Fishing in a Liberated Joseon

My recent obsession has been 시카고 타자기 (Chicago Typewriter), written by Jin Soo-wan, who also wrote The Moon Embracing the Sun.

Promotional Poster for Chicago Typewriter, accessed through Wikipedia.

TVN [in Korean]:

Wikipedia [in English]:

They share some themes, but similarities are mostly superficial.

Chicago Typewriter is the story of a famous writer, a woman whose life is falling apart, a mysterious ghostwriter and their past lives during the Japanese Occupation of Korea (1910-1945). It’s funny, heartbreaking, engaging and Yoo Ah-In’s haircut in the modern bits is as utterly terrible as his 1930s haircut is good.

There’s so much to unpack–that font! her clothes! and oh, the bookshelves alone could be written about for days!– but instead, this.

Last year I watched Rooftop Prince–about a Prince from the Joseon era (which the occupation ended)  and a recurring joke confused me at first: the Prince looked a hot mess, and he would tell people he was from “Joseon”–as in the past. And people would nod knowingly, “ohhh.”

As an American, I didn’t get the joke at first–unless you’re Korean-American, you probably didn’t get it either.

But in 1945, when Korea was split into two by the United States and the Soviet Union, the Soviet-backed North decided to go back to the pre-1910 name of Joseon. In many ways, they also brought back the social order of Joseon. To me North Korea is far more reminiscent of my readings on 19th century Korea than it is of any Советский Союз  stuff I’ve read.

The South chose a very different path (massive understatement). And this is an undercurrent of every time-travel to the Joseon drama (and there are many)–the abductions; the feeling of bringing the modern world to the past; and the loneliness of being in something so familiar and something so alien at the same time.

Chicago Typewriter is heartbreaking enough as an examination of the horrors of collaboration and resistance–a theme that’s fascinated me since I lived in Normandy in France, where they knew a thing or two about this as well, even if their occupation only lasted six years.

But as an impassioned plea for reunification; as a reminder that the work of these fictional resistance characters is still not completed; it’s even more heart-rending.

At one point, the characters ask each other: “What would you do in a liberated Joseon?” One replies: “I’d like to go fishing.”

As we watch two world leaders debate over who gets to initiate the destruction of Seoul,  all I can think of is how I too would like to go fishing in a liberated Joseon, where the people with the prettiest accent of a beautiful language have enough food to eat and aren’t in the military for ten years;[1]and where the last bastions of Japanese occupation in Seoul are dismantled and wiped away. [2]

How far away from that dream do we remain?

— –

1. I’m a bit partial to North Korea’s Pyongyang accent.

2. I’m referring to the ones used by the US.

“Can’t you see I want you to care about yourself as you care about me?”

General & I is a female fantasy–that we (women) will be respected in a male-dominated profession; that we will be loved for our successes rather than shamed; that we can have our own hierarchical relationships that may even conflict with a man–and that’s ok. 

That’s the fantasy. 

The passion of romantic love may give General & I it’s narrative drive, but it’s beating heart is in female friendships. 

This line came from the best defined of those friendships, between Bai Ting Ting and Yang Feng, who are besties. 

Bai Ping Ting and Yang Feng are allowed to rank their friendship high enough that it can conflict in their romantic relationships–when their husbands go to war against each other, Yang Feng tries to keep Bai Ping Ting from choosing sides for example. 

And the women who don’t have friends–Zheng Guifei and Yao Tien–are the women who End Badly. 

Bounty Hunters

So I watched Bounty Hunters, with Lee Min-ho and Wallace Chung (who was sporting a terrible dye job.) 

My idea would have been better. And cheaper.

Heck, I’ll even expand on it:

30 minutes in a French restaurant. 

30 minutes in a Chinese historical restaurant. 

30 minute scene where they fight ninjas. 

You can even add in Tiffany Tang or, heck, Suzy’s great! That’s not exactly a stretch!

Movie Done. 

Does it make sense? No. 

But then again, did Transformers? 

”I am not ready; but I am willing.”

My current Asian drama addiction is (shockingly) not Korean, but Chinese: General and I, a fun sudsy melodrama that takes place during an invented part of the Yan era, just after the Three Kingdoms.

At least, that’s as far as I can tell. Embarrassingly, most of my knowledge of Chinese history is indexed to understanding Korean history, so I could be wildly wrong.

But it’s old enough that they wear Hanfu, the best clothing style in the history of clothing other than 1930s bias cut evening gowns; and I liked Angelababy in the young Judge Dee movie; and Wallace Chung is both hot and old enough that I don’t feel creepy thinking he’s hot.1

Yao Tian in General and I opening credits, with soldiers in background.
Many fancy hats.

So… yeah. It’s fun. But I didn’t expect any depth. I don’t expect depth from any historical drama that’s not Korean.2.

I just wanted pretty people in pretty clothes, angsting.

With bonus points for fancy hats.


But then the Princess of Bai Lan said this:

I am not ready; but I am willing.

And jerky He Xia listened to her, because apparently she’s the only person in the world that emits a ray that can sometimes keep him from being a horrible human.3

And I was stunned. I’d never thought of it that way before.

Yao Tian and He Via in General and I
Yao Tian, the Princess of Bai Lan, with her jerky boyfriend.

This is, I think, the missing piece around consent. I don’t think I realized this was two separate things for a very long time–and half of my problems as a young adult came from conflating these two states.

So fancy hats off to you, General and I. Long may you entertain.


Happy Lunar New Year, and welcome to the Year of the Fire Rooster.


1. Cough. Lee Min-ho, cough. But omg that voice! Never mind I have clothing almost as old as you. That I bought. With money from my first job.*
2. It is a truth universally acknowledged** that K-Drama writers are The Best.
3. But not always. He’s still a jerk.***

Footnotes of Footnotes

* I just found out that Wallace Chung and Lee Min-ho are in a movie together. It looks terrible; but to be honest, I’d probably watch them reading menus or recipes to each other for an hour. Two hours, if some of the menus or recipes were in French. Three if they wear hanfu and Lee Min-ho has the brown highlighted shag haircut he had in Faith…. Well, you get the idea.
** By me.
*** I wrote this before I saw episodes 34-36. He’s REALLY a jerk. He Xia, you deserve BUPKIS.