Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: August 2013 (page 1 of 2)

Oh Say Can You CNBC?

Hey, looks who is on TV!

I was interviewed by CNBC for a little segment on Korean pop culture. I appear around the 90 second mark. It was not too exciting, but at least international media are trying to understand what is going on in Korea.

Btw, there are more concerts and good things listed over at the Korea Gig Guide.


Morning links

  • I had no idea Yeomni-dong (not far from Shinchon in Seoul) was such a crime-ridden area. I used to live close to there. (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • Korea’s organized crime targeting … universities? (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • A summary of the weekend’s hip hop “wars” in Korea (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • 3,000 Koreans living in Mongolia these days as Mongolian economy and Korean investment there keeps climbing (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • It’s always nice reading sensible thoughts on the Korea-Japan relationship (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • The second KCON (or K-pop convention) was held in Los Angeles last weekend (LA Times)
  • I always hate to see schools restricting access to books. In Japan, 39 schools have restricted access to Barefoot Gen, a famous graphic novel about surviving the Hiroshima nuclear bomb (Japan Times and here). The classic comic book just turned 40 in June (Japan Times).


Morning Links

  •  The Hankyoreh, with yet another really good story, has a look at laws in Korea that discriminate against people with physical and mental handicaps. Points out that things have gotten a lot better than a few years ago, but there is still a lot of prejudice and sloppily written laws.
  • Hong Sang-soo won the director prize at the Locarno Film Festival (Chosun Ilbo)
  • Prostitution and drug abuse rising in North Korea as the government loses control of areas. (Chosun Ilbo). As with all North Korea stories, please read with a bit of skepticism. But this line did amuse me:
Virginity is a prerequisite for the song-and-dance troupes who entertain the North Korean dictator, and the defector said officials had a hard time finding any virgins.
  • Japan’s movie box office is about twice as big as Korea’s, but the health of its local movie scene is quite different. Take a look at the top four domestic movies in each country for the first half of 2013.

Japan 2013 (via Film Business Asia):

  1. One Piece Film Z — ¥6.85 billion (US$69.6 million)
  2. Doraemon: Nobita’s Secret Gadget Museum — ¥3.96 billion yen (US$40.4 million)
  3. Detective Conan Private Eye — ¥3.61 billion (US$36.8 million)
  4. Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods — ¥3 billion (US$30.6 million)

Korea 2013 (via KOBIS):

  1. Miracle in Cell 7 — 91.4 billion won (US$82 million)
  2. The Berlin File — 52.4 billion won (US$46.8 million)
  3. Secretly, Greatly — 48.7 billion won (US$43.5 million)
  4. The New World — 34.9 billion won (US$31.1 million)

In Japan, the top four are all animated movies, and all films geared toward children. In Korea, the top four are all live-action, geared toward young adults and adults.


Vinyl Underground

I love finding dingy old LP bars.


This is Old Music, located across the street from the Jongno District Office. Tiny, incredibly musty, nothing on the menu but beer and whisky, but a very good vinyl collections. The owner tells me it has been around about 10 years and occasionally gets folks from the nearby embassies.

Seoul From on High

Yesterday Seoul had perhaps the clearest skies I’ve seen since returning to Korea. From my office in the west of Seoul, I could see Mount Gwanak in the south and apartment complexes from all over the city. There were some great clouds, too.

My office is pretty high up, but the windows are tinted, so you cannot really take decent photos from inside. But then I realized that the building has a helicopter pad on the roof. So I headed up and tried taking some photos from there.

First I went up in the middle of the afternoon. Here’s a pic looking west. You can see Banghwa Bridge far off on the left, and Ilsan to the distance, slightly to the right:

Later, I went up around sundown, when the magic hour was turning the city orange:

And here’s the view to the east. You can see the new high-rises at Hapjeong, then Yeouido behind them, and in the distance Mount Gwanak:

The same view, but a bit further back with the helicopter pad in view:

Then I tried out the panorama setting on my Galaxy S3 camera. There’s a few wonky stitches, but overall I thought it looked pretty good:

Argh. This blog format doesn’t allow me to throw in extra-wide images. Need to find a good place to show off these panoramas…

Legatum Institute: Korea

A year ago, the very nice people at the Legatum Institute invited me to join their summer program, a week long retreat in Italy. It was pretty amazing, talking about the world and the rise and fall of nations, and grandiose things like that with people like Vali Nasr, John Hale, Robert Kagan, Anne Applebaum, Robert Shafer, and Lucie Spickova (and many, many more).

But the real focus of the Legatum Institute isn’t randomly holding events in Italy. The institute is more about sponsoring research and hosting programs for advancing freedom and prosperity around the world. Probably their signature project is the annual Prosperity Index, which tries to quantify the idea of prosperity and rank all the countries around the world.

Which is why I am so happy to announce that I have just made a small contribution to Legatum’s Prosperity project — a country report on South Korea, called “Ready for Prime Time.” My report focuses on Korean culture and soft power and how its successes has helped reshape Korea, making it a more confident and prosperous nation.

It’s pretty cool to be able to add my name to the Legatum’s list of contributors. Past reports have been written by people like James Robinson (who co-wrote Why Nations Fail with Daron Acemoglu) — his essay on Colombia, “The Orangutan in a Tuxedo,” was excellent.

