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TV & FILM REVIEWS

squid game’s most heartbreaking hour is also its best

“‘Gganbu’ isn’t the Squid Game episode with the highest kill count. It’s not the episode when we finally discover the man behind the deadly competition, or its ultimate winner. It is not the most fast-paced or action-driven of the Netflix series’ nine installments, nor is it the bloodiest. Instead, it is a relatively quiet hour that divides its characters into teams of two, with each pair acting as their own mini-social experiment. If the ‘deadly competition’ trope is designed to reflect on the inherent goodness or not of humanity, then Squid Game‘s most articulate answer to the question of what humans will or will not do to survive comes in ‘Gganbu,’ and it is as nuanced as it is heartrending.”

the lost daughter ending eschews easy answers

“When it comes to stories about parents and lost children, we are culturally conditioned to expect tragedy and, in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, we get it, but in a far more complex and mundane way. The Lost Daughter suggests that, for many women, motherhood itself is the tragedy.”

hellbound is even scarier than train to busan

“So much of what makes it onto our screens is undercooked, and for understandable reasons. There is such a demand for content—especially as streamers like Netflix, Disney, and Apple look to gobble up new markets in their global expansion—that series often don’t have the time or other resources to execute a clear vision, if one even exists in the first place. Hellbound is an ambitious, terrifying show with the kind of specificity of intention that is rare in our saturated media landscape. It asks the kinds of questions few mainstream stories are willing to broach in any meaningful way, and its depictions of social horror will stay with you long after its monsters have faded from memory.”

fleabag season 2 review

“In the end, Fleabag Season 2 affirms what we have always known: This was never a story about hopelessness and isolation—quite the opposite, actually. Too many modern TV shows are obsessed with depicting how we can fall apart, as if there is any special skill involved. Give me a hundred TV shows like Fleabag: deeply fascinated with how we put ourselves back together, a much more impressive feat.”

cliff walkers: a taut spy thriller winning the chinese box office

“If a film is going to lead with mood over plot or character, then it needs to have a clear visual strategy, and Cliff Walkers does. It’s cold and crisp, and it’s grounded in reality and practical effects. Zhang actually filmed in Harbin, the city where the story is mainly set, recreating the city’s central street to its 1930s status, complete with landmarks like Asia Cinema and Martyr Hotel. And he also actually filmed in the winter, with on-location temperatures that plummeted 40 degrees below Fahrenheit … [Because of this,] Cliff Walkers hits much more authentically, with the cold permeating the ensemble’s quietly fierce performances and reinforcing the claustrophobia of the scenario in which the characters exist. Despite the limitations of the medium, the cold becomes a visceral representation of the political reality the spies can never wholly escape.”

INTERNATIONAL TV NEWS & FEATURES

bad buddy and the subversive sentimentality of BL storytelling

“There’s nothing inherently lesser about sentimental storytelling; there’s as much potential for narrative complexity and power in the tears and laughter of melodrama as there is in the violent shadows of grimdark drama. If you’re open to that potential, Bad Buddy‘s tender, joyful, often hilarious tale of two boys coming-of-age in love could be for you.”

what is skam & why is it taking over the internet?

“It’s that word—quiet—that I keep coming back to when I consider Skam. When we discuss modern life, we tend to frame it as faster and louder. These things are sometimes true, but Skam does an unbelievable job of depicting what the slow, quiet moments of modern life look like, what loneliness and connection looks like when technology keeps the possibility of digital communication possible at any moment. That opportunity is both wonderful and terrible, and is reflected in Skam‘s real-time aspect. That kind of immediate, unpredictable, sometimes demanding access can be comforting and it can be overwhelming. Skam doesn’t make us choose between both those depictions. Technology is an integral part of these teenager’s lives, but it isn’t inherently good or bad. It only changes the way universally human experiences, challenges, and wonders manifest in their lives.”

chinese tv drama apologizes for plagiarizing his dark materials

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery… but not in the world of corporate copyright. New Chinese fantasy drama Douluo Continent came under fire after its premiere last week when viewers noticed that some shots in the drama’s magical opening credits, created by third party company Visual Impact Digital Production, looked quite similar to shots in the magical opening credits for the His Dark Materials TV show.”

