Pusan taste test

Rating: NNNNNPUSAN -- It could easily have been chicken soup. That's what Daniel wanted. But at midnight that joint is.

Rating: NNNNN

PUSAN — It could easily have been chicken soup. That’s what Daniel wanted. But at midnight that joint is already closed, so our host has an idea. N”Do you like eel?” Song asks.

“Barbecued eel? Sure, we love it.” Three Torontonians down in the packed, bejewelled Nampodong district, we’re thinking tasty morsels of grilled unagi. But five minutes later we’re seated around a table barbecue where the server plops down a shiny foil sheet. On it sits a red mass of sea eel, onions and pepper paste.

No, “sits” is the wrong word. The eel is still wriggling.

I’ll eat just about anything, but food that slithers gives me pause. As the blue flame gets the red mass sizzling, we’re speechless. Daniel, a Korean Canadian, has obviously hit his bi-cultural wall. Gisele won’t look at it. I’m already seeing the nightmares to come. A length of eel nearly wriggles off the grill onto the table.

Song is loving it. “Be careful when you put it in your mouth,” he grins, “because sometimes a piece is still moving.”

Oh, that Korean sense of humour.

All right, I’m a wuss. This is my second year at the Pusan film festival and I’ve been eating Korean food for years, but a simple dish of kom jang oh throws me.

Song pours shot glasses of soju for the table, in the courteous drinking ritual that’s one of my favourite things about Korea. Pour for your elders, never let your guest’s glass go empty, hold the glass with two hands to show respect, and never fill your own glass.

Song is a mover in Korea’s film industry, but like many his age he’s also a former student activist. In the Korea of the 80s and early 90s, student activism opposing the dictatorship could start with demo chic and end with prison, or self-immolation. “Many friends died,” he says.

Like nearly every other man in Korea, Song also did a stint in the army. Three years. As playful as he is tonight, he reveals some of the same hardness I’ve seen in men who lived through South Africa’s apartheid wars.

Tonight, as the eels simmer down, I ask our host how his father felt when he, Song, left home for the army.

“My father never cared for me,” he says simply. There’s a thin silence.

We tuck into the meal, now still and delicious. Behind Song, I can see two ajimahs at work — the “aunties” who keep this country’s mammoth street commerce humming.One woman pulls another live eel from a tank and manoeuvres it to the cutting board. This is what she does all day, but still she’s wearing sparkling barrettes in her coiffed hair and a full face of perfectly applied makeup. I watch her stab at the writhing eel with her big butcher knife, and it gets me thinking about gender.

Social cohesion

I think of the Korean men I’ve met, in life and onscreen, who both deride Confucian family values and soak up its privileges. I think of how much Korea’s famed social cohesion depends on pragmatic ajimahs and sacrificed wives.

I think of the two different white men here who’ve told me, as if citing a statistic, that “Korean women are the most beautiful in Asia.”

I think of how fascinated Korean women were this week with Samira Makhmalbaf, the Iranian wunderkind director who’s in Pusan as part of a family retrospective. Makhmalbaf wears the veil but is every bit as bold as any Korean — or western — woman. What is a young woman if she’s not decorative? Makhmalbaf presents a decisive answer.

And I think back to a story Margaret told me yesterday. Margaret is a Korean-American writer, here researching a book on her grandfather, a communist who fought the Japanese occupation.

Margaret was out one night dining with her aunt and her aunt’s husband. Her aunt is a dynamic professional woman, a doctor, in fact. But she sat silent through the whole dinner while her husband talked, because her husband’s English is poorer than hers and to speak would be to shame him.

When the two women finally had a moment alone, Margaret’s aunt opened her mouth for only one sentence.

“Korea,” she told her niece, “is a man’s paradise.”

cameronb@nowtoronto.comOctober 10 At the pusan Film Fest

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