Monday, June 21, 2010

Homepage Updates

Hi all. Just a little reminder about some updates going on over at my real blog -- some music updates from Korea, an interesting video about motivation and money, and a bit of talk about PiFan.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Pop Goes Korea in Malaysia

Okay, this is a little late, but I just found out that POP GOES KOREA received a very nice review last October in Malaysia's NEW STRAITS TIMES. (Sadly, I cannot find the link on the newspaper's website anymore, so must link to the Findarticle version).

Actually, it is more of a summary than a full review, but the author, Johan Jaaffar, calls POP GOES KOREA "incredibly informative" and is generally positive of my book, so one is appreciative of kind words and publicity whenever and wherever they can be found. Thank you very much, Mr. Jaaffar.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Musical Notes

A couple of interesting music-related items that I have recently run across. First, there is this amazing essay on songs about Seoul. Apparently there was a special exhibition at the Chunggyecheon Museum (just ending today, terrible timing by me) about some 1,400 pop songs about Seoul that have been recorded over the years. Some interesting tidbits about Patti Kim, Lee Mija and a lot of great singers from the past.

And then there is this interesting video about the Korean singer Hwang Boryung (who also performs as Smacksoft). Bo is a very cool woman and well worth a listen. I do not know Stuart Reece, the video creator, at all (although some Googling reveals that he is a deejay at TBS-eFM), but it seems that he is intending on starting a series about underground music in Seoul. A very promising start. I hope to see more soon.

Seoul Underground: SMACKSOFT from Stuart Reece on Vimeo.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Meanwhile, over at the other blog (cont'd)...

Just a reminder that I am not updating over here much these days. Over at my "real" blog, you can find:

  • Comments about the Seoul not-so-Foreign not-so-Correspondents Club and their latest anti-journalism controversy
  • A new film market in Singapore
  • A bit about the Barcelona Asian Film Festival
  • A round-up of reviews from Cannes for Im Sangsoo's remake of THE HOUSEMAID (and some other Asian films
  • Saturday, May 08, 2010

    Filming North Korean Films (Almost)

    Far too little is known about North Korean cinema, which for 60 years has been turning out little-known juche masterpieces. Certainly it is one of my big regrets that I was not able to go to North Korea and visit the Pyongyang film studio myself.

    So it was a treat to discover this short documentary by filmmakers Shane Smith and Eddy Moretti, about their travels to North Korea to film the North's film industry. And while they did not get to see any movie making, they did get to North Korea's movie museum and a few sets. Their video is just 23 minutes long, but it is rare to see so much footage from the North, all taken with permission (well, almost all).

    * * *
    Hrm, apparently people have been adding more and more videos about North Korea onto Youtube. Many have English subtitles or are English dubs.

    And plenty more at Juche Korea's Youtube channel.

    * * *

    Oh, speaking of North Korean cinema, a couple of months ago, I mentioned that Johannes Schoenherr was writing a series of stories on the subject. Well, he has been keeping at it, and now there are well over 20 articles at the Daily NK.

    Tuesday, May 04, 2010

    LA Times Smacks Down Korea -- Why Exactly?

    Very strange post on the LA Times' Big Picture movie blog (thanks to The Marmot for finding this) -- it talks about why Korea is getting IRON MAN 2 before Japan, saying that it is mostly because of Korea's high rates of online piracy.

    I say strange because I have no idea why Korea is getting singled out. IRON MAN 2 was released in over 50 territories last weekend, all over the world. Day-and-date releases from Hollywood are increasingly the norm, and have been unremarkable for quite some time.

    Big Hollywood films, especially those released in the May-June area, have usually been released in Korea at the same time as in the United States for years now. Korea usually saves up its big blockbusters for later in the summer, in July and August, often causing Hollywood films to move their opening dates to avoid the biggest Korean films then. But May is the biggest time of the year for Hollywood in Korea.

    That said, even films that get a delayed release can do well. MAMMA MIA! was released in Korea two months after it was in the United States and much of the West, but it made $25 million in Korea and was the fifth-biggest film of 2008. Sure, Korea has a lot of online and offline piracy, but perhaps the situation is more nuanced (and profitable) than some people would like to bellyache.

    I especially dislike media executives complaining about online piracy without any comment about what their RESPONSIBILITIES are. Like they can hold on to their movies, music, TV shows or whatever and release them whenever they want. Sorry, but this is the Internet age, and if you do not give customers a fair chance to buy your content, they are not going to wait patiently for you to release something when you feel like it. Yes, consumers need to respect copyright. But producers also have a responsibility to make sure their content is available in a timely, convenient manner.

