buy time, but also occasionally play nice to buy time, just to keep'em guessing, and buy time!

While North Korea had a lot to gain from those delaying tactics, and going back on the promises it made at that time, because its nuclear program was not developed yet, that is no longer the case. Denuclearization and joining the global community are the two main chips North Korea has to negotiate with, and by having functioning intercontinental missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads before heading to the negotiating table, North Korea has put itself in the strongest bargaining position it possibly can. Successful PR at the Winter Olympics helped demonstrate that North Korea could be receptive to overtures, and respond in good faith, and South Korea finally had a president who was willing and capable of coming to the table as well: the optics would never get better than this, either. The time was right!

From here, North Korea probably doesn't have anything more to gain from delaying, and a lot to lose by further flip-flopping. If there ever was, this is the time to show good faith in bargaining.

Between writing the above paragraphs and today, a few days later, this has been borne out: North Korea is promising no more nuclear testing and closing down testing sites, which cedes ground that is no longer useful anyway: they are finished with the testing phase, so it does not hurt them to do this, but it sure looks nice on a headline!


Is China Making its Move?

It has been taken as a truism for years now that the North Korea situation will never be resolved to NATO's satisfaction as long as China is around to throw Kim Jong-un a rope. China's veto on the UN Security Council, and their willingness to trade with North Korea just enough for the country to keep its head above water quite may have stopped the state from collapsing a few times, especially given that North Korea has no petroleum.

I've generally believed that China likes keeping North Korea around: every eyeball focused on North Korea's shenanigans is an eyeball not focused on China's own Human Rights record, its political prisoners, its heavy censorship, etc.. North Korea was a great distraction from China's own domestic issues! Also, North Korea served as a buffer between China's own landmass and South Korea, a nation with a US military presence. Having a state that borders China hosting US military bases was not something China wanted, so China had a strong incentive to maintain the status quo in the region.

That said, backing North Korea after the Yeonpyeong Island shelling and the sinking of the Cheonan cost China a lot of credibility internationally, and North Korea's repeating of its tired brinksmanship and bluster in a world where Barack Obama and South Korea's leadership stifled yawns at it, followed by South Korea's moves to ensure its own security, like the installation of the THAAD missile defense, which China took as a threat to its own national security, and which wouldn't have been necessary if North Korea had been better kept in line... it wouldn't be that difficult to believe China was starting to rethink the incentives of maintaining this status quo.

Enter Donald Trump. His style of leadership, his diplomacy, his temperamental knack for changing his mind, making rash decisions, or starting trade wars for spite and a failure to understand how comparative advantage works in complex economies with large-scale manufacturing, his willingness to scuttle international agreements that don't fit a narrow view of "Good for America"... USA was basically pissing away its international goodwill and, even worse, its international credibility as a global leader/stabilizer. If there was ever a time to make a move, this was it, and a guy who flatters himself as a dealmaker, but has also complained about the cost of maintaining troops on the Korean peninsula... might be just the patsy to invite to the table in order to flatter him into deals that make him look good but down the road, weaken USA's position in Asia and set up China as the regional leader.

Before agreeing to meet with the USA, Kim Jong-un had a visit to China. I don't know what they talked about during that visit, but it seems China wanted that meeting to happen, and wants North Korea-US meetings to happen, too. While we all see Donald Trump puffing and rutting for credit and maybe a Nobel Peace Prize, things like leaving the TPP and questioning the cost of keeping troops in South Korea show that Trump is also unconcerned about abdicating the role of regional stabilizer in Asia. That power vacuum is ripe for Xi Jinping, who just recently consolidated his own power as leader of China, and I wouldn't be that surprised if analysts look at the terms of whatever deal North Korea, South Korea and USA hammer out, and spot a few easter eggs that benefit China. It doesn't help that on the US/South Korea side, the most powerful person in these negotiations will also be the dumbest, while the probable best negotiator, Moon Jae-in, will most likely struggle to have his voice heard by Trump.


Madman Theory 2018

The Madman Theory was invented by Nixon to scare communist leaders into concessions, by trying to convince them Nixon was just crazy enough to actually use nuclear weapons on them. Some have suggested that Trump is hailing back to the madman theory with North Korea, as he tweets about "Fire and Fury." Frankly, he comes across as unstable and impulsive enough to sell the madman theory, and naming warhawk John Bolton his National Security Adviser is another "I'll do it! You'd better look out! We're crazy over here!" move. I think some of my readers will say it is giving Trump too much credit to think his behavior is part of a calculated act... but between his apparent unconcern for the stabilizing international institutions the US has always put stock in, his own personal impulsiveness, his complaints about stationing troops abroad, and the shit he tweets, we get a chance to see a different kind of world: a world where the US has abandoned its place as the guarantor of global stability, and different countries have to actually work things out amongst themselves.

In fact, it might well have been a very effective strategy for Trump and South Korean president Moon Jae-in to to basically play good cop/bad cop here... more on Moon in just a minute...

(side note: it's interesting to see the Madman theory used on a leader who has used it himself)

In the Absence of...

When the US was positioning itself as the global stability people, it could be pretty well relied upon to tamp things down when feelings got chippy between allies -- who could forget those awkward get-togethers when South Korea and Japan's leaders were press-ganged into pretending to get along?
Source: Reuters
But in the end, however many police boats Park sent to Dokdo, and however many Japanese Diet members visited Yasukuni Shrine, both knew that the USA would slide in before either could make a move that would permanently disturb the security or economic infrastructure of the region. And everybody in the region knew that, all things being equal, USA tended to prefer the predictability of maintaining the status quo (a status quo where USA was preeminent) to the unpredictability and possible chaos of radical change.

feel a chill? source
With the Trump presidency, the world is coming to grips with a US that is fickle, perhaps even capricious, in its overseas involvements, blown by the winds of whatever crap #45 says on Twitter, and whoever is around to put a bug in his ear (and with the installation of "Bomb-em" John Bolton, those ear-bugs are getting more worrisome). In this atmosphere, it suddenly becomes a lot more important for the rest of the world's leaders to hammer things out on their own, because North and South Korea have a much better chance of working out these delicate issues than the orange-haired bull in a china shop.

What will the world look like if the US abandons its support of the international institutions it helped establish? A lot less certainty than before. But one thing we can be sure of is that the other major powers will be pitching their weight around as hard as they can to maximize their influence in it, and the medium powers -- countries like Australia, Canada, Norway, Thailand or South Korea -- will have a lot more leeway and opportunity to set the agenda, and assert themselves, if their leadership has the talent and ambition to do it.


The Real Engine of Detente

Now, ol' Donnie has been soaking up as much credit as he can for Kim Jong-un's sudden openness to talks and cessation of tests. I'll not hold my breath on actual denuclearization until we've seen a little more of actual meetings and actual agreed upon results, where step-by-step processes are agreed upon and then executed in good faith. In case we've forgotten, North Korea has even gone so far as to demolish a reactor tower in 2008, in a so-called show of good faith which, ten years later, we know was bullshit. So... talk is cheap, k?


But the thing that has been missed as The Orange One once again sucks up all the oxygen in the room, is Moon Jae-in, doing the ol' duck routine: serene on top, paddling like hell under the water.  Blogger Ask A Korean's twitter feed has been helpful in pointing this out. Moon's negotiations brought North Korea to the Olympics, brought important North Korean statespeople to the Olympics, and the positive press and good reception from that got the ball rolling for everything that is happening now: without Moon, Trump and Kim would be in a holding pattern of tweeting mean things and issuing nasty press releases at each other.

Some critics on Twitter argue that heading straight for summits between heads of states is putting dessert before dinner: a lot of lower level negotiations and processes should really be agreed on before presidents are stamping important-looking papers for photographers. Other critics say North Korea's freeze on testing means less than it seems to mean. This is not a perfect chain of events, and different than probably anyone could have imagined.

