Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: February 2010 (page 1 of 2)

Avatar Sets the Record

For the first time in 11 years, the biggest movie in Korea is no longer Korean. It looks like AVATAR has finally become the most popular film ever in Korea, topping the admissions for previous record holder THE HOST. 20th Century Fox says that on Sunday, AVATAR reached 13.01 million admissions, making it the biggest selling film ever in Korea.

AVATAR was already the highest-grossing film ever in Korea, due to its higher tickets prices.

My only caveat is that, according to my records, THE HOST had 13.02 million admissions, so it is possible that AVATAR has a few more tickets to sell. But even if that is the case, it is obvious that AVATAR will set the record in a day or two. (UPDATE: My caveat is moot. KOBIS says that AVATAR hit 13.08 million at the end of Sunday).

What is really amazing to me is that AVATAR’s 13 million admissions is so much higher than the next-closest foreign film, TRANSFORMERS 2, which had only 7.4 million admissions. That means AVATAR is over 75 percent higher than the next-biggest foreign movie.

Kind of sad, really. For years, the top foreign film in Korea was RETURN OF THE KING, which had its problems, but was mostly a good, epic movie. But TRANSFORMERS, TRANSFORMERS 2 and AVATAR? Those are three really crappy movies. I hope a new Korean movie can come along to retake the top spot before too long.

Pop Goes Vietnam

This is kind of random, but a long interview I did with the BBC Vietnam has just been published. In Vietnamese. So if you can read Vietnamese (and, really, who can’t these days?), check it out.

The reasons for the interview are because of the great popularity that Korean TV, music and pop culture is having in Vietnam these days, and to talk about how the lessons of the Korean entertainment industry might be applicable to a place like Vietnam. That second reason in particular was a big motivator for me to write POP GOES KOREA in the first place.

I really believe that in the future, we are going to see more and more local cultures staking out space in the world pop culture scene, much as Korea has done over the past decade. Vietnam still has a long way to go, but I hope they can make it. What a great sign that would be for other countries that worry about their local cultures in the face of the Western entertainment industry.

Pop Goes Vietnam

This is kind of random, but a long interview I did with the BBC Vietnam has just been published. In Vietnamese. So if you can read Vietnamese (and, really, who can’t these days?), check it out.

The reasons for the interview are because of the great popularity that Korean TV, music and pop culture is having in Vietnam these days, and to talk about how the lessons of the Korean entertainment industry might be applicable to a place like Vietnam. That second reason in particular was a big motivator for me to write POP GOES KOREA in the first place.

I really believe that in the future, we are going to see more and more local cultures staking out space in the world pop culture scene, much as Korea has done over the past decade. Vietnam still has a long way to go, but I hope they can make it. What a great sign that would be for other countries that worry about their local cultures in the face of the Western entertainment industry.

Kim Yuna, Olympic Champion

Just a few hours ago, South Korean figure skater Kim Yuna won the gold medal in the women’s figure skating at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. And it truly was a dominating win, with a total score of 228.56, more than 23 points higher than her closest competitor. Just amazing.

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Actually, I just did the math. The women’s freeskate is four minutes, versus 4.5 minutes for the men. So assuming Yuna could keep skating at the high level for another 30 seconds, she could have scored a 168.8 on her freeskate, which would have beaten all of the men. Wow.

As a young person who watched Brian Orser in the Winter Olympics in 1984 and 1988, I can remember those competitions to clearly. So it is kind of wild now to be a small part* of that world, having worked with Yuna and Brian (and David Wilson and their whole crew) over the past year on a documentary. Meeting Brian for the first time I was surprised to feel myself geeking out.

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If you are looking for more information about Kim Yuna, the New York Times has a great look at her triple-triple combination, and NBC had this profile of her.

And you can see the opening five minutes of the program I worked on — Hip Korea: Seoul Spirit, for Discovery Asia — at this Youtube link (sorry, no embedding)

Anyhow, a huge congratulations to Kim Yuna, her family and all the people who worked so hard to make that win happen. It was a great achievement.
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* And by “small”, I mean a very, very tiny part of that world

Kim Yuna Wins

Kim Yuna blew away the competition with a 228.56 for Olympic gold in the women’s figure skating.


Asada Mao was second with 205.50, and Canadian Joannie Rochette was third.

FYI, Yuna’s score would have given her ninth among the Men, which is pretty amazing considering the women’s program is shorter, so has less time to build up points.

More to come. But it is 6am here in Spain and I need to go back to bed.

UPDATE: Okay, it looks like the Olympic Committee is working overtime to prevent people posting videos of the long program. But in the meantime, here is a great video from the New York Times, with Yuna and Brian Orser explaining her Triple-Triple jump combination.

UPDATE 2: Hey, that documentary I worked on — Hip Korea: Seoul Spirit, for Discovery Asia — has a preview up on Youtube (sorry, no embedding).

UPDATE 3: Actually, I just did the math. The women’s freeskate is four minutes, versus 4.5 minutes for the men. So assuming Yuna could keep skating at the high level for another 30 seconds, she could have scored a 168.8 on her freeskate, which would have beaten all of the men. Of course, you cannot compare men’s and women’s programs like that, but it sure is interesting.

Halfway There — Kim Yuna Wins the Short Program

So far, so good for Kim Yuna, who is leading the women’s figure skating competition after the short program. In fact, her 78.50 points is a new world record.

Here is her performance (at least for the moment), with English commentary:

Asada Mao is in second, with 73.78 points, and in third is Canadian Joannie Rochette (whose mother passed away just a few nights ago, giving her a backstory that would make overcoming-tragedy-obsessed producers at NBC actually explode).

