Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: August 2010

Leisurely Times in Chuncheon

I am spending a quiet couple of days just outside of Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, for the World Leisure Congress, the biannual meeting of the World Leisure Organization. And I must say, the hotel at the Elysian Condominium in Gangchon is pretty leisurely.

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There are seminars each day about various aspects of leisure culture (such as sports, tourism and health), and I have been invited to speak here, about leisure and art. Hard to believe that workaholic Korea is hosting a global gathering about leisure, but I guess that is symbolic of the changes Korea has been going through over the past decade or so — less about work, and more about life and lifestyle.

Since we are close to Chuncheon, I am going to try to use Hong Sangsoo’s THE TURNING GATE (much of which took place here) as a point of reference for some of my speech. No idea if this is going to work, but I am somewhat hopeful.

I have not been to this part of Korea in years, so it is nice to be here. Actually, this summer has turned into a bit of a countryside experience, with trips to Jisan Valley (for the rock festival), Chungcheong Province and Jeolla Province (including my first trip to the Damyang bamboo forest).

Anyhow, I just hope I can get back to Seoul before Typhoon Kompasu arrives. Yikes. I do not think a typhoon would be a leisurely experience at all.

Kim Yuna and Brian Orser Split

Some sad news coming from Toronto today, as apparently Kim Yuna has parted ways with her former coach Brian Orser. This story keeps evolving, as various parties say/leak things to the press, but here is a good overview of the story, along with AT Sports’ rebuttal here. AT Sports official comment is here. And this blog post by Tony Wheeler is pretty helpful, too.

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(Of course Toronto’s local media has some coverage, too, but they really could have used more comment from AT Sports or someone from Yuna’s camp. Similarly, the Korean coverage really needs some input from Brian’s side).

At first, I was thinking that some of the drama was just typical media overhype, but then Yuna made this rather emotional tweet:

Would you please stop to tell a lie, B? I know exactly what’s going on now and this is what I’ve DECIDED.

She immediately took down the comment (or maybe it was a hacked comment… I am told that happens on Twitter), but this is the Internet and once things get out, they stay out. Anyhow, it looks like there are some hurt feelings and poor communication going around.

(UPDATE: Someone has just translated Yuna’s comments on her Cyworld page. They seem somewhat more moderate than the Twitter comment, basically saying that she is disappointed Brian or whoever took this to the press.)

I think it is worth remembering that athletes change coaches with some frequently, and often they just need a change. And Yuna and her team originally approached David Wilson to work on her choreography, while Brian was brought in a few months later — maybe that does not mean anything, but I think it shows perhaps who they feel closer to.

Although I worked on the Kim Yuna program on Discovery, I do not have any unique insights into what happened. I really enjoyed the opportunity to get to know Yuna and her team, along with Brian and David and everyone. They obviously did some amazing things together, and even if they are not working together anymore, I hope they patch things up soon.

The Devil From Nowhere

So I have seen both of the big new thrillers, Lee Jeong-beom’s THE MAN FROM NOWHERE (aka Ajeosshi) and Kim Jee-woon’s I SAW THE DEVIL. Both are silly, ultra-violent revenge thrillers, but despite their apparent similarities, the they could not feel more different.

AJEOSSHI is a ridiculous film that takes great liberties with logic and physics, but at times was good fun (the fight scenes in particular). It is the story of a mysterious loner (played by Won Bin) who gets sucked into a war with a crime syndicate after his neighbor steals some drugs. Nothing makes much sense in the movie, and the whole film is basically an excuse for Won Bin, a quiet guy who is really a superagent with a secret past, to go Jason Bourne on some very bad people.

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Most of the fight scenes are well done, and a couple times the director suddenly seemed inspired and broke out the creative camera work (I quite liked a tracking shot as Won Bin jumped through a third-storey window). Thai actor Thanayong Wongtrakul has a good presence and handles his action duties really well (although, like much else in the movie, his character does not really make much sense). I do not understand all the praise Won Bin has gotten for his acting in this movie; he is okay but nothing special. His abs look good when he shaves his head, which I think is the important thing.

I SAW THE DEVIL is much darker than AJEOSSHI, and about as violent as a movie can get. It has some inspired moments, too, but the whole film is turned up to 11, and when it gets silly, it gets really silly. Gyeong-cheol (Choi Min Shik) is a brutal serial killer/rapist who murders the fiance of Su-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun), so Su-hyeon decides to take his revenge on the killer.

