Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: November 2006 (page 1 of 2)

Box Populi

Matt over at the Gusts of Popular Feeling blog has a great post about the Korean boxer Kim Duk Koo (Kim Deuk-gu) and the Kwak Kyung-taek biopic about him, CHAMPION. But then, everything that Matt writes about over at Gusts is worth a look… it is one of the most substantial and interesting sites anywhere on the Internet about Korean culture.

Good to see some pictures of director Kwak, too. Although Kwak’s films are not really to my taste, he is a heck of a nice guy, and I’m convinced that he has a really good film inside him, just waiting to get out. Sometimes it takes a while for any artist to hit his stride, figure out what he’s all about and how to express that best.

Oh, and nice to see Matt mention Mark Kozelek and his Sun Kil Moon band. I’m a big fan, especially of his Modest Mouse covers. Can’t believe I missed him when he toured Korea a few years ago. Hopefully we will get him back before too long.

Korea Weekend Box Office – Nov. 24-26

Martin Scorsese’s THE DEPARTED took top spot this past weekend in Korea… at least in Seoul. In yet another sign of the city/country split going on in Korea, SUNFLOWER actually did better nationally (thanks in part to its additional 124 screens), while THE DEPARTED was easily the more popular film in Seoul.

A similar split was going on at Nos. 3 and 4, with STEP UP winning in Seoul and the Aardman animation FLUSHED AWAY winning nationally.

Screen averages were especially amusing this week. For example,THE PRESTIGE played on just 44 screens, but easily beat SEXY TEACHER, which was on 230. Hah! I bet the theater managers with the 230 prints of SEXY TEACHER are pretty unhappy at the moment.

This Week Title…………………………………. Release Date Screens Nationwide Weekend Attendance (Seoul only) Total Attendance
1. The Departed 11.23 190 96,700 348,000
2. Sunflower 11.23 314 85,000 403,200
3. Step Up 11.23 156 37,500 133,200
4. Flushed Away 11.23 210 37,000 148,000
5. The Devil Wears Prada 10.26 130 33,600 1,655,400
6. How the Lack of Love Affects Two Men 11.16 277 29,800 494,900
7. The Prestige 11.02 44 23,100 629,500
8. A Good Year 11.16 145 18,400 223,900
9. Sexy Teacher 11.16 230 15,000 401,000
10. Tazza: The High Rollers 9.27 38 6,000 6,798,000

(Source: Film2.0)

So, of course I saw THE DEPARTED this weekend. And… once again, Scorsese is pretty mediocre. I was actually bored for most of the film, although it did pick up in the last 30 minutes or so. Yet again, here was a Scorsese movie that felt like a photocopy of a Scorsese movie (looks pretty much the same, but with some bad resolution). I really think MS needs to sit down with some digital cameras and some fresh, unknown actors, are re-teach himself all the things that made him great once upon a time.

And, in a random digression, I just re-watched Yim Pil-sung’s ANTARCTIC JOURNAL, and found myself feeling very similarly about it as I did about DEPARTED — both are bad movies made by very talented filmmakers. In Yim’s case, ANTARCTIC was his first feature-length movie, and it is so silly and poorly plotted, it is hard to believe (not to mention having one of the most blatant disregards for basic physics I have ever come across in the movies). No doubt about it, AJ was a bad film. However, it was also clear that director Yim has some serious talent. A good producer and another year of pre-production could totally have turned that movie around.

Luckily, Yim is getting another chance to show what he can do, with the horror film HANSEL & GRETEL, being produced by Barunson. Much like AJ, H&G is about historical parallels and notebooks… but let’s hope someone kicks his butt until the plotting makes sense.

Yim is also doing a short zombie film as part of the triptych DOOMSDAY BOOK, due out next year, too.

