Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: December 2009

Top 10 Films of the Zeros

Okay, here is the least creative post idea in quite some time — my list of the top 10 Korean movies of the past decade. But after a decade of so much great cinema, I thought it would be fun to organize my thoughts and try to put together a couple of comments about some of the best movies Korea produced. It certainly is amazing to look back and see how much has changed over the past 10 years in Korean film and culture. Anyhow, for what it is worth, here are my top 10:

1. Memories of Murder
This movie is, quite simply, the complete package — a story that is at once accessible but also full of meaning and symbolism. It looks great (thanks in part to Ryu Seong-hee’s production design). Wonderful acting. Easily the best Korean film of the modern era.


2. Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors

Hong Sang-soo’s best movie, with a solid mix of wit, insight, and creativity. The story of a young woman and her two suitors unfolds in two parts, with Hong’s trademark mirrored story structure (back when it was fresh), and does so in a way that adds to the story, is not just a gimmick. At first, you watch the film and at times wonder “What’s the point?” (after all, it is a Hong Sang-soo film). But as the story unfolds for the second time, it gains a richness that is really fascinating. The black-and-white really does help you concentrate on the characters and the story and not get distracted.

Best of all, you can still find many of the restaurants and locations from the movie and have drinks there with your friends. At least for now (I am sure all those locations will all be torn down soon enough, though).


3. The President’s Last Bang
I can still remember going to the press screening for The President’s Last Bang. Obviously Im Sang-soo’s historical perspective was what it was (shall we say controversial?). But despite that, I was blown away by the film. I thought it was funny, smart, beautiful looking, darkly humorous and an all-round great movie. But as the lights came on, the journalist sitting close to me (a rather famous reporter) says to me, full of scorn: “I think that film is dangerous.” No comment about the art or the story, just a purely political reaction. Very disappointing, but an all-too-common reaction by all-too-many people (perhaps moreso in Korea). Sad when people put politics ahead of art.


4. Failan
I remember watching this movie full of skepticism. I mean, the whole idea — a Chinese bride and her gangster husband who fall in love despite never meeting — sounded so cheesy. But by the end, I was crying. Yes, embarrassing to admit, but this story totally got to me. A delicate tale told just right.


5. Oasis
Lee Chang-dong is Korea’s smartest filmmaker, with movies that have the richness of novels (no surprise, since Lee started out as a novelist). This is Lee’s best movie, featuring not just a smart story, but also two amazing acting performances, by Moon So-ri and Sol Kyung-gu.


FYI, here is my old story about Oasis in Newsweek, many moons ago.

6. Chunhyang
This is the Im Kwon-taek movie that should have won at Cannes (not the silly and swollen Chihwaseon). Im’s told the Chunhyangjeon traditional story through a retelling as a live pansori performance at the Jongdong Theater in downtown Seoul. As the story goes in and out, from the theater with the singer and audience, to the dramatic re-creation of the story, the artifice actually draws you in deeper and makes it more engrossing. Quite a feat.


7. Tale of Two Sisters
I have the same feeling about most of Kim Jee-woon’s movies — so close to excellence, but there is something fundamentally flawed about them. Tale of Two Sisters was the same, going on for 15 minutes too long, past its natural climax. That said, Tale of Two Sisters was a gorgeous film, with each scene leaping off the screen with color and dynamism (take that, James Cameron). And its psychological horror was genuinely creepy in a smarter, deeper way than most horror films.


8. Lies
It is a huge surprise for me to have this film here (along with anything by Jang Sun-woo), but I re-watched the film earlier in 2009 and quite liked it. The story (from a novel by Jang Jung-il that got the author imprisoned for six months) of a high school girl who gets into a torrid affair with an older artist, Lies could have easily descended into soft-porn silliness, but somehow Jang (well, “Jangs”) kept the film smarter than that.


(Okay, technically Lies was 1999, but it was released in Korea on Jan. 8, 2000, so I am putting it in my list).

9. Take Care of My Cat
Such a light, little film, about four young women from Incheon, their friendship coming apart due to the trials of entering adulthood. But the characters were rich and intriguing, and the whole added up to much more than the sum of its parts. Possible depressing lesson of the film: The only way to break free of the bonds of daily life is to get out of the country.


10. The Isle
Like Lies, this is another film I am really surprised to have in my top 10. Certainly no one is more surprised than I am to have a Kim Ki-duk film anywhere on this list. Generally I quite dislike his movies (especially the Orientalist silliness he seems to have fallen into since Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring). But the more I thought about it, the more important The Isle seemed to me, and the better it fared in my memory. Many filmmakers have tried to go “shocking” (like Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance trilogy, or, in the West, films like Saw), but, really, none of them can compare to Kim Ki-duk and his infamous fishhooks.


