Our regular unscientific seasonal post which recognises some of the people, books, films and events which made 2014 an outstanding year.
Personality of the Year
This year there seem to have been more anti-heroes than heroes – examples to avoid rather than emulate. Villains we loved to hate this year have included the reclusive photographer, cult leader and head of the chaebol that owned the Sewol ferry, Yoo Byung-eun aka Ahae; Nut rage Korean Air heiress Cho Hyun-ah; and probably everyone involved with The Interview.
But to recognise people who have made a particular contribution to Korea’s cultural life, Lee Bul deserves a mention for her hyperactive year; Kyung Wha Chung made a long-awaited comeback to the UK concert platform; and Ahn Sung-ki also made a comeback movie performance in a major role. But the winner is Cho Min-suk, Curator of the South Korean Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, who reminded us that Venice hosts other Biennales apart from the famous contemporary art show. Winning the Golden Lion award for best national pavilion put the architecture of the Korean peninsula on the global map.
Film of the year
Of the films released in 2014, two compete for the top slot. A third, which first showed in London in 2014, would have given them a strong run for their money, but probably should be disregarded for being the previous year’s film.
The two 2014 films: Im Kwon-taek’s Hwajang / Revivre and July Jung’s Doheeya / A Girl at My Door. The former deserves its place for fitting in so well with the cultural theme of the year (Korean literature), for its lyrical and autumnal feel and for marking a welcome comeback for Ahn Sung-ki in a major role. Hwajang is Im Kwon-taek’s 102nd feature, while Girl at My Door is July Jung’s debut. And what a debut it is, with amazing performances from Bae Doo-na as the troubled police chief and Kim Sae-ron as the even more troubled child, and assured handling of a huge range of complex social issues while still managing to have an ending which is slightly feel-good. Quite an achievement.
I really wanted to like the Im Kwon-taek, and almost surprised myself by doing so; I went into the July Jung with an open mind, and came out blown away. So despite giving them both 4.5 stars in my reviews, A Girl at My Door gets the accolade.
The honourable mention goes to Park Chan-kyong’s Manshin, a 2013 documentary which had me gripped from beginning to end (and which also features Kim Sae-ron from A Girl at My Door as the shaman during her childhood years).
Book of the year
What a year it has been. Literature in translation seems to be really hitting its stride, with several major new translations hitting the bookshops. The ones that I can remember are Gong Ji-young’s Our Happy Time (tr Sora Kim-Russell); Hwang Sunmi’s The Hen who Dreamed she could Fly (tr Kim Chi-young); Lee Jung-myung’s The Investigation (tr Kim Chi-young); and Shin Kyung-sook’s I’ll be right there (tr Sora Kim-Russell). There’s also been a republication of an existing translation – Hwang Sok-yong’s Shadow of Arms (tr Chung Kyung-ja). Meanwhile Dalkey continues its Korean literature project with five more translations, and Asia Publishers now has 90 short stories in its bilingual series plus five younger authors. I confess to having struggled twice to get into the Shin Kyung-sook, and if I don’t succeed on the third attempt I’ll give up on it; and I haven’t had a chance to open Shadow of Arms yet. The book I’m most looking forward to reading is Park Min-gyu’s Pavane for a Dead Princess from the second set of Dalkey translations (by Amber Hyun Jung Kim). But so far this year I’ve yet to read any work of fiction that grabbed me as much as last year’s winner No One Writes Back.
On the academia front there has been
- Janet Poole: When the Future Disappears: The Modernist Imagination in Late Colonial Korea. (Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University). New York: Columbia University Press.
- The Venerable Hyewon and David A. Mason: Encyclopedia of Korean Buddhism. Seoul: Unju-sa Publishers.
- Reflections of a Zen Buddhist Nun: Essays by Zen Master Kim Iryŏp. Translated from the Korean by Jin Y. Park. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
- Eugene Y. Park: A Family of No Prominence: The Descendants of Pak Tŏkhwa and the Birth of Modern Korea. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
- Yeonok Jang: Korean P’ansori Singing Tradition: Development, Authenticity, and Performance History. Plymouth: Scarecrow Press.
- Sun Joo Kim & Jungwon Kim: Wrongful Deaths (Selected Inquest Records from Nineteenth-Century). University of Washington Press.
