Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ten Things I Like About Korea

Roboseyo has been talking about Jon Huer and his wonderful list of the top ten things that foreigners like about Korea. Putting a positive spin on it instead of damning Dr. Huer, Roboseyo is looking for our own lists. The things that we hold dear to our hearts when we think about this country we live in. Here's mine in no particular order....

1. Beer and barbeque.
Grilled belly pork, a bowl of dwenjang chigae and a cold beer is one of the best things about Korea. Chatting with friends, cooking your own food and leaving the restaurant smelling like charcoal and pig. An experience I could never get back home.

2. Lost and found.
So many times, friends have mine have lost or forgotten wallets, purses, umbrellas, bags, ipods and numerous other items in cafes, bars and restaurants. Yet these items do not disappear (most of the time), they remain in their location, looked after by kindly staff or strangers who return the missing objects intact. Of course my experience is subjective, but I know that compared to the UK your chances of getting back missing items here is far greater than in London.... Except for Gwangjang Market.... 

3. Everything is open all the time.
Convenience, convenience, convenience. Shops open here longer and later. Sunday may be the holy day of rest in some countries, but in Seoul I can get what I need late on Sunday night without even having to worry about early closing. Plus the joys of 24 hour convenience stores still amaze me. 

4. More festivals and special events than you can shake a stick at.
Dear god, there are too many of them. Every weekend there seems to be something going on (usually for free) and if you are so inclined then you can spend all your free time attending the most interesting and esoteric events.

5. Korean Genre Cinema.
Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho. Need I say more?

6. Food Carts, Orange Tents and Vegetable Sellers.
On my way home I can walk past fresh fruit and veg for sale at remarkably low prices. The quality is always good and the sellers are friendly. I'd much rather buy my mushrooms by the side of the road than from E-mart. Damn sight cheaper and a lot tastier. The food carts and orange tents allow us a myriad of tasty experiences as long as we don't think too hard about the lack of running water or health and safety standards.

7. Fast Internet.
It's fast, it's very fast...

8. Immediate repairs/installation.
No "wait three weeks" or "we will arrive between the hours of 6.00am and 9.00pm". If you need something fixed, delivered or installed then it can usually be done in a flash. If I have a problem, I call someone and they fix it almost immediately. No waiting, no snarky customer service and no long slide into depression.

9. 닭갈비!
Chicken, red pepper paste, rice cakes, cabbage, sweet potato. All mixed together and cooked in front of you on an iron plate. Heavenly!

10. Kangwon Province.
I've been there three or four times and the north-east coast of South Korea is my favourite place to visit. Delicious seafood, beautiful coastline, incredible mountains and amazing cultural/historical sites. 강원도의 힘!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Things I Have Learnt From Korean Stickers: Part Three


As we come out of winter into spring, some sage advice to keep us sane... Not quite sure why his eyes have fallen out...

좌절 금지 means "Breakdown/Collapse/Depression is Prohibited."

Friday, March 27, 2009

Murder Mysteries and English Subtitles

그림자사린 (Private Eye)

Thanks to a chance visit to Korea 4 Expats yesterday I found myself in possesion of a ticket to see a sneak preview of 그림자살인 (Private Eye) at the Cinus Cinema in Myeong-dong. 

그림자사린 (Private Eye)

This special screening helped to celebrate Seoul Metropolitan Government's attempt to bring English subtitled Korean films to local audiences. Cinus Myeong-dong and Cinus Gangnam have been named as the two venues where you can:

Enrich your cultural experiences in Seoul!
Rave or rant at the Korean Auteurs!
Get ahead in film trends!
Have fun and be entertained!

Hopefully Cinus will be providing Seoulites with English subtitled films on a regular basis for the foreseeable future. I wish them the best of luck, as I'm planning on taking full advantage of the regular subtitled screenings...

그림자사린 (Private Eye)

The Seoul Metropolitan Government/Seoul Global Centre kindly provided us with a lovely goodie bag each, containing sandwiches, a carton of juice and a questionnaire to fill out. While all three items were appreciated, the person who wrote the questionnaire needs to ask themselves whether the options to the questions provided were adequate. When confronted with the choices of occupation being only "student", "housewife", "office worker" and "temporary visitor", I found myself rather puzzled as to why there wasn't an "other" option provided. The English teachers sitting behind were also similarly bemused....