Telling how old all those films are. Even my Honorable Mention list (if I had written one) would have concentrated on older films. What did I like from the past five years? Mother, The Host, Woman on the Beach, Like You Know It All, The Chaser, The Good the Bad the Weird, Secret Sunshine, Tazza… and a few others. But there were rather few really exciting films compared to how many Korea was producing from the last 1990s until 2004-ish.

Of course, there are plenty of other really good films that did not make my list. One of the most memorable and wacky movies of the last decade was Save the Green Planet. I quite liked Lee Sung-gang’s My Beautiful Girl Mari. Park Chan-wook’s Violence Vengeance Trilogy was certainly important in gaining international respect for Korean movies (and there is no denying Park’s considerable talents as a director). But (at least for now), those are the 10 movies that I think were the best of the last 10 years.

The Ox Takes Manhattan

First OLD PARTNER, a documentary about a farmer and his ancient ox, becomes the surprise hit of 2009 in South Korea. Now it is coming to America. Read the New York Times review of OLD PARTNER here.

Shin Joong-hyun’s Fender Guiter, Other Random News

  • Jason Strother has a fun and interesting article about Korean rock great Shin Joong-hyun getting honored by Fender with his very own guitar. Apparently it was the first time Fender has given that honor to an Asian artist. There is a longer audio version of the story, too.

  • The Korea Times just published a surprisingly thorough look at the year ahead in movies. The article lists a lot to look forward to, from big names to long-time-coming sequels.

  • An interesting article on Asian-American hiphop, particularly in the Los Angeles area.
  • Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics) is producing The Wondergirls’ new album? (Okay, apparently this was announced a couple of weeks ago, but I just noticed it. And am rather stunned).
  • Hey, Darcy Paquet’s book, NEW KOREAN CINEMA, is out at last. Very cool. Looking forward to reading a very different take on the Korean film industry than I wrote about. Hope to get some sort of review up here before too long.
  • You have undoubtedly heard plenty about Korean TV dramas and other entertainment doing well all over Asia and beyond… But here is an intriguing story about the old MBC drama JUMONG becoming a bit hit in Iran.

    With the country being rocked right now by a democratic uprising, it is fascinating to learn a little bit about the changing going on these days to popular culture in Iran. I have met with several Iranian filmmakers and poets over the years (and regular folk, of course), and I am constantly intrigued at how different life is there compared to how most people in the West think it is.

  • Marmots, Trolls, Avatars and Other Random Creatures

    So, the Marmot’s Hole closed the comment section. Very good, says I. If people have something to say, let them write about it on their own websites. Or they can email the blog owner, and if he likes it, he can post it. I know my view is a minority, but that is what I think of Internet commentary — keep the signal-to-noise ratio as high as possible. Even if it means being choosy or mean.

    Strangely, the closing of the comments have led to some really weird accusations here and there around the Korea blogosphere. People have called the Marmot arrogant or a sell-out or whatnot. Kind of fascinating, really, to see what kind of a bizarre world so many people live in, and how much we bring our own quirks, foibles, biases and scars to our analysis of the world (myself included).

    As someone who knows the Marmot reasonably well, I can say with some assurance that “arrogant” is about the last adjective one can apply to him. His blog has changed over the years, but that is mostly based on changes in his life. For several years, he was translating for a Korean news site, so he was regularly immersed in Korean news; his blog content reflected this. Plus he had a lot more free time at work then. One reason I liked the blog so much back then is that it provided fast commentary on the news of a sort that one could not find elsewhere in English (and was hard to find in Korean, too, imho).

    But after he changed jobs to Seoul Magazine, he was no longer surrounded by news, and he no longer had nearly as much free time. No surprise that his website content changed to reflect his new job and schedule. That is the simple truth. No government pressure on him. No one telling him to do more of this or less of that. No dreams of glory. No Uncle Tom hopes of being accepted by Korean society by attacking foreigners. Just changing circumstances.

    (I should note, too, that no one has remotely come along to pick up his slack from his news-blogging days. As I said last year, with the disappearance of Oranckay and Antti Leppanen from the blog world and the Marmot changing his style, it was a real hit for English-language commentary on Korea. Sure, there are more voices out there now, some quite interesting, but no one is doing what they were doing).

