Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top 10 Films of the Zeros

Okay, here is the least creative post idea in quite some time -- my list of the top 10 Korean movies of the past decade. But after a decade of so much great cinema, I thought it would be fun to organize my thoughts and try to put together a couple of comments about some of the best movies Korea produced. It certainly is amazing to look back and see how much has changed over the past 10 years in Korean film and culture. Anyhow, for what it is worth, here are my top 10:

1. Memories of Murder
This movie is, quite simply, the complete package -- a story that is at once accessible but also full of meaning and symbolism. It looks great (thanks in part to Ryu Seong-hee's production design). Wonderful acting. Easily the best Korean film of the modern era.

2. Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors

Hong Sang-soo's best movie, with a solid mix of wit, insight, and creativity. The story of a young woman and her two suitors unfolds in two parts, with Hong's trademark mirrored story structure (back when it was fresh), and does so in a way that adds to the story, is not just a gimmick. At first, you watch the film and at times wonder "What's the point?" (after all, it is a Hong Sang-soo film). But as the story unfolds for the second time, it gains a richness that is really fascinating. The black-and-white really does help you concentrate on the characters and the story and not get distracted.

Best of all, you can still find many of the restaurants and locations from the movie and have drinks there with your friends. At least for now (I am sure all those locations will all be torn down soon enough, though).

3. The President's Last Bang
I can still remember going to the press screening for The President's Last Bang. Obviously Im Sang-soo's historical perspective was what it was (shall we say controversial?). But despite that, I was blown away by the film. I thought it was funny, smart, beautiful looking, darkly humorous and an all-round great movie. But as the lights came on, the journalist sitting close to me (a rather famous reporter) says to me, full of scorn: "I think that film is dangerous." No comment about the art or the story, just a purely political reaction. Very disappointing, but an all-too-common reaction by all-too-many people (perhaps moreso in Korea). Sad when people put politics ahead of art.

4. Failan
I remember watching this movie full of skepticism. I mean, the whole idea -- a Chinese bride and her gangster husband who fall in love despite never meeting -- sounded so cheesy. But by the end, I was crying. Yes, embarrassing to admit, but this story totally got to me. A delicate tale told just right.

5. Oasis
Lee Chang-dong is Korea's smartest filmmaker, with movies that have the richness of novels (no surprise, since Lee started out as a novelist). This is Lee's best movie, featuring not just a smart story, but also two amazing acting performances, by Moon So-ri and Sol Kyung-gu.

FYI, here is my old story about Oasis in Newsweek, many moons ago.

6. Chunhyang
This is the Im Kwon-taek movie that should have won at Cannes (not the silly and swollen Chihwaseon). Im's told the Chunhyangjeon traditional story through a retelling as a live pansori performance at the Jongdong Theater in downtown Seoul. As the story goes in and out, from the theater with the singer and audience, to the dramatic re-creation of the story, the artifice actually draws you in deeper and makes it more engrossing. Quite a feat.

7. Tale of Two Sisters
I have the same feeling about most of Kim Jee-woon's movies -- so close to excellence, but there is something fundamentally flawed about them. Tale of Two Sisters was the same, going on for 15 minutes too long, past its natural climax. That said, Tale of Two Sisters was a gorgeous film, with each scene leaping off the screen with color and dynamism (take that, James Cameron). And its psychological horror was genuinely creepy in a smarter, deeper way than most horror films.

8. Lies
It is a huge surprise for me to have this film here (along with anything by Jang Sun-woo), but I re-watched the film earlier in 2009 and quite liked it. The story (from a novel by Jang Jung-il that got the author imprisoned for six months) of a high school girl who gets into a torrid affair with an older artist, Lies could have easily descended into soft-porn silliness, but somehow Jang (well, "Jangs") kept the film smarter than that.

(Okay, technically Lies was 1999, but it was released in Korea on Jan. 8, 2000, so I am putting it in my list).

9. Take Care of My Cat
Such a light, little film, about four young women from Incheon, their friendship coming apart due to the trials of entering adulthood. But the characters were rich and intriguing, and the whole added up to much more than the sum of its parts. Possible depressing lesson of the film: The only way to break free of the bonds of daily life is to get out of the country.

10. The Isle
Like Lies, this is another film I am really surprised to have in my top 10. Certainly no one is more surprised than I am to have a Kim Ki-duk film anywhere on this list. Generally I quite dislike his movies (especially the Orientalist silliness he seems to have fallen into since Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring). But the more I thought about it, the more important The Isle seemed to me, and the better it fared in my memory. Many filmmakers have tried to go "shocking" (like Park Chan-wook's "Vengeance trilogy, or, in the West, films like Saw), but, really, none of them can compare to Kim Ki-duk and his infamous fishhooks.

Telling how old all those films are. Even my Honorable Mention list (if I had written one) would have concentrated on older films. What did I like from the past five years? Mother, The Host, Woman on the Beach, Like You Know It All, The Chaser, The Good the Bad the Weird, Secret Sunshine, Tazza... and a few others. But there were rather few really exciting films compared to how many Korea was producing from the last 1990s until 2004-ish.

Of course, there are plenty of other really good films that did not make my list. One of the most memorable and wacky movies of the last decade was Save the Green Planet. I quite liked Lee Sung-gang's My Beautiful Girl Mari. Park Chan-wook's Violence Vengeance Trilogy was certainly important in gaining international respect for Korean movies (and there is no denying Park's considerable talents as a director). But (at least for now), those are the 10 movies that I think were the best of the last 10 years.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Ox Takes Manhattan

First OLD PARTNER, a documentary about a farmer and his ancient ox, becomes the surprise hit of 2009 in South Korea. Now it is coming to America. Read the New York Times review of OLD PARTNER here.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Shin Joong-hyun's Fender Guiter, Other Random News

  • Jason Strother has a fun and interesting article about Korean rock great Shin Joong-hyun getting honored by Fender with his very own guitar. Apparently it was the first time Fender has given that honor to an Asian artist. There is a longer audio version of the story, too.

  • The Korea Times just published a surprisingly thorough look at the year ahead in movies. The article lists a lot to look forward to, from big names to long-time-coming sequels.

  • An interesting article on Asian-American hiphop, particularly in the Los Angeles area.

  • Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics) is producing The Wondergirls' new album? (Okay, apparently this was announced a couple of weeks ago, but I just noticed it. And am rather stunned).

  • Hey, Darcy Paquet's book, NEW KOREAN CINEMA, is out at last. Very cool. Looking forward to reading a very different take on the Korean film industry than I wrote about. Hope to get some sort of review up here before too long.

  • You have undoubtedly heard plenty about Korean TV dramas and other entertainment doing well all over Asia and beyond... But here is an intriguing story about the old MBC drama JUMONG becoming a bit hit in Iran.

    With the country being rocked right now by a democratic uprising, it is fascinating to learn a little bit about the changing going on these days to popular culture in Iran. I have met with several Iranian filmmakers and poets over the years (and regular folk, of course), and I am constantly intrigued at how different life is there compared to how most people in the West think it is.
  • Tuesday, December 22, 2009

    Marmots, Trolls, Avatars and Other Random Creatures

    So, the Marmot's Hole closed the comment section. Very good, says I. If people have something to say, let them write about it on their own websites. Or they can email the blog owner, and if he likes it, he can post it. I know my view is a minority, but that is what I think of Internet commentary -- keep the signal-to-noise ratio as high as possible. Even if it means being choosy or mean.

