Month: December 2014

Warped Tour

nkclass

by Steve K. Feldman

Suki Kim’s excellent new memoir Without You, There Is No Us: My Year with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite surely ranks as one of the greatest Gonzo journalistic feats ever, right up there with Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, or Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between (about a guy who walked across Afghanistan in the months after 9/11). You think you’ve got a tough teaching gig? To get her story, Kim, a Korean-American, lived for a year in Pyongyang, North Korea, teaching English composition at the Pyongyang University for Science & Technology (PUST), a university run by Christian missionaries.

I mean—just imagine . . . having to live with Christian missionaries for a whole year!

And, sure, I guess living in a repressive totalitarian state was pretty tough, too.

Her remarkable undercover stint has resulted in one of the best books on North Korea in recent years. Without You, There is No Us belongs squarely in the first tier of works that seek to illuminate the darkness of this mysterious, closed society. To be sure, Kim’s access was limited to just a geographic and demographic sliver of North Korea. However, no book, not even the best defector accounts such as The Aquariums of Pyongyang and Nothing to Envy, detail such real, extended, relatively unscripted interaction between real North Koreans and an “enemy” American.

At first glance, there aren’t any big revelations here. Much of what Kim presents should be very familiar to anybody who has read any travel accounts in North Korea: the constant presence of the “minders” who “mind” (spy on) your every move; the “sightseeing” mostly restricted to mind-numbing, eyeball-glazing monuments to the Great Leader and Dear Leader; the endless demonization of America; the grinding poverty of a ruined economy lurking behind the paper-thin façade of modernity. This is all well-trodden territory, but Kim presents the familiar themes of barren / creepy / repressive North Korea with her novelist’s sharp eye for telling detail.

Where the book really breaks new ground, however, is in the author’s day-to-day accounts of teaching—or attempting to teach—the fully indoctrinated young men of the book’s title, the “sons of the elite.” All of her students were sons of Pyongyang’s elite ruling class (though she never talked to, let alone met, any of her students’ parents). How do you teach opinion or persuasive essays to people who have been taught—warned, even— never to argue, never to have an opinion? How do you teach them to back up their ideas with supporting evidence when “facts” or “the truth” have always been simply what the Dear Leader declares them to be? “Their entire system was designed not to be questioned, and to squash critical thinking,” Kim writes. In North Korea, “there was no proof, no checks and balances—unless, of course they wanted to prove that the Great Leader had single-handedly written hundreds of operas and thousands of books and saved the nation and done a miraculous number of things.” She sums up trying to teach essay-writing to such blinkered students in one word: “disaster.”

Simple conversations with students in the lunchroom or classroom were just as difficult and fraught with dangers. Every day was a dance through a DMZ minefield of forbidden topics. In answering students’ endless questions about the world outside their hermetically-sealed borders, Kim knew that revealing anything about the wealth, openness and freedom of “out there” was risky, for both herself and the students. A simple, honest answer to an innocuous question like “How many countries have you been to?” would let students plainly see the opportunities available to her that were utterly denied to themselves.

sukikim

Yet as abhorrent and alien as much of their views, behavior  and upbringing are, Kim, like any good teacher, can’t help but  grow attached to them over her two semesters at PUST. She  often calls the students “beautiful” and “lovely” and refers to  them as “her children.” Throughout the book, Kim explores  the wrenching ambivalence of wanting to open up their minds  yet not wanting to get them in trouble—either as students or  in the future when they would supplant their parents as the  top-echelon leadership of the DPRK. In dealing with one  particularly inquisitive student, Kim and her young T.A. Katie realize that saying too much might get themselves deported, but could very well get the student killed. “Until then, I had hoped that perhaps I could change one student, open up one path of understanding,” Kim muses. “But what kind of a future did I envision for the one student I reached? Opening up this country would mean sacrificing these lives. Opening up this country would mean the blood of my beautiful students.”

