Tuesday, 25 February 2014

A Pinoy At The Movies: American Hustle

If I had to pick three scenes that I'd never forget from this movie, they would be:

One, Christian Bale showing off his big belly. So very un-Batman.

Two, Amy Adams showing off her cleavage in almost all the scenes. In Doubt, she was all covered as a nun and in Enchanted, she was also covered up as a princess running around New York City in a gown.

Three, the disco scene at Studio 54 that started off with Donna Summer's I Feel Love, and ending up with Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper dancing to Don't Leave Me This Way was like a scene out of Saturday Night Fever

American Hustle is a comedy with great acting and characters, and lots of scam and con artists. If you were born in that decade or later, and wanted to know how men and women dressed up and looked during that decade, this movie would show you how it was, plus the music!

A few weeks ago, when they announced the nominees for the 2014 Academy Awards, I wondered when this film was going to be shown in Seoul. I had to watch the movie before March 2, 2014, the Oscar's night as American Hustle received a lot of nominations including Best Picture. At that time, I couldn't find any theater showing it. But luckily, without any intention of squeezing a movie into my weekend, I was able to catch it at a neighborhood CGV cinema.

              (Crowds in Myeong-dong during the weekend)
I was rushing from Myeongdong when I decided I needed to watch all the Oscar-nominated films before they all finish their runs in Seoul. That night, after the Mass at the cathedral, I was almost distracted from the idea. As usual, Myeongdong was full of shoppers and tourists, but last weekend, there were k-pop fans, too. 

          (A k-pop boy band performing in Myeong-dong)

Right in the middle of the main alley, was a stage which looked liked an open bus, and on top of it, was a k-pop boy band dancing and singing, while their fans were....well, screaming! Ha-ha-ha! I just stopped by for a couple of minutes to take a photo, and then headed off to CGV. I had a date with the 70's!

I don't know which of its ten nominations would bring it an Oscar. But win or lose, it is a must-see film.Their performances were amazingly good and funny. Christian Bale had to fatten himself with 40 pounds more to be a scam artist, Amy Adams had to display her cleavage without any qualms, and Jennifer Lawrence, last year's Oscar best actress, played a tough 70's housewife complete with nail polish and ignorance on how not to use a microwave oven. Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner completed the lead cast.

I am not sure if Amy Adams would have an edge over the Oscar favorite (and mine!) Cate Blanchett for the best actress. Amy Adams's co-star in Enchanted, by the way, was an unfamiliar face to me that time, Idina Menzel, whose Let It Go has been very popular this winter season. She'll be singing that song at the Oscars. Now that it's spring, I hope that's the last time I'd hear that tune.

So, if you still have time before the Oscars on Sunday night in the U.S., or Monday morning in Korea, do catch American Hustle. Who knows? You'd pick up a trick or two from these scammers.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Bukchon Village's Hanok: A Vanishing Heritage

The last time I walked along the inner alleys of Bukchon was in 2006 when I visited the home of David and Jade Kilburn. It  was during our despedida dinner for a good friend Brenda who was going back to her home in Canada after working at a national daily. That night, after our dinner, Jade invited the group to her home in Gaheo-dong, right in the middle of Bukchon Village.

While sitting at the living room of their hanok, I suddenly realized something. While we were there chatting, I recalled a scene from a Korean movie, 3-Iron, or its name in hangul, Empty House or 빈집.

In the movie, there was a scene where the lead actress went straight inside a hanok uninvited and lay down on the couch of the house, ignoring the couple who were by the front porch. The 'L' shape architecture of that hanok in the movie reminded me of the same shape of David's hanok. So, I had to ask him if it was the same house, and he confirmed it was! Even my friend Stefan from Austria was surprised about it as he said that was his favorite Korean movie. After all, that movie was directed by the award-winning Kim Ki-Duk! Lucky us! And lying there on the table in David and Jade's living room was a coffee table book featuring the movie with photographs of their hanok!

(Here's a link to that movie. On 1:03 and 1:14, that's David and Jade's beautiful hanok.)