그림자사린 (Private Eye)

As for question two, I felt the need to write in my own answer as none of the four options seemed adequate. Maybe Seoul Metropolitan Government are trying to tell me something... I'm just not sure.

Despite these small mistakes the organizers' hearts were in the right place and I'm glad I got to see Private Eye for free. I hope that Cinus and Seoul are successful in their campaign to make subtitled films available to us all and that there will be a permanent home providing those of us who need assistance a place to enjoy Korean movies.

Onto the film itself...

Private Eye is a complex beast. It's a thriller, yet also a comedy and it borders on horror. Slapstick, violence and disturbing themes are blended together to form a story that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might have written if he were born Korean and addicted to soju.

박대민 (Park Dae-min) fares well in his first outing as a feature length film director. While things may not fit together perfectly and some scenes leave the viewer a little more confused than they ought to; it's a good attempt at an old fashioned murder mystery with some twenty-first century violence thrown in for good measure.

황정민 (Hwang Jung-min) excels as private detective/ scandal mongerer Hong Jin-ho. He walks a fine line between idiot and hero and provides us with a lot of the film's funniest moments. Almost like an uneducated Sherlock Holmes, he's able to divine the darkest of details when others are clueless. 류덕환 (Ryu Dok-hwan) ably acts alongside him as a clever, yet slightly bumbling medical student who calls on the detective for help. 엄지원 (Om Ji-won) and 오달수 (Oh Dal-soo) play supporting roles as a mysterious scientist and the chief of police. 

I don't want to give away any of the story as this sort of mystery is best seen with as little foreknowledge as possible. I'll just say that it is worth a watch, but only if you are prepared for some darkness with your light comedy and if you are willing to overlook some oddities from the first time director.

Private Eye is a great opportunity to enjoy a traditional mystery while soaking up the feeling of early twentieth century Korea. The art design is gorgeous and you feel as if you have been transported back to that era. If Private Eye is popular and gets a sequel, I for one would be more than happy to be whisked away to Old Seoul and enjoy another mystery.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Things I Have Learnt From Korean Stickers: Part Two

Fatty Fatty Boom Boom

If only I had heeded this advice when I was young, then I wouldn't be in the state I am in now. Damn my habitual snacking.... I'm off to the gym to regain my youthful slimness!

뱃살 금지 means "Belly Fat is Prohibited." 

Monday, March 23, 2009

Beansprouts at the 별미집

별미집 in 광주

Down by the 리젠트관광호텔 (Regent Tourist Hotel) in 광주 (Gwangju) is a bustling little restaurant that's open twenty four hours a day.

별미집 in 광주

별미집 (Special Taste Restaurant) has only four items on the menu: 콩나물 국밥 (beansprout and rice soup) at 5,000 won, 돼지불고기 (grilled pork) at 8,000 won, 데친 오징어 (boiled squid) at 3,000 won and 모주 (home made alcohol) at 1,000 won. The side dishes may all be red (never a great sign in most Korean restaurants), but the main courses are surprisingly good.

별미집 in 광주

The beansprout and rice soup can come spicy or not. I went for the toned down version, which still had quite a kick to it. Kimchi, squid, spring onions, rice and beansprouts are all unceremoniously dumped together in a hot stone bowl and covered with a simple broth.

별미집 in 광주

Eggs are on hand to be stirred into the soup if desired and packets of dried seaweed are ready and waiting to be ripped up and sprinkled on top. This soup is just about the best Korean breakfast I can imagine. Not too spicy, but with enough of a punch to brush away the morning cobwebs, this hearty broth is a fabulous hangover cure.

별미집 in 광주

The grilled pork is great for meat lovers, but may be best served at lunch or dinner rather than breakfast. The fatty belly meat is ever so slightly charred and covered in a sticky red pepper sauce. The holy trinity of korean barbeques (lettuce, raw garlic and fermented soy bean paste) is served alongside the pork, but a bowl of rice will set you back another 1,000 won.

별미집 in 광주

The pork comes with its own small bowl of beansprout soup, but can also be a great dish to share if you and your loved ones are hankering after the 콩나물 국밥. The restaurant is just across the road from the Regent Tourist Hotel and can be contacted on 062 374 2131. Apologies for the lack of an outside picture, sometimes I can be a rather forgetful and foolish ajosshi.

