Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: October 2009

North Korea in the New Yorker

Barbara Demick, one of my favorite journalists, has a book coming soon about life in North Korea, titled NOTHING TO ENVY: ORDINARY LIVES IN NORTH KOREA. And as part of the PR for that book, there is an article (that you have to pay for) and a Q&A session (free!) with her in the New Yorker this week. Totally worth a read.

There is also an excerpt from her book in The Paris Review, also very good.

You can order her new book here.

Pop Is Dead Random Notes – Vol. 4, No. 2

The “pop” in POP GOES KOREA (and Korea Pop Wars), of course, is a reference to pop culture, or “popular culture”. Well, over the weekend, the man who apparently came up with the term “popular culture” passed away. His name was Ray Browne, and he was a professor at Bowling Green State University (in Ohio).

Amusingly, he claimed that his first use of the term in 1967 was a mistake. He was originally using the term “people’s culture”, as well as terms like “everyday culture” and “democratic culture”.

On the other hand, “pop art” was apparently coined in 1954 by John McHale. So maybe that was my real point of reference, I just did not know it.

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In other news, Edward Chun, the guy who wrote about Korean pop music for MTV Iggy a couple of months ago, just turned up on Gawker of all places. Edward is now in journalism school at Columbia, and for a project on journalism ethics, he and some students put together a presentation in the form of hiphop verse, using Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind. I found it quite amusing, in a goofy sort of way. Worth a watch, if you have not see it already. But what would Drunken Tiger think?

Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018?

Well, this is an interesting development. Only three cities have submitted bids for the 2018 Winter Olympics — Munich, Annecy and … (wait for it) Pyeongchang.

For the last several years, I have been pained by Pyeongchang’s previous bids for previous Olympics. Pyeongchang is a beautiful place, but its bids were simply not very good (yes, it got votes in 2010, but I still think the bid was fundamentally flawed).

But this time, they may be in luck. From what I can see on the Internet (dubious research, I know), people are pretty dubious about Annecy’s bid. Which leaves it pretty much a two-country race, between Germany and Korea.


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And as long as I am talking about sports, I should point out the Kim Yuna had a great short skate at the opening of the Trophee Bombard tournament in Paris yesterday (part if the ISU’s Grand Prix tournament). Yuna scored a 76.08; her nearest competitor, Yukari Nakano, a 59.64

As Philip Hersh wrote on his LA Times sports blog:

One short program does not a season make. But this one made it clear that Kim at her best will be impossible to beat, and Kim at 80% of her best still is better than anyone else. Athlete, artist — this young woman is breathtaking on the ice. Barring injury or early retirement, she can be the greatest women’s skater in history.

A New Blog Begins

This is the start of my new blog. But lots of work to do still before I make it public.

HAEUNDAE Floods Canada

The Korea disaster blockbuster HAEUNDAE washed ashore Canada last weekend. The general verdict — not bad, for a genre everybody already knows well. The biggest split were between those who considered HAEUNDAE’s head-slapping, plentiful-emoting ways to be refreshingly different or just ridiculous.


Here is the Toronto Sun review – 3/5 stars
The Globe and Mail review – 2/4 stars
The Toronto Star review – 2.5/4 stars
And the National Post review – 2 stars (out of 4, I presume, but am not 100% sure)

The averages out to 55.6%. Damn Canadians. I have not seen any information about when and where else HAEUNDAE might be coming, but if I do, I will let you know.

A World of Film

An interesting survey over at UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics about the number of films made around the world (found via Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood Daily).

According to the survey, India is the top filmmaking nation in the world, with 1,091 films made in 2006, followed by Hollywood with 485 “major” productions”.


(Note: Nigeria would be second, with 872 films, but those films are all shot on video and designed for home viewing, as there are virtually no cinemas in Nigeria, so Nigeria is not counted in the official survey results. Not unfair, I think… If you were to include all the independent and student and amateur films made in the United States, films of comparable or better quality than most of the Nigerian films, I’m sure the United States would be in the thousands. But, still, it is interesting to realize how much filmmaking goes on in Africa and how even there, movies are not all about Hollywood.)

Very interesting to see how big a presence Asia had in the survey — an addition to India, Japan was third, China fourth and South Korea was ninth.

Not in the survey but similarly interesting is how much money is spend on movies in those countries, too. China is on track to spend over $700 million in theaters this year, and continues to grow substantially each year. Japan is about $2 billion/year. South Korea is around $1 billion. India is impossible to guess at (I have seen estimates ranging from a few hundred million dollars to well over a billion), but it is notable.

The European box office is still larger than Asia, mostly because of higher ticket prices. But that gap is narrowing every year. And with so many films being made over here, you can see Asia rising in importance. Which is, of course, why Hollywood has been trying to find partners and possibilities in Asia over the past few years.

I do not think this is a zero-sum competition, though. Almost every country has a demand to see films about its own culture in its own language. That is not going to disappear, no matter how many “tentpole” pictures and superheroes Hollywood creates. In fact, I think we are clearly seeing the limits of the Hollywood model. Yes, US major films can be incredibly popular all over the world, but they are not the be-all-and-end-all of moviemaking. Especially now that countries like Korea and Japan have learned from Hollywood and are making entertaining films of their own.

Which is (if I may market myself a moment) one of the major points of POP GOES KOREA. Entertainment globalization is not a one-way street, even if the United States is the biggest dog on the block and has, until now, been fairly dominant. People learn and systems evolve.

We have seen it in Luc Besson and his action film company in France. We have seen it in Korea, then Japan and increasingly in China. And I think in the future, we are going to see more and more examples. Not just in movies, but in all of entertainment.

Don’t Mean a Thing If It Don’t Have That Zing

After a month of absolutely spiceless food, I went to my first Korean restaurant last night since moving to Spain. It was generally agreed upon by my group (of about eight Koreans and Korean-hyphenates) that it was one of just two decent Korean restaurants in Barcelona. Someone claimed there were only around 12 Korean restaurants in all of Spain… I have no idea, but there are not a lot.

Anyhow, the food. We went to a restaurant called Sangil, in the Gracia part of Barcelona. First of all, the food was basic but quite good. I had the yugaejang, and the ingredients were fresh, the broth reasonably spicy. There was not a lot of banchan, but what they had was pretty good. We even split a little soju (which sported a Jeonju International Film Festival label on the back, giving us some idea how old it was). All in all, a nice refresher in Korean food.

But the prices, yikes. Nearly everything on the menu was 12-15 euros — that is well over 20,000 won, for a basic Korean lunch, the kind of thing that is usually around 5,000 won in Seoul Even the Jajangmyeon was over 12 euros. Jajangmyeon? Bizarre. And the galbi dishes were much more. I knew I was going to have to pay a premium for Korean food over here, but that was a little surprising.

Oh well, at least the won is getting a little stronger against the euro at the moment…

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