Riverfire and 8월의 크리스마스

Five prams fought for wheel space by the car­riage doors. A teenage girl made baby eyes at an infant boy. His big, eigh­teen month old  eyes looked at her briefly, then re-focused back intently on his father’s iPhone. Curi­ously he tapped an icon, then another. His father, a strap­ping fel­low in a navy-blue T-shirt and a week’s stub­ble of whiskers, sur­veyed the car­riage proudly. It was a mot­ley crowd in a very crowded space. There were grand­moth­ers with puffy blotched skin, crop-dusted over with thick makeup. Overfed young women in syn­thetic miniskirts, their arms and legs already dis­fig­ured by the skid marks of wannabe prison tat­toos, picked at their nails. Noisy clumps of teenage boys pok­ing each other in the ribs. At Cen­tral Sta­tion the loud­speak­ers advised pas­sen­gers not to for­get their belong­ings includ­ing their chil­dren. The masses streamed through the turn­stiles, a river join­ing a flood join­ing an ocean of bod­ies. Wtf? Then I remem­bered some­thing called River­fire. It was appar­ently the grand finale to Brisbane’s week of fes­ti­val, and half a mil­lion peo­ple were head­ing for Queen Street river bridge to watch a few buck­ets of fire­works, and say oooohh when a cou­ple of jet fighter planes did a low fly-past.

Me? I was going to see a Korean film at the Tribal The­atre, and down by Roma Street Sta­tion the town was almost empty. In the the­atre foyer, a gag­gle of young Kore­ans in frog green T-shirts tried to be help­ful. A sweet girl pointed me to the box office. The atten­dant put down his cof­fee and looked sur­prised when I asked for  a ticket. “We do stamps” he said, putting a quick kiss of ink on my wrist. We lounged around the foyer, maybe a dozen patrons, until thirty sec­onds before show-time. The girl at the cin­ema door had kept us out. “They are prepar­ing a forum”, she declared impor­tantly. Allowed in at last, I held up my wrist to pass. “Yo bro!” said the girl by the door, slap­ping her palm to mine. The patrons scat­tered thinly amongst the seats. Three peo­ple sat on kitchen chairs, down in front of the big screen. A pale, plump young man intro­duced him­self as a lec­turer in film, and wood­enly read a long, long intro­duc­tion to the two other kitchen chair dwellers. One, a scraggy Aus­tralian of indef­i­nite age had appar­ently men­tioned a Korean film in his blog once. He finally admit­ted that it was the only Korean film he had ever seen. The lec­turer said wasn’t it mar­velous that Aus­tralia had all these for­eign film fes­ti­vals, and he had once brought some DVDs back from Seoul in his suit­case. The real live Korean film maker parked between these two glit­ter­ati was a rather pretty Korean woman in her thir­ties. Cast­ing around for some­thing, any­thing to say, she noted that the Aus­tralian art film scene was rather closed and con­ser­v­a­tive, while New Zealand was much more wel­com­ing. The cul­tural dif­fer­ences from Korea had been much greater than she expected. Korean cul­ture, she noted, was focused on pleas­ing peo­ple, and some of the very vio­lent films in the fes­ti­val weren’t like Korea at all… The panel looked about hope­fully for audi­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion. A voice from the back said that, well, his wife was Korean. We finally got around to watch­ing the film.

The film was gen­tle and wist­ful. “Christ­mas in August”, 8월의 크리스마스 , it was called, a melo­drama and love story. A thirty-some­thing pho­tog­ra­pher finds a quirky and very pretty traf­fic inspec­tor drop­ping into his stu­dio fre­quently. He lets the rela­tion­ship develop hap­pily, is kind to his cus­tomers, and qui­etly anguished in his heart. She doesn’t know he is dying of an incur­able dis­ease, until one day the stu­dio fails to open. It is quin­tes­sen­tially Korean, circa 1998, sun­shine and shad­ows, and some­how an aeon from the hedo­nis­tic con­sumer cul­ture of South Korea’s last decade. Bris­bane is awash with young Kore­ans but the cin­ema crew apart, they were hardly to be seen at this show­ing.

Back out on the mean streets, I headed up to the CBD mall. The lem­ming tide of human­ity was still stream­ing towards the bridge. This crowd, an engulf­ing blaze, sucked oxy­gen and bod­ies into its maw. Sep­a­rated from their TV sets for an hour or two, these tens of thou­sands of flick­er­ing minds came to find mean­ing in a mass greater than them­selves. I bought a choco­late bar and skirted through back streets, back to the Cen­tral Sta­tion. Set­tled down in a now quiet sub­way car­riage to flick though some for­eign vocab­u­lary on my smart phone, it took a while to notice that the train wasn’t actu­ally mov­ing. After ten min­utes, a laconic  voice came over the loud­speaker. “We are look­ing for the dri­ver”, it announced. “When we can find him, we’ll leave.” Five min­utes later the update announced, “We are still look­ing for the dri­ver. If we can’t find him we’ll get you another one”. A while later, the train bumped into motion, with or with­out a dri­ver. Only in Bris­bane.

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