(G)I-DLE’s “Queencard” and “Nxde” – The Language of Homage

NOTE: The music videos discussed in this video are rated for ages 12+ and 15+. As such, this article is for readers 15+. Reader discretion is advised.

You know it’s an interesting day when you notice a White Chicks homage in a K-Pop video.

I am, of course, talking about the (G)I-DLE video for “퀸카 (Queencard)”. A quick YouTube search shows that I was not the only person who noticed that the dance scene in the first chorus was, indeed, a familiar sight. It has become somewhat of a meme that this scene is in “Queencard”.

However, as a filmmaker, I can’t help but wonder what this homage means. I mean, White Chicks is a very specific choice – a movie where two black men pretend to be rich white socialite women? You don’t pay homage to a movie that is both as iconic and as controversial as that without having some sort of purpose behind it.

Y2K: An Immortal Era of Chick Flicks

When my partner showed me “Queencard”, she pointed out that the thesis of the video appears to be that western beauty standards still penetrate Korean culture – specifically Korean pop culture. I am very much inclined to agree. Almost, if not all, of the extras are white, black, or otherwise not Korean. The dyed hair and contact lenses that the members of (G)I-DLE are, consequently, an indicator of the unnatural situation. The Y2K fashion is an indicator of the teen movies that a lot of American Millennials and Zoomers grew up with.

What’s important to remember is that there is a little more to a White Chicks homage. The movie revolves around the tense friendship dynamics and rivalries of women, from the outside perspective of men. The female characters actively tear each other down, but they actively build each other up in equal measure. The male leads learn as much from the female leads as the female leads do from them. While there are no major male characters in “Queencard”, the implication of the reference seems to be that women have the capacity for both when it comes to their relationships.

That said, there is another element at play here – camp.

K-Pop and Camp: A match made in heaven

Camp is, in essence, a commitment to the ridiculous, whether you know it or not. White Chicks is a camp classic, for example, because while it’s very much a comedy, everybody in the cast and crew are firmly committed to the ridiculous. Even though everyone is over the top, you accept that these people are real because everyone involved in the production is truly living in their role. If you want examples from K-Pop, Super Junior’s movie Attack on the Pin-Up Boys is a perfectly done camp film, and the K-Drama The Uncanny Counter flirts with camp often.

Camp is a common (but often overlooked) element of K-Pop. It is a device to communicate elements of the story or message when other methods are not sufficient. And “Queencard” uses camp masterfully, in that the shock factor at some of the over the top elements allows you to think about what they mean. Why are all the doctors dancing around Soyeon before her surgery? Because the standards she is subjected to are, unfortunately, ubiquitous. Why are all the cars crashing in the presence of Minnie or Soyeon? Because that is what these characters think they want. Why is it implied that Miyeon is replacing Minnie between shots? Because it’s unfortunately very easy to only think about yourself.

Why use these homages?

So, this got me thinking. How does (G)I-DLE use the language of film homages? There are other homages in this video, including nods to Mean Girls and Ariana Grande’s “Break Up With Your GF”. My brother even said that the pool scene may be a reference to the 2008 movie Wild Child. There are more homages in (G)I-DLE’s companion music video “Allergy” as well. This YouTube short does an excellent job showing them in context. At a glance, all of the movies and music videos referenced are all about the complicated relationships between girls – how they break each other down and build each other up in equal measure. As such, we can assume the thesis of “Queencard” is that women are complicated, and that the only thing you can do in the end is be yourself.

But this isn’t the only MV by (G)I-DLE that uses the language of homage.

Let’s get into it.

Let’s discuss (G)I-DLE’s video, “Nxde”. This video is filled with homages. The notable ones are the ones stated at the end, Marilyn Monroe and Banksy. However, they are not the only ones, not by a long shot. The cartoon woman is clearly emulating the style of Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Soyeon’s costumes very clearly reference iconic outfits by Madonna and Lady Gaga, and a lot of the black-and-white camera shots are reminiscent of Madonna’s music video for “Vogue”. The use of can-can dancers, as well as the shots of Miyeon in her dressing room looking at herself in a mirror, as well as the final shot of the shredded picture that passes by several other scenes, are all direct references to Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge.

Okay, so what does all this mean?

Homage #1 – Satine

Let’s start with Moulin Rouge. The character Miyeon is dressed as is Satine, a can-can dancer by night and courtesan also by night. She is a character that all of the other characters, male and female, reduce to a sex symbol. She wants to be an actress more than anything, but being a courtesan is the best she can do right now. Satine’s lover, the struggling writer Christian, completely believes her when she lies and says that she is not in love with him in order to save the Moulin Rouge club.

Her boss, Zidler, continuously puts Satine in positions where her only recourse is to sleep with men. The Duke, Zidler’s investor, fully expects Satine to sleep with him, and even tries to assault her at one point. However, in spite of all of this, Satine is a very intelligent, calculated woman who never acts impulsively and always measures her words and decisions very carefully – something everyone in the film takes for granted.

It’s also worth mentioning that when we meet Satine for the first time, she’s directly paying homage to both Marilyn Monroe and Madonna through a cover of both “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Material Girl”. More on both of them later.

Homage #2 – Jessica Rabbit

Now, what about Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Well, Jessica Rabbit is, much like the women on this list, reduced to a sex symbol. And this is by design – in Jessica Rabbit’s world, as a “toon” herself (a living cartoon) she is a minority. Moreover, she is a minority who is working in a club as a singer, particularly one who is meant to use her sexuality to make money. Jessica is photographed doing “patty cake” with another man, such that her husband, the titular Roger Rabbit, takes to mean she is being unfaithful.

