Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Korea Weekend Box Office - June 26-28

TRANSFORMERS 2: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN had a huge opening last weekend, the biggest since at least PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 3, and pretty close to Bong Joon-ho's 2006 hit THE HOST (Goemul).

The loud, toy robot sequel pulled in 14.1 billion won ($10.9 million) over the weekend, and 19.7 billion won ($15.3 million) since it opened on Wednesday. That equates to 2.1 million admissions over the weekend and 3.0 million since Wednesday.

If it seemed like just about every screen in Korea was playing TRANSFORMERS 2, you were pretty much right -- a record-shattering 1,038 screens. There are just 2,000 screens in all of Korea. (When I came to Korea, there were not even 500 screens in the entire country).

(Btw, the chart below says 1,200 screens for TRANSFORMERS, but remember the KOFIC list double-counts some screens, so tends to be a little exaggerated).

The real question will be staying power. Movies like PIRATES 3 and SPIDER-MAN 3 had openings nearly as big as THE HOST, but they ended up with much smaller totals. TRANSFORMERS (the first) by comparison had 1.3 million admissions in its opening weekend, but went on to pull in 7.4 million admissions, the best foreign film ever in Korea.

The only other movie that anyone went to see last weekend was RUNNING TURTLE (Geobuki Dallinda), which made 1.8 billion won ($1.4 million) to bring its three-week total to 13.0 billion won ($10.1 million). TURTLE is going to top 2 million admissions, making it officially a hit, I guess.

Everything else is sad. The No. 3 film BLOOD PLEDGE (Yeogyo Goedam 5) made just 499 million won ($387,000) over the weekend, bringing its total to 2.8 billion won. That's just 59,000 admissions for it last weekend.

MISSING LYNX from Spain opened in fourth. The only other Korean film was Bong Joon-ho's MOTHER (Madeo), in sixth. MOTHER has now made 19.5 billion won -- slightly less than what TRANSFORMERS 2 did in five days.

Rather amazing to me was that the 8th Mise-en-Scene Genre Film Festival landed in 10th. With just two screens. That's pretty wild. The 11th place film, THE BROTHERS BLOOM, sold fewer tickets, despite being on 110 screens. Wow.

Transforming Cinema

So I checked out TRANSFORMERS 2: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN over the weekend. And I must say, I agree with popular opinions -- both of them, the critics and the unwashed masses. TRANSFORMERS 2 is definitely stupid and ridiculous, at any level a terrible film. I also quite liked it.

Which seems to be how people in general are perceiving the film. Critics hate it, but audiences think it is much better than the first TRANSFORMERS.

That article I linked to points out that it is Michael Bay's worst film ever on Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator. But what I find really interesting is that is is also Bay's second-best reviewed film ever on Metacritic (behind THE ROCK). Rotten Tomatoes, of course, merely looks at whether reviewers liked a film, then averages the number of positive votes. Metacritic, on the other hand, assigns a value to each vote, then takes that average.

So what does that mean? It means that most critics on balance dislike TRANSFORMERS 2, but they do not dislike it that much. But for Bay's previous films, opinions were more divided, with some people liking them more but others hating them more.

Math is so much fun.


Hey, the Wondergirls are now launching their English campaign for the West. If you go to Wondergirls World, you can get their international website. Click on "videos" to see their old song Nobody dubbed into English. And there is this announcement for that site on Youtube -- to be honest, a little painful.

In case you have not heard, the Wondergirls are going to be touring with the Jonas Brothers this summer. There is a Seattle Times story about the tour here.

And an article about the English version of Nobody appearing on iTunes here -- the article is okay, but the comments following it are really interesting. It is beginning to sound like Asian pop culture is finally becoming normalized in the United States. Or at least it is becoming a lot closer to normal.

Yu Hyun-mok Passes

I just read that the great Korean director Yu Hyun-mok passed away Sunday night, at 85 years old (or 83, depending on what you read). Very sad news.

Yu was the last of the "three great filmmakers" of the 1950s and 1960s (the other two being Kim Ki-young and Shin Sang-ok). Yu was most famous for OBALTAN: THE AIMLESS BULLET, a neorealist film about the hard life of the downtrodden after the Korean War.

But for me, my favorite Yu film was EMPTY DREAM, a remake of Tetsuji Takeji's DAYDREAM. Yu was arrested for EMPTY DREAM, even though the actress Park Su-jeong did not really appear naked (good summary at the link above). Anyhow, I saw EMPTY DREAM at the Puchon Fantastic Film Festival in 2004, when they played it with a restored soundtrack. Very interesting, surreal film, and completely different than OBALTAN.

