I discovered ‘That Winter, the Wind Blows‘ by total luck. I loved the title – it was so beautiful. The trailer was very haunting. So couldn’t resist watching it.

There is a young woman who is a rich heiress. Her dad who is the head of a business empire is on his death bed. If her dad dies, everything will come to her. People around her know it. The thing about this young woman is that she is blind. It makes life pretty tough for her. So the people around her try to control her, manipulate her, cheat her, try to stab her on her back. So this young woman knows that she can’t trust anyone. This young woman has a brother who is long lost. She goes in search of him hoping that he’ll join her and she can trust him and he’ll help her. What happens to this young woman, is she able to find her brother, and is she able to escape the clutches of the people around her forms the rest of the story.

Song Hye-kyo as the young heiress

The plot of the series was good, it makes us want to find out what happens next, we don’t know who is good and who is bad, because everyone looks suspect at some point of time. Inspite of all this, I couldn’t like this series much. Nearly every character was doing something bad, that I couldn’t invest my emotions on anyone. One of the main characters was a really nasty conman, that eventhough he was presented as charming and loveable, and sometimes he tried to show that he has mended his ways, I couldn’t trust him till the end. There were only three characters who were solid and likeable. The first was the young woman, who is the lead character in the story. She was a beautiful, gentle soul, and I watched the series just to find out what happened to her. Song Hye-kyo delivers a beautiful, haunting performance as that young woman. The moment when she discovers that she has romantic feelings for the man who says that he is her brother, and the moment when she discovers his real identity – the expressions that go through her face during these scenes, it was brilliant acting. The second character whom I liked was a bad guy. I hated him initially, but at some point when he revealed more about himself, we discover that though he is a bad guy, he has a moral centre. While the main character was like a slippery eel with no moral centre at all (and whom we are supposed to like because he is charming), this bad guy had a moral centre and a code of honour. I fell in love with him when I discovered that. The third nice character was a lawyer. Even his intentions were suspect for much of the story, but he was a solid character.

I was not sure about the ending of the story. Was it a real ending or was it a fantasy? I’m not very sure. Because the scene preceding the ending contradicts the ending. If you’ve watched this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I didn’t like ‘That Winter, The Wind Blows’ as much as I had hoped to. I think I’m getting too old to watch a story filled with manipulative characters. When ‘Succession‘ first came out, I watched it as it aired. It was virtually unknown at that time. Then it started raking up Emmy awards and everyone started watching it. It didn’t have a single good character. At some point it became too much for me and I stopped watching it. It felt like that when I watched ‘That Winter, The Wind Blows’. But the characters in ‘That Winter, The Wind Blows’ were much better and more nicer than those in ‘Succession’. But still, it was hard for me. The only redeeming feature was Song Hye-kyo brilliant performance as the blind, young woman. That is the only reason I stuck with it and watched all the 16 episodes. Song Hye-kyo, who plays an angelic character in this story, plays a totally different character, an avenging angel, in a more recent series ‘The Glory‘. I can’t wait to watch that.

Have you seen ‘That Winter, the Wind Blows’? What do you think about it?


I discovered ‘My Liberation Notes‘ (나의 해방일지 / Naui Haebangilji) recently and started to watch it last week.

There are three grown-up children – two sisters and one brother – who live with their parents. The eldest sister is around 40. The youngest sister is probably around 30. The middle brother is somewhere in between. They all work in the city. But during the weekend they all help out their parents in their small farm and in their small furniture factory. There is a mysterious stranger who also works there. No one knows anything about him. He just works hard, keeps quiet, doesn’t talk to anyone, and drinks when he is not working or sleeping. What happens to these four people and others who are part of their lives forms the rest of the story.

From left to right : Son Suk-ku as the mysterious stranger, Kim Ji-won as the youngest sister, Lee Min-ki as the middle brother, Lee El as the eldest sister

My Liberation Notes‘ is very different from other K-Dramas I’ve watched till now. It is slow-paced, it has long, deep conversations and contemplative scenes, it focuses more on the scene rather than the overall plot, the acting is very understated, it asks deep questions but resists any easy answers, it doesn’t attempt to tie up all the loose ends at the end. There is no scene which will make you laugh aloud or make you cry, the romantic scenes won’t make your heart melt but will look real and awkward like in real life. It is not a story with a beginning, middle and end, it is a story which is a slice-of-life.

There are, of course, a few dramatic scenes here and there in the story. One of my favourite ones happens at the end of the fourth episode in which we discover a surprising thing about our mysterious stranger. It is a beautiful scene. I won’t tell you more 😊

I loved watching ‘My Liberation Notes’, especially the first three-fourths of the story. The last part was good too, and the scenes were still beautiful, but I felt that it meandered there while still looking beautiful. But still, the whole series was beautiful. I was hoping against hope, that at the end, all my favourite characters will get a happy ending, but it was all futile fantasy on my part. The scriptwriters didn’t do anything artificial like that, and the story stayed true to its nature till the end. While watching it, I felt like I was watching an old Ingmar Bergman movie or a French movie by François Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard. It was slow, contemplative, and it was like listening to classical music. All the actresses and actors deliver wonderful performances. My favourites were Kim Ji-won who delivers a brilliant understated performance as the youngest sister and Lee El who delivers a beautiful performance as the eldest sister. Son Suk-ku as the mysterious stranger is wonderful too.

Have you seen ‘My Liberation Notes’? What do you think about it?

I discovered ‘My Mister‘ (나의 아저씨 / Naui Ajeossi) through one of my friend’s recommendation. So last week I decided to watch it.

Park Dong-hoon is in his middle / late forties. He works in a company which designs tall buildings. He manages a team which inspects a building’s weaknesses and flaws and reports on them. His life is not exciting. His work is steady-state, many people at work treat him with contempt, there is a deep frosty silence between him and his wife and his marriage seems to be on the rocks, his wife is cheating on him with his boss. Lee Ji-an is a young woman who works as a temp in the same office. She is quiet, doesn’t smile, does her job efficiently, doesn’t socialize with anyone, is fearless, and doesn’t take bullying from anyone. She has gone through much in life though she is very young, and getting through each day is an accomplishment for her. She is ready to do anything to get through the day and survive. One day something unexpected happens at work, and everything explodes and Park Dong-hoon’s and Lee Ji-an’s lives are brought together. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

Left : IU as Lee Ji-an
Right : Lee Sun-kyun as Park Dong-hoon

My Mister‘ is the story of two lost souls who are brought together by accident. The way accidental happenings result in this beautiful, complex friendship is depicted so wonderfully in the story. The scriptwriters could have buckled under pressure and made it into a romantic relationship, but thankfully they didn’t. I think that was one of the big strengths of the story. There are loves of different kinds, and many of them don’t fit into the simple categories that we make and they defy classification and the friendship depicted in this story is one of them.

