From Twitter: a great article—in PowerPoint format—on how PowerPoint has become the scourge of academia, ruining teaching and dehumanizing the educational experience. It's enough to make me rethink how I want my students to do their projects this semester.
Saturday, March 08, 2014
From Twitter: a great article—in PowerPoint format—on how PowerPoint has become the scourge of academia, ruining teaching and dehumanizing the educational experience. It's enough to make me rethink how I want my students to do their projects this semester.
Friday, March 07, 2014
An ex-coworker of mine recently informed me that the SAT will be changing format, and that the changes will be rolled out in 2016. This CNN article has some specifics:
The SAT college exam will undergo sweeping changes on what's tested, how it's scored and how students can prepare, College Board President and CEO David Coleman said Wednesday.
Standardized tests have become "far too disconnected from the work of our high schools," Coleman said at an event in Austin, Texas. They're too stressful for students, too filled with mystery and "tricks" to raise scores and aren't necessarily creating more college-ready students, he said.
The SAT to be released in spring 2016 is designed to change that, he said.
The test will include three sections -- evidence-based reading and writing, math and an optional essay -- each retooled to stop students from simply filling a bubble on the test sheet.
"No longer will it be good enough to focus on tricks and trying to eliminate answer choices," Coleman said. "We are not interested in students just picking an answer, but justifying their answers."
The test will shift from its current score scale of 2400 back to 1600, with a separate score for the essay. No longer will test takers be penalized for choosing incorrect answers.
I have no idea what that last part is supposed to mean, but I welcome the shift back to a 1600 scale. Hooray for the old school! OK, well, that's not entirely true: I think I do have some notion of what the "not penalized for wrong answers" paradigm means. If it's like the AP Calculus test, the point of the new test will be more about methodology—a student's thinking process, etc.—than about final results. On the AP Calculus test, it was possible to arrive at the wrong answer but still receive credit for having used a solid method.
As my colleague noted, this is going to mean an overhaul of all the tutoring materials at YB, my previous place of work. I wonder whether all the YB tutors will have to take the new SAT themselves so they can know what it's like from the inside.
One observation. David Coleman's remark that standardized tests have become "far too disconnected from the work of our high schools" seems to put the cart before the horse: in my opinion, it's the work of our high schools that keeps students from rising to the standards of standardized tests. Curricula keep getting dumbed down. The best example of this problem that I can think of is grammar knowledge: the current SAT is grammar-heavy, and students who have no notion of subject-verb agreement, tense control, faulty comparisons, pronoun shift, dangling/misplaced modifiers, etc., do miserably on the Writing portion of the SAT because they've been given no explicit background in grammar.
This trend away from teaching grammar as an explicit set of rules has been going on for several decades. In the language-teaching field, we see this quite clearly: grammar charts are disappearing in favor of "contextualized" utterances and vague notions like "communicative competence." The emphasis is on dialogues and on simply getting the students to talk, whether their utterances are correct or not. The very notion of correctness, any sort of correctness, seems to be going out the window. My own feeling—going back to the old school—is that teaching explicit linguistic rules provides students with the bricks and mortar they need to construct competent utterances that convey their thoughts in a clear and rational way. This in turn has the advantage of creating disciplined minds that more coolly and carefully apprehend reality, and it counteracts the tendency, in this Internet-driven age, for young minds to become unfocused and easily distracted.
The move away from the explicit teaching of grammar has been a huge mistake, and our kids are paying for it. I wonder whether the new SAT will reflect a concurrent dumbing-down of standardized tests commensurate with the continued dumbing-down of the American educational curriculum, or whether it will remain rigorous, but in a different way from what we've seen up to now.
UPDATE: The College Board website has this to say about "no penalty for wrong answers":
NO PENALTY FOR WRONG ANSWERS
The redesigned SAT will remove the penalty for wrong answers. Students will earn points for the questions they answer correctly. This move to rights-only scoring encourages students to give the best answer they have to every problem.
Not quite what I had in mind, but OK.
You would have to have a heart of stone not to cry while watching this harrowing, amazing, wonderful movie, which features stellar acting, gorgeous cinematography, stately pacing, and a creaking shipload of misery, betrayal, horror, and humanity.