A lot is still up in the air, and a lot could still go sideways when you have two parties that have zig-zagged in the past doing negotiations, but if this new round of talks goes anywhere useful, I predict that it will be because of Moon Jae-in's steady hand reassuring both Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump that they can set up a process to end the war, normalize relations, maybe even re-integrate North Korea into the global economy, and denuclearize North Korea, in an order and with a speed that is satisfying to everyone. There is a long ways to go -- I said on twitter that marching a unified Korean team in the Olympics was step R when we hadn't yet done steps A, B or C. Now it looks like there is enough goodwill and the beginnings of trust to proceed with steps A, B, and C. That's great! I'm thrilled! But if things go as well as we're hopeful they do (and I sincerely do think we have more cause to be hopeful now than we ever have in the time I've watched North Korea), let's at least make sure the credit goes where it belongs: to our man Moon.


Looking Forward...

So about those steps a, b, and c.

We've seen North Korea play nice before, only to pull the rug. As I said above, North Korea has more reason than ever before to act in good faith now, as it runs out of allies and holds the strongest negotiating chip it has ever held, or ever will hold, frankly. Speaking of that chip, my most confident prediction is that it will be harder and slower to persuade North Korea to surrender that chip than just about any other point of the negotiations. I predict it will be the stickiest sticking point in a tough set of negotiations, that North Korea will ask for a lot of shows of good faith before starting the denuclearization process, while USA will want denuclearization to BE North Korea's show of good faith. If these negotiations fall apart anywhere, it will be there.

But things can still go sideways in lots of spots along the road: there are about a zillion ways Trump or Kim could fuck this up. So here are things that might happen in the future, which would be positive signs. The effect of these kinds of things is cumulative: if one or two happen, it could just be for the cameras, but the more of these appear, and from the higher tiers, the more confident we can be that this is a change that will stick.

Tier 1: Might just be Window Dressing

Announcements of any kind.
 --which are announced by Ri Chun-hee
A summit with heads of state.
A declaration or a peace treaty to end the Korean War (which, as pedants everywhere will tell you, never really ended)
Any exchange between North and South Korea that is one-time only (for example, family reunions, mail exchanges, symbolic highway or railway openings where highways or railways are never actually used, cultural exchanges like performances)
Re-opening of venues for North-South exchange that were open in the past (Gaesong Industrial Complex and Geumgang Mountain Resort) but closed down during a time of heightened tensions.
More unified teams at sports events and stuff


Tier 2: Meaningful

Establishing North-South exchanges on a permanent basis: a permanent site for family reunions, establishment of cinemas or media outlets in Seoul and Pyeongyang where media from the other side can be viewed or even broadcast
Permanent infrastructure for mail exchange from north to south
Opening of new highways or rail ways for trade or transit
Loosening of restrictions on tourism to North Korea for non-Koreans
New countries opening diplomatic relations with North Korea and sending ambassadors there
North Korea allows nuclear inspectors into the country
A "No First Use" pledge


Tier 3: OK this is for Real

Negotiations of a step-by-step process for Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearization of North Korea
North Korean efforts at renewing/reimagining their economy and integrating it into the world economy
Opening North-South highways or railways to civilians
Establishing protocols for tourism of Koreans from North to South or South to North
Establishing protocols for North-South Migration border-opening for family members (next level after family reunifications) to allow family members to cross and live together
Discussions about the citizenship status of North Korean defectors living in South Korea, in the event of South Korea recognizing the North as a sovereign nation (this is going to be touchy)
Meaningful, brass-tacks discussions about changing the nature of the US military's presence in North Korea
North Korea negotiating trade agreements with different countries
North Korea promises to re-join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty


Tier 4: EVERYBODY Gets a Nobel Peace Prize (AKA Pie in the Sky: even if these things don't happen, achieving most of tier 3 would probably make most people happy)

Execution of the step-by-step process for Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearization
Constitutional change in North and South Korea to recognize each other as sovereign countries
Establishing procedures for migration from north to south or south to north
Discussion of the legal ins and outs of a Korean federation.
Establishment of a civilian government in North Korea
Democratic elections in North Korea, transition of the Kim Dynasty to figurehead status
North Korea opening its economy to foreign or South Korean investors

Finally:
Whatever process has been negotiated survives the shifts and twists in political climate that come from regular electoral cycles, especially the next South Korean and the next US presidential elections, and extra-especially the next set of presidential elections where the incumbent party loses.

Weigh in in the comments, readers: what signs are YOU looking for, and which tier would you put them on?


Further reading:
Some Cold Water
Moon Jae-in's position on defense issues is strong enough on defense to satisfy many conservatives. (Sino-NK)
A US/North Korea timeline
More detail on that pledge to halt nuclear testing

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Kendrick Lamar's Pulitzer Prize

Kendrick Lamar's album Damn. won the Pulitzer freaking Prize! I have a few thoughts.



First of all, in a world where Bob Dylan can win the Nobel Prize in Literature, anything can happen, so why the heck not a Pulitzer for a Hip-Hop album?


Second: I am much happier at Kendrick Lamar winning a Pulitzer than I was about Dylan's Nobel Prize. The Nobel Committee claimed they were looking outside the conventional "box" of literature, which is cool I guess. It is admirable if a committee as prestigious as the Nobel committee sometimes tries to draw attention toward outsiders -- people living away from the world's cultural centers, using languages that don't hold global power and status. But Bob Dylan is the most insider outsider you could possibly find for a literature prize: he's a rich and famous American rock star who writes in English who's already had awards, tributes and accolades heaped upon him since the freaking sixties. Heck, a white savior even used him to reach inner-city black kids in a '90s inspirational teachers' movie once. Really, folk music, singer-songwriter music, and white songwriters who peaked in the sixties have had more than their share of kudos already, and worst of all, Dylan's lyrics sound cool, but Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen's poetry look better on the page. One in fifty of Dylan's songs is a perfectly written gem, but twenty of fifty sound like they could have been much improved by a second, third or twelfth draft, and by cutting the fourth or fifth verses, and rephrasing a few lines in the bridge. Leonard Cohen never sang a verse whose lyrics seemed to need a once-over to tighten the screws, so I wasn't inspired by Bob Dylan's Nobel. But you know: "Is songwriting literature? So outsider! Such edgy! Many nice work, Nobel!"  Moreover, music genres and artists coming out of black culture have been historically under-appreciated and under-represented in media coverage, acclaim, respect and awards, more so as the awards get more prestigious, so giving the Pulitzer to a black artist making black music when almost every other winner of the Pulitzer for music has been a white person making white music...that's cool. Let us hope that balance continues correcting.


Third: I'm not an expert in rap or hip-hop, just a fan. I enjoy it a lot and listen to a lot, and I've been learning more and more how to listen to rap, what makes it good, and how to appreciate it better. Some rap is just silly pop, but the good stuff rewards more careful study. It's great to see Kendrick getting recognition like this, when the Grammys can't even figure out that people will remember his work far after everyone's forgotten Macklemore and Bruno Mars (who both won Album of the Year awards over Kendrick).

While black culture doesn't need validation from white institutions to be legitimate or deserve respect, I am still happy to see hip-hop recognized by the Pulitzer committee as a legitimate, exciting, artistically respectable genre. The black artists who create it deserve to stand shoulder to shoulder with any artist from any genre that's long been considered more "respectable" (which is of course code for white), and while that is true even if white folks like myself are not saying it, I'll happily add my voice to the chorus acknowledging this reality.


Fourth: from where I stand, Kendrick is peaking higher than just about any rap artist has ever peaked, combining social relevance, artistry and popularity. Lamar is the undisputed top rapper in the game right now, and really, the level he is peaking at right now is mind-boggling. His combination of ambition, social consciousness, musical adventurousness (especially on To Pimp a Butterfly, the album which was his application for "Most Important Rapper Alive"), lyrical complexity, rapping skill and awareness of his place in rap... has any other rapper been the most socially relevant, the most musically interesting, the most critically acclaimed, the most ambitious, and the most popular rapper at the same time, to the degree Lamar is right now? Only three or four other rappers ever took bigger swings than Kendrick has in the last three years, and he's been absolutely nailing his marks.