Her portrait of her students is fascinating, empathetic, and immensely sad. In South Korea, foreign English teachers often bemoan their students’ lives that are equal parts grindstone and pressure cooker, yet the most haggwon-oppressed, sleep-deprived South Korean student would not survive a week in the shoes of Kim’s North Korean students. They are never alone—never, not a single moment. They are partnered up in a “buddy” system for the clear purpose of keeping an eye on one-another. It’s breathtaking how carefully the State raises a population of snitches. Also heart-rending is the physical labor that students are submitted to—most of it either pointless or made pointlessly difficult by the absence of tools or technology: cutting crass with scissors; standing guard in freezing cold weather over the ridiculous shrine to “Kimjongilism;” being carted off during school vacations to work in harvesting or construction sites. Even as sons of high-ranking party members, life is an brutal, endless slog, even if they will never face starvation. For them, attending a weekend math haggwon would be like lounging pool-side with a fruity drink.

Despite the glibness of my lead graph, living with Christian missionaries was, for Kim, its own brand of, well, hell. At times, her evangelical colleagues spur as much forehead-slapping disbelief and anger as the North Korean authorities. When Kim wants to show students a Harry Potter movie, the idea is shot down not by the North Korean officials (who must approve every book and every lesson plan), but by the school’s head teacher who calls it a piece of anti-Christian “filth.” “What would Christians around the world say about our decision to expose our students to such heresy?” the woman rages with staggeringly misguided righteousness.

At one point, a colleague openly talks with Kim about how her reason for being there was to “bring the Lord to this Land,” how “this life here is temporary,” and that the suffering North Koreans “will be received by Him in heaven.” Kim explodes at her, accusing her of delegitimizing the suffering of the North Korean masses: “So are you saying that it’s okay for North Koreans to rot in gulags because in your estimation it isn’t real? . . . If the eternal life waiting for them in heaven is so amazing, should the millions who are suffering here just commit mass suicide? Why don’t you go check out a gulag and then dare to tell me that it’s temporary?”

Kim’s portrayal of the school and its Christian faculty has garnered some controversy. The school has openly expressed hurt and anger over what they call a betrayal by Kim. They deny that they are Christian missionaries at all, and that Kim both misrepresented them in the book and misrepresented herself when she landed the job.

On her website, Kim counters these charges with a simple, powerful statement:

There is a long tradition of “undercover” journalism—pretending to be something one is not in order to be accepted by a community and uncover truths that would otherwise remain hidden. In some cases, this is the only way to gain access to a place. North Korea, described only recently by the BBC as “one of the world’s most secretive societies,” is such a place. [….] I did not break any promises. I applied to work at PUST under my real name. I was not asked to sign and did not sign any kind of confidentiality agreement, nor did I ever promise not to write about PUST. Meanwhile, in the six decades since Korea was divided, millions have died from persecution and hunger. Today’s North Korea is a gulag posing as a nation, keeping its people hostage under the Great Leader’s maniacal and barbaric control, depriving them of the very last bit of humanity. So what are our alternatives? How much longer are we going to sit back and watch? To me, it is silence that is indefensible. (read the full statement at http://sukikim.com/ethicsnote)

Given the fact that Kim didn’t hide anything about her past or her career, it’s strange she got the job at PUST in the first place, a point she also makes in the book and in the full text of the above statement. She wrote several articles for Harper’s and The New York Review of Books about previous trips to North Korea, most notably an outstanding account of the New York Philharmonic’s trip to Pyongyang in 2008. That article, unlike a lot of the accounts in the mainstream press, dug underneath the official North Korea-sanctioned feel-good story of “we’re not here for politics / music can bring us together!” Instead, Kim focused on the pointlessness of interaction with North Korea when the interaction was entirely on their terms. Also, her well-received debut novel, The Interpreter, has enough sex to make a evangelical Christian blush (which is to say, any sex at all). Ten minutes of internet browsing might have suggested to school authorities what Kim had in mind in seeking this job. Equally puzzling was North Korea granting her another Visa after those earlier articles—they even assigned to her one of the same minders from the New York Philharmonic trip.

Indeed, Kim worrying about having her cover blown—by both the North Koreans and her Christian colleagues—makes her day-to-day life even more stressful and adds another layer of dark tension throughout the book. In the end, the tension, the stress, the isolation, the bleakness, the cold, and the unceasing vigilance of the State—Orwell’s Big Brother incarnate—grind down her spirit of resistance, as it all was surely designed to: “The sealed border was not just at the 38th parallel, but everywhere, in each person’s heart, blocking the past and choking off the future. As much as I loved those boys, or because of it, I was becoming convinced that the wall between us was impossible to break down, and not only that, it was permanent.”

