Thursday, September 28, 2006

Chuseok Is Coming...

Well, it looks like Chuseok (Korea's fall harvest festival) is going to be rather unusual this year. Since it is a holiday determined by the lunar calendar, it moves around each year, and this year it falls on Oct. 5-7. But Oct. 3 is Korea's National Foundation Day, to celebrate the founding of Korea by Dangun, the son of a god and a bear-woman, in 2333 BC (could have happened).

Anyhow, with Tuesday, Thursday and Friday already holidays, a good chunk of Korea is taking Monday and Wednesday off, too, and basically having a big vacation from Sept. 29 to Oct. 8. A nice eight or nine days off.

The reason I mention this is that Chuseok is also usually the biggest movie-going season in Korea. And they do not just go to any old movie -- usually this is one of the strongest seasons for local movies. Last year, when Chuseok was a more normal five days, 3.5 million people went to the movies (assuming no one went more than once). With a big 10 days off, the movie industry is practically giddy at the thought of how many tickets they might be able to sell. 10 million? 11 million? 12? Considering that Korea is on track to sell around 160 million tickets this year, conceivably around 8% of the year's box office could be decided over this 10-day stretch.

Which is why so many movies are coming out right now. You have RADIO STAR, the new movie by Lee Joon-ik (the guy who made THE KING AND THE CLOWN, the surprise hit of last winter which was until recently the most successful Korean film of all time). This story, starring two of the biggest names from the 1990s, Park Joong-hoon and Ahn Sung-gi, about a washed up rock star becoming a radio deejay out in the countryside, seemed pretty dubious to me. A real retro, Chungmuro story, the kind of thing that the Korean film industry would have made 10 years ago.

However, the film has been getting great buzz from its preview screenings. So who knows?

Another big film will be WAR OF FLOWERS (which I think CJ Entertainment has renamed, but I cannot find the new name, if it exists), a crime-noir thriller sort of thing about some card sharks. WAR OF FLOWERS is based on a popular newspaper comic strip from the 1990s, and it is directed by Choi Dong-hoon, the guy behind THE BIG SWINDLE, a film that did well among critics, even though it kind of flailed at the box office.

WAR OF FLOWERS is getting pretty good buzz, but more importantly, it is being distributed by CJ Entertainment. Why is that important? Because with so many films coming out right now, getting access to screens is incredibly competitive. And since CJE runs the CJ CGV, the biggest multiplex chain in Korea, that gives their movies an instant leg up.

Other films? Well, MARRYING THE MAFIA 3 and MAUNDY THURSDAY are both still doing well, and will fight to keep their screens. And there is some sort of Kim Jung-eun "comedy" called JAL SALABOSE ("Let's Get Better," a very famous song from the Saemaeul movement in the 1970s). There is also THE FOX FAMILY, a comedy-horror based on Korea's folktale of the nine-tailed foxes.

Buena Vista Korea is distributing the new Jackie Chan film ROB-B-HOOD. While I am not a huge fan of Mr. Chan's recent films, nor of films revolving around cute babies, Jackie often does okay in Korea, and BV has got around 165 screens for the film, so who knows, it could do well (I'm told they are tracking 400,000 or so over this opening weekend).

And believe it or not, there is more. Altogether, around 11 movies make their debuts over this weekend.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Korea Weekend Box Office - Sept. 22-24

Wow. Zero Hollywood films in the top-10 this week. None. Nada. Zip. In all my years in Korea, I cannot remember that ever happening before. I would say that I am speechless, but I am always speechless (this is typing after all).

In the top spot was the latest in the MARRYING THE MAFIA series, GAMUN-UI BUHWAL ("Rebirth of the Family"). I found the first MtM to be rather unfunny, but the idea was cute enough -- a family of gangsters seek out a "prestigious" marriage for their daughter, basically forcing her on a poor, nerdy academic. Few on that cast made it to the first sequel, about a gangster's daughter-in-law who is also a star prosecutor, aiming to stamp out the mob. For this sequel, most of the cast from the first sequel is back. With the main family now out of the mob and trying to go straight (as kimchi makers), the story is getting kind of threadbare. But with 1.2 million people going for the opening weekend, I guess the brass Taewon Entertainment know what they are doing.

