« SAVE THE GREEN PLANET director speaks | Main | Rex Reed: Some of My Best Friends are Black »

April 27, 2005

Asian Movie Myths Debunked!

Korean movies are edgy and violent.
Most box office hits in Korea would give a diabetic sugar shock. In 2004, the four top-grossing flicks were TAE GUK GI (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN-style war melodrama), MY LITTLE BRIDE, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HIGH SCHOOL and GHOST HOUSE (a comedy/horror flick). In 2003, OLDBOY was beaten at the box office by MY TUTOR FRIEND (romantic comedy) and sold about as many tickets as OH! BROTHERS. Romances and romantic comedies are pretty much king in Korea, and directors like Kim Ki-Duk (THE ISLE, 3 IRON) are reviled (Kim won't give interviews after the Korean press said his parents had raised a sociopath). Park Chan-Wook's OLDBOY did good business, but his previous movie, SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, was a bomb.

The Hong Kong Film Industry is Dead.
Everyone keeps saying this. They point out that in the late 80's and early 90's the city was churning out 300 movies a year and is now down to 50. That's more the result of the late-80's film bubble creating an unsustainable level of production than anything else. At that time, anyone who found some loose change in yesterday's pants could and would produce a movie that turned a profit. Since then, the bubble has burst due to overproduction, among other factors. While a lot of very good people have a hard time finding work in Hong Kong these days, it's much more reasonable for a city of about 9 million people to produce 50-60 movies a year, rather than 300-350.

Bollywood is the next big thing.
Back in 2001, content-hungry magazines crossed paths with money-hungry freelance writers who pitched them the following story: Bollywood is about to cross over. In 2001, MONSOON WEDDING and the theatrical release of LAGAAN were supposed to herald the beginning of the Bollywood crossover. In 2002, it was supposed to happen again, with the out-of-competition screening of DEVDAS in Cannes. Then, in 2003, Aishwarya Rai's publicists earned their money and the Bollywood crossover was written about again. In 2004, BOMBAY DREAMS and Gurinder Chadha's BRIDE AND PREJUDICE came to the US, prompting another round of the same old article.

Reality? LAGAAN flopped, BOMBAY DREAMS closed up shop quickly, DEVDAS didn't cross over, Aishwarya Rai has priced herself out of Bollywood and still hasn't found success in Hollywood, and BRIDE AND PREJUDICE and MONSOON WEDDING combined still haven't equaled what the AMITYVILLE HORROR remake made on its opening weekend. Recently, Lincoln Center held a retrospective of Amitabh Bachchan's films. Bachchan is the iconic Bollywood actor, who was voted "Most Popular Movie Star in the World" in a BBC poll a few years ago. Attendance at some of the screenings was as low as 16 people.

April 27, 2005 at 08:57 AM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Asian Movie Myths Debunked!:


I'm not disagreeing with your points, but isn't TAE GUK GI rather violent, if not exactly edgy?

16 people for the Bachchan screenings? That's really surprising.

Posted by: Steve | Apr 27, 2005 9:35:23 AM

Thanks for taking the time to say something. TAE GUK GI is violent but no more or less than your average war movie. Its relation to Korea is similar to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN's relation to the US. Both are violent, but within acceptable mainstream norms. Also, both movies became pop culture phenomenas. TAE GUK GI sold over 10 million tickets. Consider that in Korea the benchmark for a blockbuster is generally held to be around 3 million tickets.

It's not the kind of movie that would be seen as transgressive in any film industry.

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Apr 27, 2005 6:47:38 PM

let's get some more myths debunked! they still churn out loads of kung fu films in HK, right? and ALL HK's directing talent has gone to Hollywood, right? keep up the good work on the blog!

Posted by: colin | Apr 30, 2005 7:10:29 PM

On the Korean front, evidently Bob Strauss Daily News hasn't been properly exposed yet.

The dwindling number of Hong Kong productions may be more "reasonable," as you say, but it's also limited how many quality films get made and placed more pressure, I think, on the fewer big-budget productions to travel well internationally. When they don't, that leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy that the industry's in trouble.

Isn't it a little early to say that Ash isn't a success? It's certainly a true statement, but she's only made one film here. Though it's gross is certainly small by comparison to big Hollywood films, it's the leading earner for limited releases this year, so that's not nothing.

Love the blog, btw.

Posted by: peter | May 1, 2005 11:34:52 PM

Thanks for the nice comments. You're right that Ash's BRIDE AND PREJUDICE hasn't exactly been a flop -- but publicists and press folks have been claiming she's going to cross over bigtime for about 3 years so far. B&P; is a nice, small film for her, but hardly the "taking America by storm" tidal wave we've been promised.

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | May 4, 2005 9:56:34 AM

Still enjoying every post, Grady. But I thought I could add a little historical context to the "Hong Kong cinema - dead or alive?" debate, as I've been doing some heavy reading lately of everything in English that I can get my hands on about HK movie history (not a whole lot). A couple or three notable points:

Stephen Teo's book "Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions" says that Cantonese films in the 1950s averaged over 150 movies annually, and "some unconfirmed sources double the figure" and that this was even before "production peaked in 1960-3." (Teo's main source is filmographies in HKIFF catalogs from the late '80s.) AND keep in mind that this isn't counting the less prolific but still numerically significant output of the Mandarin cinema and cinemas in other minority dialects.

On that '60s peak, Jay Leyda's 1972 book "Dianying/Electric Shadows: An Account of Films and the Film Audience in China" has the following in its one chapter on HK: 1) Leyda quotes a "casual Indian journalist" who writes "there is an average of 300 films produced annually." 2) Leyda cites a 1963 Variety article which cites a U.S. Commerce Dept. report which says that "Hong Kong produced 303 full-length fictional films in the year ending March 1962. In the previous years this number had not gone beyond 230-250 annually." (If you're curious, this 303 included 224 Cantonese, 42 Mandarin and 37 in other dialects.)

There's some truth in what you say about booms, busts and bubbles. And, yes, the '50s and '60s numbers are boosted greatly by the Cantonese opera films that were ground out like sausage back then (like Cat. III softcore porn in the early '90s).

But to say that the large output of the late '80s-early '90s was just a fluke of that brief era is contradicted by the (admittedly hard to come by%

Posted by: Michael Wells | May 5, 2005 8:56:19 PM

This month's British Airways in-flight magazine has a short piece on how Korean pop exports (cinema, music, Bae Young-joon) is the Next Big Thing!!! Wisely, they limit the scope to Asia. However, feel free to debunk this myth.

I was going to say don't count Ash out if she becomes a Bond girl, and then remembered that being a Bond girl never did anything for anyone's career anyway.

Also, I didn't know this blog existed until today. How dumb am I? How awesome are you?

Posted by: Jessica | May 11, 2005 2:30:03 AM

Post a comment