However, in an incredible coincidence, on Kim’s very last day at the school—a day filled with the bittersweet teacher-student goodbyes that any of us who have taught for a living might recognize—something happens that suggests just maybe that this wall might one day vanish into history: Kim Jong-il dies. Her final glimpse of her students as she’s leaving for the airport is of them in the cafeteria eating breakfast, refusing to look at her, “their eyes swollen and red, [with] no expression on their faces. It was as though the life had been sucked out of them.” She makes no comment on whether or not these tears are real or forced, or perhaps some of both, but simply wonders if their world will change for the better. Three years later, we’re still asking that question.

dearleaders

2014-11-08 15.59.21

Innovation or Aberration? – Unpeeling the Costco Onion Salad

By John Bocskay

Any American or Canadian who has been to a Costco in Korea has witnessed what Koreans do with the onions. In the U.S. you turn the crank on the dispenser and catch the tumbling onions on the hot dog, the whole hot dog, and nothing but the hot dog, but that’s not how the Koreans roll. Most of them pile the onions on a dish or a patch of foil, dump globs of ketchup and mustard over them, mix it all into a lumpy orangey mash, and tuck straight into it with fork and spoon as an improvised side dish to their pizza, clam chowder, or Caesar salad.

Expat critics react with a mix of condescension, bemusement, derision, and disgust. Didn’t Koreans get salad_downloadthe memo? Onions are supposed to go on the hot dogs! And look how many onions they’re piling on! Have they no shame?

Among the many unfair and uncharitable assessments of this practice, perhaps the most ironic and ridiculous is the notion that Korean shoppers are taking advantage of the generosity of Costco, a fantasy that would have us imagine Costco to be a defenseless multinational corporation which is either unaware that their staff are refilling the onion dispensers 30 times a day on weekends (I asked) or are somehow powerless to stop this hemorrhaging of onions; a fantasy which depends for its dramatic tension on the belief that despite giving away samples of ribeye steak, shrimp, wine, pork cutlets, sausage, noodles, cookies and dozens of other items every day at stations all over the store, the thing that’s going to finally bust them and ruin the party for everyone is the unfortunate habit of doling out a few sacks of one of the cheapest vegetables on the planet.

The onion guy fills it up for Nth time.

The onion guy fills it up for Nth time.

If that argument sounds lame, you may find yourself suspecting, as I do, that what’s more likely happening is that Costco Korea has lucked into an inadvertent but tolerable solution to their lack of side dishes in a country that everywhere expects them, and that management has decided to run with it as long as it doesn’t lose too much money.

A recent e-mail exchange with Edward Yoon Kim, the General Merchandise Manager for Costco Korea confirmed my hunch. Noting that the company believes that “real success comes from real member satisfaction,” Mr. Kim explained that as long as Costco can make a “reasonable profit” while making customers happy they would continue offering free onions, and that if it was no longer profitable to do so they would consider stopping it. Since the onion salad buffet has been going strong for several years, it seems safe to call it something other than abuse.


There’s a lot about these criticisms that has always struck me as strange. The first thing you might notice at Costco is that there is nothing posted on the onion dispenser itself to indicate that the onions are supposed to go on hot dogs or that they are not intended as a side dish. In other words, there was no ‘memo’ that Korean customers are not getting, and the habit that our worldly Western critic imagines to be a self-evident universal truth turns out to be nothing more than his own narrow cultural conditioning.

Nor is there anything intrinsic to the onion dispenser to suggest that the culturally-conditioned way that Americans use it – cranking steadily with one hand while catching an uneven flow of onions atop a narrow moving target with the other hand – is even the best way to use it. In the 20 minutes that I observed people serving 2014-11-08 14.39.55themselves onions on a recent Saturday afternoon, the only people who dropped onions onto the counter – apart from the one little kid who cranked it for fun until his mom told him to cut the shit – were the ones who used it the “right” way. Not surprisingly, nobody who used a dish to catch onions managed to miss any.

Ditto for the ketchup and mustard, which is actually harder to dispense directly onto a hot dog than the onions are, for the same reasons (uneven flow, occasional spurts, moving target, etc.), but with the added challenge of the changing distance of the hot dog to the spigot as it is pumped downward. Catching the condiments on a dish and mixing them later makes it easy and actually gives you a shot at recreating the model hot dog in the promotional photo above the food court, or failing that, just not making a total mess.

