Tag Archives: south korea

Book review: ‘Nothing to Envy | Ordinary Lives in North Korea’

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Photo courtesy of Spiegel & Grau

Mi-ran and Jun-sang had known each other for 13 years and dated for nine. After three years, they began to cautiously hold hands under the cover of darkness once they’d walked a safe enough distance out of town. After six years, Jun-sang mustered up the courage to give Mi-ran an awkward kiss on the cheek, which she quickly rebuffed out of fear and shock.

When Mi-ran escaped with her family to South Korea, she couldn’t risk saying goodbye to Jun-sang. When he showed up one morning to find her family missing, he realized he’d been too late — too late to share with her the capitalist books he’d secretly been reading at university, the South Korean television signals he could faintly pick up at home and his hidden dream of running away with her to Seoul. She was already gone.

The two young lovers are the heart of Barbara Demick’s book, ‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,’ which profiles six North Korean defectors hailing from an industrial town in the northeastern part of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

‘Nothing to Envy’ is an enthralling read — a kind of novelization that follows its subjects through a fifteen-year period. From the death of Kim Il-sung to the horrific famine of the 1990s, ‘Nothing to Envy’ shows North Korea from the perspective of average citizens, far away from the carefully-constructed capital city Pyongyang and the state’s propaganda-filled press releases.

The book provides a quick but excellent background on how North Korea came to be what it is today. One of the book’s most memorable stories is the biography of Mi-ran’s father, which serves to explain her family’s low social status and “tainted blood.” A once popular and confident young man from a Southern farming area, Tae-woo was taken as a prisoner of war by the North and essentially trapped on the opposite side of the peninsula when a power struggle between the United States and Soviet Union resulted in the drawing of an arbitrary border across the map along the 38th parallel.

“Koreans were infuriated to be partitioned in the same way as the Germans. After all, they had not been aggressors in World War II, but victims. Koreans at the time described themselves with a self-deprecating expression, saying they were ‘shrimp among whales,’ crushed between the rivalries of the superpowers,” Demick writes.

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South Korea on the left and North Korea on the right, as seen from the Korean Demilitarized Zone. SCREAMfmLondon

‘Nothing to Envy’ follows its subjects as Kim Il-sung takes control of the DPRK with promises of an idyllic Communist state and, for the first few years, delivers on them. Then, readers see these people struggle to keep the faith after Kim Jong-il rises to power and the country’s economic crisis begins, resulting in the famine that ultimately killed around 3.5 million North Koreans.

Eventually, each of the subjects experiences a life-altering moment of final disillusionment which leads them to leave their country and, often, many loved ones, established careers and educations behind. For Jun-sang, the epiphany finally came when he was able to configure his television to pick up South Korean signals that told him news of the world and, for the first time, honest coverage of North Korea.

“Listening to South Korean television was like looking in the mirror for the first time in your life and realizing you were unattractive,” Demick writes. “North Koreans were always told theirs was the proudest country in the world, but the rest of the world considered it a pathetic, bankrupt regime.”

However, the defectors’ difficulties don’t end once they reach Seoul. The initial euphoria they experience often is short-lived, as they have to struggle to acclimate to modern society and start their lives over from scratch. Work experience and university degrees from the DPRK are useless, so the North Korean doctors and intellectuals we’ve gotten to know over the course of the book find themselves taking jobs as nannies and fast food delivery drivers.

‘Nothing to Envy’ concludes with an epilogue bringing the reader up-to-date with North Korea, briefly examining the first years of Kim Jong-un’s reign as Supreme Leader.

It’s an amazingly moving book, and it paints such a vivid picture of life inside North Korea for the past few decades. Not only is ‘Nothing to Envy’ a good primer on the Korean War and the politics surrounding it, but the personal stories within are so poignant they will stay with you long after reading.

The book’s conclusion is realistic and, therefore, inconclusive. The totalitarian regime in North Korea has already endured longer than anyone expected and continues to this day. Although many North Koreans manage to escape, so many are still living lives not unlike those depicted in the book — some are better off and some worse. And their stories are going untold.

‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea’
Barbara Demick
Release Date: Sept. 21, 2010
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Politics
Pages: 336
Grade: A

Click here to read about my visit to the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone.

