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.

Oldboy vs. the Economic Crisis

This is kind of odd (not really funny, but kind of interesting). Someone has taken the most famous fight scene from Park Chan-wook's OLDBOY and redone it so Oh Dae-su fights the evil bankers/businessmen who caused the American/world's economy to tank over the past couple of years.

<a href="" target="_new" title="Milo Ventimiglia Cinemashes "Oldboy"">Video: Milo Ventimiglia Cinemashes "Oldboy"</a>

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Korea Weekend Box Office - July 31-Aug. 2

In its second weekend, HAEUNDAE has turned into an official blockbuster -- the silly tsunami film brought in 11.3 billion won ($9.26 million) in its second weekend, to bring its total boxoffice to 34.0 billion won ($27.9 million). Most significantly, its second weekend boxoffice was a tick higher than its first, indicating that people liked what they saw and were spreading the good news.

The ski jumping film TAKE OFF (Gukga Daepyo) did not fare so well, making its debut in second with 5.0 billion won ($4.10 million), or 6.8 billion won including its early Wednesday opening. That is less than half the business of HAEUNDAE, despite appearing on nearly as many screens (886 vs. 762).

Pixar's UP had a typically middling open, at least for a Pixar film in Korea. It opened in third with 2.2 billion won, for a total of 3.0 billion won ($2.5 million). Which I find kind of weird -- whenever I see a Pixar film in Korea, it gets a great audience reaction. Not sure why that does not translate into more tickets.

The Incredibles - $6.8 million
Cars - $3.0 million
Ratatouille - $6.9 million
Wall-E - $7.4 million

The latest Detective Conan film (a Japanese anime) had a decent opening, in fourth with 1.2 billion won, or 1.6 billion won since Thursday.

The Korean comic horror film CHAW added another 1.1 billion won to bring its three-week total to 11.0 billion won ($9.0 million).

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE dropped to sixth, adding 984 million won to bring its total to 19.3 billion won ($15.8 million). It looks like the latest HARRY POTTER will cross the 3-million-attendance mark, but barely.

TRANSFORMERS 2 is still on the chart, adding a tiny 246 million won to bring its huge haul to just over 50 billion won (50.4 billion won, or $41.3 million). South Korea is easily the third-biggest market in the world for the latest Transformers, behind only the United States and the United Kingdom.

The only other Korean film in the top 10 was LIFTING KING KONG (aka BRONZE MEDALIST, or Kingkongeul Deulda). It has now made 8.7 billion won.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Jimmy Lee Jones

I was walking through the Yongsan Electronics Market last week when I stumbled across this fun find -- the first album by Jimmy Lee Jones, from 1981.

Jimmy Lee Jones (aka Lee Jeong-myeong) lived in Nashville for many years in the 1980s, where he won a songwriting competition and recorded a couple of albums. In the 1990s, he opened a bar/cafe in Daejeon called Palomino, where he still works pretty much every day. His open-mic nights were a huge hits in the 1990s, before the economic crisis.

This album, like his others, is a mix of English and Korean. Basically the same songs twice, in English on side A and in Korean on side B. Although Jimmy always called himself a country singer, the country on this album is in more of a 1980s easy-listening style... a bit like Leonard Cohen's album Various Positions or Recent Songs (think Coming Back to You).

I remember Jimmy because I used to attend the open-mic nights at Palomino with some regularity back in the day (although I never performed... just there to listen). The old part of Daejeon is pretty forgotten these days, but back in the 1990s, before Dunsan-dong was finished, it was a pretty happening part of town. Jimmy was very nice about hanging out with a noob like myself, taking me around with his friends to some great little restaurants around town.

There is an interview with Jimmy (although very poor quality) on a local TV show here. You can also see him perform on that program (also low quality) here.

Oh, and here is another I found.

Anyhow, to find Jimmy's old album (in near-mint condition, too) was a really fun little accident. I am pretty sure none of his albums were ever issued on CD, but if that ever changes, I will be sure to update this post.

UPDATE: Well, that did not take long. Two minutes after I post this, I discover Jimmy has a blog (mostly just Korean). Lots of good stuff there, including a pretty good timelime of his life here (English and Korean).