Yu's SCHOOL EXCURSION is pretty fun, too, and it used to be available on DVD (although I have not seen it in stores for ages... maybe the Yongsan black market still stocks it).

Sadly, I am no expert of Yu's films. I only met him briefly a couple of times, when he was obviously of fading health, and I never really talked to him at all. But I am happy that I did at least meet him (and Shin Sang-ok). You can read about Yu in the Korea Times. Darcy's page on Yu is here. And of course you can always read Wikipedia.

You can also briefly see Yu Hyun-mok in these old news videos from the 1960s, here, here, and here (that last one is from the 2nd Grand Bell Awards, back in 1963, with Yu winning Best Director for his film TO GIVE FREELY).

  • Weird. Wikipedia says Yu was born July 2, 1925. But my book The History of the Korean Cinema says he was born May 17, 1924. Quite a difference. Maybe the date is just a lunar/solar calendar thing. But I don't know about the year difference.

    (Btw, I swiped that pic from Darcy's website. I hope that is okay).
  • Sunday, June 28, 2009

    Rock'n'Roll World
    -- And Some Random Stuff

    As much as I love old Korean rock music, it is important to remember that the trends and forces affecting Korea were not occurring in a vaccuum. Rock music was shaping many societies around Asia around the same time, sometime in similar ways as it did to Korea, sometimes in different ways.

    Surprisingly (at least for me), one of the most exciting places in Asia for rock music back in the 1960s and '70s was Cambodia (pre-Khmer Rouge, obviously). Thanks to exposure to rock music from Americans fighting in the Vietnam War, right next door, a real garage-rock/psychedelic sound emerged in the period, featuring both new bands and classic Cambodia crooners (like Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea, and Pan Ron) who switched to take up the new rock'n'roll style.

    You can download the music from the Cambodia Rocks compilation here. There is also a documentary being made about the music from that period; you can see a trailer for that film here.

    The Philippines, with its history so entwined with the United States, also had a lot of rock music. Including the group Rocky Fellers, whose song "Killer Joe" made it onto US music charts back in 1963. India, too, had plenty of rock music (after all, even The Beatles went there for a while to hang out in 1968).

    Japanese rock music is more well known, in particular the "group sound" movement. This website had a lot of great information about psychedelic rock music from all over the world, especially Japan (but, damn, it was also one of the saddest sites I have ever read).

    And of course there is also Tuvulan throat singing. Who can ever get enough of someone gargling Love Will Tear Us Apart Again or Orgasmatron? Great stuff.

    For psych rock, as always Gerald Van Waes's website about psychedelic music around the world is the most complete and interesting site around, with plenty of amazing information and links about the old rock music of Korea, Japan, India, and plenty more.

    Anyhow, my point is that too often people think of music, movies and the culture of countries (especially in Asia) in too much isolation. How can one really talk about trends in movies in Japan without knowing about trends in movies in the countries around Japan? How can one talk about the Korean Wave in music without knowing what domestic trends are affecting music in countries around Asia?

    * * *

  • I seem to have been appearing in the Korean media a bunch recently. If you can read Korean and would care to check it out, there is a profile of me and my book at the Joongang Ilbo here, an article in the Joongang about how Korean movie titles change when going abroad here (which quotes me a bit). And this month's Esquire Korea mentions my book as well... I will link to it if I can ever find a link to the story.
  • Tuesday, June 23, 2009

    Korea Weekend Box Office - June 19-21

    Another week at the top of the box office for RUNNING TURTLE (Geobuki Dallinda), which added another 3.9 billion won ($3.0 million) to its coffers, to bring its total revenue to 9.6 billion won ($7.5 million) since June 11. Not a runaway hit, but 1.4 million admissions is not bad.

    The latest film in the Whispering Corridors horror series, A BLOOD PLEDGE, landed in No. 2, with 1.6 billion won ($1.25 million), or 1.8 billion won including Thursday.

    NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM 2 was the top foreign film, earning 1.3 billion won to bring its total to 11.4 billion won ($8.9 million). TERMINATOR SALVATION added 1.1 billion won for a total of 29.0 billion won ($22.6 million).

    Bong Joon-ho's MOTHER (Madeo) added 801 million won ($625,000) over the weekend to bring its total to 18.9 billion won ($14.8 million). With 2.8 million admissions thus far, MOTHER should make it over 3 million admissions, but it will be a lot closer than I originally thought.

    There were no other Korean films in the top 10 last weekend, but we did have a Hong Kong film (THE SHINJUKU INCIDENT) in ninth and a French film (ASTERIX AT THE OLYMPIC GAMES) in 10th.

