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Korean Fashion Editorial: “The Ties That Bind”

In #1 -- Sexual Minorities in the Korean Fashion Industry, Editorial / 패션화보, OhMyNews on July 3, 2011 at 4:42 pm

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넥 타이는 남자를 연상시킨다. 아니, 어쩌면 남성성 그 자체를 떠올릴 수도 있을 것이다.

When one thinks of a necktie, one thinks of a man, or even of malehood itself.

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샐러리맨을 생각하면, 피곤에 찌든 채 양복에 넥타이, 서류 가방을 들고 있거나 술집에 모여앉아 쨍 하고 술잔을 부딪히는 모습이 보일지도 모르겠다.

A salaryman might come to mind, weary and clad in suit and tie, perhaps holding a briefcase or clinking glasses together in a bar.

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“Do Only White People Wear Underwear in Korea?”

In #1 -- Sexual Minorities in the Korean Fashion Industry, OhMyNews on July 1, 2011 at 10:55 pm

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[Originally published at OhmyNews!]

One thing I learned quickly when I first came to Korea is that only white people wear underwear here. Well, Koreans tell me, it’s because underwear looks better on Western models, for the standard reasons: whites supposedly have the desired longer legs, bigger chests, better features. But this got me to thinking — what kind of psychological sign is it that you literally can’t imagine seeing one’s own people in underwear? Do white models inherently simply look “better?”

I think Korean readers know the answer to this rhetorical question. I won’t get into a long conversation about beauty standards, influence from the West, etc. I think we know where the beauty standards come from. What I’d rather talk about here is the suggestion that maybe Korean aesthetics have a charm of their own.

Of course, there is the reality that there are thousands of plastic surgery clinics across Seoul, that Korea is actually a center of “medical tourism” for facial procedures, that if you watch Korean TV, eyes have gotten much bigger than when I first started coming to Korea in the early 1990’s. People are also concerned about both the length and width of their legs, the length of their torsos, size of their breasts, and even how big their heads are. Now, I have become used to seeing men wearing makeup on the streets of Seoul. For better or worse, Koreans are very concerned about appearance. Photoshop has become an accepted way of life, even on official ID pictures.

I won’t get into a long conversation about how Koreans should have Korean standards, go away from Western ones, etc. Rather, I’d merely suggest trying to forget about set standards at all. For example, bigger eyes are not always better, not just because smaller ones are “Korean” or eastern, but because they naturally, aesthetically match other features on a person’s face. You’ve seen examples of this — one woman might have no fold in her eyelid at all, and her eyes are small. Even with plastic surgery, her new eyes look forced, unnatural, fake. On another person, that same eye job might look natural, and sure, large eyes do fall within the range of nature, even for Koreans.

I don’t think plastic surgery is all bad, or good. I’m not trying to preach that standard sermon. What I’m trying to say is that people have gotten so used to taking the quick and easy path of artificial enhancements and just thinking in terms of a single standard for something that it leaves little room for actual, normal people.

You know, some petite women who use that in their style simply look great. Not everyone with a small head looks better, but look awkward and disproportional. Just because you are tall doesn’t mean you look like a model. I still see, despite the plastic surgery, many beautiful eyes that don’t have folds in the eyelid. And you know what, as a Westerner who is used to a lot of sizes, not all breasts are better because they are bigger.

And yes, I think a lot of Korean woman would look just fine in an underwear ad, like the one a model once told me she wanted to do, since she liked the style she had seen in magazines. She didn’t have a large cup size, her torso is long, like many Korean women, and no, there wasn’t any Photoshop used to change her shape. Beauty is not just about changing and alteration, but about presentation and context. In this particular picture, the side lighting, placement of the hair, camera angle, her expression, and the choice to crop below the underwear line made her look great. And yes, she is naturally an attractive young lady, but trust me when I say that many such women don’t look good in pictures. And it’s not about plastic surgery, but about self-confidence and presentation.

What would make Korea a better place to live, with more aesthetic room for everyone? A big, sexy woman, with big legs that are curvy and she’s not afraid to show off. Beyonce does, for example, and I’ve seen these girls on the street. But why don’t I see them on TV? How about short, petite girls who use that to look a way that tall girls can’t — prim and cute? How about a makeup style that isn’t afraid to show off eastern features, instead of awkwardly trying to “hide” them, which makes things look worse, anyway? I seriously see nice pairs of legs on the street that aren’t straight, aren’t long.