    Strangely, the closing of the comments have led to some really weird accusations here and there around the Korea blogosphere. People have called the Marmot arrogant or a sell-out or whatnot. Kind of fascinating, really, to see what kind of a bizarre world so many people live in, and how much we bring our own quirks, foibles, biases and scars to our analysis of the world (myself included).

    As someone who knows the Marmot reasonably well, I can say with some assurance that "arrogant" is about the last adjective one can apply to him. His blog has changed over the years, but that is mostly based on changes in his life. For several years, he was translating for a Korean news site, so he was regularly immersed in Korean news; his blog content reflected this. Plus he had a lot more free time at work then. One reason I liked the blog so much back then is that it provided fast commentary on the news of a sort that one could not find elsewhere in English (and was hard to find in Korean, too, imho).

    But after he changed jobs to Seoul Magazine, he was no longer surrounded by news, and he no longer had nearly as much free time. No surprise that his website content changed to reflect his new job and schedule. That is the simple truth. No government pressure on him. No one telling him to do more of this or less of that. No dreams of glory. No Uncle Tom hopes of being accepted by Korean society by attacking foreigners. Just changing circumstances.

    (I should note, too, that no one has remotely come along to pick up his slack from his news-blogging days. As I said last year, with the disappearance of Oranckay and Antti Leppanen from the blog world and the Marmot changing his style, it was a real hit for English-language commentary on Korea. Sure, there are more voices out there now, some quite interesting, but no one is doing what they were doing).

    Although I see Robert is now planning to re-introduce comments, with some snazzy new moderation software in place. Best of luck to him. But seeing how his comment section went (and others like it at countless other blogs and forums I have followed over the years), I offer the following half-assed analysis:
  • Bad commenters drive out good (as Coming Anarchy noted, this is the Internet version of Gresham's Law). Back when the Marmot's Hole averaged 10 comments a post, it had more substantial comments than when it was averaging 50-100 comments a post.
  • Insanity is solely a function of size.
  • Ergo, eliminating a crazy will not reduce the amount of insanity in a website. Either someone else will become infected with the craziness, or else two or three people will start to share a portion of the crazy.
  • Corollary: No one can be crazy alone.
  • (Counter-corollary: Michael Jackson. And most other mega-celebrities, who clearly go insane after too much isolation).
  • (Possible counter-counter-corollary - We are all nuts already. Just the Internet sometimes makes it more noticeable.)
  • And finally, most people's reading comprehension is really terrible.

    * * *

    Okay, so I saw AVATAR over the weekend. And I suppose I liked it well enough. It was impressive. But at the end of the day, that is all it was -- an impression. Great special effects, but nothing that held any weight, which I fear is the problem with all digital effects. When I think back on Aliens, or Skeksis, or even ET, despite the mechanical fakeness they sometime had, I remember them with a sense of reality. AVATAR, however, I remember like a video game. A really expensive, well-made, realistic video game, but still fake and slight.

    Honestly, I quite preferred TITANIC. Sure it was cliched and had some terrible dialogue, but its basic plotting and storytelling were fantastic. The world it presented felt truly real and substantial.

    Anyhow, after I saw AVATAR, I saw IN THE LOOP, and I liked LOOP a lot more. Funny, insightful, often witty and sometimes even wicked. And a film for grown-ups. Highly recommended.

    Btw, AVATAR did 1.6 million admissions last weekend in Korea, or about 13.6 billion won. Not bad, but certainly not SPIDER-MAN or TRANSFORMERS numbers.

    * * *

    Random note: I loved this Manohla Dargis interview from a couple of weeks ago. As many others have quoted: "Let's acknowledge that the Oscars are bullshit and we hate them."
  • Friday, December 18, 2009

    AVATAR in Korea

    In case you were wondering, James Cameron's 3D blockbuster AVATAR currently sits on top of the advance ticket sales, accounting for 71.2 percent of all sales (KOBIS, of course). Not bad -- although it does not come close to the 89.7 percent that TRANSFORMERS 2 got.

    It is also playing at five IMAX theaters around the country -- in Seoul at the CGV Wangsimni and Yongsan, and in Daegu at the CGV Daegu, Gwangju at the CGV Gwangju, and in Ilsan at the CGV Ilsan.

    It is hard to believe I was in Korea way back when TITANIC came out. Hard to believe that at the time it was the biggest movie ever in Korea, with something like 4.5 million admissions (SHIRI was still a year away). I watched TITANIC in what was then the only multiplex in Daejeon, The Academy (I think it was called). It was a decent theater, with three screens, located near the train station. Today, that theater is part of the Megaline franchise, and has been divided into nine tiny screens (assuming it is still there).

    It really gives you sense of how much the Korean movie industry has changed over the past decade -- from almost no multiplexes to almost nothing but multiplexes, from low attendance to high (national attendance to films has tripled in Korea since TITANIC). And, of course, the most popular films in Korea are now all Korean. The biggest foreign film ever in Korea, TRANSFORMERS 2, would not even make it onto the top-10 overall there.

    Oh, and there is an article on 3D movies in Korea (although not a lot of information about the local scene) here.

    Sunday, December 13, 2009

    Hip Korea Wins

    Well, turns out that HIP KOREA - RAIN did okay at the recent Asian Television Awards, held in Singapore earlier this month. The program up for four awards, and it came away with one win and two runners-up. Pretty respectable, I think.

    The program won for Best Cross-Platform Content, which I suppose means it was available for cell phones and computer downloads and the like. Runner-up awards (which the Asian TV Awards call "Highly Recommended") came in Best Music Programme and Best Infotainment Programme. So congratulations to the producers and all the people who put the program together (I was just the "associate producer" on it, so cannot really take credit).

    You can see the complete list of winners here.

    * * *

    Speaking of Rain, I guess he has had a big couple of months, mostly because of his movie NINJA ASSASSIN. Since it was released on Nov. 25, it has made $32 million in the United States, and another $6.4 million in Korea (7.4 billion won, according to KOBIS). Plus another $260,000 in Italy (Box Office Mojo).

    But seriously, the film did get a pretty wide release around the world, with a lot more countries opening the film over the next few weeks. So all told, its box office could rise a bit. And this really in a home video sort of film, so I think that its investors should be pretty happy when all is said and done.

    And speaking of box office, the latest travesty inflicted upon us by Roland Emmerich, 2012, has done very well in Korea, topping 5 million admissions, or about 35 billion won ($30 million). Worldwide, it is over $670 million. Apparently we all love seeing the world destroyed, much more than we enjoy good stories. Me included.

    Tuesday, November 24, 2009

    Hip Korea Nominated for Asian TV Awards

    As a commenter mentioned earlier, the Rain episode of the HIP KOREA documentary that I worked on has been nominated for four Asian Television Awards -- Best Music Programme, Best Infotainment Programme, Best Direction and Best Cross-Platform Content. As I have never been nominated for much of anything before, I must admit that it feels kind of cool to be a part of a program that is up for four awards.

    The Asian TV Awards will be handed out on Dec. 3.

    Oh, and since I am talking about Rain... His publicity blitz for NINJA ASSASSIN recently took him to Toronto, where he gave interviews for the local media, like the Sun and the Star.

    Friday, November 20, 2009

    Kim Daul Gone

    By now you have probably heard that Korean fashion model Kim Daul was found dead in her apartment in Paris on Thursday, Nov. 19.

