Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: May 2010 (page 1 of 2)

Musical Notes

A couple of interesting music-related items that I have recently run across. First, there is this amazing essay on songs about Seoul. Apparently there was a special exhibition at the Chunggyecheon Museum (just ending today, terrible timing by me) about some 1,400 pop songs about Seoul that have been recorded over the years. Some interesting tidbits about Patti Kim, Lee Mija and a lot of great singers from the past.

And then there is this interesting video about the Korean singer Hwang Boryung (who also performs as Smacksoft). Bo is a very cool woman and well worth a listen. I do not know Stuart Reece, the video creator, at all (although some Googling reveals that he is a deejay at TBS-eFM), but it seems that he is intending on starting a series about underground music in Seoul. A very promising start. I hope to see more soon.

Seoul Underground: SMACKSOFT from Stuart Reece on Vimeo.

Ha-Ha-Having the Last Laugh

Wow. Hong Sangsoo’s latest film, HA HA HA, has just won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival.

Hong has been to Cannes before, but it always seemed to me that his films usually got some pretty mediocre reviews. I am rather surprised that he pulled off the big win for this year. Good for him.

I have not seen HA HA HA yet. Derek Elley said it was not as good as his last film, SO YOU THINK YOU KNOW IT ALL … but Hong strikes me as one of those directors who is remembered more fondly than he is appreciated. It seems like each new film gets mixed reviews, while the critics claim that his earlier films were better (David Cronenberg is the king of that condition).

Anyhow, big congratulations to Hong. I am looking forward to seeing HA HA HA before too long.

Oh, you can see a trailer (with English subtitles) for his new movie here.

Robots and Maids

The Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (July 15-25) just announced a pretty sweet program in its lineup this summer — a retrospective of eight Gundam movies. In fact, I believe this is the first official screening on all eight films in Korea (as Japanese culture and animation was officially banned in Korea until recently).


Gundam is one of the most famous and popular of the Japanese giant robot series (although I was more of a Robotech geek myself), having started way back in 1979.


PiFan 2010 poster_ lowRes

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In other news, Im Sangsoo’s remake of THE HOUSEMAID had a very strong opening in Korea, with 815,111 admissions (about 6.2 billion won, or $5.4 million). Mirovision is saying that is the biggest opening for any Korean movie so far in 2010.

Considering THE PRESIDENT’S LAST BANG had about 1.1 million admissions, GOOD LAWYER’S WIFE had 633,000 admissions, GIRLS’ NIGHT OUT about 800,000 admissions and THE OLD GARDEN was a total dud, it is safe to say THE HOUSEMAID is going to be Im’s biggest hit.

‘Housemaid’ at Cannes

It seems like most years, Korean films at Cannes come late in the schedule. This year, however, Im Sangsoo’s THE HOUSEMAID was one of the first movies to be screened (you can see the trailer here). Reviews of Im’s remake of the Kim Ki-young classic have been mixed, with the general gist being it is outrageous, full of sex, Jeon Do-yeon is great, the story is a little weak and overwrought. Here is an overview of some of the reviews:

– Derek Elley, Film Biz Asia: Actress Jeon Do-yeon shines in a super-stylish, erotic drama with less depth than it thinks. Robust festival potential, plus decent arthouse chances beyond Asia.

– Maggie Lee, Hollywood Reporter: An operatic, sensuous social satire that dares to be different from the original classic.

– Lee Marshall, Screen International: Tasty, full of black humour, but finally upended by the mannerist games it plays so ably, erotic thriller The Housemaid is a smart but shallow remake of Kim Ki-young’s cult 1960 Korean movie of the same name.

– Justin Chang, Variety (behind a firewall, so no point in linking): Doing an elegant upholstery job on one of the key Korean films of the ’60s, writer-director Im Sang-soo demonstrates an eye for luscious surfaces but fairly ludicrous dramatic instincts in “The Housemaid.” Not just a remake but a wholesale rethink of Kim Ki-young’s deranged black-and-white classic, this high-end softcore thriller is juicily watchable from start to over-the-top finish, but its gleeful skewering of the upper classes comes off as curiously passe, a luxe exercise in one-note nastiness.

USA Today (do not know who wrote it, sorry): The Housemade is 99 percent a solid, sexy thriller. But the audience’s collective reaction to the final two scenes can only be described as: “??????????”

– Jon Frosch, France24: Im pushes the more lurid elements of his story – the sex, the violence – to the extreme; too bad he forgot to make the rest of it matter.