If you ever stumble across this place on your travels to Gwangju, it's well worth a visit, just avoid the side dishes and focus on the main attractions...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Things I Have Learnt From Korean Stickers: Part One

Panda's Eyes

After seeing this sticker, I now understand the dangers involved in not wearing make up. The threat of having Panda's eyes upon me is enough to make me reach for my foundation and sponge... Please don't hurt me weeping Panda, I promise to use more blush.

다크서클 금지 means "Dark Circles Are Prohibited."


81 Ramen Noodles

It's been a busy week, I've been singing and dancing the days away in preparation for our new show "Twelve Singing Animals", so on my day off I knew I needed something delicious and comforting to ease my aching legs and ravaged throat. Right next to the Itaewon Hotel is a little Japanese restaurant called 81 and it's the perfect place to unwind.

81 Ramen Noodles

Starting at 7,000 won you can get yourself a big bowl of delicious ramen noodles. I went for the "Chya-syu" ramen in a soy sauce based soup (11,000 won), but you can satisy your noodle urges with a miso based soup if you so desire.

81 Ramen Noodles

Service is speedy and the piping hot bowl of soup smells fantastic. The noodles are chewy and the spring onions and seaweed fit well with the salty soy broth. The "chya-syu" is the star of the dish: Five slices of sumptuously fatty pork that has been boiled in a mix of soy and spices, reminiscent of chinese "char sui" roast pork. A very satisfying noodle treat.

81 Ramen Noodles

This tiny noodle shop seats about twenty people and is perfect for when you're hit with Japanese noodle lust. They even have a special jumbo challenge offer. If you can eat their massive bowl of ramen (four times their normal size) in twenty minutes or under you get it for free (normally 20,000 won) as well as your photo on their wall of fame. Anyone up for the challenge?

81 Ramen Noodles HDR

To get to 81 just exit Itaewon station, head past the Hard Rock Cafe, Kraze Burger, Sortino's and Marcaroni Market. 81 is on the left hand side right next to the Itaewon Hotel. You can call them on 02 792 2233.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

St Patrick's Day Parade in Daehangno

St Patrick's Day Parade HDR

Yesterday saw the annual St Patrick's Day parade making its way down the narrow streets of the theatre district. 

St Patrick's Day Parade HDR

Thanks to the Irish Association of Korea the crowds of Daehangno were treated to some great music and a small mountain of free Guinness. The Seoul Global Center were also there lending their support to the celebrations.

St Patrick's Day Parade HDR

The Wolfhound Pub were on hand to dish out some delicious Irish stew (also free) to those who came early. Supposedly it was smaller than last year, but everyone seemed to be having a great time and the atmosphere was very festive.

St Patrick's Day Parade HDR

St Patrick's Day Parade HDR

St Patrick's Day Parade HDR

St Patrick's Day Parade HDR

St Patrick's Day Parade HDR

St Patrick's Day Parade HDR

St Patrick's Day Parade HDR

St Patrick's Day Parade HDR

St Patrick's Day Parade HDR

St Patrick's Day Parade HDR

St Patrick's Day Parade HDR

You can find the full set of photos here.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

New Development In Territorial Dispute For Dokdo

IMG_0127 HDR

Disturbing graffiti sprayed on the streets of Itaewon means that the dispute of the Liancourt Rocks is bound to get messier. Just over by the fire station, someone has sprayed a message which will rock the geographic world:


"독도는 오리땅!" translated into English means "Dokdo, Land of the Ducks!" Substituting the "오리" for "우리", the waterfowl community of Itaewon is sending a strong message to both the Japanese and Korean governments.


No longer content to suffer the polluted conditions of Seoul, the ducks of the Yongsan-gu area are vying for their own spot of unspoiled paradise which they can truly call their home.


I called the "Beatrix Potter North East Asian Territorial Dispute Hotline", but their spokesperson, Jemima Puddle-duck, refused to make a full statement, saying only:

"Dokdo is for the birds."

Friday, March 13, 2009

I feel "More Than Blue"

More than Blue

I went off to the Lotte cinema in Myeong-dong this morning with a sense of trepidation. They are showing 슬픔보다 더슬픈 이야기 (More Than Blue) with English subtitles and I felt like I should go down and check it out, even though romantic melodramas are not usually my thing. The poster does nothing for me , it says "Look at us. We're beautiful and we're sad. Love us, cry with us!" The literal translation of the Korean title is "A sadder story than sadness". That doesn't make me want to see the film, but then, I think I'm probably not the target audience.

