Friday, December 29, 2006

Embarrassment of Riches:
Korean Movies 2006 Wrap-Up

What do you call an industry that has grown twelve times over the past decade? If you are a Korean filmmaker, you would call it "in trouble." Seriously. Despite the huge strides made by the Korean movie business over the past decade, just about everyone I talk to these days is convinced they are in big trouble.

How is that possible? Producers and investors will tell you that although the industry as a whole is raking in more money than ever before, in fact the average film is doing worse. They are making less money in home video, making them more sensitive to cinema revenue. But the entire Korean movie industry made less than $50 million at the box office 10 years ago (and less than $30 million back in 1993). In 2006, it made over $600 million. So who is right?

Let's take a more careful look at the numbers. The box office for Korean movies over the past three years has grown steadily -- from $542 million in 2004 to $567 million in 2005 to about $660-690 million this year (final figures are not in yet). However, the number of Korean films released each year has also risen, from 72 to 79 to a stunning 118 this year (that is the most number of films made in a year in Korea for 30 years). Take the mean average and you get $7.53 million in 2004, $7.18 million in 2005 and $5.85 million in 2006.

But it gets worse than that. Like figure skating, you should not let the best and the worst skew results too much. So let's knock off the top two movies from each year. In 2004, that is SILMIDO and TAEGUKGI. In 2005, that is WELCOME TO DONGMAKGOL and MARATHON. In 2006, KING AND THE CLOWN and THE HOST.

The new means are:
2004 - $5.53 million
2005 - $6.11 million
2006 - $4.40 million

Yikes! That looks pretty bad. Especially considering how production and marketing costs have kept rising.

Looks, however, can be deceiving. First of all, mean average is not a great statistic. Pretty much everyone agrees that far too many films were made this year, and next year the number should return back closer to 80 or so. Also, life is about far more than averages. We are capitalists, dammit, and free markets are about winners and losers. And the pattern of winners has changed a lot.

Using just Seoul numbers... (I have more handy numbers available just for Seoul, but the pattern works nationwide... nationwide attendance is usually about 3.5 times the Seoul number).

In 2004, we had:
1 Korean film with over 3 million attendance in Seoul
2 films over 2 million
3 films over 1 million
16 over 500,000
36 over 200,000

In 2005 we had:
0 over 3 million
1 over 2 million
6 over 1 million
13 over 500,000
32 over 200,000

In 2006:
2 Korean films over 3 million
3 over 2 million
6 over 1 million
16 over 500,000
33 over 200,000

What do we see? A slight swelling in hits, both at the mega-hit level and the hit level. Almost no change at the moderate level. Which means that there are more money-makers than ever, and as many successes... but the vast majority of those new productions have ended up in the toilet, with lousy attendance.

So what we have is a PRODUCTION problem. Film companies are making too many crappy films that no one cares about. And, as a first-year economics textbook teaches, they are getting weeded out. Successful filmmakers are getting rewarded and bad filmmakers are losing their shirts... which is how an economy is supposed to work.

Backing me up, I would rhetorically ask how many really good films were released in the last year that did not find an audience? Hong Sang-soo's WOMAN ON THE BEACH did not do great, but Hong is not a mainstream filmmaker. Same with Song Il-gon's MAGICIANS. But plenty of terrible films made far more money than they had any right to (I'm talking to you, TUSABU ILCHAE).

As for ancillary revenues... Yes, the lack of a DVD market in Korea is brutal. However, I would not overstate how big the home video market used to be. Sure, in the mid-1990s, filmmakers could get 50-60% of their costs back from home video... but average production costs were well under $1 million back then. What really happened was that the film industry has grown up but home video has not kept pace.

I would feel a lot worse for filmmakers if every subway station and corner in the nation was not occupied by some dufus selling pirated DVDs. Duh! Especially since the Korean police just received ex officio powers to enforce intellectual property rights last fall, there is no reason for a country as modern and successful as Korea to have such a ridiculous and pitiable piracy problem. Really... it was one thing when Korea was ripping off the rest of the world. Now, piracy is killing its home market. This is a local problem with a very obvious local solution.

Another part of the problem, of course, is a certain innate pessimism you find just about everywhere in Korea (which, if you are interested in, you should check out Hahm Pyong-choon's great essay, "Shamanism and the Korean World-View", in Shamanism: The Spirit World of Korea). In all my years in Korea, I have never heard people tell me that it was a good year for the film industry.

What's next? Well, that is the million-dollar question, isn't it? But I am actually pretty optimistic, for a few reasons. I think the over-production problems is going to solve itself fairly quickly and naturally. I also see a good future for the other biggest problem -- diversity.

A lot of people have complained (correctly) that the Korean film industry has gone to the same wells too many times over the past couple of years. But I think that is changing.

Park Dong-ho, the CEO of the multiplex chain CJ CGV, once told me that he thought Korea had a real diversity problem, but it was a question of demand and supply. At the time, the nation simply had too few screens. In 1996, there were less than 500. When I talked to Park, we were over 1,200. Today, there are around 1,800. Park said that once Korea had over 2,000 screens, diversity would take care of itself. Right now, there are too few screens chasing the biggest hits, so every theater wants the same movies. But as you top 2,000 screens, you begin to get a situation where the same-old-same-old gets less and less profitable. Gradually, being able to distinguish your product becomes more important, having a better selection than the neighboring theaters. I think the success Sponge House has been having is the first signs of the trend.

Similarly, I think some of the studios are beginning to get it. CJ and Nabi Pictures signed a deal last year to start making around five low-budget, HD action movies a year. Brilliant. Think of how many great directors in the West got their start with Roger Corman or other low-budget outfits. Think of Robert Rodriguez or Del Toro's PAN'S LABYRINTH. Low budgets mean freedom. Freedom to play around, try out new things, now talent. Developing a solid network of low-budget movies could be just what Korea needs to jump-start its creativity once again (kind of like the economic crisis of 1997 did).

So. Sorry to be so long-winded. But I think I have made a fairly clear case that the Korean film industry is in fact doing well... Riskier, but also with more rewards for the best. (Yes, I know "best" is a loaded term... but I advisedly use it nonetheless).

UPDATE: Somewhat similar trends seem to be befalling Japanese cinema. Check it out over at Hoga Central (relevant stuff begins around the fourth graph or so).

Monday, December 25, 2006

Korea Weekend Box Office - Christmas Edition
Dec. 21-24

The Ben Stiller comedy NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM was the big winner last weekend in Korea, selling 969,650 tickets (going from its Wednesday evening opening). Impressively, it sold more tickets every day, from opening night to Sunday.
Wednesday - 48,500
Thursday - 86,510
Friday - 129,500
Saturday - 315,180
Sunday - 389,940
This week's box office chart includes Christmas Day, Monday, so that extra holiday pushed MUSEUM over 1.3 million.

I must admit, I am rather surprised by MUSEUM having such a strong opening. Ben Stiller holds no particular fascination with the general public in Korea (that I am aware of). And it was up against some pretty stiff competition. It opened on a healthy 357 screens, but the Korean martial arts/fantasy THE RESTLESS opened on far more (around 430), and 200 POUND BEAUTY on 444.

In many ways, though, 200 POUND BEAUTY is the bigger winner. In its second weekend in release, its attendance actually went up, which does not happen very often. It should cruise past the 3-million attendance level some time this week. Will it take on "must see" status and become something bigger, like a 5- or 6-million attendance film? Or will competition overtake it in a week or two and put an early end to its success? Of course I do not know, but I am leaning toward the latter.

THE RESTLESS came in No. 3, which is probably disappointing to its producers/distributors at Nabi Pictures and CJ Entertainment. It did top 1 million ticket sales, which is always a good thing. But it needed an extra day to do so, and word of mouth and reviews have not been kind. Expect a pretty big dropoff in the next week. For a movie that cost 10.4 billion won ($11.2 million), not to mention a pretty huge marketing budget, a $6.8 million opening weekend means that at Christmas once again CJE has coal in its stockings (following TYPHOON last year and RIKIDOZAN the year before).

I was also somewhat surprised at CASINO ROYALE opening in fourth. I suppose $3.8 million is not birdseed, but I thought it was the best James Bond film I have seen (and I usually do not like Bond). The last James Bond film, DIE ANOTHER DAY, despite all the whining in the media about how Koreans were offended by its depiction of Korea, opened to 426,200 admissions (about $2.8 million), on about half the screens that CASINO had. And do not forget that DIE was going up against the insane competition of HARRY POTTER and LORD OF THE RINGS.

Very happy to see THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP doing well on its small number of screens. I tried seeing it Christmas Day, but it was so sold out at both downtown theaters I went to. So I saw it yesterday instead and quite liked it. Very inventive and fun, for a film about mental illness (call it the anti-CYBORG).

