Posts filed under ‘Jung Yonghwa’

The Endless Melody: Jung Yonghwa’s Feel the Y’s City album review

Evolution, Jung Yonghwa

CNBLUE’s leader Jung Yonghwa finished up his mandatory military service in the South Korean army last November and since then he’s been reemerging in Asia’s music and entertainment scene. Feel the Y’s City, his third solo Japanese album, just dropped recently and it shows Yonghwa’s continued evolution as an artist as he moves farther and farther from his Kpop idol roots.

The album’s lead track, The Moment, is an astoundingly joyous song, exploding with optimism and hope. Considering that Yonghwa recorded this just after he’d just gone through one of the darkest periods of his career it’s amazing that he was able to infuse such sheer happiness and hope into this track. This one is pure jazz at its most swinging, and it mixes up some killer changes over a driving piano riff, vibes, and blaring horns. Before he entered the military Yonghwa mentioned his admiration for the soundtrack to the film LaLa Land and The Moment definitely takes its inspiration from that style of midcentury jazz-based pop music. But Yonghwa is a better singer than either Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone and his smooth and swinging, powerful vocals drive the song. He effortlessly travels from his warm lower register up to a sweet falsetto.

The lyrics are mostly in English, with a smattering of phrases in French that seem be taken from a French For Beginners handbook, but he does a great job of rhyming in two languages that are not native to him. Although his French is delivered with a decidedly flat American accent, at one point he cleverly rhymes champagne, display, parlez, and café, which is pretty impressive for someone writing not in his first language. Throughout the song he further randomly throws in other French phrases, including a curious line that reads “Let’s get away and find ourselves la vie en rose, encore,” which sounds a bit like he strung together all of the French words he knew to make a lyric. Later in the song he shouts, “C’est la vie!” again not quite matching the proper use of the term. But it’s not bad for someone writing for the first time in French. I’m a bit surprised he didn’t include “mon petit chou” somewhere but that probably didn’t properly scan.

The next track, Summer Night In Heaven, continues the curious admixture of even more languages. Back in August I wrote a note to myself saying, “I have no doubt that Yonghwa can write a genius city pop song if he wants to,” and sure enough, Summer Night In Heaven is it. The song opens with a throwback guitar riff that emulates the crackly scratches of a vinyl record, followed by an outstanding bit of whistling that leads into Yonghwa’s relaxed, funky vocals. The lyrics are all pretty much about his blissed-out vacations to Hawai’i, and the song’s gently loping beat echoes his Zen experiences there. The track also includes a pleasant bit of Yonghwa scatting over a guitar interlude, a skill he showed off at his last concert tour before enlisting back in 2018.

The chorus demonstrates the polyglot scenario in his busy brain as he mashes up English, Spanish, Hawai’ian, and Japanese.

Summer night in heaven. Don’t you know the reason?

Groovin’ to the soul playground of freedom

Loco Ala Moana Forever I wanna

Uchiyosete kaesu shiosai no kōrasu (The chorus of the tide rushing back)

This somewhat random assemblage of languages, charmingly sung without regard to proper accenting or syntax, still manages to work, conveying the joyful and relaxing, utterly optimistic worldview that Yonghwa seems to be cultivating since his discharge from the army last year.

Continuing in that upbeat vein, the next track, She Knows Everything, is a sweet, simple pop song that’s the definition of a catchy earworm bop. The track is  a streamlined throwback to ‘90s new jack swing, anchored by Yonghwa’s gorgeous falsetto. The song’s hooky chorus features Yonghwa’s lovely flutelike upper register as he sings, “I’m in trouble/In Good Trouble,” showing off his effortless, silky vocal range. Here the completely English lyrics sweetly outline a charmed relationship:

When my words get fumbled

Sometimes I’m misunderstood

Before I trip and stumble

She knows how to catch me long before I hit the ground

Once again Yonghwa invokes the Minnesota sound made famous by Prince, with a bright synthesizer jamming over the songs danceable beats.

In Jellyfish Yonghwa uses an upbeat dance track to emulate the backstabbing, duplicitous entertainment world that he inhabits. The song was recorded while he was enduring a particularly vicious witchhunt and Yonghwa shows a remarkable self-awareness for his situation at the time, questioning his own complicity in the trap that he’s in. Although Yonghwa is too polite to say it, the song clearly is about his adopted hometown of Seoul, where he’s spent most of his professional life and where he’s experienced his greatest successes and his greatest betrayals.

The fully electronic instrumentation adds a metallic tang to the song, and the song’s ringing, manufactured beats mesh perfectly with Yonghwa’s raspy purr of a voice. Although beautiful and seductive, the song is completely artificial and false, reinforcing the lyrics which describe being crushed, empty, deluded, and trapped. They also clearly describe the seductiveness and lure of the entertainment world, which Yonghwa envisions as a warm bath of oblivion and deception.

I am bathing in the light of the moon
Always floating
With all the jellyfish in bloom
They are shining in the dark, closing in
Hiding poison
I’m deeper in the city’s womb

The entire song vibrates with mendacity, but Yonghwa doesn’t shy away from his own attraction to the bright lights of fame and fortune, realizing that jellyfish are beautiful but potentially deadly and choosing to tangle with them can be fatal.

There’s a risk I could take when I touch you
Get paralyzed by your sting
Stimulus leads to hallucination
I’d sacrifice for anything

The next track, Fire & Rain, is a dreamy midtempo jam that opens with Yonghwa climbing from midrange to head voice in a beautifully sung acapella phrase. The song then kicks into a powerful dance groove. Yonghwa croons in and around the beat, his understated phrasing and intonation emphasizing the melancholy yet hopeful lyrics (in Japanese and English, with a “fiesta” thrown in for good measure).

We ’re the fire in the rain

hibiku ame no oto daichi ni utai inochi o naraseba fukinukeru kaze seimei no

Breathing moeru yō ni

(Sing on the earth/The Breathing of Life)

Although a very different song, the mood is reminiscent of Yonghwa’s 2014 composition for CNBLUE, Like A Child, as the music and lyrics create a hypnotic ambiance that suggests hope amongst despair.

Melody is a gorgeous slice of orchestral pop, with some lovely half-step progressions that elevate the chorus. Again Yonghwa’s stellar vocals shine, as he runs up and down his range with a fine falsetto at the end of the song, and the song’s arrangement of cascading strings over a lilting piano interweaves beautifully with Yonghwa’s passionate singing. This track was also one of the five recorded before enlistment and released while Yonghwa was in the army and it reflects his desire to continue making music no matter what difficulties or obstacles he faces.

Sekaijuu ni saita Harmony mamoritai yo kienai you ni

Sugite yuku toki no naka de kawaranai you ni

Kiitetai yo towa ni ima doko ni ite mo

Hibikaseyou Baby owarinonai Melody

(I want to protect the harmony that bloomed all over the world, so it doesn’t disappear

So it doesn’t change within this advancing time

I want to listen to it forever, wherever you are now

Let it resound, baby, the endless melody)

At the time he recorded this song there was some doubt as to whether Yonghwa would continue making music so this song holds significant meaning, rededicating his pledge to himself, his bandmates, and his fans to keep going with his career.

The two tracks that immediately follow Melody were also recorded during the controversies prior to Yonghwa’s enlistment and both reflect the state of mind he was in during that crazy time.

Brothers is a straight-up rock song, with power chords and a wailing guitar riff that clearly emulates the style of Yonghwa’s longtime collaborator and bandmate Lee Junghyun (who is currently exiled from CNBLUE following his tangential association with the Burning Sun controversy). In this song Yonghwa also pays tribute to Oasis, one of his favorite bands, as the track has a distinctly Britpop sound to it. The lyrics brilliantly set up the song’s premise, starting with the everyday conflicts that occur between close mates and friends.

Screaming at each other again

We never seem to click,

We’re fighting all of the time

Surrounded by tension and strain

So sick of all your jokes

This stark honesty demonstrates an understanding of the complexities of a longstanding relationship and show Yonghwa’s maturity of thought. As in Letter, despite ups and downs, working through and resolving these struggles ultimately creates an strong and lasting relationship.

The chorus reverses the conflicts introduced in the first verse, revealing the deep bond forged from such conflicts.

When you told me your dreams

And your ambitions

Something crushed inside of me

I see right through you the same

Same way you see right through me

Goin’ back when I found my soul brother

So we’ll never be apart

The song takes on an extra poignancy now that the rest of CNBLUE’s members are returning from their military service. Although Yonghwa has declared that CNBLUE will go on, he’s been mum on whether or not the band’s future includes their erstwhile lead guitarist. Interestingly, while Yonghwa has recently expressed his desire to play rock music again, Brothers is the only track on the album that prominently features guitar, suggesting that he’s waiting for CNBLUE (in whatever formation) to come back in order to get his rock groove on.

Letter, a midtempo love song, also explores an up-and-down relationship that in some ways is a metaphor for Yonghwa’s sometimes problematic relationship with his fans and his career. Yonghwa belts the song effortlessly, infusing the track with a gentle and melancholy longing. He adds a few delicate and powerful trills to the chorus, hitting a sweet crescendo before the song’s soulful denouement. (go here for a more detailed analysis of this track)

The last track on the album, Livin’ It Up, returns to the big-band jazz sound of The Moment. Somewhat more saccharine and less substantial that the other track it nonetheless clearly conveys the mood and meaning Yonghwa intended, which he states is a tribute to the joys of New York City. The song is a throwback to midcentury popular jazz tunes and would be right at home in a Fred Astaire MGM joint, with its lyrics describing “Falling falling snow,” the Brooklyn Bridge, and Rockefeller Center at Christmastime. Somewhere in there there’s a thesis about the pervasiveness of the myth of American exceptionalism in the South Korean imaginary but that’s a discussion for another day.

All in all this is a solid outing and demonstrates Yonghwa’s continued interest in making music that he finds interesting and engaging, rather than what the market dictates. It shows his continued development as an artist rather than an idol or pop star, as he keeps going farther afield from current commercial pop music. Though some of the tracks such as Jellyfish and Fire & Rain are completely on trend, others such as the jazzier cuts are much quirkier and less radio-friendly. As well as his infatuation with big band and jazz, he’s recently stated his fondness for the Indian dream pop duo Parekh & Singh and he’s covered a snippet of a song by the alt-country duo Dan + Shay on his instagram, so his tastes run a wide gamut of pop music.

Not unlike the way he slices and dices several different languages in one song, Yonghwa synthesizes his musical influences in sideways and unexpected ways and it’s very fun following what his fevered mind comes up with. Yonghwa was about to start his latest Japan tour this week but due to the coronavirus crisis those dates have been pushed back until April at the earliest or we’d surely be hearing even more remixes and rearrangements of his music. He’s repeatedly stated that he writes his songs with live performances in mind, so hopefully we’ll soon be able to hear what new directions he’s taking his current batch of tunes. I’m hoping someone plays some Ornette Coleman for him soon as I’d love to hear what happens when he hears some really mindblowing free jazz. A girl can dream—

BONUS: a clip of the new live arrangement of CNBLUE’s Face To Face, originally recorded as a straight-up Motown style jam. Here Yonghwa completely reworks it, and all cutie-pie clowning aside, this is an absolutely killer arrangement of this song, mixing Latin beats, tempo changes, jazz breaks, and some dope strings.

UPDATE: As of March 10, Feel The Y’s City has scored big on the charts throughout much of Asia. In its first day of release on Feb. 26, all five of the new tracks from the album were in the top ten on Japan’s daily Recochoku Kpop/World music chart, with a sixth track, Letter, at number 50.

recochoku 2.26.20

Three tracks, She Knows Everything, Summer Night in Heaven, and Welcome to the Y’s City, swept the top three for two consecutive weeks (Mar. 2 and 9) on China’s weibo New Asia Song Asia-Pacific chart. As noted on weibo, “The whole song has a cool summer feeling from the melody to the voice. There is a sense of playing on the beach.”

weibo 66 copy

The album also charted high on iTunes in several countries, reaching the top 5 in eight countries and topping the charts in Macau and Hong Kong. The album even made it to number 32 on the worldwide iTunes chart, which isn’t bad considering there was absolutely no promotion outside of Asia.

