Robert E. Howard’s Conan Roleplaying Game

In case you aren’t listening to the Accidental Survivors podcast (and why are you not?), you might not know about Modiphius Entertainments Kickstarter for Robert E. Howard’s Conan Roleplaying Game. It’s funded already, with a lot of stretch goals hit. Modiphius always does good work. If you’ve been following Accidental Survivors for a while, you’ve heard me interview Chris Birch at Gen Con and he even joined us for an episode. He’s good people and Modiphius does good work.

You can also check out the Quickstart to see if you dig the rules.

Then head over to the Kickstarter and pledge.

You can listen to the Accidental Survivors chat with Chris Birch about Achtung! Cthulu. and as one of the people we spoke to at Gen Con 2011.

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A Kim Jong-Il Production

In case you didn’t know, I lived for three and a half years in South Korea. It’s where I met my wife. It’s my second home, and I feel more comfortable there than I do in most other places. I have continued to study Korean history and follow Korean politics. Knowing this, Chris “Mother Fuckin'” Bullock picked up A Kim Jong-Il Production for me, a book written by Paul Fischer.

It’s an amazing book. I say that because it is both very well-researched and very evocative. Fischer’s prose keeps your attention, delivering a story while he informs.

The book is about the South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok and his wife, the actress Choi Eun-Hee, who were kidnapped by movie-obsessed North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-Il (father of the present leader, Kim Jong-Un).

Yes, Kim Jong-Il used the resources of the North Korean intelligence community to kidnap a director and actress to make movies for him. I’ll let that sink in for a bit.

The book begins with the rise to fame and influence of the three, how Shin became a great director, how Choi became South Korea’s premier actress, and how Kim rose to power and took the reins from his father. Then we learn about the kidnapping and the lives of Shin and Choi in Kim’s North Korea.

What I really love about this book is the period details. The story runs from the Korean War to the 1980s, and both the South and the North changed dramatically during that period. The discussion of the lives of the three main characters is intertwined with the story of the evolution of the divided Koreas.

I give A Kim Jong-Il Production 4.75 communist movie cameras out of 5 for those interested in the Koreas and a 4.5 for all others. This is both a fantastic story and an insightful examination of a dynamic period in Korean history. I was enthralled with the story, and appreciated the details. I would highly recommend this book for just about anyone, but especially for those interested in the Koreas.

You can learn more about A Kim Jong-Il Production at Goodreads.

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The Book of Eli

I saw the Book of Eli was available on Netflix (I think it’s recently added, as I hadn’t noticed it before) and given that I am now running a post-apocalyptic role-playing game, I decided to have another look. I had watched it previously and enjoyed it, so I wanted to see if it held up.

I believe it does. I think Denzel Washington delivers another excellent performance. He brings conviction and gravitas to his role, and even though he is Denzel Washington – I mean, it’s hard for him to disappear into a role when he has such a presence – I believed him as Eli. Gary Oldman is always great, though his performance is a less nuanced. Mila Kunis is solid in everything in which I’ve seen her, and Ray Stevenson never disappoints.

The action is well choreographed and while there a couple of set pieces in which the speed and precision of Eli’s moves are not as evident, there is no shaky-cam. Part of Eli’s invincibility in the early fights is given a supernatural patina mid-way through the film, but there is nothing particularly super-heroic about his abilities – at least not relative to other action films – especially given that his adversaries are generally portrayed as amateurish and clumsy, thugs who are suddenly faced with a trained and competent opponent.

This is a good movie but not a great movie. I think the Hughes Brothers who directed it were going for something more epic or penetrating than what I saw. I saw a very competent post-apocalyptic actioner with western tropes baked into it.

The reveal of the book’s contents and the villain’s purpose are not particularly surprising. It’s very much telegraphed. However, the reveal that happens at the end – the twist – falls flat because there is absolutely no real foreshadowing throughout the movie. A twist has impact when we can go back through the movie and see how it explains specific choices or scenes. I knew the twist going in, and no groundwork is laid through the rest of the movie, so it feels like a complete cheat.

There is the possibility that the Hughes Brothers and writer Gary Whitta meant to imply something about the power of the book and its impact on Eli, but even working on that assumption, it still falls flat. There should be something to foreshadow it, some clue, but there is nothing, so it feels cheap.

However, that is a really minor nitpick.