I should add a thanks to everyone at Legatum, for inviting me to the first event and for asking me to write this new report. And to Peter Passell, my editor, who always makes my writing 137 percent better. And an extra thanks goes to Jeff Gedmin, the president of the institute, for being behind it all.

Morning Links

  • Moon So-young takes a great look at new Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art in Seoul, with architect Mihn Hyun-jun (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • Beer popsicles! Beer ice cream. And plenty of craft beers. (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • A look at one of the Han River rescue teams responsible for a 22km stretch of the river that contains 15 bridges. The team responds to 774 suicide attempts and drownings last year — saving 258 people and stopping another 185. Still, that’s a lot of suicides. (Hankyoreh)
  • Enjoying the hot weather? I hope so because the Korea Meteorological Administration says it is going to stick around until Chuseok — that’s Sept. 19 this year. Which I suppose means we’ll have snow by Oct. 1. (Chosun Ilbo)
  • This is the first Gwangbokjeol (Independence Day) I’ve ever spent in Korea so close to the Japanese Embassy. As of 9am, there were plenty of police everywhere, with all the side alleys and roads around the embassy closed off. Could be exciting.
And in movie news:
  • The summer may be mostly over (especially for Hollywood), but the competition at the Korean box office is ramping up, as two big films were released yesterday for Gwangbokjeol. Kim Sung-soo’s first movie in a decade, The Flu, is the new No. 1, with 306,000 admissions yesterday. Hide and Seek was second with 294,000 admissions. (All stats from KOBIS)
  • Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer fell to third with 200,000. It’s now at 7.1 million admissions and 51 billion won ($45.6 million).
  • The top four films in Korea yesterday were all Korean. Then the next six were all animated films (Japanese and Western). No live-action Hollywood movies in top 10.
  • So far this year, Korean films have had 56.3% of box office. 40.3% for Hollywood. Nearly 1% for Japan.
  • Lee Young-ae goes from JSA to the DMZ (Chosun Ilbo).


One of my favorite groups these days is the Japandroids. I caught them live three years ago at the Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona and loved their show. And Celebration Rock was a great, great rock album (and one of the best rock albums in ages).

Japandroids drummer David Prowse was nice enough to respond to some questions I posed, which I used for a story at the Korea JoongAng Daily and then posted in full at the Korea Gig Guide. Please, check it out. Then head to City Break on Sunday for a great show.


Morning Links

And in non-Snowpiercer things:
  • Choe Sang-hun takes a fun look at K-pop hagwon in the New York Times. As long as kids treat the schools like a hobby — like taekwondo, say — they seem fine to me.
  • Korea’s Bodhisattva in Pensive Pose (National Treasure No. 83) is heading to the Metropolitan Museum in New York after all. The new head of the Cultural Heritage Administration had vetoed a decision to include it in the exhibition, and the Met was kind of threatening to cancel the exhibition without it (Korea Joongang Daily).
  • These tourism trains look like they could be fun, traveling into Korea’s mountains (Korea Joongang Daily).
  • A preview of Kim Sung-soo’s new film, The Flu (Korea Joongang Daily again). It comes out Wednesday.


More Snowpiercer, and Other Things

I’ve been thinking more about Snowpiercer over the past few days, wondering why I had the reaction I did to the film. And I’m beginning to think it might be a comic book thing.

I’ve only glanced at the comic, Le Transperceneige (in Korean translation), not read it in detail, but I get the sense that it was a dark, more horrific story. With black-and-white, high-contrast art, the comic feels very stylized and ominous.

Oh, once again, SPOILERS.

You can do things in comics that are much harder to pull off in film. World-building is easier, as the reader can fill in more details mentally than movie audiences can. Especially for darker-toned works, comics allow for some striking symbolism and contrasts that don’t always work in a movie.

So, when you see the cockroach grinder … in the comics, I could imagine it being a really striking revelation. But in the movie, it just seemed silly. Same thing with the children in the engine — I could imagine it looking grandly terrible in the comic, whereas in the movie, I was just thinking, “That’s kind of dumb.”

As for monologues and exposition, they can be presented very differently in a comic. Reading text is just another way of telling the story in a comic, and it can be quite compelling. In a movie, it grinds the story to a halt.

And, of course, there is size. At around 252 pages, Le Transperceneige was not huge, but that’s about the equivalent of 11 or 12 regular comic books, which is bigger than a two-hour movie can hold. I’m sure Bong Joon Ho had to make a lot of cuts and changes to turn that story into Snowpiercer.

Bong’s movie is his movie, it was not the comic book. That’s fine. But a lot of the choices he made were sloppy, and some of the more ridiculous parts of the graphic novel seem really over-the-top in a film. Sorry, but for me it just did not work.

Look at Watchmen, which was as close to a frame-by-frame adaption of a comic book as anyone has ever done, but totally rang false as a movie (well, except Persepolis, which was wonderful).

Feel free to pick up Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for a great explanation of how comics work and what makes them unique. Much better than anything I could write.

Some other things:

  • Snowpiercer had 368,000 admissions Friday to bring its total to 5.2 million (that’s 37.2 billion won). That is 41% drop from last Friday.
  • Terror Live had 252,000 admissions to bring its total to 3 million. Terror Live dropped just 24% from last Friday. It will be very interesting to see how both films are doing in a couple of weeks, as their audiences drop and The Flu joins the fray.
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