It looks like Zhang Ziyi, Danny Wu and Feng Xiaogang's publicity trip to Seoul last week helped out the debut of THE BANQUET, which opened in No. 3. All three were quite smart with the local media, talking about how much they like shopping at Dongdaemun (Zhang) or how much they want a Korean crew for their next movie (Feng).

A more interesting and surprising debut this week comes from Pedro Almodovar's VOLVER at No. 9 -- not bad for a film on just eight screens (six of which are in Seoul). I'm pretty sure VOLVER is being distributed in Korea by Sponge House, a small, independent distributor that is doing a lot of interesting things, despite its size (or maybe because of it).

Looks like I was wrong about THE HOST. Which did not make it to 13 million last week, and now that it is down to 71 theaters, I guess it will not make it. Well, not until Showbox (its distributor) finds some "uncounted" admissions or sends all of its staff to see it or whatever. It is pretty close now to 13 million, so it would not take much to push it over the top.

Also looks like THE SINKING OF JAPAN will not make it to 1 million admissions. The film has done quite well in Korea, but I am not sure if it has beaten LOVE LETTER yet. The two are pretty close.

This WeekTitle........................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Attendance (Seoul only)Total Attendance
1.Marrying the Mafia 3: Gamun-ui Buhwal9.21500249,6001,252,200
2.Maundy Thursday9.14471140,5002,055,600
3.The Banquet9.2125458,800223,600
4.Between Love and Hate9.0716515,000645,000
7.Like a Virgin8.31596,500663,000
8.The Host7.27714,70012,965,700
10.Sinking of Japan8.3137800939,500
(source: Film 2.0)

The strange thing is, this Hollywood-less condition could conceivably last. Next week, the only Western films on the schedule are the animated film ANT BULLY and MRS. DALLOWAY. ANT BULLY did very poorly in the United States, and who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?

(Sorry, there was no excuse for that...)

Friday, September 22, 2006

Oscar Time - No Clowning Around

KOFIC announced yesterday that THE KING AND THE CLOWN is Korea's nomination this year for Best Foreign Language Award at the Academy Awards. Oh joy.

THE KING AND THE CLOWN was the big surprise hit of the year. It came out at the very end of 2005 and little was expected of it. TYPHOON, BLUE SWALLOW and DAISY were the heavyweights. Even Hollywood was keeping its distance. But surprise, surprise -- Typhoon turned out to be a faint gust, and Blue Swallow was a dead parrot. And Daisy was not even released until some time later. That left THE KING AND THE CLOWN with very little competition.

Even though TKatC opened on just 200 screens (pretty small these days in Korea), it got some amazing word of mouth. It just took off, and by the end of March, it had become the biggest film ever in Korea, selling over 12.3 million tickets.

That success was doubly surprising considering CLOWN had some strong homosexual themes in it. In case you do not know, TKatC is the story of two entertainers back in the early Joseon (Chosun) Dynasty who get in trouble for mocking the king. But after they are able to make the king himself laugh, they become entertainers in the royal court. The king takes quite a fancy to one of the guys, who is quite effeminate and known to turn tricks to help feed the two of them. Both of them then get drawn into the palace's politics, and bad stuff happens.

Anyhow, KING AND THE CLOWN beat out Kim Ki-duk's TIME and Bong Joon-ho's THE HOST, so it is not like the competition was overwhelming. But still, I wish Korea could have done better. Just becoming Korea's pick is no guarantee that it will become one of the five Oscar finalists. And considering how clueless the Academy is each year (doubly so in the foreign language category), is this a prize you really want to win?