in 2020, the deutschland tv series is as relevant as ever

“’With young people, it’s almost like what you learn in school ends with World War II, and then you never really got to the Cold War,’ says [creator] Anna Winger. ‘So, for a lot of young people, at least in Germany, they would say to us, “This is like science fiction.” It’s like, ‘Imagine a world, and there’s a wall that goes down the middle of Berlin, and West Berlin is cut off from supplies, and you can’t get across it.’ And you know, if you were to describe all that to anyone who was born in Berlin since 1989, it would sound absurd. It’s like, ‘And the dinosaurs roamed the earth.’ It’s very crazy to them. So, in a funny way, I’ve always thought the show is a little bit like the past as science fiction.”

POP CULTURE FEATURES

how star wars: the last jedi explores toxic masculinity

“In the Original Trilogy, Han’s rogue heroics generally save the day and, when they don’t, the consequences mainly fall back on him alone. It’s a nice fantasy: that we can exclude ourselves from the accountability of society. It’s one that Benicio del Toro’s codebreaker thinks he can live in. But, as Rose makes clear to Finn on Canto Bight, it’s a willful delusion, one often propped up by the privilege of being able to look away and a socialized capacity to put one’s own pride or vanity over the collective good.”

avengers: endgame prioritizes emotional strength over physical power

“By some definition, mourning is the act of decidedly not winning. It is losing in the most profound, inescapable ways. In the wake of tragedy, our subjective understanding of winning tends to change. Winning is no longer getting everything you want—now that you have lost something irretrievable, that possibility is revealed as foolishly and wonderfully childish in its ambitions—but rather working to accept the idea that living with what you have and what is realistically possible can be enough … In the process of exploring what it feels like not to win—and not to win for a long time—Endgame subverts the overrepresented superhero trope that sees powered people channel pain, loss, and grief into violence, as if that’s the only option. Instead, the Avengers use that five-year period to, individually and collectively, get their shit together. To get emotionally buff, if you will.”

the queerness of gunpowder milkshake

Gunpowder Milkshake has many strong qualities, but the movie’s character work isn’t one of them. The Netflix film is visually vibrant, featuring crisp and clever fight sequences, but drops the ball when it comes to story, forgetting to make a case for why we should care about the group of woman assassins at its center. It’s a shame because the film brings together an incredible cast of women—including Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Carla Gugino—to play the queer found family ostensibly at the heart of this story. Gunpowder Milkshake‘s inability to commit to its ‘be gay, do crimes’ vibes is one of the film’s biggest missed opportunities.”

miss fisher’s murder mysteries: the feminist sherlock you should be watching

Miss Fisher isn’t a story about a spinster finding love later in life and finally getting the traditional family she needs and deserves. It is about a sexually liberated, vibrant, empathetic woman who has a wonderful family and community of her own making. Phryne is not someone to be pitied. She is one of the most alive characters on TV—a master detective who speaks multiple languages, knows martial arts, and can fly an airplane. Miss Fisher is competency porn at its most addictive, and its main character is a new, much-needed kind of archetype.”

TALKING TRANSFORMATIVE FANDOM

how one bts fan built the rise of bangtan series

“’I think the biggest misconception that I want to clear up [with Rise of Bangtan] as best I can is… there are people who [think BTS] came out of nowhere,’ says Aneesa. ‘They view the fangirls [who support them] in the way they always view fangirls. By showing the BTS narrative and what their stories were as they grew, I feel like you can understand where the fans came from and how the fans attached themselves to the group and thus why the support grew from that.'”

why endgame’s sidelining of stucky matters

“While many outside of shipping culture focus on the romantic and sexual elements that can be a part of it, it is also a space that is intensely interesting in processes of emotional labor. Transformative works-geared fandom is a space filled with people who have been socialized to do most of society’s emotional labor without recognition for it or, in the case of our relationships with some men, any or very little emotional labor in return. For fans who have been socialized as girls and women, it can be extremely cathartic and radical to explore what the world would look like if men did that labor for each other and themselves.”