I thought I should mention something because a small story like this can slip through the cracks.

FYI, you can see the very good NBC short report on Kim Yuna here.

Anyhow, great for Yuna. Now we are just 40 hours away from the long program and seeing if she can pull off the big prize.

Number Won — Korea Gets a Music Chart

It is long, long overdue, but at last Korea has its music charts back. The Ministry of Culture has put together GAON, an “official” music chart that is going to measure online and offline music sales and put it all together to form a chart of the most popular music in the land.

Music charts in Korea have long had problems. Most notable were the scandals and problems that plagued the TV music charts, on the terrestrial stations and on music video channels. After so many payola investigations and other legal problems, most channels pulled their countdowns for years.

More serious, imho, was the loss of the “official” sales charts. MIAK (the Music Industry Association of Korea) disbanded in 2009, as part of some larger government reorganizations. But even before MIAK was disbanded, it had stopped keeping track of music sales (and even then, they only tracked physical sales, which have lagged behind digital sales in Korea since 2003).

MIAK is supposed to be replaced by the KMCIA, which will include online as well as physical sales. There are no charts at KMCIA yet, but it looks like they are taking steps toward adding CD and online sales charts.

So why care about music charts? Certainly I am not interested in bragging rights between one K-pop band or another. What is important, though, is transparency. Transparency may not be as sexy as Lee Hyori or as flashy as a 2PM dance move, but it is far more important for having a successful pop industry.

Look at Korea’s movie industry, for example. Ten years ago or so, it was really hard to find good information about how movies were doing in Korea. If you saw a chart, it was most likely only for Seoul. Nationwide data came weeks later, if it all, and was pretty unreliable. Theater owners fought for years that their box office data was proprietary and releasing it would put their business in danger. It was against the interest of each individual to release that data.

But guess what, it was in the overall industry’s interest to have that data. Without reliable data, distributors could not be certain how well their films were doing, and therefore how much money they should be making. Poor numbers increase risk, which makes the whole system work much less efficiently.

The Korean government put a real emphasis on improving the quality of box office data, and it is no coincidence that better box office data happened at the same time as overall box office went up up up. And I think it is also no coincidence that lousy numbers in the music industry have gone along with that industry’s decline over the past eight years.

Hopefully, Gaon will work out, and that more reliable information might lay the foundation for better days for the music industry.

Of course, if you want to know more about Korean music, movies, charts and all that fun stuff, you should pick up a copy of POP GOES KOREA.

Kim Yuna, Olympics at Last

Just a few hours now from the women’s figure skating* competition at the Olympics. Which means at long last, we are going to find out if Kim Yuna has what it takes to win the biggest prize in her sport.


As a young person who watched Brian Orser in the Winter Olympics in 1984 and 1988, I can remember those competitions to clearly. So it is kind of wild now to be a small part** of that world, having worked with Yuna and Brian (and David Wilson and their whole crew) over the past year on a documentary. Meeting Brian for the first time I was surprised to feel myself geeking out.


For what it is worth, I can definitely say that all the people on Team Yuna and at the Toronto Cricket Club are some of the nicest, smartest people who I have ever met. Yuna (and her mom) really have created an amazing team to help push her to her goal.

What happens now? Who knows? Yuna has a great chance to make history, but you never know. As Brian pointed out to me, the Olympics often see unexpected skaters rise up and take the gold, because the pressures at this time are unlike anything else, even the ISU’s World Championships. Good luck to her today and Thursday. It should be a great competition.


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* I refuse to call it “ladies’ figure skating”. Seems way too anachronistic to me (not that anyone asked me for my opinion).
** Okay, a very, very small, tiny part of that world.

Avatar Inching Closer to No. 1

James Cameron’s 3D epic AVATAR is moving ever closer to setting the all-time attendance record in Korea. As of Monday, it sat with 12.83 million admissions, good enough for No. 2 all time in Korea. The No. 1 film, THE HOST, is just 190,000 admissions ahead, with 13.02 million. So it is looking increasingly likely that the biggest film ever in Korea is soon going to be a James Cameron film … Which strangely enough was the state of things 10 years ago, when TITANIC was the biggest blockbuster ever in Korea (before SHIRI came along).

FYI, AVATAR has now made 118.7 billion won ($103 million) in Korea.

FYI 2, the Korean film SECRET REUNION (Uihyeongje) is also doing quite well — 3.5 million admissions after three weeks. In fact, three of the top four films were Korean last weekend, so it looks like things are bouncing back after a rough January.

AVATAR Drops Out of First — But Still Eyeing the Record

AVATAR finally slipped out of first place in Korea last weekend (coincidentally the same weekend it dropped out of first in the United States, too). It dropped all the way to third, behind two Korean titles, SECRET REUNION (Uihyeongje) and HARMONY.

But AVATAR is hardly out of gas. It still pulled in over 365,000 admissions, or nearly 4 billion won. That brings James Cameron’s blockbuster up to 11.9 million admissions in Korea. Could it make it to 13 million admissions, beating THE HOST? Possible, although difficult. I guess it depends how much of the Seollal bump it gets, and how much goes to newer movies. Regardless, the film’s 108 billion won ($92 million) is by far a record for box office revenue.


With AVATAR’s dominance in January, Korean movies have had a tough start to the year, taking in just 44 percent of the box office so far. But they should get a good lift this weekend, thanks to the Lunar New Year.

(All stats courtesy of KOBIS, as usual).

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