    Btw, as I write this, two days before it opens TRANSFORMERS 2 is accounting for 89.7 percent of all ticket reservations. Yikes.

    Tuesday, June 16, 2009

    Korea Weekend Box Office - June 12-14

    A new Korean film took the top spot at the box office last weekend, the crime thriller RUNNING TURTLE (Geobuki Dallinda) with 3.3 billion won ($2.6 million), or 3.7 billion won including Thursday and other previews.

    Second went to NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM 2, with 2.7 billion won ($2.1 million) to bring its total to 9.6 billion won ($7.6 million).

    TERMINATOR SALVATION continues to do strong business in Korea, coming in third with 1.7 billion won ($1.3 million), for an impressive 27.2 billion won ($21.6 million) since it was released May 21.

    Bong Joon-ho's MOTHER (Madeo) also is doing well, with another 1.4 billion won ($1.1 million) to bring its total to 17.4 billion won ($13.8 million). Now with 2.6 million admissions, MOTHER looks like it will top 3 million admissions, but not make it to 4 million. Still, 3 million is a pretty solid number for a Korean film, so good for Bong.

    Only one other Korean film in the top 10, MY GIRLFRIEND IS AN AGENT, way down in ninth. GIRLFRIEND added another 100 million won last weekend to bring its total to 26.1 billion won ($20.7 million) since April 22.

    BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE may not be a Korean film, but it did star Jun Ji-hyun. Unfortunately, Jun was not enough, and BLOOD opened to just 378 million won ($300,000).

    (Courtesy of KOFIC)

    Saturday, June 13, 2009

    Random Notes - Vol. 4, No. 1

  • I just stumbled across this old Harvey Kurtzman comic from 1952 called A CORPSE ON THE IMJIN. Yes, the Harvey Kurtzman who later founded Mad magazine.

    IMJIN, however, is much more serious than Kurtzman's later work. It is a dark story set in the Korean War, of a soldier sitting at the shore of the Imjin River, watching a body floating by, wondering how the man died. Then the story takes a grim turn. A short but fascinating read.

  • Matt at Popular Gusts beat me to writing about the comic book exhibition over in the National Museum of Contemporary Art, down in the Seoul Grand Park (by Gwacheon). The exhibition runs until Aug. 23 (and, who know, maybe the museum will have updated its English website by then... but for now, you can see the Korean website about the exhibit here).

  • As long as I am on the subject of comic books, I just found out about Kim San-ho a Korean comic artist who used to draw for Charlton Comics back in the 1960s and 70s (and even Marvel a little). He returned to Korea later and made several Korean comic books and wrote a lot about Korean history, too. You can see a gallery of some of his comic book covers here.

  • I watched Jun Ji-hyun's BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE last night. No surprise that it was not very good. The first half felt exactly like the original anime, and was borderline interesting -- basically BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER will all the humor and wit taken out, and several bathtubs of blood put in.

    About halfway through the film, the mood shifts, and it begins to feel like a Hong Kong movie like CHINESE GHOST STORY, with a lot of really frenetic action sequences and cheap special effects. One of the biggest action sequences is really poorly done, and looks like the producers ran out of money. The story changes from the original anime, too, acquiring a ridiculous backstory that is unnecessary and really, really cheesy.

    It's too bad -- Jun Ji-hyun looks exactly right for the part of Saya, the Vampire hunter. Unfortunately, the director and writer were quite terrible and uncreative.

  • I loved this story about our favorite cloning scientist Hwang Woo-suk getting a science award recently. I do not know anything about the loonies who give out the Jang Young Shil Award of Science, Technology and Culture, but you have to love this line from the KT story:
    Hwang was unable to participate in the awards ceremony at the Press Center in downtown Seoul, due to a previously scheduled court appearance.
  • Wednesday, June 10, 2009

    Hip Korea on Discovery II:
    Even Hipper

    Back in February, I mentioned the HIP KOREA documentary on Discovery Channel, a program about the singer Rain and modern Korean culture in which I was involved.

    Well, now it is time for episode 2 of HIP KOREA -- SEOUL SAVVY, featuring the actor Lee Byung-hun. In many ways, HIP KOREA 2 is the prequel to the Rain episode, as this episode goes back and examines the changes Korea went through during the 1990s and into the 21st century. Rain is about where Korea is now, but Lee Byung-hun looks at how Korea got here.

    It turns out that Lee Byung-hun is a pretty good conduit for that story -- he first made it big in 1992/3, around the time Korea got its first civilian president. He made JSA in 2000, at the same time as the North-South Summit between the Koreas. He starred in a couple of huge TV dramas that helped spark the boom of Korean TV dramas around Asia (aka Hallyu). And he starred in a couple of really big movies (A BITTERSWEET LIFE and THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD) that showcased how far Korean movies and society have come along.