I'm off to the office rather late in the afternoon after having promised myself that I'd be there around 9 this morning. The road to hell, and all that. My mission at the office is twofold: first, get my computer set up and connected with a printer—any printer; second, crank out my plans and materials for the following week. Much to do.
I'm also reconsidering whether to teach that basic-level Korean class. I had told people, earlier, that I wouldn't have the time to do it, but... we've got some true newbies among our recent hires—people who have never lived in Korea before, and who can't speak or read a lick of Korean. These folks need some way to ease their transition into Korean society.
Thursday, March 06, 2014
Thursday turned out to be a good day. I had my final two classes for the week—both beginner-level groups, one at 1PM and another at 3PM in the same room. The 1PM group was pretty good, the 3PM group less so, but not bad. Most of the 3PM kids were aching to go home because my class was their final class of the day (they applauded when I ended class with a flourish). I'm going to have to harness that yearning somehow.
So all in all, the first week back at school was much better than I'd thought it would be. This is still the honeymoon period, of course; we'll see whether this high can last through the entire semester. Everything normally goes smoothly on intro days, but starting next week, the students have to have their textbooks and we need to get moving. The little boogers had better be ready.
Wednesday, March 05, 2014
The campus registrar's office called me in the middle of my lesson today to say that there was a mistake on my weekly schedule: I had seven classes to teach, not six. This was alternately surprising and annoying, as I had already been through this with my department's office: I had received an email in early January that included a tentative class schedule pegged at seven classes. Then, in mid-February, I received a followup email with my "confirmed" schedule, which showed only six classes. To confirm this revised schedule, I spoke with our new office lady this past Monday, and she said that the revised schedule was indeed fixed and confirmed. I had no reason to mistrust her, which is why today's call was a surprise.
The registrar asked me to come visit ASAP, so right after class, I trudged across campus to the Admin Building, Room 110, and spoke with the same gent who had helped me arrange my KMA work. He asked me who had given me my assigned classes; I told him, and he called our department's office. After speaking with our new office lady for a few minutes, he shrugged, hung up, and told me that I had only six classes. That was a relief; I was worried that I had somehow skipped a seventh class. At the same time, I was sad not to have the seventh class because that would have meant a slight bump in income. As things stand, my salary will be no different from what it was last semester; the main difference will be in the money I pull in from side work.
So all's well that ends well, I suppose: no extra burden on my weekly schedule.
Day One was two beginner-level classes that both went wonderfully. Day Two was a single intermediate-level class that, while not quite as riotously good as the previous day's classes, was nevertheless good.
Today, Day Three, was my pronunciation class, and I'd say that it went well, all in all. The only hitch was that I had twenty-three students. Normally, for conversation classes, the maximum number of students is twenty, but because this pronunciation class is both a new course and a different animal from typical speaking classes, I wonder whether it counts as a special case. The attendance rules may be different. At least one student in the class told me he was there simply as a tourist—there was no guarantee that he'd be back the following week, so it may be that I have only twenty-two registered students.
In any case, having twenty-three students today meant that three students went without a syllabus and first-day materials. Everyone shared, luckily, so there wasn't a big problem, and I'll be printing out extra copies of the syllabus for students next week.
This is the first of my classes to reach or exceed the 20-person limit. All three of my previous classes have been short: 18 and 17 beginners the first day, and only a cozy 14 intermediates yesterday. That number will likely change next week: some students get confused about where to go on the first day; they sometimes end up skipping the first class as a result. Attendance isn't a huge issue the first week, but it gets serious starting with Week 2.
So I'd say we're batting a thousand thus far: I've liked every class I've taught, and I have high hopes for all of them. Two more classes to go—both beginner-level afternoon classes, 1PM and 3PM. May the streak of good luck continue.
Tuesday, March 04, 2014
Having shown off my mad cashew-chicken skilz, I thought it would be a good idea to recruit my leftover shrooms for a different purpose: spaghetti sauce. This is a quasi-bolognese in the style my mother used to make at home: shrooms, ground meat (beef and pork in this case), green bell peppers, and a tomato sauce fortified with oregano, parsley, basil, bay leaves, garlic, salt, pepper, and a wee bit of sugar. I'd have liked to have fresh herbs, but at the local E-Mart, none were to be found (the E-Mart in Seoul, near where I used to live in the Sookdae neighborhood, did have fresh herbs, including basil and parsley). Still: dry herbs are better than nothing. You work with what you have.