And as part of my tour in the Jongno District, I once again roamed the alleys of Bukchon Village, where the last of the remaining hanok in Seoul still exist. This was supposed to be a protected enclave of traditional Korean houses with their original architecture and structures still intact. But what I saw is a village where hanok homes mix with apartment buildings and commercial spaces. And while there were still old-looking hanok, you can see that there were newly built ones. They don't look old. One could tell they're newly built, which was a turnoff. 

As I walked the alleys, I was wondering whether the Seoul city government, or the officials of the Jongno District didn't have any plans to preserve the Korean traditional homes of the area. The remaining structures that still have the traditional Korean architecture are only a handful and seem to be concentrated in one small area. 

I read in the brochure that I got from the tourist information booth that this place was populated by court officers during the Choseon Dynasty due to its proximity to Gyeongbuk Palace and Changdeok Palace. These two palaces sandwich Bukchon Village.

From Exit 1 of Anguk Station, the path leading to the hanok enclave looked like an extension of artsy Insadong. But from Exit 2, along the busy road, the path is lined with commercial spaces with nary a hint of the traditional. You would know that you're actually near when crowds of tourists are gathered at a corner next to the pharmacy. It would have been interesting if that corner was actually a hanok housing a shop selling traditional Korean medicine, just like during the last dynasty. 

And near the more interesting corners, there were signs in English and other languages saying that the area is still a residential neighborhood, and should only be visited from 10AM until sundown. This means the residents also needed the peace and quiet the whole neighborhood is entitled to.

But while I was there, some Asian tourists couldn't seem to restrain themselves from the excitement of having visited Bukchon Village and having their selfies taken with the hanok in the background. I wonder how these residents feel that their homes are now a tourist attraction.

One couple who I think must have liked that idea is Mr. Yohan  and Mrs. Magdalena Kim, who both run the Bukchon Observatory. I was surprised one Sunday morning, right after the snowfall the night before, no one else was at their terrace.  They turned their unit at the top floor of a three-storey apartment building into a public viewing spot. For KRW3,000, you can stay at their unit, enjoy the view and have a drink. 

I was thinking, a hanok might have stood on the spot where their apartment building now stood because right next to it was a row of hanok lined up in what looked like their original location ever since they were built, untouched and preserved. Maybe those hanok were only renovated, as they still retained their original look. I didn't have to ask Mr. Kim; it was obvious. 

Even at the alley where David's hanok now stood, a few neighboring hanok looked new and the corner lots were now occupied by modern houses. And I wonder why in the brochure the modern-looking house of Lee Jung-gu (not sure who he was) was being promoted as a tourist attraction, even though it stuck out as a sore thumb in the picture.

Some hanok in the area have been transformed into commercial spaces that offer some traditional experience for tourists. This may be of interest to those visiting Korea; they'd be able to experience the culture in Bukchon.

From the way Bukchon Village looks from the outside, the number of real hanok is dwindling and the area is losing its identity. 

I no longer felt the atmosphere of the old and the traditional as I walked the alleys after seeing only a few hanok next to two-storey apartments. I no longer see traditional; I see commercial. That's why I decided to shoot the photographs in monochrome so as to camouflage the reality that Bukchon Village has lost its identity and its heritage.

I don't know the exact count of the remaining authentic Korean traditional homes left in the village, and if it's decreasing, Bukchon's days as a tourist attraction are probably numbered.

Everyone calls them hanok; to me, they're Bukchon's vanishing heritage.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Insadong's Ssamziegil: Shopping All The Way Up!

Yes, that is Insa-dong in the picture with a few rooftops covered with thin snow from the night before. Looking at Insa-dong from the B&B where I stayed over the weekend was weird. From the ground, Insadong would look culturally interesting if one strolls its cobblestone alleys and just ignore the garish and tacky cosmetic shops that have invaded this artsy area recently.