Season of Our Dis-Contents

This week, on Monday and Tuesday, saw the latest DICON held in Seoul, at the Convention Center. The fact that DICON stands for "International Digital Content Conference" gives you a pretty good idea how sensible this event is (i.e., not much). My puny brain would call that IDCC, but what do I know? Or IDCon2 or something.

Anyhow, despite being in its sixth year, DICON was a bit of a mess. Interpretations were very random, when they existed at all. The most potentially interesting presentation was canceled (Orion Ross was supposed to talk about What is Hot Around Asia). And the organizers managed to annoy more than a few of the guests by changing around plans and schedules at a whim. Which led to more than a few annoyed guests. I was told that Terrance Chang and Bong Joon-ho were both severaly displeased by how the whole event went.

And what is the POINT of DICON anyway? I know it is accepted industry jargon these days, but any time a bunch of bureaucrats start jabbering on about "content", I am usually pretty skeptical. Does anyone get excited about the thought of Content? Literature, sure. Movies, you bet. Music, games, stories, ideas -- all great. But "content"? Ugh.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Korean Music Charts - August

Well, as long as I am posting the movie charts, maybe I should try doing the music charts, too. Fortunately, the Music Industry Association of Korea only publishes this information once a month.

Unfortunately, music charts are not what they once were. Especially in Korea. In 2005, physical music sales (of CDs and cassettes) made up just 113.8 billion won (around $118.5 million). Digital sales (mobile phone ringtones, Internet subscription services, etc.) came to a hearty 248 billion won ($258 million). Impressed? Digital music in Korea is nearly 2.5 times bigger than "regular" music sales (regular to old people like me who like to have something to hold).

This trend is just going to continue, too. Physical music sales once was around 400 billion won a year (416 billion won in 1996). Most people in the industry will tell you that piracy and file sharing destroyed sales. I would tell you that stale, uncreative, juvenile product had at least as much influence, but what do I know? Anyhow, the important thing is that, thanks to the Internet and mobile phones, Koreans are spending more money than ever on music. I read an industry analysis once, made by a local securities company, that predicted the digital music market will top $1 billion by 2010.

Anyhow, I babble. On with the charts. First up - Korean albums sales for August:

This MonthArtistAlbum NameRelease DateThis Month's SalesTotal Sales
1.ShinhwaVol. 8 - State of the Art (Special Edition)5.1040,440201,892
2.PsyVol. 47.2422,92638,375
3.SG WannabeVol 3 - The Third Masterpieces4.0719,968276,773
4.Yoon Do Hyun BandVol. 7 - Why Be?8.1018,04118,041
5.Big BangWe Belong Together (single)8.2817,15917,159
6.TurtlesVol. 47.2015,55429,833
7.See YaVol. 12.2413,99678,887
8.Super JuniorVol. 1 - U6.0312,09765,127
9.Park Jung-ahVol. 1 - Yeah8.2510,54410,544
10.Cherry FilterVol. 4 - Peace N' Rock N' Roll8.179,4329,432

(source: MIAK)

Foreign pop chart to come soon (when I am in the mood). Since the top-selling foreign acts usually would not make the Korean top-10, I will post them separately. FYI, at the moment, Korean music makes up about 62% of the CD market, with foreign music around 23% and classical around 15%.


Okay, here is the foreign chart:

This MonthArtistAlbum NameRelease DateThis Month's SalesTotal Sales
1.Christina AguileraBack to Basics8.1411,51411,514
2.Dong Bang Sin GiSky (Japanese edition)8.2510,85210,852
3.VariousMammo Mia OST6.047,37025,633
4.Jo SumiWith Love: Best of Jo Sumi8.257,0007,000
6.VariousClub Hip Hop8.103,1433,143
7.SweetboxBest of 1995-20054.212,39086,946
10.Paris HiltonParis8.221,7851,785

(source: MIAK)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Korea Weekend Box Office - Sept. 15-17

After a quiet couple of weeks, a new hit opened last weekend, the melodrama MAUNDY THURSDAY, the story of a woman who wants to die and a man on death row who would much rather not. Directed by Song Hae-sung (FAILAN, RIKIDOZAN), MAUNDY was faulted by some film critics for being rather obvious. But for melodramas, obviousness is not always a failing. Anyhow, I have not seen it yet, so I should probably keep my snarky comments to myself.