    The LA Times would have been much better off asking the more interesting question -- Why is Japan still releasing so many movies so much later than the rest of the world? The Japan market is the unusual one that needs an explanation, not Korea.

    (And in case you are interested, the reason Hollywood films are released so much later in Japan has more to do with its tricky theatrical market than its respect for copyrights. In Japan, it can be hard to book screens, hard to market movies, there is relatively low theatrical attendance for the country's population, high ticket prices and a whole host of difficulties.)

    Thursday, April 08, 2010

    History of the North Korean Army

    Okay, this is pretty far from what I usually talk about on this blog, but I also thought it was pretty cool -- it is the US Army's 1952 History of the North Korean Army. It was classified up until 1982 (if I am reading it correctly), and was posted onto the Secrecy News website a couple of days ago.

    The profiles of the NK leaders (including Kim Il Sung, of course), beginning on page 90, are especially interesting. Like this fun tidbit:
    Non-Communists who know KIM personally describe him as a roughneck, poorly-educated, poor at languages, with little administrative ability. He is, however, an able and ruthless guerrilla leader.

    Tuesday, April 06, 2010

    Kunsthalle One-Year Anniversary Party

    One of the more interesting artistic spaces in Seoul, imho, is Kunsthalle, the stack of shipping containers located close to the Dosan Park Intersection in Gangnam. And they are having their one-year anniversary party this weekend, April 8-10.

    Each day from 5pm until 3am will feature events, music, dancing and plenty more. Saturday will also have brunch from noon to 5pm. Sounds like a lot of fun.

    Kunsthalle has hosted a wide range of artistic events and other cool stuff since it opened last April (it was event host to the Korean Music Awards on March 30). Set up by the Berlin artistic group Platoon (they call themselves a "movement"), this is an attempt to blend the artistic and the political into a seamless entity. Or, I suspect, it is a cool way to meet girls. Whatever, I think it is worth checking out and supporting.

    * * *
    Oh, and over at my main website, I talk about Seoul Fashion Week, the recent article about it in the New York Times, and Korean design in general.

    Friday, March 26, 2010

    Meanwhile, over at the other blog...

    Some thoughts on Korean movies in America, live music websites, and other things over at my new blog. I guess I should get into the habit of writing over there. Feel free to check it out if you like.

    Tuesday, March 23, 2010

    More MOTHER

    More news from Bong Joon-ho's MOTHER, this time from Hong Kong, where it picked up three prizes at the Fourth Asian Film Awards, including Best Picture. It also won Best Screenplay and Best Actress.

    Korea has done quite at the Asian Film Awards in general, picking up Best Picture at the first Awards for THE HOST (which also won for Best Actor, Cinematography and Visual Effects), and at the second Awards for SECRET SUNSHINE (which also won for Best Director, and Best Actress).

    Meanwhile, MOTHER continues to do well in the United States, and has now made over $100,000. Last weekend, it grew to 19 screens (up from six from the previous weekend) and its box office topped $53,000 (up from $36,000). It will be interesting to see if it can keep it up for long.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010

    MOTHER in America

    Bong Joon-ho's MOTHER opened last weekend in the United States. Just six screens, but it opened to nearly $6,000 a screen -- good enough to be the No. 2 movie by per-screen average (for movies on more than one screen).

    So, just $35,000 so far... not sure if distributors are planning on growing MOTHER's release. Since my last post about the film, its Rotten Tomatoes rank is up 1, to 88, but its Metacritic score is down on, to 79. Still, pretty good -- it has the fourth-best score on Metacritic and ninth-best on Rotten Tomatoes.

    Sunday, March 14, 2010

    Band of Brothers, The Pacific ... The Korean War?

    I came across a great interview with Bruce McKenna, the head writer and showrunner for the epic HBO series THE PACIFIC (and a writer for BAND OF BROTHERS). Totally worth a read.

    But at the end of the interview, they ask him if he would like to move on to the Korean War next. And this is what he said:

    HitFix: Do you think, though, that if this works out as well for HBO as they're obviously hoping, that they're going to go looking for that next war? Are we off to Korea next? Do we skip ahead and do Vietnam?

    Bruce McKenna: I don't know. We'll see how well "The Pacific" does. I think it will do well. For me personally, the one war story that I would write is the story of the Chosin Reservoir. The Korean War is the forgotten war. Forget the Pacific, nobody knows anything about Korea. It's a Marine story and it's quite moving. Whether HBO does it or not, I hope they do. They did "Generation Kill" and I think something on Korea would be a great idea.