Which other rapper has peaked as high as Kendrick is right now? Make your argument in the comments, but I can't think of someone who's peaked in terms of social relevance, sheer rapping skill, sonic adventurousness, and popularity all at the same time, the way that Kendrick is peaking right now.


Fifth: Crazy as it seems, (and this is exciting) I don't think we've even seen his best yet. When Kanye West released "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," it was the sound of Kanye peaking, and everybody knew it. I think that will happen with Kendrick as well. I believe he still has one more gear, and one day he'll release an album that everyone will immediately recognize as an all-time artist's all-time peak. A Joshua Tree, a Lemonade, a Purple Rain, a Thriller, a Blue. It's going to be incredible.


Sixth: I've said for a while, if you love language and a beautifully turned phrase, you should be listening to rappers, full stop. The way the best ones stitch together beautiful, brilliant or complex and dense lines and deliver them at speed is amazing. If you're not so sure about that, here is a primer for how dense the lyrical music of good rap can be, based on the rhyme schemes in the rap musical Hamilton (which is a good place to start if all rap seems inaccessible to you).


Seventh: When someone says "I like all kinds of music. Except rap," it makes me sad. But ... I used to say that, so there's hope for them yet. I've been ranting for a few years now that rap and hip-hop are far and away the most interesting musical genres in Western culture right now: they're the most socially relevant, they have the most exciting artists, the highest ratio of artists trying to change the world, as well as massive popularity. Looking forward, I think that much of the most important protest music for our time, and much of the most interesting and challenging music, period, will be in the hip-hop and rap genres, so pay attention, and remember to read the lyrics.

Go get your hands on his album Damn., readers. Give it a few listens: it rewards repeated listens. Pick out a track and listen to it four times while reading the lyrics. It rewards that too. Read some reviews of it and listen again, after being told what to listen for. It rewards that, too. Watch the videos. Videos are part of the text... but the songs stand alone, too.

And congratulations, Kendrick Lamar!

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Pyeongchang Olympics Are Here! Brace For the Letdown!

The Pyeongchang Olympics are here! Some of my friends are really excited about this, so of course I take it as my Roboseyoly duty to throw some cold water on the proceedings. We have a lot of cold water around the house right now, because our laundry room's pipes have been frozen for literally three weeks! Before running out to the coin laundry to ensure I have underpants for the next week (rueing that cancelled trip to Hawaii more and more), I'd like to say a few things about the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Part One: Tempering Expectations

I had intended to write this about two or three years ago, but never really got around to it, which means I am now Johnny-come-lately instead of being stylishly ahead of the curve, but I've been telling whichever friends would listen that the Pyeongchang Olympics are going to be a letdown pretty much since they were awarded.

Whoa now, spoilsport!
I'm evil. I know.

See, Korea's previous experiences with global mega-events (through a carefully calibrated filter of selection bias) has been really really good! The 1988 Seoul Olympics were one of the most successful games in history, at a time in history when the Olympics really, really needed a games to come off smoothly without a massive boycott or a tragedy. The biggest scandals of the '88 Olympics were in the context of sports (Ben Johnson's steroids; and Roy Jones Jr.'s screw-job) unlike previous Olympics, where the flies in the ointment had been things like cold war politics (1984 and 1980) huge boycotts PLUS catastrophic financial overruns (Montreal 1976), or freaking massacres (Mexico City 1968, Munich 1972... which adds up to the previous twenty years of Olympics)... the Seoul Olympics set records for countries in attendance, ran more or less smoothly, and basically got the Olympics back on track.

The redevelopment and city infrastructure built for the Olympics was much-needed: highways, expressways, bridges and several subway lines were started and/or completed to help move sports fans around Seoul, and everyone's been using them ever since. Yeouido was set up as the media center, giving Korea's mass media a huge shot in the arm. Being located in the middle of Seoul's huge population center, most of the Olympic facilities have since been earning their keep as venues for sports teams, concerts and performances ever since.

Finally, the narratives around the '88 Olympics were pretty darn triumphal. It is looked back on as Korea's coming out party, its entry to the club of advanced nations. Korea announced itself as a contender, a regional and global player. It was no longer the backwater you saw in M*A*S*H* (which is what people thought of Korea before then).

The 2002 FIFA World Cup -- the other universally positive experience remembered in "Mega-Event Fever" has been credited with re-igniting national pride after the beating it took in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. The run to the semifinal, watching Korea play on huge screens in downtown Seoul, sits as one of the fondest memories of Koreans of a certain age. Less discussed is that it was a hugely expensive World Cup ever to that date, as Japan and Korea competed to build more, more impressive stadiums than each other. That kind of washed away in the excitement of Ahn Jung Hwan's golden goal.


Again, Korea's image had a lot of ground to gain at the time, given that most Korea news going global in 2002 was related either to the Asian Financial Crisis or Kim Jong-il's nuclear intentions and the Axis of Evil stuff, so a World Cup with some nice, exciting moments was a great shot in the arm. It was also right up in Seoulites' faces (and Seoul is where Korea's media and narratives center): foreigners were filling up the hotels and restaurants and walking the streets.

The Pyeongchang Olympics, though... well, if you expand the memory a little, you start noticing that Korea has hosted more mega-events than just the 1988 Olympics and the 2002 FIFA World cup, and I have a feeling the Pyeongchang Olympics will be remembered less like those two events, and more like the poorly-attended 2014 Incheon Asian Games (also debt-racked), the 2011 World Track and Field Championships in Daegu (went smoothly but... did you remember it happened before I mentioned it here?), or the 2012 Yeosu Expo (organizers were giving away free tickets to drum up attendance numbers; massive organizational problems; did Yeosu need a mega-convention center?).

Back when I was cooking up this blog idea, I was going to sound all clever predicting all kinds of stuff... but now it's coming to pass, so here, not looking nearly as cool, in short, is Why Pyeongchang Won't (Couldn't) Live Up To The Seoul Olympics.

1. The Winter Olympics Just Aren't As Big a Deal as the Summer Olympics

Unless you are Norway or Canada, the world media just doesn't care as much. Sorry.

2. The Narratives Around These Olympics Just Aren't as Exciting

The 1988 Olympics were Seoul and Korea's coming out party. Problem is: Korea's already had its coming out party now. Korea is already a player on the world stage. K-pop and K-dramas are out there, Youtube and the internet mean anybody who wants to find out about Korea can. South Korea's image in the world just doesn't have anything close to as much to gain in global standing from these Olympics as it did from the 1988 Olympics. 

The narratives about the state of the Olympic project are also not as heartening: Yeah, Sochi ended on a sour note as Putin defiantly invaded Ukraine just weeks after the Winter Games ended, and the Summer Games in Rio had some sour spots as well (though not as many as the FIFA World Cup two years before) so the possibility that these games will be a step up from those is certainly up for grabs. But comparing that to twenty entire years of cold war politics, massive boycotts and massacres, before corporate sponsorship ensured that the amount of money to be made on TV rights guaranteed there would always be more Olympics as long as a sucker city could be found to provide a venue... well in 1988 it would have been reasonable to suggest shuttering the entire Olympic project, as it had expressly failed in its stated goal of bridging gaps between nations, and a plausible argument could have been made that the '88 games saved the Olympics, or at least marked a turning of the tide. Now, the Olympics are in no danger, just as long as Coke and NBC and Visa are there tuning it into the money-printing machine they always dreamed of.