Other notes... A disappointing opening for PUZZLE. The noir-ish crime drama had a pretty heavy push by Cinema Service, but nevertheless opened weakly. I'm guessing that it was too similar looking to WAR OF FLOWERS (타짜), which comes out next week (and looks to be a more interesting film).

Also, THE HOST is still chugging along. Looks like it will top the 13-million-attendance point in the next week.

This WeekTitle........................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Attendance (Seoul only)Total Attendance
1.Maundy Thursday9.14520297,8001,204,400
3.Between Love and Hate9.0722845,000552,000
4.Like a Virgin8.3116933,000628,000
5.The Host7.2721523,60012,921,000
6.Sinking of Japan8.3120317,000916,600
7.Three Fellas9.0722816,600395,300
8.The Sentinel9.079010,100154,900
9.United 939.07584,00073,000
10.No Mercy for the Rude8.24542,100902,000

(source: Film 2.0)

(Note: Three Fellas was "Ttukbang Jeonseol" in last week's box office chart)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Pusan International Film Festival

Tuesday evening, the nice folks at the Pusan International Film Festival held their festival lineup announcement. Each year, about a month before the festival, the organizers hold a big press event where they talk all about the films and special programs and other events that will be going on at PIFF.

This year's PIFF (Oct. 12-20) looks like it will be as much fun as ever. With 245 movies screening, there will be no shortage of films from all over the world to see.

But what sets off PIFF from all the other films festivals are:
1) The audiences. PIFF gets nearly 200,000 people a year, making it by far the most popular film festival in Asia.
2) The market. Now, there are plenty of film markets all over Asia (Bangkok, Tokyo, Hong Kong), but I would argue that only PIFF and Hong Kong are remotely significant. And since Hong Kong occurs by itself, with no film festival attached, it is much more subdued. But with PIFF and the Asian Film Market (as they are calling it this year) occuring at the same time, you get a real energy. Plus lots of celebrities, parties and all that silliness.

As usual, I expect I will be spending a lot of time in the Korean Cinema Retrospective, enjoying the old stuff. This year, PIFF will be featuring a lot of films from the colonial period, stuff I have seen almost none of before. I am really looking forward to them.

There really is too much screening for me to talk about all the things I want to see, but a few goodies will include:
- CROSSING THE LINE, the latest Daniel Gordon documentary out of North Korea, this time looking at Americans who defected TO North Korea.
- NIGHTMARE DETECTIVE, by Tsukamoto Shinya
- SCREAM OF THE ANTS, the latest by Mohsen Makhmalbaf
- PAPRIKA, the animated film by Kon Satoshi
- BORAT, because I am a bandwagon-jumping idiot

Monday, September 11, 2006

Korea Week Box Office - Sept. 8-10

A bit of a quite weekend this week, as the Korean film world recovers from summer and prepares for the coming Chuseok Holiday onslaught. In the No. 1 spot, we have the debut of BETWEEN LOVE AND HATE (연애, 그 참을 수 없는 가벼움). It is nice to see Jang Jin-young back and doing well, after the fiasco that was BLUE SWALLOW.

More interesting, perhaps, is the surprising strength of LIKE A VIRGIN (천하장사 마돈나), which moved up from No. 3 to No. 2 this week. I guess the film has been getting some pretty good word of mouth... not bad for a movie about a boy who wants to get a sex-change operation. I have not seen it, but apparently it is a gentle-spirited film that is uplifting and quite non-judgmental.