NOTE: This week's numbers include the Monday holiday.

This WeekTitle........................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Attendance (Seoul only)Total Attendance
1.Night at the Museum12.21357301,2001,355,100
2.200-Pound Beauty12.14444268,1002,553,100
3.The Restless12.21430205,0001,003,000
4.The Holiday12.14223140,000940,000
4. (tie)Casino Royale12.21344140,000573,100
6.Happy Feet12.21178116,300364,600
7.Old Miss Diary12.2118963,800308,900
8.Nativity Story12.2114415,70054,000
9.The Science of Sleep12.2169,50012,000
10.Seducing Mr. Perfect12.07552,700719,000

(Source: Film2.0)

Coming out tomorrow is MY WIFE IS A GANGSTER 3, which should be pretty massive.

And good news (via, Lee Sung-gang's latest animated film YEUWOOBI THE FIVE-TAILED FOX is finally getting a release, on Jan. 25. You can see a trailer here.

The 1,000-year-old fox who becomes a woman is one of my favorite folkstories (Neil Gaiman did a riff on that for a very good SANDMAN short story once). Of course, Lee's version is more aimed at kids than some versions of the story, and as some have pointed out on the Internet, Lee does seem to be channeling Hayao Miyazaki more than in his earlier animation. Nonetheless, I think this could be a really good film, and I am looking forward to seeing it.

I quite like Lee's first film, MY BEAUTIFUL GIRL MARI, and his artwork can be seen at the top of my blog (that's his art at the top, above the title. Hopefully this film might be the one to break the long string of commercial failures for homegrown animated movies in Korea.

No Box Office (yet).
Instead, Random Notes and Whatnot 5

With the holiday, this week's box office report will be lately. Hopefully I will get it by late tomorrow evening, but no promises. Instead, I present random blather.

Inspired by Japan Probe's list of the year's best commercials in Japan, I present you with CIS: Chamisul. Get it? CIS? CSI? CSI is huge in Korea... major ratings, all the time. Chamisul is the most popular brand of soju. Anyhow, I thought the ad was rather witty and well done.

And, as an added bonus, if you go to that link, you can find links to some old soju ads, from 1975 and 1959. Very sweet.

Also, there is that Boa Nike ad, which featured the Go Team song. (And the Japanese version here).

Nice dancer. (And here he is in Japan).

Nice, uh, mangoes.

I think this Ha Ji-won ad was 2005, but I don't care.

In the holiday spirit, I present:
1) Normail Mailer nearly biting off Rip Torn's ear.

2) Dorothy Parker's "Resume":

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Korea Music Charts - November

Sorry this chart is so late this month, but MIAK just put the numbers up on their website.

So, what do we have this month? The first thing I noticed was the plummeting of Rain's new album, from No. 1 last month all the way down to 11 this month (which is why I made this month's list a top-11, just to include Rain). After two months, Rain still has not made it to the 90,000 sales figure, which is pretty shocking. Considering the big push Rain is getting around Asia and in the United States (his US concerts begin tomorrow in Las Vegas, then New York), I wonder if he will become the male version of BoA -- bigger abroad than at home.

Lee Seung-hwan's album, "Hwantastic", should have had the most dubious title of the month... but amazingly Se7en managed to beat him out with Se7olution. I am not big on cussing on this blog, but really, "Se7olution"? WTF?

I have no idea who Gavy NJ is, in No. 7. KBS and Soompi called them "the female SG Wannbe". Which means about as much to me as saying they are "the female mauve."

(Hrm... my attempt at being a smart-ass inspired me to Google "mauve." Turns out it is a color invented in 1854 by chemist William Henry Perkin, when he was 18 years old. You learn something new every day. Read all about it here.)

Kind of surprising and disappointing to see that new Loveholic make its debut at No. 14. Granted, the album was just released on Nov. 21, but it only sold 6,170 albums so far. Loveholic is one of the few mainstream, modern Korean bands that I actually like. Much like Roller Coaster and Classiquai, with that light, mellow funk thing. Hopefully their sales will pick up.

This MonthArtistAlbum NameRelease DateThis Month's SalesTotal Sales
1.Dong Bang Shin GiVol. 3 - O-Union9.28144,535334,271
2.Lee Seung-hwanVol. 9 - Hwantastic11.1045,33245,332
3.SG WannabeThe Precious History11.1645,12245,122
4.Se7enVol. 4 - Se7olution10.3131,70748,041
5.Sung Shi-gyungVol. 510.1030,80782,416
6.Jun JinLove Doesn't Come (single)11.1525,62025,620
7.Big BangBig Bang Vol. 3 (single)11.2124,10024,100
8.Gavy NJVol. 211.1522,19722,197
9.Lee Seung-chulReflection of Sound9.2722,18758,373
10.Sin Ho-yeongVol. 1 - Yes9.1418,50265,500
11.RainVol. 4 - I'm Coming10.1313,90185,115
(source: MIAK)
(Note: Chart fixed 18 Jan. 2007)

Other than the No. 1 album and the no. 10 (and Mariah Carey, kind of), the rest of this month's top-10 is all new. Really bad month for sales, though. Numbers were all down from last month. Considering that movie attendance dropped 11% last month, too, I guess November is a dead period for entertainment in Korea. Hopefully sales will be up for the Christmas season.

Foreign Sales:
This MonthArtistAlbum NameRelease DateThis Month's SalesTotal Sales
1.Richard Yongjae O'NeilLachrymae9.076,23419,454
2.WestlifeThe Love Album11.205,5875,587
3.Josh GrobanAwake11.094,4884,488
4.ABBAABBA No. 1 Limited11.224,4674,467
5.The BeatlesLove11.214,0454,045
6.JamiroquaiHigh Times (Singles 1992-2006)11.084,0394,039
7.Mariah CareyMerry Christmas (repackage)11.154,03111,546
8.Kenny GThe Most Romantic Melodies11.203,4613,461
9.Baek Geon-wooBeethoven Piano Sonatas 1 & 211.093,1253,125
10.QueenThe Platinum Collection03.2.252,67237,241

(source: MIAK)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Random Notes and Whatnot 4

The Chosun Ilbo takes a look at the top Korean pop acts this year. Not sure if I have anything to add. Not my kind of music, so I don't really have any opinions.

The Chosun also has an article about Chinese Triad gangs in Korea... coming just a week before MY WIFE IS A GANGSTER 3 makes its debut (GANGSTER 3 features Qi Shu as the daughter of a Chinese Triad gangster who comes to Korea to hide, and wacky hijinks ensue). Coincidence? Is the film driving the reporting? Or is the reporting an infomercial for the movie? You be the judge.

(What a great looking poster, isn't it?)

MY WIFE IS A GANGSTER 3 hits the theaters on Dec. 28.

Last night, I went to an advanced screening of the new Im Sang-soo film, THE OLD GARDEN. I am a huge fan of Im's THE PRESIDENT'S LAST BANG, and rather like A GOOD LAWYER'S WIFE, but GARDEN left me cold. Boring. There are a few flashes of Im's creativity behind the camera, but precious few.

If I were to take a stab at what went wrong, I would guess that perhaps Im loved the original story too much. Hwang Sok-yong is one of Korea's most recognized authors from the last 20 years or so, especially by the left (you can read a little about him at the end of this Korea Times story, also at the Wikipedia entry). The movie had the languid, meandering style that so many films do when the director is overly enthralled with the source material... so he gets more worried about presenting the book as accurately as possible instead of thinking about making a good movie. One of those dreaded "labors of love." But that is just a theory.

Variety review is here (since the movie made its world premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival a couple of months ago.

THE OLD GARDEN will be released in Korea on Jan. 4.

Yonhap News also had an interesting article about the coming competition for screens over the holidays. It pointed out that THE RESTLESS will likely open on 450-500 screens, CASINO ROYALE should get around 400, and NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM (the Ben Stiller comedy) should get around 350 screens. In addition, the opening of the animated film HAPPY FEET will have another 200 or so.

Add all those up, and four new films should account for around 1,400 screens. All of Korea has just 1,700 screens these days. Now, do not forgot 200 POUND BEAUTY, which just opened last weekend and is going strong on over 400 screens and... well, you are out of screens. And that is not taking into account all the other films still showing. Competition is going to be pretty crazy, and it all kicks off in a few hours (an early Wednesday opening this week).

Korea Weekend Box Office - Dec. 15-17

Now this is more like it -- after a pretty long, barren spell, we finally got some life in the box office this week. November was down 11.6% from last year, and the first couple weekends in December were looking pretty bad, too. But 200-POUND BEAUTY opened in No. 1 last weekend with nearly 1 million admissions. Nice.