The opening 10 minutes or so make the film look like it is going to be a fantastic horror film, as Kim Jee-woon builds a dark, terrifying mood. But then Kim goes too far, and the music builds and builds into mawkish melodrama — and then, just when he has gone too far, someone drops the box containing the head of Su-hyeon’s fiance, it bounces out of the box and rolls across the ground by his feet. While hundreds of photojournalists snap away. Seriously. You will laugh, but the scene is not really meant to be funny.

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For the first hour, DEVIL unfolds just about exactly how you expect it would. Except it is happening way too quickly, and by the one-hour point, Su-hyeon is where you think the movie should end. But it does not end, and suddenly takes a very surprising and odd turn.

Like AJEOSSHI, DEVIL has some great sequences. Really, some of Kim’s best. The big two action scenes are incredibly engaging and fun (if that is the right word for a film this dark). The second big action scene in particular is great and you think the movie is over — but it is not done. Somehow, the bad guy gets away and the film continues on for another 30 silly, dreary minutes.

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Do not expect any psychology here. Gyeong-cheol is just an evil, killing machine who cannot control himself for five minutes. How he got to be middle-aged, I have no idea. In fact, a whole bevy of murders turn up throughout the movie (was there a convention going on?) without any explanation. The police are especially useless. Female characters exist only to be raped and killed. In fact, there is a strange fixation on sexuality in general, with a porn-watching criminal and a slutty cannibal (although the cannibalism was deleted from the official cut, you can figure out where it was pretty easily).

DEVIL is also unbelievable and excessive to the extreme. A character gets his Achilles tendon severed, but continues walking (just with a limp). Gyeong-cheol is somewhere between Jason of Friday the 13th and the Terminator. Blood flows and gushes and pops and sprays in endlessly inventive and gory ways (director Kim is incredibly creative in this regard, and there are times you will admire the carnage, if you can stomach it).

It is strange, then, given how similar the two movies are in so many ways, how differently they feel. AJEOSSHI is basically a feel-good superhero movie. DEVIL is dark, dark, dark, so much so it often becomes comic. Audiences seem to be having the same reaction — last weekend, DEVIL opened in No. 2 with just over 4 billion won; AJEOSSHI, in its second week, held onto the No. 1 spot, with 5.9 billion won, bringing its total to 18 billion.

(Incidentally, INCEPTION continues to kick butt in Korea. It was third last weekend, adding 3.2 billion won to bring its one-month total to 35.7 billion won).

UPDATE: In response to the request in the comment below, I should mention that both Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-shik give very strong performances in DEVIL. Lee is particular is very subtle and does a great job, although the film did not give him that much to do — most of the time his character is very passive and lurking, tracking Choi. His character is quite enigmatic and his feelings and thoughts are not well explained. But Lee does very well with what little he has to work with, deepening a thin character.

Choi has the much bigger role, and by nature it is a scenery-chewer — and in general, Choi has always been great at diving into a role and making it bigger-than-life. I am tempted to say Choi overdoes it in DEVIL, but that is the point of the character, isn’t it?

So high marks to both actors, especially Lee. And most of the individual sequences in DEVIL are excellent — really, when director Kim wants to evoke horror or be funny or have action, he nails it. The problems with the film are mostly in the story itself, which is sloppy, inconsistent and very ugly.

Oh, and the link in the second comment goes to the English translation of a good interview with LBH in 10 ASIA magazine (the very good TV and entertainment magazine run by the charming Una Baek).

Fashion Icon Andre Kim Passes Away

As you have probably heard, one of Korea’s most famous fashion designers Andre Kim (born Kim Bongnam) has passed away. There are many stories on the Internet, including this one and this one. Some pictures of Andre here.

For years, Andre was best known to too many people for his strange personal style, in the big white outfit with the painted-on hair. (I quite like this photo, showing Andre shopping at a silk shop):

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But in fact, back in the 1960s and ’70s, he was a rather dashing dude. Plus his clothes were great.
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For the past 20 years or so, Andre concentrated on a pretty ornate, spectacular style:
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But, while always somewhat theatrical, Andre’s fashions started out much more reserved. If you want to get a sense of what his fashions were like originally, here is a video from 1963 featuring a fashion show of his in the Bando Hotel (starts about halfway through).

– Here is an Andre Kim fashion show from Christmas 1964 (it is the whole video).

In this video of a Pierre Cardin fashion show from 1981, you can see Andre himself, still looking elegant, sitting with Patti Kim at around the 15 second point.

– Here is an Andre Kim show from 1987. By this point, he had discovered his signature white, puffy outfit (at 43 sec).

(Btw, I could only get those videos to play on Firefox).

Anyhow, very sorry to hear about Kim’s passing. He was a really important figure in Korea’s fashion and art world for a long, long time.