What’s Going on in Korean Cinema

With the Christmas and Seollal (lunar new year) holidays approaching, expect a surge in major releases. Both big Korean movies and Hollywood blockbusters. The first “big” movie of the season will probably be Park Chan-wook’s I’M A CYBORG BUT THAT’S OKAY (I’ll try to review it after the press screening next week).

In the meantime, Darcy Paquet at has a very good write-up about the current state of Korean cinema. I’m not sure how much of his thoughts on the rise of independent cinema is real or just wishful thinking… But even wishful thinking can become real if enough people wish the same thing.

The rising interest in Japanese movies is quite interesting. Japanese culture was pretty much banned in Korea from the Korean War until 1998. Then the local market slowly opened. First, three award-winning Japanese films were allowed in. Then award-winning films in general were allowed. Then in January 2004, almost all Japanese po culture was allowed.

(Although, strangely, Japanese animation was still quite regulated. Strange, I say, because Japanese animation has long been the most ubiquitous form of Japanese culture in Korea. Some of it was dubbed into Korean (and sometimes even presented as Korean), and others were available on the black market and in Japanese culture cafes. EVANGELION has been hugely popular for years. Everybody knows GATCHAMAN (BATTLE OF THE PLANETS in America, and EAGLE 5 in Korea). And Japanese comic books were widely available in translation since I first came to Korea. Yet another one of Korea’s non-ban bans.)

(Parantheses 2: I tried linking to the Wikipedia article on Evangelion, the first choice in that Google search I linked to, but it seemed to crash my Firefox brower every time. I have no idea why. Feel free to let me know if you have any theories/solutions.)

Anyhow, so Japanese movies and TV shows were allowed into Korea en masse, beginning January 2004. At first, a lot of people were worried that they would overwhelm local programming, revealing how much Korean media has cribbed from Japan. But then, surprise surprise, nothing happened. Japanese movies and TV and music barely made a ripple here. Except for Hiyao Miyazaki films and the 1998 release of LOVE LETTER, Japanese movies did poorly. Japanese TV dramas got fairly mediocre ratings. Life moved on.

Turns out, however, that there was a decent market for Japanese culture here. It just needed some time to incubate. This year has seen many Japanse movies do respectable numbers, led by THE SINKING OF JAPAN. I doubt Japanese product will overwhelm Korea, but it good to see the market growing more diverse.

It is especially good to know that most people in both countries have little interest in the annoying nationalism and stupid anti-Korea/anti-Japan garbage spewed by some in both countries. Among the people who really matter — the filmmakers and writers and designers) (not to mention the average folk who care about movies and music and such) — there is a healthy interest in the art and pop culture of their neighbors. And on a business level, the two nation’s entertainment industries are growing more and more interconnected.

As for Darcy’s feeling that there is a lack of energy in Korean movies these days… I am actually a little optimistic, for the first time in quite a while. The big guns of the industry (Bong Joon-ho, Kim Jee-woon, etc.) seem to be working on some good stuff right now. And there are a bunch of new directors making films with potential. CJ Entertainment and Nabi Pictures have teamed up to create a bunch of low-budget genre movies (I’m a big believer that low-budget schlock can be one of the most fertile fields for a film industry). In TV, the cable channels are increasingly churning out new shows to compete with the lame dreck on mainstream TV, much as HBO started to do in the 1990s. Sure, there is a lot of crud out there… but as Sturgeon’s Law says, 95% of everything is crud.

(Or Sturgeon’s Revelation, if you want to be pedantic).

(Note: While writing this entry, my Firefox browser crashed. But upon reopening it, I discovered that my entire post had been saved. I was so surprised and happy. All hail Firefox 2.0!)

Hobsbawn and History

Eric Hobsbawm has long been a favorite historian of mine — not for his renowned Marxism, but for books like THE INVENTION OF TRADITION and its companion, NATIONS AND NATIONALISM SINCE 1780.