The Jack Black-Cameron Diaz holiday comedy, THE HOLIDAY, also did pretty decent debut business, with 452,000 admissions (nearly what CYBORG did last week... better in Seoul, in fact).

In third, Uhm Jung-hwa and Daniel Henney showed a bit of staying power for SEDUCING MR. PERFECT. Although it opened a little behind CYBORG, MR. PERFECT has shown better legs, landing ahead of the Park Chan-wook film this week.

(Interesting note I just found out about -- Lotte Cinema distributed MR. PERFECT, but in order to do so, they had to make a package deal for THE OLD GARDEN, the latest Im Sung-soo film, which comes out on Jan 4.)

But with so many films opening this week, I do not expect much of this top-10 list will be around seven days from now. It should be quite the bloodbath at the box office.
This WeekTitle........................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Attendance (Seoul only)Total Attendance
1.200-Pound Beauty12.14473195,200924,400
2.The Holiday12.14242133,000452,000
3.Seducing Mr. Perfect12.0730341,600651,500
4.I'm a Cyborg, But That's Okay12.0728040,000704,000
5.The World of Silence12.1419430,900140,800
7.Just Friends12.0713721,500231,300
8.Pan's Labyrinth11.3011815,100514,500
9.Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas in 3D12.07266,20048,400
10.Saw 311.30763,300428,200

(Source: Film2.0)

Monday, December 18, 2006

Screw Burning Out - Shin Joong-hyun Fades Away With Grace

Last night (Sunday, Dec. 17), the godfather of Korean rock music Shin Joong-hyun held his "last" concert, rocking out a career in a three-hour gig showcasing his great career. He played many of his biggest songs (although certainly not all of them... there are simply too many). He played them all different styles, just as his career has crossed over so many styles of music.

It was my first time seeing Shin play live, so I was pretty psyched. He opened with Bissok-ui Yeoin, which was okay, but things got a lot more interesting with the third song, Bombi -- good song, and he played it more in the original style (throughout the first act of the show, he shifted between playing the songs in their original, "psychedelic" style and a more KBS-trot style). Other highlights were a great version of Mireon and Baram. And when he played Areumdaum Gangsan, he played it in the "disco" style of the Shin Joong-hyun Myujik Pawo (Shin Joong-hyun Music Power) album.

His two "guests" were Shin Hyo-beom and In Sun-i, who were completely different musically than Shin Joong-hyun. I guess that sort of thing is inevitable at a Korean rock concert. Sigh. (Although I will say that In was looking pretty damn good for a woman her age... doing the techno-dance thing just like Uhm Jung-hwa).

The last section of the show featured more of his recent song (which I do not like so much), but done in a more rock style, with just guitars and drums (which I do like). He even played a couple of songs with all his sons on backing, which was kind of cool.

To be honest, it was not a great concert. Age has taken its toll on Shin's voice. Although he has played so many different kinds of rock over the years, last night showed how he was gotten stuck in the dubious blues-based commercial rock of the 1980s. But it was Shin's last show, and I guess he is allowed to play it however the hell he wants to.

And so, Shin did not burn out. Last night, the founder of rock in Korea and the single most important figure in the country's musical history, faded away, leaving a 50-year career with dignity and grace. I was just happy I could be there.

(Note: The first two pics are of Shin Joong-hyun back in his heyday. Second two pics are more recent. I'll add concert photos once my friend sends me some.)

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Memos from Purgatory - 'Restless' Review

It is the biggest movie of the season, a martial-arts fantasy set in Purgatory called THE RESTLESS (or "Jungcheon" in Korean, a Purgatory-like world between heaven and hell). It is the story of a warrior (Jung Woo-sung, of DAISY, MUSA, and lots of stuff) who travels to Jungcheon to look for his lost love (Kim Tae-hee, mostly from TV, like LOVE STORY IN HARVARD). He finds her, but she is now an angel and does not remember him. But when an evil force threatens, Jung must save his love and the rest of Jungcheon.

THE RESTLESS is 10 billion won ($11 million) and looks like it. Heck, it looks like 20 billion or so. This is a gorgeous spectacle of a movie, with (mostly) first-rate special effects, lavish costumes and huge sets.

Unfortunately, the story does not measure up to to amazing production values. The story feels like a cross between A CHINESE GHOST STORY and LORD OF THE RINGS (does anyone really need a link for this?). Ghost Story because of the fantasy and cheesiness. Lord of the Rings because of the epic scope and general spectacle.

The action in THE RESTLESS is pretty good. Full of special effects, the characters fly around with a lot of flair and weight (so often, f/x people look way too light and fake, but when the bad guys land in this film, they really crunch the ground... a detail I quite liked). A couple of baddies have this cool Doc Octopus thing going on which looked great.

Unfortunately, when the action ends, the film comes screeching to a halt. The contrast was really stunning. One moment, you are rocketing around at 100mph, then next moment you are in park. Considering how BICHEONMU, SHADOWLESS SWORD and MUSA also had the same problem, it seems to me to be a structural problem of some sort. (If you want to see the exact opposite, watch the DVD of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and check out the screenwriters' commentary... lots of interesting stuff about how to embed information without turning a movie into boring exposition).

Also like Musa, Bicheonmu and Shadowless Sword, THE RESTLESS is unrelentingly humorless. Not a smile to be found. Especially in a film so over-the-top. We are in purgatory, after all... Nothing wrong with having a cheesy story, but you might as well have some fun with it.

Not a whole lot of subtlety going on either. Good is good, bad is really bad, motivations are cliched.

As for the acting... it is about what you would expect. Jung is solid, as usual. Kim Tae-hee, however, seems to have gotten acting lessons from Kim Hee-sun.

Another complaint is one I have with almost all superpower films, and that is watching the characters' super powers expand and contract from scene to scene. We know that these characters can fly, so why are we watching them running along the ground in a chase scene? But I had the same problem with the Superman and Spider-Man movies.

So, to sum up... If you are looking for some great eye candy and a bunch of action (and don't mind a few dull stretches), THE RESTLESS could make you pretty happy. Just don't expect much more than that.

UPDATE: Well, looks like there was a good reason that the costumes looked so good in THE RESTLESS. The costume designer was none other than Emi WADA, a woman who has designed outfits for some first-rate films, including Zhang Yimou's HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, Peter Greenaway's PROSPERO'S BOOKS (great film) and 8 1/2 WOMEN, and for Akira Kurosawa's DREAM and RAN (for which she won an Academy Award).

Monday, December 11, 2006

Korea Weekend Box Office - Dec. 8-10

Well, looks like I was pretty wrong about the new Park Chan-wook film, I'M A CYBORG, BUT THAT'S OKAY. I predicted the film would end up with between 3 and 4 million admissions. But with an opening weekend of just 472,000, I doubt it will make it to 2 million. Especially with the Christmas competition about to come flooding out.

Interesting to see that the Uhm Jung-hwa/Daniel Henney romantic comedy SEDUCING MR. PERFECT opened in 19 more theaters than CYBORG did. Apparently theater owners thought this film would be more accessible than Park Chan-wook's latest. I would not be surprised if it ended up doing better than CYBORG, once both films leave the theaters in a few weeks.

A note on MR. PERFECT -- I have no inside information about the film at all, but I heard people saying that the reason the producers cast Uhm Jung-hwa was that they wanted an older, less attractive woman in the role, one none of the teenage girls who like Daniel Henney would feel threatened by. No idea if that is true, but it seemed rather funny to me, albeit in a cruel way. I can still remember when Ms Uhm was incredibly attractive. (Then again, I can remember when I looked a lot better than I do now, too).

I also noticed that the Aardman animated film FLUSHED AWAY is nowhere on the top-10... which makes me wonder if it died a quick death, or if this week's Film 2.0 chart is incomplete.

The big surprise to me is film No. 10, the re-release of NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (in 3D). Selling 27,800 tickets nationwide on just 26 screens? For a movie over a decade old? Not bad at all.

This WeekTitle........................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Attendance (Seoul only)Total Attendance
1.I'm a Cyborg, But That's Okay12.07332112,000472,000
2.Seducing Mr. Perfect12.0735193,300390,700
4.Just Friends12.0714044,100131,300
5.Pan's Labyrinth11.3016034,700415,500
6.Saw 311.3019524,400385,000
7.The Departed11.2312614,400724,300
8.Step Up11.238014,200395,400
9.Once in a Summer11.3025513,100307,200
10.Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas in 3D12.072612,90027,800

(Source: Film2.0)

Next week things step up a bit, with 200 POUND BEAUTY and WORLD OF SILENCE coming out. But the weekend after that, beginning Dec. 21, is when all hell should break loose. It is staggering the number of films coming out for the Christmas weekend -- CASINO ROYALE, HAPPY FEET, NATIVITY STORY, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM, OLD MISS DIARY and the RESTLESS (the new Nabi Pictures/CJ mystical martial arts spectacular).