The Winter Games do much less to set those bigger narratives anyway: it's more important that, after the mess of the 2016 Rio games, the next three Summer Games are in cities that have pretty good odds of running a smooth games: Tokyo, Paris, and Los Angeles, all three of which have hosted the games before, Paris and LA twice! Frankly, with the 2022 winter games set in Beijing, considering the way Beijing went all-out for the 2008 Summer Games, there's a more than fair chance South Korea will be upstaged anyway, unless anything short of Korean Reunification happens because of these Olympics.

3. The Money Stuff

Olympics have almost never turned a profit. At best, the national narratives generated were worth the cost (though this is difficult to prove because it's a counterfactual argument: there's no control for how a country's reputation would have done WITHOUT hosting an Olympics) -- if Brazil had spent the cost of the Rio Olympics or the World Cup on improving infrastructure and life for its poorest 20%, it might be a very different country... but we just can't know that, because they didn't.

That said... as sad photo essays about abandoned Olympic venues show us, many governments simply give up on maintaining the facilities they built for their showcase event. I read one critique of the Olympics that basically argued the games were little more than a method for reallocating national wealth from the public to building contractors... the last thing many countries need.

In South Korea, the Central and Provincial government have already been bickering about the cost. Unlike the olympics in Seoul, where Seoul needed that infrastructure, and Seoul's cultural life could sustain all those performance venues, Pyeongchang doesn't have enough people to fill a bunch of stadiums with crowds for sports or cultural events after the crowds leave. This article says the Pyeongchang organizers have designed the facilities with this in mind. But nobody seems to be sure who will foot the bill for maintenance after the games close.

(Hosting the Olympics is a Terrible Investment)
They only happen every four years... so how can there be a to SEVEN list of the worst Olympic financial disasters?

4. The Olympic Spirit Itself

The Olympics are in trouble.

Back in 1988, I think people were still willing to buy that rhetoric about the unity of humankind, the binding power of excellence in competition, and the potential for sport to lead humans closer to peace and unity, or at least wanting to... though the three previous Boycott Olympics in a row might put the lie to that. As the Olympics get bigger and more media-saturated, and as the Games get cynically instrumentalised by governments wishing to score a propaganda or national image boost  more and more often (Beijing, Sochi, Berlin), as the number of cities willing to host dwindles, as countries more and more nakedly obsess over medal counts and gold medal ratios as a proxy for national prestige (and will cheat on a massive, institutional scale to do it)... as the IOC is second only to FIFA its corruption inducing mix of prestige, money at stake and organizational opacity, and Coke ads seem to take higher priority than exciting performances... the world is just less ready to swallow what the Olympics are serving than before, and it's harder to drum up excitement when the Olympics stir up a medal-count-obsessed rivalry and petty nationalisms, all enabled by Coca Cola, Visa, McDonald's and Samsung, instead of joy and excitement and all that. I think the world has come onto the fact it's impossible for the Olympics to actually be non-political, as much as the IOC micro-manages helmet designs to maintain that fiction. The very act of choosing one country or city over another makes it inherently political (Uhh... Moscow 1980/LA 1984 during the Cold War? Can we just stop pretending?)...

The only reason the Olympics still exist is because Samsung and Coca Cola et al couldn't get everybody to watch if they organized a spectacle to the shit they're selling, so they had to slap some flags on it to get people to watch. If the Olympics REALLY wanted to be non-political, athletes would march in without flags, but then everybody would notice how it is now nakedly and unashamedly about money.

It's not Pyeongchang's fault, but the world is different, and mega-events are way different.

Part Two: But North Korea!


1. North Korea won't try any crap during the Olympics. They have more to gain from showing they can play nicely. After the Olympics, it will probably be same old same old, until DJT needs to distract the US media from another revelation by the Mueller Investigation. At that point, the American guy is the wild card. North Korea's been very predictable.

2. Does anybody else find the fawning coverage of the pretty North Korean cheerleaders more than a little creepy? I sure do.

Source


3. North and South Korea's Olympic teams marching together is meaningless, sorry. It's your kid sister grabbing your cap and gown and putting it on while you're showering before the graduation ceremony. It's putting the cart before the horse. More than that. It's putting the cart before the horse, before the horse has even been born. It's putting the cart before a freezer of stud samples at a horse breeding facility. It's putting the cart before the plot of land where a horse breeding facility will one day be built.

For The Koreas to actually, meaningfully, substantively improve relations, so many things have to happen, that marching athletes under the unification flag means absolutely nothing in the larger scheme of things. That Kim Jong-eun's sister is attending the games... still means nothing except that North Korea saw an opportunity for some good propaganda shots.

If the Koreas marching together were another step on a long trail of increasingly confident steps of rapprochement between North and South Korea, the march would be meaningless because those negotiations would be considered much more important by anyone but the most sentimental of souls. Without that process, marching together is like lifting a sports trophy you didn't win. It's step T without steps A, B, C, D, etc.. Let's not get carried away, OK? Nobody is winning a Nobel Peace Prize here, folks.


The Pyeongchang Olympics will be a letdown for Korea. After the narratives around the Seoul Olympics and the excitement of the 2002 World Cup, anything would be... but they will. Sorry.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

The Pyeongchang Olympics Coverage Bingo Card!

The Pyeongchang Olympics are coming!

I am in the process of writing my longer, less fun take on why the Pyeongchang Olympics will be a letdown, but one thing I'm looking forward to is... the foreign media frenzy!

Yes, foreign media will be helicoptering into South Korea in droves to cover the Pyeongchang games, and we get the pleasure of scads and scads of people writing about Korea who don't actually know much about Korea!

The esteemed Matt from Popular Gusts wrote this interesting piece for The Korea Times about some of the takes foreign journalists had of South Korea during the '88 Olympics, when NBC's coverage of a few incidents led to a full-blown backlash among Koreans, severe enough that NBC reporters were advised to hide the NBC logo on their cameras!

Well, in anticipation of hot takes that break all five of my "signs the author of the article you're reading about Korea doesn't actually know much about Korea," and running with this tweet from @thewaegukin...




There is simply nothing for it but to put together the "Pyeongchang Olympics Coverage Bingo Card!"

Buy your own bingo cards if you want! (Source)
Here is a list of items for you to fill in on your own card.

Comments are open: please add your own suggestions!

So... check the box when you spot articles or coverage that...

