Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: May 2009

Korea Weekend Box Office – May 22-24

Oops, I nearly forgot about the box office this week. Sorry about that.

As I predicted, TERMINATOR SALVATION did ridiculously well in Korea last weekend, must as TERMINATOR 3 did a few years ago, making 9.3 billion won ($7.4 million) over Fri-Mon, and a total of 11.1 billion won ($8.8 million) if you include Thursday when it opened. That over 1.4 million admissions (1.7 million including Thursday), easily making it the biggest opening of the year so far in Korea.

Expect a huge drop-off for TERMINATOR next weekend (it was a pretty mediocre film, and there is some big competition looming), but an impressive opening nonetheless.

The top Korean film of the weekend was MY GIRLFRIEND IS AN AGENT (7 Geup Gongmuwon) in third, earning another 1.8 billion won to bring its five-week total to 23.2 billion won ($18.4 million).

In fourth was CASTAWAY ON THE MOON (Gimssi Pyoryugi), earning 1 billion won to bring its total to 3.7 billion won.

Other Korean films in the top 10 were THIRST (Bakjwi) in seventh, INSADONG SCANDAL in eighth and Hong Sang-soo’s LIKE YOU KNOW IT ALL (Jal Aljido Mot Hamyeonsa) in ninth.

I saw LIKE YOU KNOW IT ALL last weekend and quite liked it. Not as much fun as WOMAN ON THE BEACH, but similar in tone. Maybe a little “deeper.” Maybe a little too long. But fun and full of some amusing perspectives on film festivals and artists. It is playing with English subtitles at the CGV Yongsan in Seoul and is totally worth checking out.


(Stats courtesy of KOFIC, as always)

I have no idea how well Bong Joon-ho’s new film MOTHER (Madeo) will do (although as I write this, it handily has the biggest advance sales on the Internet), but it opens Thursday this week. And it too is playing with English subtitles at Yongsan. Funny, the film had great reviews at Cannes pretty much across the board, but apparently the jury members for the section it was in all hated it.

Oh, the Korean title is Madeo. Does that sound like “Mother” to you? Or more like “Murder”? Probably just a coincidence, but the thought amused me.

Korean History, Live and Online (and some random food notes)

For some research I was doing recently, I ran across the most amazing resource online — a huge collection of photos and videos about Korea, dating from the 1950s to the present. Some are old news stories, others are government propaganda videos, and others are, well, I have no idea.

I’m talking about E-History website, run by KTV (Korea Policy Broadcasting?). For the video section especially, you can spend countless hours, just skipping around and browsing. Sadly, the site is only in Korean, but it is pretty easy to navigate, even for beginners.

There are 11 categories running down the left side, for politics, economics, military, society, eduction, culture and more. Below those categories, the site is also organized by decade. And because all the videos have been indexed and described, the search engine works surprising well.

Here is a sampling of some interesting videos related to movies and culture:
Old movie theaters from 1957.
Television starts in Korea in 1956, thanks to RCA.
More about Korea’s first TV station HLKZ, from 1956.
AFKN from 1959.
Opening of KBS headquarters in 1976.
Some movie awards from 1959. Includes clips of Yu Hyun-mok (the famous director) and Choi Eun-hee (the great actress and wife of the late Shin Sang-ok).
The first Best Korean Movie Awards in 1962. With awards going to Shin Sang-ok (for Romantic Papa) and Kim Ki-young (for The Housemaid) and Choi Eun-hee.
– The first Grand Bell Movie Awards, a few months later in 1962.
Grand Bell Movie Awards from 1990. Features Kang Su-yeon winning an award, lots of really bad hair and shoulder pads.
A report on Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee in North Korea from 1984 (with plenty of Bukgoe comments throughout).
– Sadly I could not find much interesting about old rock music. Did find this 1963 video about singer Lee Chun-hee.