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Yonghwa’s new South Korean variety show, K-Trot In Town, also scored very high ratings in its debut episode, reaching 14.9% in the second half of its broadcast. So despite a few bumps including the postponement of his Japan concerts in March, Yonghwa’s re-entry following his discharge from the military for the most part is going well. But in the mercurial world of South Korean entertainment that could change in a flash. Here’s hoping that things continue to go smoothly, especially once the rest of CNBLUE gets out of the army later this month.

March 6, 2020 at 9:30 am 1 comment

I Can’t Live Without You: Jung Yonghwa’s Special Forces

Resolve

CNBLUE leader Jung Yonghwa’s latest solo single, LETTER, dropped on May 21 last week, which is a bit odd considering that he’s been in the army for the past couple months, but the circumstances surrounding his enlistment in early March were anything but ordinary. He entered the military under a white-hot spotlight but still managed to keep his dignity and poise despite the intense scrutiny he was under the time. This is evidenced by the release of this latest single, which for all intents and purposes probably would not exist without Yonghwa’s resolve and strength of character.

Happier days

2017 was a fine year for Yonghwa and CNBLUE, full of music and accomplishments, and the band seemed to be leaving the ugly spectre of 2016 behind. In the beginning of January 2018 things continued to go along smoothly, with Yonghwa’s successful variety show Island Trio just completing its first season and another, TalkMon, just starting. Yonghwa was appointed an honorary ambassador to the 2018 Pyeongchang Paralympics and had booked several dates for his solo Asia tour into the early spring. There were hints of a CNBLUE comeback in South Korea as well as in Japan and CNBLUE members were riding the wave of each playing leading roles in popular Korean dramas the year before.

Character assassination

Then out of the blue on January 18 came a blind item in the South Korean media accusing the leader of a popular idol band of receiving preferential treatment in admissions to graduate school at Kyung Hee University. After several hours of frenzied speculation the idol turned out to be Yonghwa, but his purported crime was almost laughable. Instead of taking his entrance interview on campus at KHU, due to his busy schedule one of the college’s professors went to Yonghwa’s studio at FNC Entertainment, his agency, and interviewed him there. No big deal, right? Unfortunately the press played this up as a sin on the level of killing and eating the president’s daughter on live television and Yonghwa was vilified for several days for what was essentially a clerical error. The press dug up and revealed his confidential entrance test scores (he did pretty well, actually, getting a 98 out of 100 on the practical score because DUH he’s a professional musician), Korean netizens ruthlessly scrutinized his intentions for wanting to go to grad school, and the general public assailed his honesty and assassinated his character by suggesting that he went through the back door in order to gain admission to KHU. This despite the fact that out of the eight people who applied to the program, all eight were admitted, and that KHU had to ask Yonghwa several times to apply since they were short of students. All of this speculation took place over a few days and in the meantime Yonghwa’s character was viciously attacked and his professional reputation was seriously damaged. He was edited out of a couple television shows he’d recorded earlier and the last two shows of his solo tour were cancelled.

And to add insult to injury, on January 26 Yonghwa announced that he was enlisting in the army effective March 5, so all of his future events were effectively ended. Whether punitive or not on the part of the South Korean government, this clearly was a surprise. As an ambassador for the Pyeongchang Paralympics, which began March 9, Yonghwa would surely have been prominently featured.

Pre-shitstorm

The chain of events was astoundly swift and the shitstorm was intense. It seemed like one minute Yonghwa was posing for pictures with the president of South Korea and the next he was being accused of cheating, lying, and avoiding military service, all within about a week.

But although the judgment in the press was rapid and cruel, Yonghwa didn’t waste a lot of time moping around. Apparently once he knew of his enlistment date he went into creative overdrive, with the results being a pair of completely revamped concerts held in Seoul the weekend before he entered the army and the recording of five new songs, complete with music videos. These songs are scheduled to be released one at a time until his enlistment ends in early December 2019, and LETTER is the first of these. He also participated in the creation of a photobook, wrote the lyrics for a song for his labelmates AOA, recorded 90 short voice messages to be released weekly for fans, and recorded at least one new song with CNBLUE. In some ways this rigorous work schedule must have been a respite from the insanity of the Korean press savagely slandering him every day. It was probably a relief to retreat to the bliss of his studio where he could create music in peace instead of having to deal with the endless recriminations of the relentlessly pursuing media.

LETTER, the new single, is a lovely and understated track, with Yonghwa’s controlled yet emotional delivery carrying the song. It’s deceptively simple, with a spare arrangement of strings, piano, drums, percussion, and vocals, but the song’s structure and build are outstanding. Yonghwa sings the song’s plaintive first verse to a straightforward piano accompaniment, then jumps immediately into a hooky earworm where he belts the refrain, alternating the English phrase “I can’t live without you” with Japanese lyrics. The somewhat lower pitch of the song adds to its melancholy, especially in the last line of the chorus, which features a particularly sweet and melodic vocal run ending in a subtle octave jump. Yonghwa’s rich, husky vocals are spot on as he easily hits the chorus’s high notes after purring the softer lines of the verse, throwing in a bit of delicate falsetto as well as some growly lower tones. He knows exactly how to express emotion with his voice without resorting to gimmicks or over-singing.

The song’s lyrics outline an ill-fated romance between a couple who alternate between affection and quarreling, yet at the end of the song Yonghwa affirms his commitment to the relationship despite its troubles. This reflects a maturity and growth in thinking from his past compositions such as COLD LOVE (2014), which laments a lost relationship without hope of reconciliation, or LALALA (2013), which expresses regret for a recent breakup. The ambivalence of the love story in some ways reflects Yonghwa’s love/hate relationship with the South Korean press and public, with his agency, and with his career, all things that benefit him but which also have hurt him terribly.

Prodigious

Like many very talented people Yonghwa makes what he does look effortless. But unfortunately the flip side of this is that people don’t appreciate the amount of work it actually takes for him to do what he does, so a lot of his labor goes unrecognized. As an example, even during that dire month or so when the South Korean press was excoriating him on a daily basis he managed to produce a huge amount of work. Yet judging from the quality of his final concerts just days before enlisting as well as the beautiful simplicity of his new single he managed to keep up his superhuman standard of excellence despite the immense stress he was under. In part his prodigious amount of work during that time was probably a coping mechanism during the chaos of those final six weeks after his enlistment was announced, as a balm against the haters who were attacking him as well as an FU to those trying to destroy him. Rather than backing down or giving up he instead doubled down on his creative output.

Yonghwa enlisted on March 5 and after he finished his five weeks of basic training he did well enough to be recruited for South Korea’s special forces, an elite commando regiment that trains much more intensively than standard troops. In recent history only one other South Korean celebrity, Lee Seung Gi, has qualified to be admitted to the special forces, although another notable alumnus is current South Korean president Moon Jae-In. While most idols are content to spend their mandatory military service in the regular forces, Yonghwa instead committed to this much more difficult and rigorous regiment, which is stationed right near the border between North and South Korea and which is a part of South Korea’s first line of defense against any threat’s to the country’s security, including that of its restive neighbor. This is no cushy desk job or civil service position—it’s hardcore military training in the coldest part of the country, not far from the DMZ, and under harsh and exacting conditions. By choosing the special forces Yonghwa is shutting down anyone who slandered him during his recent controversy or who doubted his desire to serve his country.

The real deal

It may be surprising to the casual observer that a Kpop idol would choose such a difficult path but Yonghwa is very driven and this gives him the chance to further test himself to his limits. Also, according to some accounts serving in the regular South Korean military can be a bit monotonous, filled with a lot of tedious physical tasks, whereas the special forces is the real deal. Yonghwa is an intense person who is easily bored so he might prefer hard training as opposed to just killing time in the regular military.

I also wonder if Yonghwa is harboring a little bit of rage at how he was treated by in South Korea before his enlistment. It couldn’t have been easy for him to swallow all of the abuse he endured, but he’s not the type to lash out at others, so this gives him a socially acceptable outlet for any anger or frustration he might be feeling, allowing him to forget his past troubles and to focus on the special forces’ intensive training.

Stronger

The special forces will also make him physically stronger, which can be interpreted as a way of making himself less vulnerable in order to defend himself against the crazy industry he’s in. Maybe he’s also figuring out that being the good boy and playing by the rules is no protection and that it’s useless to try to be perfect—respectability politics never work so he has to learn to fend for himself.

It couldn’t have been easy for Yonghwa to go away in the middle of such a fruitful period in his career. There is not enough time in the world for a person like him to accomplish all he wants to do and to have his time cut short so abruptly is a cruel blow. As a creative person I know the utter frustration of having to abandon a project halfway through, or to have something cut short without coming to fruition. It’s almost like a physical pain, a halt, an abrupt and unnatural end when something can’t be completed, and Yonghwa’s two-year military service may seem like a long hiatus for an artist in the midst of making work.

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Military man

But two years is not that long in the grand scheme of things. Fashions in pop music go by in an instant but those with true talent withstand and transcend trends. Yonghwa and CNBLUE have already proven that they are more that just a flash in the pan and they have the drive, the skills, and the ability to be around for a long, long time.

Will Yonghwa be the same lighthearted person he used to be once when he comes back from the army? Onstage he radiates an infectious joyousness—will he lose the playfulness that makes his live performances so magical? Will the military make him stern and hard-bitten? I think not, but he may carry with him some of the grief and sadness from his recent hardships. But although the bright-eyed boy may disappear, the man to come will be stronger and bolder and will shine more incandescently than ever.

UPDATE: As of Aug. 7, 2018 the other three members of CNBLUE have enlisted as well. CNBLUE becomes the first Kpop group to all enlist together in the same year and by doing so they’ve made sure their hiatus is only about two years. There has also been some kind of re-calculating in the South Korean military that’s shortened the time for all those currently serving, so Yonghwa’s return date has moved up about a month, to early November 2019. The other three members should be back shortly after that, around March 2020, so it won’t be too long before CNBLUE returns to the stage together. Great news all around.

UPDATE 2: To put Yonghwa’s whole university admissions brouhaha into context, here’s a bit of background. It was basically a made-up controversy to cover up the real political scandal when former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak was about to be arrested for corruption, right around the time that South Korea was ramping up to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. When the world’s attention was about to focus on South Korea the country’s powers-that-be wanted to divert attention away from any taint of political scandal, especially since President Park Geun-hye had just been arrested and charged with corruption the year before in 2017.  So as is often the case with idols and Kpop stars when the public needs to be distracted from various wrongdoings by the government or the wealthy business sector, South Korea’s media threw Yonghwa under the bus.

UPDATE 3: On October 8, 2018 Yonghwa’s agency FNC Entertainment announced that he had been cleared of any suspicion of guilt or wrongdoing in the investigation of charges of preferential treatment. Of course the damage had been done long before during the initial witch hunt in January but it’s still nice that he was officially vindicated after all that. Ultimately it was the South Korean media as well as the netizens who so gleefully dragged Yonghwa who ended up looking shady, as their initial condemnation of him has proven to be unfounded. Not a good look for them at all, while Yonghwa’s character and ethics again stand up to a harsh and unnecessary test. I hope these fiery trials are helping to forge and strengthen his resolve, and that he’s able to emerge stronger and more brilliant than ever once his enlistment ends.

May 26, 2018 at 7:38 am 12 comments

Get Ur Freak On: Favorite Movies of 2017

My favorite films from 2017 made the list for a variety of reasons but these are the movies I most enjoyed from last year. Three of the films were theatrically released in 2016 but I viewed them first at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) in 2017 so I’m including them here. I saw Get Out and The King on plane flights, but the rest I watched in a cinema somewhere. Listed in no particular order.

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Pulchritude, Jung Yonghwa and Nicholas Tse, Cook Up A Storm, 20171

1. Cook Up A Storm: This film is on the list for the purely aesthetic pleasure of seeing Jung Yonghwa’s perfect features on the big screen. There’s also a lot of nice food porn cinematography but the movie itself is quite lightweight and if it didn’t star my boy Yonghwa (as well as the equally photogenic Nicholas Tse) I’m not sure I would have even given it the time of day. But I’m a big fan of pulchritude so I’m putting it on my list.

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Emo, Lee Byung Hun, The Fortress, 20172.