  • Yuna Kim (Free Square)
  • Claims South and North Korea are now on the road to unification because of the thing that happened/marching together during the Olympics
  • Claims unification is doomed because of the thing that happened during these Olympics
  • Blames/Attributes implausible things to Confucianism
  • Mistranslates a Korean word/uses it torturously out of context
  • Describes something as mysterious
  • Blames/Attributes something to Korea's colonial history
  • Attributes something to Korea being a conservative society
  • Attributes something to Korean mothers' love that was probably the result of training
  • Chaos caused by website that runs on Internet Explorer 6, or only recognizes Korean ID numbers
  • A Samsung LG or Hyundai logo or product tackily shoehorned into an event or ceremony
  • Claims a Korean word is untranslatable
  • Claims that untranslatable word is the key to understanding the true Korean spirit
  • Insults K-pop
  • DDOS attacks and massive backlash from a K-pop fanclub after somebody insults K-pop
  • Accidentally says "Pyeongyang" instead of "Pyeongchang"
  • Athlete with Korean ancestors asked questions about "homecoming" even though they have never been here
  • Mistakenly mentions the Nagano, Sapporo, or Beijing Olympics as happening in Korea
  • Cites an English teacher living in Korea as an expert
  • Garlic or kimchi joke
  • Chloe Kim
  • Massively overstates anti-American sentiment in South Korea
  • Recycles an expat's view about Korea that hasn't been updated since Dave's ESL Cafe was the main place people discussed Korea online
  • Recording of an athlete making "ching chang chong" jokes surfaces
  • Joke about Asian penis size
  • ____(athlete/dignitary) is a K-pop fan!
  • Long-term expat with no other qualifications gets printed/interviewed at a world-class outlet
  • Connects plastic surgery to athletes' training
  • Athlete accidentally goes to Pyeongyang instead of Pyeongchang.
  • Non-Asian athletes wearing hanbok
  • Non-asian athletes photographed doing "Asian eyes"
  • Dog meat
  • Korean food is spicy!
  • Massively understates South Korean suspicion/distrust of North Korea's leadership
  • Mentions Gangnam Style
  • Athlete with Korean ancestors suddenly becomes Korean after they medal
  • Making a little TOO big a deal of the North Korean female cheerleaders. Like creepily big.
  • Learns one Korean word and uses it to explain everything
  • Characterizes all Koreans as sharing the same opinions
  • "from the ashes of the Korean War"... "technological powerhouse" "economic tiger"
  • Hey wait, is that Sam Hammington?
  • Non-Korean famous in Korea, completely overlooked by foreign media
  • Frames a story in terms of possible war on the peninsula
  • Dokdo belongs to Korea sign (plus mini-media blowup)
  • Massively overstates conformity in South Korea
  • Accidentally dirty translation
  • Jokes about Asian drivers
  • K-pop group's fan club launches massive backlash against reporter who flippantly insults K-pop
  • Massively understates Korean antipathy toward Japan over historical disputes
  • Massively overstates Korean antipathy toward Japan over historical disputes
  • Athlete asked if they were nervous about coming here because of North Korea
  • Confuses Korean language or writing with language or writing from other parts of Asia
  • Wrongly identifies a Korean or Asian TV/music star
  • Mentions the 2002 Japan World Cup
  • NORTH KOREA'S NUCLEAR BUTTON!
  • Suggests eating Kimchi to deal with something (cold weather, injury, disappointment, etc.)
  • TV reporter getting praise for using one of three Korean phrases they know
  • Media outlet sends a reporter who knows nothing about Asia/Korea, only because they are ethnically East-Asian
  • Media outlet sends a reporter who is obviously a Weeaboo wishing he were in Japan
  • The North and South Korea At Night photo.
Jeez. We could make this card seven by seven squares!

Comments are open! Add your suggestions!

Thursday, 4 January 2018

More about Shin Joong-hyun, the #1 K-Pop Musician of All Time

Blogger Ask A Korean! has finally reached the much-awaited pinnacle of his "Top 50 Most Influential K-pop Artists" list.

I've engaged with this list a few times, recently disputing his definition of K-Pop for (glances around shyly) nearly my only blog post last year. But contrarian as I may be, I love what he's doing with that list, and it's helped me discover a handful of favorite Korean artists.

He has reached #1, and the ultimate Korean musician is a favorite of mine: Shin Joong-hyun (or Shin Jung-hyeon, both transliterations of 신중현). Go read his write-up. Tell him I sent you.

So for readers who are interested in knowing more about the amazing Shin Joong-hyeon, here are some links!

First, to learn more about Shin Joong-hyun's career, particularly the way being blacklisted derailed it, and a bit about his ongoing influence despite that, go read Mark Russell's interview with him.

For an audio documentary about how Shin's reputation was rehabilitated in the 1990s, leading to international recognition in the 2000s (and a bit about the sheer scope of his influence as a musician and producer), listen to this documentary I helped write for TBS Radio.

Speaking of international recognition, here is a playlist compiled by NPR, including songs Shin wrote and produced for a few different artists (an underrated part of his legacy: he sprung a huge number of Korea's major pop stars of the 70s) The playlist includes the Pearl Sisters, the first group he launched to stardom, his live version of "In A Kadda Da Vida" which is simply stunning, and also his version of "Beautiful Rivers and Mountains" -- my favorite song of his.

For readers who would like to listen to more of his music, indie archivist label "Light in the Attic Records" compiled and remastered a great one disc compilation of some of Shin's best music. It includes the best versions of several of his defining songs, though it's short on songs performed by Kim Chuja, one of Shin's most notable collaborators.

Light In The Attic also released perhaps the single best album Shin wrote and produced: "Now" by Kim Jungmi. The story goes that due to being blacklisted, he couldn't find a venue to perform at or musicians to work with him, except Kim Jungmi, and together they cut an album that is fantastic, top to bottom. The opening track, "Haenim" or "The Sun" is one of my favorite recordings, full stop (see below).

For more Shin Joong-hyun goodness, here are a couple of blog posts I wrote about him.

This one is about my favorite song of his: Beautiful Rivers and Mountains.

This one includes a video of Shin performing one of his songs at a more recent concert: even as a senior citizen, the man still rocks.

Favorite blog Gusts of Popular Feeling has also written about Shin Joong-hyun, here on the early parts of his career, when he performed as Hicky Shin.

Here, he talks about the Kim Jungmi connection.

And here he mentions the kind of music Park Chung-hee would have asked Shin to record, in order to show his loyalty to the regime (the incident which led to his being blacklisted)

The Korean's entire list is here, and it's full of great things and worthy luminaries. Of course there are a few singers I think are too high, or too low, and fans could make their cases energetically (though eyes will be rolled at anyone placing a group that debuted since 2010 in the top ten). The list started before Kangnam Style, so Psy doesn't figure. Some might argue to rearrange some of the #4-10 places, and many might switch #1 and #2, but I think The Korean made the right call here in the end.



Finally, if you've read this far, you deserve goodies:

When I was writing that documentary linked above for TBS Radio, I listened to as much Shin Joong-hyun as I could get my hands on (which was quite a bit: he has a couple of anthologies, and scads of stuff on Youtube if you are willing to wade through a few four hour long collection-all-in-one-place videos.

Basically, the Light In The Attic compilation is great, but left me wanting more. A legend of Shin's stature deserves more than one disk! So I combed through all that music I was listening to, and cobbled together a double CD that stretches its legs a bit.

As for goals, I wanted my two disc set to accomplish a few things:

1. Find a good version of each of the songs that comprise the Shin Joong-hyun canon (that is: the tracks that keep showing up on anthology after anthology, many of which have become standards, covered by tons of artists. These are his greatest hits and most recognizable).

2. Feature the variety of singers he worked with (so other than Jang Hyun and Kim Chuja, his most important singers, who had no cap, and Kim Jungmi and Lee Junghwa, who got three, no vocalist got more than two tracks)

3. Show off his skill as a songwriter and producer: his songs are extremely well composed and arranged, tight and concise examples of pop songwriting as a form. For such a brilliantly talented musician, he shows a lot of restraint in only busting out his guitar chops when it makes the song better)

4. Work as a serviceable companion to the Light in the Attic one-disc compilation, (this meant that, for example, where a great version of one of Shin's essential songs existed (often sung by Jang Hyun or one of Shin's top collaborators) on the LITA collection, I'd find a version from a less-often-mentioned singer for my collection, which let me showcase more different artists (see #2) (Park In Soo's version of 봄비 [Spring Rain] is by far the most famous, and it's on LITA, so I got to put my personal favorite version, by 이정화, on my playlist, for example), or songs from the major artists that were a little less famous, because their big ones (이정화's 싫어, and Bunny Girls' 하필 그사람 for example) were already covered on LITA (so I got to put Lee's 꽃잎 and Bunny Girls' 우주여행 on mine)... but my playlist also had to...

5. Stand alone, too. That means where possible, I avoided crossover with the LITA disc, but where LITA had the slam-dunk definitive version of one of Shin's absolutely essential songs (this happened three times), I did double up. There are only a small handful of Shin's essential songs (미련 and 석양 are two that LITA had, while 늦기전에 was the only one I couldn't find space for on my two-disk either, because Kim Chuja only got one torch song, and 님은 먼것에 is more important) that Shin recorded with many artists, that I didn't include here.

6. Repeat songs as little as possible (this was a problem with some of the other Shin Joong-hyun box sets and anthologies: he has a group of his best songs, and recorded them each with a number of different artists, which is interesting, but too much for a two disc set.) Only Mi-in, and Beautiful Rivers and Mountains, Shin's two most indelible songs, got more than one version.