And just some random stuff I liked:
– A golf tournament from 1954.
Namdaemun devastated by a fire in 1954 (wow, deja vu).
– Yonsei’s Severance Hospital back in 1962.
Yonsei University’s 80th anniversary.
– Korean boxer Yu Jae-du beating Koichi Wajima for the WBA Light Middleweight Champion belt in 1975 (Yuh Jae-doo?).
– A video from 1970 talking about Korea’s next five-year plan and how Korea would develop in the future.
– The opening of the Yanghwa bridge connecting Mapo and Yeongdeungpo in 1965.
– The opening of the Seoul Sanga Apartments in Chungmuro in 1967.
Namsan Wayne Apartments being destroyed in 1994
Don’t leave your nasty gum around, from 1990.
Miss Korea 1957. Includes the swimsuit competition.

Okay, you get the idea. I could do this for days, but those selections should get you started. What a great website.

UPDATE: Given how popular Kim Yuna is these days, I thought people might want to check out these skating videos:
Skating in 1955. Around 1 minute in, we get some figure skating, too. They could be the ancestors of Kim Yuna (metaphorically, that is).
Rhee Sungman taking in some skating on the Han River in 1958 (including some more figure skating).
1959, more speed skating and figure skating (and the figure skaters are getting a little better). (Oh, love the spelling of “sports” in this one. 스포오쯔… never seen that before).
– Ice fishing and ice hockey from 1961 on this one.
Skating at Gyeongbok Palace in 1963.
Skating at the Dongdaemun Ice Rink, which I never knew existed, in 1964.
Ice Carnival at the Dongdaemun rink in 1964. Including a talented little 6-year-old, Yoon Hyo-jin (who went on to finish 17th at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck).

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A couple of random restaurant notes. Seems like every time I turn around, new Indian restaurants are popping up all over the place. I talked about Manokamana before (which now seems to be doing very well, as I can never get a seat there).

But if you cannot get a seat at Manokamana, there is another option just down the street — Amma. Amma is just as good as Manokamana, if not better (I think the portions are bigger), and it is dead quiet. The furniture is a little odd (like out of a 1995 Korean dabang, but don’t let that throw you). It is right behind the Hyundai Department Store. Map here. Totally worth checking out.

If you are looking for more of a Western bar experience, a new place just opened up in Shinchon that I also recommend called Beer O’Clock. Beer O’Clock has a good selection of beers (including Alley Cat Pale Ale), your basic bar food (which I have not tried yet, but looks good), and a great ambiance. It is on the second floor, with floor-to-ceiling windows that all open up, making almost every seat in the place a window seat.

I have not been there on a weekend yet, so maybe the vibe changes then. Hopefully not, but I do not know. But for a quite, comfortable mid-week place, Beer O’Clock was really good. Easily the best Western bar in Shinchon. Map.

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UPDATE: Random note. As I write this post, my blog is the 10th most popular in the world under the Google search “distressed bondage.” Sometimes I do not understand the Internet at all.

Korea Weekend Box Office – May 15-17

No big surprises at the box office last weekend. The new film based on Dan Brown’s “symbology” professor Robert Langdon ANGELS AND DEMONS landed in No. 1 with 4.5 billion won ($3.6 million), or 5.2 billion won ($4.1 million) if you include Thursday. Actually, I heard that they never really made a movie, but the Illuminati conspired to boost its box office and make it No. 1 anyway.

MY GIRLFRIEND IS AN AGENT (7 Geup Gongmuwon) continues to do well, taking in another 2.8 billion won ($2.22 million) to bring its total to 20.4 billion won ($16.2 million).

New Korean movie CASTAWAY ON THE MOON (Gimssi Pyoryugi) opened in third, earning 1.8 billion won ($1.4 million), or 2.1 billion including Thursday.

STAR TREK dropped to fourth from second, but it is still doing pretty well for a Star Trek movie in Korea. It made 1.8 billion won to bring its total to 5.6 billion won ($4.4 million).

THIRST (Bakjwi) fell to fifth, although it has squeaked past 2 million admissions. It has now made 13.5 billion won ($10.7 million).

Other Korean films this week include INSADONG SCANDAL and CYBORG SHE. Well, depending on whether you consider CYBORG SHE a Korean film. It was written and directed by Kwak Jae-young, but it is a Japanese-language movie with a Japanese cast and was completely financed by Japanese companies. Welcome to globalization… nations coming together to make utter dreck.

Any way you look at it, this May is shaping up to be much, much better than last year, when Korean films dropped to just 7.8 percent of the box office. That was brutal.

