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.)