    HitFix: Does that feel like another miniseries to you? Can you even think in a two-hour format anymore or are you stuck thinking in 10-hour blocks?

    BM: Believe me, I think in whatever format they're willing to pay me to write. The Chosin Reservoir would be a better movie than a miniseries, because it was a very contained event. Now Korea? That's a miniseries.

    So perhaps it is not likely at this stage. But just the thought that someone like McKenna would like to tackle the Korean War is a nice thought. Maybe we will get lucky some day.

    Friday, March 12, 2010

    MOTHER Comes to America

    Bong Joon-ho's MOTHER gets a limited release in the United States today, and so far the reviews are very good -- 87 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and an 80 metascore on Metacritic (which I find more useful than RT).

    Manohla Dargis at the New York Times gives the film a glowing review. And even more interesting, the New York Times has Bong himself describing a scene from the film, talking about how and why he shot it the way he did.

    I am not sure how big the release of MOTHER is (I suspect it is rather small), but will update this post once I find out.

    I find it remarkable that a quirky film like MOTHER would get such a strong response in the West. MOTHER has almost none of the typical features you see in an Asian film that gets released in the West. No martial arts. No ghosts. No gangsters (well, almost none). It is like audiences in the West are growing much more comfortable with international cinema. Like it is getting normalized. Which I think is a great thing.

    * * *

    In a completely different vein, I just came across this fascinating little article about cinema in Saudi Arabia. Apparently all theaters there were closed in 1980 and just now some people are trying to bring them back. In general, I find the history of world cinema a great subject in general, and especially so in the Arab world. For instance, how many people remember that Egypt once had a very strong movie industry? I once met a filmmaker from Bahrain (perhaps the only filmmaker from that small island state), Bassam Al-Thawadi and he told me a lot of great stories about what it was like for him trying to make movies in Bahrain.

    Maybe the same forces that are making Korean movies more normal in the West are also, in some small way, liberalizing the Arab world? Is this an example of the soft power of culture in globalization? Maybe not, but it is something I like to think about these days.

    Wednesday, March 10, 2010

    Epik High No. 1 on iTunes

    Well, I never would have imagined it, but Korean hiphop group Epik High is currently sitting on top of the iTunes US hiphop chart.

    Also currently are No. 1 in New Zealand, No. 2 in Australia and No. 3 in Canada. Pretty wild.

    Epik High's new album, Epilogue, was just released on iTunes on Monday (March 8). I am told that it has bounced around on the charts for Japan (as high as #9), France, Germany and the UK. Good for EH.

    Very encouraging for a more "real" group to make some noise outside of Korea, as opposed to a more manufactured teen-pop group. But, as I have argued many times over the years (along with many other folks, of course), real music is much more likely to get noticed around the world. Hiphop and indie rock are the real futures of K-Pop around the world.

    (Again, there is room in the world for teen-pop, too, just as there is a place for the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus and the like. But that sort of music is not majority of the music industry. Artists who write their own songs have a lot more "weight" with critics).

    If you are interested, here is the music video for Epik High's lead-off single Run. I have never been a huge fan of the group, but this song is rather catchy.

    Don't forget, Epik High will be on CNN's Talk Asia on April 21.

    (UPDATE: I added a link to the iTunes chart, that I forgot to add when I originally posted. Although I am not sure how long Epik High will be on top, which is why I posted a screen capture).

    Tuesday, March 09, 2010

    Bong Joon-ho in the Press

    Bong Joon-ho's latest film, MOTHER, is getting a release in the United States, and with that comes a bunch of publicity. The Wall Street Journal has a nice blog entry about Bong here. And the Harvard Crimson here.

    Will post more as I find them.

    Movie Magazine Suicides, Part 1000 (or so)

    The long, slow suicide by Hollywood's trade magazines continues, as Variety just axed their best movie reviewers, including their top Asia reviewer Derek Elley.

    Now, I can see getting rid of some expensive reviewers, especially in Hollywood (where, let's face it, reviewing the latest blockbuster means pretty close to nothing). But for less well known markets, like Asia, having reviewers who know the countries, the creatives and the history is pretty important. And Derek has long been one of the smartest and more important reviewers of Asian films.

    Perhaps the modern economics of media just do not include a place for reviewers anymore. Film companies have other ways of getting out word about their movies. And just about anyone can blog their opinions, no matter how facile (hello!). But I still think Variety is losing more than they are saving by getting rid of someone like Derek.