I also watched people eat for a while, and I noted that a quarter of the people (7 out of 28) who took onions were actually using them in the intended way: as a topping for hot dogs.  I realized then that mixing the onions with the condiments beforehand and spreading them on as a sticky mixture made them less likely to tumble out when you bite into the dog. I also observed another 7 people put the onions on bulgogi bakes, which I mentally noted as something I definitely had to try later.

The rest treated the onions exactly the same way Koreans treat them everywhere else: as a side dish, and in order to understand that, you need posit nothing stranger or more terrible than a small cluster of reasonable assumptions based on long-standing cultural practice.


The more I think about the Costco onion salad, the tougher question for me to answer is not why Koreans do it or why Costco allows it, but why Westerners almost never see it as innovation or a clever adaptation and instead tend to paint it as a failed attempt at cultural appropriation. And it’s a very selective tendency. Chop up a hot dog into pieces so that the family can share it and you have a charming example of Korean togetherness; but eat onions from a dish with mustard and you’re a culturally-confounded freeloader. Bump into someone in a traditional market and it’s an instantly forgettable part of the rough-and-tumble charm of the old Asia, but nudge someone with a shopping cart at an American supermarket chain and you’re destined to be the clueless antagonist in an upcoming facebook rant or K-blog screed.

I’ve long suspected that the reason we think like this (I confess to it as well) is that when you go to a place like Costco you feel you are stepping into a piece of America, so you consciously or unconsciously feel that the same norms apply. When they don’t, it’s more jarring than if the setting had been radically different and had carried no such expectations. This may be why it often seems that the hardest things for Western expats to accept are ironically not the things that are most different from our home countries but the things that are most similar. We enjoy the mad rush of a tuk-tuk ride through Bangkok’s shifty alleys yet curse the Korean driver who fails to indicate a lane change on Seoul’s modern roads. Being nudged at a street food cart is a minor annoyance, but cutting the line at a Busan Burger King inspires an aggrieved lecture. Shoot soju on a raised wooden platform in front of a bodega and you channel old-world insouciance; do the same thing on a new sidewalk and you’re an obstacle. A savage. An idiot.

79-make-blts

Re-purposing familiar devices is often considered clever.

It’s fun to point out cultural quirks and oddities, but it’s ironic that the cultural heirs of Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers so often insist that Koreans should think inside the box and see onion dispensers as having only one conceivable use. You can learn something about familiar things by observing how they are used by people who have no culturally conditioned ways of using them – there’s a whole genre of internet memes which fascinates millions of people for precisely this reason. It’s weird that we applaud the ingenuity of the American yokel who figured out that he can use toothpaste to clean the headlights of his pickup truck, and we dignify his achievement with the label “life hack”; but when some anonymous Korean shopper figured out that catching condiments on a dish was actually a decent idea, or that mixing them together would result in a dish that millions of people apparently enjoy, we deride it as a cultural hack job.

Perhaps the final irony is that if we insist on being purists and on recreating ethnic dishes either authentically or not at all, then we’re simply being difficult, but the more immediate problem with that is that a lot of my favorite foods – General Tso’s Chicken and New York-style pizza come to mind – would never have been created in the first place. You’d also have to say goodbye to the American hot dog, which is itself a bastardization of European sausage that could not have held onions at all if Americans hadn’t added the bun. When you really get down to unpeeling the layers of assumptions surrounding the Costco onion salad, it becomes hard to know which is piled higher: the onions, or the irony.


The only real question remaining for me concerning the onion salad is, “How does it taste?” so in the interest of the advancement of knowledge I tried it. I admit to feeling a pang of vestigial guilt when I piled the onions on my plate, plopped some mustard and ketchup down next to it, and swirled it all together. I’ll also be the first to admit that the resulting mixture really does look gross, perhaps because it bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the fake plastic vomit that was sold in the backs of comic books when I was kid.

Once I got past that, however, I found the onion salad to be surprisingly bland, not nearly as tart as I expected, but my curiosity was still only half satisfied. Fulfilling an earlier promise to myself, I cut open a bulgogi bake, loaded the onion salad on top and had a genuine Eureka moment as the flavors hit me: the combination of the breaded crust, marinated beef, cheese, onions, mustard, and ketchup transformed the ho-hum bulgogi bake into a very respectable cheeseburger, and I assume, fair reader, that you don’t need me to tell you exactly how weird and terrible that was.