    Daul was just 20 years old, but had been a top model for three years or so. She was also known for a big and quirky personality, as evidenced in this cool mini-interview at Test Magazine. I think you get a sense of what she was like in this photo shoot, too.

    She also bared that quirkiness often on her blog I Like to Fork Myself. I had been following it for a couple of years, reading it irregularly, but nearly always loving it when I did. She talked a lot of music and modeling, of course, but also about her loves, like collecting cutlery, schlocky horror films, cereal and guinea pigs. She also had a great post when she told Korean netizens who were on her case for doing some nude pictures to shut up.

    And then there were posts like this one (one of her first):

    my life as daul was so miserable and lonely.
    please join my loneliness in another world.

    Sure, she adds "just kidding" a few lines later. And one does not want to overly psychoanalyze a blog. But still...

    And then there was this post:

    and thanks to stupid tv show from korea ppl think i like to
    torture myself and thanks to that im getting lots and lots of
    suicide emails on a daily basis
    but im definately not depressed, and i dont want to killmyself

    And more recently, here:

    freedom comes with such cost.

    but is it even freedom?

    one could get numb living like this. pretty things. comfort. vanity. decadent nights to make up for losses.

    but this endless loneliness

    there must be something wrong from the core.

    i worry as i take the courage to sleep

    I remember thinking about a month ago how her blog had gotten wordier recently, like there was something she was trying to figure out, or something that was on her mind, eating at her.

    Here is a picture of Daul at 5 years old:

    Korea has had a much-discussed problem with celebrity suicides for a while (something I have avoided discussing, because I find the whole subject somewhat lurid and distasteful). But I did not know that modeling in general also has been wrestling with a similar problem (at least according to stories like this one). Regardless of the cause, suicide is always such a waste. But if Daul was suffering from mental health issues, it would be a shame that she did not get the help she needed. In general, I wish people were more aware of mental health and willing to get help when they needed it (or encourage their friends who need it to get help).

    Tuesday, November 17, 2009

    No OLDBOY for Hollywood

    Okay, this is a few days old, but I quite enjoyed this story about how talks between DreamWorks and Mandrake Pictures to remake OLDBOY have broken down. It is an interesting article, helping to point out the many problems aside from creative that potentially stand in the way of any project -- ownership and other rights, speed of development, executives changing jobs, etc.

    As you probably know, there have been stories floating around about how DreamWorks wanted to remake Park Chan-wook's iconic film, with Steven Spielberg directing and Will Smith starring. But looks like all that is now kaput.

    Of course, OLDBOY was loosely based on a Japanese manga of the same name, so just who would be remaking what was always a tricky question. Like the proposed remake of THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD... just who "owns" the idea? Anyhow, all moot now.

    Saturday, November 14, 2009

    The Sincerest Form of Flattery, Vietnam edition

    One of the big reasons I do not like the term "Korean Wave" (as I talk about in POP GOES KOREA) is that the term undervalues the size and scope of the cultural trends affecting pretty much everywhere. It is not a Korea thing, as much as it is a globalization thing. And just as Korean entertainment companies got a great boost by improving their business management, marketing, and artistry, now other creators and businesses are getting into the act.

    In an interesting example of what I am talking about, here is an article about how Vietnam is following Korea's example in how to produce pop stars.

    The article talks about how aspiring singers in Vietnam are coming to Korea to produce their albums or study with Korean music labels:
    Another pop star, Ho Ngoc Ha, who recently took part in the Asian Song Festival 2009 in South Korea, said: “Going to South Korea to witness their technology, I understand their entertainment industry. They can make anybody to become a bright star with that professional and huge system”.

    Actually, this has been a long time in coming. I remember representatives from KBS telling me way back in 2002 that they were seeing a lot of interest in their programs from Vietnam. One of Vietnam's first multiplex chains was run by a small Korean exhibition company (sadly now out business in both countries, I do believe). And I have been seeing media folks from Vietnam Media Corporation for years, at PIFF, Cannes, and elsewhere. The Vietnamese program 39 DEGREES OF LOVE was deliberately modeled on Korean TV dramas. No surprise, then, that producers and creatives in Vietnam's music scene would also try to emulate Korea's successes.

    All very cool, but this is about more than just Korea. In my humble opinion, the point of these influences and changes is not Korea's Koreanness. These are trends that are deeper and more pervasive. After all, it is not a coincidence that Korea's cultural rise in Vietnam (and elsewhere) came at the same time as its corporate rise. In Vietnam, Korean cosmetic and appliance companies were aggressive in breaking into the market, which helped open things up to cultural content (and vice versa).

    So I definitely credit Korea for being one of the first non-Western countries to modernize its entertainment industry and reap the benefits of doing so, I think it is important to realize that almost all countries are looking to do the same thing. India and China are of course the highest profile competitors in Asia, with Hollywood studios falling over each other to sign up deals in those countries. But you can see it pretty much everywhere. I can see it here in Spain, in their music and movies (Spain produces a lot of films each year, thanks in part to an aggressive Catalan film community).

    While the Hollywoodization of the world's entertainment industries can be distressing at times, on the whole I think this is good for most local cultures. They are learning how to produce popular, engaging entertainment, which is the best way to ensure local entertainment industries continue to exist (or even thrive) in the face of the huge, global entertainment conglomerates. So if Vietnam can emulate Korea to strengthen its entertainment industry, I think that is a good thing.

    And just hours after I post this story, there is an article out of the Philippines about the popularity of Korean pop stars. Okay, not really related to the Vietnam story, but still interesting to see how mobile today's pop culture can be, and how good Korean stars are at getting that popularity around Asia.

    Tuesday, November 10, 2009

    Fire and Rain

    Looks like the Hollywood PR machine is gearing up for Rain's all-action, ultraviolent film NINJA ASSASSIN. For example, here is a nice clip of one of the fight scenes.

    And the NINJA ASSASSIN stories are starting to appear in the press (like here and here), thanks in part to a press conference last week in Seoul.

    So far, the only review I see is a pan in Variety -- but what did you expect from those humorless dorks. (UPDATE: The Hollywood Reporter review is here. At least this reviewer seemed to get the point a little more.)

    NINJA ASSASSIN gets released in the United States, Canada, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia on Nov. 25, then in oodles of other countries in the beginning of December and throughout the month.

    UPDATE: Ah, I knew there would be a lot more NINJA ASSASSIN stuff on the web soon enough. Like here are six clips from the film. Most of them are fighting scenes, and most seem well choreographed and bloody and such (although ninjas fighting on the streets is a little goofy... okay, a little *more* goofy).

    And, best of all, here is the NINJA ASSASSIN trailer in Lego:

    Friday, November 06, 2009

    From the Kim Sisters to 'Oh Brother'

    I grew all excited when I saw the headline in the Chosun Ilbo this morning: "5 Decades of Korean Girl Bands." It even started promisingly, with an opening graph about the Kim Sisters.

    But then came sadness, as the article jumps abruptly from the Kim Sisters of the 1950s to SES in the late 1990s. From there, it merely lists the major girl groups of the past decade -- SES, FinKL, Baby VOX, Jewelry, Wondergirls. Sigh.

