Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: July 2011

Once a Year, Whether We Need It or Not…

Well, it has been over a year since I last made a post around here. I’m still around at on occasion, and the Korea Gig Guide is doing better than ever. Feel free to check them out, if you are in the mood. And hopefully we will have some news about a new book before much longer…

$100 Million Korean War Movie

UPDATE: The LA Times movie blog has more about Cohen’s plans and the movie here.
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Wow, some ambitious plans coming from CJ E&M Pictures (until recently CJ Entertainment) — they have tapped Rob Cohen, director of FAST AND THE FURIOUS, to helm a 1950, a $100-million movie about the Korean War. That’s rather impressive.

Most importantly, the story looks pretty interesting, too, based on the life of the famous New York Herald Tribune journalist Marguerite Higgins. After reporting on WWII, Higgins was sent to Tokyo in the late 1940s. So when the Korean War started, she flew over right away to cover the fall of Seoul. Soon after that, the Tribune’s star war reporter (Homer Bigart) arrived to cover the war and tried to send Higgins back to Japan, but she refused to go, and the two competed for stories. Then McArthur tried to ban women from reporting on the front lines, but she changed his mind. She would write WAR IN KOREA in 1951 and won a Pulitzer Prize.


Higgins died in 1966 when she was just 45 years old, covering the war in Vietnam.


The Film Biz Asia story says they are looking for a big Hollywood name to play Higgins and the marine platoon leader, and a major Korean actor will play a KATUSA (Korean soldier assigned to the US Army).

The film will end with the famous Christmas Eve evacuation of 100,000 Korean civilians from the Port of Hungnam in northern Korea, as North Korean and Chinese troops were moving in. This is quite an interesting place to end, as for years Cineclick Asia was trying to make a $20-million movie about that battle, called CHRISTMAS CARGO. At one point they had Terence Chang on board to produce and Bruce Beresford to direct, but I guess that project fell apart (as so many do).

Fuji Rocks, Going Strong

A fun article in the Japan Times last week about Masahiro Hidaka, the founder of the great Fuji Rock music festival.

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Meanwhile, my friend Shawn has a great article in the Japan Times about Shonen Knife, probably the most famous Japanese indie band in the West. Hard to imagine that they have been going strong for three decades now.

Shin Joong-hyun Boxset Coming

At long last, it looks like a music company is coming out with a (legitimate) CD compilation for Shin Joong-hyun. Light in the Attic Records is presenting Beautiful Rivers And Mountains: The Psychedelic Rock Sound Of South Korea’s Shin Joong Hyun 1958-74, apparently coming out on Sept. 24. But 14 songs with big liner notes, it looks like a real winner.

I’m just curious about the quality of the recordings on this. Most of the CDs issued of Shin’s music (and the other music on that period) have been terribly remastered, with low sound quality and often at the wrong speed. Even the big 10-CD Shin Joong-hyun Anthology boxset was rather substandard.

Although I must say, the presence of my Wall Street Journal article in the center of the liner notes to Shin’s Anthology is probably one of the proudest parts of my quasi-journalism career.

Cool Stuff from DJ Soulscape

DJ Soulscape has apparently started blogging in English, contributing to the Egotripland website. There are only a few posts so far, but articles include Soulscape’s new record store (in the same building as his studio in Seoul) and Kim Wan Sun performing live in 1987 (which I do believe Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling has posted before, but it is still good).

Blockbusters, Korean Movies and More

– Kim Kiduk is pissed off. Again. This time, he sent out a press release for POONGSAN (which he wrote and produced), complaining about how hard it is for different kinds of films to get screens in Korea, which tend to be dominated by blockbusters (sorry, no link… but I have been looking for one).

Which is true enough … although I notice that this sort of rant rarely talks about the responsibility a filmmaker has to audiences, to make something they might want to see. Or the responsibility of audiences to see non-blockbusters. If there were hordes of people pushing to get into indie films, which were being forced out of theaters while still doing good business, then I would be much more sympathetic. But if a theater owner can make X dollars with an indie film, and 10X with a blockbuster, why should the owner take a loss? Just to make Kim Kiduk and other self-important artistes feel better? That’s culture?

Ezra Pound had a great quote:

Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance… poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music

And I think there is a similar delicacy to movies. They atrophy when they get too far from the dance. They might be a slow dance, a tango, a Lindy Hop or a late-night techno crunk, but they still dance.

(Of course, everything atrophies when it gets too close to money, so the opposite is not great either).

– Anyhow, I think my point is, if people are not enjoying the art you think they should, maybe you should do something about it, rather than just complain. Get aggressive with social media and personal marketing. If audiences don’t “get” your film, engage and work with them, help show them what there is to get.

Or turn to writing or comics (much cheaper than making movies). But if you want to spend millions of dollars to tell a story and it is not your money, don’t be surprised if people get all money-minded.

I also hate it when indie musicians complain about not being well supported in Korea, but then do precious little to make the scene better. They sit around complaining about how everyone else is failing, but do not take charge of their own lives and careers. Happily, though, that is beginning to change, and I think a lot of bands are being a lot more active about promoting themselves, getting better, and building the scene.