Anyhow, I just ran across an essay by Hobsbawm about the Hungarian uprising of 1956 in the Nov. 16 issue of the London Review of Books. Not terribly relevant to Asian entertainment or Korean history… But I did love the opening sentence of his essay:

Contemporary history is useless unless it allows emotion to be recollected in tranquillity.

A great, simple point about history and politics and all that stuff that gets people so hot and bothered. Lord knows more people over here in East Asia should follow his advice.

(By the way, a rather different view (i.e., negative and shrill) of Hobsbawm and his legacy can be read here.)

(Btw2: I never knew this until just now, but apparently Hobsbawm and Noble Prize winner Kim Dae-jung met a few years ago, at a conference is Olso.)

Japan Movie Notes

Some fun news about Japan cinema over at Ryuganji (as usual). Most notably a sequel to ALWAYS, a Miike Takashi doing his version of the spaghetti-western classis DJANGO and an entry about this year’s FILMeX (one of my favorite movie events each year in Japan).

I assume that anyone interested in Japanese movies (but who lacks the Japanese language abilities) already knows Hoga News and Jason Gray’s blog. And even though the Tokyo International Film Festival is over, Maggie Lee is still blogging away (she teases that she might start a person blog soon, but for the moment we just have the TIFF blog). But if you do not any of those websites, you should check them all out asap.

Korea Weekend Box Office – Nov. 17-19

Another dreary week at the box office here in South Korea. The top film, HOW THE LACK OF LOVE AFFECTS TWO MEN, won the No. 1 spot with just 281,500 in attendance (about $1.87 million), one of the lowest figures for a No. 1 film in quite a while. But it was nice to see iHQ have one of its films open at the top of the box office. iHQ has been through a long streak of disappointments, so hopefully this will be the start of something good.

Interesting to see DEVIL WEARS PRADA and PRESTIGE holding on to the Nos. 2 and 3 spots for another week, especially while last week’s No. 1, LOVE ME NOT, plummeted to No. 6.

TAZZA is pretty much finished, with 6.77 million tickets ($44.90 million), making it the seventh-biggest film in Korean history. Not a bad run at all.

Just three more days until THE DEPARTED opens in Korea. Much nerdy joy on my part.

This Week Title…………………………………. Release Date Screens Nationwide Weekend Attendance (Seoul only) Total Attendance
1. How the Lack of Love Affects Two Men 11.16 321 63,400 281,500
2. The Devil Wears Prada 10.26 169 57,800 1,509,400
3. The Prestige 11.02 104 50,400 571,600
4. Sexy Teacher 11.16 266 42,000 221,000
5. A Good Year 11.16 200 39,600 131,800
6. Love Me Not 11.09 261 29,200 506,500
7. Cruel Winter Blues 11.09 296 26,300 484,800
8. Death Note 11.02 187 25,000 712,000
9. The Grudge 2 11.16 171 19,500 107,400
10. Tazza: The High Rollers 9.27 89 18,000 6,769,000

(Source: Film2.0)

Korea Music Charts – Flashback

Someone asked in a comments thread the other day about the extremely low sales of foreign music in Korea. Which got me thinking about how sales have changed over the past few years. So here are the Korean and foreign sales charts for October 2000.

This Month Artist Album Name Release Date This Month’s Sales Total Sales
1. H.O.T Vol. 5 10.02 840,370 840,370
2. FinKL Vol. 3 10.06 386,329 386,329
3. Park Jung-hyun Naturally 10.17 157,536 157,536
4. Jo Sung-mo Vol. 3 9.01 137,553 1,842,680
5. Various Autumn in My Heart OST 10.13 117,538 117,538
6. Y2K Try Again 10.23 53,155 53,155
7. Yurisangja Vol 4 10.16 45,051 45,051
8. Cho Jang-hyeok Vol. 3 6.16 38,030 117,408
9. Park Ji-yoon Vol. 4 8.11 33,797 354,701
10. Jaebum Yim Story of Two Years 5.16 29,398 272,941

(source: MIAK)

