Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fat Chick Rock: Piggy Dolls

A new girl group has surfaced during my absence from Korea. This, in itself, is not newsworthy. New musical groups pop up like mushrooms over there, at a breakneck speed that mirrors the bewildering frenzy that is life in South Korea.

This one is newsworthy because they're fat. Or they're fat by Korean standards. And this is the number one gimmick their label is pushing. What label it is, I'm not sure, as it's not one of the big K-pop powerhouse labels (YG, SM, and probably the granddaddy of them all, JYP); it's merely being described as "independent." One website lists their manager as "위닝인사이트".

There is so much ground to cover, I don't know where to begin. So, let's start at the beginning.

piggy dolls

(Left to right: Park Ji-eun, Kim Min-sun, Lee Ji-yeon)

Yes, their name is Piggy Dolls. And yes, the name of their debut "mini-album" (only five tracks long) is Piggy Style. (Reference to Will Smith's Big Willie Style? "Doggy style"? Pussycat Dolls? None of the above? Who knows. I don't!)

The whole premise is: "Look at these fat girls sing!" One line that keeps getting bandied about everywhere is that their combined weight is over 200 kg. That's about 441 pounds. For three people, that's an average weight of 147 pounds / 66.7 kilos. I would like to say, first and foremost, how cracked it is to reduce three talented women to, and sell them on the basis of, numbers. I cannot stress that enough. Who cares how much they weigh? Why doesn't anyone give a flying fart about SNSD's combined weight? Oh, right, because they're all skinny. It's only fat people that need to be conceptualized strictly in terms of numbers.

But even then, look at those numbers. 147 pounds is enough to merit the nickname "Piggy"?! If that sounds messed up, that's because it is. Korean society is perhaps more enamored with a slim physique than the US, given that their expectations of celebrities and pop idols are generally much stricter and narrower. Most female pop stars are underweight to one degree or another, surviving on a strict 1500 kcal / day regimen. A 20-year-old, 5'5" and 147 pound girl has a basal metabolic rate of 1498 kcal / day. Now, if this girl is also a K-pop sensation, then she's going to have loads of intense dance routines to practice and perform—like daily, hours-long aerobics classes on a fairly regular basis. On a schedule like that, you either lose your weight or your mind.

When you take into consideration that Kim Min-sun also clearly weighs more than the two other girls, that becomes even more bizarro-land. The maths suggest that Park and Lee weigh less than 147 pounds. It's great to see pop stars with figures like (albeit young) adults instead of 12 year old boys—singers who look like real people—but on the other hand, I cringe at associating "realness" and normality of figure with being a "piggy doll." It's not the name "Piggy Dolls" in and of itself that bothers me (unlike Mixtapes and Liner Notes, who rejects it—and with good reason—categorically). I'm excellent at being a self-deprecating fat chick and I'd be stoked to be in a band called "Piggy Dolls." What bothers me is that two of the three "Piggy Dolls" aren't even.

Part of this "weight marketing"/"it's a FAT group" gimmick might simply be that due to the fact that Kim Min-sun is the designated "leader" of the group, in addition to being the largest. In the promotional materials, she's the clear centerpiece:

piggy dolls

piggy dolls

And like the back-up singers to the lead, Lee and Park can't out-do their larger leader Kim—including in size. The whole phenomenon of pop groups also being a cohesive social unit and having actual leaders (maybe with implied hierarchy?) is another mainstay of K-pop; I don't think that's ever been as much of a marketing ploy for bands in the West. I'm sure there's a whole lot of sociological digging and commentary to be done on that but that's a post for another day!

Most of the conversations I've been reading online have been dealing with a few repeat issues: the band name, the whole "gimmick" of a chubby girls' group, and their debut single "Trend." There is so much more I could say that I haven't already, so instead I'm going to focus on something I found very striking while watching the music video for "Trend," that I have yet to see anyone mention. The video that everyone keeps posting has been taken down, so here's one that should be available, at least for the moment:

This is the shortened version of the song; the official music video released opened with a rather deplorable introduction of the girls lazing around eating pizza. Inspired by a series of interviews with overweight girls (overweight by Korean standards only, pretty much) tearfully discussing their weight-related angst, the girls get on their feet and proceed to rock out. Not only that, they rock out about being fat chicks, with lines like, "My body? So what? My face is unique" and "I'm sexy, I'm looking good, check it out in the stage. I'm looking good, we are trend."