Roger Ebert Barbara Scharres (sorry for that mixup), Suntimes: Today’s biggest treat, hands down, was Im Sang-soo’s “The Housemaid,” a remake of cult director Kim Ki-young’ sizzling 1960 film of the same title. This could be another triumphant year for the Korean cinema at Cannes. “The Housemaid” is a twisty suspense movie that takes its time getting to its shocking, utterly surprising conclusion. Thanks to a tight script, evocative cinematography and production design, and a stunning cast, every minute along the way is enjoyable.

Actually, this is a decent year for Asian films at Cannes, especially Korean films. You can read more about Asian entries here. And I will post more links as I come across them over the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, over at the other blog (cont’d)…

Just a reminder that I am not updating over here much these days. Over at my “real” blog, you can find:

  • Comments about the Seoul not-so-Foreign not-so-Correspondents Club and their latest anti-journalism controversy
  • A new film market in Singapore
  • A bit about the Barcelona Asian Film Festival
  • A round-up of reviews from Cannes for Im Sangsoo’s remake of THE HOUSEMAID (and some other Asian films

  • More Asian Film Markets?

    Strange news today out of Singapore, as the Media Development Authority is announcing plans to start a new film market there in June 2011.

    I say strange because Asia already has Filmart in Hong Kong in March, the Asian Film Market in Busan in October, and TIFFCOM in Tokyo, a couple of weeks after Busan. AFM and TIFFCOM are both rather quiet, and others have tried and failed to launch film markets in the past (most notably Bangkok, which used to have a market in February in the mid-2000s).

    Singapore’s MDA says that it hopes to use the June slot, a month after Cannes, to focus on Southeast Asian countries and to launch Hollywood films in China.

    Of course I wish them well (especially if they want to fly me over to participate). Certainly the MDA has the resources and the ambition to give it a good shot. But it is hard to imagine Asia needed another film market at this point. Especially one at that time of year — half of the big summer films launch in May and June, so really they are left with July and late releases.

    Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club — Not So Big on Journalism

    Now that I have had this confirmed, I would like to say I am appalled by the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club’s latest example of non-journalism — they did indeed turn down a request by their members to have Samsung whistleblower Kim Yong-chul address the Club.

    The SFCC is no stranger to betraying journalistic principles for cowardly political reasons. Back in 2005, it turned down an offer to have the Premiere of Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian, talk to the Club in a video conference call (thanks to the club’s 2nd vice president, a journalist from China). The SFCC members were upset enough they added regulations to the bylaws to prevent that sort of thing from happening again. But I guess Club rules do not count for much.

    Whatever you think of the merits of Kim assertions, his book Think Samsung is a big deal. It has sold over 120,000 copies, despite being almost completely ignored by the local press. Here are the key points from Choe Sang-hun’s article in the New York Times:

    Mr. Kim joined the company in 1997 after making his name as a star prosecutor who investigated the corruption of Chun Doo-hwan, the former military strongman. He became Samsung’s top legal counsel before quitting in 2004. He went public with his allegations of wrongdoing three years later.

    Even for South Koreans accustomed to corruption scandals, his assertions were staggering.

    Mr. Kim accused Mr. Lee and his loyal aides of having stolen as much as 10 trillion won, or $9 billion, from Samsung subsidiaries and stashed it in stock and bank accounts illegally opened in the names of executives.

    The book alleges that they shredded books, fabricated evidence and bribed politicians, bureaucrats, prosecutors, judges and journalists, mainly to ensure that they would not stand in the way of Mr. Lee’s illegal transfer of corporate control to his only son, Lee Jae-yong, 41.

    In his book, Mr. Kim depicts Mr. Lee and “vassal” executives at Samsung as bribing thieves who “lord over” the country, its government and media. He portrays prosecutors as opportunists who are ruthless to those they regard as “dead” powers, like a former president, but subservient to and afraid of Samsung, which he calls the “power that never dies.”

    I cannot imagine this sort of thing happening at the Foreign Correspondent Clubs in Tokyo or Hong Kong.  Those clubs actually look out for the needs of foreign correspondents first and take journalism seriously.  Indeed, local journalists in Japan sometimes use foreign reporters to break news that is considered too sensitive for the local press (especially stories involving the royal family).

    On the plus side, apparently the SFCC members are mostly pretty upset about what happened, so hopefully something will be done. But the SFCC board has done this sort of thing before, and I fear that they will do it again, the next time a difficult topic comes up.