One of the things that I loved in the story is the way friendship is depicted. Some of the characters gather in a bar in the evening to drink and hang out together and they do it almost everyday. They have been friends forever and even the bar owner is their friend. So they talk and banter everyday. But when one of them gets beaten up by someone, they all rise as one in his support and the group is no longer a group of middle-aged men who get drunk everyday, but a group of warriors who are ready to fight with the bad guys. The bar owner is like a big sister to everyone and she is there for them always. Once a young woman joins this gang (for some reason she is attracted to one of the guys in the group) and they welcome her and take her in, and the bar-owner-big-sister takes her under her wing, and in time this young woman becomes a part of the gang. Later another even more younger woman accidentally ends up there, and though she is young enough to be the daughter of some of them, this friends gang take her in and include her in their conversations and support her and towards the end of the story this young woman says that if she is going to be born again, she wants to be born in this neighbourhood. It was a deeply moving scene. I didn’t necessarily like this group of friends at the beginning – it felt like they were just a group of middle-aged men who got drunk everyday and who weren’t successful in life – but by the end of the story, I had fallen in love with them. They were a beautiful group of people who showed what real friendship looked like through thick and thin.

Another thing that I loved in the story is the way the relationship between three brothers is depicted. The middle brother is Park Dong-hoon, our main character. He has an elder brother who is unemployed and lives with his mom. He is 50 years old, he looks like a loser and it is clear that his life is not going to get much better. The younger brother used to be a film director but failed in it and left it and he also stayed unemployed. So we have two losers and in the middle is a brother who is moderately successful. But these two brothers don’t let this situation come in their way. They banter with their middle brother, sometimes mock him and scream at him, but when the situation demands it, they put everything aside and are there for him. The way they step up during a crisis situation is amazing. Across time, I warmed up towards the elder brother and he became one of my favourite characters towards the end.

Another of my favourite characters was a young woman who is an actress. She falls in love with this brother who is a former film director. She is like a ray of sunshine and she brightens up the place wherever she goes. She is a happy person and her happiness is infectious. Her name is Yoo-ra and she is brilliantly portrayed by Kwon Nara.

Another of my favourite characters is the woman who owns the bar. She is like a big sister to everyone, she is there during the good and bad times for them, and she takes young women who come there, under her wing, and supports them. She has a sad story in her past that she is not able to get over. Her name is Jung-hee and she is beautifully portrayed by Oh Na-ra.

Another of my favourite characters was Lee Ji-an’s grandmother. She doesn’t speak but uses sign language or writes on a notebook, and she is one of the most beautiful characters in the story.

There are more favourite characters – the series is filled with them – but I’ll stop here.

K-Pop star IU (also known as Lee Ji-eun) delivers a brilliant performance as the brooding, intense, unsmiling Lee Ji-an. So hard to believe that such a popular singer is such a brilliant actress too.

Lee Ji-ah delivers a wonderful performance as Kang Yoon-hee, Park Dong-hoon’s wife. It was hard to like her, but it was also hard to hate her, and there was a powerful scene towards the end where she has a long conversation with her husband, which was beautiful and moving.

Lee Sun-kyun plays the main character Park Dong-hoon, and he is very convincing in that role of a guy whom people take for granted, but who nevertheless keeps persisting.

There is a beautiful quote by James Baldwin. It goes like this – “The longer I live, the more deeply I learn that love – whether we call it friendship or family or romance – is the work of mirroring and magnifying each other’s light.” This series, ‘My Mister’ is a perfect example of that, of the different kinds of love, and how they mirror and magnify each other’s light.

I loved ‘My Mister‘. It was beautiful and surprising and very different from the the K-Dramas that I’ve watched till now.

Have you watched ‘My Mister‘? What do you think about it?

After watching ‘Thirty-Nine‘ and ‘Something in the Rain‘, I decided to watch a third Son Ye-jin K-Drama ‘Crash Landing on You‘ (사랑의 불시착 / Sarang-ui Bulsichak).

Left : Son Ye-jin as Se-ri
Right : Hyun Bin as Jeong-hyeok

A successful businesswoman who owns a fashion company does  paragliding as part of a promotional event for her company. Suddenly a storm arrives and blows her across the border into the North Korean side. A North Korean army captain finds her. He decides to not report her to the authorities but to hide her home and send her back across the border to safety. But things don’t go according to plan and what happens after that forms the rest of the story.

If you have seen this series, you already know this, and if you haven’t seen this, you’ve probably guessed this already. Son Ye-jin plays that successful businesswoman and Hyun Bin is the North Korean captain. Sparks fly between them and their chemistry is beautiful. Hyun Bin is tall, handsome (drop-dead gorgeous is more like it), has a deep voice, and it feels like he has stepped out of a fairytale. He made me remember the first time I saw Brad Pitt and George Clooney on screen. As I read about another famous character in a book – “All women want to be with him. All men want to be him.” That is Hyun Bin for you. Sometimes he even cries when the situation demands it – how can we not love a tall, handsome man who also feels vulnerable?

Son Ye-jin is wonderful in her role as the successful businesswoman who ends up in North Korean territory. It is a very different role compared to her roles in ‘Thirty-Nine’ and ‘Something in the Rain’. Her accomplishment as an actress shows as she glides through this role effectively. In some places she does the romantic scenes quite well, in others she plays the tough businesswoman, she fights with her two brothers who hate her, she stands her ground against her intimidating dad, she is a wonderful friend to people who are kind to her, she is tough when fighting against the bad guys. It was wonderful to watch.

One of my favourite parts of the story is when the North Korean captain assigns four soldiers from his team to protect Se-ri (Son Ye-jin’s character) and how a beautiful friendship develops between her and these four. Three of them are younger than her and she treats them like kid brothers and the fourth one is older than her, and he keeps mocking her and bantering with her which is a pleasure to watch. In one scene they are all digging in the yard, and Se-ri asks him why they are digging, to which he replies, “So that we can bury you.” When we watch that on the screen, we can’t stop laughing. Se-ri gives a reply to that and the banter continues. One of the soldiers is a K-Drama fan and he sees South Korean culture through the lens of K-Drama and the other three rely on him to interpret South Korean culture for them. The scenes in which he has a discussion with Se-ri on K-Drama and discusses the endings of some of them with her are beautiful to watch.

There are two love stories in the series. The first one is the epic love story between Se-ri (Son Ye-jin) and Ri Jeong-hyeok (Hyun Bin). The second love story, which suddenly and unexpectedly, appears out of nowhere, is incredibly beautiful, and it surprised me. It features a character called Seo Dan, who is a tall, young woman, who is beautiful, regal, elegant, looks like a princess, and who with a single word or an imperious look silences people who try to mock her or try to intimidate her. I wondered who this person was, and I wondered why she was not the main character in the story. I hoped and dreamed that Seo Dan and Se-ri would become besties, though at one point they were in love with the same man, but unfortunately, the scriptwriters didn’t pursue that line. Seo Dan is played by Seo Ji-hye who delivers a brilliant performance. In some places she even upstages and outshines Son Ye-jin. Kim Jung-hyun is wonderful as the loveable, charming conman Gu Seung-jun, whom Seo Dan falls in love with. One of my most favourite scenes in the story involved these two and it ended with Seo Dan saying, “Stop talking nonsense.” I cried during that scene.