I don't know why, but the sauce burns very easily if it's not being stirred constantly. I don't recall having that sort of trouble in the States. Normally, a spaghetti sauce should be able to simmer for hours with only occasional stirring.
The two types of mushroom I used were (1) oyster mushrooms, which are amazingly meaty, and (2) a Korean mushroom called iseul-songi (이슬송이). I have no idea what this latter shroom is called in English; it looks like a slightly enlarged, round-capped button mushroom with a brown, flaky surface reminiscent of shiitake (pyogo in Korean; see here) Also like shiitake, the iseul-songi has an almost piquant, rebellious-yet-subtle pungency to it. As soon as I smelled this mushroom, I knew right away that it would be perfect with red wine, which in turn made me wish I had been making some boeuf bourguignon.
Anyway, here's the finished product:
Smells as good as it looks. I should have made some garlic bread to go with it.
The second day of class had me teaching only a single session, from 9AM to about 10:40AM. The class ended with applause, which I found to be a good sign. These were intermediate-level students; while they weren't quite as energetic as yesterday's beginners, they were generally agreeable and willing to do what I asked. So once again, I'm optimistic about this semester, and I feel I may have dodged a bullet by being granted a decent group of kids.
I warned my intermediates that they'd be teaching English to each other, à la last semester's round-robin method, which worked so beautifully with the previous intermediates. My charges nodded seriously as I told them what was in store, and they looked ready for a challenge. We'll see how it all goes.
Monday, March 03, 2014
I can only hope that the rest of this week turns out to be as good as today was. I admit I was cringing at the thought of teaching four classes of beginners (I have six classes: four beginner, one intermediate, one mixed-level pronunciation), given how things went last semester. But today's crop of kids was alert, responsive, and downright cheerful, so I have no complaints at all. The second of my two classes actually applauded me—twice!—for no reason I could ascertain. I gave my usual cheerful, energetic "Welcome to class" spiel in both classes, changing my style very little from class to class, so I can only assume the second class was just way peppier than the first—and the first class was actually quite good.
Tomorrow and Wednesday, I have only one class each day: Intermediate Speaking tomorrow, and Pronunciation on Wednesday. Mid-week is when I get my easy schedule—the saggy part of the hammock, if you will. Then we're back to business on Thursday with another two classes, one after another, like on Monday. What will the collective temperaments of my final four classes be like? I'm a bit worried: given how amazingly the week started, things can only go down from here. Sae ong ji ma.
I summarized Gary Taubes's Why We Get Fat here.
Two reviews and rebuttals to Taubes are here and here, and both focus on the same complaint I had: Taubes's dismissal of the calories-in/calories-out paradigm.
To me, the essential proof that c-in/c-out obtains is that it's possible to starve to death. Starvation can only happen if the body is consuming more calories than it's receiving.
Whether you agree with these rebuttals may depend on your view of the authors' arguments. In the comments, some Taubesian defenders reject the arguments for reasons that seem logically and evidentially legitimate, so I leave it up to you to decide for yourself. As with most dieting "wisdom," you need to figure your way through the mass of contradictory arguments.
Sunday, March 02, 2014
Tomorrow's the first day of classes; Samil Jeol is over, and the winter/spring semester has finally arrived. I had done quite a bit of shopping—much of it expensive because I was buying Western goods at non-Costco locations (mainly E-Mart and the local grocers). March 2 is Mardi Gras, and I had hoped to find ingredients for a remoulade so I could make chicken po' boys for the troops, right there on campus, but it was not to be. Instead, I bought ingredients to make something I haven't made since leaving Front Royal: cashew chicken, Kevin-style. The following two photos show off my labor of love. Behold—cashew chicken with green bell peppers, Korean gochu, and oyster mushrooms in sweet sauce:
And the chili-dusted final product, on top of white rice cooked without a rice cooker:
Like most appliances and electronic products, rice cookers in Korea are about two to three times more expensive than in the States. In the States, a decent rice cooker might set you back $12 to $15; here in Korea, a cheap (and pitifully small) rice cooker runs about W35,000 (about $32). I always find it a bit ironic that an electronics powerhouse like South Korea bilks its own citizens (and its expats) by selling products at double and triple the American price for the same thing.