Hey, when did BORAT get moved to January? Bah...

UPDATE: Chart fixed

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Random Notes and Whatnot 3

Because I am apparently unable to get my act together, here are some random entertainment notes....

I should have mentioned earlier, but Korea's greatest rock star Shin Joong-hyun is having his "last" concert on Dec. 17. (I use the quotes because who knows if "last" really means last, or if it is a Babs Streisand-esque last, to be followed by 20 years of encores).

Shin is often called the "godfather" of Korean rock. He certainly was one of the most important people in Korea's music history. Born in 1936, Shin grew up in Korea and Manchuria (and, according to at least one Japanese press version, Kyushu). He was orphaned during the Korean War, but managed to get by over the next few years thanks to friends of the family.

Some time in the 1950s, he got himself a guitar and learned how to play it. Soon he was giving lessons in Jongno (downtown Seoul), and by 1957 he was playing for the US 8th Army (using the name Jackie Shin).

Things were going well enough, if unspectacularly, and from 1957 for the next decade, he played and recorded and did okay. But in 1968 everything changed -- two high school girls (The Pearl Sisters) asked him to write some music for them. The resulting album was a HUGE hit.

From then on, SJH was a big star. He started recording under his own name and writing songs for others. Kim Jung-mi sat in his office for weeks until he agreed to let her sing. Kim Chu-ja, Lee Hwa-jung and so many others. The Shin Joong-hyun "Family" recorded dozens of brilliant albums.

Then in 1972, Shin was asked to write some songs glorifying the Park Chung Hee regime. When Shin refused, life started going badly. He was increasingly censored and harrassed. Then in 1975, Shin was one of the first of nearly 60 celebrities rounded up in a huge marijuana bust. When he finally got out of prison, he found his music was banned. And, worse, tastes had changed and left him behind.

For the last 25 years or so, Shin has owned and operated a couple of clubs in Seoul, jamming with friends and playing.

So, Dec. 17 is the last chance to catch this icon of Korea music. He is playing in Jamsil. If you are in the country, you must see this show.

Wow... that was a lot longer than I intended.

Other stuff going on this weekend... Saturday at 4pm, this indie drama is screening at Strange Fruit, in Hongdae...

Other random notes... NO REGRETS, a highly regarded gay drama, has topped 35,000 admissions in less than two weeks. And that is on only 6 screens. Very impressive.

On the other hand, AD-LIB NIGHT, the latest film by Lee Yoon-ki ("This Charming Girl"), is not doing nearly as well. It sold 816 tickets in its first three days last weekend. Still, some say it is well worth checking out.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Resfest korea

I nearly forgot to mention this year's Resfest Korea (sorry, RESFEST!), which kicked off tonight at Yonsei University.

Resfest is celebrating its 10th year this year, and its seventh year in Korea. And it is nice to have it back where it belongs, after spending a year up on Mount Namsan. Nothing wrong with Namsan, but it is not a location with a lot of foot traffic in the evenings. Yonsei in Shinchon fits the vibe of Resfest so much better.

Although Korea is full of film festival's, I have long liked Resfest because it attracts such a different crowd than the other festivals. More designers and generally funky people and fewer self-important movie maniacs -- not surprising considering how Resfest is most non-narrative shorts, with an emphasis on technique and style. Bernie and Mad Professor Jay are about as different film festival organizers as you could get, too.

And as usual, Resfest Korea adds several programs of Korean shorts, which is a great way to see what the next generation of filmmakers is up to. Resfest runs until Sunday night, when there will be a closing party at the Shinchon bar Mongwhan. Check it out.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Korea Weekend Box Office - Dec. 1-3

Another quiet weekend this week, with SUNFLOWER (Haebaraji) rising a notch to take the No. 1 spot outright this week (last week it was No. 2 in Seoul, but No. 1 nationwide). I still have not seen it, though, so have nothing to say about the film.

No. 2 goes to Guillermo del Toro's fastasy epic PAN'S LABYRINTH, which makes me quite happy. With 215,700 admissions nationwide, that works out to around $1.45 million in its first three days. Not huge, but not bad for a Spanish-language film. One of the film's biggest problems, imho, is a slightly misplaced marketing campaign, which made the film look more like THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA than the dark, nuanced and fascinating film that it is. (Not that there is anything wrong with Narnia, but we're talking about totally different target audiences... kids versus adults). At the fairly full screening I was at Friday night, judging by the conversations I overheard on the way out, a lot of people were surprised and a little miffed by the movie. I, on the other hand, loved it and recommend it heartily. Gorgeous looking film, intriguing... just first-rate.

And although SUNFLOWER beat out PAN, it is worth noting that SUNFLOWER had around 75 percent more screens.

SAW 3 came in third, coincidentally enough. No comments about the gore-fest, either.

THE DEPARTED fell to No. 4, which does not surprise me. As I said last week, I found the film weak and lacking oomph. Apparently many Koreans agreed with me.

The big surprises to me are the Nos. 5 and 6 films, two new openings featuring actors who were once major players in the Korean entertainment scene. ONCE IN A SUMMER (Yeoreum Iyagi) stars Lee Byung-hun, in a story that seems rather like HARMONIUM IN MY MEMORY. SOLACE (Sarang Halttae Iyagi Haneun Geotdeul) features Han Suk-hyu, who starred in such 1990s hits as SHIRI and THE CONTACT (and a favorite of mine, GREEN FISH). Actually, neither flop was really a "surprise," but it is fascinating to see how tastes change.

About a year ago, I happened to meet Mr. Lee, when he talked about how he was torn about what to do next in his career -- stay in Korea, doing what he knows and does so well, or take a big risk and try to break into Hollywood. I hope this most recent setback encourages him to make the attempt to go abroad. I think it is almost always better to take a chance than to play it safe... but then I am not a big movie star, so what do I know?

To be fair to Mr. Lee, I'm guessing his latest film was made with the Japanese market in mind as much as (or even more than) the Korean market. So I think the poor debut does not reflect on his choice as much as it might otherwise. At any rate, I would like to mention that every time I have met Lee Byung-hun, he has always been very suave, mellow and a gentleman. I cannot claim to be friends with him or know him well, but he strikes me as being one of the good guys.

This WeekTitle........................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Attendance (Seoul only)Total Attendance
2.Pan's Labyrinth11.3016460,900215,700
3.Saw 311.3019457,100230,900
4.The Departed11.2319156,000633,900
5.Once in a Summer11.3033454,800200,100
7.Step Up11.2314834,700311,900
8.Flushed Away11.2319015,500236,000
9.The Devil Wears Prada10.265211,0001,720,400
10.Rainbow Song11.30418,7008,700

(Source: Film2.0)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Random Notes and Whatnot 2

THE HOST opened at No. 9 in France last week. In its first weekend, THE HOST made $680,805 in 223 theaters. Not bad, I guess. I still remember checking out each week, years ago when MUSA was released in France, like it was somehow important that a Korean film was playing in the theaters overseas.

Oh, pretty good reviews for THE HOST over at Rotten Tomatoes.

A nice overview of some jazz concerts in Seoul this Christmas over at the Marmot's Hole. Christmas season is always the biggest time of year for live shows in Korea, with anyone and everyone having their big holiday shows.

Why has Firefox stopped showing me pics and editing options on blogger? I assume I have something turned off in my preference, but cannot see anything that could be causing the problem. Kind of annoying.

What happened to my NBA television? TVU, a kind of Internet pirate TV station out of China, used to let me watch ESPN (1 & 2) and the NBA channel, among about 100 other channels. But this week, ESPN and the NBA channel disappeared. All the lousy channels I do not care about are still there, only my NBA is gone. I assume Disney and/or the NBA took some sort of legal action against the company... but since when did the legal system in China Work? And why did it had to work to my detriment?

(For the record, I would gladly pay to watch the NBA, either over the Internet or via cable TV, but I have no such options in Korea. None of the Korean sports channels carry the NBA (okay, one game a week on MBC ESPN, but that hardly counts). Star Sports out of Hong Kong has nothing. No Interview VOD options. Nothing. Such a bizarre and sad situation.)

Sad, albeit in a totally different way, my Raptors are currently No. 7 in the Eastern Conference. Despite having a 7-10 record. If the playoffs were held today, Toronto would be in and Miami would not be. Bizarre.

Yes, I know those last points have nothing to do with Korean entertainment.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Do Cyborgs Dream of Eclectic Conceits?