It is just too bad that Bong Joon-ho’s MOTHER is not coming out until the 28th. I bet that film is going to do huge business; if it came out a week earlier, it could have helped Korean movies have their strongest Mays in years.

As it is, I am guessing TERMINATOR 4 is going to do some huge business here. TERMINATOR 3, if you recall, had what was then the biggest opening weekend ever in Korea. And that film was terrible. TERMINATOR 4 looks brilliant and plenty of fun, so should be pretty strong.

PGK in the Wall Street Journal

Well, that was quite a surprise. A journalist friend of mine just called me to congratulate me. I had to confess, I had no idea what she was talking about, so she said to me “the Wall Street Journal article?” Still no idea. But a few mouse clicks later I discovered that the wonderful Evan Ramstad had written about POP GOES KOREA in today’s issue of the Asian Wall Street Journal. Very nice.

If I may quote “Mr. Ramstad” (got to love that level of formality):

Mr. Russell says the growth of South Korea’s entertainment industries is a function of economic development that has left more Koreans with the time and resources to become pop-culture “consumers.” To a lesser extent, he credits technology changes that reshaped distribution and a receptivity to new cultural products bound up in the globalization of trade over the past two decades. In short, the talent has been there all along and the time finally became ripe for it to flourish as a business.

Mr. Russell’s book is the first by a non-Korean to explain the rise of Korea’s entertainment industries. With lots of pictures, lists (top TV shows, most expensive movies, worst flops) and sidebar articles, the book could hardly be more approachable.

Anyhow, be sure to check out Evan’s story. And if it inspires you to pick up a copy of POP GOES KOREA, you can find it on Amazon.com here.

UPDATE: The Korean newswire Yonhap, which always likes to report on the big-time international papers when they report on Korea, has picked up the story, too.

Cannes and Korea in the Hollywood Reporter

Korea is getting plenty of coverage in The Hollywood Reporter at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Not surprising, really, given all the Korean films there this year.

There is a Q&A with Bong Joon-ho here, and another one with Park Chan-wook.

There is also this interesting story about the state of Southeast Asian cinema. And this overview of the Japan film industry. And this Q&A with Ang Lee.

I’ll add more stories as I come across them.

(Note: If you check out some of the following stories, you might notice that none of them are by me. I have been very slow to mention it here, but I actually stopped writing for THR some months ago, and have instead been putting my energies into some other projects. Which I should talk about soon).

Like You Know Thirst — English Subtitles

Good news folks — the new Park Chan-wook film THIRST and the new Hong Sang-soo film LIKE YOU KNOW IT ALL are both being shown with English subtitles, beginning tomorrow at the CGV Yongsan theater.

If you can maneuver in Korean, you can see them listed on the CGV website. If you don’t know Korean and don’t know anyone who knows Korean, it would probably be easiest just to head on down to the theater and checking out the timetable while you are there. There are plenty of ways to kill time at the Yongsan Mall if you miss your film’s starting time. Sorry, but the films have a different schedule every day, so I cannot list the start times here.

LIKE YOU KNOW IT ALL is supposed to be one of Hong’s funnier films, at least according to a couple of people close to Director Hong. And it is long — 126 minutes. But if it is funny, like WOMAN ON THE BEACH, then I am okay with the extra time.


I may not be a big fan of THIRST, but I know a lot of people always want to see Park Chan-wook’s films, so good luck seeing it.

And of course, MY GIRLFRIEND IS AN AGENT continues to screen at the Cinus theaters in Seoul with English subtitles (and Japanese).

I just stumbled across these subtitled screenings on the CGV website. There was no official announcement and I cannot find anything about these screenings on Naver, so if I have made a mistake, please let me know.

UPDATE: Paul over at the Hub of Sparkle blog has apparently taken the trouble of listing the screening times and locations of all the English-subtitled films for this weekend. Very nice of him.

Korea Weekend Box Office – May 8-10

So, with big-budget Hollywood summer films filling theaters, along with the high-concept, hotly anticipated Park Chan-wook movie, what film takes the top spot last weekend? MY GIRLFRIEND IS AN AGENT (7-Geup Gongmuwon), the silly action-comedy. Not sure if that makes me shudder or if it warms my heart. A bit of both.