Maybe it’s because I come from a culture that actually appreciates variety. We have different standards, which influence one another. This is not to say that Americans don’t get plastic surgery, but it’s usually more of a personal aesthetic choice. Black women have learned to appreciate themselves after the 1960’s in the “black is beautiful” movement. We didn’t have to put down the dominant white standard by saying “white is ugly,” but simply remind ourselves of what we had forgotten about the beauty of ourselves. And now, you have some non-black women adding fat to their buttocks because they want more bounce on the dance floor. Yes, most black women still straighten their hair, but that can be seen as a small thing. No longer is it acceptable to hate oneself for the color of one’s skin, which even many black people did. Now, even a woman as light as Halle Berry or as dark as Grace Jones can be considered beautiful. But before others do, they must consider THEMSELVES beautiful, first.

And that’s the trick — appreciate what you have and try to value those things on their own merits. Create an aesthetic system where more than only one thing can be “pretty.” There’s a lot more beauty to discover in Korea, if only people would be open to it. Non-Korean men find Korean women very attractive, and in more ways than many Koreans do. Sometimes, Koreans remark when they see a Korean woman who doesn’t fit the Korean norms of beauty with a western man, and make the comment that we don’t know what a true Korean beauty is. But are you so sure we’re the one who is missing something?

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The Korean ‘Room Salon’ and Unique Cultural Spaces

In #1 -- Sexual Minorities in the Korean Fashion Industry, OhMyNews on June 22, 2011 at 4:55 pm


[Originally published at OhmyNews!]

People are all the same, in terms of human motivations, desires, and basic instincts. But our cultures — as defined simply by different world views, customs, and even the little habits of the everyday — differ quite a bit. Despite our common traits, our cultures and societies are the results of different specific histories, which are the results of geography, human will, and blind circumstance. No matter the causes, we live in the here and now, and our ways of life differ from society to society.

Our natural geographies differ, and so do our built (man-made) spaces. And as unique as Korea’s natural geography are the spaces that are a sign of the culture here, from comic book rooms to love motels to the noraebangs, which is celebrating only its 20th anniversary since being introduced to Korea. Of course, the idea of “karaoke” comes from Japan, but not the idea of singing itself, which Koreans surely love to do. Combined with the fact that Korea, as a fast-developing country in 1991, had developed a population that could actually afford to go to the “noraebang” at the time, and you have a uniquely Korean social space. Remember, Japanese tended to use the karaoke machines in the larger space of a bar or club; Koreans are far more exclusive and less public, so they preferred to be in rooms with only people whom they directly knew. The Korean “noraebang” is no more Japanese, by this point, than a bulgogi burrito made by a Mexican guy selling them out of his truck to students at UCLA, or Japanese “donkatsu” is an American pork chop. They all have become adapted to their cultures, and thereby unique to them.

As a photographer wanting to do a photo shoot for a Korean American necktie designer, with the idea of using uniquely Korean spaces as the backdrop, the first thing that occurred to me was also a place that had always fascinated me — the “room salon.” As an American coming to Korea in 1994, I’d never been exposed to a cultural space in which women were so overtly objectified in the service of men, from merely singing, dancing, and drinking, all the way to sex itself. America is a puritanical culture, where most states ban alcohol after 2am and was once illegal (the Prohibition period), and prostitution is not just nominally illegal, so it is either a refuge of the desperate (the streetwalker you might see in American movies) or the option of the elite (highly-paid, private “escorts”). Typical of American culture is the contradiction that exists between the liberal and conservative streaks in our culture — this is why American has strip clubs in most states, but you are really not allowed to even touch the girl. Doing so will land you on the street. America is the land of “look, but don’t touch.” Korea is far more practical about the way it hides desire — “touch, just don’t tell.” It’s a very Confucian solution to the problem. The puritanical American feels the temptation, but feels very confused about what to do with that desire.

So, the space of the room salon was always one of the most fascinating to me, since it was the most alien. In America, even if one engages in formal prostitution, it is done alone, secretly, behind closed doors. What fascinated me about the room salon — and all the similar spaces of the “business club” or what I came to learn about later as the “bikini bar” or “sexy bar” and so forth — is that they are very social spaces, where groups of men go to engage their desire. Men go there to socialize, conduct business, and bond with one another. Especially from the days of Pak Chung Hee’s “kisaeng diplomacy,” to the more expensive business clubs in City Hall that foreign businessmen are often treated to as the cherry on the cake after a major international deal, to even the cheap and sordid bars that still line the streets of working-class neighborhoods, and now even to the expensive “room cafes” in Kangnam or bars in my own neighborhood in Mapo, with well-dressed female-only bartenders, which actually don’t sell sex — there is still a lively culture in which men socialize  with one another, with women providing either sexy (or overtly sexual) social lubricant.