A significant part of the story happens in North Korea. I don’t know whether those scenes were authentic and accurately depicted North Korean life and culture. It is hard to do research and make things accurate as it is hard to travel to North Korea. But the depiction of North Korean life as imagined in the story is beautiful. Some of the typical features of a communist dictatorship are depicted (like suddenly government officers decide to randomly inspect houses in a village or how the loudspeaker sounds everyday morning and asks people to get up and go to the central part of the village and do planned exercises with others), but the story also shows how normal people live their lives – how they are kind to each other and support each other, how moms pester their kids to do homework and how they worry about their kids’ performances in the exams and how they are proud when their kids do well, how people work together as a community, how normal infrastructure which many people across the world take for granted is not readily available (like uninterrupted power supply, or things like a gas connection, refrigerator or an electric stove at home) and how people handle that, how people cook things from scratch, how people preserve food for winter, how people live normal lives, which is filled with everyday joys and sorrows – all these are beautifully depicted. We don’t know whether North Koreans live like this. We’ll probably never know. One thing we can be sure of though is that North Koreans definitely don’t live the life that is depicted in international media – that is they are suppressed and crushed everyday and they are all poor, they can’t think independently, and their own house is like a gulag where everyone suffers. This depiction of North Korean life in the international media is laughable, and it is not much different from the depiction that most Indians are poor and are also slimy thieves, the Chinese government is pure evil and most Russians are either part of the mafia or are pure villains like in the Bond movies. All this is bullshit, of course. I won’t comment on Indians because I lack perspective here, but my Chinese and Russian friends are some of the most beautiful and kindest people I’ve ever met. So I think we can safely say that the depiction of North Korea in the series is probably closer to reality than what is depicted in international media, because in every country, even when it is a dictatorship, people get up in the morning, go to school or college or go to work, people cook food at home, people hang out with friends, they fall in love and get married and have kids and worry about their kids, people have financial worries, there is office politics, people face moral issues all the time and many times they choose the practical option rather than the morally right one. This is how the world works everywhere and North Korea is probably no exception. The only difference is that in a so-called ‘free’ country, when you are walking down the street, someone can take a gun and shoot you down, because people can buy a gun at the grocery store there, while if you are in a totalitarian country, when you are walking down the street, a black car can silently side by you and two government officials can force you inside and then you’ll disappear and no one will know what happened to you. Freedom is just an illusion.

There are going to be some spoilers in the next passage, and so please be forewarned.

Two of my favourite characters in the story were Ri Jeong-hyeok’s (Hyun Bin) parents. They come in only a few scenes but those are very memorable scenes. Ri Jeong-hyeok’s father is part of the top brass of the North Korean government and so he is very powerful. He is a typical family patriarch, who is respected and feared. But he is also kind. Ri Jeong-hyeok’s mom is a strong, kind woman who loves her son and who is also grieving. The scenes in which these two come are some of my most favourite scenes in the story. There is one scene in which both the parents, and Ri Jeong-hyeok and Se-ri are there, and that scene was incredibly beautiful. Can’t tell you more 😊 You have to watch it and experience its pleasures yourself.

The Pyongyang as depicted in the story is very surprising, because it looks like any international city. The roads are wide, the buildings are tall, the cars are modern and stylish, there are beautiful lights everywhere, the restaurants are nice, the people are elegantly dressed. I don’t know whether this is the real Pyongyang or the imagined South Korean version of it, but it looks quite good on screen.

There is a cool, stylish villain in the story. He is handsome, pure evil, has connections in high places, and has the evidence with him to bring down anyone. He reminded me of Hans Landa. It was hard to like him, because he is a villain after all, but it was also hard to hate him, because he is a guy who started with nothing and is a product of his circumstances and his time, and he is just doing everything he can to survive.

One of the things which made me sad while watching this series was how this country with one language and one culture got divided artificially into two by external forces when the two superpowers decided to arbitrarily draw a line on the map coinciding with the 38th parallel and divide this country into two. The people of the country didn’t want two countries, but outsiders forced it on them.  Unfortunately, things have stayed this way for nearly 70 years. There were prospects for Korean unification at the end of the Cold War era, the way the two Germanies became one, but unfortunately, it didn’t happen. Today Korean unification feels like a distant dream with each passing day. I don’t know whether it will ever happen during my lifetime. I just hope though that the two countries normalize diplomatic and trade relations and live like peaceful neighbours. This is possible. But as long as the crazy North Korean government keeps firing missiles into the sea as it often does these days, normalization of relations looks like a distant dream.

I have a few North Korean stories. The first is this one. There is a volcano on the China-North Korea border. This volcano’s crater has a big lake. This is a favourite destination for tourists. One of my Chinese friends went there once and she got a few souvenirs for me. I still have them with me. The second story is this. There was a British guy in Shanghai who organized trips to North Korea. North Korea has this annual sporting festival called the Arirang Festival. This guy organized trips during this time. I almost signed up for one of those trips. But I chickened out in the 11th hour, because I felt that if I get a North Korean stamp on my passport, my travelling days would be over. The third story is this one. One of my favourite friends worked in South Korea for many years. She once visited the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) and took pictures and shared them. It was interesting to see the DMZ at close quarters.

I loved ‘Crash Landing on You‘. It has something in it for everyone. There is romance, there is action, there is humour, there is friendship, there are surprises, cool stylish dialogue, great heroes and heroines and bad villains. I wondered throughout the series on how the main issue in the story will be resolved – that is a South Korean woman and a North Korean man fall in love, how are they going to get together in the end? They both love their own countries and they also love each other. So will they get together in the end (which was the ending I wanted), or did they part forever in the end (which looked more likely)? The way the scriptwriters resolved this was very interesting. Not saying anything more about it though 😊 Go watch it and find out what happened.

Have you seen ‘Crash Landing on You‘? What do you think about it?

After watching ‘Thirty-Nine‘, I decided to watch another Son Ye-jin K-Drama, ‘Something in the Rain‘ (밥 잘 사주는 예쁜 누나 / Bap Jal Sajuneun Yeppeun Nuna). How can we resist a series with this title, right?

Jin-ah is a woman in her middle thirties. She works as a manager in a coffeeshop chain. She mostly works in the head office, but occasionally goes to one of the coffeeshops to help out. She has become single recently after she discovers that her boyfriend is cheating on her and they both decide to breakup. One day she bumps into a handsome young man, and then discovers that this is Joon-hee, the kid brother of her best friend. Jin-ah is meeting him after a long time, and now she sees him with new eyes, the sparks fly, and before long they are deeply in love. Jin-ah and Joon-hee keep their relationship secret because they don’t know how the people in their lives will react. Joon-hee’s sister is Jin-ah’s best friend and she might feel betrayed by this. Jin-ah’s parents might react badly because Joon-hee is considerably younger than Jin-ah. But when two people are happy and in love, the world won’t leave them alone, right? What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

Something in the Rain‘ is a beautiful, haunting love story. Son Ye-jin delivers a brilliant performance as Jin-ah. I loved her performance here even more than the one in ‘Thirty-Nine‘. That is how brilliant it was. Jung Hae-in is charming as Joon-hee. All the other actors and actresses did wonderfully well too – it was great performances allround. The romantic scenes are incredibly beautiful and if you are a romance lover, this series was made for you.