And finally

7. Show the scope of his talent as a musician, songwriter, collaborator, producer, and inspiration. Inspiration is why I included a cover of his song by Kopchangjeongol, a tribute band formed by one of the Japanese collectors whose interest revived interest in Shin in the late 1990 (also considered: Jang Gi-ha collaborators The Mimi Sisters, covering one of Shin's strangest songs), and one track from the Shin Joong-hyun tribute album made by Korean musicians (the heavy version of Mi-in).

The first disc is more focused on his ability as a songwriter and producer: these songs are tight, concise, well-arranged and varied. A lot of them are hits, or have lived on as standards. You'll even spot a few of them covered in the soundtrack for the K-drama "Signal"

The second disc is more focused on his versatility and musicianship: some more interesting or unusual arrangements are here (listen especially to 우주여행 - "Space Journey" which sounds cosmic), some funny little songs (나팔바지 - Bell Bottom Pants) as well as some of the longer songs where he really cuts loose as a heavy guitar-rock soloist (the heavy version of In A Kadda Da Vida, Beautiful Rivers and Mountains, and the heavy version of Mi-in (The Beauty) are here).

In my opinion, the measure of a songwriter is that their songs can be covered: new artists bring something new to the song, or reveal interesting facets that hadn't been discovered yet by other performers. Think of the jazz standards, or artists like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, or Carol King, whose songs have done very well for other artists. The Beatles are covered a ton, because the songs are well built and have good bones. On the other hand, the measure of a musician is that there is something inimitable in their performance of a song: nobody sings "Respect" because it's impossible to live up to Aretha Franklin's version. Every version of "All Along the Watchtower" is measured against Jimi Hendrix (and comes up short). You don't come across many Guns'n'Roses covers, because who can sing like Axl? It is amazing to me that Shin Joong-hyun has delivered both types of songs in his career: as a songwriter, 봄비, 나는 너를, 미련, 님은 먼곳에, 명동 거리/검은 머리, 비속에 여인 and even 아름다운 강산 (copy/paste and look up the different versions on Youtube) are all standard repertoire songs covered by a bunch of different artists, but then, nobody even comes close to his versions of 미인, and his version of In-A-Kadda-Da-Vida is unbelievable. Even a song of his that has been covered time and time again, the version where Shin opens it with a solo is (in my opinion) the definitive version of 떠나야할 그 사람.


Here is my two disc compilation. I don't know how many people will download this, but if I hit my daily google drive maximum, come back and try again another day.
If this gets enough positive feedback, I might expand on why I included the songs I did. If not, well, enjoy it, whoever is inclined.

Also, seriously, readers: if you like this stuff, go find a place where you can spend some money on Shin Joong-hyun's music. Buy the Light In The Attic set, or Now, or one of his other albums. He has some box sets, too, if you have his main stuff and want deep cuts. It's good stuff, and he deserves your royalties.



Thinking about the things I learned about Shin Joong-hyun, who had globe-spanning talent, but never became a global star, it simply strikes me how many different things have to go right for someone to become a global star.

If US hadn't had military bases in Korea, providing income and inspiration for Shin to explore rock and soul music, he might never have developed as a musician.

According to one story I heard, Shin was actually invited to the US by an American record company interested in his talent... but his manager hid the invitation from him for a year, lest his cash-cow leave the country. That could have been his "Jimi Hendrix goes to England" moment... but it wasn't.

Also, if timing had worked out a little differently, he wouldn't have become the Korea legend he is at all: he'd signed a contract and taken the payment to travel to Vietnam to perform for American troops there, when word came to his manager that The Pearl Sisters' song "Nima" was his first real hit, and he decided to wiggle out of his contract, stay in Korea to keep trying as a producer and songwriter. A few days one way or the other and he would not have been in Korea at all to become what he became for Korean music.

Shin's singers kept leaving him as soon as they got famous. He simply never found the right muse or collaborator, the way Keith Richards found Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page found Robert Plant. We could speculate on reasons why his groups never stayed together, but the fact is he never had a band lineup together for longer than a few years, and every new vocalist meant the old songs might not fit.

Maybe if he'd been a bit better of a vocalist himself, he wouldn't have needed that, or if he'd done things a little differently whilst collaborating, or found a vocalist with the right temperament, one of his singers would have stuck around to be his Mick Jagger... who knows? But the fact is, he had to keep starting from scratch.

If he'd just recorded a song kissing President Park Chung-hee's ass that one time, the entire narrative of Korean rock music could have been completely different, and the (great though they were) Korean singers of the early 80s could have been starting from a much more interesting place than from scratch. I mean... (looks around nervously) say what you want about artistic integrity (looks around nervously again) ...given the situation at the time, he had to know what the fallout of that choice would be, right?

I mean, he got cut off just as he was peaking as a recording artist and producer, truncating his "Mega Producer, Taste-Maker" phase (imagine JYP or Lee Soo-man if they like, rocked, or ... a hard rock Quincy Jones, or Phil Spector with more guitar and without criminal charges), where he could have steered the course of Korean music for decades. We got a shadow his knack for starmaking in the '80s, boosting In Sooni and Kim WanSeon, but way less than we would have if he hadn't been banished to the doghouse for half a decade, while pop music moved on without him. He might have been doing his "Sir Paul McCartney tour" right now instead of being the "Hey why doesn't everybody know about this Korean guy? He's really good!" guy.

Of all the artists on my playlists, Shin Joong-hyun is the most tantalizing, both for the amazing stuff he created, and for the sheer scope of the woulda-coulda-shouldas of his career. Imagine if Brian Wilson were a little more mentally stable. And could rip a guitar riff like Keith Richards. Imagine if Jimi Hendrix were also a producer and starmaker on par with Berry Gordy Jr.. Imagine if Neil Young could also lay down a solo with the power of Jimmy Page, and also spring a dozen other popstars as a producer. What he did was enough to peg him as the #1 most influential K-pop musician in Korean music history. Who knows what Shin Joong-hyun could have been if things had broken right for him instead of always going sideways! 

Monday, 18 December 2017

Thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi (ALL Spoilers)

May as well put this all in one place on a blog post, because I hate digging through social media to find what I've said.

I will include spoiler warnings in the text, but generally, if you haven't seen The Last Jedi yet, maybe put this post off for later.

Even though it's crappy writing, let's put this in Question and Answer format:

Did you like it, Rob?

Yes.

Come on. Get in the weeds a bit.

OK. The Star Wars Films in order:

1. The Empire Strikes Back
2. A New Hope (the original)
3. Return of the Jedi
4. The Force Awakens (could have been 3 if it hadn't mostly been a remake of A New Hope)
5-6. Rogue One and The Last Jedi (could have been 3 if it were 30 minutes shorter and lacked an extended commercial for the new Christmas toy)
7. The Last Half of Revenge of the Sith
8-9. The other prequels make me feel dirty.

On Facebook, I'd put The Last Jedi above Rogue One, but thinking back, Rogue One had a much leaner story, a clearer objective that better defined and guided all the action in the film. I like action films that move in a straight line, most of the time.

That's a little low, for The Last Jedi, isn't it?

For perspective... my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe films (Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok, Civil War and Spider-man: Homecoming) ... I don't think I liked any of them more than #5 on this list. My favorite Superhero films ever, The Dark Knight or Spider-man 2 (Doc Ock) might be between 4 and 3. I really like Star Wars. It's magic.

Rogue One?
Well... if Rogue One had been less meandering in the first half, it would definitely have been 5. The final sequence of Rogue One, from the tower invasion on, was one of the most exciting sequences in a star wars film. On the other hand, if The Last Jedi had slimmed down the subplots, character bloat and toy ads, they could have taken that spot easily, as their main cast has a clear advantage over Rogue One's. But neither of those things happened, so I'm not making a call right now. I'll watch each of them one or two more times before deciding for sure.


SPOILERS FROM HERE ON

So what were the little things you liked?