    HIP KOREA -- SEOUL SAVVY makes its debut on NHK in Japan on June 13 at 12:55am (technically June 14), in a two-hour, back-to-back showing with HIP KOREA -- SEOUL VIBES (the Rain episode). It then encores on NHK BS (satellite) on June 19 at 8pm and June 20 at 4:30pm.

    It airs in Discovery at the following times in the following locations:
    Korea - Thursday, June 18 at 8pm. Encores on June 20 at 2pm, June 21 at 1am in the morning and June 23 at 12am midnight.
    Singapore/HK/Malaysia - Thursday, June 18 at 7pm. Encores on June 20 at 1pm and 12am midnight and June 23 at 11pm.
    Taiwan - Sunday, August 16 at 10pm. (Rain's episode will be bundled and aired at 11pm.) Encores on August 23 at 3am and 3pm.

    I am quite excited to finally have this going on the air -- it was a lot of work and took nearly a year to make. Actually, considering how Lee Byung-hun is a fairly substantial chapter in my book, POP GOES KOREA, you could say I have been working on this episode for years. So I hope you have the time to check it out.

    Korea Weekend Box Office - June 5-7

    A new week, a new No. 1 at the box office. This time it was NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM 2, with a healthy 5.4 billion won ($4.3 million) over the weekend, or 6.0 billion won ($4.7 million) including Thursday. The original NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM did quite well in Korea a couple of years ago, so the sequel's success was not really a surprise.

    Fighting it out for No. 2 was TERMINATOR SALVATION and Bong Joon-ho's MOTHER (Madeo). TERMINATOR edged out MOTHER in terms of admissions -- 538,000 to 533,000 -- but MOTHER was slightly stronger at the box office -- 3.7 billion won ($2.9 million) to 3.6 billion won. But I like to rank the film's by revenue, so let's give the victory to MOTHER (unfortunately, KOFIC ranks by admissions, so the chart below does not reflect my opinion).

    Since it was released May 21, TERMINATOR has made an impressive 24.6 billion won ($19.4 million) -- that is 3.7 million admissions and the film will certainly top 4 million soon. Easily the most successful TERMINATOR film here in Korea.

    Since MOTHER was released May 28, it has made 14.7 billion won ($11.6 million), or nearly 2.2 million admissions. I think it will make it to 3 million, which is not bad, especially considering the subject matter of the film.

    Otherwise, not much exciting happening in the top-10. MY GIRLFRIEND IS AN AGENT (7 Geup Gongmuwon) is still doing business at No. 5, earning another 660 million won to bring its total to 25.8 billion won ($20.3 million). It has just topped 4 million admissions, but it will not make it to 5 million.

    CASTAWAY ON THE MOON (Gimssi Pyoryugi) and THIRST (Bakjwi) are the two other Korean films on the chart, in seventh and eighth. But really, this is barely a top-10 list. Only the top eight films were on over 100 screens and only the five films had over 100,000 admissions over the weekend.

    (Courtesy of KOFIC, of course)

    Btw, CJ CGV's monthly box office report came out a few days ago, and it was quite encouraging. Last month was the strongest May on record with 16.3 million admissions, way up from May 2008's 12.8 million. But more importantly, Korean movies made up 49.1 percent of the box office, which was the strongest showing in year (maybe ever).

    Usually Hollywood's summer blockbusters start coming out in May and completely dominate Korea until July or August. Last year was the most extreme example, when Korean movies accounted for a humiliating 7.8 percent.

    So far in 2009, Korea movies have 46.9 percent of the local box office.

    Friday, June 05, 2009

    Low Moments in Jurisprudence
    - Actress Sued for Being Beaten

    Here is a story that I simply could not believe -- the estate of late-actress Choi Jin-sil was successfully sued by an advertiser because Choi was beaten by her former husband.

    The unnamed construction company hired Choi in early 2004 to advertise their apartments. But in August, Choi was badly beaten by her then-husband, and instead of hiding the scandal, she went public. It was huge news at the time.

    (You'll have to trust me about how big that story was, though, since none of the English-language newspapers' archives seem to go back that far, and none of the Korean gossip sites were in operations back then... But there is this Hani story).

    The court's judgment?

    Models who failed to maintain appropriate dignity as representatives of the products they represent should compensate for the damages caused to their advertiser, the top court ruled.

    Okay, technically, she was probably sued because she went public with the scandal instead of hiding it. But regardless, not a great moment for the Korean courts. Most of the time I think the Korean courts get overly criticized by the expat community in Korea, but this story really bothered me.