2. The Fortress: Lee Byung Hun rehabilitates his public image completely in Hwang Dong Hyuk’s absorbing and emo historical about a famously tragic moment in Korean history. While Lee is brilliant as the courtier who must make an unbearable moral choice the rest of the cast is also excellent, including Kim Yoon Seok as Lee’s counterpart, the equally conflicted royal advisor who also pays a heavy price for his decisions.

taxi driver

Wary, Song Kang Ho, A Taxi Driver, 2017

3. A Taxi Driver: Song Kang Ho is solid as usual in director Jang Hoon’s retelling of the 1980 Gwang Ju uprising, in which the repressive government brutally put down student protestors in the southern Korean city. Although the film doesn’t shy away from the political ramifications of the story it’s still very character-driven, as Song’s wary taxi driver gradually comes around to the side of justice and truth. Bonus points for a dope car chase that turns spunky taxicabs into vehicles for the resistance.

the king

Indistinguishable, Jung Woo Sung, The King, 2017

4. The King: The third South Korean film on this list attests to the strength and diversity of that country’s commercial film industry. Han Jae Rim’s brutal and cynical political thriller, in which the gangsters are indistinguishable from the lawyers and politicians supposedly opposing them, includes a great performance from rising star Ryu Jun-yeol, who also had a strong supporting role in A Taxi Driver.

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Complicit, Mon Mon Mon Monsters, 2017

5. Mon Mon Mon Monsters: Giddens Ko’s horror film/teen movie presents a nightmare high school scenario where no one is innocent and everyone is complicit. As he stated in his introduction to the film at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, who is the real monster in the movie?

 

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Fierce, James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, 2016

6. I Am Not Your Negro: Raoul Peck’s doc about the legendary James Baldwin shines when it connects the dots between past and present racism in the U.S. Although Samuel Jackson’s does a fine job narrating the film, he is easily upstaged by archival footage of Baldwin himself fiercely speaking out about race, politics, and the historical and contemporary struggles of African Americans. Released 2016, viewed in 2017 at HKIFF.

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Tensions, Justin Chon, Gook, 2017

7. Gook: Justin Chon’s indie gem presents the Korean American perspective on sa-i- gu, the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles following the acquittal of the Wind, Powell, Koons, and Briseno, the four police officers caught on video beating motorist Rodney King. Chon miniaturizes the conflicts of the time and his film effectively captures the racial tensions of that moment in time.

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Lovely, Cinema, Manoel de Oliveira and Me, 2017

8. Cinema, Manoel de Oliveira and Me: An outstanding essay film directed by João Botelho, one of the influential Portuguese film director’s protégés. The film looks at the relationship between the late director and Botelho and concludes with a lovely restaging of one of Oliviera’s unfinished silent films.

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Ellipses, Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahad Hosseini, The Salesman, 2017

9. The Salesman: Director Asghar Farhadi creates another humanistic look at moral ambiguity and human frailty. As in A Separation (2011), his use of narrative ellipses and architectural metaphors is masterful, as is his ability to draw out strong and sympathetic, vividly shaded performances from his cast. Released 2016, viewed in 2017 at HKIFF.

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Unexpected, Window Horses, 2017

10. Window Horses: Another excellent animated feature from Ann Marie Fleming (The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, 2003), this time following a young Iranian-Chinese Canadian poet named Rose as she travels to her father’s home country for a poetry festival. Yes! Totally fun, unexpected and imaginative, with a gorgeous blend of hand-drawn and digitally generated animation.

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Bleak,Tadanobu Asano, Harmonium, 2017

11. Harmonium: an utterly bleak family drama in the tradition of Tokyo Sonata, Koji Fukada’s movie shows the catastrophic consequences of a few bad life decisions. Released 2016, viewed in 2017 at CAAMfest.

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Bravura, Youth, 2017

12. Youth: Feng Xiaogang’s look at a theater troupe in Cultural Revolution China uses a familiar trope of the youth romance film—the awkward country bumpkin outsider rebuffed in her attempts to join an elite, more sophisticated group–to cleverly investigate the deeper political and social elements dividing the country at the time. Utilizing his familiar bravura filmmaking style, including swooping camerawork and intense and masterfully conducted battle scenes, Feng never loses his focus on the impact of great historical events and social movements on ordinary human beings.

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Unease, Terry Notary, The Square, 2017

13. The Square: Ruben Ostlund kicks up the social commentary a notch from Force Majeure (2014), and The Square is an even better film about male anxiety and weakness than its predecessor. Ostland is a master at inverting cinematic conventions and manipulating sound, image and editing to create maximum awkwardness, discomfort and unease.

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Horrors, LaKeith Stanfield, Get Out, 2017

14. Get Out: A brilliant brilliant movie that proves that commercial genre films can be as significant as any other art form in capturing the zeitgeist of a moment in time and place. Director Jordan Peele utilizes the horror genre to reveal the true horrors in the U.S., where racism and oppression lie just below the surface of seemingly benign everyday gentility.

January 23, 2018 at 7:33 am Leave a comment

Non, je ne regrette rien: The Package, eps. 1-2 review

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Tourism, The Package, 2017

Okay, fuck it. This blog is now all-CNBLUE all the time. Or at least for the next post or two.

After an absence of three years on the small screen, CNBLUE leader Jung Yonghwa has made his latest appearance in a Kdrama in the wacky romcom THE PACKAGE. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from this project except some pretty scenery from France, so the screwball comedy style of the first two episodes has been a really nice surprise.

The premise is simple—a motley crew of seven Korean tourists take a package tour to France, led by expat Yoon SoSo (Lee Yeon-hee), their patient and long-suffering tour guide. As per kdramas, they along the way they discover various things about themselves and each other.

The freak, The Package, 2017

What sets this drama apart from some of the others that I’ve seen is its completely wacky humor. Yonghwa plays the main lead, San Maru, but instead of being a typical dreamboat heroic type he’s a total freak who has random B&D fantasies, giggles while grabbing an armful of vibrators in a Paris sex toy shop, and constantly takes goofy selfies, even while he’s waiting to be grilled in an interrogation room in the Paris airport. But beneath this dorky exterior is a sensitive and upright soul, which Yonghwa ably conveys through his expressive puppy-dog eyes.

Yeon Hee as SoSo, the tour guide with a past, is Maru’s potential love interest, and she hides her mysterious history behind her smiling professional façade. Like Maru she’s fleeing some kind of romantic disappointment so no doubt they’ll hook up sometime before the drama ends.

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Boredom, The Package, 2017

Rounding out the cast are a young couple who are past the romantic part of their relationship and are now in the boredom period, a grumpy-ass ahjussi and his forbearing and possibly seriously ill wife, and a man who may or may not be traveling with his young mistress.

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Screwball, The Package, 2017

The whole thing is played against the gorgeous French scenery and true to form the cinematography by the Korean cameraperson is top-notch. The first two eps displayed a screwball sensibility that at times hearkened back to the best of Lubitsch or Capra, kdrama style, with characters randomly discussing their bowel movements or making madcap slo-mo dashes through the streets of Paris, coffee cups a-flying, while taking broad pratfalls along the way.

 

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Skinship, The Package, 2017

Yet underneath all of the slapstick nonsense is a more serious tone, as Maru is forced to work on end-of-the-year reports for his shady company back in Korea even while he’s on his vacation, and SoSo deals with the precarities of contingent employment in her adopted country. By the end of the second ep we got a sense of some of the romance to come, too, as the two unattached characters Maru and Soso shared some accidental skinship and bonded over their fondness for the poignant 1991 French film Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (The Lovers on the Bridge).

Yonghwa had the dubious good fortune of debuting in the 2009 drama YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL before he had had much acting experience and in that show and his next drama, HEARTSTRINGS, he was as wooden as a day-old bagel. His performances improved quite a bit in subsequent dramas and by his fourth role, in the clever 2014 saeguk THE THREE MUSKETEERS, he had learned how to convincingly create a memorable character through his acting. But first impressions are often indelible so he’s faced a lot of prejudice against his acting skills due to his stiff performances in those first two shows.

 

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Fool, The Package, 2017

So it’s great to see that in the first two eps of THE PACKAGE Yonghwa completely dispels any doubts about his acting skilz, as he nicely develops Maru’s character, at times a wide-eyed fool completely lacking in social skills, and at others an innocent abroad in a world of crooks and thieves. His comic timing is quite on point and he manages to go from gleeful to confused to emo in a split second.


Gratuitous pulchritude, The Package, 2017

He’s also featured in the hallowed and time-honored kdrama convention known as the “gratuitous leading man topless scene.” In this case it takes place at the end of the first ep (if you want to skip to it immediately) as the camera lovingly documents his semi-nude torso, detailing his toned bod from all angles of view.

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Tourist herding, The Package, 2017

But despite the allure of this display of pulchritude, it’s Yonghwa’s endearing and layered performance as the loveable oddball San Maru that’s made the biggest impression on me so far. His leading lady Lee Yeon Hee does a good job conveying the banality of her job as she herds cranky tourists around France. I’m hoping that future eps may allow the SoSo and Maru to improve on their verbal sparring ala Hepburn and Tracy.  And will we get to see a Yonghwa screen kiss this time around? The truth will only come out in the watching, but this drama is just heartfelt and breezy enough to make me want to see more.

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Melo medical, Hospital Ship, 2017

NOTE: This has been a banner year for CNBLUE members appearing in Korean dramas. In addition to Yonghwa’s leading man role in THE PACKAGE, his bandmates have all been cast as the male lead in various shows. Drummer Kang Minhyuk is currently starring in the very popular medical melodrama HOSPITAL SHIP, along with kdrama queen Ha Ji Won (THE SECRET GARDEN; EMPRESS KI), and the show has been one of the top-rated dramas in South Korea much since its premiere in August.

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Throwback romance, Girls Generation 1979, 2017

Guitarist Lee Jonghyun has been the male lead in not one but two dramas in 2017, the saeguk comedy MY ONLY LOVE SONG that screened on the Netflix platform in June, and GIRLS GENERATION 1979, the throwback teen drama that aired in the fall. After bassist Lee Jungshin appeared as the second lead in the historical remake of MY SASSY GIRL in early summer he was cast as the lead in LONGING HEART, a time-travel romance that will premiere in December. Somewhere in there in 2017 CNBLUE also managed to release two albums in three different languages and tour twice in Japan and once across Asia. Yonghwa added in his own two solo album releases and went on an eleven-show tour in Japan this year.

CNBLUE’s frenetic activity in 2017 is quite possibly a clue that one or more of them (Yonghwa almost certainly) will be enlisting sometime in 2018, and no doubt at least one of the CNBLUE members will squeeze in a role another drama or two before they start to go off to the army. Sometimes I think that after working so hard for close to a decade the military might seem like a respite of sorts for CNBLUE. But I have hope that they’ll come back from their enlistment and create more glorious music together and appear in even more dramas in the years to come.

October 19, 2017 at 7:30 am 4 comments

We’re Like A Puzzle: CNBLUE in Taipei/Yonghwa in Kobe concert reviews

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Concert-going, Taiwan style, Between Us In Taipei, 2017

NOTE: At the risk of CNBLUE completely hijacking this blog Imma post a review of three shows I saw on a recent swing through Taiwan and Japan.

This was the third time I’ve seen CNBLUE live and their ability to run a powerful and entertaining rock concert was very evident, despite the fact that at least two of the four members had been working around the clock filming their respective Korean dramas and were probably fairly sleep-deprived. Drummer Kang Minhyuk is currently the male lead in the medical drama HOSPITAL SHIP and since he’d been shooting all night the night before he had only arrived in Taipei about five or six hours before show that the evening. Guitarist Lee Jonghyun just finished up his own role in the main cast of the throwback nostalgia school drama GIRLS GENERATION 1979 and he too seemed a bit peaked. Most likely the band had had little or no time to rehearse together prior to meeting up in Taiwan that day and they took a very long sound check, playing at least a half dozen songs to limber up their performance skills.

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Seamless, Between Us In Taipei, 2017

But once they hit the stage that evening very little fatigue was evident aside from dark circles under Minhyuk and Jonghyun’s eyes. Early in the set Jonghyun missed one of his vocal cues and forgot to sing his lines, and he only rarely cracked a smile during the show, but his guitar runs were as crisp and precise as ever. As always Minhyuk’s drumming was strong and powerful, providing the engine that drove the band. Leader and lead vocalist Jung Yonghwa seemed relatively well-rested and he and bassist Lee Jungshin exerted an extra amount of effort to pick up the energy of their bandmates.