I don't have much to say about the song itself: it's catchy, you can actually hear some talent under the autotune, what lyrics I've found translated are empowering and body-positive and awesome. Rather, let's compare this video to 2NE1's "Fire (Street Version)" video, since both bands seemed designed to target the "grrrl power" market.

(First of all, it would do goddamn wonders for Piggy Dolls if they would fire whoever the hell is in charge of their wardrobe. Some of their outfits tread way too closely to ajumma land. And stop dressing Kim in muu-muus!)

The most interesting thing in these videos for me is how "they" (as in the editing and directing eyes assembling the video) treat the clearly designated, well-advertised leaders. Kim doesn't get the kind of show-stopping front-and-center treatment that CL does. The vast majority of "Trend," the choreography is done within in a triangle, with Kim being at the point in the very back until a full three minutes in; in "Fire," CL commands the front and visual focus for most of the song, except parts where she very visually "hands off" to one of the other members. And the closing shot of the video? Kim strikes a pose behind her girls. CL? Right up front. It seems like Piggy Dolls is still hoping to sell on sex appeal in addition to gimmick by featuring Lee and Park much, much more than Kim. I will grant that it's possible Kim simply isn't a good dancer—on their live MNET appearance, Kim rocks it out even less than in the video. But if that's the case, you can clever edit around that. Even just have shots of her singing. But no—guess Korea isn't ready for a fat "leader" yet.

People are also comparing them to Big Mama, a group I know nothing about because their downbeat, soulful numbers aren't the kind of thing to appeal to 12 year olds, and because I'm a teacher, I only ever confront Korean pop culture through the lens of a 12 year old. Truth be told, I honestly prefer the style of the stupid dance-y K-pop for my daily music needs—I listen to music to keep me perky, mostly. Nonetheless, it is so refreshing to hear strong vocal chops stand on their own. Their version of Lean On Me is right up there with any American gospel rendition.

(The second soloist does go flat, but that's easily a nerves issue from singing in English.)

Normally I don't bother expounding on Korean pop music to such a degree, but body image and being a chubster fat chick is a really big part of my life. (No pun intended.) It might be tough to be a fat chick in the West, but it's even tougher in Korea. That's why Piggy Dolls is so shocking and making so many headlines. At the very least, maybe Piggy Dolls will be able to broaden the spectrum of typical K-pop fare, if not in style (because even if they've got pipes, you can only do so many variations on a synthesizer) then in image.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tom Lehrer And ESL

I first came across Tom Lehrer in high school, and the combination of accomplished piano-playing and biting satire won me over immediately.

It wasn't until a few days ago, though, that I came across some educational songs he wrote and recorded for children's show The Electric Company. Surprisingly, there's very few hits for "Tom Lehrer" and "ESL" online. Whether due to obscurity or conflation with the much-lauded The Electric Company and the subsequent video shorts, I aim to rectify this sad situation! All of the educational songs Tom Lehrer wrote would work really well at an elementary level, with or without the videos (though the videos ARE cute). But the best ones, which I'm posting below, are:

Silent L-Y (about creating adverbs)
Silent E (how silent e changes vowel sounds)
N Apostrophe T (contractions with "not" and also some modals)

Silent L-Y

Silent E

N Apostrophe T (Not Tom Lehrer performing, of course.)

There are all kinds of old clips on YouTube from The Electric Company, with similar songs on other sounds and grammar topics (Good Old Apostrophe S, Thanks to TH, etc). I'm sure they're great too, but this is a blog entry about Tom Lehrer, not The Electric Company.

Those were all, as you can guess even from the titles, very elementary songs. I wouldn't use them outside of that context because really, how patronizing would that be? Instead, Lehrer's satirical songs might be better for intermediate or advanced classes. The only downside is that Tom Lehrer wrote and recorded music for an extremely short period of time in the very early years of the Cold War; many of his songs reference people or ideas of a past zeitgeist. You have to choose carefully once outside the realm of his educational ditties.

With that in mind, I think these would work pretty well, either with adults or teenager-ish age. The lyrics to all of these are readily available online, too (or very easy to transcribe yourself), perfect for fill-in-the-blanks or ordering verses and so forth. Plus, the content is pretty timeless and still relevant today.