This WeekTitle........................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Attendance (Seoul only)Total Attendance
1.Between Love and Hate9.0725385,000298,000
2.Like a Virgin8.3119154,000483,000
3.Sinking of Japan8.3122051,800796,940
4.The Host7.2725148,50012,790,800
5.Ttukbang Jeonseol9.0724547,000248,900
6.The Sentinel9.0710729,200100,500
7.No Mercy for the Rude8.2415520,400873,400
8.United 939.077016,00048,000
9.Lake House8.319712,100154,700
10.Woman on the Beach8.311178,400206,300

(source: Film 2.0)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Korea Week Box Office - Sept. 2-3

I guess I should think about adding a weekly box office column, just to be all cool and professional like Ryuganji. Or something like that.

FYI, I am going to use Film 2.0's stats. Sure, KOFIC is more accurate, but it only looks at 86% of the market. Until they get up closer to 100% (hopefully in a year or so), I will use Film 2.0.

This WeekTitle........................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Attendance (Seoul only)Total Attendance
1.Sinking of Japan8.3125699,800479,000
2.The Host7.2730872,90012,511,500
3.Like a Virgin8.3121266,000234,000
4.No Mercy for the Rude8.2422056,800749,200
5.Woman on the Beach8.3117047,600133,600
6.Lake House8.3113343,400103,900
7.Lump of Sugar8.1013924,0001,384,000
8.Ice Bar8.2420016,800447,300
9.Banlieue 138.248015,900212,700
10.Holy Daddy8.2419311,200446,900

(source: Film 2.0)

So, what to make of all this? The Japanese disaster movie SINKING OF JAPAN became the film to finally dethrone THE HOST, after a long and amazing run in No. 1 spot. In fact, this looks to be the best opening for a non-anime Japanese film ever in Korea, and the movie could possibly surpass LOVE LETTER as the top Japanese film ever in Korea (again, not including animation). One factor that could hurt its haul, though, is poor word of mouth. Just like in Japan, people do not seem to like SINKING very much (in the words of one friend, "It's boring... It doesn't sink").

I should point out that Japan did not return the favor. THE HOST opened in Japan last weekend, but came in just a wimpy 7th. Kind of disappointing.

It was, however, a very good opening for Hong Sang-soo's WOMAN ON THE BEACH. In fact, it was his second-best opening, after WOMAN IS THE FUTURE OF MAN (which had its numbers boosted by its star, Yu Ji-tae). Consider this a statement to Kim Ki-duk that a Korean filmmaker can be arthouse and respected abroad and pull in good numbers in Korea.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Mimi on the Beach

Ok, this post has nothing to do with Jane Siberry. Rather, I am talking about the latest Hong Sang-soo film WOMAN ON THE BEACH. I checked it out last weekend (twice actually) and really enjoyed it. In fact, it might be my second-favorite Hong film, up there with TURNING GATE (VIRGIN STRIPPED BARE BY HER BACHELORS remains No. 1, by far).

The story, as is always the case with Hong, is deceptively simple and self-referential -- a movie director wants to go to the beach to work on a treatment for his next film, so he pursuades his assistant to give him a ride. The assistant brings along his girlfriend. Add some flirting and sexual tension and a whole lot of talking, and you have a Hong film.

After the assistant and his girlfriend leave the next day, the director soon returns to the beach and finds himself another woman to talk to. Again as in most Hong films, the story now begins to repeat the previous storyline, sometimes in parallel and other times in contrast.

One of the unique things in WOMAN ON THE BEACH is that, for the first time I can recall in a Hong film, the women finally get a chance to meet and interact. Usually he keeps them apart. Their conversations help flesh out their characters (sometimes, I think Hong does not give the woman characters as much depth as the men) and provide a different perspective on what is happening.

Another thing I liked about the film is how everyone changed once their trip was over. So much emotion and melodrama goes on throughout the movie, but once they leave the beach and return home (in the director's case, once he finishes his movie treatment), it is like all their misadventures are forgotten... like shadows or echoes. It makes you wonder how much of their feelings were "real" and how much were just performances or habits or the like. "The play is the thing," as the saying goes, and once the director was finished his play, everything else melted away.