tumblr’s top fandoms of 2020

“It’s been a weird and often devastating year, and our social media has reflected that. Tumblr has just released its top fandoms of 2020 and it’s fascinating to see how a year of pandemic and quarantine has affected transformative fandom and broader cultural trends. In a year when almost everyone spent a lot more time at home, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the most blogged about topic on the social media platform, followed by animated dramedy Steven Universe, Belgian SKAM adaptation WtFOCK, K-pop supergroup BTS, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. We talked to Tumblr’s Trend Expert Amanda Brennan about how she interpreted the biggest trends of the a year, how this was a big year for animation and international media, and why 2020 was the year everyone stopped worrying about what was cool and just embraced what they love.”

how winter’s orbit went from ao3 to published space opera

“There have been some very public examples of works that began life as fanfiction (i.e. not-for-profit stories written in the already existing fictional worlds or pop culture, often by and for writers from communities underrepresented in commercial storytelling) only to later become published books— the most famous examples probably being E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey, Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones, or Anna Todd’s After. But not all works published on fanfiction websites are fanfiction. Fanfiction platforms, such as Archive of Our Own or Wattpad, also play host to ‘original’ (not based on an existing canon) non-commercial fiction. While these original works are, by and large, less common than fic, they often have much in common with their transformative fandom neighbors.”

INDUSTRY INSIGHT & ANALYSIS

america is drowning in student debt, so why isn’t it on tv?

“Meanwhile, on TV, student debt as a subject is largely absent. In this era of ‘Peak TV’ (2021 had an all-time high of 559 scripted TV shows that aired), only a handful of half-hearted mentions have popped up in the last decade. While one in eight Americans are student debtors, most TV characters who have student debt are doctors or lawyers (Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy), or other white-collar professionals (Atypical). This is not representative of the diversity of student debtors, including an estimated 39% of student debtors who never graduate. And while Black Americans are disproportionately impacted by student debt, most storylines involving student debt center white characters (The Bold Type, Good Trouble).”

netflix wants its own korean variety show hit

“Korean variety shows are so popular in Korea that it can be hard to define them, as the format includes so many subgenres, but the broad genre often includes elements of contemporary reality programming—especially travel and competition—and feels incredibly modern in both its pace and willingness to genre-mash.”

how marvel’s new tv model worked on loki

“In the traditional American TV model, directors have much less creative control; they are hired hands brought in to shoot the script for an individual episode before moving on to another show. This isn’t the case with Loki and other Disney+ Marvel TV shows, where the directors are empowered to make more of the creative decisions, though the ultimate authority seems to lie with Marvel Chief Creative Officer Kevin Feige, the mastermind behind the MCU.”

the best streaming service you don’t have

“The marketplace for K-dramas and other East Asian content has become increasingly competitive in the past few years, especially since Netflix properly entered the game in 2016. When Warner Bros. shut down Dramafever in 2018, the company cited “business reasons” happening “in light of the rapidly changing marketplace for K-drama content.” (As reported by Todd Spangler in Variety, a show that used to cost $800,000 to license for streaming now goes for around $1 million per season, which has made it more expensive for a streamer to curate a wide selection of Korean dramas.) Where Viki might have an edge on platforms like Netflix, Prime, or even Apple+ (which is busy working on its first Korean-language content) is in diversity of genre.”

dc superheroes & k-pop artists are coming to webtoon

“The ‘Super Casting’ project, which includes both DC Comics and HYBE, is one example of Webtoon’s ambition when it comes to growing their global footprint. While HYBE is a South Korean company, their reach is global—not only through BTS, currently one of the biggest music groups in the world—but also through its expansion in both Japan and America. In April, HYBE officially merged with Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings, which includes artists like Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and Demi Levato. Naver owns a minority stake in HYBE.”

could netflix move away from the binge-model format?

“Outside of the world of K-dramas, most of Netflix’s experiments with a weekly release model have fallen in the reality programming section of the streamer. Earlier this year, Netflix chose to release the second seasons of The Circle and Too Hot to Handle in weekly clumps, situated somewhere between the binge-watch model and the traditional one-episode-per-week schedule. This makes sense for unscripted reality TV, which thrives off of the kinds of melodramatic plot twists that make for perfect water-cooler discussion (read: Twitter discourse). The inclusion of K-dramas into this category suggests there is something about their format that also encourages weekly viewing.”