    Strangely, the article even asks, how did we go from groups like the Kim Sisters to the manufactured eye candy of today? But then it leaves a non-answer by critic Lim Jin-mo and gives a vapid rundown of a few vapid groups. While, of course, posting as much eye candy as possible. Thereby kind of answering their own question.

    "Why are today's girl groups just eye candy?"
    "I don't know, but here are some pretty pictures."

    That Mr. Lim is quite the go-to guy for music analysis these days. He is quoted heavily in this recent Korea Times story about K-pop. Heck, even I interviewed him for that Rain documentary on Discovery Channel that I worked on earlier in the year.

    In the KT article, Lim, as usual, presents his argument about pop culture in moral terms, which I rarely like.
    "The utmost value of today's music consumers in listening to music is 'fun.' They no longer seek any serious messages or meanings from music as people did back in the 1980s and '90s. I'd bet this fun-oriented appetite of listeners will continue for years to come," he said.

    First of all, there is nothing wrong with "fun." We are talking about pop music after all, which is supposed to be popular. "Good" in no way precludes "fun".

    Secondly, it is such a middle-aged gripe to complain that culture used to have meaning when I was young, but now it is all shallow and garbage. He similarly complains about the media and the music labels, saying they are all shirking their responsibilities and are only about money. Zzzzzz.

    I call them "should" arguments. He should do this. They should do that. Like when he talks about Korean artists learning English to succeed in the West:
    "But their ultimate goal there should be standing on stage with Korean-version songs with a very Korean sound, which would be the completion of the Korean wave."

    As I have argued several times before, when it comes to big picture issues, I am much more interested in systems than morals. All the "shoulds" in the world will not do much if you have a system that is pushing people toward a "shouldn't".

    If you want people to have wider interests, maybe you should make those options more available. I have written before about the importance of live music as the foundation to a more natural, organic music system, and how Korea does not have much of a live scene despite having so many talented, creative young people. But even if someone were to be interested in a Korean indie band, how would you find them? The resources in Korea are very few, poorly organized, and poorly supported. The live music venues have terrible websites that rarely post their schedules more than a few days in advance. Cyrock has stopped updating. Weiv rarely posts about modern Korean music anymore. Lord, I miss MDM magazine.

    (Of course, there is always Indieful ROK and the Korea Gig Guide, at least for you foreigners. Oh, and newbie site Pocket of Sky for lyric translations).

    Okay, now I am really digressing. I started off talking about girl groups and how they have evolved, then I devolved into a bunch of other issues. But it would be nice if important national publications like the Chosun Ilbo were to address issues like this with a little depth and research instead of just printing pictures of young women in short skirts. (Great, now I'm making a moral argument, too).

    (Btw, I think my headline for this post would have been better were there not a Korean band called the "O! Brothers". It confuses the sarcasm. So apologies all any and all who read this hoping for comments about them and surf-rock in Korea.)

    Wednesday, October 28, 2009

    North Korea in the New Yorker

    Barbara Demick, one of my favorite journalists, has a book coming soon about life in North Korea, titled NOTHING TO ENVY: ORDINARY LIVES IN NORTH KOREA. And as part of the PR for that book, there is an article (that you have to pay for) and a Q&A session (free!) with her in the New Yorker this week. Totally worth a read.

    There is also an excerpt from her book in The Paris Review, also very good.

    You can order her new book here.

    Monday, October 26, 2009

    Pop Is Dead
    Random Notes - Vol. 4, No. 2

    The "pop" in POP GOES KOREA (and Korea Pop Wars), of course, is a reference to pop culture, or "popular culture". Well, over the weekend, the man who apparently came up with the term "popular culture" passed away. His name was Ray Browne, and he was a professor at Bowling Green State University (in Ohio).

    Amusingly, he claimed that his first use of the term in 1967 was a mistake. He was originally using the term "people's culture", as well as terms like "everyday culture" and "democratic culture".

    On the other hand, "pop art" was apparently coined in 1954 by John McHale. So maybe that was my real point of reference, I just did not know it.

    * * *

    In other news, Edward Chun, the guy who wrote about Korean pop music for MTV Iggy a couple of months ago, just turned up on Gawker of all places. Edward is now in journalism school at Columbia, and for a project on journalism ethics, he and some students put together a presentation in the form of hiphop verse, using Jay-Z's Empire State of Mind. I found it quite amusing, in a goofy sort of way. Worth a watch, if you have not see it already. But what would Drunken Tiger think?

    Saturday, October 17, 2009

    Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018?

    Well, this is an interesting development. Only three cities have submitted bids for the 2018 Winter Olympics -- Munich, Annecy and ... (wait for it) Pyeongchang.

    For the last several years, I have been pained by Pyeongchang's previous bids for previous Olympics. Pyeongchang is a beautiful place, but its bids were simply not very good (yes, it got votes in 2010, but I still think the bid was fundamentally flawed).

    But this time, they may be in luck. From what I can see on the Internet (dubious research, I know), people are pretty dubious about Annecy's bid. Which leaves it pretty much a two-country race, between Germany and Korea.

    * * *
    And as long as I am talking about sports, I should point out the Kim Yuna had a great short skate at the opening of the Trophee Bombard tournament in Paris yesterday (part if the ISU's Grand Prix tournament). Yuna scored a 76.08; her nearest competitor, Yukari Nakano, a 59.64

    As Philip Hersh wrote on his LA Times sports blog:
    One short program does not a season make. But this one made it clear that Kim at her best will be impossible to beat, and Kim at 80% of her best still is better than anyone else. Athlete, artist -- this young woman is breathtaking on the ice. Barring injury or early retirement, she can be the greatest women's skater in history.

    Monday, October 12, 2009

    HAEUNDAE Floods Canada

    The Korea disaster blockbuster HAEUNDAE washed ashore Canada last weekend. The general verdict -- not bad, for a genre everybody already knows well. The biggest split were between those who considered HAEUNDAE's head-slapping, plentiful-emoting ways to be refreshingly different or just ridiculous.

    Here is the Toronto Sun review - 3/5 stars
    The Globe and Mail review - 2/4 stars
    The Toronto Star review - 2.5/4 stars
    And the National Post review - 2 stars (out of 4, I presume, but am not 100% sure)

    The averages out to 55.6%. Damn Canadians. I have not seen any information about when and where else HAEUNDAE might be coming, but if I do, I will let you know.

    Friday, October 09, 2009

    A World of Film

    An interesting survey over at UNESCO's Institute for Statistics about the number of films made around the world (found via Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood Daily).

    According to the survey, India is the top filmmaking nation in the world, with 1,091 films made in 2006, followed by Hollywood with 485 "major" productions".

    (Note: Nigeria would be second, with 872 films, but those films are all shot on video and designed for home viewing, as there are virtually no cinemas in Nigeria, so Nigeria is not counted in the official survey results. Not unfair, I think... If you were to include all the independent and student and amateur films made in the United States, films of comparable or better quality than most of the Nigerian films, I'm sure the United States would be in the thousands. But, still, it is interesting to realize how much filmmaking goes on in Africa and how even there, movies are not all about Hollywood.)

    Very interesting to see how big a presence Asia had in the survey -- an addition to India, Japan was third, China fourth and South Korea was ninth.

    Not in the survey but similarly interesting is how much money is spend on movies in those countries, too. China is on track to spend over $700 million in theaters this year, and continues to grow substantially each year. Japan is about $2 billion/year. South Korea is around $1 billion. India is impossible to guess at (I have seen estimates ranging from a few hundred million dollars to well over a billion), but it is notable.