Tube burger? It's hard thinking of names for this that don't have unintended sexual connotations.

Boom!

The Worst Motorcycle in Laos- R3 final update

Blatant Pimping: The Worst Motorcycle in Laos

We usually don’t demean the fair cyber pages of this blog by something as base as promotion, but screw it, I’ll shed my secret identity and let the cat out of the bag: I, Chris Tharp, aka “Mr. Motgol,” got a new book out YOU should stop what you’re doing right now, click on the link below, and buy it. Hey, it can’t be that bad. After all, these guys had some nice things to say about it:

“In The Worst Motorcycle in Laos, Tharp takes us on a wild ride from the neon streets of Tokyo to the dirt tracks of Indochina. The essays are insightful, humorous and unflinching. A great read for the active and armchair traveler alike.”

– Michael Breen, author of The Koreans

“Tharp’s done it again. He’s got a knack for finding himself in, shall we say, interesting places and situations – from fake flowers and monks to persistent touts, these are the stories few can experience for themselves. Make no mistake, Tharp makes life happen on his own terms.”

– Chris Backe, travel blogger from One Weird Globe 

The Worst Motorcycle in Laos is a wild and thoughtful ride through the backwaters of Asia. Tharp writes about his travels with a refreshing, humble honesty, unafraid of exploring the gritty and the grimy, the seedy and the sublime.  Witty, poignant and at times even disturbing, this is a great read for the seasoned journeyer and those who wish to enjoy from comfort of home.”

– Brandon W. Jones, author of All Woman in Springtime

You can get the ebook or paper version at Amazon and other big booksellers. Thanks!

On Bongsudae and Bilbo Baggins

bongsudae

by Steve K. Feldman

A few weeks ago, on a typically splendid late-fall weekend here in Busan, I climbed Hwangnyeong Mountain, one of the many small peaks that jut up above the dense, concrete sprawl of this port city on South Korea’s southern tip.  At the top, I experienced a neat bit of déjà vu, or synchronicity, or what-have-you.  I remembered the first time I climbed Hwangnyeong-san, way back in 2003, during my first year in Korea. This was just a few weeks before The Return of the King—the third of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies—came out in South Korea. Now it’s 2014, and I realized my recent climb once again coincides with the release of part three of another Jackson-directed J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy—this time, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, hitting theaters on December 17.

And there’s an even bigger Hwangnyeong-san / Tolkien connection—the bongsudae.  Bongsudae are the mountain-top fire beacons built by Chosun Dynasty kings in the 15th and 16th centuries that relayed messages up and down the peninsula, mostly having to do with foreign invasion, which happened all too frequently. The bongsudae system, at its height, had 673 towers that stretched from Busan all the way up to what is now Seoul. Usually the bongsudae consisted of 5 separate chimney-like pots or bowls, each about 3 meters high, made of stone or brick. The usual practice was one beacon remained lit as an “all clear.” Two fires meant an enemy was sighted. Three meant the enemy was nigh. Four meant the border had been breached, and five meant a battle was underway. A signal fire lit in Busan took about 12 hours to make it all the way to the King’s palaces almost 500 km away in Seoul. Busan has two mountains with sets of these fire-beacons (replicas, alas, re-built in the 1970s)–Hwangnyeon-san and Ganbio-san in Haeundae.

Back in 2003, seeing the bongsudae gave me one of those little shivery thrills you get when something ancient and exotic  jumps out of the history books, amidst all the bustling, high-tech, 21th century modernity. However, it wasn’t just the thrill of seeming something super old and “Korea-y” as Mr. Motgol would put it. There was also a flash of recognition because bongsudae make a brief but memorable appearance in The Lord of the Rings.

As a geeky 13 or 14 year old, I read The Lord of the Rings literally to tatters. I think the copy of The Fellowship of the Ring my twin brother and I had eventually started around page 32 as the cover, then the table of contents, then the maps of Middle Earth, then much of chapter 1 got torn away from overuse. The fire beacons make their appearance early in chapter 1 of The Return of the King, as Gandalf and Pippen ride to the great city of Minas Tirith just as Sauron is about unleash his forces of darkness upon it. Approaching the city, they see the beacons lit along the mountains to the north, calling for aid from neighboring Rohan:

Gandalf cried aloud to his horse. “On, Shadowfax! We must hasten. Time is short. See! The beacons of Gondor are alight, calling for aid. War is kindled. See, there is the fire on Amon Din, and flame on Eilenach; and there they go speeding west: Nardol, Erelas, Min-Rimoon, Calenhad, and the Halifirien on the borders of Rohan.”