Getting to the theatre I was surprised to see no reference to English subtitles on the listings sheet and the ticket seller who served me had no idea that the film was subtitled. After realizing that it was, she went on to explain that it was because they didn't have enough room for the information, but I have a feeling they could have done it if they had put their minds to it.

More than Blue
A distinct lack of subtitles...

The screening was packed full with fifteen people (the 11:30 showing is perhaps not the most popular choice) and I along with the fourteen other ajummas began our 105 minute journey into Korea's latest melodrama.

Within the first ten minutes we find out the main character, Kay the orphan (played by 권상우 - Kwon Sang-woo), has terminal cancer and in a voice-over he references Romeo's doomed love for Juliet. Things are obviously not going to go well. He lives with fellow orphan Cream (played by 이보영 - Lee Bo-young) and the two of them treat each other like family. They end up in the music industry: Kay is a radio producer and Cream is a song writer. He harbours a secret love for her, but knows it can never be fulfilled, so he decides to help her find a man to look after her. Cream falls for a dentist, Ju-hwan (played by 이범수 - Lee Beom-soo), who she meets at a radio studio and their romance begins to blossom....

So there you have it, the basic premise. To tell you anymore than that would be to ruin the story. It's a romantic melodrama, there will be suffering, there will be death, there will be lots and lots of crying. However, More Than Blue does it a lot more subtly than most Korean television dramas. This may be director/writer 원태연's (Won Tae-yeon) first film, but it feels like he has been making movies for years. The camera work is simple and effective, though sometimes (especially through the use of reflective surfaces) Won Tae-yeon creates some very poetic images. The acting is naturalistic for the most part and the most melodramatic scenes were far subtler than those I have seen in other examples of the genre. The music, while very much in the same style as other melodramas, is not used too often and some of the films most touching moments are played out in silence.

The first two acts of the film are a little slow as the story is set up and you learn about the three main characters, but when the third act hits you're pushed along on a tidal wave of emotion to the very end, where (depending on your personality) you may well emerge as a sobbing wreck.

Despite myself and my British stiff upper lip, I cried..... I cried more than once..... Ok, I cried about four or five times..... In all honesty at one point I wept like a school girl. I let myself be taken over by the film and thanks to the director there were no cheap tricks or obvious plot twists to knock me out of my emotional state. If you enjoy being manipulated by melodramatic movies, then this will be right up your street, but if you don't care for tragic romance then steer well clear.

More than Blue

You can find screening information over at The Hub of Sparkle. More than Blue is being shown with English subtitles in Myeong-dong, Ansan and Busan.

By the way, if you plan on seeing the movie avoid the trailer and 이승철's music videos as they are spoiler-filled....

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Small Confession And An Organic Porcini Pizza

I have a small confession to make. Despite spending over eight years in Seoul I have never really gotten to know Hongdae. I've been once or twice, sort of popping in and out to see friends or very, very occasionally go drinking. It's a little bit alien to me and for the first time, I found I had the opportunity to do a little exploring. After a wander round the area I feel guilty not to have spent more time here before and I'm determined to go back and explore all the nooks and crannies that Hongdae has to offer.

Agio in Hongdae

So after looking round I discovered this quaint little Italian restaurant called "Agio", the promise of "slow food" pulled me in and I was charmed by its romantic shoddiness.

Agio in Hongdae

If restaurants were plants, this one would be an overgrown old hedge, messy and scratched, but still beautiful in its own way.

Agio in Hongdae

The menu turned out to be completely 100% organic (the manager assured me that it was) and yet, while not a budget restaurant, the prices were still quite reasonable (9,000 to 15,000 won for a pasta). After much deliberation I decided to go for the "porcini & various mushroom pizza" (18,000 won plus tax) which promised wild porcini from Italy and fresh mozzarella cheese.

Agio in Hongdae

First impressions were good, a thin base, lots of mushrooms and shreds of basil, could it be a perfect pizza?

Agio in Hongdae

Not quite, but they're very close. The base was crisp, but tasted a little bland and the cheese was nothing special. However, the mushrooms were delightful. Pine, oak and porcini mushrooms working together in harmony to create the most wonderful flavours and textures. 

Agio in Hongdae

A very respectable attempt at a traditional Italian pizza, that's worth a go if you are in the area. Looking at their business card, it seems that they have branches in Hongdae, Jung-dong and Insadong. 