Wow, my blog is barely three months old, and already I'm re-using post titles. The inner geek dies hard (being a Philip K. Dick fan and all).

Anyhow, yesterday afternoon I caught an advance showing of the new Park Chan-wook film I'M A CYBORG, BUT THAT'S OKAY, which stars Im Soo-jung and the singing star Rain (aka Jeong Ji-hoon). Park Chan-wook made his name in Korea for his hugely popular JOINT SECURITY AREA, but in the West, he is better known for his "vengence trilogy", SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, OLDBOY and LADY VENGEANCE. Many people rave about Park, calling him a genius and using all manner of superlatives. I'm a tad cooler in my opinions ("cool" as in chilly, of course).

CYBORG is billed as a "romantic comedy", and is the first Park film to receive a 12 rating from the Korea Media Ratings Board (meaning people age 12 and up can go see it) -- The Vengeance Trilogy, unsurprisingly, were all 18 films, while JSA was a 15... MOON IS THE SUN'S DREAM also received a 15, but the ratings system was quite different back in the early 1990s, and I never saw the movie so cannot comment about it.

The story of CYBORG, such as it is, is of Yeong-goon (Im Soo-jung), a girl who thinks that she is a combat cyborg and ends up in a mental hospital. While there, she meets a wacky group of fellow nutters, including Il-soon (Rain), who plays a young kleptomaniac with an anger management problem. With the fantasy sequences, it comes across kind of like ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST mixed with BRAZIL ... then run through a substance strainer.

The Good:
- Visuals. Once again working with cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hun and production designer Ryu Seong-hee (about whom I hope to talk more in a couple of weeks), Park makes CYBORG look great. From the opening scene, with Yeong-goon working in an imaginery assembly line, to the fantasy sequences to the rain storm, almost every frame of CYBORG pops with color and detail. In fact, the opening credits are probably the most attractive and alluring credits I have ever seen in a Korean film.
- Editing. Always another of Park's strengths. The energy, humor and interesting ways the camerca moves, scenes cut, and everything is put together make CYBORG one of the best edited films of the year.
- Effects. For a light, modest film, CYBORG features a surprising amount of computer effects. Most of them are effective and natural... How far and fast the Korean movie industry has developed.
- Tone. Light, amusing. Occasionally outright funny. For a light romantic comedy (even one set in a mental hospital that features a few violent scenes), Park basically set the right mood for most of the film.

The Bad:
- The Story. As usual, one of Park's weak points. It is no coincidence (in my humble opinion) that the best Park Chan-wook movies have derived from other source material (JSA was a book, and OLDBOY was a Japanese comic book). This is a rather plain-jane of a story
- The Characters. Everyone here is so affected and mannered, it really keeps you at a distance. Yes, Im and Rain are cute. But that is about all they are. I think the acting is fine, but the actors have to perform in such an over-the-top manner, they did not have much room for depth.
- The Etiology (that is, the biology of mental illness). Once again, Park Chan-wook has shown that he is completely ignorant of mental illness. That was one of my biggest complaints about SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, where the spastic, cerebral palsy character behaves in a way completely unlike anyone with cerebral palsy has ever behaved. Now in CYBORG, he has made the same error -- an error of laziness and ignorance, and a real shame for a movie set in a mental health facility and completely concerned with the mentally ill.
Now, I know a lot of people think "well, it's only a movie," and if you are one of those people, I'm sure you can overlook this glaring error. But I could not. Especially given how Park was quoted in the Korea Herald:
"Love involves the two separated worlds that are interconnected with each other, and that's how schizophrenia goes hand in hand with romance."

Ugh. No, that has nothing to do with schizophrenia. In fact, this sloppiness really pissed me off. But that's just me. Your results my vary.

So. Could CYBORG be a hit in Korea? Possible, given the stars of the film and Park's skills (not to mention the marketing clout of CJ Entertainment). I'm guessing in the 3-4 million admission range. Not a mega-hit, but potentially a modest one. I double the film will get much consideration internationally, though.

Other notes about the film... Yes, Rain takes his shirt off and he sings (I'm sure that will be important information for some people). I wonder if Yeong-goon ("young goon") was supposed to be some kind of joke. There is an obese woman in the film, treated with the usual cruel cliches. Speaking of cliches, there is actually a happy-clapping scene (you know, when the hero does something special, and everyone in the room starts clapping) (ugh). Some of the music in CYBORG is really good, especially near the end, with the grandmother flashback scene.

Coincidentally, later that same day, I happened to catch PAN'S LABYRINTH, which just opened in Korea. PAN'S is a rather similar story (young woman driven by the troubles in her life into a world of fantasy), but the two movies could not be more different. Of course, PAN'S director Guillermo del Toro was going for a totally different effect, but I do think the two films are worth comparing. Del Toro's film is story-driven, psychologically intriguing and just a great way to spend a couple of hours. And you cannot cry Hollywood budget -- PAN apparently cost around $15 million, which is in line with Korea films these days.

(Hey! I just realized that PAN does not come out in the United States until Dec. 29. I love getting stuff in Korea before the West... happens so rarely. If you are reading from the United States, consider this one more strong vote to go see PAN'S LABYRINTH.)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Box Populi

Matt over at the Gusts of Popular Feeling blog has a great post about the Korean boxer Kim Duk Koo (Kim Deuk-gu) and the Kwak Kyung-taek biopic about him, CHAMPION. But then, everything that Matt writes about over at Gusts is worth a look... it is one of the most substantial and interesting sites anywhere on the Internet about Korean culture.

Good to see some pictures of director Kwak, too. Although Kwak's films are not really to my taste, he is a heck of a nice guy, and I'm convinced that he has a really good film inside him, just waiting to get out. Sometimes it takes a while for any artist to hit his stride, figure out what he's all about and how to express that best.

Oh, and nice to see Matt mention Mark Kozelek and his Sun Kil Moon band. I'm a big fan, especially of his Modest Mouse covers. Can't believe I missed him when he toured Korea a few years ago. Hopefully we will get him back before too long.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Korea Weekend Box Office - Nov. 24-26

Martin Scorsese's THE DEPARTED took top spot this past weekend in Korea... at least in Seoul. In yet another sign of the city/country split going on in Korea, SUNFLOWER actually did better nationally (thanks in part to its additional 124 screens), while THE DEPARTED was easily the more popular film in Seoul.

A similar split was going on at Nos. 3 and 4, with STEP UP winning in Seoul and the Aardman animation FLUSHED AWAY winning nationally.

Screen averages were especially amusing this week. For example,THE PRESTIGE played on just 44 screens, but easily beat SEXY TEACHER, which was on 230. Hah! I bet the theater managers with the 230 prints of SEXY TEACHER are pretty unhappy at the moment.
This WeekTitle........................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Attendance (Seoul only)Total Attendance
1.The Departed11.2319096,700348,000
3.Step Up11.2315637,500133,200
4.Flushed Away11.2321037,000148,000
5.The Devil Wears Prada10.2613033,6001,655,400
6.How the Lack of Love Affects Two Men11.1627729,800494,900
7.The Prestige11.024423,100629,500
8.A Good Year11.1614518,400223,900
9.Sexy Teacher11.1623015,000401,000
10.Tazza: The High Rollers9.27386,0006,798,000

(Source: Film2.0)

So, of course I saw THE DEPARTED this weekend. And... once again, Scorsese is pretty mediocre. I was actually bored for most of the film, although it did pick up in the last 30 minutes or so. Yet again, here was a Scorsese movie that felt like a photocopy of a Scorsese movie (looks pretty much the same, but with some bad resolution). I really think MS needs to sit down with some digital cameras and some fresh, unknown actors, are re-teach himself all the things that made him great once upon a time.

And, in a random digression, I just re-watched Yim Pil-sung's ANTARCTIC JOURNAL, and found myself feeling very similarly about it as I did about DEPARTED -- both are bad movies made by very talented filmmakers. In Yim's case, ANTARCTIC was his first feature-length movie, and it is so silly and poorly plotted, it is hard to believe (not to mention having one of the most blatant disregards for basic physics I have ever come across in the movies). No doubt about it, AJ was a bad film. However, it was also clear that director Yim has some serious talent. A good producer and another year of pre-production could totally have turned that movie around.

Luckily, Yim is getting another chance to show what he can do, with the horror film HANSEL & GRETEL, being produced by Barunson. Much like AJ, H&G is about historical parallels and notebooks... but let's hope someone kicks his butt until the plotting makes sense.

Yim is also doing a short zombie film as part of the triptych DOOMSDAY BOOK, due out next year, too.