I give the Book of Eli 4 really cool sunglasses out of 5. This is a very competent post-apocalyptic actioner whose performances overshadow the workmanlike script. It provides great inspiration for setting and characters, and I found it totally entertaining.

You can find more information on the Book of Eli at Wikipedia and IMDB.

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Korean Film Archive

The Korean Film Archive has presented a ton of great Korean cinema from the past. It’s a fantastic way to see the evolution of Korean cinema, as well as a chance to see some North Korean movies. I think it’s an amazing initiative and it’s given me lots of moments of real enjoyment.

Now I just noticed their Im Kwon-Taek collection. Im Kwon-Taek got me into Korean movies before Korea became a centre of outstanding actioners and thrillers. Im Kwon-Taek. I watched Sopyonje with my wife soon after we got serious, and it really opened my eyes. Now, this is an incredibly depressing movie that I have a hard time revisiting. It is a fantastic artistic achievement, and for me embodies han, a kind of shared sadness among Korean society and a term I’ve always translated as deep, cultural melancholy. It is a masterpiece, but it hits very hard. I would strongly suggest watching it when you are in the mood. It looks at the death of a very specific, traditional art form in Korea, and the dysfunction that can affect a family when a parent values the art more than his own children. This is a really amazing film, but it left me very emotionally drained and saddened.

But right now I’m going to recommend Festival. It’s got Ahn Sung-Gi, one of favourite actors, and everytime I watch it I get very nostalgic for my life in Korea. It’s not the plot, it’s the places and the activities that remind me of my time there. Just fair warning, this is a slow, careful drama that relies on Ahn’s charisma and naturalistic acting to draw you in. If you like drama – especially indie drama – this will be a great intro Korea cinema. The story looks at a successful author who returns to his hometown to attend his mother’s funeral.

This is also about art and dysfunctional family relationships, but it doesn’t crush one’s heart the way Sopyonje does. It’s also a chance to be introduced to Ahn Sung-Gi early in his amazing career. I really with Two Cops was available (which pairs Ahn Sung-Gi with Park Jung-Hoon, who is another favourite of mine), but Festival is a fantastic film and well worth your time, especially if you want to get a sense of Korean culture in the modern world. It’s set in a time long past – Korea has changed as dramatically from 1996 to 2016 as it did from 1976 to 1996 – but this really depicts Korea as I remember it.

You can find the Korean Film Archive here.

You can find the Korean Film Archive on Youtube here.

The Im Kwon-Taek collection can be found here.

Sopyonje can be viewed here.

Festival can be viewed here.

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Sword Of Destiny

While I wasn’t thrilled with it, Sword of Destiny, the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, only minimally disappointed. I honestly wasn’t expect much more than a chance to see Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh in a half-decent kung-fu movie. I got Donnie Yen, Michelle Yeoh, kung-fu and a movie.

I’m going to talk about what I liked first, and then I’ll get into what didn’t work for me. The latter is much longer than the former.

The fight scenes were good. They weren’t great, and there weren’t any that really impressed me. Part of this, I think, was the reliance on big fights. It was generally the hero(s) against a crowd of baddies. There was very little of that in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In that earlier movie, the fights functioned as extensions of character interaction, which was why they were so expressive as well as being impressive. The fights told the story even more than the dialogue. The character’s revealed themselves in their styles. Sword of Destiny is more like an adventure movie, with the hero(s) taking on a bunch of minions with only a couple of one-on-one fights. And other than the fight on the frozen lake – which was pretty cool – even those didn’t live up to some of Yuen Woo-Ping’s former work.

I would rate the fight scenes in Sword of Destiny about the same as those in Iron Monkey – also a Yuen Woo-Ping movie – which means they were good, but they served a totally different function than the fights in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

And as with the fight on the frozen lake, there were some great scenic visuals in the movie. It wasn’t a constant canvas as was its predecessor, but it did have a bunch of really beautiful shots, some of them pretty obviously CGI or computer-enhanced, which frankly wasn’t necessary.

But that was it. It was enough for me to enjoy the movie on the level I generally enjoy kung-fu movies.

