Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

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Ode to My Father – English subtitles

Just a little fyi, there are still a few CGV theaters showing the latest big hit, Ode to My Father, with English subtitles. CGV’s website is a bit tough to negotiate for non-Korean speakers, so, if you’d like to check out the fifth-biggest Korean movie of all time:

CGV Yeouido

  • Jan. 21 at 7pm
  • Jan. 24 at 5:40pm

CGV Yongsan

  • Jan. 22 at 8:25pm
  • Jan. 25 at 8:35pm

CGV Shinchon Artreon

  • Jan. 21 at 7:45pm


(HT: Hamel)


Changsin-dong in winter

Just a few pics from Changsin-dong, just to the north of Dongdaemun, in the park that runs along the wall.

changsindong hill


changsindong hill2





Dongdaemun chalet

And a little something from the Dongdaemun Design Plaza.

DDP Flower Top

My typical view on the way to the subway in the morning.

Shinchon morning

Outrage, bias and growing older

I was taking a look at traffic to this little blog (bloguita?) a little while ago, and noticed a few hits coming from the forum attached to a popular Korean pop culture website. There, on a thread all about the actor Bae Yong-joon, one commenter had linked to my website, saying some nice things about Pop Goes Korea, but also making some strange claims about my “bias” against Bae Yong-joon, apparently instead favoring Lee Byung-hun.

Which I thought was more than a little odd. I mean, there’s a lot in the book about Lee because, well, there’s a whole chapter that profiles him. But in that chapter, when I talk about the rise of the Korean Wave, I clearly indicated the prime importance of Winter Sonata, the drama that made Bae so internationally famous. I may have tweaked Bae’s obsessive fandom once or twice in the past, but I think I’ve always given him his due.


So if I talked a lot about Lee Byung-hun, it was because he was the subject of the chapter, and because he was generous enough to give me plenty of time for interviews, responding to my many questions. Bae would have been a great choice for a TV chapter, but at the time, he just wasn’t interested in participating in the book (and I had some contacts with his company and manager at the time, so wasn’t just cold-calling from out of nowhere).

But, being the Internet, people like to speculate, which led to some really odd comments, like maybe I preferred Lee Byung-hun because his personal scandals appealed to my male sensibilities. Very, very odd. If anyone wanted to take a moment to research a little, they would have found plenty of stories about the importance of Winter Sonata  and Bae in Hallyu history.

Anyhow, it definitely was not a big deal. I only mention it because of some other online fusses I’ve seen lately. There’s apparently a squadron of people who loathe the very nice folks at Eat Your Kimchi, so when EYK was announced as a guest on some Arirang TV show, a mini-mob arose, accusing EYK of all sorts of ridiculous stuff (like fat-shaming, which would be, like, the exact opposite point of their videos on the topic). The mind boggles.

Fans of K-pop groups are always quick to switch to outrage mode, whenever someone is perceived to have slighted their favorites. Some of those fans are famous for being totally unhinged.

But it isn’t just Korean pop culture fans, of course. It seems like any field where people are the least bit passionate, that passion turns so quickly and easily into a wild, mob mentality. Left hate right. Right hates left. The fantasy and science fiction communities, also love a good flame war (“So-and-so famous writer from the past was racist!” being a popular starting point).

All of which makes me so happy to be middle-aged. I have my loves and dislikes, but aside from my family, all my music favs, art, movies or whatever have a much more moderate place in my psyche. “I hate X.” “Oh, okay. I quite like X, but that’s all right.” Life is so much more pleasant this way.

* * *

Then again, no shortage of the big Twitter flame wars involve adults, so I guess age doesn’t mellow everyone.

Korean box office — another year, another record

And so it was, on Dec. 30, with just one day left in the year, Korean movie theaters once again set a new attendance record. At least, that’s how it looks on KOBIS, where yesterday finished at 213.1 million admissions, just shy of last year’s 213.3 million.

Of course, when it comes to actual revenue, 2014 set a new record a few weeks ago — 1.65 trillion won ($1.5 billion), versus 1.55 trillion won last year.

Roaring Currents

As for Korean movies, as a percentage it was a bit of a down year, and thanks to a late surge does it look like they’ll finish the year right at 50 percent of ticket sales. That’s down from last year’s amazing 59.7 percent, but still pretty frickin’ good.  They made about 811 billion won, which is the third-best ever.

The Hollywood studios, on the other hand, must be ecstatic, setting huge records across the board. 106 million admissions is 23 percent higher than their previous record, and 839 billion won is also a huge record.