Friday, November 24, 2006

What's Going on in Korean Cinema

With the Christmas and Seollal (lunar new year) holidays approaching, expect a surge in major releases. Both big Korean movies and Hollywood blockbusters. The first "big" movie of the season will probably be Park Chan-wook's I'M A CYBORG BUT THAT'S OKAY (I'll try to review it after the press screening next week).

In the meantime, Darcy Paquet at has a very good write-up about the current state of Korean cinema. I'm not sure how much of his thoughts on the rise of independent cinema is real or just wishful thinking... But even wishful thinking can become real if enough people wish the same thing.

The rising interest in Japanese movies is quite interesting. Japanese culture was pretty much banned in Korea from the Korean War until 1998. Then the local market slowly opened. First, three award-winning Japanese films were allowed in. Then award-winning films in general were allowed. Then in January 2004, almost all Japanese po culture was allowed.

(Although, strangely, Japanese animation was still quite regulated. Strange, I say, because Japanese animation has long been the most ubiquitous form of Japanese culture in Korea. Some of it was dubbed into Korean (and sometimes even presented as Korean), and others were available on the black market and in Japanese culture cafes. EVANGELION has been hugely popular for years. Everybody knows GATCHAMAN (BATTLE OF THE PLANETS in America, and EAGLE 5 in Korea). And Japanese comic books were widely available in translation since I first came to Korea. Yet another one of Korea's non-ban bans.)

(Parantheses 2: I tried linking to the Wikipedia article on Evangelion, the first choice in that Google search I linked to, but it seemed to crash my Firefox brower every time. I have no idea why. Feel free to let me know if you have any theories/solutions.)

Anyhow, so Japanese movies and TV shows were allowed into Korea en masse, beginning January 2004. At first, a lot of people were worried that they would overwhelm local programming, revealing how much Korean media has cribbed from Japan. But then, surprise surprise, nothing happened. Japanese movies and TV and music barely made a ripple here. Except for Hiyao Miyazaki films and the 1998 release of LOVE LETTER, Japanese movies did poorly. Japanese TV dramas got fairly mediocre ratings. Life moved on.

Turns out, however, that there was a decent market for Japanese culture here. It just needed some time to incubate. This year has seen many Japanse movies do respectable numbers, led by THE SINKING OF JAPAN. I doubt Japanese product will overwhelm Korea, but it good to see the market growing more diverse.

It is especially good to know that most people in both countries have little interest in the annoying nationalism and stupid anti-Korea/anti-Japan garbage spewed by some in both countries. Among the people who really matter -- the filmmakers and writers and designers) (not to mention the average folk who care about movies and music and such) -- there is a healthy interest in the art and pop culture of their neighbors. And on a business level, the two nation's entertainment industries are growing more and more interconnected.

As for Darcy's feeling that there is a lack of energy in Korean movies these days... I am actually a little optimistic, for the first time in quite a while. The big guns of the industry (Bong Joon-ho, Kim Jee-woon, etc.) seem to be working on some good stuff right now. And there are a bunch of new directors making films with potential. CJ Entertainment and Nabi Pictures have teamed up to create a bunch of low-budget genre movies (I'm a big believer that low-budget schlock can be one of the most fertile fields for a film industry). In TV, the cable channels are increasingly churning out new shows to compete with the lame dreck on mainstream TV, much as HBO started to do in the 1990s. Sure, there is a lot of crud out there... but as Sturgeon's Law says, 95% of everything is crud.

(Or Sturgeon's Revelation, if you want to be pedantic).

(Note: While writing this entry, my Firefox browser crashed. But upon reopening it, I discovered that my entire post had been saved. I was so surprised and happy. All hail Firefox 2.0!)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Hobsbawn and History

Eric Hobsbawm has long been a favorite historian of mine -- not for his renowned Marxism, but for books like THE INVENTION OF TRADITION and its companion, NATIONS AND NATIONALISM SINCE 1780.

Anyhow, I just ran across an essay by Hobsbawm about the Hungarian uprising of 1956 in the Nov. 16 issue of the London Review of Books. Not terribly relevant to Asian entertainment or Korean history... But I did love the opening sentence of his essay:
Contemporary history is useless unless it allows emotion to be recollected in tranquillity.

A great, simple point about history and politics and all that stuff that gets people so hot and bothered. Lord knows more people over here in East Asia should follow his advice.

(By the way, a rather different view (i.e., negative and shrill) of Hobsbawm and his legacy can be read here.)

(Btw2: I never knew this until just now, but apparently Hobsbawm and Noble Prize winner Kim Dae-jung met a few years ago, at a conference is Olso.)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Japan Movie Notes

Some fun news about Japan cinema over at Ryuganji (as usual). Most notably a sequel to ALWAYS, a Miike Takashi doing his version of the spaghetti-western classis DJANGO and an entry about this year's FILMeX (one of my favorite movie events each year in Japan).

I assume that anyone interested in Japanese movies (but who lacks the Japanese language abilities) already knows Hoga News and Jason Gray's blog. And even though the Tokyo International Film Festival is over, Maggie Lee is still blogging away (she teases that she might start a person blog soon, but for the moment we just have the TIFF blog). But if you do not any of those websites, you should check them all out asap.

Korea Weekend Box Office - Nov. 17-19

Another dreary week at the box office here in South Korea. The top film, HOW THE LACK OF LOVE AFFECTS TWO MEN, won the No. 1 spot with just 281,500 in attendance (about $1.87 million), one of the lowest figures for a No. 1 film in quite a while. But it was nice to see iHQ have one of its films open at the top of the box office. iHQ has been through a long streak of disappointments, so hopefully this will be the start of something good.

Interesting to see DEVIL WEARS PRADA and PRESTIGE holding on to the Nos. 2 and 3 spots for another week, especially while last week's No. 1, LOVE ME NOT, plummeted to No. 6.

TAZZA is pretty much finished, with 6.77 million tickets ($44.90 million), making it the seventh-biggest film in Korean history. Not a bad run at all.

Just three more days until THE DEPARTED opens in Korea. Much nerdy joy on my part.

This WeekTitle........................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Attendance (Seoul only)Total Attendance
1.How the Lack of Love Affects Two Men11.1632163,400281,500
2.The Devil Wears Prada10.2616957,8001,509,400
3.The Prestige11.0210450,400571,600
4.Sexy Teacher11.1626642,000221,000
5.A Good Year11.1620039,600131,800
6.Love Me Not11.0926129,200506,500
7.Cruel Winter Blues11.0929626,300484,800
8.Death Note11.0218725,000712,000
9.The Grudge 211.1617119,500107,400
10.Tazza: The High Rollers9.278918,0006,769,000

(Source: Film2.0)

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Korea Music Charts - Flashback

Someone asked in a comments thread the other day about the extremely low sales of foreign music in Korea. Which got me thinking about how sales have changed over the past few years. So here are the Korean and foreign sales charts for October 2000.

This MonthArtistAlbum NameRelease DateThis Month's SalesTotal Sales
1.H.O.TVol. 510.02840,370840,370
2.FinKLVol. 310.06386,329386,329
3.Park Jung-hyunNaturally10.17157,536157,536
4.Jo Sung-moVol. 39.01137,5531,842,680
5.VariousAutumn in My Heart OST10.13117,538117,538
6.Y2KTry Again10.2353,15553,155
7.YurisangjaVol 410.1645,05145,051
8.Cho Jang-hyeokVol. 36.1638,030117,408
9.Park Ji-yoonVol. 48.1133,797354,701
10.Jaebum YimStory of Two Years5.1629,398272,941

(source: MIAK)

Foreign Sales:
This MonthArtistAlbum NameRelease DateThis Month's SalesTotal Sales
1.VariousMax 710.1776,52876,528
2.Jo Su-miOnly Love Special9.2744,72665,550
3.Limp BizkitChocolate Starfish10.2432,04732,047
4.RadioheadKid A10.0227,20927,209
5.VariousNeukkim 20,61524,615
6.Christina AguileraNew Package10.0218,85718,857
7.Ricky MartinRicky Martin1999.04.2812,893260,220
8.98 DegreesRevelation10.1211,68411,684
9.Green DayWarning10.0511,35411,354
10.Britney SpearsOops!... I Did It Again5.1611,286157,439

(source: MIAK)

The first thing you will notice is how much larger all those numbers are than October 2006. Shockingly so, I would say. (Although it is worth noting that back in 2000, cassette sales were still pretty significant in Korea, about half of those totals, so the numbers do not compare exactly).

The top title in 2000, by the seminal boy band H.O.T ("Hi-five Of Teenagers", in case you did not know), could sell 840,000 copies in just one month. Even more amazing, in September, Jo Sung-mo sold a staggering 1.7 million copies of his new album. Cut to 2006, and Rain could barely crack 70,000 copies of his new album.