AGENT made 2.9 billion won ($2.2 million) over the weekend, bringing its total to 16.2 billion won ($12.5 million). Or 2.47 million admissions, if you prefer. Regardless, it is definitely a hit. Will be interesting how it holds up over the next couple of weeks. I think 3 million admissions should be safe, but 4 million might be asking too much of it.

The JJ Abrams reboot of STAR TREK did fairly well, considering how Trek-averse the Korean market usually is, making 2.6 billion won over the weekend ($2 million), and 2.9 billion won total since Thursday.

Park Chan-wook’s THIRST (Bakjwi) dropped pretty dramatically from last week, making just 1.9 billion won ($1.5 million) over the weekend — that is down from 5.6 billion won last weekend. With 1.75 million admissions so far, it looks like it will pass 2 million, but 3 million will be a reach (unless perhaps it does very well at Cannes).

INSA-DONG SCANDAL keeps chugging along, again in fourth, earning 1.4 billion won to bring its total to 6.0 billion won.

WOLVERINE dropped a lot, too, earning just 1.3 billion won last weekend, after making 3.4 billion won last weekend.

There were no other Korean films in the top-10, but we did have a Japanese film in seventh (the anime KERORO GUNSO THE SUPER MOVIE 4: GEKISHIN DRAGON WARRIORS) and a French film in ninth (also animated, WHITE TUFT, THE LITTLE BEAVER).

Korea Weekend Box Office – May 1-3

Park Chan-wook’s THIRST (Bakjwi) opened strong last weekend, easily taking the No. 1 spot with 5.61 billion won ($4.4 million). THIRST had 821,000 admissions over the weekend (and 1 million since Thursday), far surpassing the 472,000 for I’M A CYBORG BUT THAT’S OKAY, and just slightly less than the 870,000 for LADY VENGEANCE.

In second is the second week of MY GIRLFRIEND IS AN AGENT (7 Geup Gongmuwon), which made 3.50 billion won ($2.7 million) to bring its 10-day total to 10.4 billion won ($8.1 million).

WOLVERINE opened only in third, but it was a relatively good opening for the franchise — 3.40 billion won ($2.7 million) for WOLVERINE versus 3.66 billion won for X-MEN 3 ($2.9 million).

INSADONG SCANDAL opened in fourth, with 2.38 billion won over the weekend for a total of 2.89 billion won ().

With Korean films taking in three of the top four spots at the box office, looks like they will not tank as badly as they did last May, when Korean movies accounted for a paltry 8 percent.

Something else I found interesting is how many screens are now available for movies. A few years ago, when THE HOST opened on over 800 screens, a lot of people complained about big movies “monopolizing” the theaters. But this week, even though THIRST was on over 600 screens, AGENT and WOLVERINE had over 500 and INSADONG had over 400. Even the rest of the top-10 films all had plenty of screens.


So how well will THIRST do? Well, it’s biggest competition in the coming weekend is the new STAR TREK film — which, while it looks good, has never been a strong franchise in South Korea. But the following week, the competition will really ramp up. If I were to venture a guess, THIRST might squeak over 3 million admissions, but it is going to be tough.

One interesting sign, though — when I look at the movie ticket reservation chart, as of Tuesday morning, AGENT is ahead of THIRST, 22.64% to 22.63%. Not a lot, but it suggests that AGENT is getting stronger word of mouth and could do better over the long haul.

No IP Piracy Here, Ye’ Scurvy Dogs

Intellectual Property is a weird issue. On one hand, I believe that information wants to be free and that, given convenient and appropriately priced options, people will pay for digital content. On the other hand, having pirated DVDs and software for sale on every major corner and subway station, right out in the open, is just nuts. I mean, many of the guys take requests, for pete’s sake. So I guess I kind of feel like Korea is at once too harsh with its digital IP enforcement and way too lenient.

Which is why I do not at all understand the United States Trade Representative removing South Korea from its Piracy Watch List for the first time since 1989. (Taiwan was removed, too). You can read the full report here (see page 10 in particular). At least the report says that Korea could return to the list if progress does not continue.