    This is just the latest in a long line of moves the movie trade magazines have made to eviscerate their publications. Variety created Variety Asia Online, then shut it down. The Hollywood Reporter had THR-Asia, then shut it down. Screen still has an Asia presence (the strongest of the three), but for how long? Film Business Asia is off to a promising start, but is still just that, a start -- and it does not have reviews.

    Movies in Asia pull in over $6 billion a year, in theatrical revenue alone. Maybe nearing $7 billion, depending on how you measure these things. I find it hard to believe that there is not room for or need for a decent publication (online or offline) about the Asian film industry.

    Wednesday, March 03, 2010

    New Beginnings, Portugal and More

    Now that I am not living in Korea and POP GOES KOREA has been published, I have been wondering how much sense it makes to continue a blog called Korea Pop Wars. So I have been slowly developing a new blog, that is more general and reflects the things I am working these days --

    If you are interested, feel free to check it out. If you are only interested in Korea things ... Well, I might cross-post Korea-related content here, at least for a while. Or I might not. I am not sure yet.

    Many thanks, though, to everyone who lent their eyeballs here over the years. When I started this blog, it was primarily done to work up interest for the book (then titled Pop Wars: The Koreans Strike Back, which is why this blog is called Korea Pop Wars). I thought about talking about the latest Korean celebrity news, but around the same time all those K-Pop blogs got started, and no need to be redundant, so that idea fell by the wayside.

    I also thought about talking about some of the more fun things I saw and heard about from the Korean entertainment scene, but I was a journalist back then, and if I talked about all the off-the-record stuff, it would not be long before no one told me anything anymore. So that idea did not go anywhere. So eventually the blog became what it was. Maybe not as dynamic as I hoped for, but judging by the traffic, there were a few of you out there who liked it. Thanks much.

    Anyhow, I am currently in Porto, Portugal, at the Fantasporto Film Festival. So far, it has been great fun, and I hope to talk more about it over at the new blog.

    Sunday, February 28, 2010

    Avatar Sets the Record

    For the first time in 11 years, the biggest movie in Korea is no longer Korean. It looks like AVATAR has finally become the most popular film ever in Korea, topping the admissions for previous record holder THE HOST. 20th Century Fox says that on Sunday, AVATAR reached 13.01 million admissions, making it the biggest selling film ever in Korea.

    AVATAR was already the highest-grossing film ever in Korea, due to its higher tickets prices.

    My only caveat is that, according to my records, THE HOST had 13.02 million admissions, so it is possible that AVATAR has a few more tickets to sell. But even if that is the case, it is obvious that AVATAR will set the record in a day or two. (UPDATE: My caveat is moot. KOBIS says that AVATAR hit 13.08 million at the end of Sunday).

    What is really amazing to me is that AVATAR's 13 million admissions is so much higher than the next-closest foreign film, TRANSFORMERS 2, which had only 7.4 million admissions. That means AVATAR is over 75 percent higher than the next-biggest foreign movie.

    Kind of sad, really. For years, the top foreign film in Korea was RETURN OF THE KING, which had its problems, but was mostly a good, epic movie. But TRANSFORMERS, TRANSFORMERS 2 and AVATAR? Those are three really crappy movies. I hope a new Korean movie can come along to retake the top spot before too long.

    Pop Goes Vietnam

    This is kind of random, but a long interview I did with the BBC Vietnam has just been published. In Vietnamese. So if you can read Vietnamese (and, really, who can't these days?), check it out.

    The reasons for the interview are because of the great popularity that Korean TV, music and pop culture is having in Vietnam these days, and to talk about how the lessons of the Korean entertainment industry might be applicable to a place like Vietnam. That second reason in particular was a big motivator for me to write POP GOES KOREA in the first place.

    I really believe that in the future, we are going to see more and more local cultures staking out space in the world pop culture scene, much as Korea has done over the past decade. Vietnam still has a long way to go, but I hope they can make it. What a great sign that would be for other countries that worry about their local cultures in the face of the Western entertainment industry.

    Friday, February 26, 2010

    Kim Yuna Wins

    Kim Yuna blew away the competition with a 228.56 for Olympic gold in the women's figure skating.

    Asada Mao was second with 205.50, and Canadian Joannie Rochette was third.

    FYI, Yuna's score would have given her ninth among the Men, which is pretty amazing considering the women's program is shorter, so has less time to build up points.

    More to come. But it is 6am here in Spain and I need to go back to bed.

    UPDATE: Okay, it looks like the Olympic Committee is working overtime to prevent people posting videos of the long program. But in the meantime, here is a great video from the New York Times, with Yuna and Brian Orser explaining her Triple-Triple jump combination.