In 2000, there were four albums that sold over 1 million albums. The biggest-selling album so far this year, the latest by SG Wannabe, has sold just 294,000 copies -- that would have been good enough for just No. 28 in 2000.

Then, as now, the top Korean albums far outsold foreign albums. The top foreign album of 2000 was Mariah Carey's Christmas Album, which moved 468,000 -- much better than anything now, but a fraction of what H.O.T sold.

Now, one reason Korean individual album sales are higher than Western albums is because that mirrors the overall trend. In 2000, 63% of sales were Korean music, while just 26% were foreign (Japanese music was illegal in Korea at the time), and 11% was classical.

But another reason that international music seems to sell less well is that Western music uses catalog sales a lot more. The Korean music industry is much more about selling now stuff now and moving on. In the West, think about how many of your albums are "classic" rock or Joy Division or whatever, stuff long since done but that still speaks to you today. In university, it seems like half the freshman class buys Van Morrison's Brown-Eyed Girl each year. But who goes to university in Korea and suddenly thinks, "I really need the second S.E.S album"? And it seems like most Korean young people do not give a damn about their country's great classic rock tradition (Shin Joong-hyun, He6, etc.).

This lack of catalog sales is no accident. Because the Korean music industry (like in much of Asia) is so dependent on payola for promoting and marketing acts, it greatly limits the time available for music that is not part of the scene. Western labels generally won't get involved in payoffs, and catalog sales are too spread out to be worthwhile making pay offs (you need new, big-selling, splashy titles for that system to work best). So once again you can see how poor and corrupt business practices lead to a narrowing of the market, both in terms of what is available and what is known and appreciated by consumers. Business and art, intertwining (as always).

R-O-C-K in the D-P-R-K

Are you ready to rock? I said, are you ready to rock!? Then get your butt over to Pyongyang. Yes, North Korea is presenting ROCK FOR PEACE, a rock music festival running May 1-4, 2007. According to the site, the festival will be "the 2007 version of Woodstock rock festival in 1969". Just like Woodstock, "but in different location and in different goals." So far, 41 bands from 19 countries have already applied.

All are welcome to come ("including heavy metal"), with a couple of small caveats:
The lyrics should not contain admirations on war, sex, violence, murder, drug, rape, non-governmental society, imperialism, colonialism, racism, anti-DPRK, and anti-socialism.

As long as we are on the subject of North Korean music, you can check out a North Korean music chart here. Latoya Jackson? Old Lesbians of Choson? Scissor Sisters? I am assuming this whole site is some kind of a joke... but who knows? I have been wrong about bigger things. Other quality posts include: American film festival, pederast Mark Foley, and more Latoya Jackson. I rather like the Pyongyang T-Shirt controversy, too.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Even If You Can Say Something Nice, Sometimes It's Better Not to Say Anything

Those kings of the backhanded compliments, North Korea, have come out with some good press of Bong Joon-ho's monster movie, THE HOST. Apparently they were quite pleased by the film's critical stance toward the American military presence in South Korea.

Now, I would never claim to be Bong Joon-ho's best friend, but from my conversations with the man, plus what I have heard from those who know and work with him, the idea that he is a raging anti-American is pretty off the mark.

Why knows -- maybe the North Koreans are just buttering up director Bong so he will remake BULGASARI.

Bong's THE HOST will make its debut in France on Nov. 22. Maybe even on a good number of screens. Not sure about the United States; I have heard December and February.

Korean Music Charts - October

Chuseok may be a big season for the movies, but apparently it is not a holiday that inspires people to buy music, as October sales were in general down. Eight of the top-10 were new releases.

The biggest album of the month was, no surprise, the new Rain release. Hitting the stores just halfway though October, "I'm Coming" sold over 71,000 copies. Not bad, but not a number that will make anyone forget the glory days of the late 1990s.

Even Dong Bang Shin Gi did a lot better with their latest release, selling about 120,000 copies in September, despite being released on Sept. 28. Teeniebopper fans might be enthusiastic, however, it looks like most DBSG fans bought their albums right away, because the album sold half as many copies in all of October as it did in three days in September.

Not on the top-10 but notable - Uhm Jung-hwa's latest album made its debut in No. 16 with 7,456 album sales. But since it was released only on Oct. 25, it still has time to build. And SG Wannabe is the biggest-selling album still on the charts, albeit way down at No. 20. Its April 7 release, SG Wannabe Vol. 3, has now sold 294,975.

This MonthArtistAlbum NameRelease DateThis Month's SalesTotal Sales
1.RainVol. 4 - I'm Coming10.1371,21471,214
2.Dong Bang Shin GiVol. 3 - Oh! Jeong. Ban. Hab9.2869,231189,736
3.Sung Shi-gyungVol. 510.1051,60951,609
4.Shin Seung-hunVol. 1010.1045,68245,682
5.Jang Woo-hyukJang Woo-hyuk 2nd Album10.2425,72925,729
6.Big MamaVol 310.1325,02025,020
7.Kim Tae-wooKim Tae-woo Special10.2621,63621,636
8.JaurimAshes to Ashes10.2021,49721,497
9.Sin Ho-yeongVol. 1 - Yes9.1420,65065,500
10.Se7enVol. 410.3116,33416,334

(source: MIAK)

Plus, I believe MIAK has started reported digital downloads, at least when they can. Shin Seung-hun, for example, sold 40,000 digital downloads in October. Only a couple other artists were listed, though.

Foreign Sales:
This MonthArtistAlbum NameRelease DateThis Month's SalesTotal Sales
1.Richard Yongjae O'NeilLachrymae9.079,86213,220
2.Robbie WilliamsRudebox8.065,8286,102
3.BoAKey of Heart10.254,7214,721
4.EvanescenceThe Open Door10.014,1794,179
5.P. DiddyPress Play10.172,5552,555
6.QueenThe Platinum Collection2003.2.252,32856,683
7.ShinwhaJapan Single9.062,26417,316
8.Jo SumiWith Love: Best of Jo Sumi8.252,20013,714
9.Justin TimberlakeFuturesex/Love Sounds9.122,1797,557
10.Pussycat DollsPussycat Dolls9.272,0927,947

(source: MIAK)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The 80 Percent Solution

Well, it looks like we have the CJ CGV monthly box office report for October. The big news -- once again, Korean films topped 80% of the box office. That makes three months in a row that Korean movies have done so well, by far the strongest quarter they have ever had. Four out of 10 months for the year, too.

(Actually, I am not exactly sure about August. I do not have CGV's August report, and according to the Korea Film Council, local movies took in 77.2% of theatrical revenues in August. But CGV routinely reports slightly better numbers for Korean films. KOFIC uses a fancy computerized system so is more accurate, however it does not use every theater in the nation. In fact, the weekly and monthly reports only look at Seoul data, and Korean films tend to be even more popular outside of the nation's capital. Point being, even if Korean movies fell below the 80% level in August, they were at least extremely close).

The important part of such a strong and extended run, in my humble opinion, is how so many different films have carried the industry since August. In August, the big film was THE HOST. In September, you had MAUNDY THURSDAY and MARRYING THE MAFIA 3. In October it was TAZZA. All very different kinds of films, appealing to different audiences. Hopefully this will inspire the nation's producers, investors and other bigwigs to take more chances in the future and continue to press for diversity...

I will not be holding my breath.

Other good news in the report -- with 14.11 million tickets sold, this October was the strongest in the modern era. You can think the Chuseok holidays for the boost.

As of Oct. 31, Korean movies have accounted for 61.9% of the box office, and considering local films usually end the year strongly, there is a strong chance they will end the year over 60% for the first time.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Korea Weekend Box Office - Nov. 10-12

A VERY quiet weekend for the movies this past weekend. Box office we way down and spread out, with nothing really capturing people's attention. Moon Geun-young once again was able to open her film in the top spot, with her melodrama LOVE ME NOT (Sarang Ttauin Piryo Eopseo). But with just 327,000 admissions, that was not a huge accomplishment.

(Funny to think that we now live in an age where 327,000 admissions in three days is mediocre. I remember when Moon's film TALE OF TWO SISTERS broke records with an opening weekend of something over 700,000 admissions. At the time, it was pretty outstanding. Then the 1-million barrier fell. Then 1.6 million (a bunch of films). Then THE HOST scored 2.6 million in its opening weekend in July.)

DEVIL WEARS PRADA and THE PRESTIGE are continuing to do fairly well, with modest dropoffs from last week, and DEATH NOTE still doing okay, too (all were down about 33%).