As usual the band worked seamlessly as a unit, though they might have been a tad less perfect than usual. But it was inspiring to see how the two less exhausted members covered for their tired mates so that the show ran smoothly and the audience was happy. A few times Yonghwa worked the crowd by leaping effortlessly from the stage onto the landing next to the railing of the grandstand, with starstruck audience members delicately touching him as he went by. Jungshin also put in double duty, smiling broadly during most of the show and striding onto both extended stages on either side of the hall. By the end of the show even Minhyuk and Jonghyun were smiling, despite their tiredness at the start of the set. The band’s professionalism and long years of playing together also gave them an edge in overcoming fatigue since once they got going they fell into their customary powerful and intense groove.

Top-notch, Between Us In Taipei, 2017, cr. JYH89star

Of course it also helps that CNBLUE’s material is top-notch and they know how to write a setlist. Right out of the gate they opened with four high powered numbers, starting with one of their best live songs, RADIO. This EDM-laced tune showcases their trademark rock sound and includes a killer drop right before the pre-chorus that leads right into the singalong refrain. It’s a breathtaking way to start a show and it got the audience hyped up immediately. They followed quickly with WHEN I WAS YOUNG, a beat-heavy tune that blends a wiggly synthesizer line with Jonghyun’s fuzzy rock guitar riff. Jonghyun and Yonghwa alternate the vocal lead on this one, with Yonghwa’s powerful purring voice complementing his mate’s smooth crooning. Following this were the synth-driven DOMINO and a stripped-down remix of I’M SORRY, which concluded with Yonghwa shrieking an ultra-high rock note, and after that the band had the audience eating out of the palm of its hand.

Notably, the set list had songs released from every single year since the band’s debut in 2010, with each of the songs self-composed. Each of the band members also had a hand in writing and/or composing at least one song in the set (even drummer Minhyuk, who co-wrote the lyrics for SWEET HOLIDAY). This may not seem remarkable in the global rock band world but it’s still quite unusual in KPop, where performers who write their own material are still in the minority, and it attests to CNBLUE’s legit credits as artists and not just idols.

Mesmerizing, Between Us In Taipei, 2017, cr. JYH89star

A highlight of the show was ROYAL RUMBLE, Yonghwa’s moody and evocative track about the perils of life in the entertainment world. Framed metaphorically as a never-ending fight in a brutal arena, the song’s churning, repetitive beat overlaid with a ragged Jonghyun guitar riff  was mesmerizing. In the live performance Yonghwa stood center stage at the mic, ringed by lights as if trapped in a cage. He effortlessly rode the melody up and down his vocal range, briefly sliding in and out of a beautiful falsetto, then growling and wailing the powerful lyrics. The effect was completely hypnotic and was a good preview of his solo shows that I saw the following weekend.

They finished out the show by blasting through some of their best live songs, keeping the mood and energy up, and concluded with their BETWEEN US, their single from last spring. Like many of CNBLUE’s songs, BETWEEN US was made for the stage, as it becomes even stronger and more intense when performed live. Although the band may have been tired they never let their energy onstage flag and they didn’t disappoint the audience. They’ve been playing live at such a high level of excellence for so many years that they didn’t allow a bit of sleep-deprivation to put a damper on things.

Returning for the encore, they included a couple songs custom-made for the Taipei audience. Throughout the show Yonghwa had spoken to the audience primarily in Mandarin, with a bit of help from Minhyuk, who also has decent Chinese-language skills. The two even made a bit of game of teasing Jungshin for his inability to speak Mandarin, much to the amusement of the crowd. But during the encore Yonghwa really rolled out the treats for the local crowd. At one point he sang an impromptu version of Taiwan-based singer JJ Lin’s LITTLE DIMPLES, with the audience happily singing along. And during the acoustic version of MANITO, which has become the singalong anthem of the tour, Yonghwa switched out the Korean lyrics, “neoreul saranghae,” with the Chinese translation, “wo ai nimen.” It was a subtle switch because in the Chinese variation he used the plural form, changing the meaning from “I love you,” to “I love you all,” thus directing the phrase outward to the audience instead of to an individual loved one. Both the audience and the band sang the phrase repeatedly to each other, creating an emotional loop of sentiment between them, which both actively drew in the audience as well as expressing the band’s affection for the fans. By the song’s end the audience was repeatedly singing “wo ai nimen” and the emotion in the crowd was palpable as many fans shed tears. With Yonghwa’s military enlistment almost certainly happening in 2018 this may have been the last CNBLUE concert in Taipei for as much as four years (if the members stagger their two-year enlistments), and in that context the crowd and the band repeatedly singing “wo ai nimen” to each other was quite poignant, as they could be bidding farewell to each other for quite some time.

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Before the show, Summer Calling In Kobe, 2017

The weekend following I traveled to Kobe, Japan, to catch the last two shows of Yonghwa’s solo tour, Summer Calling. Whereas the CNBLUE show was a stellar example of teamwork amongst bandmates, the solo concerts by nature focused on the Yonghwa the singer. In fact, unlike his earlier solo tour in 2015, during these concerts Yonghwa didn’t play the guitar or keyboards at all, choosing instead to focus solely on singing. Fortunately, in the past few years he’s developed his voice into a glorious instrument, bringing to maturity the potential he’d shown in the past.

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Over the course of two nights in Kobe Yonghwa held the stage for a total of 7.5 hours in front of 8000 people each night and he sang 23 songs the first night and 28 songs the second night. I don’t like to be hyperbolic but both performances were nearly flawless in all aspects of their execution. The concert was a complete treat for Yonghwa fans as he sang every song from his three solo albums as well as several covers and a few CNBLUE songs as well.

Since Yonghwa was relieved of his regular guitar and piano playing duties during this tour he was able to fully focus on his singing and in the past few years he’s perfected his technique so that he now has the chops to match the emotional intensity that has always been present in his vocals. This was evident throughout the set as he ranged from the rapid-fire English-language delivery in the fast-paced dance tune SUMMER DREAM to the slow, drawn out sustains in the moody ballad LOST IN TIME. He also made good use of his lower register, most notably going from low crooning to a strong high belting in his cover of the Japanese song KONAYUKI. It was also nice to hear him nail the high falsetto in the Prince-esque tune LIFE IS A PARTY. The live versions pretty much improved on every one of the studio tracks as Yonghwa poured his heart and soul into the emotion of each song. Watching his face on the video screen as he sang was particularly enlightening as you could see the sheer intensity of feeling he put into every note and line.

Yonghwa started the second half of the show by popping up through a trap-door in the front of the stage at high speed, then performing two of CNBLUE’s recent high-energy Japanese singles, PUZZLE and SHAKE. Though this got the crowd going, and intending no knock on the backup band, I still much prefer CNBLUE’s live versions of these tunes. Yonghwa’s backup band were pros and there was nothing wrong with the execution or the arrangements (except maybe a bit too much tenor sax) but when CNBLUE is locked in they are a machine. The backup band’s skill and competency were there but not the passion and intensity that comes from a group of musicians who have worked together for years as have CNBLUE. As if acknowledging the synergy he has with CNBLUE, when he sang Jonghyun’s part during PUZZLE Yonghwa also dragged his mic stand to his bandmate’s side of the stage and mimed playing the guitar.


Off the chain, Summer Calling In Kobe, 2017, cr. JYH_羊白菜

Yonghwa also had the dancing going on, seeming to feel it in his body instead of thinking about it with his brain as he had in previous attempts in on music shows earlier in the year. Most of the show’s uptempo songs featured a quartet of male backup dancers and Yonghwa would occasionally join in with some of the milder choreography. This added a bit of flair to the proceedings and really jacked up the energy for the last song of the set, an off-the-chain version of the ultra-hooky jam THAT GIRL, with Yonghwa coolly leading the audience in dancing to the kicky choreo.


Emotional connection, Summer Calling In Kobe, 2017, cr. roki

During the encore at the end of the second night’s show, which was the last stop on the tour, Yonghwa spoke to the audience for quite a long time. Though I have no Japanese language skills it was clear that he was thanking the fans and saying goodbye, since his military enlistment is looming. Most of the audience was in tears by the time he finished speaking and the emotion connection again was tangible as the fans understood the ramifications of his words. He followed this with one of his equally emotional compositions, the mid-tempo ballad BECAUSE I MISS YOU from the drama HEARTSTRINGS. The choice of song was especially apt since the lyrics are a lament to a lost loved one and the 6/8 time signature adds a melancholy swing to the poignant words. Yonghwa nailed his performance too, with breathing, technique, phrasing, and emotion completely on point.

Glorious, Summer Calling In Kobe, 2017

He finished the show with ONE FINE DAY, the gorgeous ballad from his first solo album of the same name. During the crescendo of the song, when Yonghwa sang out a beautifully sustained high note, there was absolute appreciative silence where it seemed no one in the hall breathed for about ten seconds, allowing the note to reverberate as his voice rang like a bell throughout the venue. It was a glorious moment.

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Eyes don’t lie, Summer Calling In Kobe, 2017 Cr.JYH_羊白菜

After taking his bows Yonghwa left the stage fairly quickly, and the video feed showed his mouth smiling but his eyes seemed quite sad. As his enlistment date nears this may well have been his last solo concert for years. This also may be the last time I’ll be able to travel to Asia for a while, so I’m really glad I was able to witness what may be his final solo performances, as well as one of CNBLUE’s last concerts outside of Korea, before he joins the military. He’s at the top of his game right now, but despite this, I still don’t think he’s reached his creative peak yet. The ceiling is high for Yonghwa, and somehow I think it may be limitless.

October 15, 2017 at 8:58 am 7 comments

Life Is A Party: Jung Yonghwa’s DO DISTURB and SUMMER CALLING album reviews

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Oh my god we did it again, That Girl, 2017

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I ride for Jung Yonghwa, CNBLUE’s leader and lead vocalist, so the recent releases of not one but two of his solo projects have vastly improved my life.

In CNBLUE’s latest releases Yonghwa has experimented with a range of different instrumentations and musical styles, and with both DO DISTURB, his solo Korean album, and SUMMER CALLING, his Japanese release, he further expands his musical repertoire. Yonghwa also continues to collaborate with several producers who each have their own musical style, including Justin Reinstein, the producer of BETWEEN US and IT’S YOU, two of the strongest tracks from CNBLUE’s last release 7°CN. In his two solo albums Yonghwa tests the limits of his pleasantly raspy voice and for the most part the results are impressive, as he goes from deep, throaty growls and soul shouts to high, sustained falsettos.


DO DISTURB opens with THAT GIRL, and this track is without a doubt a smart, sophisticated jam. It’s full of musical tricks and surprises, beginning a funky, thumb-popping guitar lick and a sample that proclaims “Oh my god we did it again.” The track features the rapper Loco and it beautifully mixes in his percussive flow. THAT GIRL has a really strong, deep groove, so momentarily interrupting the flow with a drop right before Loco’s rap, which takes the place of a pre-chorus, breaks up the monotony of the song’s heavy beat. Loco’s rap has a jazzy, freeform style and it makes its appearance in the song like a hard bop transition—sudden, jarring, and without warning, yet completely right. Following this Yonghwa jumps right back in again with the song’s mad catchy chorus, establishing the hook that continues throughout the track. The second time Loco raps it’s equally breathtaking, as most of the instrumentation again drops away and a liquid trap beat rides under his rhymes. This time around, instead of going right into the chorus Yonghwa croons a sexy bridge over the beat that brilliantly links the rap to the melody. He then follows this by belting a powerful sustained note (“tired”) that punches up the energy of the song even more. These crazy switch-ups, with Loco spitting fire, Yonghwa purring and belting, and the insanely hooky backbeat, are what makes this track rise above the usual pop music production and keeps the sound fresh and surprising. The song moves all over the place while remaining anchored to its swinging groove.

The album’s second track, CLOSER, completely changes up the mood. A lush and poppy track produced by Justin Reinstein, the song creates a shimmering, dense soundscape that’s a perfect bed for Yonghwa’s powerful and pristine vocals. The soaring chorus is particularly lovely, as it shifts the song’s chromatics and makes for an exhilarating break. Yonghwa has said that he can write ten songs like this a day, so if he ever decides to stop being a star he’ll never starve because he’s got the three-minute pop song down pat.

