Thursday, January 29, 2009

Uninvited, but Not Uninviting

Like binary stars rotating endless around each other in the vastness of space, so too do Darcy Paquet and I once again revolve around each other in universe of Korean movies.* Or, to be less oblique, Rob Boylan of the Orlando Weekly quotes Darcy and me in his article about the Korean film industry.

Not a bad introduction to Korean movies at all, certainly not the kind of thing you typically see in a US weekly newspaper. The story apparently made the cover of the publication, too. Thanks to Rob for turning the spotlight on Korean movies in a part of the world that probably does not think about such things too often. And thanks for plugging POP GOES KOREA in the article.

The peg for the article is the release of yet another remake of an Asian horror film in Hollywood. This time TALE OF TWO SISTERS gets the remake treatment, turning into THE UNINVITED. Not enough reviews of the film to have a rating on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic yet, but so far the early word seems pretty decent (not great, but not bad). I will probably check it out when it comes to Korea.

But why on earth was this movie called THE UNINVITED? That was the English title of the Jeon Ji-hyun horror film SA INYONG SHIKTAEK. Sure there have been plenty of other films and things called Uninvited before, but it seems quite odd to use the title from one Korean horror film to remake another Korean horror film.

*(Okay, it was either a binary star analogy or a reference to the USS Enterprise and Reliant chasing each other around Regula I, but that metaphor seemed a little loaded... Either way, I'm a dork).

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Korea Weekend Box Office - Jan. 23-25

John Woo's RED CLIFF 2 became the first foreign film to top the box office this year, taking in $2.1 million over the weekend, or about 590,000 admissions since opening on Thursday. While that seems okay, those numbers are down a bit from the first RED CLIFF, which had about 800,000 admissions over its opening.

Looks like Tom Cruise's PR blitz in Korea paid off, as his VALKYRIE opened in second, with 2.6 billion won ($2.0 million).

Nos. 3-5 all went to Korean films, led by the new movie CITY OF DAMNATION (nice English title), the Korean comic version of INFERNAL AFFAIRS. In fourth was the big hit of season, SCANDAL MAKERS, which was now made 44 billion won (about $32 million), followed by A FROZEN FLOWER, which is now at 23 billion won ($17 million).

Oh, in case you were wondering, SCANDAL MAKERS is now the most successful comedy in Korean history, having overtaken 200 POUND BEAUTY. Looks like SCANDAL is going to become the first Korean comedy to top 7 million admissions, too.

The only other Korean film was way down in 10th, the little film MY OLD PARTNER, about a man and his ox.

This WeekTitle............................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Revenue (bil. won)Total Revenue (bil. won)
1. Red Cliff 2
3.City of Damnation (Yugamseureoun Dosi - Korean)
4. Scandal Makers (Gwasok Seukaendeul - Korean)12.04
5. A Frozen Flower (Ssanghwajeom - Korean)
7.Madagascar 2
8.Bedtime Stories
9.Transporter 3
10.Old Partner (Wonang Sori - Korean)
(Source: KOBIS - Figures represent 98% of nationwide box office)

With foreign films occupying the Nos. 1 and 2 spots, Korean movies are now accounting for about 48 percent of the box office in 2009 -- down a bit from last week, but much stronger than most people would have predicted a couple of months ago.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Real Pop Wars: Episodes 1 and 2 -- The Fans Strike Back

Two interesting music stories in the news that seem very different, but that both revolve around the issue of audience power fighting with the powers-that-be.

The first and more fun one is about the latest battle between rival fans clubs, as fans of Big Bang and the Wondergirls teamed up to screw over fans of Dong Bang Shin Gi (aka DBSG, aka Tohoshinki, aka Tong Vfang Xien Qi, aka TVXQ). It seems that fans of Big Bang and the Wondergirls got together and reserved nearly all the 1,700 tickets to a DBSG concert. Then, at the last minute, they released those tickets, so they went unsold, the seat unoccupied. Impressively bitchy maneuver.

The more serious story I came across was a talk by Ian Rogers (CEO of Topspin and former head of Yahoo music) about how the CD business is dying and that "I don't care." The key point of his argument is that CD sales are down, but that is hurting the record labels much more than it is hurting the artists. In fact, for many artists, the new business model that is emerging is better, with a much broader middle class of artists who can support themselves through Web sales, touring, merchandising, etc.