There is one character in the story whom I hated very much. It was Jin-ah’s mom. She is a tough matriarch, keeps everyone at home under her thumb,  brooks no dissent. She tries everything she can to break Jin-ah’s and Joon-hee’s relationship.  She tells the lovers that she’ll hurt them more if they don’t breakup. She tries every trick up her sleeve to do that. When she is not able to win, she plays the victim. It was very hard to watch. It was triggering for me, because I’ve met a few people like that. My own father was like that. This parental meddling in their grownup children’s affairs, especially their romantic lives, is not just a Korean thing. It is widespread across East Asia, South East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East. It is amazing how this huge collection of regions with diverse cultures and different languages and different histories and people who look very different in appearance has one thing in common – parents meddling in their grownup children’s lives, parents trying to keep their grownup children under their thumb, parents refusing to let their grownup children live lives their own way, parents trying to crush their grownup children’s wills everyday. I don’t know how in the middle of all the diversity, we have this one common thing across this huge region. Must be a relic from the old pre-historic, tribal times, which people refuse to let go, but which unfortunately doesn’t belong in the 21st century.

Rain plays an important part in the story. We can even consider it a character. It is there in nearly every episode, it rains in many of the important scenes, and it plays a beautiful part in the last moving scene in the story. Nearly all the episodes end with a song, mostly one of the four songs which are part of the series soundtrack. One of them is sung by Carla Bruni, another by Bruce Willis (when did he sing??? I didn’t know that!) and a couple of others are sung by Rachel Yamagata. The combination of the rain with the song is so beautiful. It feels like we have stepped into a 1950s black-and-white movie.

After the first few episodes of the story, I started feeling a deep ache in my heart. Surely this kind of happiness cannot last? Surely it is too good to be true? The dark premonition refused to go away, how much ever I tried. As human beings we are scared of happiness, because we don’t know how long it will last. Our worldview is one of misery, where people suffer for long periods, with the occasional ray of sunshine. Everytime Jin-ah did something out of the kindness of her heart to solve a problem or fix a situation which put her in the path of bullies who tried to crush her, I wanted to warn her not to do this. “Don’t meet your ex-boyfriend. He is a bad guy. He is going to give you more pain.” “Don’t listen to your mom. Don’t concede an inch to her. If you concede this time, she’ll walk all over you again.” I wanted to tell her this and other things again and again. But Jin-ah was a better person than me. She did things out of the kindness of her heart and got into trouble again and again. Sometimes this put her relationship with Joon-hee in rough waters. Their love was like a candle flame which needed a lot of protection and nurturing, as the wind and the storm were blowing outside trying to snuff it out. It was so hard to watch that flame flickering under this assault from external forces and almost being snuffed out more than once. But the flame always survived the storm and came back strong.

I’m not sure what happened at the end of the story. The ending was beautiful and moving, but also in some ways unresolved. What happened after the story ended? Did the princess and the prince live happily everafter? I don’t exactly know. We’ll probably never know. I’d like to believe though that they lived happily everafter. That they fought many times and they made up many times. That Jin-ah got into trouble many times because of her kindness and Joon-hee got into trouble many times because he tried to protect Jin-ah. I’d like to believe that they lived long, happy lives and grew old together. Did they have babies? I don’t know. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. Irrespective of that, he was her baby, she was his. And when the time came, as all human life is ephemeral, one of them passed, and the other passed too of heartbreak on the same day. But this is not the end of the story. The two lovers became two bright stars in the heavens and their love story continued till the end of time. We can see them shining brightly in the night sky every night. This is their story. This is what I’d like to believe.

Have you watched ‘Something in the Rain’? What do you think about it?

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never watched a K-Drama before. So I thought I’ll redeem myself and make a start now. I discovered ‘Thirty-Nine‘ by accident. The story looked interesting and the series wasn’t long, and so I decided to watch it. I must be the last person to watch my first K-Drama, but as the Indian film star Rajinikanth says in one of his movies, I’m late but I’m the latest 😊

Thirty-Nine‘ is about three close friends who are thirty nine. They’ve known each other since schooldays and have been close friends for years. Nothing much has changed in their friendship – they sometimes eat at the same restaurant or diner, they hang out together, they are still single. The only difference, as one of them days, is that they pay with their own money for drinking soju, rather than asking money from their parents, as they all have good careers now. Well, things are going beautifully like this, when suddenly something happens, and how the three friends navigate this change is told in the rest of the story. I won’t tell you anything more. I’ll let you watch the series yourself and discover its pleasures.

Left : Kim Ji-hyun as Joo-hee
Middle : Son Ye-jin as Mi-jo
Right : Jeon Mi-do as Chan-young

Thirty-Nine‘ is a beautiful story about the close friendship between three strong women. It is one of the most beautiful depictions of close female friendships that I’ve ever seen. Korean legend Son Ye-jin delivers a stellar performance as one of the three friends Mi-jo. Jeon Mi-do as Chan-young is one of my favourite characters in the story. Kim Ji-hyun as the third friend Joo-hee is wonderful too. These three actresses are nearly the same age and their age is close to that of the characters they depict, and so their friendship looks very beautiful and very real – it is as if they might be real-world friends. The casting was that perfect.

I mostly discover classical music through movies and series. I love that way of discovering classical music, because the classical composition comes in the context of the story and leaves a deep impact because of the way it is interwoven with the story. That is how I discovered Schubert’s Impromptu No.1 through the movie, ‘Amour‘. And that is how I discovered Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto 2 through this series, ‘Thirty-Nine‘. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto 2 plays an important part in the story and makes an appearance in the most moving, most beautiful scenes in the story. One of those scenes made me cry.

She reminded me of the little girl I used to be. I didn’t know how, but I wanted to become her Rachmaninoff.

Such a haunting scene. Powerful emotions, wonderful understated acting, beautiful music. So perfect. Made me cry.

This story made me think about something. During my time, I’ve been a witness to a few close female friendships among my friends. Sometimes I got a chance to observe the beauty of it in close quarters. Sometimes my presence as an outsider was tolerated by my friends. At other times I was shooed away, like I was a child who had strayed into grownup territory. I think the closest, most emotionally intimate relationship between two grownup human beings is the close friendship between women. It is closer and more beautiful than any romantic relationship. Male friendships are not the same, they are not this close, they are not this beautiful. Sometimes when I see my friends who have this, I’m jealous. Watching this series made me think of that. Because it was a perfect depiction of that close female friendship. It is beautiful and moving and it will make you laugh and it will make you cry. If you haven’t watched it yet, please go and watch it now.

Well, what do you do after watching one Chinese series? You watch another one 😊 After I watched ‘The Rational Life’ and fell in love with it, I decided to watch another one. I discovered ‘Find Yourself‘ through a random search. The main plot was about the love between an older woman and a younger man. This is my favourite kind of love story and so I couldn’t resist.