    Wednesday, June 03, 2009

    Korea Weekend Box Office - May 29-31

    Wow, it was really a two-film weekend, wasn't it? Bong Joon-ho's MOTHER (Madeo) and TERMINATOR: SALVATION together accounted for a mammoth 1,400 screens or so (KOFIC tends to double-count a lot, so the screen numbers in the chart below are a little exaggerated, but they are still huge). Two films accounting for 70 percent of a nation's screens? Really?

    On the other hand, those two films accounted for well over 70 percent of the box office, so it is not like the theater owners aren't being efficient and economical. Sometimes, one of the only things I find more bewildering than the lack of consumer choice in Korea is the lack of demand for choices.

    Anyhow, MOTHER (Madeo) opened in No. 1 last weekend, to no one's surprise. Nearly 6.7 billion won ($5.4 million) over the weekend, or 8.1 billion won ($6.5 million) including Thursday. That's over 1.2 million tickets sold in just four days. Not bad at all, especially for such a simpler film than Bong's THE HOST (Goemul). MOTHER may not be epic, but it is totally worth watching. Go see it soon.

    The biggest surprise for me was the continuing strength of TERMINATOR 4. I thought it would have plunged like a stone after its opening weekend. But instead it held on for another 5.2 billion won ($4.2 million), bringing its total to 19.3 billion won ($15.4 million). Over 3 million tickets in just 11 days. Proportionately, it is doing so much better here than in the United States. Strange.

    After those two films, you get a huge dropoff. ANGELS & DEMONS was in third, with just 1.1 billion won, for a total of 10.8 billion won.

    MY GIRLFRIEND IS AN AGENT (7-Geup Gongmuwon) continues to hold on, earning another 909 million won to bring its total to 24.7 billion won ($19.8 million).

    Korean films also accounted for the sixth spot (CASTAWAY ON THE MOON), ninth (THIRST) and 10th (BOAT). Half the films in the top 10 Korean during Hollywood's high season? Not bad at all.

    Oh, and Hong Sang-soo's LIKE YOU KNOW IT ALL (Jal Aljido Mot Hamyeonseo) was down in 14th, in case you wanted to know. Not huge business, but at least it broke 200 million won.

    (Source: KOFIC)

    Monday, June 01, 2009

    The Mother of All Thrills

    I saw Bong Joon-ho's MOTHER over the weekend and quite liked it. I thought perhaps I should write up a little review of sorts, so here you go.

    Bong Joon-ho's latest film, MOTHER, is a departure from his last two films, MEMORIES OF MURDER and THE HOST, lacking much of the humor and scope that made them so memorable. Instead, MOTHER is a much darker and more personal story; but it is without a doubt a Bong tale -- smart, powerful and really engrossing.

    MOTHER is the story of the mother of a retarded young man (Won Bin) who must save her son when he is arrested for murdering a high school girl. The police jumped the gun, arresting him on some pretty weak evidence, then pressuring the son Do-joon to sign a release he did not understand.

    Determined to free her son no matter what, the mother relentlessly (even ruthlessly) pursues any lead she can. After a few false turns and a lot of apathy from the town officials, she begins to uncover a deeper story, involving a troubled young girl who had a really rough life.

    Set in a small town and dealing with a murder investigation, MOTHER has some obvious similarities to MEMORIES OF MURDER. But the focus and style of MOTHER is really different.

    The first half of MOTHER focuses more on Do-joon, setting up his character and his friend. There is an incident at a golf course that is one of the few light spots in the movie, but it felt a little unnatural and awkward. Only after Do-joon is arrested and the spotlight moves to his mother that the story really begins to get into gear.

    But once it gets going, MOTHER is really good. Kim Hye-ja is great as the obsessive mother, and her desperation gives the movie much of its power. You never know quite what she is going to do, even while suspecting she might do anything. It adds up to create a kind of emotional claustrophobia that really hits hard.

    Now, while I said this film is not as deep or analytical as some of Bong's other films, there is evidently a lot going on anyway. There is plenty of psychology happening throughout. The relationship between mother and son especially is anything but normal. The mother's recurring talk of an injection in the thigh to take away bad memories is quite suggestive.

    Another thing that struck me was the age difference between Do-joon and his mom. Although never clearly stated in the film, Do-joon is played by the 27-year-old Won Bin, while the mother is played by the 67-year-old Kim Hye-ja. And while having a baby at 40 years old is not unheard of, it is still a little unusual.

    In short, MOTHER is not without flaws, but it is the best Korean movie I have seen in quite some time. Maybe since THE CHASER. It is thrilling, scary, violent and unexpected ... really a gripping combination.