    UPDATE 2: Hey, that documentary I worked on -- Hip Korea: Seoul Spirit, for Discovery Asia -- has a preview up on Youtube (sorry, no embedding).

    UPDATE 3: Actually, I just did the math. The women's freeskate is four minutes, versus 4.5 minutes for the men. So assuming Yuna could keep skating at the high level for another 30 seconds, she could have scored a 168.8 on her freeskate, which would have beaten all of the men. Of course, you cannot compare men's and women's programs like that, but it sure is interesting.

    Wednesday, February 24, 2010

    Halfway There — Kim Yuna Wins the Short Program

    So far, so good for Kim Yuna, who is leading the women's figure skating competition after the short program. In fact, her 78.50 points is a new world record.

    Here is her performance (at least for the moment), with English commentary:

    Asada Mao is in second, with 73.78 points, and in third is Canadian Joannie Rochette (whose mother passed away just a few nights ago, giving her a backstory that would make overcoming-tragedy-obsessed producers at NBC actually explode).

    I thought I should mention something because a small story like this can slip through the cracks.

    FYI, you can see the very good NBC short report on Kim Yuna here.

    Anyhow, great for Yuna. Now we are just 40 hours away from the long program and seeing if she can pull off the big prize.

    Number Won — Korea Gets a Music Chart

    It is long, long overdue, but at last Korea has its music charts back. The Ministry of Culture has put together GAON, an "official" music chart that is going to measure online and offline music sales and put it all together to form a chart of the most popular music in the land.

    Music charts in Korea have long had problems. Most notable were the scandals and problems that plagued the TV music charts, on the terrestrial stations and on music video channels. After so many payola investigations and other legal problems, most channels pulled their countdowns for years.

    More serious, imho, was the loss of the "official" sales charts. MIAK (the Music Industry Association of Korea) disbanded in 2009, as part of some larger government reorganizations. But even before MIAK was disbanded, it had stopped keeping track of music sales (and even then, they only tracked physical sales, which have lagged behind digital sales in Korea since 2003).

    MIAK is supposed to be replaced by the KMCIA, which will include online as well as physical sales. There are no charts at KMCIA yet, but it looks like they are taking steps toward adding CD and online sales charts.

    So why care about music charts? Certainly I am not interested in bragging rights between one K-pop band or another. What is important, though, is transparency. Transparency may not be as sexy as Lee Hyori or as flashy as a 2PM dance move, but it is far more important for having a successful pop industry.

    Look at Korea's movie industry, for example. Ten years ago or so, it was really hard to find good information about how movies were doing in Korea. If you saw a chart, it was most likely only for Seoul. Nationwide data came weeks later, if it all, and was pretty unreliable. Theater owners fought for years that their box office data was proprietary and releasing it would put their business in danger. It was against the interest of each individual to release that data.

    But guess what, it was in the overall industry's interest to have that data. Without reliable data, distributors could not be certain how well their films were doing, and therefore how much money they should be making. Poor numbers increase risk, which makes the whole system work much less efficiently.

    The Korean government put a real emphasis on improving the quality of box office data, and it is no coincidence that better box office data happened at the same time as overall box office went up up up. And I think it is also no coincidence that lousy numbers in the music industry have gone along with that industry's decline over the past eight years.

    Hopefully, Gaon will work out, and that more reliable information might lay the foundation for better days for the music industry.

    Of course, if you want to know more about Korean music, movies, charts and all that fun stuff, you should pick up a copy of POP GOES KOREA.

    Tuesday, February 23, 2010

    Kim Yuna, Olympics at Last

    Just a few hours now from the women's figure skating* competition at the Olympics. Which means at long last, we are going to find out if Kim Yuna has what it takes to win the biggest prize in her sport.

    As a young person who watched Brian Orser in the Winter Olympics in 1984 and 1988, I can remember those competitions to clearly. So it is kind of wild now to be a small part** of that world, having worked with Yuna and Brian (and David Wilson and their whole crew) over the past year on a documentary. Meeting Brian for the first time I was surprised to feel myself geeking out.

    For what it is worth, I can definitely say that all the people on Team Yuna and at the Toronto Cricket Club are some of the nicest, smartest people who I have ever met. Yuna (and her mom) really have created an amazing team to help push her to her goal.

    What happens now? Who knows? Yuna has a great chance to make history, but you never know. As Brian pointed out to me, the Olympics often see unexpected skaters rise up and take the gold, because the pressures at this time are unlike anything else, even the ISU's World Championships. Good luck to her today and Thursday. It should be a great competition.