Right : Victoria Song as He Fanxing
Left : Song Weilong as Yuan Song

He Fanxing is a director in a home design and renovation company. She is in her early 30s, she is beautiful, she is successful, and she hopes to stay that way. But fate has other plans. There is an intern in the office who falls in love with her, and before long Fanxing also falls in love with him. But he is atleast 10 years younger than her, and she is uncomfortable in making it public, and so they keep their relationship secret. Meanwhile, another man who is closer to Fanxing’s age also courts her. When he discovers that she has a boyfriend, he pretends to be Fanxing’s friend, and is there for her when she needs help, hoping that if things don’t work out between Fanxing and her boyfriend, his chances of winning her heart will improve. What happens after this, does Fanxing’s love for her young boyfriend survive, can they fight against social and family opposition to their relationship and win, and what happens to the suitor, does he get lucky, this is told in the rest of the story.

This is just the main plot in the series. But as the series is long, at 41 episodes, it has many other major and minor characters, and many interesting subplots. One of my favourite parts of the series was the way the friendship between Fanxing and two of her girlfriends was depicted. The depiction of close female friendships between these three strong women, how they stick together through thick and thin, how they even go to war against family members to protect their friend, is so beautifully depicted.

The second thing I loved was the depiction of the sibling relationship between Fanxing and her twin brother. Like her, he is in a responsible position, he is a professor at university. But at home, the way they pull each other’s legs, banter with each other, and sometimes fight with each other, are some of the most charming scenes in the story. (At one point Fanxing threatens her brother, and he replies back to that, saying that she is so vicious and he doesn’t understand what these two men see in her, and he says this in front of one of her suitors, and Fanxing asks her brother whether he has a deathwish and then proceeds to beat him up. It is one of the most hilarious, charming scenes in the story 😄)

Fanxing’s suitor who is closer to her in age is a very charming person and is a very likeable character. One of my favourite scenes in the story, which I kept watching again and again, featured Fanxing and her friends and her suitor Ye Luming who had come to visit them. Fanxing’s friend Yang Xiaoyu has just given birth to her baby and her two friends are with her at the hospital and Luming comes with a gift basket filled with fruits and gives it to Xiaoyu. Then Xiaoyu spots a thick red envelope in the fruit basket and exclaims, “Zhème hòu!” (“It is so thick!”) What happens after that is one of the most beautiful scenes in the story. I’ve watched this scene many times, and it makes me happy and it makes me smile every time.

Fanxing’s mom is a typical Chinese tiger mom who keeps intervening in her affairs, trying to do matchmaking for her, while Fanxing’s dad tries to temper her enthusiasm. One last character I wanted to write about is Cong Xiao. She is Fanxing’s colleague and friend at work, and she is bold and a kickass person who doesn’t take nonsense and who is also someone who brings a lot of positive energy with her and cheers people around her.

In a series of this length, there will be some things in which we are going to disagree with the scriptwriters, and for me that happened halfway through the story. After focusing on the older woman – younger man romance in the first half, the writers decide to include an older man – younger woman romance, in the second half, and unfortunately for me, this didn’t sound convincing. They run with this till the end and the more I saw it, the more unconvincing it was. But that younger woman Cao Minmin is very charming and is a bundle of energy and the scenes in which she comes are nearly always beautiful. It was very odd when I think of this plotline – the individual scenes were charming and well-sculpted, but the overall plotline was unconvincing.

I enjoyed watching ‘Find Yourself’. There are no bad characters in the story, and that was one of the nice things about it. Victoria Song is charming as Fanxing, Song Weilong as her young boyfriend is very handsome and romantic (I think he and Dylan Wang are the same age, and they both are tall and incredibly handsome), Wang Yaoqing as Luming is wonderful, and Yang Zhiying as Cong Xiao is wonderful too. Actually, everyone has done well and it was a great performance all around. When I finished watching the series, I felt sad, because I didn’t want it to end, which is one of the signs that it was a great story. So I went back and watched all my favourite scenes again.

Have you watched ‘Find Yourself‘? Which is your favourite Chinese series?

I got into a book reading slump and so I did what I normally do – started watching movies. One of the movies I watched was one of my old favourites, the Chinese movie, ‘Curse of the Golden Flower‘. After watching the movie, I wanted to watch another Chinese movie, or maybe a series. Most Chinese series are set during old times with kings and queens, and princesses and princes. I wanted to watch something which was set during contemporary times. I thought if I’m able to see familiar streets and buildings and shops, it will make me feel nostalgic about my Shanghai days. So I looked around and found this series, ‘The Rational Life‘.

Middle : Qin Lan as Shen Ruoxin
Right : Dylan Wang as Qi Xiao
Left : Calvin Li as Xu Mingjie (Ruoxin’s boss)

The Rational Life‘ is a drama set in contemporary Shanghai, and it has everything that we’d expect from a drama – drama at the office, drama at home, friendship, love and everything in between. Shen Ruoxin is a 34-year old woman working in a car company. She is next in line to become the head of the legal department. She is beautiful and single and likes being that way. When she comes back home, she likes gazing at the stars through her telescope and contemplating the immensity of the universe. Sometimes she catches up with her closest friend Ziyan. But if you are single and beautiful and successful, the world won’t leave you alone, would it? Even your own family won’t leave you alone. Ruoxin’s mom constantly pesters her to get a boyfriend, to get married. She repeatedly tries matchmaking for her. At the workplace, Ruoxin’s colleague falls in love with her, Ruoxin’s boss is attracted towards her, and at some point even her assistant falls in love with her. As if this was not enough, there are people in her workplace who are constantly trying to bring her down.

Ruoxin’s best friend Ziyan’s life is very different. She is happily married, she loves her husband and he loves her back, she cooks for him everyday, she loves travelling and having adventures. But she has a different set of problems. Ziyan and her husband decided not to have children when they got married. But a few years later there is a lot of pressure from her in-laws who push her to have a child. They turn her husband to their point of view. At some point even her parents join the chorus and join hands with her in-laws. Ziyan feels isolated in her own home. Eventhough on the surface, it looks like she has a different set of problems when compared to her friend Ruoxin, when we look at things in their essential nature, they are exactly the same. Both of them want to live simple lives, enjoy it the way they like, and experience the simple joys of life. But the people around them keep putting pressure on them and want them to change. It looks like living the simple, fulfilling life is hard. It doesn’t matter whether you are single or married, whether you are working or not, the world just won’t leave you alone.

What these two women do to keep their sanity intact in the midst of all these pressures and how they try to find joy in the simple pleasures, and whether they succeed, is the rest of the story.

This is, of course, the story from one perspective. There are many subplots and many characters and most of them are wonderful. There is, for example, Ruoxin’s assistant, Qi Xiao, who is in love with her, and will do anything for her. His best friend Su Yang is from a small town and lives with him. Su Yang is an artist and cartoonist who finds it hard to get a job. His parents are after him and want him to come back home and find a government job there and settle down. Su Yang is in love with Sijie, who works in Ruoxin’s team. But Su Yang finds it difficult to express his love for Sijie, because he feels that he is unworthy, as he doesn’t even have a job. Sijie is a happy person who loves Su Yang, and who is puzzled why Su Yang doesn’t respond back, though he is clearly attracted towards her. There are more characters and stories, of course, but I’ll stop here.