    UPDATE: Looks like some SFCC members are taking things into their own hands and organizing a Kim Young-chul event on their own. Event is supposed to be this Wednesday (May 19)  at 5pm. Email if you would like to attend.

    Random Thoughts II

    – Big congratulations to Film Business Asia on the launch of the phase of their website. There is more news and features than ever, with plenty of room to grow in the future. Creators, Stephen Cremin and Patrick Frater (and new hire Derek Elley) look like they are going to build something really useful and interesting.

    – The Barcelona Asian Film Festival came to close on Sunday. The jury awarded top prize to AU REVOIR TAIPEI, directed by Arvin Chen of Taiwan. Special mention went to AT THE END OF DAYBREAK, by Ho Yuhang (the film apparently hails from Malaysia, Hong Kong, and South Korea).

    The NETPAC Prize award went to BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, by Vimukthi Jayasundara (Sri Lanka, France). The jury also made special mention to the Korean film I AM IN TROUBLE (Nanneu Gonkyeonge Cheohaetda!), by director So Ming Sang.

    Audiences, however, showed very different interests, and the Audience Award went to Munehisa Sakai’s anime ONE PIECE: STRONG WORLD. Second place also went to an anime, Mamoru Hosoda’s SUMMER WARS. Third place went to Bong Joon-ho’s MOTHER.

    – I think INCEPTION is going to be the film that MATRIX 2 should have been (the latest trailer is especially good, now that they are beginning to reveal the plot of the film).

    Filming North Korean Films (Almost)

    Far too little is known about North Korean cinema, which for 60 years has been turning out little-known juche masterpieces. Certainly it is one of my big regrets that I was not able to go to North Korea and visit the Pyongyang film studio myself.

    So it was a treat to discover this short documentary by filmmakers Shane Smith and Eddy Moretti, about their travels to North Korea to film the North’s film industry. And while they did not get to see any movie making, they did get to North Korea’s movie museum and a few sets. Their video is just 23 minutes long, but it is rare to see so much footage from the North, all taken with permission (well, almost all).

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    Hrm, apparently people have been adding more and more videos about North Korea onto Youtube. Many have English subtitles or are English dubs.

    And plenty more at Juche Korea’s Youtube channel.

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    Oh, speaking of North Korean cinema, a couple of months ago, I mentioned that Johannes Schoenherr was writing a series of stories on the subject. Well, he has been keeping at it, and now there are well over 20 articles at the Daily NK.

    Korea Vs. the LA Times

    Very strange post on the LA Times’ Big Picture movie blog (thanks to The Marmot for finding this) — it talks about why Korea is getting IRON MAN 2 before Japan, saying that it is mostly because of Korea’s high rates of online piracy.


    I say strange because I have no idea why Korea is getting singled out. IRON MAN 2 was released in over 50 territories last weekend, all over the world. Day-and-date releases from Hollywood are increasingly the norm, and have been unremarkable for quite some time.

    Big Hollywood films, especially those released in the May-June area, have usually been released in Korea at the same time as in the United States for years now. Korea usually saves up its big blockbusters for later in the summer, in July and August, often causing Hollywood films to move their opening dates to avoid the biggest Korean films then. But May is the biggest time of the year for Hollywood in Korea.

    That said, even films that get a delayed release can do well. MAMMA MIA! was released in Korea two months after it was in the United States and much of the West, but it made $25 million in Korea and was the fifth-biggest film of 2008. Sure, Korea has a lot of online and offline piracy, but perhaps the situation is more nuanced (and profitable) than some people would like to bellyache.

    I especially dislike media executives complaining about online piracy without any comment about what their RESPONSIBILITIES are. Like they can hold on to their movies, music, TV shows or whatever and release them whenever they want. Sorry, but this is the Internet age, and if you do not give customers a fair chance to buy your content, they are not going to wait patiently for you to release something when you feel like it. Yes, consumers need to respect copyright. But producers also have a responsibility to make sure their content is available in a timely, convenient manner.

    The LA Times would have been much better off asking the more interesting question — Why is Japan still releasing so many movies so much later than the rest of the world? The Japan market is the unusual one that needs an explanation, not Korea.

    (And in case you are interested, the reason Hollywood films are released so much later in Japan has more to do with its tricky theatrical market than its respect for copyrights. In Japan, it can be hard to book screens, hard to market movies, there is relatively low theatrical attendance for the country’s population, high ticket prices and a whole host of difficulties.)

    (Note: Cross-posted at Korea Pop Wars).

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