    The European box office is still larger than Asia, mostly because of higher ticket prices. But that gap is narrowing every year. And with so many films being made over here, you can see Asia rising in importance. Which is, of course, why Hollywood has been trying to find partners and possibilities in Asia over the past few years.

    I do not think this is a zero-sum competition, though. Almost every country has a demand to see films about its own culture in its own language. That is not going to disappear, no matter how many "tentpole" pictures and superheroes Hollywood creates. In fact, I think we are clearly seeing the limits of the Hollywood model. Yes, US major films can be incredibly popular all over the world, but they are not the be-all-and-end-all of moviemaking. Especially now that countries like Korea and Japan have learned from Hollywood and are making entertaining films of their own.

    Which is (if I may market myself a moment) one of the major points of POP GOES KOREA. Entertainment globalization is not a one-way street, even if the United States is the biggest dog on the block and has, until now, been fairly dominant. People learn and systems evolve.

    We have seen it in Luc Besson and his action film company in France. We have seen it in Korea, then Japan and increasingly in China. And I think in the future, we are going to see more and more examples. Not just in movies, but in all of entertainment.

    Tuesday, October 06, 2009

    Don't Mean a Thing If It Don't Have That Zing

    After a month of absolutely spiceless food, I went to my first Korean restaurant last night since moving to Spain. It was generally agreed upon by my group (of about eight Koreans and Korean-hyphenates) that it was one of just two decent Korean restaurants in Barcelona. Someone claimed there were only around 12 Korean restaurants in all of Spain... I have no idea, but there are not a lot.

    Anyhow, the food. We went to a restaurant called Sangil, in the Gracia part of Barcelona. First of all, the food was basic but quite good. I had the yugaejang, and the ingredients were fresh, the broth reasonably spicy. There was not a lot of banchan, but what they had was pretty good. We even split a little soju (which sported a Jeonju International Film Festival label on the back, giving us some idea how old it was). All in all, a nice refresher in Korean food.

    But the prices, yikes. Nearly everything on the menu was 12-15 euros -- that is well over 20,000 won, for a basic Korean lunch, the kind of thing that is usually around 5,000 won in Seoul Even the Jajangmyeon was over 12 euros. Jajangmyeon? Bizarre. And the galbi dishes were much more. I knew I was going to have to pay a premium for Korean food over here, but that was a little surprising.

    Oh well, at least the won is getting a little stronger against the euro at the moment...

    Tuesday, September 29, 2009

    Random Pics

    Here are a few random pics I found over the last few days that I found amusing/interesting for one reason or another.

    First of all, from today's Joongang Ilbo and a story about payphones in Korea, the top 10 payphone locations around Seoul:

    I have no great insights on these locations. Although I was amused to see a "correctional facility" make the ranking. Otherwise, I see no obvious patterns to these locations.

    And to go with that, a chart of payphone usage in Korea since 1997.

    I personally find this chart fascinating because I first arrived in Korea in 1996, in the middle of the pager era. Some of my most vivid memories back then are of the huge lineups everywhere, for pretty much any and every payphone in the country. Talking on the payphone in some loud bar, trying to explain to your friends how to get their. Or listening to someone at that same loud bar have a fight with his/her boyfriend/girlfriend (er... not that I never did anything so ridiculous, of course). Good times.

    Anyhow, I find it amazing that there are still over 150,000 payphones in Korea. Although, according to the story, 20 percent of payphones have not been used in the past year. Yikes.

    And then, just the other day, I checked out Korea's Web Standards website at and found this:

    "Cannot establish a connection" indeed. Fortunately, the link is working again, but at the time, it struck me as funny. (Actually, it is one of the many sites associated with the Korean web pioneer Channy Yun, a very nice guy).

    Finally, here is a pic of Bong Joon-ho from the San Sebastian Film Festival last week, where he was on the jury.

    That is him in the middle, looking toward the camera with a funny look on his face. I do not know why, but his expression seemed pretty amusing.

    Monday, September 28, 2009

    HAEUNDAE Tsunami Floods North Korea

    Channel News Asia is reporting that North Korea is cracking down on foreign films after a university student was caught watching HAEUNDAE on his computer.

    The student reportedly downloaded the film while at a relative's house in Chongjin, in northeastern North Korea. He then took the film back to Pyongyang to watch with his dormitory friends.

    North Korea has been awash in pop culture from South Korea for several years, something NK authorities have mostly ignored, much as it mostly ignored the many markets that had sprung up around the country. But recently the North's government has started cracking down on those markets, so apparently South Korean pop culture has got to go, too.

    Why is South Korean culture so dangerous to the North? Some, like Andrei Lankov, argue that seeing South Korea's material prosperity makes the North look bad by comparison. Others, like Brian Myers, say the danger is in not in seeing the South's material success (which most people in the North already know), but in seeing that South Koreans do not all yearn to be part of one united Korea, under the care of the North and Dear Leader. Whatever the reasoning, the effects are much the same.

    On the other hand, this story claimed that South Korean pop culture has been losing its cache in the North for some time now, so maybe the crackdown is not such a big deal. But I suspect that story overstates the situation.

    Anyhow, I do find it amusing that an illegal download of the blockbuster HAEUNDAE (now the fourth-biggest film of all time in Korea, with 11.4 million admissions) had the capacity to create so much trouble north of the DMZ.

    More AFKN Fun

    Last year, in a post about the history of AFN Korea, I talked about some websites that delve into the history of the American Forces Radio & Television Service. One of those sites I mentioned was Thomas Weston's history of AFRTS.

    Well, Mr. Weston has gone on to start a new blog all about the history of AFRTS, which includes a couple of posts about Korea so far. And there was this post of the AFKN newsroom from 1968.

    I also ran across this website for the Southwest Museum of Engineering,
    Communications and Computation, which features many interesting old AFRTS stories, including many from Korea. My favorite was this first-hand report on AFRS back when it was mobile, driving all over Korea. Great old pics of AFKN here.

    Thursday, September 24, 2009

    iPhone Coming?

    Stop me if you have heard this one before, but it is now being reported that the iPhone is going to come to Korea -- really for real this time.

    Nothing has been officially announced yet, but speculation is the iPhone will roll out by November, in some sort of partnership with KT. But you will forgive me if I do not hold my breath in anticipation.

    First, the positive spin (from the WSJ story):
    Industry participants said Wednesday's decision is a big step in changing all that because it will bring more price competition to smartphone handsets and because so much software is available for the iPhone from Apple or developers rather than strictly through phone carriers.

    "It basically opens a new world," said Lee Chan-jin, a pioneer of South Korea's software industry and chief executive officer of DreamWiz Inc., a mobile software developer and Web portal. "Korea's cellphone software industry was sick, but I expect it to be reinvigorated with iPhone."

    Yes, the Korean telecoms' attempts at creating app stores have been dreadful. So the competition from Apple should be invigorating.

    But there is also a negative side to this change. Much like the Blackberry ruling last December, which allowed the Blackberry to be sold in Korea, no regulation or law has been changed to allow for this change in policy; the government bureaucrats just decided to start interpreting the regulations differently.

    This, imho, is not a good thing. Doing business should be about following the laws of the land. Transparency. Playing games with government officials is about as opaque and murky as can be. It invites backroom deals, payoffs and all sorts of shenanigans.