I suppose his thesis is not groundbreaking these days, but it was a happy thing to think about, as applies to the Korean music industry. Korean music moguls have for the most part recognized this change for some time. After all, the Internet destroyed Korea's CD sales quicker and more seriously than anywhere else on the globe (that I know of). Which is why almost all musicians in Korea have been signed to 360 deals for ages -- the money is in the celebrity, not the music itself.

One thing Rogers recommends, though, is instead of signing 360-deals with record labels, artists should create their own 360 deals with themselves. Labels can help artists, but they are no longer the be all and end all.

I wonder if (and hope that) we are going to see these effects in the Korean music industry? Korean young people have had so little choice for so long, most are sadly unaware of what music can and should be. Not that teen-pop and ballads are terrible, but there are a lot more options in the world.

When are Korean independent bands going to grow more assertive about challenging the status quo? When are Korean music fans going to assert themselves more, and take advantage of the limitless options the Internet age provides? I would like to think that one reason the live music scene has been improving so much over the past couple of years has been because of these very issues.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Korea in the Asia Film Awards

Kim Jee-woon's THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD emerged the frontrunner in this year's Asia Film Awards, leading the pack with eight nominations.

The Asian Film Awards (now in their third year) open the Entertainment Expo Hong Kong, held each March and April, alongside the Hong Kong International Film Festival, the Hong Kong and Asia Film Financing Forum and the Hong Kong Filmart.

South Korea had two nominations for best actor (Song Kang-ho from THE GOOD and Ha Jung-woo from THE CHASER, but no one nominated for best actress (not so surprisingly, and sadly).

In addition to all the nominations for THE CHASER and TGTBTW, the other Korean nominees were Kim Ji-yeong for best supporting actress for FOREVER THE MOMENT and best newcomer to So Ji-sub for ROUGH CUT.

The Promoting Begins...

So I did my first bit of promotion for POP GOES KOREA this morning. I was asked to join EBS Radio's Morning Date section, a once a week guest segment where random diplomats and notable people join the program and talk for a bit.

Not sure what I thought of the experience. I think I did not embarrass myself. But for someone like myself who is used to the luxuries of writing, ruminating and rewriting, having to put my thoughts together cogently on the fly is an odd experience (I am sure there are plenty of people out there who can testify that I almost never think when I speak).

Sorry that I cannot link to the program. I would not find it on the EBS website, and I am told that you have to pay for the streaming, so that's no fun.

I did have one friend email to say that he heard me on the radio, so that was quite nice.

Anyhow, hopefully it will be something of a learning experience, and I will be more witty and succinct when I have my next media run-in. With a little luck, there will be more soon.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Korea Weekend Box Office - Jan. 16-18

This week's top-10 is nearly the same as last week's. In fact, the only new film this week -- the anime BEYBLADE -- made its debut way down in 10th.

Also just like last week, the only two Korean films in the top-10 happened to occupy the top two spots. SCANDAL MAKERS did the best by attendance, but A FROZEN FLOWER made slightly more money, due to its 18-rating that kept out students (and their lower admission prices). A FROZEN FLOWER now has pulled in well over 3 million admissions, or 21 billion won ($16 million).

Close behind, SCANDAL MAKERS made 2.48 billion won last weekend ($1.8 million) to bring its total to 41.91 billion won ($31 million). Pretty impressive... and it is still going strong.

No other films did anything too notable last weekend. BE KIND, REWIND came in 12th, and is now up to 35,000 admission and $180,000. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN was way down in 26th, but at least the Swedish vampire film has made about $430,000 (not bad, as Swedish vampire films go).

With the Seollal lunar new year holiday films opening this week, expect to see some big changes to the box office next weekend. (Yes, I know I said that last week... apparently I am not so good at reading calendars).

This WeekTitle............................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Revenue (bil. won)Total Revenue (bil. won)
1.A Frozen Flower (Ssanghwajeom - Korean) 12.305362.5520.93
2.Scandal Makers (Gwasok Seukaendeul - Korean) 12.044152.4841.91
3.Madagascar 2 1.084321.645.11
4.Transporter 3 1.083071.525.20
5. Yes Man 12.182360.579.00
6.Defiance 1.081810.461.34
7.Bolt 12.312870.424.79
8.Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea 12.171820.219.41
9.Journey to the Center of the Earth 12.182180.189.18
10.Beyblade: The Movie 1.151350.120.14
(Source: KOBIS - Figures represent 98% of nationwide box office)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Scandal Makers - Subtitled

Sorry for being late in posting this, but it appears that Lotte Cinemas is showing the big hit of the season, SCANDAL MAKERS (aka Gwasok Seukaendeul), with English subtitles at several of its locations around Korea.