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Scenes from Busan: Jagalchi Fish Market and more

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Busan’s famous Gamcheon Culture Village. Houses built on windy roadways on the foothills of a coastal mountain make this spot a must-see for tourists to South Korea’s second-largest city. The alleys are uniquely decorated with murals, sculptures and vibrant colors. SCREAMfmLondon

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Jagalchi is Korea’s largest seafood market. Vendors sell all types of fresh seafood throughout the market’s meandering corridors. SCREAMfmLondon

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Vendors at Jagalchi Market offer everything from live turtles and eels to dried fish and seaweed. SCREAMfmLondon

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Small restaurants found inside Jagalchi Market serve freshly-prepared fish dishes. SCREAMfmLondon

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Busan Gamcheon Culture Village at dusk. SCREAMfmLondon

RPDR’s Kim Chi slays Seoul debut at SKRT in Itaewon

“One day, I would love to be able to perform in South Korea and actually have people come out to see me.”

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Kim Chi performs at SKRT in Itaewon, Seoul on Sept. 24. SCREAMfmLondon

About an hour before doors opened at the Itaewon nightclub SKRT for Mad Bambi’s third drag ball in Seoul, the line already stretched down the block and around the corner. By 11 p.m., the line had grown beyond the fire station at the nearby intersection, down the street and out of sight. Forty-five minutes after the doors opened, tickets were sold out.

Seoulites walking past would stop and stare at the huge crowd. “What is the line for?” they would ask.

“We’re waiting for Kim Chi,” we’d respond. They would continue to stare.

“All these people are waiting in line for some kimchi?”

“No, this person on the poster is Kim Chi, a man who dresses as a woman.”

“…That’s a man?”

The attraction of the evening was, of course, Kim Chi — an anime-inspired, conceptual drag queen and runner-up on season eight of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Born in the USA but raised in South Korea, Kim Chi has a special place in the hearts of Korean fans who turned up en masse to support her debut on the Seoul drag scene.

I’ve never been to such a crowded drag show. I missed half the voguing waiting in line out front, and strained to see over the crowd during the opening performances of local queens Nikki Ashes, Charlotte Goodenough and Cha Cha.

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Kim Chi performs for fans at SKRT in Itaewon, Seoul. SCREAMfmLondon

Finally, Kim Chi arrived onstage to the Dixie Chicks’ “Sin Wagon,” twirling her red skirt and tipping a wide-brimmed hat. Kim is a queen known for her incredible looks and makeup talent, so it was a thrill to see her work up close as we all sweated and danced together to the DJ’s tunes that ranged from Lady Gaga and Beyoncé to their K-pop equivalents HyunA and CL.

Kim Chi spoke to the audience in both English and Korean, expressing her joy and gratitude for the warm reception. During her set, Kim performed English and Korean lipsyncs, as well as her RPDR trademark song, “Fat, Fem & Asian,” which is a tongue-in-cheek response to the marginalization of anyone fat, femme or Asian in the gay community.

It was very exciting to see Kim Chi’s triumphant return to Seoul after her rise to stardom on RPDR. It was exciting to see such an excellent turnout despite South Korea’s less-than-accepting stance on homosexuality.

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Seoul’s gay pride parade this June. SCREAMfmLondon

At the annual gay pride parade in Seoul every summer, religious protesters surround the event, preach over loudspeakers and occasionally try to put a stop to the Pride events. In previous years, Christian groups have laid down in the street to stop the parade and, last year, attempted to prevent the event from even receiving its permits from the city.

But the Korean LGBT community carries on, with role models like Kim Chi paving the way. Her drag is captivating and cutting-edge, and she never shies away from her Korean heritage. On “Drag Race,” Kim Chi stood out from previous Asian contestants for not simply joking about racial stereotypes but instead embracing her Korean roots and using that connection to her full advantage. One standout moment came when Kim appeared on the main stage in a beautiful traditional hanbok as a tribute to her mother.

Kim Chi’s sold-out performance at SKRT is hopefully a sign of more good things to come.

Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery

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Trees in full bloom at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

Every year, people wait for the perfect few days in April to head out to the best parks in Seoul for viewing blooming cherry trees. Yeouido and Jinhae are particularly popular spots for cherry blossom picnics and photoshoots, but Seoul National Cemetery in Dongjak-dong offers a less crowded, more peaceful alternative.

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Cherry blossoms signal the coming of spring weather in Seoul. SCREAMfmLondon

Seoul National Cemetery is known for its weeping cherry trees, which have flower-covered branches that hang low and swing in the wind. The elegant weeping cherry tree branches fit the tranquil mood of the cemetery.