One of the things I loved about the series was the way it showed Shanghai. Seeing all the familiar buildings and streets and places I used to frequent, made me nostalgic and brought back old memories. Another thing I loved about the series was that there were no dull episodes or episodes which felt like fillers. There were charming beautiful scenes in every episode, and every episode carried the story forward. All the characters were fully fleshed out and they were complex and fascinating. The way the series depicts Chinese culture is beautiful and realistic – how parents intervene in their grown-up children’s lives in every way, in education, in work, in romance, in family life; how children try to exhibit filial piety – that is try to be obedient to parents and not defy them or offend them, which is very hard when you want to live life in your own way; the internecine office politics through which people are trying to bring you down; how it is hard to come from a small town and try to find a job and a place to stay in a big city like Shanghai, and how inspite of that young people still keep doing it everyday; how it is hard for an independent successful woman in the workplace, and how people are always trying to bring her down.

Ruoxin was probably my most favourite character in the story. The way she navigates the challenges in her work, in her personal life and in her love life, are all beautiful to watch. She is also charming and playful in all the romantic scenes, which is very Chinese, and which is very beautiful to watch. One of my favourite scenes in the story is when her boss, who is almost like Darcy (or rather a better version of Darcy) nearly proposes to her. The way Ruoxin rejects his proposal is one of the most beautiful scenes in the story. It is almost as if the scriptwriters took Jane Austen’s scene and improved on it and made it better, much much better! Another of my favourite scenes is when Su Yang defies his parents and explains to them why he can’t come back. You could almost touch the tension in that scene – the sparks were flying! Another of my favourite scenes is the one in which Ruoxin and her boyfriend invite her mom for dinner (her mom is against them getting together and is doing everything to break them up), and they explain to her why they want to be together, and her mom’s heart melts and she gives them her blessing and then she delivers a monologue like Spencer Tracy does in ‘Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner‘, and our heart melts and we start crying…

One of my favourite characters in the story is Qi Xiao’s mom. She is one of the best moms that I’ve seen on screen and her beautiful relationship and friendship with her son made me think of Karen and Lucas in ‘One Tree Hill‘, and Lorelai and Rory in ‘Gilmore Girls‘, and Mahalaxmi and Kumaran in the Tamil movie, ‘Kumaran, Son of Mahalaxmi‘. She is also friends with Ruoxin’s mom, and in one scene, they have a long conversation during which Qi Xiao’s mom tries to change her friend’s mind with respect to her daughter Ruoxin and her boyfriend. It is a powerful and an incredibly beautiful scene – two strong women who are also single moms, who are worried about their children and who approach the art of parenting differently. It was a scene which made me cry.

One last scene that I want to describe, which is also one of my favourite ones, is this one. At one point, both Ruoxin’s boss and her assistant are in love with her, and Ruoxin’s assistant also doubles as her boss’ driver, and one day they are going somewhere in the car together and the conversation turns to romance (in a very indirect way, of course, there is no question of talking about your love life with your boss or with your driver, but they both know exactly whom each of them is talking about, and we can feel the tension in the air), and Ruoxin’s boss tells Ruoxin’s assistant, that if he is attracted to someone, he should first ask himself, whether he is worthy, whether he has the resources to make her happy, before doing something about it. It sounds more powerful in Chinese – he says “Nǐ shì shéi? Nǐ yǒu shénme?” (“Who are you? What do you have?”) It is like someone takes a knife and stabs you repeatedly and you can’t do anything about it. The boss knows that he is the one with the resources and this young man who loves the same woman is no match for him, and he makes it known in no uncertain terms. Of course, our heart goes out to the young man. As someone who fell in love repeatedly with people out of my league when I was young, I wanted the young man to win. But now, having grown older and wiser, I feel that the boss’ words were wise, and they required serious thought.

One final, final last scene. Towards the end of the story, a whole storm has blown through the office, and Ruoxin’s nemesis, is one of the victims. As he packs his bags and box and leaves for the final time, no one even talks to him. The company top management has changed and this guy is part of the old guard and even his loyal supporters don’t want to be tainted by him. He gets into the elevator and who does he bump into there, but our own Ruoxin. So the two have a polite conversation (which is odd, because in the workplace he always tried to crush her, once even moving her into the admin department at the bottom of the food chain, hoping that she’ll leave, but she takes it on her chin and resists and persists – it made me think of my own time at the workplace when I was exiled to the cubicle next to the toilet with no clear job description and responsibilities), and he tells her that he has quit and no one even said goodbye to him. She thanks him for mentoring her during her initial days at the company. He then tells her that he worked in the company for 20 years, and he was there when this building was constructed. Now, suddenly, it is all over. He congratulates her on her success, and he hopes she has better luck than him. I hated this guy from the beginning till the end, but this last scene made me feel sad. He was also a human being at the end of the day, who worked hard and who was loyal to the company. He could have been nice and kind to his younger colleagues, instead of encouraging sycophants. He could have been nice to Ruoxin or atleast tried being professional towards her instead of trying to crush her. But inspite of all this, that last scene still made me feel sad.

The series is filled with strong women characters, Ruoxin of course, and Ruoxin’s and Qi Xiao’s moms, Ruoxin’s friend Ziyan, Ruoxin’s friend and colleague Sijie. At one point there is a restructuring in Ruoxin’s office and a new boss walks in, and it turns out that the new boss is a woman, and on the first day she lays down the law, and it sends shivers down the spine of all the bullies – that scene still gives me goosebumps. That boss, Lisa Fang, comes only in a few scenes, but she is amazing.

I loved ‘The Rational Life‘. The writing is beautiful and the beautiful, charming, moving scenes keep coming in every episode. It has 35 episodes, and that is 35 episodes of pure pleasure. Qin Lan delivers a brilliant performance as Shen Ruoxin and I think this might be one of the finest performances of her career. Hoping to watch more series featuring her, but I doubt whether any of them can match this. But I live in hope.

Have you watched ‘The Rational Life‘? What do you think about it? (If you haven’t watched it but would like to, it is there on Netflix.)

I stumbled upon this book a few days back, and as I’m reading one nonfiction book after another, I thought I’ll read this.

Kuldip Nayar was one of the famous Indian journalists in the 1960s and ’70s. I think his peak in terms of fame came after the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, proclaimed the Emergency in 1975 and proceeded with her authoritarian rule. At that time Kuldip Nayar wrote a long letter to her protesting against the restrictions on the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. The next day, the police walked into his house, arrested him and put him in jail, where he remained for a few months. His protest was praised and admired by Indira Gandhi’s opponents and critics, and 14 years later, when the opposition came up power, he was rewarded for his resistance, when he was appointed as the Indian ambassador to the UK.