You can catch SCANDAL MAKERS with English subtitles at the Lotte Cinema theaters in Myeongdong, Busan and Ansan. Each location appears to be showing the film with subtitles throughout the day, so you have plenty of chances to see it.

SCANDAL MAKERS now has over 6 million admissions, making it a solid hit. In fact, it is probably around 6.2 million by now, which would make it the 12th biggest Korean film ever.

Next in line is 200 POUND BEAUTY, which had 6.6 million admissions back in 2006. If SCANDAL MAKERS can top 200 POUND, it would become the biggest comedy ever in Korea (assuming one does not include D-WAR).

Friday, January 16, 2009

Geek Mourning

A bad couple of days of the inner-nerd -- both Ricardo Montalban and Patrick McGoohan have passed away. Both actors had long, prestigious careers... But I don't know much about that because I loved them for their work on my nerdy cult-classic favorites.

Montalban played the dastardly Khan Noonien Singh from Star Trek, once in the original TV series and once in the movies -- STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, of course. The television episode was fun, but it was the Star Trek movie that so impressed me (and so many nerds of my generation).

McGoohan has a slightly brainier role in a more obscure but much more important classic -- the 17-episode series THE PRISONER. Each week, McGoohan's character, No. 6, would try to escape from a mysterious island populated with former spies.

And the opening sequence was one of TV's all-time greats.
"I am not a number — I am a free man!"
I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered!

But for me, the great exchange from the opening was when No. 6 and No. 2 were talking, and No. 6 tried to figure out what was going on:

Who is Number One?

You are Number Six.

Because all it took was a little comma to totally change the meaning:

Who is Number One?

You are, Number Six.

Be seeing you...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Still No Oscar for Korea

Not a big surprise, but it looks like that once again Korea will be going Oscarless this year. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nine films that have made it to the next round of voting for the Best Foreign Language Film category, and Korea is nowhere to be found.

To make matters worse, a Japanese film did make it (Yojiro Takita's DEPARTURES).

Korea this year was pushing CROSSING, a weep-fest about the plight of North Korean defectors, and the trials they face trying to escape. A worthwhile topic, to be sure, but CROSSING was not a very good film. Heavy-handed and shallow. Rumor has it that the Korea Film Council's latest boss, Kang Han-sup, a Lee Myung-bak appointee, was pushing CROSSING hard, as part of his reforms to the Council.

Oh well, maybe next year.

No Korean film has ever been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. Although I would argue the Oscars are so silly and irrelevant, this is hardly an "honor" they should worry about. The list of great films that were never even nominated is long (City of God), as is the list of poor films that won.

Jan. 22, that list of nine films will be further winnowed down to the five final nominees.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Korea Weekend Box Office - Jan. 9-11

Just two Korean movies in the top-10 last weekend... But they were the most popular two films, so at least they made it count. Same as last weekend, A FROZEN FLOWER followed by SCANDAL MAKERS.

So far in 2009, Korean movies are accounting for 53.5 percent of the box office. So are we happier?

Not much notable, otherwise. BE KIND REWIND opened only in 11th, but that is not really a surprise. REWIND's opening weekend of 17,000 admissions was slightly better than THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP's opening of 12,000. Not sure if that makes me happy, because Michel Gondry is doing better, or depressed, because it did better than THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP (which I really liked).

Things should get more interesting next weekend, as the pre-Seollal holiday films start to get released.

This WeekTitle............................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Revenue (bil. won)Total Revenue (bil. won)
1.A Frozen Flower (Ssanghwajeom - Korean) 12.305403.6016.50
2.Scandal Makers (Gwasok Seukaendeul - Korean) 12.044172.7738.06
3.Madagascar 2 1.084562.402.75
4.Transporter 3 1.083202.322.74
5. Bolt 12.313220.634.16
6.Yes Man 12.182370.608.08
7.Defiance 1.082010.520.61
8.Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea 12.172080.309.09
9.Journey to the Center of the Earth 12.182580.268.89
10.The Day the Earth Stood Still 12.242340.1010.28
(Source: KOBIS - Figures represent 98% of nationwide box office)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

2008 Movie Recap

CJ CGV, South Korea's biggest multiplex chain, just put out its report on the movie business in 2008. And, not surprisingly, it was mostly bad news.