    * I refuse to call it "ladies' figure skating". Seems way too anachronistic to me (not that anyone asked me for my opinion).
    ** Okay, a very, very small, tiny part of that world.

    Avatar Inching Closer to No. 1

    James Cameron's 3D epic AVATAR is moving ever closer to setting the all-time attendance record in Korea. As of Monday, it sat with 12.83 million admissions, good enough for No. 2 all time in Korea. The No. 1 film, THE HOST, is just 190,000 admissions ahead, with 13.02 million. So it is looking increasingly likely that the biggest film ever in Korea is soon going to be a James Cameron film ... Which strangely enough was the state of things 10 years ago, when TITANIC was the biggest blockbuster ever in Korea (before SHIRI came along).

    FYI, AVATAR has now made 118.7 billion won ($103 million) in Korea.

    FYI 2, the Korean film SECRET REUNION (Uihyeongje) is also doing quite well -- 3.5 million admissions after three weeks. In fact, three of the top four films were Korean last weekend, so it looks like things are bouncing back after a rough January.

    Tuesday, February 09, 2010

    AVATAR Drops Out of First -- But Still Eyeing the Record

    AVATAR finally slipped out of first place in Korea last weekend (coincidentally the same weekend it dropped out of first in the United States, too). It dropped all the way to third, behind two Korean titles, SECRET REUNION (Uihyeongje) and HARMONY.

    But AVATAR is hardly out of gas. It still pulled in over 365,000 admissions, or nearly 4 billion won. That brings James Cameron's blockbuster up to 11.9 million admissions in Korea. Could it make it to 13 million admissions, beating THE HOST? Possible, although difficult. I guess it depends how much of the Seollal bump it gets, and how much goes to newer movies. Regardless, the film's 108 billion won ($92 million) is by far a record for box office revenue.

    With AVATAR's dominance in January, Korean movies have had a tough start to the year, taking in just 44 percent of the box office so far. But they should get a good lift this weekend, thanks to the Lunar New Year.

    (All stats courtesy of KOBIS, as usual).

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010

    Great New Books on North Korea

    The New York Times has a review of three new books about North Korea -- Brian Myers' THE CLEANEST RACE, Barbara Demick's NOTHING TO ENVY and Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh's THE HIDDEN PEOPLE OF NORTH KOREA. Not an all-encompassing review, but a decent overview of three interesting books.

    Barbara was the LA Times' correspondent in Korea for several years, and is definitely a first-rate journalist, thinker, and writer. I have not read her book, but assume it is as solid as everything else she has done. There is also a good article on her book (and Myers') at Salon. Demick's NOTHING TO ENVY is available for purchase here.

    Myers I know from his lectures at the Royal Asiatic Society and the occasional email. He has a very provocative thesis -- that North Korea is in no way Communist, Marxist, (certainly not Stalinist), Confucian or any of those typical labels, but is in fact a completely nationalism/race-based ideology derived from Japanese propaganda from colonial times. Very fun stuff. THE CLEANEST RACE is available at Amazon, of course. Here is an excerpt from his book. Kurt Achin (Voice of America) also profiles Myers' book here, with an audio version here.

    * (Hey! Myers' got Andre Lankov to write a blurb for his book, too. Great minds think alike. Andre wrote a little something for the back of POP GOES KOREA, too. Many thanks Andre).

    Sorry, but I do not know anything about THE HIDDEN PEOPLE OF NORTH KOREA or its authors, but I hope to check that book out, too, before too long.

    Monday, January 25, 2010

    Avatar Joins 10M Club

    It is official -- AVATAR has become the first foreign film to top 10 million admissions in Korea. According to KOBIS, AVATAR has now had 10.2 million admissions, pulling in 91.1 billion won ($79 million) in Korea.

    And according to the Chosun Ilbo, AVATAR is already the highest-grossing film ever in Korea (thanks to the higher ticket prices).

    It really has been a staggering run for AVATAR in Korea, landing easily in first place every week for the past six weeks. Last weekend, ATTACK THE GAS STATION 2, the No. 2 film, could not even get half the admissions AVATAR did.

    Before AVATAR, the top foreign films in Korea were TRANSFORMERS 2 with 7.4 million admissions, TRANSFORMERS and RETURN OF THE KING. James Cameron's previous film, TITANIC, had about 4.5 million admissions.

    Btw, the top Korean film over the same period has been WOOCHI, which has been doing okay, but not spectacular -- little over 5.5 million admissions, and 40 billion won.

    Saturday, January 23, 2010

    NK Korean Movie Stories

    One of the most unusual aspects of North Korea (one of the world's most unusual countries) is its rather remarkable movie industry. But like so many things about North Korea, very little is known about its cinema.