    Although I see Robert is now planning to re-introduce comments, with some snazzy new moderation software in place. Best of luck to him. But seeing how his comment section went (and others like it at countless other blogs and forums I have followed over the years), I offer the following half-assed analysis:

  • Bad commenters drive out good (as Coming Anarchy noted, this is the Internet version of Gresham’s Law). Back when the Marmot’s Hole averaged 10 comments a post, it had more substantial comments than when it was averaging 50-100 comments a post.
  • Insanity is solely a function of size.
  • Ergo, eliminating a crazy will not reduce the amount of insanity in a website. Either someone else will become infected with the craziness, or else two or three people will start to share a portion of the crazy.
  • Corollary: No one can be crazy alone.
  • (Counter-corollary: Michael Jackson. And most other mega-celebrities, who clearly go insane after too much isolation).
  • (Possible counter-counter-corollary – We are all nuts already. Just the Internet sometimes makes it more noticeable.)
  • And finally, most people’s reading comprehension is really terrible.

    * * *

    Okay, so I saw AVATAR over the weekend. And I suppose I liked it well enough. It was impressive. But at the end of the day, that is all it was — an impression. Great special effects, but nothing that held any weight, which I fear is the problem with all digital effects. When I think back on Aliens, or Skeksis, or even ET, despite the mechanical fakeness they sometime had, I remember them with a sense of reality. AVATAR, however, I remember like a video game. A really expensive, well-made, realistic video game, but still fake and slight.

    Honestly, I quite preferred TITANIC. Sure it was cliched and had some terrible dialogue, but its basic plotting and storytelling were fantastic. The world it presented felt truly real and substantial.

    Anyhow, after I saw AVATAR, I saw IN THE LOOP, and I liked LOOP a lot more. Funny, insightful, often witty and sometimes even wicked. And a film for grown-ups. Highly recommended.

    Btw, AVATAR did 1.6 million admissions last weekend in Korea, or about 13.6 billion won. Not bad, but certainly not SPIDER-MAN or TRANSFORMERS numbers.

    * * *

    Random note: I loved this Manohla Dargis interview from a couple of weeks ago. As many others have quoted: “Let’s acknowledge that the Oscars are bullshit and we hate them.”

  • AVATAR in Korea

    In case you were wondering, James Cameron’s 3D blockbuster AVATAR currently sits on top of the advance ticket sales, accounting for 71.2 percent of all sales (KOBIS, of course). Not bad — although it does not come close to the 89.7 percent that TRANSFORMERS 2 got.

    It is also playing at five IMAX theaters around the country — in Seoul at the CGV Wangsimni and Yongsan, and in Daegu at the CGV Daegu, Gwangju at the CGV Gwangju, and in Ilsan at the CGV Ilsan.

    It is hard to believe I was in Korea way back when TITANIC came out. Hard to believe that at the time it was the biggest movie ever in Korea, with something like 4.5 million admissions (SHIRI was still a year away). I watched TITANIC in what was then the only multiplex in Daejeon, The Academy (I think it was called). It was a decent theater, with three screens, located near the train station. Today, that theater is part of the Megaline franchise, and has been divided into nine tiny screens (assuming it is still there).

    It really gives you sense of how much the Korean movie industry has changed over the past decade — from almost no multiplexes to almost nothing but multiplexes, from low attendance to high (national attendance to films has tripled in Korea since TITANIC). And, of course, the most popular films in Korea are now all Korean. The biggest foreign film ever in Korea, TRANSFORMERS 2, would not even make it onto the top-10 overall there.

    Oh, and there is an article on 3D movies in Korea (although not a lot of information about the local scene) here.

    Hip Korea Wins

    Well, turns out that HIP KOREA – RAIN did okay at the recent Asian Television Awards, held in Singapore earlier this month. The program up for four awards, and it came away with one win and two runners-up. Pretty respectable, I think.

    The program won for Best Cross-Platform Content, which I suppose means it was available for cell phones and computer downloads and the like. Runner-up awards (which the Asian TV Awards call “Highly Recommended”) came in Best Music Programme and Best Infotainment Programme. So congratulations to the producers and all the people who put the program together (I was just the “associate producer” on it, so cannot really take credit).

    You can see the complete list of winners here.

    * * *

    Speaking of Rain, I guess he has had a big couple of months, mostly because of his movie NINJA ASSASSIN. Since it was released on Nov. 25, it has made $32 million in the United States, and another $6.4 million in Korea (7.4 billion won, according to KOBIS). Plus another $260,000 in Italy (Box Office Mojo).

    But seriously, the film did get a pretty wide release around the world, with a lot more countries opening the film over the next few weeks. So all told, its box office could rise a bit. And this really in a home video sort of film, so I think that its investors should be pretty happy when all is said and done.

    And speaking of box office, the latest travesty inflicted upon us by Roland Emmerich, 2012, has done very well in Korea, topping 5 million admissions, or about 35 billion won ($30 million). Worldwide, it is over $670 million. Apparently we all love seeing the world destroyed, much more than we enjoy good stories. Me included.

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