Agio in Hongdae

To get to the Hongdae branch take exit 5 out of Hongik University station. Walk straight till you get to VIPS then take a left and turn right opposite the small tourist information office. Walk down the street filled with small fashion shops and tarot cafes, past the Lush soap store until you reach a clothes shop called: Togut University. Turn left here and Agio is on the left hand side about a minutes walk up the road. You can call them on 02 334 7311. 

On a slightly different note, while I've been enjoying organic porcini pizza, Zenkimchi has been brave enough to try the latest creation from Pizza School. You can read all about his pasta topped pizza adventures here.

Korea's Oldest Animal Dies

Strolling HDR

Sad news, according to this JoongAng Daily article, "Giant", the oldest animal in Korea died yesterday at the age of 58.

Shady HDR

This beautiful Asian elephant was one of the stars of Seoul Grand Park Zoo and came to Korea, from Thailand in 1955.

Bathing HDR

May he rest in peace.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Sparkling Ajosshi and the ESL Daily Korea Movie Listings

Well the fates have been kind to me and I have wound up with a new column on The Hub of Sparkle (Thanks guys!). I'll be trying to bring you complete weekly listings for all Korean films with English subtitles being shown around the peninsula. If you have any hot tips on screenings I may have missed then please contact me here or on The Hub of Sparkle and I'll get them out to the world.

After my first column this week I got a great link from Jim who runs the ESL Daily Korea Movie Times and Listings site. You can use their program to search for cinemas by region and it will come up with daily listings for the cinemas around that area. Clicking on the cinema will then take you through to a very handy map showing the location of the venue.

It's not quite perfect yet, but hopefully over the next two months Jim will be bringing us the first and as far as I know only english language cinema listing search engine for Korea!

Sometimes you really get what you ask for...

Arabian Restaurant

Sometimes what you see really is what you get. It doesn't happen so often, but this weekend I found myself receiving pretty much exactly what I asked for. I was visting the Arabian Restaurant in Itaewon, looking for something with a middle eastern flavour to satisfy my desire for sheep.

Arabian Restaurant

According to its Iraqi owner, the restaurant has been open about seven months and has both a Syrian and a Lebanese chef. The menu has three main features: lamb, chicken and rice. There are other little side dishes and menu items, but these three comrades make up the majority of the food served here.

Arabian Restaurant

The restaurant itself is quite dark and feels as if it used to be a night club, a flat screen tv played music videos from the arab world and there were framed photos of Iraq on the walls as well as the obligatory hookahs which seem to make their way into every even vaguely middle-eastern restaurant in Seoul.

Arabian Restaurant

I decided to go for the lamb biryani (13,000 won). I had seen its picture on the advertising outside the restaurant and it looked pleasing enough. The owner was kind enough to recommend some flat bread (1,000 won) to go with my meal. He was very friendly and the service was speedy.

Arabian Restaurant

First to come was a complimentary lentil and rice soup. It had a strong black pepper flavour with a hint of middle eastern spice. It reminded me a little of weak Korean rice porridge and was a pleasant enough way to start my lunch.

Arabian Restaurant

Next, the lamb biryani. Which looked almost identical to the picture outside the restaurant. I had been given exactly what I ordered, which is an improbable occurence in some of the restaurants I have frequented in the past. I have to commend the Arabian Restaurant for giving me exactly what was pictured, but there was a slight flaw to the dish. The lamb was quite tender and well seasoned and the rice, despite being a little too oily, was delicious, but that was it. 

Arabian Restaurant

Apart from the occasional sliver of green pepper skin, I could find neither hide nor hair of any other vegetable matter in the dish. So I was left with a very large mound of protein, oil and carbohydrate with nothing to combat the inevitable artery clogging and central obesity that this kind of meal brings with it. I don't find myself asking this question too often but: Where were the vegetables? No side salad? No wilting lettuce leaf or slice of watery tomato? Not even some juicy little raisins hiding among the grains of rice?

Arabian Restaurant

And then came the bread... It looked fairly ordinary, but was not very warm and quite hard to tear into. I was expecting a flat bread that was a little hotter and fluffier, but was disappointed in the end. Overall not the greatest middle eastern food in Itaewon (Ali Baba is a much better bet), but I did get exactly what I asked for...

Arabian Restaurant HDR

The Arabian Restaurant it tucked in beside Kraze burger just past the Hard Rock Cafe near Itaewon station. You can call them on 02 798 1385.