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Windows of the Seoul

Getting to know South Korea through music videos

I don't know much about South Korea. I know the North far better -- that grotesque Stalinist nightmare, where the government is serious when it says, "Let's trim our hair according to Socialist lifestyle!" but as for the southern half, I'm pretty ill informed. I know that America fought a war there, and that our war effort was greatly aided by two wisecracking surgeons who weren't afraid to show their sensitive sides. I know that Koreans like to eat kimchi, and that their pugnacious, hard-drinking ways have earned them the designation as "the Irish of the East."

Not much, you see, and that ignorance offers a rare opportunity. Thanks to the International Channel, I could flip the tables on the millions of foreigners who learn all about America from MTV by watching the weekly Korean Music Countdown, which airs every Monday night at nine, and draw a few conclusions about a country I had never visited. (Sure, I could watch the Japanese pop shows later the same week on the same channel, but J-Pop and J-Punk are played. Let's move on to K-Pop, people.)

First up is "Winter Diary," by Jang Na Ra. Jang is a cute 'n' kooky lass, a singing Korean version of 1992-vintage Marisa Tomei. Ska-tinged pop plays and she sings along. She's wearing a leather aviator hat and goggles and driving an old-timey roadster that's pulling a long steel camper with a whirling satellite dish on top. The side of the camper reads "Na Ra Broadcasting" in English. She eases to a halt in a snowy waste and heads into the camper. She makes a pot of tea and looks out the window. Up in the clouds she sees a flying saucer. She climbs out and recalibrates the satellite dish. She picks up an old-timey mike and starts singing into it -- the scene looks lifted wholesale from the Black Eyed Peas' "Where Is the Love?" video.

Message: Ditzy girls can save the world if only we heed their messages of love.

"Andante" by Lee Soo Young comes next. Somber piano, strings and Spanish guitar usher in a ballad of love gone bad. The willowy Lee leafs through her photo album and remembers her carefree college days and the guy who got away, who at this moment is sitting plastered on a street corner. He's disgusted with himself. He hurls a beer bottle in the gutter. Then there are flashbacks of the couple together -- they're happy on a ski trip, then they're yelling at each other. We return to the guy sitting on the sidewalk, drunk. The music swells as it shows the two of them snogging on the ski trip. And then the guy is alone at a place called Lover's Point. He sets up a camera at the edge of a cliff and takes a picture of himself clutching a bouquet. Did he jump? We'll never know.

Message: Young love sucks.

Hip-hop trio DJ Doc are in the house now, and they are the Korean Beastie Boys. A spy-movie music montage segues into a hip-hop track, and a very confusing video begins. (Scenes from a DJ Doc spy caper movie, perhaps.) A guy shakes a woman's hand and catches fire. The DJ Doc guys kick it with a humorous mentor-type old guy who drinks a lot of straight liquor. They play some sort of Korean card game that uses a deck that looks like nothing I've ever seen before. There are explosions and a random shot of a mother smacking her daughter across the face. The old guy stuffs a hard-boiled egg in his mouth. And then it ends.

Message: Drinking, gambling, tough old guys and explosions are cool.

I didn't catch the next singer's name, which is just as well because the song ("Just Like That Day") and video were simply horrible. The song sounded like an anguished Christopher Cross tune sung by a guy who thinks he can carry off notes a full octave out of his range, and the video consisted of nothing but a loooonnggg series of still photographs of a woman in different demure poses. This whole creepy thing could be called "The Mind of a Stalker."

Message: You should spend more than a hundred bucks on a video.

The ghost of Michael Jackson past haunts hip-hop/R&B crooner Se7en's "Crazy." He's chilling with a cadre of dancin' dandies in some kind of derelict factory/loft in hell. Eerie green light fills the air as Se7en struts his "Thriller"-like dance moves with his boys. There's a random shot of a bald, muscle-bound and tattooed Korean tough guy holding back a snarling Doberman on a leash. Some of the guys have scary face paint -- another nod to "Thriller." There's also a hoochie-mama on the premises, and unlike the bevy of chaste-looking women in all the other videos, she gazes at Se7en with frankly carnal desire.

Message: Guys like Se7en might dance too well to be tough guys, but you really shouldn't mess with them because they have meaner friends and hotter chicks than you'll ever have.

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