In any event—wish me luck. The Hunger Games begin in the morning. My weekly schedule:
MON: 11AM-12:50PM, 1PM-2:50PM Beginner Conversation
TUE: 9AM-10:50AM Intermediate Speaking
WED: 1PM-2:50PM Pronunciation (a new course, developed by me and a very innovative colleague)
THU: 1PM-2:50PM, 3PM-4:50PM Beginner Conversation
So... mostly beginners this time around. Ought to be fun. I've got no KMA until April, and I'm not sure when my next Golden Goose job will be happening. We'll see.
Saturday, March 01, 2014
1. Meet a colleague in a few minutes to talk over a course we're both teaching (same course, but teaching it separately).
2. Tromp over to my campus office to drop off my load of textbooks. Maybe stick around a few hours and write up some icebreaker activities for this coming week. (Or just do this at home.)
3. Go shop for some shtuff to eat.
4. Take a walk around town...?
Starting next week, I won't be buying any more carbs. I'll use up the carbs I currently have in storage, then concentrate, over the next few months, on buying fresh meat and fresh veggies. Once pay day rolls around, I plan to go and finally get a Korean Costco membership (about W35,000, from what I hear), at which point I ought to have access to real cheese for cheaper than can be found at the typical Korean grocery. Once I'm Costco-ified, I'll be doing meat-and-cheese runs, stocking my fridge with delectable edibles.
Not that I won't cheat every once in a while. I plan to reserve two or three "naughty" days per month. Just to give my insulin something to do.
And—no promises—but I want to start waking up very early, like around 6AM or 6:30, to do morning walks. Time to follow Ben Franklin's wisdom about being early.
Friday, February 28, 2014
I heard about "Guardians of the Galaxy" a couple months ago when I read some trivia stating that Zoe Saldana (Uhura in the JJ Abrams Star Trek movies; Neytiri in "Avatar") was going to star in it. At the time, I rolled my eyes: what sort of suck-ass title is "Guardians of the Galaxy"? Who the hell can take that seriously? Even for Marvel, this seemed a stretch, a step off the cliff and a plunge onto the jagged rocks of corniness.
Then I saw the trailer.
And I'm sold. The trailer is hilarious, and "Guardians of the Galaxy," I now know, was never meant to be taken seriously as a title: the whole thing is one huge ironic pose. The movie is based on a Marvel comic that came out only recently—around 2008, I think. I imagine it's supposed to take place in the same Marvel universe as Spider-Man and The Avengers, but it looks to be more of a spiritual cousin of Spielberg/Lucas efforts like "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." In fact, that early scene in the trailer, where Quill grabs the globe, strikes me as a "Raiders" homage to Indy's golden-idol moment in the Peruvian temple.
Chris Pratt stars as Peter Quill, a.k.a. the arrogantly self-titled Star Lord, who seems to be a young, bumbling fusion of Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Zoe Saldana is Gamora, a deadly, green-skinned assassin who looks as if she would eat James Kirk for breakfast. Physically imposing MMA star Dave Bautista is Drax the Destroyer, who seems very angry about something. Bradley Cooper is the voice of Rocket, a genetically engineered, trigger-happy raccoon with a Napoleon complex. His huge silent partner, the tree-like humanoid Groot, is stoically played by Vin Diesel.
There are two reasons why this trailer was so seductive. First, it was edgier than other Marvel outings. Peter Quill gives the camera the finger; Gamora looks strung out on drugs and not quite sane (Saldana totally sells that look); Rocket Raccoon is shown snarling and firing an automatic weapon; Drax is all business, wanted for 22 counts of murder. Only Groot comes off looking cute and adorable. Together, this motley group gives off a definite Island of Misfit Toys vibe that automatically endears them to me (anyone else get misty when watching that part of the old Christmas special?).