The Masochism Tango (Maybe only with adults, this one.)


National Brotherhood Week

And finally, my favorite Tom Lehrer song of all time; it may not be good classroom material (at best, requires vocabulary words with low coverage and use; at worst, satirizes Catholicism which might not go down with some students), but it's what initially endeared Mr. Lehrer to me. Enjoy:

The Vatican Rag

Happily enough, Tom Lehrer's birthday is coming up (April 9th). Why not honor the man with a "Tom Lehrer in the Classroom" day?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Movie Review: "Unborn But Forgotten"

It's thanks to my boyfriend that I made my first foray into Korean cinema. We continued that tradition a couple days ago with the acquisition of three new movies for his K-movie collection:

  • Arahan
  • Unborn But Forgotten
  • The Wig

Last night we watched Unborn But Forgotten, or Hayanbang (하얀방). I think, with the possible exception of 2009 Lost Memories, this is one of the worst Korean movies I've ever seen. It was bad enough for me to feel compelled to complain about it on the Internet!

Right off the bat, the title is a goofy, not-quite-Konglish translation. 하얀방 means "White Room," which refers to the name of the killer website in the movie. My beef isn't that the title isn't a literal translation of the Korean, though. This is par for the course in Korean movies. Rather, my beef is that the English title makes no sense. Yes, it makes grammatical sense, but "Unborn But Not Forgotten" would make more aesthetic sense. (And, in fact, there's a reference to just that line in the movie.) Or even "Unborn And Forgotten." That should have been the first warning sign. But Todd David Schwartz of CBS Radio assured us that "It'll make your blood run cold," or so the cover said, so onward we pressed.

After a brief sort of prologue, where a pregnant woman, wearing a nightgown while taking a bath gets brutally attacked (killed?), the movie jumps right into things: women visit a website and die 15 days later after injuries sustained from a bizarro, instant onset of phantom pregnancy. Men remain unaffected, presumably due to their lack of a womb. A cool concept with loads of potential, honestly. Other movie reviews spit on the concept as being too much of a Ringu derivative, but any horror movie with a technological spin is going to be compared to Ringu, fairly or no. The only substantial similarity is a time limit and (presumably) a revenge element, and I'm willing to overlook those as being "inspired by."

TV reporter Su-jin stumbles upon the incidents by accident, while filming a documentary style newspiece about a detective in Seoul's cyber crimes unit. It's only when, worried she might be pregnant with her TV anchor boyfriend's baby, she searches for a women's clinic that she actually finds "The White Room" website. Surprise! You're cursed!

Straightforward so far, but it's about to get convoluted and lazy. Su-jin moves into the apartment where one of the women died, which the landlord says people don't stay long because they complain of noises. Now that someone's died there, he laments, no one will want to live there!

Except another woman (who lives in the same complex?), who had clicked on the site and survived beyond her 15-day time limit (due to extraordinary psychic powers?), who has tried to move in, too. But for whatever reason, Su-jin manages to swing it. She also befriends Vaguely Psychic Lady in the process.

Now, the movie opened with an attack (a death?) in the prologue; you've figured out by now that it took place in this apartment. But a ghost-pregnant woman (the first you encounter in the movie) died in here, too; according to her old roommate, ghost-pregnant lady felt strangely compelled to move into that apartment for whatever reason. The same reason that drives Su-jin, presumably (though not ALL of the ghost-pregnant women die there, one dies at a nightclub right on the dance floor).

Fortunately for us, Su-jin is an intrepid reporter (and has the cybercop Detective Choi to help her out) and actually makes something of an effort to find out about the previous, died-in-the-prologue tenant, whose belongings are still in the apartment. The biggest clue comes in the way of a painting, which leads Su-jin to an art student described as a mildly autistic orphan.

Turns out the Little Oprhan Autie that Su-jin found was a really gifted artist in school. After graduation, though, she met a guy and started dating and stopped painting as much and oops! Got pregnant. Her best friend and the boyfriend both told her to get an abortion, but she decided to keep it. Detective Choi and Su-jin find the hospital where she was admitted, and a nurse there confirms that Little Orphan Autie (accompanied by a nameless, genderless friend) was eight months pregnant and ready to give birth, though the baby was confirmed to be stillborn. The nurse casually mentions that Little Oprhan Autie came in with bruises on her abdomen. Anyway, the baby is born via C-section, though very very dead, but Little Orphan Autie insists on having the remains.