PROFILES

how paul mcguigan crafted the visual language of sherlock

“’If I had thought about it, I probably would have been really nervous about it, but I was a bit more arrogant about it,’ says McGuigan. ‘I was like, “Yeah, fuck it. This should look like a film.” Somebody had said to me early on, ‘Don’t worry about it Paul, nobody is going to blame you. It’s television, nobody blames the director.’ I’m like, ‘Right, don’t ever say that to me ever again because to me that’s not the way I work.'”

rachel talalay & the long way’ round

“’I was talking to one of the superhero [series] showrunners, and he was saying how constrained he is by Warner Brothers [and] by the CW,’ said Talalay. ‘He said, “Have I lost or am I going to lose my ability in the future to do the indie film version of it?” I told him that one of the mental exercises I do is ask myself, ‘If I had more time and more money, how would I do this better?’ Sometimes, I process it by just, ‘Wow. People would love that shot in indie cinema.’ And so that shot lives with me.”

EXPLAINERS & GUIDES

bts tv & web series: where to begin watching

a guide to the many supplementary series korean group bts has on offer—from travelogue to variety show to sci-fi animation.

from itaewon class to all of us are dead: best k-dramas based on webtoons

a guide to some of the many popular k-dramas that began narrative life as webtoons, aka korean, web-based comics made to be scrolled through.

run bts: 9 must-watch episodes of the korean variety show

“On a budget level, you can also see how much Run BTS has grown since ‘BTS School.’ It’s not easy to film an entire episode around water. The acoustics are noticeably affected in ’77-Minute Debate,’ as the boom operator has to hover a safe distance away from the members as they sit next to a pool, which the sound of BTS’ shouting reverberates off of. The execution of this episode scenario is impressive, which is why it’s so fitting that, at the end of the episode, the director volunteers to get water-bombed too. It’s a rare (albeit blurred-out) glimpse of the crew and staff who are so instrumental in crafting this show and, more broadly, supporting BTS in their working lives.”

BOOK REVIEWS & FEATURES

the city in the middle of the night by charlie jane anders review

“Pop culture is rife with stories that are far too comfortable with criticizing existing hierarchical power structures without imagining alternate relationships in their place … What a monumental failure of imagination, what a cynically narrow view of humanity. In The City of the Middle of the Night, Anders dares to imagine something different, a better way forward. This is not to say books does not include tragedy, trauma, pain, or devastation—the repercussions of systemic violence enacted and inflicted is a continuous, intrinsically exhausting theme. This book is, often, a downer. But it explores what healing looks like, too—both for the individual and for the community. It champions something strange, new, and much more inclusive in the place of what its human characters know. It recognizes that change is terrifying, yes, but that the alternative is far worse.”

vengeful by v.e. schwab review

“Men don’t have a monopoly on villainy, whatever pop culture may tell us. They don’t have a monopoly on revenge, on anger, on ambition, on the effects of power as a corrupting force. This truth is at the heart of Vengeful—the highly-anticipated follow-up to V.E. Schwab’s 2013 novel Vicious … Men don’t have a monopoly on villainy, but power is an integral ingredient to any effective villain and men do disproportionately hold power in our society. This is a reality Villains series doesn’t discount when bringing women more fully into the antagonist fold in Vengeful.”

TRAVEL WRITING

before deciding to throw all of my writing eggs into the entertainment journalism basket, i devoted sometime to travel writing (featuring much of my own travel photography).

my family didn’t have the opportunity to travel when i was a kid, but i have been lucky enough to visit some beautiful, fascinating places as an adult. i studied in prague for a year in college (my first time out of the u.s.), spent three months in southeast asia (thailand, laos, vietnam, and cambodia) in my mid-twenties, and have spent a fair amount of time in london as my best friend lives there.

currently, i am studying korean and would like to spend some time working and living in seoul in the next year. 🤞

where we’re from: northern nh
me, my mother, and how travel connects us
the lessons of a root canal in bangkok
what three fictional characters taught me about travel