Second, the trailer did two brave and unexpected things: it blasted the 1968 Mark James/BJ Thomas "Hooked on a Feeling," with its primal u-ga chaga u-ga u-ga! chant, and at the very end, it showed our heroes in a criminal lineup, just standing there and doing... well, nothing, except looking around, yawning, and sneering. For five full seconds. That's a lot of air time to waste on characters doing nothing. And I thought that was awesome. It gave us some time just to drink the characters in and to ponder their potential for mayhem.
So "Guardians of the Galaxy" has gone from object of contempt to my newest must-see movie. Judging by the 13.3 million views that the above-linked preview trailer has gotten so far, I'm not alone in thinking this movie is going to rock. The trailer sells itself. The movie comes out in the States this August.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
How do we know what a dog is feeling? Unless we're telepaths—and telepathy is bullshit, last I checked—all we have are outward signs to clue us in to a dog's mental state. Tail is wagging hard? Happy. Eager. Tail and head are droopy? Sad. Ashamed.
Are we sure our dog is actually ashamed, even when he seems to be giving us "the look"? This CBS Sacramento article says no: we can't be sure what the dog is feeling just because he adopts the "shame" posture:
The next time you start shaking your finger and shouting “Shame on you!” because your dog chewed up your favorite fuzzy slippers, just remember that no matter how guilty your dog looks, it doesn’t know what your rant is about.
Behaviorists insist dogs lack shame. The guilty look — head cowered, ears back, eyes droopy — is a reaction to the tantrum you are throwing now over the damage they did hours earlier.
In the study, she [Dr. Alexandra Horowitz] used 14 dogs, videotaping them in a series of trials and studying how they reacted when an owner left the room after telling them not to eat a treat. When the owners returned, sometimes they knew what the dogs had done and sometimes they didn’t and sometimes the dogs had eaten the treats and sometimes they hadn’t.
“I found that the ‘look’ appeared most often when owners scolded their dogs, regardless of whether the dog had disobeyed or did something for which they might or should feel guilty. It wasn’t ‘guilt’ but a reaction to the owner that prompted the look,” Horowitz said.
“I am not saying that dogs might not feel guilt, just that the ‘guilty look’ is not an indication of it,” she added. She also believes there is a difference between guilt and shame.
Agreed: there's a difference between guilt and shame. It's a commonplace, in cultural studies, to differentiate between "guilt cultures" and "shame cultures." Guilt is inwardly oriented, whereas shame is outwardly oriented: a guilty person has a conscience that can afflict him even when he's alone and no one is looking; in a shame culture, what matters most is how one appears to one's fellows. American society is a mixture of guilt and shame cultures; Korean society is much more of a shame culture.*
I'm not so sure, however, that I agree with the results of this research. There's a compelling video on YouTube that shows, amusingly, an owner of several dogs who interrogates his pets, one by one, to find out which one had done a bad deed. Eventually, the owner lights upon the last dog, who hangs his head in shame and is obviously the guilty party. Why didn't the other dogs act ashamed? The above-quoted researcher likely has no answer, not having tested this situation. Admittedly, this cute YouTube video is merely one data point and not a comprehensive, systematic study, but the evidence it provides is grounds to conduct studies that proceed much as the video did: will one guilty dog out himself in a group situation?
Another reason to be suspicious of the study is the behaviorist approach itself. A behaviorist doesn't assume that minds exist; instead, he sees organisms as complex nexuses that navigate the world through stimulus and response. (One of my psych profs used to joke, by way of explaining the behaviorist perspective, "Do minds exist? Seen one lately?") I, on the other hand, know I have a mind and am just as sure that a dog is a sentient creature that experiences some sort of inner life. What that life is, I can't imagine: I have no access to a canine consciousness or sensorium. That said, it seems to me that, when a dog looks ashamed, it probably is ashamed about something. Now does the dog feel guilty? Probably not: given the chance, the dog might commit the exact same transgression a second time—and only a short time after having been scolded for the first transgression.
It's an interesting mental exercise, pondering canine epistemology and phenomenology. How do we know what a dog is going though? What's it like to be a dog? I can't say, but to me, it's a pretty good guess that dogs can feel shame.