Foreign Sales:

This Month Artist Album Name Release Date This Month’s Sales Total Sales
1. Various Max 7 10.17 76,528 76,528
2. Jo Su-mi Only Love Special 9.27 44,726 65,550
3. Limp Bizkit Chocolate Starfish 10.24 32,047 32,047
4. Radiohead Kid A 10.02 27,209 27,209
5. Various Neukkim 20 10.10 24,615 24,615
6. Christina Aguilera New Package 10.02 18,857 18,857
7. Ricky Martin Ricky Martin 1999.04.28 12,893 260,220
8. 98 Degrees Revelation 10.12 11,684 11,684
9. Green Day Warning 10.05 11,354 11,354
10. Britney Spears Oops!… I Did It Again 5.16 11,286 157,439

(source: MIAK)

The first thing you will notice is how much larger all those numbers are than October 2006. Shockingly so, I would say. (Although it is worth noting that back in 2000, cassette sales were still pretty significant in Korea, about half of those totals, so the numbers do not compare exactly).

The top title in 2000, by the seminal boy band H.O.T (“Hi-five Of Teenagers”, in case you did not know), could sell 840,000 copies in just one month. Even more amazing, in September, Jo Sung-mo sold a staggering 1.7 million copies of his new album. Cut to 2006, and Rain could barely crack 70,000 copies of his new album.

In 2000, there were four albums that sold over 1 million albums. The biggest-selling album so far this year, the latest by SG Wannabe, has sold just 294,000 copies — that would have been good enough for just No. 28 in 2000.

Then, as now, the top Korean albums far outsold foreign albums. The top foreign album of 2000 was Mariah Carey’s Christmas Album, which moved 468,000 — much better than anything now, but a fraction of what H.O.T sold.

Now, one reason Korean individual album sales are higher than Western albums is because that mirrors the overall trend. In 2000, 63% of sales were Korean music, while just 26% were foreign (Japanese music was illegal in Korea at the time), and 11% was classical.

But another reason that international music seems to sell less well is that Western music uses catalog sales a lot more. The Korean music industry is much more about selling now stuff now and moving on. In the West, think about how many of your albums are “classic” rock or Joy Division or whatever, stuff long since done but that still speaks to you today. In university, it seems like half the freshman class buys Van Morrison’s Brown-Eyed Girl each year. But who goes to university in Korea and suddenly thinks, “I really need the second S.E.S album”? And it seems like most Korean young people do not give a damn about their country’s great classic rock tradition (Shin Joong-hyun, He6, etc.).

This lack of catalog sales is no accident. Because the Korean music industry (like in much of Asia) is so dependent on payola for promoting and marketing acts, it greatly limits the time available for music that is not part of the scene. Western labels generally won’t get involved in payoffs, and catalog sales are too spread out to be worthwhile making pay offs (you need new, big-selling, splashy titles for that system to work best). So once again you can see how poor and corrupt business practices lead to a narrowing of the market, both in terms of what is available and what is known and appreciated by consumers. Business and art, intertwining (as always).

R-O-C-K in the D-P-R-K

Are you ready to rock? I said, are you ready to rock!? Then get your butt over to Pyongyang. Yes, North Korea is presenting ROCK FOR PEACE, a rock music festival running May 1-4, 2007. According to the site, the festival will be “the 2007 version of Woodstock rock festival in 1969”. Just like Woodstock, “but in different location and in different goals.” So far, 41 bands from 19 countries have already applied.

All are welcome to come (“including heavy metal”), with a couple of small caveats:

The lyrics should not contain admirations on war, sex, violence, murder, drug, rape, non-governmental society, imperialism, colonialism, racism, anti-DPRK, and anti-socialism.

As long as we are on the subject of North Korean music, you can check out a North Korean music chart here. Latoya Jackson? Old Lesbians of Choson? Scissor Sisters? I am assuming this whole site is some kind of a joke… but who knows? I have been wrong about bigger things. Other quality posts include: American film festival, pederast Mark Foley, and more Latoya Jackson. I rather like the Pyongyang T-Shirt controversy, too.