         (Ready for your close-up? The portraiture corner)
But there's one street in Insadong where you can still avoid the inescapable posters of Korean celebrities selling cosmetics and facial cleansers. (Sometimes, seeing this overload of celebrity posters is sickening and ruins one's day! Ha-ha-ha!).

That street is Ssamzie-gil'Gil' in hangeul means 'street'. So, it's Ssamzie Street. But if you're in Insadong and have to ask where it is, just ask for Ssamziegil.

This street is actually a complex, where one walks up from the ground up to the higher floors by just tracing the labyrinth path that elevates continuously floor by floor. One doesn't need stairs or an elevator, actually. Although there's a stairwell at a corner for those in a hurry going up, or going down.

                   (Bags made from recycled wet suits)

And last weekend which I spent around the Jongno District, I visited Ssamziegil and saw for myself the interesting shops that filled up all the floors and attracted tourists, both local and international.

                 (I bought one of those red Korean fans)
     (Korean fans, small bags, scarves, trinkets and souvenirs)

Since it was a weekend, the whole 'street' was full, and even in this very cold weather, couples, kids and their parents, and group of friends seemed to enjoy the complex and all the interesting trinkets, bags, clothes and other unique souvenirs that filled the display windows from ground floor up to the top. There was even a corner where you can have your portrait drawn.

                     (Big roses are red, stairs are multi-colored)
I entered one shop which sells interesting-looking Korean fans. From their display, one caught my eye. I thought this would a good Korean souvenir and a gift; I bought it. Although I could speak survival Korean, I deliberately abandoned the idea of speaking hangeul to continue my pretense that I was a tourist that day. Ha-ha-ha!  Although the husband and wife (I think) who were manning the shop could speak a little English, they were ready with a big calculator (like most vendors in Korea) to make sure there was no misunderstanding when it came to the price. After a few seconds of haggling, I got the Korean fan for KRW15,000.

I walked the whole stretch of the 'street' to see for myself all the shops. I also entered a bag shop and queried the Korean lady about her colorful bags. We conversed in English and she told me that some of her bags are made of recycled wet suits. Yes, those worn by scuba divers. No wonder they were pricey! Those suits must have reached far into the ocean depths and must have logged hundreds of diving hours.  

At the top floor is a small covered restaurant and an outdoor cafe, which looks enjoyable if the weather isn't as freezing as these days. But I think it would be a good idea to just sit there during day time and chat with friends, away from the noisy chaos of the life below and away from the in-your-face posters of Korean celebrities displayed at the cosmetic shops on Insadong's main alley. Ha-ha-ha!

So, if you're in this neighborhood, you now know where to escape. On the uppermost photo, that's Ssamziegil that I encircled in red, where you can go shopping all the way up, and relax when you get to the top.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Winter Olympics: Sochi On TV, PyeongChang On The Slopes!

(Seollal traffic!)

Now that the 2014 Sochi Olympic games are on TV, I needed to blog about our recent visit to the venue of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics during the recent holidays!

                      (The PyeongChang welcome sign)

                           (Ethan and his ski instructor)

That day, everyone else was heading out of Seoul. It was the annual homecoming for Seollal! The lunar new year tradition in Korea when everyone packed their overnight bags to travel to their hometowns to visit families and pay respects to their ancestors. 

Some families took the KTX from major train stations, others drove their cars, and the rest must have taken the plane or the buses. And on that day, my Filipino friends and I experienced first hand the traffic caused by the exodus of everyone heading out of Seoul.

                          (The queue for the gondola)

On the first day of the 4-day weekend  (5 for some!), I rode with Archie, Joy and Miggy heading to the Pyeongchang County's Alpensia Resort to spend the weekend at its snowy slopes along with our group of friends. Everyone drove down there and spent about four hours on the road. Though I am used to sitting on buses for hours, five to six at the most, during my trips to the Korean countryside all these years, this one was one of the earliest bus rides out of the city, not counting the ones I used to take to Incheon International Airport to catch the 8:30AM flights, or the one I took to the 2012 Yeosu Expo.