(Note: CGV's numbers may not be as official as the Korea Film Council's, but they are good enough for this post. KOFIC's official numbers should be out in the next couple of months.)

Nationwide attendance dropped 5.7 percent to 149 million, down from 158 million last year and 167 million from 2006's record-setting year. Although it is worth noting that even 149 million is still the third-best year ever for box office revenues in Korea.

Much more damning, however, was the dramatic fall in admissions to local films. South Korean movies accounted for just 42.5 percent of the box office, their lowest level since 2000. Ouch.

So out of 149 million admissions, Korean films took in just 63.4 million. That's down a whopping 41 percent from 2006, Korean movies' best year ever.

On the other hand, pretty good news for Hollywood, which had its best year ever in Korea, with 85.7 million admissions -- up 10 percent from last year, the previous best for non-Korean films.

As for the top films themselves:

1. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Korean) - 6.9 million
2. The Chaser (Korean) - 5.1 million
3. Mamma Mia - 4.6 million
4. Kung Fu Panda - 4.6 million
5. Gang Cheol-jung: Public Enemy 1.1 (Korean) - 4.4 million
6. Scandal Makers (Korean) - 4.3 million *
7. The Mummy 3 - 4.2 million
8. Iron Man - 4.2 million
9. Forever the Moment (Korean) - 4.1 million
10. Indiana Jones 4 - 4.0 million

(* Scandal Makers is still in theaters, and has already topped 5 million admissions, but this chart was just for 2008)

Korean movies were, once again, the most popular in the land and five of the top 10. And nine of the top 20.

Isn't the Korean market interesting, though? The Mummy 3 and Mamma Mia did better business than The Dark Knight. Hah! Given how well The Chaser did, I think you cannot argue that Koreans do not like dark films. But for some reason, Batman just does not resonate with Koreans as much as with Americans. Considering how well Transformers did last year (the best foreign movie ever in Korea) and Iron Man, maybe Koreans just prefer big metal heroes... which would bode well for the Robot Taekyun V movie.

So what is ahead for 2009? Heck if I know. But it is starting strong, with Scandal Makers still doing well and A Frozen Flower starting the year strong. Plenty of films are lining up for the annual Seollal lunar New Year rush. And I don't see anything too exciting coming out of Hollywood for the next few months (except possible Watchmen on March 5).

So there is a good chance that Korean movies will get a good start to 2009. Then you have the new Park Chan-wook film coming out in April, Bong Joon-ho's Mother in May, and Choi Dong-hoon's fantasy film Jeon Woo Chi later in the summer. The big-budgets films Laundry Warrior and Haeundae later in the year. Plenty of reasons to be optimistic in 2009.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Korea Weekend Box Office - Jan. 2-4

UPDATE: I just noticed that KOFIC changed their numbers some time over the last couple of days. I hate that. So I have changed the numbers in the chart and throughout my post.

Yoo Ha's adult tale of courtly and bedroom intrigue in the Goryeo Dynasty, A FROZEN FLOWER, got off to a hot start last weekend, taking in 575,000 745,000 admissions over the weekend and 1.28 1.52 million since it was released on Dec. 30. That works out to nearly 4 over 5.1 billion won over the weekend and 8.6 10.25 billion won overall (or about $3.2 $4.2 million and $6.9 $8.2 million). That is pretty strong, especially for an adult film that young people could not get into.

SCANDAL MAKERS continues its torrid pace, earning another 2.6 3.4 billion won to bring its one-month haul to 32.4 33.5 billion won ($26 $27 million).

Following those two Korean films, you have a long list of Hollywood majors, mostly doing minor business. Except for No. 5, where Miyazaki's PONYO ON THE CLIFF BY THE SEA made another 760 971 million won, bringing its total to 8.3 8.4 billion won ($6.6 million).