It is in this space that I think of neckties. When I think of neckties, I think of men in suits, and in the Korean context, I think of the ajussi, especially a suited salaryman. When I think of how Korean salarymen socialize, I think of smoking cigarettes, flowing alcohol, and women. When I see images of the room salon, I see the pictures and stories of every “sports newspaper” that provides me with the imagery of these spaces, along with my direct experience. Even the advertising in this very newspaper is quite stark and often overtly sexual — in my own culture, one would have difficulty finding bikini-clad women in banner ads for penis enlargement surgery, blackhead removal creams, and the like in say, The New York Times, Newsweek, or even OhmyNews’ equivalent, The Huffington Post.

I’m not making a value judgement here; I’m merely talking about my motivations for making a photo shoot utilizing this uniquely Korean cultural and physical backdrop. Indeed, most non-Koreans would find this space also fascinating. Despite Koreans’ tendency to think only in terms of national image or shame (“나라망신”), the actual foreigners most Koreans are worried about don’t really care about “negative” or “positive” — they’re looking for what’s interesting, for cultural item that are new to them, that deepen interest in the culture in general. Koreans, when thinking about how some supposedly “negative” aspects of Korean culture bring embarrassment, are stuck in an irrelevant frame of thinking based on “shame,” which is rooted in Confucian ideas of following social rules and sticking to one’s social roles. Westerners, for example, simply aren’t thinking in these terms when looking in from the outside.

When looking at the “room salon,” the idea both fascinates many of us, is fodder for conversation, and is always the stuff that makes certain people want to go deeper and learn more about a culture. What’s funny is that when Korean organizations and the government wants to promote “Korean culture” overseas, it generally picks the things that Koreans think makes the culture look good, as opposed to what’s interesting or is actually good on the ground. The government now, wants to promote Chosun-era cuisine and bibimpap artificially, even as Americans are consuming Korean BBQ, fried chicken, and even bulgogi burritos sold on Mexican lunch trucks. Americans aren’t going to go for what the government wants it to. Suntubu, for example, has taken off because many Korean American restauranteurs have marketed it as a vegetarian health dish. The first Korean movie to sweep Cannes was Old Boy, not a film like Chunghyangjeon, which is what the government would like; similarly, many foreign audiences found The King and the Clown a fascinating story; western audiences collectively yawned at Taegukki.

And in a similar way, as an editorial shoot for a Korean fashion magazine, promoting Korean cultural content to the growing number of people around the world who think Korean fashion is worth looking at, the backdrop of the room salon, as a sexual play space for men, is a fascinating and truly edgy backdrop to do it in. And since fashion’s role in any society is to push the boundaries and even provoke controversy, as a fashion photographer trying to promote interest in Korean culture, this is exactly how I need to do it. The typical Korean tendency in this situation, perhaps using the Kyeongbok Palace as a backdrop, with women in “fusion” (read: tired and cliched) hanboks, would only provoke drowsiness and disinterest. Perhaps this is why not only the Korean fashion industry, but most Korean “culture industries” in general, utterly fail to winn the interest of foreign audiences.

I, for one, will not make this mistake. In the arts, playing it safe means you will surely go unnoticed. If one tried to be provocative, going unnoticed is the worst-case scenario. If one does it right, people will be talking about you. As the old American saying goes, “If no one is talking about you, you must not be doing anything worth noticing.” And no one talks about those who play it safe.

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Designer Kwak Hyunjoo’s Cutting Edge

In OhMyNews on May 29, 2011 at 11:27 am

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Korean fashion designer Kwak Hyunjoo.
Hair and makeup by Jeongmin Lee / Taken in cooperation with TINNews

Fashion is an industry in which it is important to be “edgy.” That term has been around, in American English, for a long time. It means something that pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable, or is on the leading edge of a field, something that literally sits on the edge of a cliff that overlooks that which is safe and socially unacceptable. In the original sense of the word, “edgy” means something so new and unusual that it is both interesting, yet also a bit uncomfortable. And in most places, fashion is meant to challenge people’s standards and the limits of what is comfortable.

But this is Korea. Here, the word “edgy” has entered the lexicon, but only in the limited sense of something that is “new and fashionable.” The original sense of boundary-pushing is gone. And this is not surprising, since this is a neo-Confucian culture that is inherently uncomfortable with things that are new or which challenge the status quo. And in the Korean fashion industry, which is heavily supported by the government and controlled by civil servants, the American sense of “edgy” is not considered a good thing. It’s a strange relationship, actually, as the Korean government pushes movies, TV dramas, music, and now fashion overseas, because historically speaking, the Korean government and artists have not had a great relationship.

