Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: January 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.

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.

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.

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.

  • 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.

    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).

    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.

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