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Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

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Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

The cemetery is reserved for Korean veterans, including those of the Korean independence movement, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Several former Korean presidents are also buried there. In addition to the cherry trees, there are photo exhibits and memorial monuments to appreciate.

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

Although viewing cherry blossoms is so popular in modern-day South Korea, the country’s relationship with the national flower of Japan is actually kind of complicated. Because Yoshino cherry trees were planted on Korean palace grounds during the Japanese occupation of Korea, the continued cherry blossom festivals have been controversial. Some Koreans view the trees as symbols of the occupation, and many trees have been chopped down as a political statement.

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

Regardless of the contentious history of cherry blossoms in Korea, the beautiful and short-lived blossoms still attract huge crowds during the first few weeks of April. This weekend, the weather was warm, but the skies were gray — not with fog but with awful air pollution. Such is spring in 2016.

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Spring! SCREAMfmLondon

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

Food: Bingsu in the wintertime

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It’s too adorable! Patbingsu with red beans, rice cakes and little macaron ears. SCREAMfmLondon

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Sulbing is my favorite dessert café. This is mango cheese (mango, cheesecake, almonds, sherbet and shaved ice) and real chocolate (cocoa powder, whipped cream, chocolate flakes, brownie bites and shaved ice). Incredibly delicious. Who cares if it’s -5 degrees out? SCREAMfmLondon

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Thank God Caffè Bene provides reading lamps to create the most dramatic bingsu portraits of all time. This is shaved ice covered in cotton candy covered in pop rocks (my childhood dream!). Unfortunately, everything I’ve ever tried at Caffè Bene has been terrible, including this. Tasteless and disappointing. SCREAMfmLondon

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Another cheese berry bingsu. This one has a little smile! Caffé Tiamo always delivers. SCREAMfmLondon

Capsule drama reviews: The Secret Message, The Lover, etc.

‘The Secret Message’
Starring:
Choi Seung-hyun, Juri Ueno and Yoo In-na
Genre: Romance, Drama
Episodes: 18

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Photo courtesy of CJ E&M and Amuse, Inc.

Like “EXO Lives Next Door,” “The Secret Message” is a quick web series comprised of short episodes that are each only 10-20 minutes long, which is such a wonderful format. Unlike “EXO Lives Next Door,” “The Secret Message” is pretty sophisticated, well-written and well-executed. Sorry about it.

The show takes place half in Korea and half in Japan. Juri Ueno plays Haruka, a Japanese woman who is staying with a friend in South Korea, trying to deal with the end of her first romantic relationship. T.O.P plays Woo-hyun, a Korean filmmaker working in Japan on a documentary about love who is, himself, still hurt from a recent breakup. When Woo-hyun accidentally texts Haruka’s phone number, the two begin communicating despite the distance and language barrier between them.

The cinematography and scenery showing off the beauty of both Korea and Japan adds a really nice touch to “The Secret Message.” And, although the show tries to take the subject of moving on from a lost love pretty seriously, T.O.P’s goofy personality, interspersed jokes and references to Big Bang keep it cute and entertaining. But “The Secret Message” is kind of a big exercise in product placement. The show originally aired on Line TV and is clearly sponsored by the Line messaging app — quite a lot of the communication takes place through the app, and the trademark Line characters appear throughout. That being said, “The Secret Message” totally makes me want to download Line. I mean, if there’s a possibility T.O.P will accidentally text you and fall in love despite the odds… Well played, Line.

‘Twenty’
Release Date:
March 25, 2015
Director: Lee Byeong-heon
Starring: Kim Woo-bin, Lee Junho and Kang Ha-neul
Genre: Comedy
Rating: Not Rated

twenty

Photo courtesy of Next Entertainment World.

I got quite a kick out of “Twenty.” This is a raunchy coming-of-age sex comedy/buddy movie — just like “Superbad,” only funnier and with better-looking actors.

The story follows three best friends who have just turned 20 and are at a crossroads in their lives. Chi-ho (Kim Woo-bin) is the spoiled rich boy whose only aspiration is to have sex with as many women as possible. Dong-woo (Lee Junho from the idol group 2PM) dreams of being a comic book illustrator, but has work part time jobs instead of attending art school after his family’s bankruptcy. Kung-jae (Kang Ha-neul) is a preppy college student who falls in love with a smart upperclassman in the stock market club.