The third track, PASSWORD, marries Yonghwa’s vocals to a deep house track and not surprisingly his voice suits the classic house-style production really well, as he alternates between smooth sustained notes, belting, and rhythmic purring. The production on this track has the house sound down perfectly, from the muted horns and flexible bass line to the slight reverb in the vocals on the chorus. The lyrics also match the house style, with a couple nice hits of ra-tata, a few sweet woohoos, and some smexy English (“baby, turn me on”). This song is made for the clubs and it sounds like Yonghwa had a lot of fun singing it. Yet under the housey mix the song is actually quite jazzy.


The fourth track, NAVIGATION, is one of those out-of-left-field songs that defies classification. I don’t even know how to describe this song, it’s so astoundingly strange. Yonghwa has made a song based on GPS voices and it works perfectly as a dreamlike track that feels like driving down the road to nowhere. The English refrain “left to the right, up to the down” perfectly encapsulates geographic dyslexia as well as Yonghwa’s peculiarly sideways thinking. Songs like this and ROYAL RUMBLE, last year’s standout track from both EUPHORIA and 7°CN, demonstrate how startlingly unexpected Yonghwa’s tunes can be.


Something has happened to Yonghwa’s voice over the past couple years and that is that he’s become an excellent singer. He’s always been a good rock vocalist, with a flexibility and ferocity in his delivery, but on DO DISTURB he’s suddenly become amazing at other genres as well. This is especially evident in NOT ANYMORE, a mid-tempo 90s throwback R&B jam where his vocal virtuosity is off the hook. On this track Yonghwa effortlessly ranges from sultry crooning to belting to beautifully sustained high notes, bending the melody at the climax and hitting a gorgeous falsetto at the top of the song. Like Stevie Wonder, his voice is full of melodic flexibility, supple and smooth in one moment, then ragged, raw, and full of passion in the next. The only time he falters somewhat is on the very highest notes, where there are some signs of strain in his voice and the richness found in his mid and lower register is absent.


DO DISTURB’s closing track, LOST IN TIME, is absolutely gorgeous. This is what Yonghwa can do. Even before I read the translation of the lyrics, Yonghwa’s plaintive, emotional delivery effectively conveyed the melancholy of the simple, evocative melody. His vocals are completely on point in this song, with a stunning octave jump and a beautiful sustained high note at the crescendo, his tone and vibrato gorgeous, rich, and full of emotion. I suspect that this song would have been released as a single if it wasn’t so stylistically similar to ONE FINE DAY, the title track from Yonghwa’s previous solo release. In order to avoid pigeonholing he likely wanted to get away from releasing emo ballads and instead focus on a different kind of tune.

In addition to DO DISTURB, which was released in the Korean market, Yonghwa also dropped SUMMER CALLING in Japan about a month after DO DISTURB. As well as four tracks from DO DISTURB, the album also includes three other songs that demonstrate his further growth as an artist. All three of the additional tracks are completely in English and each has a very different sound from the others.


The title track, SUMMER DREAM (produced by Reinstein) is a fast-paced song that includes some rapid-fire English lyrics that demonstrate a vast improvement in Yonghwa’s English-language skills. Beginning with SOMEONE ELSE, the b-side from this spring’s CNBLUE Japanese single SHAKE, Yonghwa has suddenly become fluent in writing in English. Whether or not he’s getting a little help from an uncredited collaborator, his English lyrics are now really, really good and his previous awkwardness with the language has vanished for the most part. Not only is he much more fluent but he now can use English the way that he uses Korean, musically and poetically as opposed to only being about the meaning of the words. SUMMER DREAM’s imagery is strong and consistent throughout and the song’s lyrics turn on a dime. For example, the song repeats this couplet twice:

If we could stay forever bound
Could stop the world from turning ’round

In its third iteration this variation appears:

I wish I knew a way around
Could stop the world from turning ‘round

This alternates with this couplet, also repeated twice, at the same point in the melody.

I burn the moment in my mind
I feel our hearts are intertwined

Again there is a slight variation in the lyrics in the third iteration.

I burn the moment in my mind
A time again I’ll never find

These slight yet sophisticated changes make the song’s story progress from hope to resignation and move the mood from joy to sadness and from hope of the future to longing for the past. The song’s driving beat and the rapidity of the lyrics also suggest the inevitability of loss. It’s a beautifully structured song that demonstrates Yonghwa’s mastery of melody, lyrics, and performance.

The two other English-language tracks on SUMMER CALLING are equally interesting. Though Yonghwa has been compared to Bruno Mars, in these two songs I’m hearing a bit of another famous mixed-race polyhyphenate, the legendary Prince.


LIFE IS A PARTY opens with Yonghwa flexing his falsetto as he effortlessly swings through this flirty, dancey tune. The lyrics show off a pleasant swagger as Yonghwa confidently explains why he’s the superior choice of a mate.

I don’t do this for just anyone
But I know that he can’t be the one for you, girl

(Come on)
With the setting of the summer sun, I toast my glass and fight
“Everybody living it up, until I’ve got you, I’ll never stop”

Life is a party
Don’t you waste it with him, darling

Yonghwa’s sweet cockiness and his clear, flute-like falsetto, along with the track’s spare, funky synth-based production, calls to mind Prince’s Minneapolis sound.

 


MAKE YOU MINE similarly echoes Prince tracks like LITTLE RED CORVETTE and IF I WAS YOUR GIRLFRIEND. Though not as overtly smexy as the Purple One’s, Yonghwa’s lyrics are still mildly racy and create vivid word pictures.

Slowly tracin’ all the droplets
As they’re drippin’ off your hair it’s
So amazing how you find
Another way to blow my mind

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Artistic growth, Yonghwa, 2017

Yonghwa has recently stated that his current favorite song is DESPACITO, Luis Fonsi’s Spanish-language mega-hit. He may like the song for its music but he also has to be aware that this is one of the few non-English language songs to cross over to mainstream success in the US and around the world. His fondness for the track may reflect some of his own longing to gain global popularity and break through the cultural and language barriers still holding back Korean musical acts in the US. His fellow Kpop star G-dragon (leader of BIGBANG) is currently on a world tour that’s been selling out most of its venues, with the notable exception of some of its North America dates, attesting to the difficulties Asian stars continue to face in breaking into the US market. Despite this history, South Korean rapper Jay Park has just signed to Jay Z’s label Roc Nation and Kpop boy group of the moment BTS collaborated with The Chainsmokers’ Andrew Taggart on their latest release. Yonghwa may get lucky and grab the brass ring in the US sometime, but until then he’s selling out shows and otherwise doing just fine across Asia, both with CNBLUE and on his own.

With these two solo releases Yonghwa is clearly enjoying spreading his wings and continuing to expand his musical horizons. In THAT GIRL’s music video he even manages some passable dancing, which is a pretty far reach from CNBLUE’s usual rock band turf.


CNBLUE just dropped a new song, STARTING OVER, which mixes a retro Ray Charles-inspired piano line with Yonghwa’s sweet, soulful vocals and which takes the band’s sound in yet another direction. It’s a pleasure see Yonghwa continue to challenge himself and take creative risks, which can only bode well for his ongoing artistic growth. I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with next.

September 21, 2017 at 6:55 am 5 comments

Wake Up, Wake Up: CNBLUE live at Budokan concert review

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Fangirling, Shake Shake, CNBLUE at Budokan, May 17-18, 2017

I recently joined the cult of CNBLUE so when I lived this spring in Hong Kong I made a side trip to Tokyo to attend my very first CNBLUE concerts. For the dedicated CNBLUE fanbase, going to a live show is like making a pilgrimage to Mecca and the band is famed for putting on amazing performances. I’m happy to report that they did not disappoint. They demonstrated exactly why their live shows are so popular, as they are consummate musicians and showmen.

The concerts were held at Nippon Budokan, the music hall in Tokyo that’s hosted many a legendary show. CNBLUE plays there on the regular and they clearly understand the significance of performing in that hallowed venue. On Day One they came onstage with guns blazing, playing an incredibly explosive set of high-energy songs including their latest Korean single BETWEEN US, followed in quick succession by RADIO, PUZZLE, and I’M SORRY, which are some of their fastest paced and hardest rocking tracks. This combination was ridiculously incendiary, and there was an unbelievable amount of energy crackling off the stage. Band leader Jung Yonghwa was obviously hyped up as he seemed to literally burst onto the stage and continually ran around and jumped up and down nonstop for those first twenty minutes, soaking through his shirt by the third song. At several points it seemed like he would bounce off the stage he was so excited.

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Incendiary, CNBLUE live at Budokan, May 17, 2017

Following this rock-based opening they rapidly switched gears, going into an EDM-based set that showed off their recent forays into electronica. One of the things that makes CNBLUE concerts work so well is the pacing and the attention to detail in the set list, as well as the way that the band seamlessly integrates the elements of each song. In this set during the smexy midtempo dance track WHEN I WAS YOUNG guitarist Lee Jonghyun played a riff from SUPERNOVA, the song that immediately followed, which musically linked the two songs and created a seamless transition between them. Next up following SUPERNOVA was DOMINO, and it was interesting to hear the two songs back-to-back since they share a similar chord structure. However, they sound quite different from each other, again demonstrating CNBLUE’s wide musical range. While DOMINO is a spare, synthesizer-based, beat-heavy track, SUPERNOVA is more lush and trip-hoppy.

The band also keeps things fresh by re-arranging their hits and adding in songs they’ve never played live before and this tour is no exception. Old favorites I’M SORRY, IN MY HEAD, and FEELING all got makeovers, and two older songs from their back-catalog, STILL and ANGEL, made their live-show premieres. They also played two different set lists on each of the two nights, for a total of 28 different songs over the two nights. This prodigious amount of music kept both the band and the audience on their toes and with encores both shows ran nearly three hours each.

Post-show, rotating stage, CNBLUE  live at Budokan, May 18, 2017

Despite the length and intensity of the performances the band did a great job keeping the energy level quite high throughout both nights. After literally hundreds of live shows both Yonghwa and Jonghyun are pros so they are all about sustaining their voices and not running out of steam. There were definitely moments where Yonghwa passed up on a really high note and let the backing track or the backup vocals carry on. This allowed him to save his voice for the more high-impact moments like his famous high-pitched wail at the end of I’M SORRY, which brought the house down, or the impossibly long sustained note at the crescendo of CAN’T STOP. CNBLUE is literally in it for the long run, both in their concerts and in their career, so it’s all about creating a great show, not necessarily showing off vocal gymnastics. Yonghwa has blown out his voice at least once before in past years so he’s learned how to pace himself, and now he knows how to give just enough to make songs work.

Which is not to say that he didn’t put out a huge amount of energy in both of the shows. On the first day his shirt was soaked through almost from the start because he was belting out songs and playing guitar and piano as well as tossing the mic in the air and running around the stage nonstop. He is very light on his feet and made an amusing show of tiptoeing around the various speakers and monitors around the stage, doing little dances, running all over the main and extended stages, and leaping up and down onto the stage, the risers, and into the walkways between the stage and the audience.

Beauty queen, Shake Shake, CNBLUE live at Budokan, May 18, 2017 cr. celia&chifang

Yonghwa also took full advantage of the round revolving center stage, at times perching on the edge like a beauty queen as it spun slowly around, the audience egging him on as he waved and posed. Although security guards shadowed his every move in case any overly enthusiastic audience member decided to jump the barriers and do a tackle, Yonghwa seemed to trust the audience, as if he realizes that he has nothing to fear from his fans. The other band members are also comfortable and charismatic onstage as well, showing their veteran performance chops even in a large venue like Budokan.

Unlike their appearances on South Korea’s televised music shows, it was also clear at Budokan that they were playing live, although some songs that featured strings or synthesizers had backing tracks. In particular Lee Jonghyun’s guitar was mixed up nice and high so his crisp, precise guitar runs came through loud and clear. Drummer Kang Minhyuk is also a monster, with the ability to range from hard rock to more delicate and subtle pop songs. He also works the electronic drum pads really well, seamlessly integrating his technique into the more EDM-esque tunes. Lee Jungshin is solid on the bass, and he and Minhyuk make up a strong, versatile rhythm section. Yonghwa held it down on rhythm guitar, though there were several times he sang without an instrument, the better to run around the stage.  He also played synthesizer and piano and his piano intros were particularly lovely to hear.