This book is a collection of his articles grouped under various themes, chronologically. There is a section on Partition, there are sections on the Indian Prime Ministers Nehru, Shastri and Indira Gandhi, there is a section on the Emergency. There are also parts on the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, and the 1971 Bangladesh war. Some of my favourite articles were an account of Nayar’s conversations with Mountbatten and Radcliffe many years after the Partition happened. Radcliffe especially comes through as a nice guy, living a simple life, making the tea himself and offering it to his guest. The part on Shastri was very insightful as he is mostly forgotten today, because his time as Prime Minister was brief and lasted for only 19 months, at the end of which he died under mysterious circumstances. But during his time the 1965 Indo-Pak war was fought, and the Russians mediated a peace treaty between the two warring countries. Kuldip Nayar seems to have been well regarded in both India and Pakistan, which is rare for Indian journalists, especially during that time. So his thoughts about Pakistan and his interviews with some of the Pakistani leaders, especially Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, are very interesting. While reading the book, one sometimes gets the feeling that Kuldip Nayar is too full of himself, feeling that he is always right and the best. Sometimes he describes how he took confidential information which someone had shared off the  record and wrote an article about it the next day. I’m not sure whether this is ethical journalism. At other times, one feels that he speaks his mind and his thoughts are unconventional for his times. One of these things that I liked was his article on Srilanka, in which he criticizes the Indian government of that time for training and arming Srilankan Tamil terrorists and providing them a safe haven in India. I don’t know any other Indian journalist who has criticized the Indian government for this, at that time. An Indian journalist will typically say  that the Indian government was supporting the oppressed Srilankan Tamils, or will sweep the issue below the carpet and ignore it.

A couple of more things which I read in the book which I found very fascinating. It looked like in the 1965 Indo-Pak War, Russia didn’t take either side, and tried acting neutral. Which is very surprising, because I thought that during the Cold War era, Russia was on the Indian side, and America was on the Pakistani side. America was clearly on the Pakistani side, while Russia seems to have prevaricated, and sometimes even bullied the Indian side during the post war negotiations. There seems to have been some Russian support for the Indian side during the 1971 Bangladesh War, but in general, the Russian position seems to have been fuzzy. It seems that Russia regarded India as a poor country and a kind of inferior vassal state, not really a friend or an ally. It was not surprising when after the Cold War era ended, the Russian government dumped their so-called friendship with India, and I remember the then Russian President Boris Yelstin saying that the Russian friendship with India was a Cold War era thing, and it was past its expiry date now. It is ironic now that 30 years later, after Russian politicians have pushed their country into near international isolation with their acts befitting a cartoon villain, Russia is seeking friendship with India again. It is almost like a Coen Brothers dark comedy. I hope today’s Indian diplomats know their history and know whom they are dealing with here.

Another interesting thing which I found in the book was this. I remember my dad telling me when I was a kid that the American government threatened to bring their naval fleet into the Bay of Bengal and bomb India, during the 1971 Bangladesh War. I haven’t heard about this from anyone else since, and so I thought maybe there were just rumours at that time, or maybe my dad was exaggerating. My dad was a history teacher though and he never exaggerates. So it was interesting for me to read an essay in Kuldip Nayar’s book which confirmed what my dad said. For some reason, the American government didn’t carry out their threat, and their naval fleet didn’t materialize in Indian waters. This was probably the closest that India and America had come to actual war on the ground and the heart shudders to think on how things would have been if it had happened.

I’ve heard Indians sometimes say that it would have been great if India had strategic natural resources like oil and uranium. Oil is energy, and uranium is energy and weapons, and with these two, India would have atleast been a regional power from whom its neighbours and superpowers would have stayed away. I’m not sure about this. I feel sometimes that India got lucky because it didn’t have these things. If the Americans threatened to bring their naval fleet and bomb India, for something which didn’t concern them, I’m wondering what would have happened if India had stuff like oil and uranium. There would have been a superpower scramble for the resources and a superpower proxy war would have happened in Indian territory. The Americans have always hated democracy in non-Western countries, especially those countries with strategic natural resources. If there was a chance of democracy, they always intervened, orchestrated a coup, and installed a right-wing dictator who suppressed the people. The Russians, of course, always hated democracy. Being in the middle of these two bullies, India would have suffered. A tinpot dictator would have been installed who would have kowtowed to one of the superpowers. It would have been like the way it happened in the Middle East or in Latin America. India got lucky, because without these strategic natural resources, except for some superpower bullying and being treated with contempt all around, India was left alone. It continued being a poor country with 1940s technology, till the end of the Cold War era. Then the economy opened up, and as they say, the rest is history. It makes me think of one of my favourite verses (Verse 11) from the Chinese classic ‘Tao Te Ching’ by Lao Tzu. It goes like this.

“Thirty spokes share a central hub;

It is the hole that makes the wheel useful.

Mix water and clay into a vessel;

Its emptiness is what makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room;

Their emptiness is what makes them useful.

Therefore consider : advantage comes from having things

And usefulness from having nothing.”

The last lines always make me smile – “Advantage comes from having things. And usefulness from having nothing.”

Having nothing definitely helped India survive the Cold War era. Having nothing will sometimes keep you safe. There is no guarantee of it though. Sometimes even when you have nothing, people will treat you with contempt and will try to crush you. But in this particular case, having nothing seems to have worked. The Ancient Chinese were definitely wise.

I enjoyed reading ‘Scoop‘. Kuldip Nayar has also written a book on the Emergency. It was first published in 1977, and so probably offers a firsthand witness to the events. I want to read this sometime.

Have you read this and other Kuldip Nayar books?

I wanted to start this month by reading some history. So I read Max Hastings‘ book on the Korean War.

The Korean War was probably the first war in the Cold War era when Western and communist forces clashed on the battlefield. It is not as famous as the Vietnam War, and it is mostly forgotten today. But though the Vietnam War has passed on to history and legend today, with the country filled with bustling cities with tall skyscrapers like any other East Asian city, the fires of the Korean War are still smoldering today, with North Korea and South Korea being two separate, distinct countries, with tension brewing in between. So I thought it will be a good idea to read this book and find out how it all started.

One of the problems I had while choosing to read a particular history of the Korean War was this. Most history books which are available in English today are written by American or British historians. Occasionally, we might find a French or German book in English translation, but otherwise this is it. (There are lots of books on Indian history in English by Indian historians and writers, but that is a unique case, and so I’m going to ignore that for the purposes of our discussion.) So, because of this, a typical history book in English is going to have a British or American bias. Of course, historians try to be neutral, and try to provide the relevant facts, with objective analysis, but the bias always creeps in. For example, a typical British or American version of the Korean War could go like this – “The army of the evil Chinese empire, joined together with the North Koreans and tried to take over the whole of Korea. The heroic American army intervened with the help of friends and helped the South Korean people. In a furious war waged between the armies of the free world and of the communist totalitarians, the noble armies of the free world triumphed. That is why we have a democratic, free South Korea today, which is one of the biggest Asian economies, while totalitarian North Korea is poor and primitive.” This is the kind of history which is peddled by the international press, and media, and this is the history which most of us are aware of. So I was worried that a history of the war by an American or British historian would be a version of this. Maybe a sophisticated version, but still very similar to this.

