The Long Week Closes: It’s Time for Some Name Theory July 1, 2017

Too many non-Asians seem very uncertain about how Korean and Chinese names work, specifically regarding which is the given name and which is the surname. After seeing Dana Stevens write that Bong Joon-ho is “known in his native South Korea as Joon-ho Bong” (this is a mistake that as of this moment hasn’t been corrected), I decided it might be useful to lay out some basics about Korean and Chinese names.

The confusion is very understandable. To continue using the aforementioned filmmaker, almost all critics refer to the Okja director as “Bong Joon-ho.” Yet he’s also uniformly called “Bong” and never “Joon-ho.” On top of that, IMDb lists him as “Joon-ho Bong.” This is a lot to untangle.

In South and North Korea, just like in China and Japan, the cultural tradition is to list the surname first, given name second, reversing the style the West is accustomed to. So when Western journalists and critics refer to him as “Bong Joon-ho,” they’re using the Eastern style. Keep in mind, however, that in the West, Japanese names are (mostly) listed Western-style, with the surname at the end.

For reasons that are unclear to me, IMDb has remained stubbornly steadfast in listing Korean and Chinese names as given name first, surname second, even though they’ve presumably received numerous requests that they should conform to the Eastern style. (Not that I would join the chorus. I could, and might, write a separate blog post about how the surname first convention in Western journalism has otherized Koreans and the Chinese in a way that it hasn’t for the Japanese.)

Bong’s friends and family most likely refer to him as “Joon-ho” in the same way that people in the West usually refer to each other by their first names in informal or friendly settings. (This is the otherizing I was getting at: when Kiyoshi Kurosawa made his first French-language film recently, presumably nobody thought twice about calling him “Kiyoshi.” But for Westerners, even in an informal setting, calling Bong “Joon-ho” is avoided because it somehow feels incorrect. Likewise, Ang Lee lists his name as given name, then surname, and as a result, calling him “Ang” comes naturally.)

Does that all make sense? I hope I didn’t overlook any necessary details.

On another subject, after listening to several more episodes of Flixwise and Flixwise: Canada, I need to rescind my recommendation of the former and get behind the latter more strongly. Flixwise is pretty great when Lady P stays on script, since her voice and delivery are phenomenal. But her taste is too conventional and geeky for my liking.

Regarding Flixwise: Canada, I wasn’t emphatic enough about praising this show back when I mentioned it a couple of weeks ago. Martin Kessler is a very intelligent and gifted speaker. The best episodes (and there are only five so far) are 1 (with Burton Fisher), 4 (with James Hancock) and 5 (with Nadin Mai). I hope you give it a shot.

The last two new releases below, Norman and Catfight, both opened months ago and are probably not in theaters anymore. But they’re also much too new to file them under “Cinema of the Past.”

New Releases
Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, United States, 2017, 10 reviews)
Okja (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea/United States, 2017, 20, reviews)
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (Errol Morris, United States, 2016, 16, reviews)
The Reagan Show (Sierra Pettengill & Pacho Velez, United States, 2017, 9 reviews)
Norman (Joseph Cedar, United States, 2016, 7 reviews)
Catfight (Onur Tukel, United States, 2016, 9 reviews)

Cinema of the Past
Le trou (Jacques Becker, France, 1960, 13 reviews)
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Alfred Hitchcock, United Kingdom, 1927, 6 reviews)
Hôtel du Nord (Marcel Carné, France, 1938, 4 reviews)

Images: Okja, Le trou.

Leave a Reply