– After being out about a month, TRANSFORMERS 3: DAFT SIDE OF THE LOON looks like it is following the last two Transformers movies, making oodles of money at the box office in Korea. TRANSFORMERS was the top foreign film ever in Korea when it came out, with 7.3 million admissions. TRANSFORMERS 2 did slightly better with 7.4 million. And now, TRANSFORMERS 3 has 6.9 million admissions and is still going strong (637,000 admissions last weekend). So I think it has a very good chance of overtaking both of its predecessors.

(Of course, AVATAR kicked everyone’s butts last year, topping 13 million admissions and becoming the biggest film ever in Korea).

– HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 2 did okay in Korea, in its debut weekend, with 1.7 million admissions — okay, but not great. But whenever a HARRY POTTER film comes out, I always remember what it was like when the first one was released. I was working at the JoongAng Ilbo at the time, and when a reporter asked about the title, I thought it best to go with the story’s original title: HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE. Turns out Warner Bros. hated that (they wanted the American dummy title, THE SORCERER’S STONE), and yelled at the reporter. A lot.

HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS was really huge, but standards have really changed since then. It opened on 295 screens, about a third of all the screens in Korea then — today, there are around 2,000 screens, and big openings can get up to 900 screens. CHAMBER OF SECRETS was the biggest opening weekend Korea had ever seen then … with 1 million admissions. Today, plenty of films have opened to over 2 million.

The first two Potter films had around 4 million admissions (if I recall correctly), but since then, the others have been in the 2-3 million admission range.

– I’m pretty ambivalent about DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 2, for what it’s worth. Yes, I was one of the lemmings that saw it opening weekend. It was definitely the most action-filled of the Potter films. And the CGI was really impressive — at times, even beautiful. The contrast between it and the first couple of Potter films is incredible (with their second-rate effects, bad child actors and really dull direction). But despite all its good points, I can barely remember DEATHLY HALLOWS 2. And at its core, HP is yet another “chosen one”, might-makes-right superhero story, far more American than British (despite the public school trappings). And it makes me want to re-read the original BOOKS OF MAGIC miniseries.

– The Korean film SUNNY is still chugging along, doing impressive business. It opened May 4, but it is still in third place, with 6.9 million admissions. But of course I have not had a chance to see it, so I don’t have any real opinions about it.

– Oh, POONGSAN has had nearly 700,000 admissions since its release on June 23, in case you are interested.

Ethnic Music in China

There’s an interesting article in the New York Times about ethnic music in China, and the difficulties China’s 100 million minorities face. Colorful, traditional performances are usually okay, even embraced by authorities, but songs that threaten the status quo can create difficulties for performers.

“About 80 percent of my songs are about hardship,” said Aojie a Ge, a Beijing-based musician from the Yi minority of southwest China. “But can I perform these songs? Of course not. I still need to survive.”


And I quite liked this part of the story:

The son of a cow herder and member of the tiny Buyi minority, Xiao Budian left home on his 19th birthday, spending his high school tuition fees on a one-way train ticket to Beijing. “I wanted to see what was on the other side of the mountain,” he said.

Mr. Xiao initially lived with his older brother, a rock musician who had amassed a collection of foreign music and movies during his years in the capital. One day, Mr. Xiao heard Bob Dylan singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” in a documentary about World War II. “It was so simple, just a voice, a guitar and a harmonica,” he said. “But its power was tremendous. It was like an atom bomb.”

Xiao’s story reminds me of Hahn Daesoo and the other Korean rockers of the 1970s who tried to use music to fight against the authoritarian government of the day. It’s funny how something so seemingly unimportant as music can hack off the powers that be so effectively and so often. I tend to be rather pessimistic about China, but stories like that one gives me hope.

Asian Film Fest, Transformers, and Less

– Amazing to see that the New York Asian Film Festival is 10 years old already. And ever better to see the fest getting such strong reviews in the mainstream press. A key quote:

But whatever it lacks in red carpets and seafood towers, it makes up for in the quality, quantity and variety of films. As it celebrates its 10th year with a program of 40 features, showing Friday through July 14 at the Walter Reade Theater and Japan Society, it’s time to acknowledge that this outsider actually belongs in the top tier of New York’s film festivals, next to some very serious, very inside gatherings.

– What is there to say about TRANSFORMERS 3? Everyone knows it is going to be bad and everybody knows it will also be spectacular. And T3 is definitely the most bad and most spectacular of the series. Once again, Michael Bay presents a world where everyone — young people, adults, robots — act like 20-year-old coke-heads. Basically, it is the cultural equivalent of sucking down too much Slushee (or frozen Margarita) too fast.

But all things considered, T3 is the worst of the bunch — surprisingly humorless and murderous. TRANSFORMERS 1 had the advantage of novelty: it was amazing to see giant cgi robots that felt so heavy. TRANSFORMERS 2 was terrible, but for reasons I cannot explain, I found it mildly amusing and did not hate life when I left the theater. But TRANNY 3 is just terrible, with the deaths of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) casually ignored, and all the “heroes” grimly promising to kill their foes throughout the film.

(Well, there are at least two Spock-related jokes, included because the main new robot is voiced by Leonard Nimoy… they are kind of witty, I guess).

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