    So while I appreciate the government regulators taking a step forward, it is frustrating to see just how backward their thinking still is in too many ways.

    Sunday, September 20, 2009

    A Digital Korea Blog

    I just ran across the blog by Kim Chang-won, Web 2.0 Asia, which I quite liked. Chang (as he calls himself) is the co-CEO of the Internet startup TNC (which was acquired by Google Korea a year ago), and he has a real gift for explaining some of the quirkier aspects of Korea's IT industry as well as the future of the web in Asia (although mostly Korea).

    Among the posts I really like of his are this great take-down of SK's terrible apps store, Samsung's attempts to join the app store market, the lack of iPhone in Korea, and even an escort business map of Gangnam.

    All of which remind me, if you are interested in Korea tech issues, you should also check out Channy Yun's Korea Crunch (including an interesting post about Twitter and its Korean competitor Me2Day) and
    Techno Kimchi (although this is not being updated much these days). And there is a nice overview of the top Asia tech blogs at OpenWeb.

    Btw, I thought this was amusing -- when I went to check out Web Standards Korea, I found this:

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009

    Billboard and Charts in Korea

    I was surprised to read today that my former magazine BILLBOARD is at last coming to Korea, having signed up a local partner.

    BILLBOARD is teaming up with some company called ViewLife and the Korea Entertainment Producer's Association to produce Korea music charts and a Korean-language magazine. Good luck to them.

    Has anyone ever heard of ViewLife Inc.? I have not and was unable to find any information about the company. A dubious beginning. But who knows what that really means?

    KEPA, on the other hand, does have a website.

    Will BILLBOARD really be able to put together a chart for Korea? When I worked for the magazine, I was always impressed at how countries like Malaysia could have a chart, but somehow this was beyond Korea (no offense to Malaysia, which is a fine place).

    (Hrm... Looking at the website now, I see not Malaysia there anymore, but it used to be in the magazine for a while.)

    Anyhow, the point is the dubious nature of the Korean music charts. Several TV stations used to keep charts, but there were so many scandals related to how they compiled their figures that most of those charts were disbanded for several year.

    With the rise of digital music sales, the telecoms and Internet portals have offered a wide array of charts, but they are all so disorganized and spread out that none really offers an accurate overview of the nation's music tastes (although I do like Bugs' Indie New Music Chart)

    For several years, the Music Industry Association of Korea (nee the Recording Industry Association of Korea) used to keep track of album sales. But with album sales declining by around 80-90 percent from 2000 to today, that became an increasingly fruitless activity.

    Life became more complicated in 2002 when collecting the monies for online and digital music was taken over by the Korean Association of Phonogram Producers. This went poorly, though, as much of Korea's music industry thought the KAPP was useless, so refused to join, and instead several private collection groups were started (ironically, one collection agency for digital revenues was bought by Soribada, the group most responsible for the rise of online file-sharing in Korea).

    MIAK was finally disbanded earlier this year, replaced by the Korea Music Content Industry Association. The KMCIA is supposed to keep track of both physical and online sales in the future, but at the moment their website appears to be under construction. I have not heard from people in the Korean industry what they think of KMCIA, but hopefully it will be more successful and useful than its predecessors.

    Suffice it to say, I am skeptical about anyone's ability to put together a decent music chart any time soon. And more importantly, in this age of digital downloads, file-sharing, Myspace, background music, and more, how can we really measure the "top songs" anymore? Music has become such an abstract and amorphous idea, I do not see the benefit and need for such charts, not like there used to be in the 1980s or so. And with so much information available at everyone's fingertips, people no longer really need the charts to find out about new music or trends. The power is (increasingly) out of the music labels hands, so what do charts matter?

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009

    iPhone? Aigo!

    I really want to complain about the latest stumbling blocks facing Apple's iPhone in Korea. Now that the iPhone appears to be squeaking past the Korea Communications Commission's first hurdle (the WIPI non-standard), the KCC found another bureaucratic roadblock. Which leads KT journalist Kim Tong-hyung to write this great line:
    The country claims itself as the mobile capital of the world, and yet it has managed to fall behind nations such as Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea in securing the planet's hottest mobile device.

    I want to complain... except I live in Spain and find myself equally unable to procure an iPhone. Very different problem over here, though. Here, Apple has a local operator (Movistar). But Movistar does not appear to have any iPhones in stock anywhere in the country. In fact, according to the comments at blogs like this one, it seems like the iPhone is out of stock around much of Europe.

    I assume it has something to do with the Apple's iPhone contracts around Europe about to end in the coming months (as mentioned in the WSJ the other day). But it is still pretty annoying.

    Monday, September 07, 2009

    I Want My MTV
    (aka, "Getting Iggy With It")

    The very gracious and insightful Edward Chun just posted a series of articles over at MTV Iggy (MTV's Asia culture site) about the state of Korean pop music. All are very interesting and fun. You can check out the main page here.

    And best of all (from my selfish perspective), he happened to use me and POP GOES KOREA as a major source for several of his articles. Not only that, but Stone Bridge agreed to let Iggy use a few excerpts from my book, like this short chapter on the singer Rain, and this one on Shin Joong-hyun.

    I appear mostly in Edward's introductory article, but if you read all his stuff, you'll hear my voice scattered here and there (along with a lot cooler people than myself, but I still happy to be included).

    And there is this very cool interview with In Sooni (it has nothing to do with my book or me, but I thought it was great).

    Just so you know that Edward is no slouch, I should let you know that he has a real music background (heck, he even has a Wikipedia page). So when he is talking about the musical elements of K-Pop or whatever, he is not just yammering on; in fact, he knows what he is talking about.

    Anyhow... Edward, thanks much for the kind words and the great stories.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009

    Korea Weekend Box Office - Aug. 21-23
    -- Final Edition

    Plenty of new films this week, but none of them did very good business, as the top four films were unchanged from last weekend.

    TAKE OFF continues its strong run, pulling in another 5.79 billion won ($4.6 million), for a total of 38.06 billion won ($30.4 million). That is over 800,000 additional admissions, taking it well past the 5-million-attendance mark (5.35 million, actually), and making 6-million a certainty. The question is, how long will it last?

    HAEUNDAE also passed a big milestone over the weekend, but in its case it was the 10-million mark -- just the fifth film ever to do so in Korea. HAEUNDAE made 3.74 billion won last weekend to bring its total to 71.1 billion won ($56.9 million).

    Even GI JOE is doing well still, adding another 1.86 billion won to lift its total to 16.66 billion won ($13.3 million). That makes Korea far and away the strongest international territory for GI JOE outside of the United States -- the next-closest territory is Russia with $7.9 million.

    The top new film this week was the Korean horror film YOGA HAGWON, opening in fifth with just 957 million won, or 1.34 billion won ($1.1 million) including Thursday.

    PERFECT GETAWAY opened just in sixth. But I thought the film was a lot of fun. Totally recommend if you are looking for a good summer thriller.

    Pixar's UP fell to 12th, just nosing past the 1-million-attendance mark for 7.3 billion won -- just about the same as RATATOUILLE and WALL-E.