    Fortunately, Johannes Schoenherr has started a series of stories in the Daily NK about North Korean movies. Johannes was screening movies in Germany back in the 1990s when he got to know the North Korean diplomats there, and then they invited him to North Korea. He has posted three stories so far, outlining his experiences there, with many more to come. It promises to be quite a fun series, check it out.

    Sunday, January 17, 2010

    Random Notes -- Vol 5, No. 1

  • The Film Society of the Lincoln Center has posted its top 100 films of the past decade. Bong Joon-ho's THE HOST was the top Korean film, at No. 71 (eh). His (much better) MEMORIES OF MURDER landed in 84th. Hong Sangsoo had two films on the list, WOMAN ON THE BEACH at No. 83, and TURNING GATE at No. 97.

  • Other thoughts on the FSLC list... Very cool to see IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE at No. 2. And two films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul in the top 10 (and another at No. 39). But I think I was most amazed that Tsai Ming-liang's GOODBYE DRAGON INN made it to No. 23; I loved the film, but I had no idea so many other people liked it, too).

  • AVATAR is officially the biggest foreign film ever in Korea. As of Jan. 17, it has about 9.3 million admissions and 80 billion won ($71 million). Definitely it will be the first foreign film to top 10 million admissions. TRANSFORMERS 2 was the previous record-holder, with 7.4 million admissions. Years ago, James Cameron's TITANIC was the foreign record holder (heck, it was the biggest film ever in Korea before SHIRI came along), with 4.5 million admissions.

  • Harper's Index is now online and searchable. Here are the results you get for "Korea". Sadly, no results for "kimchi"; the search engine must be broken or something. (Nothing under "Mongolia" either).

  • Sounds like a pretty big shipment of counterfeit DVD's caught by the United States, having come via Korea. I wonder if they were Yongsan specials...

  • How completely shocked am I that this is the fifth year I have been doing this blog? Incredible how quickly the time passes. But hopefully I will get off my butt and open the new website soon.

  • Okay, this is totally random... But over on the Predictably Irrational blog (found via Andrew Sullivan), the author compares the Google prediction for "How do I get my girlfriend to" versus "How do I get my boyfriend to".

    Inspired, I decided to type into Google "Why does my husband", which brings up the predictable ("...look at other women", "ignore me", "lie to me", etc.). Interesting, if a little depressing.

    And then I typed "Why does my wife", and I found a rather surprising suggestion.

  • Wednesday, January 13, 2010

    The Korean Wave -- More Then Just Korea

    One of the major points of POP GOES KOREA is that the Korean Wave was not really about Korea. It is about globalization, and how the forces the created the Korean Wave will be creating other regional cultural powers in the future.

    I recently stumbled across a great case in point, the Turkish drama GUMUS ("Silver," but better known as Noor in the Arab world). Noor has become very popular in many Arab countries (the series finale apparently had 85 million viewers around the region on the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation), and that popularity has spurred interest in Turkey in those countries.

    Take a look at this report from Monocle magazine about Noor. Change the soap opera to Winter Sonata and the location to Korea, and the story would be virtually indistinguishable from the many articles about the Korean Wave that appeared over the years.

    (Well, indistinguishable except for one notable difference. At one point, the reporter comments: "While Turks are proud of their past, they don't look back." Hard to imagine anyone using that sentiment to describe Korea.)

    Similarly, here is a Monocle story about the music scene in Taiwan, and the influence it is having on mainland China.

    The point being, people all over the world are looking for good stories, music, and culture, and that Hollywood cannot begin to do it all. Sure, American pop culture is the biggest force around, but it is not the only force. And as time goes by, we are going to see more and more local forces -- like Noor, like Korea -- rising up and capturing the imaginations of people from around their regions and beyond.

    Wednesday, January 06, 2010

    Record Box Office(s) in Korea (and Elsewhere)

    A big congratulations to the Korean film industry, which set a new box office record last year -- 1.08 trillion won ($948 million), according to KOBIS (according to early numbers, as official stats take a while to finalize).

    Quite impressive, although much of that record came from higher ticket prices -- admissions in 2009 totaled about 156.5 million, less than 157 million in 2007 and 161 million in 2006 (the best year on record). But with higher ticket prices, 2009 box office was able to overtake 2006, which had been the previous record-holder with 1.03 trillion won.

    Korean movies had their second-best year according to revenue (530 billion won), or their fifth-best by attendance (76.6 million), accounting for about 49 percent of the box office. That is a huge improvement over last year's 42 percent, but still lower than any time since 2001.