Having said that, there is no way this could ever be the successor to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That was a piece of art and I don’t think we’ll ever get that confluence of talent again. Sword of Destiny was cashing in on the name. Yes, it had Michelle Yeoh and it had Yuen Wo-Ping, but what it didn’t have was depth.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was actually a very small story. It was intimate. It was about these few people, their interactions, their desires, and their pain. Sword of Destiny may have tried to go epic with a story of Hades Dai seeking dominion over the Martial World, but it failed to achieve that. We really knew nothing about the villain or his motivation. He was big and bad and that was all. But that’s not surprising. None of the characters got any real depth. The relationship of Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and “Silent Wolf” (Donnie Yen) relies on an understanding of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and it lacked the subtleties and delicacy of Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai from the original.

Which is a shame, because the movie has a Seven Samurai piece to it in which Silent Wolf recruits a collection of knights errant of the Martial World to protect the Green Destiny – Flying Blade, Thunder Fist, Silver Dart Shi, and Turtle Ma. These could have been really fun characters in another movie, but they did not fit the sombre tone of this one. I would actually love to see a an action-adventure kung-fu movie with the exploits of this crew, but that would be a totally different movie than this one, which attempts at profound rather than pulse-pounding.

And that sombre tone – a carry-over from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – wasn’t consistent throughout. While it never fell into “light hearted,” the movie seemed much more like an adventure movie than character piece with kung fu of its predecessor. The attempt to maintain solemnity may have been part of the reason for the very dull deliveries by most of the actors. Even very solid actors like the two leads didn’t really compel here, probably because they had so little to work with.

So in the end, I have to say Sword of Destiny failed to meet even my minimal expectations, but it didn’t miss by much. I never expected another Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but I had hoped for a quality film with some great action.

I give Sword of Destiny 3 villainous mobs of martial arts outlaws out of 5. While the fight scenes were pretty good, they were part of a movie that attempted to be both epic and deep and failed at both.

You can find more information about Sword of Destiny at Wikipedia and IMDB.

You can watch the trailer here.

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Finish Writing Your Novels

The last post was only the beginning of my opinions/advice on novel writing. Here’s the second part.

Advice to Aspiring Novelists 2: Finish Writing Novels

Originally published 9 Jul 2009.

I’m back with more advice about publishing a novel that you can comfortably ignore, given that I have never published a novel.

My first piece of advice was “perfect your craft.”

My second piece of advice is finish writing novels.

And some of you are thinking: “duh, of course!” Two things about that. 1) That is plural. Novels. 2) I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve spoken to who talk about publishing a novel before completing the writing of even one. A lot of them haven’t even started.

Here’s the thing, unless you are some kind of prodigy, you are not going to sell your first novel. You likely won’t sell your second either. Actually, you might sell them, but only after you are so hugely successful that publishers figure all they need to do is slap your name on a book to make money.

Since you won’t sell your first, nor likely your second, that’s at least three novels you have to finish before you even think of starting to plan to get published. Have you finished three novels?

I haven’t.

How you finish writing those novels and what those novels are about isn’t the issue. Get it done.

There are an infinite number of techniques for writing novels, there are fewer — though still many — techniques for finishing novels. And yes, unfortunately, there is a difference. I have 13 unfinished novels in my “Documents\Writing\Novels” folder.

I have two finished.

Just need one more.

If you have perfected your craft, you should have already figured out what works for you when it comes to writing novels. Maybe not. I’ll tell you what works for me.

An Outline

It’s all well and good to say that the story develops as one writes and that the characters take the story places one never expected it to go. It happens to me also. Thing is, I have a roadmap for where I expect the novel to go. If I do not, I meander. I get lost on side roads. And getting lost really doesn’t help on that goal of completion.

I’m not ashamed to say that without that roadmap, without the outline, I will not complete the novel. I have a strong suspicion that “A Song of Fire and Ice” has no series outline. I will bet “Wheel of Time” had no series outline. If I don’t have a novel outline, that’s what happens. It keeps going. There’s no resolution. Maybe there is a resolution, I just don’t know it, and I keep going.

I need an outline. That doesn’t mean I am tied to it, that the writing cannot take me to places I did not expect to go. What I do have is a clear destination in mind. With that outline, I might take a scenic route, but I’m still moving toward that destination.

Scheduled Writing Time

When I was serious about getting my writing done — and that was before the toddler and the infant came along — I had an hour a night set aside for writing. It might stretch into two or even three hours, but from 7 to 8 was writing time. My wife accepted this. She wouldn’t disturb me during this period unless the house was burning down.