    This WeekTitle............................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Revenue (bil. won)Total Revenue (bil. won)
    1.Take Off (Gukga Daepyo - Korean) 7.296155.7938.06
    2.Haeundae (Korean) 7.235133.7471.08
    3.GI Joe 8.063721.8616.66
    4.Ice Age 3 8.123801.185.06
    5. Yoga Hagwon (Korean) 8.203290.961.34
    6.Perfect Getaway 8.202930.961.22
    7.Orphan 8.202230.760.93
    8.Sophie's Revenge 8.202350.450.59
    9.Public Enemy 8.122940.343.06
    10.Largo Winch 8.202200.280.40
    (Source: KOBIS - Figures represent 98% of nationwide box office)

    It somehow seems appropriate that, as I sign off on my last box office report, Korean films are currently sitting at 49.7 percent of the box office for the year. Pretty close to half. After all the downs and ups the Korean movie business has been through over the 13 years I have been here, it seems kind of cool to be leaving with things right in the middle.

    Monday, August 24, 2009

    Seulpeun Annyeong, Hanyang...

    Okay, it is about time I said a few things about my life and what has been going on for the last while. Obviously I have not been updating this blog as often as I should, nor have I been able to share with you as much fun news from the Korean entertainment industry as I would like. These bits of personal news are are not really secrets -- all my friends know about this stuff already, but for various reasons I did not feel like posting about it online.

    Main news #1 is that I am not The Hollywood Reporter's correspondent in Korea anymore. Nor Billboard's. Nor anyone's. In fact, I have not been much of a reporter in over a year. Last year, Bang Productions, a rather cool documentary company based in Singapore, hired me to help them develop several Korea projects. We produced those two HIP KOREA programs (on Rain and Lee Byung-hun) and we have several other fun things in the works.

    Main news #2 is that I will not be in Korea much longer. In a few days, I will be moving to Spain. Why? Who knows. But after so many years in Korea, it is exciting to be beginning a whole new phase in my life.

    So, what does that mean for KOREA POP WARS? Well, first of all, tomorrow's box office update will be my last. When I started writing the box office three years ago, it was actually pretty tough getting that information. I had to slog through a bunch of sources to fit together something decent. But these days, thanks to KOFIC and KOBIS, box office numbers are fairly readily available. You can link to here (although I imagine KOFIC will probably change that link one or twice each year, so no guarantees how long it will last).

    It also means that this blog will not be around much longer. For now, I will keep using it, perhaps turning it into a Spain version of London Korean Links. But some time soon, I will be introducing a new blog at (for now, it just redirects here).

    In the meantime, I should thank everyone who checked out KOREA POP WARS, whether regularly or just once in a while. And a huge thanks to everyone who bought a copy of POP GOES KOREA. That was the main impetus for starting this blog, and for all the book's faults and shortcomings, I am proud of it (and, once again, big big thanks to everyone who helped me with it). The nice reviews and kind words have only been a bonus.

    I suppose I will give some sort of Farewell Address in the coming days, just to sum up my thoughts and feelings after so long living in Korea. And there will be periodic updates, as different things occur to me. Most importantly, I think there will be some fun news coming from, as my new life in Europe begins to take shape.

    Saturday, August 22, 2009

    Sweet Cats Need a Sweet Owner
    (The most random topic yet, at least for a Korean entertainment blog)

    Okay, for reasons I shall explain soon, I need to find a new home for my two cats, Miroo and Jiroo. I have been posting all over the place, in English and Korean websites, but so far come up empty*. And now that I am days away from moving, I thought I would try posting about my cats on my blog.

    Miroo is 8 years old male (neutered), slightly overweight, and quite nice, without being clingy. When he was young, he took a bad fall outside and broke both of his front legs. It took a lot of surgery and care to nurse him back to strength, but today, he is healthy and fine (although he walks with a slight limp). But he does like to sit with people, especially when it is cold out.

    Jiroo is just 4 years old and female (spayed). She is less cuddly than Miroo (definitely not a fan of being picked up), but she quite likes to play, with strings or toys like that.

    Both are quite independent of people but close to each other, so they are fairly undemanding pets. Nice company, without being overbearing.

    If you are interested, please drop me an email. I am based in Seoul, close to Shinchon (at least for now).

    *Okay, not totally empty. A couple of nice people queried, but decided to get other cats. And several really freaky people called who I would never, ever want taking care of any living thing, especially not my cats.

    For example, the one guy who likes to keep cats on leashes all day, when he is out at work. He asked "Do you have a bag I can carry them in, or do I need my own?" Then he adds that he has had several cats over the years, but they keep running away. Yikes. Serious freak.

    Thursday, August 20, 2009

    Korea Weekend Box Office - Aug. 14-16
    (Penultimate Edition)

    Sorry this chart is so late (again). Too much work going on these days, I guess.

    Topping the box office last weekend was the ski jump film TAKE OFF, with 6.61 billion won ($5.29 million). Oddly, that is by far the best weekend the film has had since it was released three weeks ago -- it opened to 5.01 billion won, then dropped to 4.98 billion won the next week. I guess people are getting tired of HAEUNDAE, but still want to see something home-grown. Maybe the holiday and the nasty heat helped, too.

    Anyhow, TAKE OFF has now made 28.27 billion won ($22.6 million) and pulled in 4.0 million admissions since it was released -- a solid hit, with the potential to grow into something bigger. Topping 5-million admissions (as it seems sure to do) is always impressive.

    HAEUNDAE may be slowing down, but it is still doing well -- 7.23 billion won last weekend to bring its total to 64.4 billion won ($51.5 million). With 9.1 million admissions (including 865,000 last weekend), HAEUNDAE is now the fifth-biggest film ever in Korea, and certain to pass the 10-million mark.

    GI JOE continues to do surprisingly well, with another 3.4 billion won last weekend, for a total of 13.2 billion won ($10.6 million).

    ICE AGE 3 had a rather soft opening, with just 2.39 billion won over the weekend. PUBLIC ENEMY did even worse, with 1.54 billion won.

    I do not know anything about the Korean film BULSIN JIOK, which opened in sixth. But there it is.

    People must not have liked ONE MILLION at all, as it is dropping like a stone.

    This WeekTitle............................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Revenue (bil. won)Total Revenue (bil. won)
    1.Take Off (Gukga Daepyo - Korean) 7.296786.6128.27
    2.Haeundae (Korean) 7.236386.2664.44
    3.GI Joe 8.064883.4013.20
    4.Ice Age 3 8.124612.393.11
    5. Public Enemy 8.123751.542.15
    6.Bulsin Jiok (Korean) 8.122910.841.20
    7.Up 7.292510.387.00
    8.Summer Wars 8.121180.360.46
    9.Detective Conan: The Raven Chaser 7.301330.303.86
    10.One Million (10 Ok - Korean) 8.062400.312.92
    (Source: KOBIS - Figures represent 98% of nationwide box office)

    Tuesday, August 11, 2009

    Korea Weekend Box Office - Aug. 7-9

    A great case this weekend of how much stronger hit Korean films still are in Korea, even compared to the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN took about 48 days to become the biggest foreign film ever in Korea, with about 7.4 million admissions. HAEUNDAE beat that mark in just 18 days.

    Yes, everybody's favorite tsunami HAEUNDAE is still kicking butt in the theaters, taking in another 9.2 billion won ($7.5 million) over the weekend to bring its total to 53.0 billion won ($43.1 million). That is about 7.46 million admissions, making it the ninth-biggest movie ever in Korea and rising fast.