Interestingly, the setlists from the two nights didn’t include any ballads, as most of the songs were mid to uptempo, ranging from melodious EDM-laced tunes to hardcore rock songs. What they also did not include either night were some of the more downbeat and introspective tunes they’d played in last year’s tours, including ROYAL RUMBLE, YOUNG FOREVER, and BE ALRIGHT. They seem to be emphasizing the positive these days and looking forward again, whereas during OUR GLORY DAYS, the tour immediately following last year’s controversy, they still seemed be processing the entire ordeal.

The wave, Shake Shake, CNBLUE  live at Budokan, May 17, 2017

The shows at Budokan were very collaborative between the audience and the band and in that way differed from most other live shows I’ve been to, which are mostly one-sided affairs with the performer performing and the audience listening. Aside from the requisite “throw your hands up” there’s not a huge amount of interplay at your standard rock concert. At CNBLUE’s Budokan shows the audience became an integral part of the performance, with band members spending long swaths of time talking directly to the audience (Yonghwa in particular seemed to enjoy sharing his thoughts) and with the audience singing along to every song, and in many songs serving as the chorus. CNBLUE designs their songs with their live shows in mind and Yonghwa has stated that he writes some parts of his songs specifically for the audience to sing in concerts. The band also stopped playing music for a good ten minutes while they made the audience do the wave, which I hadn’t experienced at a music show before. Their level of interplay with the audience was probably the most interactive I’ve ever seen at a concert and the show felt like a true collaboration between the band and the audience.

There’s an art to writing a good set list and Yonghwa, who’s also in charge of this aspect of the show, has mastered this invisible but crucial aspect to their live shows as well. He’s clearly involved from the micro to the macro level of each show, from composing most of the songs to singing lead to playing multiple instruments.

Running the show, CNBLUE live at Budokan, May 18, 2017 cr. celia& chifang

CNBLUE plays the concert hall, CNBLUE live at Budokan, May 18, 2017 

But his real instrument is the audience, which he conducts like an orchestra. He often directly addressed them or prompted them to sing lines from songs or to cheer or clap along. Probably the most extreme example of this was the call-and-response portion of WAKE UP. While the trusty Kang Minhyuk kept a rapid beat on the bass drum Yonghwa played a variety of licks on his guitar that the audience then mimicked. He also shouted, whispered, shrieked, and screamed the song’s refrain and the audience likewise echoed him. This went on for a good ten minutes, with Yonghwa making the audience roar or fall completely silent with just a gesture. It’s an amazing thing to witness his ability to bring a full house of 15,000 people to complete silence or complete chaos by merely waving his hands. He plays the concert hall like a fiddle.

Yonghwa takes control, FOXY, CNBLUE live at Budukan, May 17, 2017. cr. silodoan

Yonghwa also runs the show onstage as well. Videos clearly show him directing the band on stage and he frequently cues the his bandmates by calling their names or gesturing or nodding toward them, and you can see their non-verbal communication throughout the show. During the intro to FOXY, when Yonghwa sensed that the audience wasn’t hyped up enough he elevated the mood by bellowing “FIRE!” making the energy in the arena immediately shoot up and creating a lot of heat between the band and the audience.

Yonghwa has a performance style that switches from playful and cheeky to focused and intense in a split second. What makes this so brilliant is that he understands that it’s all a performance and that he’s playing the part of “rock star.” That doesn’t keep him from making it the best rock star performance ever, but he follows some of his most clichéd moves such as lying flat on his back playing his guitar or belting out an octave-jumping wail with a broad smile and laughter. He’s completely meta as Yonghwa the star, and in that way he’s in line with artists such as David Bowie, Madonna, and Prince, all of whom understood the performativity of their roles, or what music scholar David Shumway calls “the constructedness of the rock star and the crafting of the rock performance.” Shumway was talking about Bowie but he could easily be referring to Yonghwa as well.

Precision, CNBLUE live at Budokan, May 17, 2017

In some ways CNBLUE carries a particularly Kpop aesthetic into its concerts, which means, not unlike the highly choreographed dancing Kpop is famous for, that they are incredibly precise with their performances. The Budokan shows ran like a well-oiled machine and when they were truly locked in their performances soared. This was evident in their seamless renditions of songs such as RADIO, a fast-paced tune that relies on rapid-fire vocal swapping and complex breaks and meter shifts. That they could effortlessly perform this song with such meticulous coordination, with Yonghwa additionally climbing on top of his piano, running up and down the length of the stage, and leaping over amps and monitors, is a testament to their musical virtuosity. After touring intensively for so many years CNBLUE can probably play some of their songs in their sleep by now, but instead of becoming lackadaisical or rote their shows have only increased in ferocity, which was clearly evident at Budokan.

I credit that in no small part to Yonghwa’s drive and vision as a leader, and CNBLUE’s committment to their craft. They’ve taken what could have been an ordinary Kpop group and turned it into a real musical entity. CNBLUE is smart and dedicated enough to follow Yonghwa’s lead and they’ve spoken in the past of how they draw inspiration from him and emulate him, challenging themselves to be the best that they can be. Having a visionary leader, whether in sports or music or any other practice that requires teamwork and dedication, is a wondrous thing that can make individuals push themselves beyond their perceived limitations. CNBLUE has that leader, who is willing to work beyond his limits and constantly change and evolve. This is a true gift, and to be able to inspire others to do well is a rare gift as well.

However, Yonghwa would be nothing without his bandmates, which was abundantly clear in the Budokan shows where CNBLUE worked together as a unit and where each element was indispensable to the success of the performance. When they were locked in they were a powerhouse, on both the high-energy rock songs such as IN MY HEAD or I’M SORRY, as well the more introspective tunes like the gorgeous duet LIE. Anyone who thinks that Yonghwa can be as effective without his mates has no comprehension of how a band works or how music is created collaboratively. It’s the synthesis of the individual parts meshing together that makes successful music, and CNBLUE demonstrates that most ably. They are a team, a band, a group, not just individuals who happen to play under the same banner, and the way that they perform together seamlessly has been honed over almost a decade of working with each other, living with each other, and getting to know each other. It’s not something that can be replicated with anonymous session players or interchangeable studio musicians. Each supports the other and the beauty of their music is the interplay between them. Although Yonghwa has had a successful and acclaimed solo release (with his second due in July), and Jonghyun has also released a solo album, their work with CNBLUE is remarkable, significant and unique. This kind of magical synergy only comes from musicians who are deeply in sync with each other and who are dedicated to their music.

Burning down the house, CNBLUE live in Seoul June 5, 2017

CNBLUE just played a pair of live shows in Seoul, after an absence from the stage in South Korea of more than a year and a half, and by all reports those concerts were a whole nother level of explosiveness. While they certainly left it all out on the stage in the shows I saw in Japan, apparently in Seoul they completely burned down the house in front of their hometown audience. Local critics marveled at the dynamic energy of their performances and observed that they have moved beyond simply being an idol group and are true musicians and artists now. CNBLUE also created a lot of buzz at their recent appearance at KCON in New York, which may plant the seed for a broader international audience base.

This is a good sign and hopefully will enable them to grow beyond their KPop origins, which will most definitely aid in their longevity. Band leader Yonghwa has also started to diversify his financial interests, investing in an expensive retail building in the tony Cheongdongdam district in Seoul and establishing his own entertainment company. These steps will enable them to escape the clutches of FNC, their management agency, once their contract expires in 2021 and once they’ve all completed their mandatory military duties. Along with their innate talent, their increasing musical and performing skills, and their tenacity and hard work, this may enable them to play together for many years to come.

July 3, 2017 at 12:22 am 13 comments

Pulling Mussels From A Shell: Cook Up A Storm movie review

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Testing the edge, Cook Up A Storm, 2017

Hong Kong star Nicholas Tse’s latest vehicle, Cook Up A Storm (CUAS) opens in North America in very very limited release this weekend. As both an Asian film scholar and a CNBLUE fanperson (the film co-stars CNBLUE leader Jung Yonghwa) I had a keen interest in this movie so I made a special effort to see it while it was still playing theatrically near me, thought that involved a 45-minute drive to Cupertino.

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Mano a mano, Cook Up A Storm, 2017

The plot is simple: Developers sponsor Paul Ahn (Jung Yonghwa), a French-trained Michelin-starred chef, in opening Stellar, a fancy-ass restaurant directly opposite Seven, a local joint run by Sky Ko (Nicholas Tse) that features down-home Chinese dishes. Of course conflict ensues between the Western-trained Paul and the self-taught traditionalist Sky. Adding to the mix is Sky’s angst over his messed-up relationship with his dad Mountain (the majestic Anthony Wong Chau-sang) and some behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Paul’s girlfriend/assistant Mayo (Michelle Bai Bing).

CUAS is paced like a Hong Kong movie, which means in and out in ninety minutes, and in this case this feels really fast. I used to really love the fevered pace of Hong Kong cinema but now that I’ve gotten used to the more leisurely running times of two-hour Korean and Chinese films, or the epic three-hour slogs from Bollywood, this seems almost too rapid.

Because of the bang-bang pace of the film things feel like they’re being told in shorthand, with character development and relationships rapidly sketched out. You almost have to be psychic to realize that Paul is dating Mayo, which is indicated in a few incredibly brief shots of them holding hands and some lingering glances (apparently the steamier scenes between them ended up on the cutting room floor). The relationship between Sky and his dad fares slightly better, but only because as one of the film’s main conflicts it gets a fair amount of screen time.

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Staredown, Cook Up A Storm, 2017

The showdowns between Sky and Paul are likewise quite rapid, with the most effective one taking place in Paul’s gorgeously appointed high-tech restaurant kitchen. Here the characters are allowed to play off of each other a bit more and the scenario has a chance to breathe a bit, unlike some of the rapid-fire sequences that take place elsewhere in the film. It helps that Nic Tse and Yonghwa have a good onscreen rapport, with Yonghwa in particular doing a great job fleshing out his character with a minimum of dialog.

In some ways the film seems to struggle between wanting to be an out-and-out Hong Kong movie and needing to court the huge PRC market. Aspects of the film that harken back to Hong Kong films of yore include the wacky costuming of some of the supporting characters, including a pair of dudes with dyed yellow fringes and the oversized glasses and frizzy hair on Tiffany Tang, as well as a subtext about gentrification and the loss of local culture to Western capital. But some key characters are underdeveloped, including Bai Bing’s Mayo, who needs to be more overtly sinister than she actually ends up being. Here a bit more of Hong Kong cinema’s over-the-top aesthetic might have served better, as Mayo is flat and one-dimensional instead of truly venal or vicious.

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Ge You, chops, Cook Up A Storm, 2017

Anthony Wong’s Mountain Ko is similarly underwritten but King Anthony makes it work by sheer dint of his monumental acting skilz. Likewise veteran Chinese actor Ge You makes a good impression, though his part is also only briefly defined. The two old hands have a great throwaway moment in a pool hall where they clearly delineate their competitive brotherhood through just a few subtle gestures, which goes to show how acting chops can elevate a movie beyond superficiality. Alas, these moments are hard to find in the rest of the movie.

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Yonghwa cooking with gas, Cook Up A Storm, 2017

Still, as a food-porn movie the film does a good job. The food photography is quite beautiful and in particular the scenes where we follow both Paul and Sky creating their signature dishes are a lot of fun to watch. This may be due to the fact that Nic Tse is a foodie chef in real life and he prepped most of the food himself, so he seems to have a true appreciation for the way that cooking actually works. Yonghwa also acquits himself well in the cooking sequences since he looks like he knows his way around all of the high-tech gear that Paul uses. I especially enjoyed watching Paul create a fancy foie gras dish that illuminated the process as well as the product. At one point Paul adds a bit of sorbet onto the top of a dish and we see him warming the spoon slightly in order to get the frozen scoop to release cleanly, a small detail that nonetheless adds an interesting touch of realism to the proceedings.