Now, as Korean fashion designers are starting to be more noticed overseas, the standards for judgment are becoming more international. In short, to compete as an artist in the global market, one has to be edgy, in the western sense of the word. In New York, London, Milan, and Tokyo, no one wants safe and conservative. They want “edge” as sharp as a knife.

This is a portrait of Kwak Hyun Joo, one of several young Korean designers receiving increasing attention overseas, and not amongst just the general public, but from western fashion journalists and buyers as well. Designer Kwak’s fashions are creative and truly edgy, and when she posed for this portrait, I wanted it to reflect that, as well as her specific personality.

As a photographer, I always try to talk with my subjects and get to know some aspects of their character, to find something that can help me make a picture. In designer Kwak’s case, I didn’t know her well, but it was easy to communicate with her, since she is quite friendly and cheerful, with a really great sense of humor. When I asked her if there were any concepts she would like to express in a photograph, she responded that she like the idea of the “femme fatale,” in the sense of Snow White’s poisoned apple, or a “dangerous woman”.

I immediately thought that the easiest way to express a sense of danger was with a knife, which also gives a sense of creation. You can peel an apple with a knife, and you can cook with a knife, but the knife is also a symbol of danger. In Japanese kitchens, for example, it’s considered bad luck to store knives out in the open. Indeed, knives are used for mostly cooking, but they can easily become a lethal instrument of death.

A woman holding a knife, along with an apple, suggests a sense of creative power, but also the power to threaten, to hurt, to destroy. Along with the bright orange dress, stiletto “killer” heels, and her luxurious hair, and the heavy makeup we were using, I felt the look was perfect for her, a young designer with “edge” as sharp as the edge of a knife. As a designer, she possesses the power to create, but not in the safe, acceptable ways that everyone might like.

And that is the very thing I wanted to express in that picture, while also making an image that needs to be interesting in itself. It is important to remember that on the international stage, even Korea’s most famous stars and celebrities would not be recognized on the street, so the same picture that might satisfy the Korean market is just a picture of a random person to the average international viewer.

And frankly, many Koreans do not know most of their own famous designers, besides a few of the very most popular, such as internationally-based Lie Sang Bong, television regular Ha Sang Beg, or the late, great André Kim. In order to attract the attention of the many people who might not know who Kwak Hyun Joo is, the picture needs to be truly edgy and original itself. It needs the viewer to ask the question, “Who IS that?” and perhaps actually make them more curious about wanting to learn more about them.

In my view, even a celebrity picture must be truly unique. My question is always, “Would this picture be interesting, either thematically or visually, if this person wasn’t famous at all?” This is what makes the world’s greatest living portrait photographer — Annie Liebovitz — so great. It’s not about just the celebrity, but about taking a strong, unique picture that is both an expression of the photographer’s style and the subject’s personality.

In the end, I was very grateful for Kwak Hyun Joo being so open-minded about this portrait. The power of this picture comes not just from me, but also from designer Kwak’s bravery in allowing this picture to be taken and published, which again defines her as truly “edgy” in the original sense of the word.

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Kim Ggobbi Will Leave You Breathless!

In OhMyNews on May 22, 2011 at 10:03 pm

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Hair and makeup by Lee Jayeon / Korean hanbok provided by 한복다홍치마

The city of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands lies 150 km off the northwest coast of Africa, and is said to have “the best climate in the world.” The city of Vladivostok lies on the far eastern coast of Russia, and is the starting point for the Trans-Siberian Railway. Both cities hold annual film festivals. And in 2009, both festivals presented their best actress award to a young woman from Bucheon named Kim Kkobbi, for her performance in the film Breathless.

Breathless seemed to hit viewers’ emotions in a very fundamental way,” Kim says. “I think that’s why it was so well received at international film festivals and in Korea.” The surprising success of this low-budget independent feature by Yang Ik-june proved to be a breakthrough for Kim, who had studied acting since elementary school and made her film debut as the daughter in Jealousy Is My Middle Name (2002).

In person, Kim makes a remarkably different impression from the tough-talking, combative high school girl she played in Breathless. Quick to smile, and with an unaffected, friendly manner, she has a face that seems at times to be expressing two emotions at once. “Acting suits my personality,” she says. “It can be a difficult and unstable profession, but I like the freedom of it. I like giving all my energy to a role for two or three months, and then having time to relax and travel.”

The sort of challenging, low-budget films that Kim often appears in may not sell a lot of tickets in Korea, but they do allow filmmakers to travel the international festival circuit. On such trips many Korean actors and directors tend to spend time in close-knit groups with other Koreans. But Kim, who says she “loves parties,” has made use of her English skills to spend time getting to know many directors, actors, and producers from around the world.