“Twenty” is awfully entertaining. Each of the lead characters is charismatic in his own way, and each individual plot arc is interesting. Although “Twenty” is decidedly a comedy, there are some well-done dramatic moments that add a lot of depth to the story. Even the cinematography is interesting — the film features some well-placed surrealism (the group of friends arriving at a literal crossroads in the dirt) and a solid soundtrack to enhance key scenes. It’s a bawdy, laugh-out-loud funny movie (seriously, it is), but it’s also slightly tragic. Basically, “Twenty” is a great movie that perfectly toes the line between soul-searching melodrama and dudes making dick jokes.

‘Oh My Ghostess’ (aka ‘Oh My Ghost’)
Starring: Park Bo-young, Kim Seul-gie and Jo Jung-suk
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Romance
Episodes: 16

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Photo courtesy of tvN.

“Oh My Ghostess” is a fun show to watch — it’s a kind of sexy romantic-comedy that slowly turns into a murder mystery. With solid acting from all of the cast members, this show just gets more exciting to watch as it progresses. It’s, at times, funny and dark with an action-packed conclusion led by the show’s cool group of heroines.

Shin Soon-ae (Kim Seul-gie) is a ghost who is unable to cross over until she resolves her grudge: that she died a virgin. Unfortunately, in order to resolve her grudge, she has to find and seduce a “man of vitality” who is able to withstand sex with a ghost without dying (she learns this the hard way). Na Bong-sun (Park Bo-young) is a meek assistant chef whose shaman grandmother enables her to see ghosts, making her body the perfect vessel for opportunistic spirits. And Kang Sun-woo (Jo Jong-suk), the handsome celebrity chef who employs Bong-sun, seems to be full of vitality, if you know what I mean.

“Oh My Ghostess” is very amusing, and Park Bo-young especially does an excellent job portraying both shy Bong-sun and gregarious, sexually liberated Bong-sun-as-possessed-by-Soon-ae. The budding romance is cute, and the relationship between Bong-sun and her coworkers at the restaurant is sweet. However, the show really gets interesting when Soon-ae’s memories of her life begin returning and she starts to question the suspicious circumstances of her death.

‘The Lover’
Starring:
Oh Jung-se, Ryu Hyun-kyung and Jung Joon-young
Genre: Romance, Comedy
Episodes: 12

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Takuya Terada and Lee Jae-joon star in “The Lover.” Photo courtesy of Mnet.

“The Lover” is kind of a stupid show, but I just couldn’t stop watching it once I started. Although it starts out highly ridiculously (there are entire long episodes hinged solely on double entendres, innuendos and sex jokes), the characters become relatable and, suddenly, the plot of “The Lover” seems very serious. I even cried a little during the last episode!

The show follows four different couples in the same apartment building who are — scandalously — living together before marriage. The primary focus is on Oh Do-si (Oh Jung-se) and Ryu Doo-ri (Ryu Hyun-kyung), who are both in their 30s and have lived together for two years. In the next apartment over lives Ji-nyeo (Choi Yeo-jin) and her cute guitarist boyfriend Young-joon (Jung Joon-young), who is 12 years her junior. On the seventh floor lives Joon-jae (Lee Jae-joon), a quiet homebody who is quickly falling in love with his Japanese roommate Takuya (Takuya Terada from Cross Gene). They get very little screen time, unfortunately, but their story arc is the most tense and compelling. And, finally, on the fifth floor lives Hwan-jong (Park Jong-hwan) and Seol-eun (Ha Eun-seol), an engaged couple who just moved in together.

Some of the couples are more entertaining than others: Ji-nyeo and Young-joon are adorable, hilarious and touching, while Hwan-jong and Seol-eun are awkward and lack chemistry. “The Lover” is definitely worth watching, though, for its amusing, in-your-face portrayal of cohabitation, sex and love in Korea (without marriage!), and its focus on more unconventional romantic pairings. Plus, it has a pretty sufficiently satisfying ending for everyone. “The Lover” even presents the happiest ending I’ve seen for gay characters in a k-drama so far! I’ll take it.

Capsule film reviews: Even more foreign LGBT movies

‘Night Flight’ (South Korea)
Release Date: Aug. 28, 2014
Director: Leesong Hee-il
Starring: Kwak Si-yang, Lee Jae-joon and Choi Jun-ha
Genre: Drama
Rating: Not Rated
Grade: A-

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Photo courtesy of Finecut.