UPDATE: I just found Antti Leppanen’s old post about Andre Kim. Great post! Lots of information about why Andre changed his name (two times) and his role in the Shindonga “clothing lobby” scandal of 1999.

The Devil You Know

The Korean press is reporting I SAW THE DEVIL just passed the KMRB. It will appear in theaters in a couple of days with an 18 rating. It took three tries to get passed by the KMRB, but no one I knew related to the movie seemed worried at all. From what people tell me, this was Kim Jee-woon’s “last hurrah” before going to Hollywood, so he just wanted to have a good time and make a crazy film that he would like. Hopefully I will see it Thursday, and will report what I think asap.

UPDATE: Film Business Asia is reporting that Kim Jee-woon had to delete 7 minutes to make 7 cuts of footage (Film Biz Asia corrected their story) to get the okay from the KMRB. That is pretty big. I assume that Toronto will get the no-cut version when the film makes its international premiere there next month. I wonder what version will be released on DVD.

Memories of Alias

That rumor going around, that JJ Abram will produce Bong Joon-ho’s first Hollywood movie (after SNOW PIERCER)? Not true, say my sources.

Will We See the Devil?

So, Kim Jee-woon’s new film, I SAW THE DEVIL, has gotten slapped with the prohibitive “restricted” rating by the Korea Media Ratings Board. In effect, it means the film cannot be shown in Korea (well, it can be shown, but only in a few special locations, so it is a de facto ban). Not a huge deal, though, as the filmmakers have another week to re-edit and get a more acceptable rating.

But it is annoying, not least because it has forced the producers to cancel all the premiere screenings that were going to be held later today (Thursday). As the film stars Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-shik, it has the potential to be one of the biggest movies of the year, so canceling the screenings is a pretty big inconvenience. Hopefully things will work out over the next few days.

Like a lot of Korean thrillers these days, DEVIL features a lot of ultra-violence. But apparently the eating-human-flesh thing was too much for the KMRB. As is normal for Korea’s soft and mushy censorship system, the reasoning is vague — “destroying human dignity” is how I think you would translate it. Lord forbid the standards were actually measurable in some way. If the KMRB had a less subjective ratings system, it could help avoid these sorts of embarrassing situations. Or, better yet, the KMRB could just stop treating Korean citizens like children and let people here judge for themselves what they want to watch.

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(Note: I originally wrote a stronger post that was probably premature. So I took it down and put this one up instead. Will wait and see what the KMRB does before writing any more about this).

Jisan Valley, Korea Times, Woodstock — The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Three separate little stories for you, using the old The Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme.

First, the Good, which was the Jisan Valley Rock Festival. I was there on Friday and had quite a good time. The concert site is pretty far from Seoul, but it is a very picturesque location, nestled between the hills at a ski resort.

3rd Line Butterfly played soon after I got there, and were their usual solid selves (although 3:40pm and in sunshine is not really their ideal slot). Martina Topley-Bird was really good — a wonderful voice and delightful stage presence.

After enjoying the excellent Belle & Sebastian, I found a good seat at the back, by the food stalls but with a good view of the stage, and basically sat there for the rest of the evening. But I am old, so unapologetic about being lazy.

Anyhow, Jisan is clearly the top music festival in Korea now, in term of acts, professionalism, turnout and general ambiance. There is a decent write-up about how Jisan went over here.

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The Bad would be the Korea Times, for adding two paragraphs to my big feature on the Korean entertainment industry without asking or informing me (the third-last and last graphs in the main story). Thanks a lot. Is basic courtesy too much to ask for from an editor?

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As for the Ugly, that would be the unsurprising demise of the Peace in the DMZ concert. Just days before it was to start, organizers announced it was being canceled. The only thing I find surprising is that it took the organizers so long to announce what everyone had long suspected.

Peace in the DMZ had faced a lot of troubles from the beginning. They lost a couple of big investors when Artie Kornfeld told them they could not use “Woodstock” in the name of the festival (which, given that the organizer called itself Woodstock Korea and used the Woodstock URL, they apparently really wanted to use). The lineup of bands was a strange jumble that did not really make sense together. But I do find it amazing that in 2010, we are still having this basic, ugly concert problems in Korea.

Now the big question is, will Kanye West really be performing at the Summer Week&T concert in Naksan Beach this weekend? He is still listed on the posters and website, but there is no signs of any mention on Kanye West’s websites, Myspace page, Facebook page, etc. Hopefully it is just an oversight. I find it hard to believe that SK Telecom (a cosponsor of Summer Week&T) would attach their name to an event that misleads about its lineup.

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