    In addition, six of the top 10 films last year were Korean (led by HAEUNDAE, of course), and 12 of the top 20. Only one film in the top 20 was neither Korean nor Hollywood, and that was RED CLIFF 2 (with 2.7 million admissions, it was the 14th biggest film of the year).

    So, on balance, I would have to call 2009 a pretty solid success.

    * * *

    By a nice coincidence, the country where I am now living, Spain, also had a record-setting year at the movies. Movies in Spain took in 675 million euros, or about $965 million (just slightly ahead of Korea).

    Even moreso than Korea, Spain record came from higher ticket prices. In fact, with 110 million admissions (much less than Korea), it was one of the weakest years for admissions of the past decade.

    Spain also features a lot more diversity than Korea, with its top films doing far less spectacularly than Korea. Compare top movies in each country. The top Korean films were HAEUNDAE ($69 million-ish), TAKE OFF ($52 million), TRANSFORMERS 2 ($44.5 million) and 2012 ($33 million).

    While in Spain, the top Hollywood films were UP ($35.8 million), AVATAR ($34.5 million) and ICE AGE 3: DOWN OF THE DINOSAURS ($31.2 million), and the top Spanish films were AGORA ($30 million), PLANET 51 ($15 million) and CELL 211 ($12.7 million).

    But in Spain, local films do not do nearly as well as they do in Korea. In 2001, they had their best year in quite some time, reaching 18 percent. And in general, they hover around 15 percent.

    * * *

    When the Korean movie industry went south a couple of years ago, a lot of producers moved into musicals and theater instead. Musicals in Korea grew crazily for much last the last six or seven years, making it an attractive genre. Now, however, it looks like the musical market is reaching a peak, much as movies did. There is a nice overview of the state of the musical industry here.

    * * *

    UPDATE: China apparently had an amazing year at the movies, too, with their box office soaring 44 percent to $910 million. As recently as 2003, movies made just $110 million in the theaters in China. Looks like this year will finally be the year that China overtakes the Korean movie market (although given that China has 20 times the population of Korea, it is about time, really).

    Monday, January 04, 2010

    Big TV's Big Shakeup

    Wow, it finally happened. After years of rumors, Orion has finally sold its On Media cable TV channels. And not only did they sell On Media, but they sold it to arch-rival CJ. I really am amazed.

    For years, On Media was the dominant cable TV channel group in Korea (the industry jargon is "Program Providers"). After cable TV was launched in Korea in 1995, it was much more a whimper than a force for several years. But gradually On Media grew, starting with Tooniverse, and adding music, movie and other channels (including HBO briefly, and of course the mandatory baduk channel). Soon after the turn of the century, the American program Friends made a huge splash in Korea (which On Media did not have), followed by Sex & the City (which it did) and CSI (On Media, too), and soon cable TV was a big deal. Soon, On Media was by far the biggest Program Provider in Korea (at one point accounting for nearly 50 percent of all cable TV watching).

    Then CJ decided to add cable TV to its growing list of entertainment and media companies. After a few missteps, it was running neck and neck with On Media, which has been the situation for the past several years.

    But strangely, despite On Media's success, there have always been strong rumors that parent company Orion wanted to sell it. Rumor has it that the Orion bigwigs did not like being involved in the entertainment industry, considering it too unstable and too different from the company's core businesses. For a couple of years, there were supposedly serious talks going on between Orion and KT. At one point, a contact of mine even told me it was a done deal. But obviously that never happened.

    Then Orion sold off its movie exhibition company, Megabox, so there was something to the rumors. And then the company closed its newly opened production company, Motion 101. And about a year ago, people started to mention CJ as a serious suitor for On Media.

    What will it mean for the Korean entertainment industry? Fierce competition between CJ and On Media has helped to boost prices paid for top programs to ridiculous levels. I assume that is going to cool off now (at least until someone else comes along... there is always another challenger to the throne). I assume, too, that CJ is going to start closing some of the overlapping channels, or at least changing some formats.

    But my biggest worry is that this deal with further retard the development of original programming on cable TV. Much as cable in the United States has become the source of much of the best storytelling these days (Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, etc.), I think Korea needs cable TV to step up and become a player. When On Media produced Bong Man-dae's erotic series DONGSANG IMONG, I had hope that they were going to become something like HBO. Sadly, rather than take the best elements of that series and develop them, cable TV instead chose to focus on the sex, and have instead made endless unwatchable ero-dramas. Sigh.

    I do not see the CJ-On Media deal making things any better... But who knows? Maybe this will embolden CJ to start producing something with substance.