The Pyeongchang County in Gangwon Province will host the 2018 winter olympics, just four years away. I was actually here just 12 months before for the Pyeongchang Special Olympics, although it was just a day trip. And this time, we were staying for the weekend!

After driving and following the navigator for more than four hours, we finally got there at about 10AM (we left Seoul before 6AM). We survived the huge Seollal traffic along Highway 60 and bottlenecks before a few tunnels and interchanges. And thanks to Archie and his collection OPM music, the entire ride was fun, interesting and smooth.

The Alpensia Resort consists of the Intercontinental Resorts and the Holiday Inn Resorts with facilities such as the convention center and a spa. And of course, snowy slopes during winter for skiing and snowboarding. Or if you just want to learn, an area for ski lessons.  
                                     (Night skiing)
(A DJ spins by the slopes at night for some house music)

                    (The view of the slopes from our unit)

It was a fun weekend. Just what city people needed. A place where we didn't have listen to noisy cars and buses, or endure the noisy vegetable trucks with wailing louderspeakers in the neighborhood. This was place serene, peaceful and of course, cold! And the sights and landscapes even from the window of our rented unit was something out of a winter postcard. Here in Hannam-dong home, I could see Gwanak-san from my kitchen window. There at Alpensia, I could see a ski slope white with snow and full of skiers!  

                                   (The ski jump tower)
                                 (Our monorail ticket)

As this resort will be the venue of the Olympic ski jump and Nordic Combined events, I made sure I'd visit the venue. It's a 700-meter tall tower with a monorail that ferries the skiers to the jumping ledges. That day, it ferried Filipino tourists, not Filipino Olympians. Ha-ha-ha! 

                     (That's the see-through walkway)
               (The see-through steel floor looking down)

For those afraid of heights, walking at the see-through floor towards the jump hill for warm-ups wouldn't be a memorable experience for the right reasons. As I walked through the steel floor, I could see the ground below through the spaces between the steel bars that were holding me up a few hundred meters above the ground and being blown over by freezing wind and acrophobia (the fear of heights). So as not to be overwhelmed by the fact that, if there was a huge earthquake and it shook the whole structure apart, I'd be buried under an avalanche of steel made by Posco, and not under a snow pile. Ha-ha-ha!

I enjoyed standing there, actually. And I hope Archie, Joy and Toti did, too.

The ski jump tower at the top floor has a cafe and a shop for souvenirs! This means that the Olympians who'll attempt to ski jump to a gold medal in 2018 can also go shopping and have a hot cafe mocha after the event!

             (Alpensia resort as seen from the ski jump tower)
        (A Korean movie about ski jumping was filmed there)

Though not all restaurants were open at the resort due to the lunar new year holiday, we ended up ordering pizza and buying food from those that were open, although we brought some cooked food with us. Our units had their own living rooms and kitchens that were complete with pans, plates, utensils and appliances. We just made sure we had everything covered. Some friends even brought spirits and wines! And we had a party! For two nights we were there, we gathered at the Nardos and Murphys' units at the separate cluster, where chatting, drinking and dining started early and ended late!  
         (Snacks at the ski jump tower: the hot cafe mocha 
                          and churros weren't bad)
                               (The tower's souvenir shop)
                     (Wind energy turbines from afar)

So, as I am watching the short track races of the 2014 Sochi Olympics while I finish this blog, I wonder how crazy the atmosphere will be at Alpensia Resort four years from now when not only weekend tourists like us descend upon the countryside, but Olympians, delegates and fans crowd the county during the two weeks of the games.  

But the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics are still four winters away. In the meantime, thanks to the Sabados for the ride, to the Zaras for the accommodation, and everyone else for the fun during the Seollal holidays at Alpensia Resort. We hit the slopes four years ahead of the Olympians! 

And who knows? Maybe in 2018, some of us will still be here in Korea, and Michael Christian Martinez, the lone Filipino Olympian-figure skater at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, won't be the only Filipino at PyeongChang in 2018.