- Charlotte Horlyck & Michael J. Pettid: Death, Mourning, and Afterlife in Korea: Ancient to Contemporary Times. University of Hawai’i Press.
Of the ones that haven’t already made it onto my bookshelf, Janet Poole’s work is top of the list.
Reverting to the theme of translations, the two shortlisted books for the year are both non-fiction translations. The runner up is Jang Jin-sung’s Dear Leader (translated by Shirley Lee) – a fascinating account of certain aspects of North Korea’s propaganda and espionage efforts, as well as giving some insights into the DPRK’s cultural life. Less interesting were the Boys’ Own aspects: the story of Jang’s escape from the country and from the security forces which sought for him in China. Nevertheless this was a book which lived up to the hype. But the winner is a translation of the Annals of King Taejo (tr Choi Byonghyon) – the first few volumes of the UNESCO-listed Annals of the Joseon Dynasty. What a treasure trove. I could hardly contain my excitement as I browsed it.
London exhibition of the year
- Korean Crafts – Constancy & Change – at Tent London
- Lee Bul at the KCC and IKON
- Lee Jae-hyo – Grass Flower – at HADA Contemporary
- Woodblock prints from Jeung Hyun and Tak Ki-young’s photographs of eunuchs’ tombs at Mokspace
- Leonard Johansson’s Confessions of an Opium Eater at Hanmi Gallery
- Kim Ha-young’s Modern Soup at 43 Inverness Street
- A K-Fashion Odyssey at the KCC – particularly the work of Rejina Pyo.
Shin Meekyoung has had another busy year, but all of her new work has been outside of London – with exhibitions in Belton House (Grantham, Lincs), the National Centre for Craft & Design (Sleaford, Lincs) and Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery – and so I failed to see any of it. I’m am hoping that HADA’s next show (coming in February 2015) will feature some of it, particularly some of her new blue works.
The two leading contenders for exhibition of the year both involve recycled books: one uses old hanji books, the other any book she can lay her hands on: Chun Kwang-young at Bernard Jacobson Gallery and Kwon Jukhee at October Gallery. Both were a pleasure to photograph, and were worth a couple of visits to enjoy to the full. For impact in the memory though, Kwon’s hand-cut book sculptures just take the prize.
Album of the year
I haven’t listened to much in the way of new albums this year. Akdong Musician’s debut album was pleasant listening without much lodging itself in the memory; Clazziquai’s Blink has been in the CD player a fair amount, along with the latest from Pastel stalwarts such as Epitone Project and Herz Analog. But the album which really caught my attention was Bari Abandoned featuring pansori singer Han Seung-seok and instrumentalist Jung Jae-il. The two of them met in Won Il’s group Puri in 2001, and thus have a long history of giving traditional music a contemporary twist.
For Bari, Abandoned they worked with playwright Bae Sam-sik who provided lyrics for a set of songs loosely inspired by the Princess Bari legend. According to the Korea Times‘s review of their live concert,
Inspiration for the album came from a very Korean story, but their music goes beyond nationality. “Ama, ama, mero ama” is Han and Jung’s tribute to an unregistered Nepalese worker who died of heart attack after five months in Korea in 1992.
And in fact it was that very track which introduced me to the album.
The combination of a traditionally-trained vocalist with a pianist who is comfortable in many genres from musicals through to rock provides for some varied and emotional listening and it’s the album that I’ll be returning to more than any other released this year.
Live event of the year
In a strong field there were two stand-out events which will stay with me in my memory for a long time.
For sheer emotional impact – the evening was completely exhausting and enthralling – Ensemble Sinawi’s appearance at the City of London Festival at LSO St Luke’s was a stunning experience.
And for brain food, well, the cumulative impact of all the Korea Market Focus events of the London Book Fair takes some beating. Among the many top quality talks and discussions was Kim Young-ha and Kim In-suk in a session entitled Writing Home: Migrant Literature along with Xiaolu Guo, and this is LKL’s Event of the Year. The two Korean authors were on fire as they seemed to finish each other’s sentences. So in tune were they that we discovered they had almost written the same novel: Kim Young-ha had to cancel his plans to write a novel about Crown Prince Sohyeon (son of King Injo, who was kept hostage by the new Qing rulers in China) when he discovered Kim In-suk had already written one. Now let’s get it translated.
Thanks to all the artists, performers, organisers and sponsors for another outstanding year.
The Best of 2014 on other sites: