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Books

Although classic texts and popular English-language literature are often translated into Korean, the reverse is not true. Very few Korean books are translated into English. However, the newer generations of Korean immigrants, foreign-born Koreans, and non-Koreans are writing interesting books about the culture.

Nonfiction books on Korea include the following: 20th Century Korean Art (2005) by Youngna Kim is a solid introduction to contemporary works by current artists. Korean Folk Art and Craft (1993) by Edward B. Adams, although a bit dated, is an excellent guide to understanding Korea's folk objects. Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History (2005, updated edition) by Bruce Cumings is an excellent overview of the history of the peninsula. Korea Style (2006) by Marcia Iwatate and Kim Unsoo is perhaps the only book in English about Korean architectural and interior design, highlighting 22 homes in the country. Eating Korean: From Barbeque to Kimchi, Recipes from My Kitchen (2005) is a friendly guide to Korean cuisine. Written by the author of this guide, it includes personal stories and over 100 recipes. Quick and Easy Korean Cooking (2009), also written by this book's author, introduces Korean flavors into your home kitchen.

There are some good Korean fictional works translated into English, available on limited release: Between Heaven and Earth (1996/2002) was the winner of the Yi Sang Literature Prize in 1996. It's a story about a transient relationship between a man on his way to a funeral and a woman he meets on the way. The Wings (2004) by Yi Sang is a collection of three semiautobiographical short stories on life, love, and death. The Rain Spell (1973/2002) by Yun Heung-gil is an incredibly touching and sad story about the Korean War. House of Idols (1960/1961/1966/2003) by Cho In-hoon is about two soldiers in Seoul after the Korean War. It includes "End of the Road," a story about a prostitute around a U.S. military base. The Land of the Banished (2001) by Cho Chong-rae is about a peasant family during the Korean War. It shows class struggles and describes the People's Army. It's Hard to Say: Buddhist Stories Told by Seon Master Daehaeng (2005) is an illustrated introduction to Seon (Zen) teachings, with fun stories for adults and children.

Films

Since the late '90s, South Korean films have been gaining international recognition and winning prizes at festivals worldwide. Though not comprehensive by any means, the following is a list of films I found notable in the past decade or so.

Secret Sunshine (Milyang; 2007) is Lee Chang-dong's film about a woman trying to start a new life in a small town, Milyang (hence the name). The performance by Jeon Do-yeon won her the best actress prize at Cannes, but her co-star, Song Kang-ho, also does an excellent job of portraying a certain type of universal, small-town Korean man.

The President's Last Bang (2005), directed by Im Sang-soo, is a controversial political satire dramatizing the last days of President Park Chung-hee. His military dictatorship ended in 1979 with his assassination by his own men. The Korean title translates literally to Those People at That Time.

Oasis (2002), an award-winning film by Lee Chang-dong, is about a relationship between an ex-convict and a woman with cerebral palsy. The brilliant acting by Moon So-ri garnered her the Marcello Mastroianni Award at Venice that year. Lee's Peppermint Candy (2000), though not a brilliant work of art (some may disagree with me), is an interesting historical drama depicting the Korean psyche, through one man's story told backward from the end of his life to his youth.

Spring in My Home Town (1998) is a slow-moving but nicely told story by director Lee Kwangmo about two 13-year-old boys growing up in a small village during the Korean War. The Korean title is The Beautiful Season.

Chunhyang  (2000) is a beautifully told period drama about two lovers in 18th-century Korea, by one of the country's best-known directors, Im Kwon-Taek. The story reveals the historical reality and stark class differences prevalent at that time.

Farewell, My Darling (1996), written and directed by Park Cheol-Su (director of 301/302), is about a family mourning the death of its patriarch. It is an excellent commentary on the contradictions and commingling of Confucius traditions and modern life in Korea.

TV

The wildly popular television drama Winter Sonata (the second half of the show Endless Love) was one of the shows responsible for the "Korean wave" (or Hallyu) that swept through the rest of Asia in the early 2000s.

There are literally hundreds of dramas to choose from, so it's difficult to recommend titles. The most popular ones from the past few years have been My Girl, Princess Hours, Autumn in My Heart, and My Lovely Sam-soon. Also, historic dramas, like The Legend (aka Four Gods, starring Bae Yong-joon of Winter Sonata fame and the talented actress Moon So-ri from Oasis), although fictionalized, are a great way to learn more about Korea's colorful history. You can even visit some of the sets built specifically for productions. I've included some throughout the book.

YesAsia (www.yesasia.com) is an excellent online source for Korean dramas with English subtitles.

Music

You may have heard of the KPop sensation Rain (real name Jeong Ji-hoon) or seen him in such films as Speed Racer or Ninja Assassin. Although he may be the most internationally famous, there are plenty of other KPop groups popular in South Korea. Of these, female vocalist Boa is one of the few who have been able to make a crossover album in English. Still, Korean pop singers and performers quickly rise and fall. Kpopmusic.com is a good source for checking out the latest hits and bands.

Despite the temporary nature of today's pop music in South Korea, the country's musical roots go back centuries, back to its shamanistic roots. Korea's traditional music grew from some outside influences (for example, Buddhism), but has its own origins. Special court music and ensembles were performed for royalty and aristocrats. Dating back to the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty, it's very rare to be able to catch a court music performance these days, aside from special events put on by the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts.

On the other end of the spectrum were the folk musicians, who traveled from town to town putting on impromptu concerts for commoners. The villagers would throw the roving musician a few coins or feed them in return for the entertainment.

Pungmul is a type of folk music tradition that grew from shamanistic rituals and Korea's agricultural society. A pungmul performance is led by drumming, but includes wind instruments and well as dancers. Because it's a kinetic, colorful performance, a recording of pungmul music rarely does it justice. However, samul nori, which also has its roots in nog-ak (farmer's music), makes use of four of the drums found in pungmul. Each drum represents various elements of weather -- rain, wind, clouds, and thunder. It's a good entry into Korean traditional music, especially for those who like percussion.

Pansori is one of the most famous types of traditional performance. Sometimes called the Korean "blues" (not because of the style but more of the sadness in the music), pansori is a long, drawn-out performance by one singer and one accompanying drummer. The lyricist tells a narrative song, inviting audience participation and joke telling along the way.

Sanjo (which translates literally as "scattered melodies") is one of the most advanced forms of Korean music. It describes a solo performance on a traditional instrument in which the performer begins slowly, but builds up to a faster, more spontaneous tempo, adding improvisations and showing off his or her skills with each successive movement. In an entirely instrumental performance, the rhythms shift as the performance progresses. There are sanjo for piri (bamboo oboe), daegeum (bamboo flute), haegeum (two-string bowed instrument), ajaeng (bowed zither), geomungo (six-stringed zither), and the gayageum (12-string zither.

One of my favorite modern gayageum masters was Hwang Byungki (www.bkhwang.com), who played both traditional and original compositions on the Korean zither. His album The Labyrinth (2003) contains some of the most experimental of his works, while Spring Snow (2001) is a more meditative and minimal presentation.

A celebrated performer of the daegeum is Yi Saeng-gang (www.leesaengkang.com). His album Daegeum Sori (2007) is an excellent introduction to the sounds of the bamboo flute, but his Sound of Memory Vol. 2 is a more haunting study of the daegeum.

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