Last October I headed to Korea with the
Parts Unknown production crew. I’m a Korean-American, and it was my first time back since I was four years old, so I was psyched to experience the country as an adult, and with an ambitious production itinerary in hand. Which is to say that this wasn’t a vacation. The NYC crew we were rolling with consisted of Tony, director Tom Vitale, producer Nari Kye (doubling as on-camera talent), directors of photography Todd Liebler and Zach Zamboni and myself. Below is a journal of the trip, an account of where we went and what we ate — at least from what I could remember through a somaek-induced haze. Why do my people love to mix different types of alcohol so much!? October 21, 2014, 2 p.m.: Depart NYC for Korea. Tony and I are flying out to join the rest of the crew, who had arrived in Korea the day before. I know you’re “not supposed to eat the plane food,” but I’m intrigued by this tube form of gochujang, so I can’t resist. No explosive bowel movements to report. October 22, 2014, 5:20 p.m.: Arrive at Incheon International Airport in Seoul. Meet the crew at hotel and check in. The assistant cameramen introduce themselves and mention that they watched the Vice Munchies video in preparation to work with us. Not totally sure what they are expecting, but it should be interesting seeing as how that evening ended up with a complimentary admission card to Flashdancers. October 23, 2014, 8 a.m.: Mornings usually start with a production meeting at breakfast in the hotel lobby. A scene we had been scheduled to shoot has just fallen through, so we’re reviewing backups and making a plan for the day. We split up for city coverage. Zach, local crew and I head to Gangnam to shoot b-roll and break in the new SinaCam system. Zach and Todd custom-built this system, and it’s the first time that a TV show has been filmed this way. Zach explains it better: “The challenge: See Seoul from a different perspective. Solution: Shoot the whole show on a camera that fits in the palm of my hand. The SinaCam, fully manual with a global shutter, was an entirely new way of capturing a television program.” 6 p.m.: Head over to Gwangjang Market for our first scene. The crew usually goes to locations ahead of Tony to do the final checks on logistics with the owner, build cameras, scope out the lighting situation and look for the best place to shoot from. After getting yelled at and shoved by several angry halmunees (Korean grandmas), we finally find a place to set our gear. I wander off and take a walk around the market. I stop at this woman’s stall. The banchan is on point. I sit down at one of the stalls where a lady is preparing fresh bindaetteok, a pancake made with the ground vegetable laced with scallions. I snack on the freshly fried goodness, dipping pieces in a soy sauce and vinegar sauce with onions. Walkie goes off. Tony is five minutes out. Head over to the stall with the woman we’re going to film with. Of course, we end up filming with the most Han-filled-looking woman in the market. She doesn’t even crack a smile, but her ddukboki (spicy rice cakes), japchae (sweet-potato noodles), and soondae (blood sausage) game is serious, and that’s all that matters. Carnage! October 24, 2014, 9 a.m.: We load gear and head to the outskirts of Seoul to chef Choi Biryong’s U.S. Army barrack-converted studio to shoot an episode of his popular mukbang show. Mukbang, which means broadcast eating, is a recent phenomenon in Korea in which people livestream their meals to thousands of viewers. Today, we film Tony and chef Biryong beam the magnificence of budae jjigae. 3 p.m.: Pack up gear and head out for crew meal: Korean Chinese food. When it comes to Korean Chinese food, you’re either on team jjajangmyun (noodles with black bean sauce, diced pork, onions and cucumber) or team jjampong (spicy seafood noodle soup). But everyone can get down on some kanpoongi (sweet and sour chicken) and tangsuyuk (sweet and sour pork). This was one of our favorite crew meals of the trip. I’m team jjajangmyun. All day. 8 p.m.: Night out, in the name of research, of course. We scout the makgeolli spot we will be filming at later this week. We learn all the Korean drinking games. Research! October 25, 2014, 7 p.m.: Head to Jongro District to film at a pojangmacha with Mark from Drunken Tiger. We find a place to set up gear and Zach and Todd go looking for the best spot to film. The manager of the pojangmacha comes up to us to tell us that he just found out we can’t film there anymore. Doesn’t give a reason. Doesn’t matter. Walkie goes off. Tony and Mark are five minutes out. Find new location. Get permission from owner. Now. Run across the street to secure a different pojangmacha. Silkworm soup nightcap. October 26, 2014, 8 a.m.: Meet at hotel to review footage from last night. 