Nic Tse wears the same grimy plaid shirt and greasy bandana through most of the film, telegraphing Sky’s realness and street cred. In contrast, Yonghwa’s flawless face and impeccable chef’s uniform add to the impression of the all-around slickness of Stellar. Yonghwa is confident and believable as a high-end chef in a fancy upscale restaurant–he knows he’s good and he’s not afraid to show it. As the leader of CNBLUE Yonghwa has a lot of swagger and he brings that swag to his portrayal of Paul, though not so much that he becomes obnoxious or overbearing. More significantly, as Paul gradually comes to appreciate the joys of Sky’s simpler cooking aesthetic, Yonghwa communicates this transformation through subtle facial expressions and physical gestures. Even though Yonghwa speaks no Chinese he succeeds in imparting Paul’s intentions non-verbally, effectively playing off of his co-stars despite the language barrier.

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Nic knife, Cook Up A Storm, 2017

The whole thing is very beautiful and fun to experience but ultimately a bit superficial. I wonder if a slightly less frenetic pace might have aided the film’s exposition, but director Raymond Yip, a Hong Kong movie stalwart, seems to want to breeze through as many plot points as possible in the film’s ninety-minute running time. The result is a fun romp that could have benefitted from slowing down and adding a few more details and more character development to the proceedings. Still, it’s a good-natured and pleasant timepass. To use a sports metaphor for a food movie, the film didn’t knock it out of the park, but it didn’t strike out either.

NOTE: Originally meant for release in China during the Spring Festival/Lunar New Year holiday, CUAS was pushed back a couple weeks to avoid direct competition with Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (JTTW2), Kung Fu Yoga, and a slew of other films that came out during that time. This was smart in some ways because JTTW2 has become one of the highest grossing films of all time in China, but it also means that CUAS didn’t have the no-Hollywood movies ban protecting it, in which China keeps Western films out of theaters during Spring Festival in order make room for local productions. As a result CUAS directly faced the release of the slick Hollywood production xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, which features popular Chinese stars Kris Wu and Donnie Yen. Because of this, as well as so-so word of mouth and the fact that most Chinese were back at work and not going to movies once the film came out, box office for CUAS in China was thus reduced somewhat. Nonetheless CUAS managed to break the RMB100 million mark and its gross in China now stands at around RMB114 million, or around USD16 million. But unfortunately the production costs of the film were around USD34 million, so unless it does phenomenally well in other territories the film won’t make back its original budget.

UPDATE: More than a year after its initial theatrical release, COOK UP A STORM has become a bit of a viral sensation on various social media platforms. On several facebook posts alone the film has many thousands of views and shares. So although the film only did middling business when played in cinemas in China it’s gotten a new lease on life online. The best things in life are free–

February 19, 2017 at 1:54 am 7 comments

Nevertheless I Dream On: CNBLUE Euphoria album review

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Yonghwa dreams, Glory Days, 2016

With EUPHORIA, CNBLUE’s latest Japanese album that dropped last October, the band continues its ongoing musical evolution and growth. While probably best known for its incredibly catchy early power pop hits like I’m Sorry and I’m A Loner, or it’s more densely produced later tracks, including songs such as Can’t Stop, Cinderella, and You’re So Fine, with this new release CNBLUE goes back further to the roots of its sound, to a more stripped-down early rock and roll and R&B style.

CNBLUE has always worn its musical influences on its sleeve and EUPHORIA is no different, with nods to artists as diverse as Peter Gabriel, Coldplay, Wiz Khalifa, and Sam Cooke, among many others. Their particular talent is taking those influences and synthesizing them into something new and energetic.

The album is frontloaded with six incredibly strong and diverse tracks, but in truth each of the album’s ten tracks ranges from good to excellent. Though the album isn’t quite as perfect as CNBLUE’s best release Can’t Stop, which is a masterpiece from beginning to end, EUPHORIA is still full of high-quality songwriting, performing, and production.


The lead track is the melancholy mid-tempo cut Be OK. A plaintive lament about fighting uncertainty, pain, and self-doubt, the song recalls Coldplay and other Brit-pop in its simple, guitar-based structure. Jung Yonghwa and Lee Jonghyun’s vulnerable, evocative vocals and the sadness and longing in the lyrics create a lovely and unadorned sonic picture. As with many CNBLUE duets between the two of them, the track alternates the wistful delicacy of Jonghyun’s vocals with Yonghwa’s explosively raw and emotional voice. The song ends with Jonghyun barely whispering the affirmation, “I’ll be okay,” which lends a hopeful fragility to the song’s message. This is quickly becoming one of my favorite CNBLUE tracks as the passion and power in this song is no joke.


As if to counter the melancholy of Be OK, the next tune, the album’s title track Glory Days, is a more uptempo track that picks up the pace without sacrificing the emotional thoughtfulness of the prior song. The lyrics describe the “long, long journey of my dreams” which the band has traveled, encountering obstacles and difficulties along the way but never giving up on their vision. The arrangement and production on this track also contrasts with the spareness of Be Okay, with a dense wall of sound combining close vocal harmonies and a rich interplay of synthesizer, piano, and guitar that provides a bed for Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s confident vocal relays. What may not be immediately apparent is the bass line of the song, which travels from thumb-popping plucking to deep, resonant hums. CNBLUE’s musicality is apparent in this track where every element highlights the band’s chops, creating a gorgeous sonic pop music palette.


Take Me Higher, the rockingest song on the album, shows off the band’s signature passion and intensity, as if to prove they can still kick it with guitar-based hard rock. On top of the driving 4/4 beat the song adds a funky James Brown-style guitar riff that demonstrates the evolution of their sound beyond straight-up rock music. Interestingly, this song was composed before the band’s recent insider-trading scandal in June 2016, and the track, including its chorus “direction of my hope,” expresses an exuberant optimism and confidence not found in the rest of the album, much of which was likely composed post-scandal.

Face To Face is another incredibly hooky tune, with Yonghwa crooning and belting like a 60s R&B soul shouter. Although some of CNBLUE’s past English-language songs have been a bit cringeworthy in their awkward phrasing, here the syncopated beat works with the lyrical structure. The old-school keyboards and horns and the doowop refrain adds to the R&B feel as the band channels Stax-Volt stalwarts like Booker T and the MGs and Sam and Dave.

Following Face to Face is Puzzle, the first single off the album that was released in spring 2016 and also composed pre-scandal. Another densely produced and upbeat track, Puzzle starts with Yonghwa belting the title lyrics acapella and the song never lets up after that. As usual Yonghwa and Jonghyun provide energetic vocals but the track is really driven by a zippy arrangement that rides Kang Minhyuk’s relentless drumming skilz. Althought it’s a hooky tune, it’s a tad less interesting upon repeated listening. The tune works much better as a soundtrack to the song’s crazy and whimsical music video.


The next track, however, is the album’s standout. Royal Rumble is pretty much unlike anything I’ve ever heard from CNBLUE. The song uses a syncopated, polyrhythmic Latin beat and a complex guitar line under Yonghwa’s evocative vocals to create a beautiful, singular track. The lyrics, which describe a fighter who faces countless opponents in a battle royale, echo Yonghwa’s experiences in the cutthroat K-Pop world, where even the winners are eventually beaten down and worn out. One of the last lines “I must hurry” repeats before the last haunting chorus. Images of fear, drowning, suffocation, and pain reflect the traumas of existing and surviving in the competitive South Korean music industry. Yonghwa has written eloquently in the past about the vicious nature of the K-pop world, most recently in Checkmate from his solo album (Around here/swords and shields/We become enemies/rip apart each other/and vanish), but Royal Rumble perhaps best reflects the intensity of his experiences there. The last line of the chorus, however, translated as “nevertheless I dream on,” is a moving testimony to Yonghwa’s hope and optimism in the face of ongoing suffering and strife.


Following Royal Rumble is another throwback R&B-style cut, Every Time, with a syncopated beat under Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s confident and soulful vocals. Once again Kang Minhyuk provides a strong and steady beat to anchor the track. Bassist Lee Jungshin contributes the midtempo ballad Stay With Me, with Japanese lyrics that seem to scan successfully. Yonghwa sings it well, in an unembellished style suitable to the song’s clarity and simplicity. Slaves, another upbeat R&B bop, is a goofy tune about cell-phone addiction. But damn if it isn’t catchy as hell and again Yonghwa has fun singing it, belting out the chorus like the legendary soul shouter Wilson Pickett.

The closing track, Blessed, is a sweet lament to the uncertainty of love, but Jonghyun’s English lyrics are somewhat less effective here than in Be OK. As with Every Time, the syntax and phrasing are just a bit awkward, which detracts from the song a bit. Yonghwa’s plaintive singing utilizes the deeper end of his vocal range to good effect, with Jonghyun contributing ably as well. The emotions of the song ring strong and true and this song, together with Be OK, create an evocative conceptual frame for the album. Although some of the tracks are upbeat and positive the uncertainty of these two songs create a lingering sadness and a sense of emotional complexity that perhaps reflects the band members’ state of mind after their troubles this year.

The quality of the songwriting, the increased maturity of the lyrics, and the general excellence of each track on Euphoria speaks to CN’s continued growth and development as artists. Although the guitars are mixed a bit lower than in some of their previous releases, the rock-based backbone of their sound is still there, enhanced with a more sophisticated sense of rhythm and beats. The result is more evidence of the band’s restless creativity and its desire to continue developing musically as they move beyond the constraints of their K-Pop origins into a more elevated artistic territory.

Three versions, You’re So Fine

POSTSCRIPT: CNBLUE recently performed You’re So Fine, their hit song that dropped back in April, on several televised year-end gayo (K-pop) music shows. But instead of simply recycling the song’s original arrangement for their performances, Yonghwa re-arranged the track differently for each of the different live performances. And it wasn’t just a bit of tweaking here and there—each version was radically different and included different instrumentation than both the original track and the other versions they played that week. It seems like Yonghwa’s collaboration last year with indie queen Sunwoo Jung Ah is still reverberating through his musical consciousness as he’s been heading in a decidedly jazzy direction lately. All three arrangements of You’re So Fine on each of the gayos featured improvisational vocals by Yonghwa as he snaked his way around the melody with various rhythmic and harmonic counterpoints to the original tune.

I’m pretty sure that there was no requirement that they come up with a new arrangement for each show, so the band’s insistence on giving an original performance every time no matter what the circumstances is a testament to their desire to be known as musicians and artists, not just idols. They continue to blaze trails in the K-pop world and their only dilemma may be figuring out how to graduate from K-pop and move on artistically from the confines of the genre. I hope their talent and vision is recognized and rewarded accordingly both in South Korea and beyond.


UPDATE: Yet another brand new arrangement of You’re So Fine, this time for the Golden Disk awards on Jan. 13. Orchestral and jazzy, with strings, horns, and added percussion, as well as Yonghwa prowling around in his long black furry coat. He owns the stage in this clip and also throws in a short interaction with EXO singer Baekhyun. You can see he was dying to find a way to get down into the audience this time too. Genius.

Bonus track: Yonghwa sings a smexy version of Sunwoo Jung Ah’s Spring Lady on Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook

160115 Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook Spring Lady Jung Yonghwa & Sunwoo Jung A from CNBLUECL on Vimeo.

January 11, 2017 at 6:49 am 5 comments

Can’t Stop: CNBLUE addiction, in which I fall down the K-Pop rabbit hole

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CNBLUE doing their thing live, 2016

So here’s how it happened. My family spent this summer in Taiwan and I was hoping we could brush up on our vernacular Mandarin by watching some Taiwanese television. I thought we could acquaint ourselves with Asian pop culture in general as well, so Korean dramas could also be a part of that mix. I wanted to look at Taiwanese dramas to work on our Chinese-language skills, but somehow my daughter ended up watching the gender-bending K-drama You’re Beautiful instead. Because the plastic surgery on the boys’ noses was way too distracting I only followed it intermittently, but I would occasionally glance over at the screen and watch a bit with my daughter, since the show is charming and amusing.

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Yonghwa, You’re Beautiful, 2009

And then, boom! I caught a glimpse of a boy with the most amazingly beautiful and fascinating face, who stood out even amongst his very pretty co-stars. I literally could not take my eyes off of him, he was that mesmerizing. Although he didn’t seem to have any plastic surgery and his teeth were distinctly crooked, it was impossible to stop looking at him, he was so charismatic. I soon found out that the actor in question was Jung Yonghwa, the leader of the Korean rock band CNBLUE.