Meanwhile, Canada is on the Priority Watch List? Really?

Btw, if you scan down to page 35, the USTR gives a list of the world’s most Notorious Markets. So if you plan to do any traveling, check out that section to find out all the best places to do your shopping.

Like a Bakjwi Out of Hell

Yesterday I went to see Park Chan-wook’s new film, THIRST (Bakjwi in Korean). And like most of his films, this one is heavy on atmosphere and light on logic, as much blood is spilled in exotically retro buildings, but for little purpose.


As you have probably heard, THIRST is a vampire movie. Song Gang-ho stars as a Catholic priest named Sang-hyun who goes to Africa to participate in a strange medical vaccine experiment and comes back to Korea a vampire. In Korea he meets up with an old childhood friend has an affair with his friend’s odd wife (Kim Ok-vin, spelling her name just as oddly).

I will try to avoid spoilers in this little review, but take care, depending on how sensitive you are about such things.

Many people are calling it a return to form for Park, and it is much more reminiscent of OLDBOY and his violence trilogy, at least in terms of visuals and “shocking” scenes. THIRST definitely looks great (thanks to the always amazing design work of Ryoo Seong-hee) and the editing and shooting are extremely well done. In fact, this is probably Park’s best camerawork yet, with almost every scene presented very creatively and interestingly.

I also thought this was the most David Cronenberg-like film Park has made, with the medical/science overtones of the film, the plentiful and gross wounds (a la VIDEODROME) and the nasty broken fingernails (a la THE FLY).

However, there was a lot about THIRST that I did not like. Most seriously, the story is very silly and for the first 90 minutes it is quite dull (although it does pick up in the last 30 minutes). Because all the characters in THIRST are so stylized and odd, I had little concern for or interest in any of them. And nothing makes a film less shocking than when a director is deliberately trying to shock (with the possible exception of Peter Jackson’s MEET THE FEEBLES, which was truly and wonderfully revolting).

One problem I had with Park’s previous film, I’M A CYBORG BUT THAT’S OKAY was that, despite the film being set in a mental institution, it felt like Park did not know anything about mental illness. This time, despite the vampire theme, it seems like he does not know much about the vampire genre. He does not add anything new to the mythos, or use vampirism to make any interesting comments on society, religion or the like.

Sang-hyun’s “descent into depravity” was not even terribly deprave really. He has a bunch of sex, drinks some blood, sucks some toes… Not much to write home about. The story really, really drags for the first 90 minutes rather pointlessly.

**SPOILER COMING, KIND OF**

The film only really picks up when woman Tae-ju changes, about 30 minutes before the end of the film. Again, this is nothing we have not seen before, but at least it is pretty amusing and she gives the movie a lot more action and energy. Kim’s acting here is quite good, and she plays evil quite well.

**SPOILER OVER**

Despite the spike in energy for the last 30 minutes, the end does not really work either. Sure it looks nice, but it makes little sense if you think about it. And the final shot is quite reminiscent of several other vampire movies.

Oh, and I really disliked just about everything with Shin Ha-kyun. Usually he is such a good actor, but in this role he was quite the ham. Not sure, though, how much of that was his acting and how much was the character he was playing.

Will you like the film? Hard to say… Even if you are a hard-core Park Chan-wook fan, this is an odd film. There is not much action or horror in it for genre fans, nor many ideas to think about for the arthouse crowd. But I have never been a huge fan of director Park (mostly because I think he is so talented, he should be using his talents on better scripts), so many I am missing something his fans appreciate. Certainly Park’s camerawork is more athletic than ever, and often is quite breathtaking. But overall, I thought THIRST was quite poor… and too often outright ridiculous.

UPDATE: Kim Kyu Hyun over at Darcy’s website has his review up of THIRST. Quite positive and an interesting contrast to my (more accurate) review.

UPDATE 2: Derek Elley of Variety has also weighed in about THIRST, and apparently has felt much the same way that I did about it.

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On a totally different note, kudos to Home CGV for showing the old virus film OUTBREAK today, as the world worries about a potential outbreak of swine flu. Kind of funny, I thought. I just wish they had dedicated the day to showing all virus-related films, like 28 DAYS LATER or even the old classic PLAGUE.

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