Luke's crowning moment of awesome was truly awesome (and much needed after how low he'd been brought through the rest of the film.)

The best scene in the film was Snoke's throne room, and Kylo and Rey vs. Snoke's guard was everything we've been waiting for, while the twists and turns of who is offering what and who is willing to throw down with whom is fantastic.

Kylo Ren is a great villain, as I said last time I talked about Star Wars. That he is conflicted makes him more interesting and less predictable. The way he will derail an entire battle plan to chew on one of his obsessions like a dog on a toy makes him interesting... but he (like Luke Skywalker) understands the power of a symbolic moment. (which is why he was able to be baited). That he is trying to PROVE to himself how evil he is gives him a higher ceiling of evilness than Hux. Hux is smart enough to create a successful battle plan and accomplish more evil overall by taking over the galaxy for his evil purposes, which is scarier from five thousand yards. But Hux wouldn't derail a battle plan for the sake of being especially mean to this person over here, just because fuck them! He's too calculating. When they're in a room with you, Kylo is more likely to do something cruel or horrifying than Hux, just because, so for the purpose of an interesting scene in a film, Kylo Ren is more interesting than red-haired Hitler.

Rose Tico was pretty cool, and it's about time we saw an Asian face with speaking parts in the Star Wars universe, she had one of the best lines in the film about saving what we love rather than fighting what we hate, but her and her plotline slowed the story down... and was a waste of a perfectly good Benicio Del Toro.

Rey was pretty great. After TFA she was in a dead heat with Poe and Finn and Kylo, but now she and Kylo have separated themselves from the pack, and she gave me chills a couple of times. Finn's subplot felt shoehorned in at times, and Poe was reckless: as likable as he was, he was dangerous and wrong and deserved worse than he got as a penalty for his mutiny.

I like that they batted away the fan theories about Rey's parents. And the conversation where they addressed that was devastating. I was ready to go to the dark side for Kylo at that point.

Best line in the film:

Rey: "If you see Finn before I do..."
Chewbacca: "GGGrrrrRRRRAAAWWWWwwwWWW"
Rey: "Perfect. Tell him that."

The fact they replayed the twists and turns of the Return of the Jedi throne room in Episode 8 means that we're in uncharted territory for episode 9. Who knows what will happen now that Kylo Ren is without his big bad. I predict the rivalry between him and Hux playing into a few crucial moments, as Ren and his urge to be dramatic continues to get in the way of Hux's sound military strategies. In fact, I'm gonna go on record saying that The First Order's undoing is going to be Hux stabbing Kylo Ren in the back, or vice versa, as they decide they can't stand each other and can't work together. Mark it down.

What is great about Star Wars? Are there problems built into the basic premises of the Star Wars Universe?

Yes, there are.

First, what's great: Good star wars movies have always made you care about the characters -- the heroes and the villains, or at least understand what they want. That makes THIS space opera different from the others. Star Wars stories live and die with likable characters, so the casting is really important, and the two good trilogies (Original and VII and on) have really nailed the casting with leads that are fun to watch and easy to care about. The Star Wars juggernaut will start to falter when they start flubbing the casting. This is why people say Star Wars has "heart." Because they make us care about the characters.

The original Star Wars used a couple of brilliant storytelling devices as well... but two of them also have the seeds of problems the audience will have as we see more and more Star Wars.

The droids as storytelling devices 1

R2D2, and droids that bip and squeak, as well as Wookies, are great foils for exposition. You get to talk about what's going on and what you have to do without it seeming cloying, and then you get to respond to their reactions even though the audience doesn't understand them. It is a way of downloading information to the audience without getting tiresome, because the audience is still filling in gaps even during bald exposition. R2D2 and Chewbacca stood in for the audience so that we got the information we needed, in a way that wasn't annoying.

Meanwhile, the droids and wookies were all very technically accomplished, meaning that instead of dropping a load of technobabble (see: star trek) on the audience, we could have a growl, or R2D2 could shove a plug into a panel, beep, whistle, and the alarms would stop ringing. Basically... authorial intrusion in the form of robots and wookies that could do anything the plot required to bloop over in order to get to the next action scene. The conversation between Finn and Rose about how to stop the First Order's tracking device on The Last Jedi is the first time I can remember a technobabble conversation in Star Wars.

Chewbacca and the droids were seriously underused in this film, which means we had things explained with technobabble instead of blipped over. More of that and Star Wars will have the same problem as other Space Adventure Shows.


The droids as storytelling devices 2

C3P0, on the other hand, basically operated like a little golden Greek Chorus, (a group that underlines the scenes' importance and explains the action to the audience, but doesn't take part in the plot) reminding us of what's at risk, how dangerous the thing is they're about to do ("Never tell me the odds") and adding little commentaries that, while annoying, let us see the story through his eyes... in which the events appeared bold, thrilling, and terrifying. The Greek Chorus doesn't factor into the plot, neither did C3PO. He was just there commenting on stuff.

The fact he didn't operate this way is why K2S0 was a character in Rogue One, and fit into the story differently than C3PO does.

So far it's worked, but C3PO barely figured into The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi. Are audience stand-ins and Greek choruses absolutely needed in Star Wars? I'm not sure. But that might have contributed more than we thought to the way the old Star Wars had that epic, massive, sweeping feel to it. Visiting new planets doesn't necessarily accomplish that same feeling (or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets would have had a different reception), though there are other ways to do it that don't necessarily have to use droids. "Freaking out at everything Finn" did that in The Force Awakens, for example.

Lightsabers are awesome, but... the problem of melee weapons in space sagas:

The four awesomest types of action scenes are (in no particular order):

1. Aerial dogfights
2. Chase scenes (especially car chase scenes)
3. Swordfights
4. Martial arts style hand combat

The rarest of these is sword fights, because they can only plausibly appear in swords and sandals and martial arts films. George Lucas' idea of space wizards with lightsabers is genius because it lets us put sword fighting into the same universe as aerial dogfights -- not just aerial dogfights, but SPACE dogfights! A universe where all four awesome kinds of action scenes can plausibly appear in the same film is pure genius!

The fact is audiences like to see battles come down to hand combat scenes, two heroes going at each other with melee weapons. Seeing armies swoop across a field from an eagle view just isn't as gut-exciting as seeing two warriors punch it out, even though most real battles or wars aren't decided by Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler getting into a knife fight. Even great battle scenes that are mostly about maneuvers on a battlefield feel more satisfying when they end up close and personal. This is better when it ends with this (Game of Thrones, Battle of the Bastards).

The problem is, in a space epic where everyone's flying around in space ships, it's hard to get people together in a room to swing lightsabers and vibrating bludgeons at each other. There are only so many plot devices that accomplish that, and we're close to having seen them all now. I worry that it'll start to be like the James Bond movies where Bond has (yet again) been captured and the villain explains himself (yet again), puts Bond in (another) slow-acting, easily-escapable death device, and (predictably) walks away: it worked, and then it didn't, and then suddenly it was self-parody. There are only so many times we believe a hero would turn themselves in to the head villain before we start smacking our foreheads and updating the evil overlord list. Why on EARTH (why IN THE GALAXY) would Snoke allow Rey in a room with him and lightsabers, knowing what happened to Palpatine?

Getting Finn in a room with Phasma took a 40 minute subplot that turned out unnecessary. Their fight was too short anyway. Getting Rey in a room with Kylo Ren was a little too easy, but involved inventing a new Force Ability (Force Skype) that we haven't seen before. Neither was a satisfying way of moving the characters from place to place, in my opinion.

What didn't you like about this film?

NO DISNEY! BAD! You get ONE toy craze per trilogy (cf Ewoks-bad enough in their own right), and that was BB8. Don't be greedy.

Snoke's throne room was ridiculous. A red scrim cloth? It looked great burning, though.