12 p.m.: Head to Garak Market, a seafood market that has several restaurants in the center. The different restaurants are more like stalls lined with tanks of live fish and raised wooden platforms with low tables where you sit cross-legged. I was stoked to order meonggae (sea pineapple). The journalist Nick Tosches describes the appearance of meonggae as “something that could exist only in a purely hallucinatory ecosystem.” Nari and Tony do the right Korean thing and have soju. And more soju…. Scene’s over, and four bottles later, we’re waiting in the parking lot outside for Tony’s car. He’s beginning to demonstrate jiujitsu moves, as he calls them out, on our director Tom, so we know it’s time to call the driver. Kimura! Americana! Rear Naked Choke! Nari begins to talk about ways in which she can chop Tony down with her childhood Tae Kwon Do skills. This car is taking too long. 11 p.m.: Crew meeting at hotel to review footage. October 27, 2014, 9 a.m.: Morning street b-roll (and snacks). Nari picks up a variety of fried snacks from one of the pojangmachas on the block. Good for hangovers. 4 p.m.: We head to Mapo District for our Korean BBQ scene with the businessmen. Crew meal! Of course, our original sidekicks for this scene waited until they arrived on location to tell us they were no longer available the following day to film with us. Not gonna work. Plan B. All hands on deck to find new businessmen…who’d be willing to get drunk on camera. We lucked out and found these guys, who were already on location drinking and eating. Perfect. October 28, 2014, 9 p.m.: Television doesn’t happen in real time. The one-night bender is really a two-night bender. Tony and the businessmen meet us at our first location of the day, the makgeolli spot we scouted a couple nights before. October 29, 2014, 12:30 a.m.: Street walk to karaoke spot. Five drunk men on the streets of Seoul. Controlled chaos. A choreographed dance of the crew running backward and forward, Zach and Todd with their ACs attached to them to make sure they’re not going to get hit by cars or run into people. Thanks to Josh Homme and Queens of the Stone Age for letting us use the track and shamelessly rip off their music video. 1 a.m.: Karaoke. Everyone makes it out alive. October 29, 2014, 11 a.m.: Bathhouse. They’re filming in the men’s-only section of the bathhouse, so a bunch of the crew members wait outside. Our drivers go upstairs and come back down with a look of terror in their eyes. Good luck, Tony! 3 p.m.: Korean fried chicken crew meal before the scene with Tony and Nari.
9 p.m.: Last shot: the quintessential Korean Drama man-drinking-alone-at-the-pojangmacha shot. Wrap.
On the evening of October 30, Tony and I fly back a day before the rest of the crew, so they send me with the footage to deliver to HQ.
After watching the episode, people inevitably will make the “Why didn’t you go to my favorite [fill in the blank] spot?” or “You should have gone to [location X] instead” comments. So it’s worth noting that we’re not saying these spots are the best of Seoul or best of Korea. It’s just one experience. That said, if you feel like retracing our misadventures, below is a list of all the places we hit up:
Gwangjang Market 88 Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea +82 2-2267-0291
JangSoonRoo (Korean-Chinese crew meal) 325-1 Gwangjang-dong Gwangjin-gu, Seoul.
Game in Me PC Bang 809-16 Yuk Sang Dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea +88 2-2555-3273
Pojangmacha 8 Chung Guk, Jung Lo 3, Seoul, South Korea
Garak Market 298 Garak-dong, Songpa-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Mapo Jeong Daepo (Korean bbq) 183-8 Dohwa-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea +82 2-3275-0122
Bathhouse 2448-4 Shin gil 6, Young Teung Po-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Ggu Da Dak (Korean fried chicken) 112-114 Doe guk dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Gol Mok Jib 813-11 Yuk Sam Dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Junco Music Town (karaoke) 1309-5, basement floor, Suh-cho gu, Sucho-dong, Seoul