This has sometimes opened up unexpected opportunities. “A couple years ago I happened to meet a Japanese producer, Kiki Sugino, at the Pusan International Film Festival. We became friends and then later I got a phone call from him, asking if I wanted to shoot a film.” The end result was Magic and Loss, shot in Hong Kong by a Malaysian director with an international cast. It screened at the Pusan festival in 2010. “It is a difficult film,” she said. “The audience response ran to both extremes.”

Speaking a few days before flying to the Berlin Film Festival to present her latest work, Ashamed, Kim said, “I’m interested in taking on a wider variety of roles in the coming years. I’ve played a lot of high school girls up to now, and I want to move beyond that image.” For now, her next project involves a trip to Hong Kong to shoot a video installation by the artist Adrian Wong, another friend met through the festival circuit.

When Korean Wave stars become well-known in foreign countries, they stand at the head of a formidable distribution and marketing campaign that may involve large numbers of people and cost billions of won. Kim Kkobbi is not famous abroad, but in a more modest, and perhaps a more meaningful way, she too is a Korean actor who has gone out to the world. The difference is that she has done so on her own power.

Selected Filmography

창피해 / Ashamed (2010)
Magic and Loss (Japan-HK-Malaysia-Korea-France, 2010)
귀 / Be with Me (2010)
죽으로 갑니다 / Be My Guest (2009)
똥파리 / Breathless (2008)
삼거리 극장 / Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater (2006)
화기애애 / Friendly and Harmonious (2005)
질투는 나의 힘 / Jealousy Is My Middle Name (2002)

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“Itaewon Freedom”

In OhMyNews on May 13, 2011 at 3:04 pm

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It’s good to finally see some positive images of Itaewon, a place where those familiar with it know is one of the most interesting, fascinating, and simply fun districts in Seoul. Of course, for many Koreans, Itaewon has always been a place of fear, although not really for any good reason.

Yes, there were a couple infamous murders there, but no more frequently than any other place in Seoul, and contrary to sensationalist media reports, the crime rate amongst both American GI’s and the general foreign population is still below that of the Korean population, in every category. In short, neither GI’s nor English teachers actually deserve their negative reputations, nor does Itaewon, the neighborhood with which both groups are associated. Like both foreigners and the neighborhood of Itaewon, there are so many positive aspects that outweigh a few bad apples, but the Korean media never focuses on that. The reputation both have earned comes from a very distorted point-of-view.

What both foreigners and Itaewon actually represent is a cultural fear, of outsiders, of rapid change, of the unknown. And for that, Itaewon, like foreigners themselves, is like a cultural lightning rod for anything and everything viewed as bad in the popular Korean imagination.

But the reality is that Itaewon has always been a welcoming home to those who live on the edges of Korean society, from foreigners to prostitutes, gays and other social outsiders, for anyone who wanted to be outside of the oppressive gaze of Korean society. In that way, Itaewon has actually been a social safe haven for all who wanted escape the prying and judgmental eyes of their peers. It’s like a cultural “Casablanca.”

There has always been a beautiful freedom about Itaewon, from the times when the rest of the city closed after midnight and went underground, but night clubs, restaurants, and noraebangs  in Itaewon remained open without apology, to even now, when people are free to dance, meet people of different cultures, and have their own personal adventures outside of the stricter, ritualized playstyles of the general Korean culture.

Those who know, know that Itaewon is one of the most unique and wonderful cultural mixing zones in Korea, on a level rarely found in other countries. It’s not just American, or Korean, or Russian, or Japanese, or Nigerian, or Canadian, or Indian, or anything else. It is a free mix, unique in the world. Those who know, like JYP, and many others, all played here in the secret hours of the night, when we sang to our hearts’ content, and yes, also danced in the streets.

Itaewon is not dangerous, nor is it a threat. People here are largely friendly, smile at one another easily, and are open to difference. Those who fear this place are usually those who don’t know it, and are those who fear the Other, as well as freedom itself. For everyone else, in a society built on stress, competition, and social policing, Itaewon has always meant freedom, in more ways than anyone can express in words.

The two young ladies in the pics represent just that kind of freedom, as I bumped into them on a warm summer night as they were enjoying an animated conversation, which was full of laughter and humor. The atmosphere of the picture is simply not what one might find in Shinchon or many standard Korean play places, as mentioned in the song from which I made the title of this picture. To me, and many other people who love Itaewon, the mood of this picture and of the entire neighborhood is one of freedom, one filled with life, levity, and laughter.

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