*Shame, in shame cultures, is linked to concepts like honor and face. Prestige, rank, and standing are all important concepts in such cultures: what matters isn't whether you are guilty; it's whether you look guilty. Witness Dr. Hwang Woo-seok, whose quack genetic science continued for years until he was outed and shamed. Once shown to be a fraud, Hwang made a big spectacle of how sorry he was, even going so far as to appear sick by going to a hospital and allowing himself to be photographed while bedridden. Korean politicians and business leaders, when caught up in scandal, routinely offer operatically tearful apologies to the public, pathetically begging for forgiveness—all in an attempt to restore some standing. When these appeals fail to move the public, the marginalized person may even kill himself, as President Noh Mu-hyeon did. Such is the power of shame: if society can't live with you, then you can't live with yourself.
In America, by contrast, it's hard to find a politician who can be motivated by shame to apologize for anything. Chris Christie hasn't fallen on his sword for Bridgegate and the other scandals now collecting around him; Kathleen Sibelius hasn't tendered her resignation for botching the Obamacare website's rollout; Bill Clinton, despite being a serial sexual predator, still has no trouble showing his face at pro-feminism events.
One could counter that, in the above American examples, something like the shame culture still obtains. How so? Because in each case, none of the politicians was definitively shown to be guilty of wrongdoing. Scandals can be spun; US politicians often talk about optics, i.e., how a situation looks to outsiders. That sort of thinking is very much rooted in a shame-culture paradigm. Clinton feels he can show his face because, at worst, he had an "inappropriate relationship" (his words) with Monica Lewinsky, and those other sex scandals are far in the past. In Clinton's mind, that's enough to exculpate him. Chris Christie, despite his "buck stops here" reputation, still maintains he knew nothing about the Bridgegate scandal that unfolded right under his nose. For Christie, the maintaining of innocence is enough to allow him to show his face in public. Kathleen Sibelius has dodged guilt through spin: even Apple has problems when it rolls out a new e-product, she claims, so it should come as no surprise that Obamacare's website has some minor glitches. Positive spin repairs the optics; as long as things look good, they run smoothly. Are any of these powerful people kept awake at night by their lack of integrity? No—of course they aren't.
For Koreans, though, even the taint of scandal is enough to provoke shame. Some politicians will try to worm their way out of the shame zone, but for many, this isn't possible: public pressure is just too great. In America, by and large, this taint comes specifically with sex scandals (witness the self-destruction of Anthony Weiner, for the liberals, or the Reverend Ted Haggard, for the conservatives): for an American, even to be accused of sexual impropriety is enough to destroy a career. Rich, powerful politicians might spin their way out of such a mess, but a lowly high-school teacher accused of having sex with a student has no recourse to money and privilege. Such a teacher, even if not guilty, must wear the scarlet letter forever.
All of that being said, Americans are still capable of being "shameless" in a way that Koreans can't. Madonna has survived any number of disreputable situations; in fact, she thrives on such things: they make her edgy. The same goes for British actor Hugh Grant who, thanks to his encounter with an American prostitute, can now trade on something of a "bad boy" reputation. (Ditto for Russell Crowe and his anger-management problems.) What goes for American celebrities can apply, in some cases, to American politicians. Anthony Weiner, mentioned above, incredibly felt that it was his duty to run for mayor of New York City despite having texted embarrassing images of his tumescent genitals to women who were not his wife. Shame obviously didn't hold him back; his ego proved more powerful than any sense of shame. Korean movie stars, by contrast, have been harassed to the point of suicide by scandalized, abrasive "fans." The Korean sense of rejection can be strong enough to override rationality, pushing the ostracized person to the spiritual limit. It's a sad fact that, for many Korean celebrities who commit suicide, their suicide notes generally include some sort of apology to their fans.
Keanu Reeves's 2013 directorial debut, "Man of Tai Chi," stars his stuntman buddy Tiger Chen as a fictionalized version of himself. Chen plays a modest man who is the lone student of Master Yang (Yu Hai), the only living exponent of a unique fighting style known as Ling Kong Kung Fu. Reeves stars as the film's satanic antagonist, Donaka Mark, a rich expatriate who manages a fight ring and is always looking for new, naïve talent.