K-Pop is a very strange universe and the more I find out about it the less I’m sure I like it. Commercial pop music around the world is by nature a very capitalistic place but K-Pop in particular seems to be pop music to the nth degree. The songs are hyper-catchy but not necessarily very deep or meaningful, and seem to be designed to be listened to for about a week maximum, after which they are supplanted by another hyper-catchy and not very deep tune. The performers are uniformly young and beautiful, either by nature or makeup or cosmetic surgery. Most of them are drilled to be precision dancers, and the fashions are ultra-trendy, with mas de moda hairstyles in many rainbow colors. The music videos are glossy and slick, with crazy dreamlike imagery meant to stick in your backbrain just long enough for you to pay your money and download the songs.

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Keeping score

Plus, in order to sell songs, groups go on a variety of music shows and compete viciously for trophies every week. There seems to be about a half-dozen of these and the groups make the rounds after dropping each song, participating in a sadistic hazing ritual that pits group against group based on digital streaming, record sales, music video views, and popular voting both ahead of time and live as the shows progress. It’s kind like the hunger games for pop music except without the literal dying, but the humiliation for the losers and the jubilation of the winners is similar enough to a fight to the death. So it’s not exactly the most nurturing and comforting creative atmosphere.

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Boys over flowers, CNBLUE

CNBLUE is a bit of an anomaly in the K-Pop world. Along with their labelmates FT Island they are one of the few bands, as opposed to dance groups, to become K-Pop stars. CNBLUE is partly an idol group, partly a pop-rock band, and partly a collection of male supermodels, as each member is pretty damn good looking. But the band can also play their own instruments and sing, and they also compose most of their songs, so they don’t fit the typical K-Pop mold. They are also most emphatically not a dance group, and their music is much more rock than hiphop or dance-oriented like other K-Pop groups.

So I’ve become completely fascinated by Jung Yonghwa and CNBLUE. Some reasons for my interest include:

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Yonghwa and Jonghyun with axes

Boys with guitars

I’ve always loved rock music, from punk to metal to power pop, and CNBLUE plays some of the catchiest pop-rock around. Yonghwa has a knack for writing hooky, complex, and accessible tunes that earworm into your brain immediately. I’m Sorry, Can’t Stop, and Cinderella, to name just a few of their most popular tracks, are all catchy as hell and each is unique and distinct from each other as well.

Great live shows

CNBLUE is famous for their balls-out live performances and Yonghwa in particular leaves it all out on the stage for every show. The interwebs are full of youtubes of their rocking live shows which seem to get better and better as the years go by. No doubt their grueling touring schedule of the past six years since their debut has helped them improve their live performances immensely, as they have literally played hundreds of shows in that time, which is par for the course for many top-tier K-Pop groups. (From 2013-2016 CNBLUE played more than 100 concerts, as did Big Bang and Super Junior, two other kings of the K-Pop world). Ironically, when appearing on Korean television shows (which K-Pop groups do incessantly) CNBLUE doesn’t always get to play their instruments live, since the TV shows are designed for dance groups, not bands with guitars and amps. But even when hand-syncing CNBLUE members manage to rock the house with their sheer energy and stage presence.

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CNBLUE in modeling mode, 2015

Visuals

K-Pop has this thing called “visuals,” which basically means how good-looking your group members are. Members are usually recruited for their physical beauty and if they are not up to snuff then their agencies aren’t shy about sending them out for a spot of plastic surgery to fix things up. CNBLUE, however, is pretty well-known for their excellent visuals without going under the knife (and the rumor is that their agency, FNC, picked the members in particular because it was too broke at the time to afford plastic surgery). In other words, CNBLUE’s members were chosen specifically because they are tall and good-looking first, with their relative musical skills secondary. They’re widely regarded as having “no visual flaws,” which in K-Pop fan parlance means each member is exceedingly handsome.

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More visuals

So all four members are supernaturally beautiful, with guitarist Lee Jonghyun in particular possessing inhuman good looks. Yonghwa not only has a beautiful face, with large, wide-spaced eyes, an elegant nose, and a narrow jawline, but he also possesses a remarkable amount of charisma, charm, and stage presence for a young man in his twenties. So it’s a lot of fun to watch CNBLUE since they bring the pretty. Although this has certainly helped with their mass appeal, in some ways their beauty has worked against them as far as being taken seriously as musicians, since they are considered idols first and musicians second, despite their musical skills. I’ve had a hard time convincing my friends that it’s about the music and not just the visuals when it comes to CNBLUE since their good looks are so immediately overwhelming at first.

The secret menu: Japanese releases

CNBLUE has released a huge number of albums in Japan that contain a whole nother catalog of songs created for the Japanese market. Not only does this mean that they’re sung in Japanese but the music tends to be more the rock side rather than the pop side. Which means these albums contain many more heavy-duty power chord guitar-based tunes specifically designed to be played at full speed in live stadium shows. Their first major-label Japanese release, Code Name Blue, rocks hard and loud and contains several of their best J-Rock style arena songs (Where You Are; Come On; In My Head; Have A Good Night). Many of these were written by Yonghwa, whereas the songs on their Korean albums they were releasing at the same time (2012) were still mostly written by other people. Even second vocalist Jonghyun, who leans toward pretty crooning on their Korean releases, rocks out on the Japanese albums, and Yonghwa belts like a boss. For those who prefer their tunes to rock a bit harder, the Japanese releases are the way to go.

New directions

CNBLUE just dropped their latest mini-album at the beginning of April, a five-song EP called Blueming (hint: flower pun). Included is the lead track “You’re So Fine,” which includes a poppin’ bass line and some soulful vocals from Yonghwa, who also wrote and produced the cut. The tune is a fat and catchy track, with its synchopated rhythms and swinging horns giving the song a 60s R&B feel. Yonghwa is a smart and savvy songwriter and he includes four or five singalong hooks in both Korean and English. His vocals are impeccable as well, with effortless octave jumps, seamless transitions to falsetto, smooth dynamics shifts and rhythmic patterns, and an easy control of his tonal and volume range, whether spitting a syncopated patter, swinging a sweet ad lib, or belting out the chorus. In most K-Pop songs the vocals are divided among the various members, with one person singing the lead, one the chorus, one rapping, one in falsetto. Here Yonghwa sings almost all of the parts himself, with a little help from second vocalist Jonghyun, which is an impressive feat for song with such variations in the vocal line.

The song’s music video is quite K-Pop, with over-the-top costuming, hyperkinetic editing, and a hypersaturated color palette, as well as the ridiculously handsome look of the four band members—if you aren’t used to the genre it’s probably best to listen to the song without watching the MV as its high-gloss styling can be quite distracting and overwhelming.

There’s been some bitching and moaning among certain CNBLUE fans since this release is much more on the pop side (and the title track is very retro R&B), rather than rock. To a western observer such as myself it’s odd to hear a musical group criticized for stretching its creative boundaries and trying out different genres. I’m used to artists like Prince, David Bowie, and the Beatles, to name just a few, whose sound always changed and evolved with every release. To me it’s strange that CNBLUE has been criticized for trying out new musical styles, which seems like a healthy sign of creative growth and maturity. CNBLUE has already mastered the art of the power chord blues-based rock song so it’s nice to see them moving into jazzier compositions and arrangements. To my mind there’s nothing wrong with some syncopation and a bit of scatting to liven up a song. It also shows a more sophisticated musicality that’s promising for the band’s future releases. What I’m hearing is the convergence of their musical styles between their Korean and Japanese releases. With the exception of You’re So Fine, the tracks on their most recent Korean release, Blueming, sound a lot like the ones on their two most recent Japanese albums, Colors and We’re Like A Puzzle, showing a heavy dose of Oasis and brit-pop influences.

Their most recent Japanese single, Glory Days,  which dropped last week, is an effortlessly listenable slice of J-pop-inspired pleasure, with a pretty piano line weaving through the melody and the lead vocal relaying between Yonghwa and Jonghyun to create a catchy, upbeat track. The subtle addition of strings and a church organ adds a reverent and dare I say spiritual atmosphere which is echoed in the beautifully conceived and shot music video to the song. Not as hard-edged as some of their other Japan releases, the recording has a delicate and wistful beauty to it. Despite its seeming simplicity the track reveals its complexity after several listens, attesting to Yonghwa’s increasing skills as both a composer and a producer.

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Jonghyun pays his variety show dues

Right now there are some obstacles that may keep CNBLUE from fully exploring new musical directions. The first is that, as part of their job as K-Pop idols, they also are required to be active in other entertainment fields, including modeling for fashion magazines and appearing on variety shows and in advertisements. Whereas Western pop stars mostly have the luxury of focusing primarily on their musical output and somewhat less on their public image, in K-Pop world it’s a different story.

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Airport fashion, K-Pop style

Like their fellow K-Pop idols, the pressure is on for CNBLUE to constantly produce new musical product, pose languorously for various fashion spreads, wear stylish and trendy outfits at the airport, appear in dramas and variety shows, tour around the world, and otherwise live their lives as South Korean pop music celebrities. All four members have acted in Korean dramas, and Yonghwa is awaiting the 2017 release of his very first movie, the Chinese film Cook Up A Storm with Hong Kong superstar Nicholas Tse. And as per all South Korean males, the four members will soon have to serve their mandatory military duty, which lasts a little under two years and which will probably take place in the next couple years for the two oldest members, Yonghwa and Jonghyun.

A more immediate threat is the involvement of both Yonghwa and Jonghyun in an insider stock trading scandal earlier this year surrounding CNBLUE’s fucked-up agency, FNC Entertainment, which by all accounts is sleazy and badly run. After almost of week of mudslinging and speculation Yonghwa was cleared of all suspicions of insider trading, but in a surprising twist, the investigation then revealed that Jonghyun was also involved in the case. Despite Yonghwa being declared innocent of all charges and Jonghyun only receiving a small fine, some K-netizens feasted on the possible downfall of two of K-Pop’s biggest stars. It was an unsavory spectacle to observe and some online commentators took a particularly vicious glee in attacking the squeaky-clean idols. The whole situation was really distasteful and in my opinion was being used as a distraction from various political scandals happening now in the country including a multi-billion dollar scam involving the Lotte group, one of the country’s biggest corporate conglomerates. I also suspect that Yonghwa’s shady boss may have been throwing Yonghwa under the bus to keep himself from being implicated.

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Yonghwa sad

It’s hard at this point to tell exactly what the turn of events were due to the opacity of motivations of all concerned but by all accounts Yonghwa bore the brunt of the bad publicity . As a side note, Yonghwa is hugely popular in China and interestingly enough, the Chinese press was much more supportive of Yonghwa than was the South Korean media.

If for some reason Yonghwa’s career takes a damaging hit it will be a loss for everyone concerned because he’s the real deal and not just a run-of-the-mill disposable idol. The only possible silver lining is that it may scuff up his clean-cut image a bit, which ironically may make him more marketable in the West, where being a bad boy is a badge of honor, not something to be shunned as it seems to be in South Korea. Also notable has been the unwavering love from most of CNBLUE’s and Yonghwa’s devoted fanbase, thousands of whom throughout the length of the scandal expressed their undying support across social media platforms such as twitter, weibo, and instagram.

But despite the admirable loyalty of the fans (along with some petty bickering), after following the insider trading accusations and its aftermath I’ve liked K-Pop and the whole bloodthirsty South Korean entertainment scene even less. It’s heartbreaking that someone can be crucified in the press without even going to trial and Yonghwa’s case was a very ugly spectacle. God help us as a species if this is the way we treat our artists, especially young people like CNBLUE. Capitalism eats us all and it will be especially tragic if the aftereffects of the scandal hinder Yonghwa and CNBLUE’s ability to make music. Because in the end, despite their physical gorgeousness, their modeling talents, their fashion sense, and their acting skilz, CNBLUE is really about making great music. Everything else is just gravy.

UPDATE: As another example of their artistry here’s a link to the lyrics for “Glory Days.

http://justjyh.com/xe/music/305010

Sample lyrics:

The moment I get close, it slips away
When such days repeat
Everything becomes blurred
I can’t go on, it grows tiresome
You’re the one

who gently nudged my back

Most likely written by Yonghwa after the insider trading mess this summer, the song is all about keeping faith during hard times. When read together while watching the MV of the track the entire song comes together beautifully as an expression of Yonghwa and CNBLUE’s state of mind during and following the nasty controversy they faced.

September 21, 2016 at 5:39 am 42 comments


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