The laptop I used for my writing could not connect to the internet. There lies wasted time uncounted. I did my research and email and sundry other tasks outside of writing time. The latop I used was an old, pathetic piece of technology that still had Wordpad on it. No spell checking. No grammar checking. Just full steam ahead writing.

It was hard at first. It did not take long, though, for the creative brain to understand that 7 PM with a laptop in front of me meant “get to writing.” And I wrote. A lot. Some of it was fiction, but there were other things. Still, I was writing. This is how I got my two novels finished. This is how I brought two other novels about three-quarters of the way there.

For me, that’s what was required to get the novel written: an outline and regularly scheduled writing time.

Find what works for you. Then get at least three novels completed.

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Assassination: A Review

Assassination, the Korean movie from 2015, is now available on Netflix in Canada. With my course load lighter (never trying two courses at the same time while I’m working), I have a bit of time on weekends to spend with my family, so my wife and I took the opportunity to watch it.

I’m going to get my major problem with the movie out of the way: it’s needlessly convoluted in order to pack in a bunch of historical figures from the Korean opposition to the Japanese occupation. The plot is way more complex than needed, and a bunch of characters have been jammed in – especially at the beginning of the film and as part of the film’s bookends. The primary audience are Koreans who know these historical figures, so I can understand to some degree the impetus to put them in, but for foreign audiences it adds a needless level of complexity.

But you know what? I don’t care. This movie has some really strong, flamboyant characters, a tough female protagonist – better than anything I’ve seen in a Korean movie until now – and some fantastic action set-pieces. This is not a great movie – see needlessly complex above – but I found the action really great. I think this is my favourite period Korean actioner after the Good, the Bad, the Weird. It’s very different than movies like the Man from Nowhere or straight up noir like the Yellow Sea, but it’s got that same sense of adventure that the Good, the Bad, the Weird did so well.

Ha Jung-woo, who was the lead in both the Yellow Sea and Kundo: Age of the Rampant, as well as the Berlin File and Nameless Gangster, is one of the lead characters in Assassination. He’s always solid, and he does a great job here of delivering conflicted yet swashbuckling. Yes, I’m going with swashbuckling. He doesn’t have a sword, but the kind of kinetic action here and the Good, the Bad, the Weird I think fits that term, if not through the historical setting.

Jun Ji-hyun/Gianna Jun plays the protagonist, a female sniper from Korean partisan forces fighting in Manchuria. Unlike many portrayals of female action heroes, she does not need the male characters to save her, and she is presented as brave, competent and resourceful. I hope we see more characters like this in Korean action cinema.

I’d also like to throw in a big thumb’s up for Oh Dal-su who I didn’t even recognize as “Old Man,” one of a pair of ne’er do wells. He wasn’t quite Song Kang-ho as the Weird in the Good, the Bad, the Weird, but he delivered a great performance, and he’s the first I think of when I use the term flamboyant – with his fantastic hair, great moustache, and machine-gun diplomacy.

Now while I love the adventure-vibe of much of the action, the plot itself is quite serious and takes on some really deep themes that would resonant with the Korean audience. Koreans have not forgiven or forgotten Japan’s heinous colonial rule of the peninsula, probably because in general, the Japanese have yet to admit (yes, there have been apologies, but when one part of the government apologizes while the rest is telling the populace that it did Korea a favour by grinding it down, you have to expect your apologies might not be taken seriously).

This is much weightier than the setting of Japanese colonial Manchuria, because this depicts the Japanese occupation of Korea. Sure, Koreans probably sympathize with the Chinese who suffered under Japan, but the occupation of Manchuria is academic to Koreans, while the occupation of Korea remains an open wound on the national psyche. Manchuria could be used as an America West stand-in because both are equally exotic to Koreans.

All this to say that the film does have some lighter moments, with some very kinetic action, but it does not have the Good, the Bad, the Weird‘s romantic tone. This is a deadly serious movie, but I will admit I wished it had gone the route of that kimchi western, because these characters could have been awesome in something lighter.

I give Assassination 4.5 cracked lens out of 5. I recommend this movie for its action and its characters. The weighty topic won’t feel so heavy to Western audiences, but the loading in of historical personages and the framing sequences will probably also fall flat.

You can learn more about Assassination at Wikipedia and IMDB.

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