Pippen became drowsy again and paid little attention to Gandalf telling him of the customs of Gondor, and how the Lord of the City had beacons built on the tops of outlying hills along both borders of the great range, and maintained posts at these points where fresh horses were always in readiness to bear his errand-riders to Rohan in the North, or to Belfalas in the South. “It is long since the beacons of the North were lit,” he said.

So, only a few months after the cool experience of climbing Hwangnyeong-san and finding Korea’s version of Gondor’s fire beacons, I found myself plunked down in my seat at the Haeundae Megabox awaiting Peter Jackson’s version of The Return of the King.  With the first two movies great beyond almost all expectations (even hard-core Tolkien fan-geeks like me were won over), my anticipation was high for the trilogy’s climax, stoked even higher by critics’ orgasmic reviews.  As the theater lights dimmed, I idly wondered if the fire beacons of Gondor—Tolkien’s bongsudae—would make an appearance.

Well, not only did they make an appearance, but Peter Jackson took brilliant artistic license to turn the lighting of the fire beacons into one of the most majestic shots in the trilogy—a scene of pure chill-inducing wonder. Instead of showing some distant flickering lights on far-off mountain peaks while Gandalf delivers some clunky exposition filled with a long list of fictional mountain names (let’s face it—there’s a LOT of awkward exposition in The Lord of the Rings), Jackson follows his instinct for dramaticization over exposition. We get a scene set in Minas Tirith, where Gandalf orders Pippin to sneak up to the city’s own fire beacon and light it surreptitiously, against the wishes of Lord Denethor, who is sunk in depression following the death of his son, Boromir.  Once the fire is lit, we see the flames spring to life on the next closest mountain.  And then . . . suddenly we jump to a soaring, eagle-eye view of fires leaping up along the ridges and peaks, one by one, some of the peaks jutting above the clouds.  The camera thrillingly zooms in on one fire, then wheels around and as we pull away, the shot pans to the next peak, which suddenly blazes with fire, and so on, all the way until Aragorn, in Rohan, sees the last fire beacon and runs to alert King Theoden . . . and all of this accompanied appropriately grand, sweeping music. (Watch the full scene here.) gondor-beacons2

All of us in the theater were gob-smacked. I actually heard several Koreans near me gasp aloud in astonishment. The scene was jaw-dropping in its own context, but for Koreans, it was like a scene from their own rich, tragic history brought to spectacular life.  “This is what it must have been like!” they must have thought. Over four hundred years ago, the Japanese invasion under General Hideyoshi approaching the coast, the fire signals leaping peak to peak all the way to Seoul–this is what it was like!

By now, countless vats of critical ink have been spilled detailing why the first two Hobbit movies were disappointing:  the jarring discrepancies in tone; the unnecessary padding and stretching of a single medium-length novel into three lengthy epic films; the absurdly overdone action sequences. It was still nice to return to Middle Earth via the incredible landscapes of New Zealand, and the great Ian McKellan still completely owns Gandalf and Martin Freeman is perfect as the reluctant hero Bilbo. The first two Hobbit films are not as disastrously shit-tastic as the three Star Wars prequels, by any means, but disappointing nonetheless.

In comparing The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings movies, I keep coming back to the bongsudae.  Amid all the monsters and magic, what made Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies so great was the rough verisimilitude that ran throughout the whole project. And by versimillitude, I mean the sense that the Korean movie goers had when watching the fire beacons of Gondor burst alight:  that’s what it was like! In watching the Helm’s Deep and the Siege of Gondor battle scenes, you could think to yourself, “Wow, that’s what the Mongol siege of Baghdad was like,” or “that’s what a charge of heavy cavalry during the Crusades was like.” Even quiet scenes seem like they could have been reasonable facsimiles of medieval or Anglo-Saxon life. The Prancing Pony Inn at Bree seemed exactly the place where Chaucer and his travelling compansions might have stopped for the night on their way to Canterbury and had a story-telling contest. The Golden Hall of King Theoden in Rohan could have been an actual Viking mead-hall. The Shire itself, homeland of the Hobbits, was clearly a facsimile of Tolkien’s beloved rural English countryside that he no doubt saw being threatened by urban and suburban development, just like in the final chapters of The Return of the King. In other words, shit was cool ‘cause shit was based on real shit.