So, what about Max Hastings’ book? How good is it? There is good news and bad news.

The good news first. I thought that the context that Hastings gave to the war with the background into Korean history of that period and how the Japanese occupied Korea and how the division of Korea into the North and the South happened – this is very well done. I learnt a lot while reading this. The actual war is described from a Western perspective, but to be fair to Hastings, he doesn’t hesitate to criticize the decisions by American leaders and military personnel. (He mostly treats British leaders and army personnel softly with kid gloves, which is very interesting 😊)  Occasionally he also describes things from a Chinese perspective, based on his interviews with Chinese veterans. There are many stories of heroism and valour and sacrifice during the war, mostly of the American and British and other UN soldiers, and occasionally of the Chinese soldiers which are very inspiring and moving to read. There is considerable space given to the American General Douglas MacArthur and his role in the war and how his decisions impacted events. It made me want to read more about MacArthur. The only things I know about him are that he was famous, he was featured in an American postage stamp, and he was suddenly dismissed by his President Truman. MacArthur looks like a fascinating, larger-than-life character, whom people loved or hated, but couldn’t ignore. I hope to read more about him. This is the good news.

Now the bad news 😊 The North Koreans are mostly treated as a mass of homogeneous, evil people, who are ruthless and barbaric. Though there is a lot of description of individual American or British soldiers, there is no mention of an individual North Korean by name. Except for Kim Il Sung. The North Koreans are regarded as a primitive, evil horde who are uncivilized and the author probably feels that they deserved what was coming to them. The Chinese soldiers are also mostly depicted this way – as an evil horde who keep on coming and fighting in the night. The Chinese get slightly better treatment though – individual Chinese soldiers are sometimes mentioned and the author is able to interview them and we learn their stories. One of the reasons for this could be that North Korean veterans of the war would have been inaccessible to Western correspondents, as their country was closed and continues to be closed to outsiders today. The same would have been true with respect to Chinese veterans, but there was a thaw between the Chinese and the West in the 1970s, which continued into the 1980s, when Hastings wrote this book, and so he would have been able to speak to some of the Chinese veterans of the war. But, inspite of this small silver lining, it is hard to ignore the fact that the North Koreans and the Chinese are treated as barbaric, primitive, evil hordes, who are out to destroy the beautiful freedom created by Western countries.

So, the book describes the Western perspective of the Korean War. It is detailed from that perspective. We get the occasional Chinese perspective. But the perspective from the opposite side is mostly simplistic or missing. But we can read the book against the grain, look at the author’s conclusions and try to see things from the opposite side. It is lots of hardwork, but it is interesting and rewarding. I do agree with the overall conclusion of the author though – that the American and UN intervention in Korea was good and South Korea is a thriving country today with a booming economy and it is a global leader in popular culture because of that. (Though why the Chinese didn’t take North Korea under their wing, make investments there and make it into a thriving economy, the way the Americans helped South Korea – why this didn’t happen, we’ll never know. What is the purpose of keeping North Korea closed and stuck in a Cold War era time warp? It doesn’t help anyone, including the North Koreans and the Chinese.)

I found Max Hastings’ book on the Korean War very informative and insightful, inspite of its limitations. I loved what Max Hastings said in his introduction to the book – “It is properly the business of a new generation of historians to correct the errors which have inevitably emerged over the past three decades, in light of updated statistics and declassified material. Authors addressing the subject anew must review and challenge my judgements as they see fit.” That is what a good historian says – that history is open to new interpretations as new facts emerge in the future, and his version is neither definite nor final. This made me like Max Hastings.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

This story made me cry.

“Suk Bun Yoon, the fourteen-year-old schoolboy who had twice escaped from Seoul under communist occupation, was living with the remains of his family as suppliants upon the charity of a village south of the capital in the spring of 1951. A government mobilisation decree was suddenly thrust upon the village: twenty able-bodied men were required for military service. Suk’s family was offered a simple proposal by the villagers: if the boy would go to the army in place of one of their own, they would continue to feed his parents.

An American army truck bore him and the other bewildered young men first to Seoul, and then on up the dusty road towards the front. They spent a night in an old station warehouse, where they were given chocolate and a can of corned beef. It was the first meat the boy had tasted for six months, and was impossibly rich. He was sick at once. Next morning, after five hours on the road, he and a cluster of others were deposited at the camp of the Royal Ulster Rifles. He was not to be a soldier, but a porter under military discipline. He found himself joining a unit of some forty porters attached to the battalion. His first job was to carry a coil of barbed wire up to the forward positions. It was hopeless. He was too young, and too weak. The corporal in charge took pity on him. He was assigned to become a sweeper and odd-job boy at the rear echelon. Yet life remained desperately hard. Each night, the porters were confined to their hut, yet they were sometimes awakened amid the sound of the gunfire to carry ammunition or equipment forward. One day, they found themselves hastily ordered back to a new position. Suk scarcely understood what was happening, beyond the confusion of retreat. Gradually, he and the others understood that there had been a battle, and heavy casualties. Around half the porters had disappeared, captured or killed.

After the battle, the porters’ conditions seemed to improve. Suk became more accustomed to the life, and determined to educate himself. As he learned a little English, he questioned the soldiers incessantly: What was the longest river in the world? Which was the highest mountain? How was England governed? Since in later life he became a professor of economics, this experiment cannot be considered a complete failure. The soldiers called him ‘Spaniard’, because he had a reputation for hot temper. Yet when the Ulsters were relieved and he found himself attached to the Royal Norfolks, conditions deteriorated again. He was caught scavenging for food, roughly handled, and sent for a spell in a barbed-wire cage. He was then sacked from his job as a porter at battalion headquarters, and sent to the pioneer platoon, where he spent several more months.

‘I was very homesick,’ he said. ‘By February 1952, I was on the verge of a mental breakdown. The only letter I had sent to my family was returned undelivered. I was missing them desperately.’ That month, he was given leave to Seoul. He reached the capital determined not to go back to the front. He contacted some of his old schoolmates, and in April was able to arrange to return to school – a school without books or desks. His only asset was a strong command of the English language which he had acquired on the hills behind the Imjin.”

This happened hours after the war ended and the armistice was signed. It made me smile  It also made me sad at the meaningless futility of war.

“When dawn came, men on the UN line peered out across the silent valleys between themselves and the Chinese. In many places, little clusters of bold spirits slipped forward through the wire and the minefields, searching with intense curiosity for their former enemies. What did they look like, these strange creatures who had been glimpsed only momentarily through binoculars, or as screaming shadows in the darkness of an attack? The same curiosity possessed their enemies. On the low ground between positions, there were stilted little encounters. The Chinese passed over beer and bottles of rice wine. UN troops offered chocolate and cigarettes. Some Chinese made it apparent that they were as delighted that the war was ended as the Westerners. But these meetings could scarcely be called fraternisation. They were impelled not by fellow-feeling for the enemy, but by the same impulses that would provoke any earthman to inspect visiting aliens.”

Have you read Max Hastings’ book on the Korean War or any other book on the Korean War?