Oh, and at some point, Su-jin's TV anchor and douchebag extraordinaire boyfriend visits her in this apartment and flips out at the painting, which very clearly perturbs him. See where this is going?

This is where shit stops making sense. By now, it's clear that the woman attacked/murdered in the prologue is Little Oprhan Autie (and heavily implied that Anchor Douchebag was the one who did it). But the woman murdered in the beginning was pregnant, so how could she then be admitted to the hospital, alive, to give birth? Okay, so she wasn't killed in the prologue, just her baby was. But then when and how did Little Orphan Autie die? Was Little Orphan Autie not actually pregnant anymore when she was killed?

Because, see, she had to have survived long enough to build a complex shrine to the baby's remains in a strangely large crawlspace that Su-jin finds after mucking about with the ceiling tiles in the bathroom. She could have not died at all, maybe, except that after her miscarriage, she's dropped off the face of the earth and isn't in contact with any of her close friends. Everyone Su-jin interviews talks about Little Orphan Autie like she's dead, but the movie gives no cause or timeline to work out. Was it last year? Last month? Five years ago? The movie never bothers giving any hints or even answering those questions outright. The shrine is well-constructed enough, with dolls and decorations and a tape recording of a woman singing Brahms' Lullaby, to suggest that this wasn't the harebrained scheme of a dying woman. It took time and effort.

Su-jin and her vaguely psychic friend scatter the ashes of the baby over a lake and assume it's all over...BUT IT'S NOT.

Vaguely Psychic Friend dies of the same ghost pregnancy; Su-jin, convinced she's pregnant, or going to die, or both, goes mental. She stocks up on baby supplies, talks to the ghost baby (who just wants to be loved!) and then decides she needs a nice long bath. In a nightgown.

While she's bathing, Anchor Douchebag arrives and they have a really creepy confrontation. Both of them are unhinged, though in different directions. Right as a psychotic Anchor Douchebag raises his scissors in a menacing gesture towards Su-jin's maybe-pregnant belly, she gives birth to the phantom baby. This time, some kind of actual physical baby crawls out. Detective Choi arrives just in time to kill Anchor Douchebag, torn between stabbing his girlfriend or stabbing the demon-baby. Su-jin, for some reason, survives, presumably because Anchor Douchebag is dead?

That final scene is really the only scary part of the entire movie. Everything else is more of a plodding, dimly-lit whodunnit: who lived in the apartment, what happened to her, who was the baby daddy, etc. Only it's a fairly predictable whodunnit, so not even that aspect is all that satisfying. And the plotholes in the story are too glaring to be ignored:

1. If it's the ghost of Little Orphan Autie girl that's behind the deaths, why would she punish women? Wouldn't she instead go after the man who killed her baby (and possibly her)?

2. I've already voiced my complaints about the timeline of Little Orphan Autie's death.

3. Why can Purple Dress (the first ghost-related death we see) and Su-jin get access to Little Orphan Autie's apartment, but Vaguely Psychic Lady can't?

4. Vaguely spooky shit happens with no follow-ups or explanations: while Choi's nosing around the server room for the webhost of"The White Room," lights swing and the power flickers. Su-jin sees a ghostly pair of feet under a sheet but then nothing's really there, of course! The movie ends with a flashback where Detective Choi encounters Little Orphan Autie and then, inexplicably, a little girl with a creepy smile. Both are dressed in white (intentionally connecting them to the killer website?). Is the little girl a random spirit? Is it the dead baby? Are we to assume that the killer baby ghost was a girl and would have been THIS little girl in real life, had she not died? This is probably the biggest problem with the movie: it's basically a series of scenes where weird or spooky stuff happens, strung together with the thinnest, most incoherent of stories.

5. How did Little Orphan Autie and Anchor Douchebag even meet? What's their backstory? We get nothing except that Little Orphan Autie would sometimes present him with paintings.

6. If it's the act of giving birth to the phantom baby that kills the women, why does Su-jin survive?

I will grant that we did watch it pretty late at night, so I might have missed some key expository points due to fatigue. But the end is still absolutely incoherent, and the Internet seems to agree.

I guess you can read some kind of sociological commentary on South Korea's ostracism of single mothers on to the movie, to try and prop it up with meaning, but at the end of the day, it's just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.