The Mongol siege of Baghdad, or Sauron's siege of Minas Tirith?

The Mongol siege of Baghdad, or Sauron’s siege of Minas Tirith?

But then we get to The Hobbit films. The scenes that in The Lord of the Rings seem inspired by real medieval life now seem inspired by . . . Donkey Kong.  Yes, I know that Tolkien’s The Hobbit was much lighter in tone than the later trilogy, and I understand the need, once they decided expand The Hobbit into three films, to provide satisfying climaxes for all three movies. But still, it became clear rather quickly that Jackson’s instincts as to what to include from the books, what to take out, what to conflate and condense, what to highlight, and what to flat-out invent—the instincts which had seemed so unerring in The Lord of the Rings films—had sadly deserted him and had been replaced with a video game mentality. Radagast’s sled pulled by rabbits and hedgehogs (Sonic the Hedgehog?) was the first clear sign that something was going horribly wrong.  Then the scene in the underground Goblin kingdom made me groan with its slap-stick preposterousness.  Then, in the second film we get the dwarves escaping from the Elven Halls in barrels—O.K., that was all well and good, straight from the book, really— but Jackson had to add an orc battle on top of that, with the elves shooting at the orcs while balancing on the dwarves’ heads or some crap like that.  WHY?!  And finally, we get the climax in which the dwarves try to subdue the dragon Smaug by firing up their old smelting and forging furnaces and machinery—a scene filled with too-clever-by-half Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions that was not in the book at all and seemed to serve no practical purpose but to make the audience, or at least the kids in the audience, go “Wow.”

Only it didn’t make me go “wow,” it made me groan and check my watch. Didn’t we all learn from some guy named Lucas that throwing as much CGI shit on the screen as possible is not what the audience really cares about? Why is it that the Death Star battle at the end of the original Star Wars and the battle on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back far outstrip any of the action sequences in Episodes 6, 1, 2, and 3?  It’s because the last battle in Star Wars was modeled on real fighter-plane aerial dog fights. And the awesome Imperial Walkers seemed a plausible way to actually attack an ice-bound rebel base, and the Snow-Speeders with their tow-cables seemed an actually plausible way to attack the Walkers.  In other words, everything was in the service of the story.  When I stop thinking, “Wow, Bilbo or Luke, or Frodo or whoever was sure lucky to get out of that mess,” and start thinking, “Wow, the dudes who designed that special effect sure are good at what they do,” that’s the wrong kind of “wow.” You’ve jolted me out of the dream that every fantasy/action/sci-fi movie is supposed be and reminded me of a bunch of very well-paid techno-geeks with models and matte-paintings and computers and blue-screens.sled

In any case, Peter Jackson already has my 10 bucks for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. In a few weeks, I’ll find myself at Lotte Cinema, or Megabox, or CGV, hoping that this time Jackson just sticks to the damn book, and remembers that even the most far-out fantasy scenes need to be grounded in something real-world and historical, like Gondor’s fire beacons and the bongsudae.  The dragon Smaug laying waste to the lake town? Perhaps Jackson used U.S. jets napalming Vietnamese villages as inspiration. The titular “five army” battle, with masses of dwarves, elves, men, eagles and orcs, plus a hobbit and a wizard, all going medieval on each others’ asses, should invoke, well, a real medieval battle.  That battle should provide ample opportunity for that gritty battle-realism that was so stirring in The Lord of the Rings. But then again, even in those great battle scenes, we had ridiculous shit like dwarf-tossing and Legolas running up the trunks of elephants and a ghost-soldier army that looked like they came out of a Disney theme-park ride.

Well, whatever shit Jackson decides to throw on the screen, this’ll be our final big-screen romp through Middle Earth. This’ll be our final cinematic look at that fantasy world thought out with staggering depth by that Oxford Philology professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. That makes me a little sad—after all, so much of what Jackson gave us was great. So much of it measured up to or even surpassed what I saw in my head as a 13-year old with his nose buried in those books. After this last movie, we’ll have to just go back and read those books again. At least until Peter Jackson decides to film The Silmarillion.

pj-jrr