This WeekTitle............................................Release DateScreens NationwideWeekend Revenue (bil. won)Total Revenue (bil. won)
1.A Frozen Flower (Ssanghwajeom - Korean) 12.305805.1510.25
2.Scandal Makers (Gwasok Seukaendeul - Korean) 12.044293.4233.55
3.Bolt 12.313431.592.84
4.Yes Man 12.182831.076.94
5. Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea 12.173590.978.48
6.The Day the Earth Stood Still 12.243120.869.96
7.Journey to the Center of the Earth 12.183660.818.40
8.Twilight 12.111090.178.56
9.Australia 12.111130.146.30
10.Lost and Found (Dalkomhan Geojitmal - Korean) 12.181280.0823.07
(Source: KOBIS - Figures represent 98% of nationwide box office)

In a hopeful sign for the future, I'M SORRY DOKDO did pretty sorry business. Opening on 26 screens, DOKDO opened in 22nd, with just 12 million won ($10,000). So much potential for snark... But I will try to control myself. Suffice it to say, I think we just found a good metric for how strongly Koreans really feel about this fake controversy -- i.e., not very much.

Now let's never speak of this film again.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

2008 Anti-Wrap-up (A Wrap-Down?)

Hrm... End of the year. I guess I am supposed to offer some sort of wrap-up of 2008. Or top-whatever lists. Or some sort of words of wisdom.

Too bad I don't really have anything like that. At least nothing earth-shattering or brilliant or controversial.

The movies had their worst year in quite a while, with Korean films dropping to their lowest level of support since 2002 or so (still waiting on the final figures). THE CHASER was probably my favorite film of the year, although it was more of a B+ than an A. THE GOOD THE BAD THE WEIRD was fun but not great (and a little shaky in spots). Hong Sang-soo's and Kim Ki-duk's latests were duds. Most everything else felt... well, typical. Some good, some bad (some terrible)... but nothing really weird. Nothing surprising. Artistically, things are in a bit of rut.

But despite their money problems, the fact is attendance is still way up from what it was 10 years ago, new movie theaters are still being built. And, most importantly, good films are still being made. Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook have their new films coming soon. And there are a lot of really interesting, big projects in the works. Sorry I cannot talk about a couple of the more fun ones I know. But things like the cgi animation of Robot Taekwon V or Bong Joon-ho's Snow Train are just way too cool. Certainly Hollywood's interest in Korea is bigger than ever. And I would not overlook the behind-the-scenes stuff going on with China and Japan, either.

People claim that financing is so tough, but last year saw over 100 films released -- still way more than a few years ago, and probably more than is healthy. Yes, some previously popular sources of financing have dried up. But most of them probably were not so good anyhow, and the industry has a whole is stronger without it. Stupid money investing in bad movies helps almost no one (except the crew members, who could use all the help they can get).

The music industry has, for the most part, completely adjusted to the digital age. I don't see anyone seriously expecting CD sales to recover any time soon. Now the business is more about all-round celebrities, with money coming from a hundred sources aside from CD sales. Kind of sucks for the indie artists... But then, it always did for them.

The new system just highlights how hollow the business model is for real, live bands. The fact that there are more and better indie bands in Korea than any time I can remember, despite the end of CD sales, indicates to me that something very different drives music. Who knows, maybe with a little luck and hard work, the live music scene might get its act together in 2009 and try to present something to people that the pop music industry is not supplying.

(Since I am not much of a K-pop guy, I will refrain from commenting on the music itself this year, aside from saying it seems pretty much the same as always. But as I said before, my choice for most interesting CDs of the year is posted over at London Korean Links).

Korean TV continues to move toward independent productions. Lee Byung-hun has his IRIS series coming. Bae Young-joon has an interesting new project on the way (which I guess is not necessarily a TV thing... not sure what it is from that article, but I assume it will have a TV angle) (Taewangsasinggi vs. the Wondergirls?).

I guess if I were to summarize 2008, we are in a period of change... but then, aren't we always? Internationalization is growing ever more important (but again, not really an original insight). I am not saying the stories here are uninteresting... It is just that I have been talking about them all year. It may be the end of a calendar year, but it does not feel like any kind of natural break in the Korean entertainment scene. Maybe by later in 2009 we will have a better idea what the next big things are.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Goodbye Skunk

Last Skunk Hell concert ever tonight. Show runs about 6-10pm and is free.

I wrote a little more about the show over at the Gig Guide, if that sort of thing interests you. That venue (in one form or another) has been one of the more important ones in Korea for live music since I arrived in town a long, long time ago. Kind of strange to think about the club closing.

Oh, and Happy New Year.