Anyhow, do not let me meandering musings get in the way. The film is quite funny and delightful. More than worth your time.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Teaching in Korea

Okay, this has nothing to do with the purported purpose of this blog, but I was way too amusing by this guy's essay about English teaching in Korea. It was well written and pretty insightful about what the whole mess is like.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Best Bad Movie of the Year

I recently checked out Bong Man-dae's latest film, the plastic surgery horror flick CINDERELLA and was quite disappointed. It is baaaaaad. Not that I was terribly surprised -- most Korean horror films of the last few years have been illogical and distinctly non-scary. But for all its badness, CINDERELLA is a surprisingly watchable film, and one worth discussing.

Bong started out his career making straight-to-video erotic films that were surprisingly witty and well-done (for the genre, at least). Then in 2003 he tried making a "real" film, SWEET SEX AND LOVE. This was also a sex-based film... but it was made for the movie theaters, and was just an "R" release, not a pure sex film. The story was hardly revolutionary, but I was really struck by how well-done the filming itself was. Each frame seemed to be extremely well composed, with an attention to detail that usually is lacking in Korean movies.

After that, he made a six-part made-for-TV series (also about sex) called DONGSANG IMONG (or "Dreaming Different Loves", according to the KOFIC website). This was also quite interesting... kind of a meta-sex film, with the first two episodes being about the making of a sex movie, then the third and four episodes being the actual sex movie, and the fifth and sixth episodes being the aftermath of the film. Like SWEET SEX, DONGSANG IMONG did not have the best dialogue or acting, but it was carefully composited and framed, with a lot of creativity. In fact, 2004 was such a dismal year for movies in Korea, I considered DONGSANG to be the best film of the year, even though it was made for TV.

Which brings me to CINDERELLA. This is the story of a single mom who is a plastic surgeon, her daughter and her daughter's friends (girls who like beauty advice and many of whom have gotten plastic surgery themselves). But problems are afoot as the girls who have gotten plastic surgery start dying, in gruesome ways, with their faces cut.

Like a lot of Korean horror films, this story end up being quite convoluted and inconsistent. People die, and then their friends apparently forget about them and go to the pool or wherever. And very little is scary.

Most disappointing, though, was the lack of great composition, like Bong's earlier films. Sure, there are some good-looking shots and scenes, but nowhere near as many as in his previous works.

That said, the film is delightfully over-the-top, and there are some interesting-looking scenes and cinematography. CINDERELLA is definitely a bad film, but if you like schlock, it is rather amusing in its own, terrible way.

Anyhow, there is a trailer for the film here:

Do Aliens Dream of Marble Sheep?

This post is a couple of days late (sorry)… But I just caught a surprise show by the Japanese band Marble Sheep at the club DGBD on Tuesday. I had never heard of the band before, but got an email from Sato Yukie and decided to check it out on a whim.

And what a great whim it was. Marble Sheep call themselves a “super psychedelic” band, but they are so much more than that. I gather they started 20 years ago, when they were much more of a psychedelic style group, but now they have much more of a modern rock sound (a lame description, I know, but I’m doing my best). With two drummers, they can really pound out the percussion — and do they ever pound it. Wow. The show was non-stop, wall-of-sound noise. Blew out my ears, but it was worth it. If you are interested, there is a much better description of the band here.

Anyhow, it is a pretty decent time for music in Korea. After years of sputtering and limping along, I think there are more good bands playing at more clubs in the Hongdae area than there have been for quite a few years. Take DGBD, for example. For the past couple of years, it has been a so-so merger of Drug Club and Blue Devil. But a couple of months ago, Drug Club solds its share in DGBD to Mac (Matt? Sorry, but I have forgotten his English name), a 48-year-old computer guy who suddenly quit his job and decided he wanted to run a rock club. Hell of a nice guy, and he seems to be working hard to improve the place. I’ll report more, about bands playing there and other plans, as I learn it.

Sorry this first post is kind of lame… but it is a first post. Takes some time to get into this. But I will try to talk more in the future about the cool things (and not-so-cool things) going on in Korea… or wherever I may happen to find them.