Snoke was ridiculous, too. Vamping in a Hugh Hefner robe was NOT what I expected from the buildup he got in The Force Awakens. Yes, I get that you have to make him different from decrepit, creepy, creaky Palpatine, but Snoke was not doing it for me.

Snoke was underused and a letdown after the buildup he got in TFA. So, basically, everything about Snoke was bad. Except when Rey tried to call her lightsaber and Snoke made it hit her in the head. That was awesome. If he'd had a sense of humor like that all through I'd have been down with mischievous, petty evil Snoke. That wasn't what we got though.

Finn didn't have enough to do and wasn't nearly as fun as last time, and the thing he did get to do turned out to be mostly plot wheel-spinning, little but a pretense to get him on the bad guy spaceship.

Poe was an idiot. Likable, but an idiot in this one.

It was the longest Star Wars film, but one whole subplot was mostly unnecessary and a waste of Benicio Del Toro, who is a limited natural resource.



The Big Thing: Pacing

It felt like they were cramming as many "ooh!" scenes as possible in. The final act had enough of them for any two films. I counted three storylines going on at once for most of the last half of the film. Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi gave us jump-cuts between multiple storylines, but this was the most crowded finale yet.

With such hectic pacing, and so many subplots, all the story had time for were the characters' big motivations and desperate needs. We never got to just hang out with them. The situation was a good one to see the characters strain under the pressure, too. Cornered, running out of fuel... that could have shown us (better than it did) what they were each made of. Instead we got a tour to a casino planet, as if this were a James Bond film!

This film lacked little, personal moments like Han offering Rey a job, or Maz giving Rey advice in The Force Awakens. Those moments let us see what Rey wanted, what kind of a person she was, and start liking her. The little jacket bit between Finn and Poe was a touch of color that humanized both men (not to mention the lip bite that launched a thousand 'ships). The reunion between Leia and Han didn't advance the plot, but it let us see who they had become, with so much unsaid between the lines they said. Our old friends were back!

This film never gave the characters time to stretch their legs, and that stuff matters. Star Wars "A New Hope" played like a slow burn, with lots of slow spots where we got to know the characters - little "Let the wookie win" moments don't make the highlight reel, but that's where the quotes come from, that's where we feel like the world they live in is real, and they are real people.  I am starting to like the characters less when all we see of them are their desperate needs, and not How They Normally Are. Show me Finn and Poe playing cards together. Show me Rey and Chewbacca learning to work together piloting the Millennium Falcon.

Most of all: let us spend some time with Chewbacca, Luke and Leia as they grieved Han Solo! He deserved at least that.

That said... being beaten over the head with different characters' desperate needs is better than getting static cutouts bouncing off against each other the way we're getting now with the established characters in the MCU, so...

All in all, I'll take Star Wars over any other franchise going, but the distance between Star Wars and Marvel, the second best extended universe still going, is getting smaller.

Force Skype and New Force Abilities

The scenes where Rey and Kylo could talk to each other from far away were cool in this film. They were. But we're now nine films into the Star Wars universe, plus a TV series or two. How far in do we get before The Force's powers are pretty much set?

I mean,  storytellers have always nerfed or buffed existing powers to serve a story (Superman gets weaker or stronger from storyline to storyline, but he always has super strength), but storytellers aren't inventing NEW powers for Superman anymore, and for Batman or Iron Man to invent a new gadget the story has to build up to it. If you're pulling "Bat-Shark-Repellent" out of your ass, your storytelling is shit.

So how long before we say "No. It helps the story, but inventing more force powers is now bullshit" -- because looking back, Force Skype would have been really handy during the execution of Order 66. Yoda was super strong in the force: if Snoke and Luke could both do it in this film, SURELY he could have used it to save some Jedis from Order 66. Freezing Blaster bolts, as Kylo Ren did in TFA would have been an incredible move for young Anakin or Darth Vader when they needed to intimidate an enemy, and his way of raiding someone's memory would have been much more effective than Palpatine's "I feel your anger" kind of stuff.

In storytelling terms, it made sense for Harry Potter to be learning new spells because he was a student. It also made sense for Luke to be... and we were learning about the force too. But we've seen enough force users now that it strains credibility to think that Yoda couldn't have done Force Skype, or frozen a blaster bolt, if he'd wanted to, and if he could, why didn't he? It would have been handy in a few tight spots where we saw him NOT use those abilities. Why have we never seen a Force Ghost do something other than appear, shimmer, and talk before - then suddenly Yoda called down lightning onto the Jedi Temple as a Force Ghost?

What is the nature of force powers anyway? Are force abilities like X-men powers -- different users have a different "suite" of force powers? This would explain why Rey picked up a few of the skills so easily, and why Kylo Ren is the only Force user we've seen freeze a blaster bolt in the air, even though Yoda and Palpatine were (presumably) both powerful enough to do it. This accounts for the way Force Lightning and Force Choking are dark side powers, and why nobody on the Jedi Council in the prequels could simply look into little Anakin's mind, which would have been handy, and the kind of skill the Jedi Council would probably have recruited for.

Or are force abilities like spells in Harry Potter -- anybody can learn them, but learning them takes work, and there's nothing to say a clever enough force user couldn't develop a new power if s/he worked at it, just like Hermione or Dumbledore could invent a new spell?

Or are force abilities like a Green Lantern ring, where anybody who puts one on (has the sensitivity) gets access to the same set of powers, (accounting for training and natural ability)?

But mostly: how far into the Star Wars universe do we get before we say "Storytellers should no longer make up new Force Abilities that aren't plausible combinations of other abilities we've already seen"? I'm reaching that point now, myself, as cool as the Force Skype scenes were, I don't want The Force to be the site of a bunch of storytelling ass-pulls and deus ex machinas.


Final Word on Super Franchises

Film Franchises, in order of "Knowing What They Are And Delivering What They Promise"

1. John Wick
2. The Fast and the Furious
3. Star Wars
4. Mad Max
5. Marvel Cinematic Universe
6. Pirates of the Caribbean
7. Transformers

Every other movie that ever got a sequel

162. Justice League/DC Extended Universe

Of these, Star Wars is in the toughest spot because new Star Wars movies are competing against two generations of fans' nostalgia of seeing the other films as kids, so expectations are ridiculously high, storytelling is most important, and how do you add more "heart" in postproduction? Justice League has the hardest spot because they've decided they want to compete with Marvel, choosing to play a near-insurmountable game of catch-up, while starting from the back foot because of bad creative choices at the outset. Marvel has done an amazing job of threading the needle between story continuity, fresh looks at superhero films, rotating in new heroes, while warding off superhero film fatigue, showing respect for the heroes and their storylines, and giving the films mass appeal also for non-comic reading fans. The question is how long they can keep all those plates spinning. Every new film where they continue this streak increases the difficulty rating.


Transformers is in the easiest position because they can just throw money at digital effects artists, cast a few stars from foreign markets, and make half a billion in China, and Pirates is in the second easiest position because Johnny Depp likes big paychecks and Jack Sparrow is good at selling pirate zombies, and again, global audiences seem to eat it up. Fast And The Furious looks like it's in a good spot, but more than you think depends on audiences believing in the vision of family that Dominic Toretto talks about, and the cast being believable as a cohesive unit built on loyalty and love. John Wick films could keep being good for as long as Keanu Reeves' body holds up and the fight choreographers have a free hand. But I have a feeling after three or four they'll walk away and leave John Wick as a perfect series of films preserved in amber. I really hope they don't beat it into the ground like Taken did.

But Star Wars is great. Laser swords, space adventure without technobabble, and oh mercy, that music always gets my blood going! They've had more "punch the air awesome" moments per film than any other series, by a far sight, and as long as they keep nailing the casting, people will buy tickets to see laser sword fights. They just will.

Comment moderation is on but I'll let everything pass through except spam; I'm always up to chat, but be patient please: it's grading period.

See you all at Episode 9!


EDIT: Here is a great article that sums up why TLJ had to be the way it was. More later, maybe.