Anything else worth mentioning? ADMIRAL: ROARING CURRENTS was crazy popular, of course, making 135 billion won. But 12 Korean movies made more than 20 billion won, and 22 made more than 10 billion won, so from where I sit, the industry looks pretty healthy.

I do find it pretty cool that in all my years in Korea, the movie biz has set new attendance records almost every single year (save three or four, I think).

Be steelpan my beating heart

So, it’s winter. It’s dark and cold. China keeps farting out its pollution onto us in Korea. How to chase the blues away? Steelpan drums!

Okay, maybe not to everyone’s taste. But here are two songs that I have been finding irrepressibly cheery lately. First, Duke Dumont’s dance song “I Got U”:

And here’s “Flying White Pillow” by Korean indie band Telepathy (the version of the song they recorded for Fred Perry Subculture, which is much more interesting than the original, thanks in part to the steelpan sound):

That’s all. Nothing about The Interview, Nut Rage, or politics or any of that annoying stuff. I just like these songs and have been listening to them together a lot.

Why Korea is up my alley

Close to my home, there is this small, nondescript alley. Or, rather, there was. Just one year ago, the alley had nothing but a super-cheap lunch place and a lot of residences (and stacks of garbage). Here is an image of it taken from Naver from just over a year ago.

Hongdae Alley 2013

Now, however, that alley has been turned almost completely commercial. There’s a “Mongolian” lamb grill, an Izakaya, a croissant shop, a grilled seafood place, a fancy dessert shop, and a pretty good Chinese restaurant.

Hongdae Alley new

Not to mention a Japanese bakery, Aoitori, which is bizarrely one of the trendiest joints in the area for drinks later in the day (it turns into a quasi-pub, with cocktails and wine, in the evening).


And that’s just on this 50 meter stretch. When you go to the end, the cross alley now has a Mexican-Japanese fusion pub, a huge chicken place, a hair shop, plus three of the buildings are now being renovated or completely rebuilt.

Hongdae alley

In short, there’s a real dynamism here, a sense that everything is constantly in flux. And I really like that. Of course, all change also implies a sense of loss and someone inevitably gets hurt, but I like living in a country that is still moving forward.

Imagine this happened in alley after alley, block after block, and you might get a sense of how much energy there is in Hongdae these days. Every time I think this neighborhood has hit a saturation point (for bars, coffee shops, galleries or whatever), it just keeps on growing.

Cold Day

A couple of days ago, temperatures in Seoul plunged to around minus-14 or so at night. Not fun. But, on the flipside, that means the streets are much less crowded than usual. And unlike other years, the pollution out of China has not been very bad.

Here are a couple of pictures from the Cheonggyecheon, during my lunchtime walk.

Cheonggye cold

Cheonggye - cold morning

And the DDP looks rather mysterious with a little layer of snow on it.


And another view of the DDP, from a couple of days earlier.


More DDP

Here’s a view of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza that I took this morning through a dirty window.

DDP morning

And another from last night.

DDP winter evening

DDP on the cold night

Just a little shot I took of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza the other night. I never get tired of looking at that place.



The sad shambles of K-pop contracts

The nice folks at Eat You Kimchi have bravely waded into the muddy waters that are K-pop contracts. And their answers are more than a little depressing — a large “break even point” for training costs that artists must repay, while getting 40 percent or less of their revenues, all the while more expenses pile up, and there’s little transparency.

It’s a good overview, but I will add a couple more points:

  • Bad K-pop contracts have been in the news since long before 2009 (even if the JYJ/TVXQ problem took it up a level). In fact, Time magazine did a big takedown on the K-pop industry in 2002 — here (about payoffs and corruption, free) and here (about contracts and salary, but you need to sign in)
  • While the K-pop artist contracts are pretty sketchy, it is worth remembering that a lot of these companies have many trainees they are working on at any given time, which can be quite a cash-eater.
  • K-pop “stars” aren’t really stars the way we think of them (at least in accounting terms), but are more like employees. And pretty much everyone in the Korean entertainment industry works crazy long hours for terrible pay.

So, I guess to me the problems with K-pop are not because working conditions are so atypical for Korea; but for too many people, they are all too typical. Or typical of a kind of Korea that much of the country has outgrown — and it’s way past time for K-pop to catch up.

With more artists fleeing their production companies than ever, certainly the time is right for a big shift in the industry. In the past, though, when artists became moguls, they usually just repeated the same terrible business structure. But I’d like to think that sooner or later, some visionary will see the many, obvious weaknesses and try setting up a label that works for the artists.

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