Even If You Can Say Something Nice, Sometimes It’s Better Not to Say Anything

Those kings of the backhanded compliments, North Korea, have come out with some good press of Bong Joon-ho’s monster movie, THE HOST. Apparently they were quite pleased by the film’s critical stance toward the American military presence in South Korea.

Now, I would never claim to be Bong Joon-ho’s best friend, but from my conversations with the man, plus what I have heard from those who know and work with him, the idea that he is a raging anti-American is pretty off the mark.

Why knows — maybe the North Koreans are just buttering up director Bong so he will remake BULGASARI.

Bong’s THE HOST will make its debut in France on Nov. 22. Maybe even on a good number of screens. Not sure about the United States; I have heard December and February.

Korean Music Charts – October

Chuseok may be a big season for the movies, but apparently it is not a holiday that inspires people to buy music, as October sales were in general down. Eight of the top-10 were new releases.

The biggest album of the month was, no surprise, the new Rain release. Hitting the stores just halfway though October, “I’m Coming” sold over 71,000 copies. Not bad, but not a number that will make anyone forget the glory days of the late 1990s.

Even Dong Bang Shin Gi did a lot better with their latest release, selling about 120,000 copies in September, despite being released on Sept. 28. Teeniebopper fans might be enthusiastic, however, it looks like most DBSG fans bought their albums right away, because the album sold half as many copies in all of October as it did in three days in September.

Not on the top-10 but notable – Uhm Jung-hwa’s latest album made its debut in No. 16 with 7,456 album sales. But since it was released only on Oct. 25, it still has time to build. And SG Wannabe is the biggest-selling album still on the charts, albeit way down at No. 20. Its April 7 release, SG Wannabe Vol. 3, has now sold 294,975.

This Month Artist Album Name Release Date This Month’s Sales Total Sales
1. Rain Vol. 4 – I’m Coming 10.13 71,214 71,214
2. Dong Bang Shin Gi Vol. 3 – Oh! Jeong. Ban. Hab 9.28 69,231 189,736
3. Sung Shi-gyung Vol. 5 10.10 51,609 51,609
4. Shin Seung-hun Vol. 10 10.10 45,682 45,682
5. Jang Woo-hyuk Jang Woo-hyuk 2nd Album 10.24 25,729 25,729
6. Big Mama Vol 3 10.13 25,020 25,020
7. Kim Tae-woo Kim Tae-woo Special 10.26 21,636 21,636
8. Jaurim Ashes to Ashes 10.20 21,497 21,497
9. Sin Ho-yeong Vol. 1 – Yes 9.14 20,650 65,500
10. Se7en Vol. 4 10.31 16,334 16,334

(source: MIAK)

Plus, I believe MIAK has started reported digital downloads, at least when they can. Shin Seung-hun, for example, sold 40,000 digital downloads in October. Only a couple other artists were listed, though.

Foreign Sales:

This Month Artist Album Name Release Date This Month’s Sales Total Sales
1. Richard Yongjae O’Neil Lachrymae 9.07 9,862 13,220
2. Robbie Williams Rudebox 8.06 5,828 6,102
3. BoA Key of Heart 10.25 4,721 4,721
4. Evanescence The Open Door 10.01 4,179 4,179
5. P. Diddy Press Play 10.17 2,555 2,555
6. Queen The Platinum Collection 2003.2.25 2,328 56,683
7. Shinwha Japan Single 9.06 2,264 17,316
8. Jo Sumi With Love: Best of Jo Sumi 8.25 2,200 13,714
9. Justin Timberlake Futuresex/Love Sounds 9.12 2,179 7,557
10. Pussycat Dolls Pussycat Dolls 9.27 2,092 7,947

(source: MIAK)

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