    It looks certain to me that HAEUNDAE has the strength to top 9 million admissions and become the fifth-biggest Korean film ever. Even 10 million is pretty doable. But getting over 11-million and contesting with the big-four (SILMIDO, TAEGUKGI, THE KING AND THE CLOWN and THE HOST)? Possible, but much more difficult.

    The Korean ski-jumping film TAKE OFF (Gukga Daepyo) landed in No. 2, with 5.5 billion won, to lift its total so far to 17.2 billion won ($14.0). So TAKE OFF looks like it is also a solid, if more middling, hit.

    Very close behind is Lee Byung-hun's Hollywood debut, the action blockbuster GI JOE, with 5.4 billion won over the weekend -- or 7.1 billion won ($5.8 million), including Thursday and previews.

    Surprisingly, I thought GI JOE was much less terrible than you might expect. In fact, I rather enjoyed myself (thanks in part to diminished expectations, but still...). A solid popcorn film for the lazy days of August.

    The Survivor-meets-Battle-Royale film 10 OK (One Million) did not fare so well, opening only in fourth with 1.5 billion won. Or just 2.0 billion won ($1.6) since Thursday.

    Pixar's UP is doing about what you would expect in its second week -- 1.4 billion won more for a total of 6.1 billion won ($5.0 million). It looks like yet another film will squeak past 1 million admissions (it is currently at 833,000), but not do much more.

    The only other Korean film on the top-10 was CHAW, with added another 433 million won to bring its boxoffice to 12.3 billion won ($10 million).

    KOFIC chart to come as soon as the nice people at the Film Council update their website.

    UPDATE: Okay, here is the early-release chart up on the KOFIC site. The numbers do not match with my report yet. Hopefully I will be able to fix this is a couple of hours.

    Monday, August 10, 2009

    Pop Goes the Contract

    There is a fairly decent overview of the contract situation faced by entertainers in Korea over in today's Joongang Ilbo. Using the lawsuit Dong Bang Shin Gi (aka TVXQ) has filed against SM Entertainment as the peg, the article looks at the long and onerous contracts that most entertainers in Korea have to have, especially singers.

    As you have probably heard, on July 31, three members of DBSG filed suit against its management company, claiming their contract is unfair. DBSG is one of SME's most popular bands these days, and is doing especially well in Japan, where they recently played two nights in the Tokyo Dome. The band's complaints were mostly the same things we have heard over and over again in Korea over the years -- their contracts are too long, their contracts do not pay enough, the penalties for leaving the management company are too severe, the performers do not have enough control over their own careers, the performers are not paid enough (probably the biggest issue).

    I do not want to get into the details of DBSG's particular case. That is something for the Korean courts to decide. But I do think that cases like these bring up a much bigger point.

    Arguing about the "fairness" of idol contracts -- how many years should they be, how much should the performers be paid, etc. -- misses the big point. I am tempted to call it "Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," but that is probably a bit harsh -- after all, the Korean entertainment industry is showing few signs of sinking any time soon. It is more like arguing about what kind of pain reliever is best for a critically ill patient. That is, such talk deals mostly with the symptoms of the disease and misses out entirely on the causes.

    Korea's pop idols are not paid poorly and overcontrolled because the management companies are evil. The management companies are just doing their best within the current system. And judging by the long list of big stars who have emerged from Korea's music system over the years, they are apparently doing something right.

    The trouble is, Korea's music system itself, which is very resource-intensive and very top-down (like far too much of the Korean economy in general). Because the burden of developing stars and marketing them falls solely on the music companies, it takes a huge amount of money to create new stars. The biggest companies have over 50 performers (mostly young people) in training at a time, taking dance classes, singing classes, learning how to act like stars, and usually living in company housing, eating food paid for by the company, being driven everywhere by the company. All this adds up pretty quickly.

    So when a band gets paid pennies for an album sale, you have to remember that the performers spent years in training before they earned any money, and that for each performer earning money and doing well, there are many other aspiring young people who never make it, but who nonetheless burn through company money. How many hopefuls does each company have for each performer who makes it? Five? Ten? I do not know, but it is big enough.

    The real problem (as I argue in my book, POP GOES KOREA) is the lack of diversity in Korea's music business, in particular the lack of a live music scene. In most countries, live music is the core, the heart. Young people pick up instruments and play in their parents' garages or wherever. Some get good enough to play in clubs. A few get good enough to put out albums (or MP3s or whatever). A very few make money. Basically, the cost and inconvenience of developing acts falls on the wanna-be performers. By the time they get to the music labels, a lot of the winnowing and development has already happened.

    Even in Japan, where J-Pop is big business, you have J-Rock and jazz and a fairly wide range of choices. And choices drive competition, when reduces the stranglehold that music companies otherwise might have.

    Strangely, Korea used to have a great live music scene. It was a long time ago, but back in the 1960s and 1970s, most of the big performers had a live music background, whether playing on the US Army bases around the country or playing the live clubs of Myeong-dong or wherever. Even in the 1980s, as Korea's music scene turned more poppy and synthesized (and saccharine), there was still a live foundation most of the acts had -- Cho Yong-pil, Shin Hae-chul, Jo Sung-mo, and the like were all live performers first.

    But in the early 1990s, the scene began to change, especially with the coming of Seo Taiji. Even though Seo Taiji wrote his songs (well, mostly) and performed them himself, he typically performed them prerecorded, with The Boyz dancing away furiously beside him. It was the formula that Korea's music companies would use to create their boy- and girl-bands. And soon the manufactured dance bands came fast and furious. Within a few years, they dominated the TV music shows, Mnet, and the like.

    For a generation of young people in Korea, being a "star" has meant being a dancer first, a pretty face and perhaps a singer. Very few young people pick up a guitar with dreams of making it big. Sure, plenty of kids play music, for any number of reasons. But few harbor serious dreams of using the guitar (or whatever) to become rock stars.

    And as long as the live music scene is not a viable route to becoming a star in Korea, the local music scene will remain dominated by the music labels and manufactured pop music.

    The funny thing is, for all the talk of the dominating power of the music companies, the truth is they are actually very weak. They are merely responding to the economics they are given. If young people were to choose different music, the whole system would fall apart. If playing in Hongdae became a route to fame and fortune, then the system would have to change. But as long as Korean young people show no interest in anything but K-Pop, all they will be given is K-Pop. And the system will not really change.

    Wednesday, August 05, 2009

    The Housemaid Cleans Up

    Happy day today -- I just bought the great new DVD of Kim Ki-young's THE HOUSEMAID.

    THE HOUSEMAID (1960), of course, has long been recognized as one of the great films in Korean history. It is a crazy, claustrophobic tale of a family being terrorized by their housemaid. But describing the plot hardly begins to describe just how fun this movie is.

    If you have seen THE HOUSEMAID before at one of its retrospective screenings, you know that it really needed some cleaning up. Much of the movie was faded, scratched, or had degraded in any number of ways.

    The quality of the image is pristine mostly pristine (save for two reels, which were more damaged and are still rather poor), the sound is clear. It is great to see a Korean film getting such special treatment. If only the English subtitles were prepared as carefully as the rest of the film (they are okay, but the mistakes are careless and unnecessary). The essays in the booklet that accompanies the DVD are not very interesting or helpful... But I fear I am nitpicking. This DVD is a great restoration.

    If you want to buy THE HOUSEMAID on DVD, you can get it at Kyobo Books or any number of online bookstores (like this one). It is totally worth it. Or, if you cannot find the DVD, you can always watch it online for free.