One day, Mark sees Chen on TV, participating in a local martial-arts contest; Chen is victorious, and during his post-fight interview, he says he wants to show the world that tai chi is an effective fighting system. Because Chen has something to prove, Mark knows how best to corrupt the younger man. Mark eventually persuades Chen to fight for him; Chen refuses to fight for money, but accepts handsome payments, anyway, to help his parents and keep his master's temple from being razed. With each successive fight, though, Chen gives in to his native viciousness until he finally realizes he is in danger of losing his soul and hurting the ones closest to him. Mark, meanwhile, revels in Chen's moral corrosion.
The film gives us a rare opportunity to judge Reeves as both an actor and a director. Reeves is no classically trained Shakespearean, and I can't say that his acting in this film is going to win him any awards. All the same, he conveys his character's malevolence convincingly, and stalks about his shadowy domain with the deadly grace of a predator. As a director, Reeves shows both more talent and more potential: he has a very good sense of atmospherics, and he understands the technical aspects of filmmaking, such as timing, pace, lighting, and editing. His fight scenes are clear; they allow the stunt work of fight choreographer Yuen Wo-ping to shine. (Yuen choreographed "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" as well as all three Matrix movies.) Reeves doesn't seem interested in gimmicky, swooping camera moves or other forms of cinematic trickery; his style is unpretentious and unintrusive.
The story's setup stands in contrast with the general silliness of the wuxia genre. Although the movie's plot and dialogue dip us, the viewers, in a rather shallow pool of East Asian philosophy, the underlying theme strikes me as Judeo-Christian: this is a film about a person making a deal with the devil and attempting to find his way back to redemption. I was reminded of other movies: "Platoon" immediately came to mind as a similar story about a young man caught between two father figures—one who is wise and gentle, and another who is dark and cynical. "The Devil's Advocate," in which Reeves also starred, came to mind as well, for it seemed to me that, in "Man of Tai Chi," Reeves had assumed the tempter's role originally played by Al Pacino in that other film.
The movie's plot is kept straightforward and coherent; there's the "A story," in which we track Chen's temptation and fall; there's also the "B story," which follows the police's efforts to bust Donaka Mark for his illegal fighting ring. What I liked best about the plot was its focus on character. Most wuxia films of lesser quality tend to fixate on the fighting, eschewing depth for spectacle. Also praiseworthy was the fight choreography, which used a minimum of wire-fu (Yuen Wo-ping may be evolving along with his audience, as wire-fu has lately fallen out of favor), and which also—surprisingly—showed the fights as unpolished. Fist and foot impacts were accompanied by only modest sound effects; the camera tended to hang back, allowing us to see that a flurry of blows might land, but might not always land with great force. This was a risky move on both the director's and the choreographer's part, but I thought it added a bit of grit and realism to the fight scenes—another trait not often seen in wuxia cinema.
The only truly disappointing aspect of the film was that it relied on "Karate Kid"-style trickery at the very end. You may recall how, in both "The Karate Kid" and "The Karate Kid Part II," Daniel-san (Ralph Macchio) learned a "signature" move that allowed him to defeat his opponent. This was easily the weakest element in both Karate Kid films—more gimmick than substance. In "Man of Tai Chi," there's an aggressive chi move performed by both Master Yang and Tiger Chen that I found completely unbelievable. I still enjoyed the overall story, but I felt that this bit of fakery had no place in a morality tale that had, otherwise, attempted to keep things grounded in reality.
As directorial debuts go, "Man of Tai Chi" is quite respectable. I think Keanu Reeves has an enriching career ahead of him. I'm tempted to say that he should go the way of Sofia Coppola, who quickly discovered that she was awful in front of a camera but a maestra behind one. But I'm not willing to concede that Keanu is really all that awful as an actor: his line deliveries and facial expressions tend to be wooden, yes, but he's photogenic, not to mention an amazing physical actor, as his performance in the Matrix movies proves. Also, he's no longer young: in 2014, Reeves stands on the brink of fifty, and time has at last begun to bestow some world-weary gravitas upon him.
I've tried to avoid talking about how the movie ends. You may think you know how the story goes if you've seen the preview trailer, and you may think that this review has dropped hints about Tiger Chen's eventual redemption after swimming for a time in darkness. But the ending isn't quite as clear-cut as all that. You'll just have to see the movie for yourself to understand what I mean. After that, it's up to you to decide whether "Man of Tai Chi" truly ends happily. You might end up wondering: Did the Devil in fact win?