This WeekTitle........................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Attendance (Seoul only)Total Attendance
1.Love Me Not11.0934182,000327,000
2.The Devil Wears Prada10.2619368,5001,255,300
3.The Prestige11.0213060,400434,500
4.Cruel Winter Blues11.0929656,900260,900
5.Death Note11.0220048,000555,000
6.Silent Hill11.0916533,900115,700
7.Tazza: The High Rollers9.2717632,0006,684,000
8.Hearty Paws10.2621025,000901,000
9.Educating Kidnappers11.0224114,000394,000
10.The Guardian11.0210111,700150,700

(Source: Film2.0)
Next week looks like it will be similarly slow, but the week after that, things should start improving, with some big holiday releases beginning to roll out, starting with Martin Scorsese's THE DEPARTED (which, of course, I am quite nerded up about seeing).

Hyolee Moly!

Korea's most sex pop star, Lee Hyolee, is reportedly on the verge of signing the biggest contract ever for a Korean female singer, over $1.5 million for three years. No word on what exactly that sum would cover, since Ms Lee has never been much about album sales.

(And, yes, I know this news is a few days old. But since nothing has been signed yet and all is speculation, what the hey).

Hyolee is a curious figure (so to speak) in the new Korean music industry. Her albums do not sell particularly well. Her first album sold a tad over 144,000 copies back in 2003, and her second album, DARK ANGEL is not even listed on MIAK (not unusual, though, as often management companies decide for whatever reason not to cooperate with MIAK). In fact, at this point, Hyolee is all about mobile phone downloads and commercial endorsements -- like much of the local music business, only more so. She is one of the first post-sales pop stars, thriving in an age where musical success has little to do with moving CDs or filling stadiums.

Her new management company, Mnet Media is an interesting new affiliate of CJ Entertainment, a merger of some websites and GM Management (but strangely, not the TV station M-Net). CJE is certainly not shy about spending money, and this deal is incredibly rich, even by local, star-obsessed standards.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Korea Weekend Box Office - Nov. 3-5

Foreign titles took the top three spots this week (it has been months since that has happened), with THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA at No. 1 for the second week in a row. Never underestimate the power of the SEX AND THE CITY crowd. PRADA has now made about $6.2 million in Korea, and looks like it should top $10 million.

THE PRESTIGE came in at No. 2, based on its Seoul attendance, although nationally it was beaten by the Japanese manga-adaptation DEATH NOTE. Always interesting to me to see what films draw well in Seoul versus what films perform stronger in the small towns and countryside. The regional difference between the two films becomes even stronger when you notice that THE PRESTIGE was playing on 35% fewer screens, which means its per-screen average in Seoul must have been very strong (indeed, the theater where I saw THE PRESTIGE on Thursday night in Seoul was quite busy).

I quite liked THE PRESTIGE... it is so invigorating to see a mainstream movie that is at least trying to do something different. Good looking film, good acting, an engaging mystery but with a story and subject unlike the usual. Got kind of silly toward the end, though.

DEATH NOTE is a bit of a goofy project. Based on a hugely popular Japanese comic book, it is the story of a kid who finds a demonic notebook. If you write someone's name in that notebook, the person will die in 24 hours. You can even specify the cause. But a big part of the comic book's appeal is its extremely sharp, high-detail drawings, an effect you totally lose on the screen (of course).

(Oh, and DEATH NOTE just the first of two movies. DEATH NOTE: THE LAST NAME just came out last weekend in Japan to some impressive box office, taking in over $10 million in its first two days. I do not know when it will be released in Korea, though).

DEATH NOTE was also co-produced by Warner Japan. With domestic movie industries on the upswing around Asia, it is interesting to see the Hollywood majors taking an increased interest in local films. Warner, for instance, has invested in DEATH NOTE and some other Japanese movie, the huge Chinese hit THE BLACK STONE, and... uh, has more on the way (not officially announced yet, sorry).

Other notes... TAZZA is still chugging along. It could make it to 7 million tickets if it is lucky. TRACES OF LOVE saw its box office come crashing down in its second week of release. In general, it is a pretty quiet week at the box office, although it is nice to see the pie being divided up a little more widely, with the No. 10 movie pulling in over 10,000 bodies -- last week, we only had a top-7, and even then the No. 7 film did not crack 10,000.
This WeekTitle........................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Attendance (Seoul only)Total Attendance
1.The Devil Wears Prada10.2622297,400940,300
2.The Prestige11.0213084,800246,100
3.Death Note11.0220067,000290,000
4.Tazza: The High Rollers9.2723653,0006,509,000
5.Educating Kidnappers11.0231045,000243,000
6.Hearty Paws10.2625842,700722,400
7.Righteous Ties10.1925737,0001,547,000
8.Traces of Love10.2624336,400611,100
9.The Guardian11.0210327,80087,300
10.Radio Star9.276713,8001,817,700

(Source: Film2.0)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Random Notes and Whatnot

The godfather of Korean rock music, Shin Joong-hyun got a write-up in the New York Times this weekend, by Norimitsu Onishi. It is a nice enough piece, although slightly slight and not breaking any new ground. I would link to a story I wrote about Mr. Shin for the Asian Wall Street Journal in the summer, but like most WSJ stuff, you need a paid subscription to read it (as you will for the NYT story in a week). You can, however, read about my WSJ story in this Korean government website story.

How did I miss this bit of news? It looks like miniskirts and hot pants will no longer be illegal in South Korea. Hard to believe it, but technically both are still no-nos... weird morality-law holdovers from the 1970s, although this law has not been enforced in ages. Korea still has far too many unenforced laws like that one. Like that old saying "Everything is permitted, but nothing is legal." Now, if only the government would scrap the cabaret laws which destroy Korea's live music scene.

Asian movie companies are making a bigger presence at this year's American Film Mart (the biggest film market in North America), although the overall market seems to be rather slow this year.

Nothing to do with Korea or Asian culture, but here is a link where you can look at 100 Hubble telescope pictures of the galaxies. Very cool.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Ad-ing Fuel to the Fire

Given that Korean pop music is pretty dreadful, it is always kind of surprising to hear cool music coming from so many advertisements on TV and radio. Sure, there is a lot of pop and mainstream stuff like James Blunt (The Face Shop), Pink (Anycall) and Boa (Olympus). But there is also more interesting stuff like the Clash (LG Telecom), Kings of Convenience (Maxwell House) and The Killers (Shinwha Bank).

Sometimes, however, even cool music can be quite funny (like when LG's Chai Apartments use Magnetic Fields' "100,000 Fireflies", and you hear the line "It makes me want to kill myself"... I doubt that association was what the advertising company was aiming for).

Sometimes, I hear music that I cannot identify, but fortunately we have a couple of websites to help out: and Both sites have a wealth of information about the advertisements currently gracing the Korean airwaves. Unfortunately, you do need to register to have access to most of those sites, and the sites are only in Korean. But if you can dig up an ID and can handle the Korean on the sites, both are extremely useful and fun.

The one ad that has been really bugging me for the last couple of months was the recent Nike ads, featuring Korean and Japanese athletes, and the singer BoA (they made local versions for Korea and Japan, but BoA was in both). I thought the song was really catchy, but had the worst time trying to find out what it was. Googling did not help me out either.

Actually, in this case, even CF-Music and TVCF did not help me enough. Only Naver could help. And even then, "Boa + Nike" did not help at all. But for some reason, "Nike + Boa" brought up the song name in the first hit -- Go Team. Good stuff.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Korea Weekend Box Office - Oct. 27-29

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA was the No. 1 film last weekend, despite a relatively modest rollout (239 screens), thanks to Korea's plethora of On Style-watching young women. On Style is a TV station in Korea popular with young professional women... the kind of channel that shows a lot of SEX & THE CITY and FRIENDS and OPRAH. Over the last few years, that demographic has become the main driving force of many trends over here. Young Korean women watch more TV than men do, go to Starbucks, eat at TGIFRidays and, of course, shop.

TRACES OF LOVE, the opening film from the Pusan Film Festival, opened in second. I have nothing special to say about this melodrama (I already made a few comments in my PIFF opening story a couple of weeks ago).

TAZZA bounced back to No. 3 this week, and has now topped 6-million admissions, making it the about the eight-biggest movie ever in Korea (depending on who's counting).

ONE PIECE is some silly Japanese animation. Don't feel bad if you have never heard of it.
This WeekTitle........................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Attendance (Seoul only)Total Attendance
1.The Devil Wears Prada10.26239129,800479,000
2.Traces of Love10.26315101,900420,100
3.Tazza: The High Rollers9.2736784,0006,181,000
4.Righteous Ties10.1938179,0001,217,000
5.Hearty Paws10.2630976,700400,700
6.Radio Star9.2719039,4001,733,700
7.One Piece10.261409,50036,300

(Source: Film2.0)