Thursday, August 23, 2012

Confessions of a first time KOFFEE: Finding My Connection

Having just got through helping out with the opening night of this years Korean Film Festival, I thought I’d take the opportunity while the adrenalin is still pumping to share my journey of getting involved with the KOFFIA crew.

My journey to tonight happened somewhat by chance.  Having come to Australia in January after spending over 3 years in Japan, where Korea was less than a stones throw away and a place I found myself frequently visiting, I was eager to find some way to keep my connection, but didn’t know how.

It was while walking down Elizabeth Street one day for no reason in particular (well, actually I was probably trying to find a job to save myself from financial ruin) that I stumbled across the Korean Cultural Office, which I soon found out run a free movie night every Thursday.  I’d had some experience in writing about movies before, so eventually ended up speaking to Kieran, the Artistic Director of the office and all round nice guy, about contributing some pieces to go along with the movies that where being shown.  A few weeks later I was churning out an article a day for the Korean Cinema Blogathon event, and at the moment have somehow found myself roped into giving a presentation before the showing of ‘Miss Please Be Patient / 아가씨 참으세요in November, as well as arranging an interview with the famous super-kicker of countless kung-fu movies, Hwang Jang-lee.  Of course in between all of this fun, we have the event which kicked off today, the 3rd Korean Film Festival of Australia 2012, and what a festival it is!

While I’ve found myself in the position of being a blogger again for the festival, as much as it'd be easy to simply sit in front of my computer and enjoy the chaos from afar, there’s nothing quite like rolling your sleeves up and getting involved with the work happening at ground zero, & what better situation to experience it in than the opening night!

I turned up to DENDY cinema in Sydney’s beautiful Circular Quay at 4:00pm, after spending an inspiring 7 hours in front of a computer, in what we’ll just refer to as my “9 – 5 job” (the smart ones amongst you will realize that 4:00pm is a whole hour before 5:00pm, but what the hell, my boss isn’t going to be reading this), to be greeted by a scene of rampant activity.

Inky, the volunteer coordinator, was running things with a military like precision.  If you’ve ever seen Choi Min-sik’s performance in ‘Shiri’ as a military officer, well, I guess she was channeling a little bit of that.  Myself and about 30 other KOFFEEs soon got down to being split into teams and allocated to various different tasks – reception, bar, catering, ushers, and more.  As the teams got reeled off I couldn’t help but notice the plentiful bottles of makgeoli that were being lined up on the table next to me.  I suddenly felt a sense of panic at the prospect of having to actually serve free makgeoli to people instead of being the one drinking it, but thanks to my white shirt & black pants combo, I was allocated to catering and quickly calmed back down.

While there I got to meet a few other fellow KOFFEE's for the first time, and everybody was equally friendly and willing to help out as much as possible.  We ranged from exiled office workers like myself to students who are looking to gain some festival experience.  I got into a conversation with one particular KOFFEE who explained they were on a gap year from uni while getting some extra money from working at a doughnut store, and trying to decide what to do with their year off.  Rather enthusiastically I exclaimed "Korea!", imagining what better way to spend a year off than in the land of soju & smiles.  However I was rather surprised to see her giving me a look of something close to contempt, before firmly replying, "I'm just doing it part-time, I don't actually want to build my CAREER in doughnuts."  Before I had a chance to explain myself, the conversation was over, and I was left once more questioning my social capabilities.

Mere minutes later I found myself making lotus root skewers at a rate of over 20 a minute, as a culinary caveman that’s been known to set a toaster on fire while making toast, I found myself being quite impressed by my level of skill at placing the roots onto the skewers.  Later when I switched into waiter mode and some of the attendees dropped them over my shirt I wasn’t so impressed, but when you put on free makgeoli I guess it has to be put down as an occupational hazard.

6:00pm marked the start of the opening night, and it came by in the blink of an eye, soon people where filling up the cinema lobby and entrance, and I got to walk around serving the very food I made.  As people commented on how nice they where, I began to question if it’s possible for a person to say “Oh, I made them!” anymore than what I did, but you have to realize the last time I received any type of culinary praise was in the 2nd grade of high school, when my cookery teacher commented that my self baked cookies were “passable”.

Sporting my just come from the office look must have had some effect on the head caterer, as she asked me if I could be in charge of the logistics during the food waitering.  Basically if you take out a tray and the first few people keep taking everything, the people at the back getting nothing will start to get frustrated, so she explained it’s important to make sure everyone has access to the food.  Filled with a sense of responsibility and purpose, I took on the task to lead people in the art of fair food distribution.  Despite my readiness, the moment the doors opened for the first time and people caught sight of the delicious looking boats of chapchae we carried, eyes widening, the stampede was unstoppable, and the best I could muster was, “Try to give some to everyone!”  Great work Paul, very constructive, my 7 year old cousin could have said something more useful than that.

Another hour passed in what felt like a matter of seconds, and the lobby gradually emptied as people packed in to see what they’d came here for, last years blockbuster hit ‘War of the Arrows / 최종병기 ()’.  While everyone enjoyed 2 hours of Korean cinematic goodness, we busied ourselves with the cleanup operation, which must be said for the most part involved eating pretty much everything that wasn’t consumed by the attendees a few moments earlier.

It’s often the moments of quiet and chance encounters that we remember the most, and as the cleanup operation wrapped up I went back up to the cinemas catering facilities to make sure we’d got everything, only to find the 6 catering staff gathering together to have a cup of makgeoli to congratulate each other on a nights successful work coming to a close.  They invited me over to join them and passed me a traditional makgeoli cup, and there in the quiet of a small concrete corridor in the back end of a glamorous cinema, we cheered our glasses together and downed the cooled Korean rice wine as if it was the best we’d ever tasted.  Unfortunately my Korean conversation skills didn’t match the quality of the makgeoli, and the best I could muster was something along the lines of, “This is good, I was hungry, now I’m full, I like soju, what’s your favourite colour?”  Oh well, it will improve in time, I’ve been telling myself for the past few years now but I never lose confidence.

My experience of being a KOFFIA for the first time?  A sense of satisfaction, I got to meet a bunch of great people who I’ll definitely be seeing more of, got to try things I’d normally never have the chance to, and got a green t-shirt that’s the envy of everyone in Sydney who doesn’t have one.  One night down, six more to go!


  1. Cool. This is a great article. You set a frenetic ambiance. Knowing how much you enjoy Korean culture, this is a great experience for you. Hope it opens other opportunities for you, like maybe a job with the Korean Culture Office? (Um...all you get to wear for the next 6 nights is that green shirt? Phew! Don't forget to wash that thing, bro!)

  2. Thanks buddy, we'll see! For now I'm happy to do it for the enjoyment I get out of writing about something I really enjoy, and hoping other people will get the same enjoyment from reading it, but time will tell! I'll have to keep my reply short, I got a t-shirt to wash...

  3. Oh man, that was a beautiful write up man. Wonderful reporting- and fast! I felt like I was there. I love that you jumped in there and were willing to try whatever came your way. I'm really looking forward to your next blog entry Paul. Excellent!

  4. Very good post. You dove into it head on, and it looks like you wound up in your element.

    Looking forward to further reading!