“Night Flight” is a very well-done story of loneliness and survival. It follows three former friends who have grown apart during high school. Gi-taek (Choi Jun-ha) uses comic books to escape from real life where he is bullied by his classmates, Gi-woong (Lee Jae-joon) tries to distance himself from everyone and expresses himself only through fighting, and Yong-ju (Kwak Si-yang) is realizing his sexuality and the feelings he’s had for Gi-woong since middle school. The seeming hopelessness of overcoming the teenage experience is always achingly sad, and it’s particularly well illustrated in this film. “Night Flight” is perfectly paced and thoroughly explores the relationships between each of the characters. Although it’s quite upsetting and violent throughout, it provides a satisfying ending. The least successful element of the film is its odd and out-of-place soundtrack — especially during the end credits, where the poignant final scene is cut off with the jarring sound of some jaunty indie folk song for some reason unbeknownst to me.

‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ (France)
Release Date: Oct. 9, 2013
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Starring: Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Salim Kechiouche
Genre: Drama, Romance
Rating: NC-17 for explicit sexual content.
Grade: A-

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Photo courtesy of Wild Bunch.

“Blue is the Warmest Color” has been one of the most critically acclaimed LGBT films in recent years, and it’s really pretty good. It’s a great, long (long, long) movie with the world’s longest, most in-depth sex scene. It’s almost comical how long and in-depth the sex scenes are in “Blue is the Warmest Color,” but it’s fitting because every scene is quite long and in-depth. I know it’s a very American thing to emphasize, but, damn, this movie is long. The story follows Adèle’s (Adèle Exarchopoulos) coming-of-age. She begins as a 15-year-old high school student struggling to convince herself she’s interested in boys, but eventually realizes she’s much more interested in an older, blue-haired painter named Emma (Léa Seydoux). The film artfully and thoroughly follows Adèle and Emma through the highs and lows of a first love. “Blue is the Warmest Color” is realistic — often harshly. It’s a well-told story with a strong ending, though, so it’s obvious to see why it’s become so beloved since its 2013 release.

‘Schoolboy Crush’ (Japan)
Release Date: Aug. 6, 2007
Director: Kôtarô Terauchi
Starring: Yoshikazu Kotani, Atsumi Kanno and Yuuki Kawakubo
Genre: Drama
Rating: Not Rated
Grade: D

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Photo courtesy of TLA Releasing.

Wow, what a wild ride. Although “Schoolboy Crush” bills itself as some sort of sexy, twisted romance taking place in an all-boys boarding school in Japan, it’s actually more like three entire seasons of a soap opera condensed into a brisk 88 minutes. Not to be confused with the gay porn of the same name, “Schoolboy Crush” follows Aoi (Yoshikazu Kotani), a teacher who discovers that an escort he recently slept with is a new student in his class. To say that literally everything happens in this movie is not even that much of an exaggeration. There’s some kidnapping, suicide, bullying, stalking, prostitution, blackmail, love triangle, comas, tragic family backstory, marine biology… There’s even a very exciting scene where somebody gets beaten with a candelabra inside the church. So much zany stuff happens, but “Schoolboy Crush” is still remarkably boring because they hardly even get to the actual romance that was supposed to be central to the plot. At least, I think that’s what the movie was supposed to be about.

‘Free Fall’ (Germany)
Release Date: May 23, 2013
Director: Stephan Lacant
Starring: Hanno Koffler, Max Riemelt and Katharina Schüttler
Genre: Drama
Rating: Not Rated
Grade: D

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Photo courtesy of Edition Salzgeber.

“Free Fall” is a German film about Marc (Hanno Koffler), a police officer in training, who begins having a secret relationship with a fellow officer despite living with his pregnant girlfriend. I feel like I should keep this short because you’ve surely read this review before. Everybody has seen this movie before. It plays out exactly as it always does in these kinds of movies: Marc is very conflicted about his newfound feelings for men. He tries to deny them, but is unable to resist. He acts like an asshole to everybody. His girlfriend becomes upset. So does his boyfriend. Everything eventually unravels. It’s made well enough, but “Free Fall” is super predictable and doesn’t have anything new to offer. The lack of diversity and creative storytelling in queer movies continues to frustrate me. Why bother continuing to make the same movie over and over again? If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Skip “Free Fall.”