ADDENDUM: Another excellently written review of the film is here. Always a pleasure to read people who take pride in their writing.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Congratulations to my buddy, Dr. Charles La Shure, who will be moving up in the world. He was already a well-liked translation prof who taught grad students at the prestigious HUFS (Hanguk* University of Foreign Studies); now, he's experienced a promotion of sorts, and has joined the faculty of South Korea's top college, the Harvard of this peninsula, Seoul National University. At SNU, Charles will be teaching Korean Studies. He's been a professional translator for years—since well before he received his doctorate—so I doubt that the change in pedagogical focus will deprive him of further opportunities to translate something.
Congratulations, Charles, on moving south of the river. May your future be a bright one.
*Hanguk is often misleadingly romanized as Hankuk, which of course leads to mispronunciations. HUFS romanizes its own name as "Hankuk University of Foreign Studies." Personally, I can't bear to write "Hankuk." It's like shooting Old Yeller.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
How sad: actor and director Harold Ramis is dead at the tender age of 69.
Ramis was a childhood icon. "Stripes" came out before I was old enough to see it in the theaters, but I got an eyeful of female boobage when I saw it on video at my cousin's house. (My cousin was easily one of my most corrupting influences.) I was, however, old enough to enjoy "Ghostbusters" in the theater when that came out. I was in high school at the time. Ramis's 1990s "Groundhog Day" provided plenty of grist for my philosophical/theological mill; whether it's a film about karma/karuna, or metanoia, or tikkun olam is open to interpretation, but there's no doubt that it gets you thinking.
My mental image of Harold Ramis comes from the 1980s: he's tall, lanky, and quietly cerebral. Photos of Ramis in his later years—like recent photos of Carrie Fisher—never failed to shock me. His death from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis came as a surprise. Like most everyone these days, I found out about his passing via Twitter—just another update in a constant stream of updates. Ramis would have appreciated the humor in that.
RIP, Mr. Ramis. You were one of the great ones.
Monday, February 24, 2014
One of my good friends comes from New Zealand. Another of my good friends just spent a few weeks in New Zealand with his wife. Both of these friends seem perfectly happy with New Zealand, and the second friend recommends that I get my ass down there at some point before I die.*
Out of idle curiosity, I typed "basic Maori expressions" into Google and was rewarded with this site, which offers 100 basic Maori** words and expressions that plunge you into the thought-world of that culture. Simple, straightforward, and very educational.
When I finally buy my two dogs, I'm going to name them Raho and Tou.
*A friend and coworker from my previous job also visited New Zealand, and she was just as charmed by the land of Peter Jackson.
**The word Maori is not pronounced "mey-yori." It's pronounced "mao-ri." Like the Chinese Mao. Think of a confused Chinese-Korean guy named Mao Rhee.
Orientation was mercifully brief today. I'm still sick, so it would have been hard to sit through a prolonged snorefest. Luckily, everyone who spoke was lively and straight to the point. I skipped the faculty lunch to visit the registrar and extend my KMA privileges until June. After that, I lumbered straight home. And here I am.
Sunday, February 23, 2014
It's been an interesting, albeit arduous, vacation, but March is around the corner, and the time has come to get back to business. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a two-month break from my primary duties. Now, however, I'm topping the final rise before I reenter the Vallye of the Shadowe of Worke. Tomorrow, we've got a departmental orientation at DCU, and the following Monday, March 3, we begin teaching. I won't be relinquishing my side jobs, however; I'll be doing them on top of my day job.
But the day job shouldn't be terrible: I had originally been scheduled to teach seven classes this coming semester, but that got reduced to the regular complement of six, which is fine by me. I'm still off on Fridays, which means I can teach at KMA on Fridays and Saturdays. And the Golden Goose job is flexible enough that I can do GG-related projects during my free time.
So this coming week is the final sprint, in terms of prep, before the semester begins in earnest. There's still some information that I don't know re: grade distributions for one of my classes; I'm hoping we learn everything either tomorrow or sometime later this week.