However, the truth is Jessica was threatened into posing for those pictures – or, more accurately, her husband was threatened, and she was acting in his interests, irrespective of her own. She is aware of her sex appeal, but her relationship with her husband matters more to her. Furthermore, all the toons – the minorities of this film – are in active danger of death via acetone. Jessica’s not exactly in a privileged position, even when perceived as such. A reference to her, is, in essence, channeling a woman who lacks privilege even when she is perceived as having such.

Homage #3 and #4 – Madonna and Lady Gaga

Moving on to Lady Gaga and Madonna. Lady Gaga and Madonna are both musical artists and fashion icons. Madonna paid homage to Marilyn Monroe, and Lady Gaga paid homage to Madonna. (There was also apparently a feud between Gaga and Madonna, but that’s a different story that I don’t feel qualified to speak on.)

Both Lady Gaga and Madonna broke boundaries while being artists in their own right. Both of them are women who have unapologetically expressed their sexuality.

And, most importantly, they are women who were demonized for expressing their sexuality.

Homage #5 – Banksy

Then, we get Banksy. Banksy is a British street artist who has never shown their face. They have created some truly generation-defining art pieces. One of those iconic pieces is “Love is in the Bin,” and it is iconic for a very specific reason. As soon as it was sold at auction – for no less than £1,042,000 – the frame turned out to be a shredder, and half of the painting was ripped to shreds.

The auction house managed to stop the painting from completely shredding itself, much to Banksy’s dismay. The elusive Banksy stated their intent was to completely destroy the painting. Shredding an art piece – specifically one that was worth a million GBP – is either a genius business move (turning a piece into a once-in-a-lifetime moment) or a statement on the nature of capitalism, if not some combination of the two.

It’s also worth mentioning that Bansky is completely anonymous. The public doesn’t know their identity. Only a handful of people have ever met them. To use the language of homage in this way is to pay homage to an artist without a body.

Homage #6 – Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe, 1953

A Deep Dive Into The Representation of an icon

Lastly, Marilyn.

Oh, Marilyn.

“Nxde” came out around the same time as the 2022 movie Blonde. In fact, it came out within weeks of Blonde’s international release. While many people saw it as a biography, Blonde was based on a very fictional account of Marilyn Monroe’s life.

According to YouTube channel Be Kind Rewind: “It’s close enough to reality to seem correct,” but “it’s detached enough to be reductive.” The director, Andrew Dominik stated he wanted to harness the “collective memory” of Marilyn Monroe. He even said that it doesn’t matter if people take the movie as gospel truth.

The Real Marilyn

In the words of Be Kind Rewind:

“Yes, Blonde is not a factual account. It’s about the myth of Marilyn Monroe, it’s about the image. But can we really divorce blonde from her real life iconography? I’m not so sure. In my view, simply labeling something a fictionalized account doesn’t mean that story is excused from broader questions about legacy and veracity.”

Be Kind Rewind. “So I Watched Blonde…” YouTube, 24 Oct. 2022, youtu.be/VwFkhLBes4o.

Marilyn Monroe was an incredible woman. Not just an actress. An incredible woman. An incredible person. She was a hardworking actress who had a huge hand in the development of her persona. Not only that, she had an insane range to her acting. Monroe took a number of classes to improve her acting and comedy skills, and channeled the likes of actresses like Mae West. She parodied her own status as a sex symbol, according to one of her biographers. Marilyn Monroe also converted to Judaism, and found her Jewish faith to be an important part of her identity.

The Facsimile of Marilyn

Dominik claims to be enamored with Monroe’s mental health makes a mockery of her suffering. In Dominik’s words:

“It’s about a person who is going to be killing themself. So it’s trying to examine the reasons why they did that. It’s not looking at her lasting legacy. I mean, she’s not even terribly concerned with any of that stuff. If you look at Marilyn Monroe, she’s got everything that society tells us is desirable. She’s famous. She’s beautiful. She’s rich. If you look at the Instagram version of her life, she’s got it all. And she killed herself. Now, to me, that’s the most important thing. It’s not the rest. It’s not the moments of strength. OK, she wrested control away from the men at the studio, because, you know, women are just as powerful as men. But that’s really looking at it through a lens that’s not so interesting to me. I’m more interested in how she feels, I’m interested in what her emotional life was like.”

BFI. “Andrew Dominik on Blonde.” BFI, 27 Sept. 2022, http://www.bfi.org.uk

I will not mince words. This take on this real woman’s life is abhorrent.

It’s worth mentioning again that Dominik did not write the source material. Joyce Carol Oates, the author of the novel Blonde, is to blame as well for this interpretation of Monroe. Oates believes (or appears to) that Marilyn Monroe was only a tragic figure, solely defined by her pain. She presents Monroe, through her novel, as someone who is effectively incapable of joy. In Be Kind Rewind’s words, Monroe becomes an “avatar for suffering” through the depiction within Blonde.

The fact that both Oates and Dominik took advantage of a human being’s story for this monstrosity angers me to no end.

more than a symbol: Channeling Marilyn Monroe

Soyeon directly pays homage to Marilyn Monroe in her lyrics:

Twisted Lorelei that don’t need no man
A bookworm obsessed with philosophy, a self-made woman
Very flabbergasted by this sassy story
The audience booed and shouted
“You tricked me you’re a liar”

Genius English Translations – (G)I-Dle – Nxde (English Translation).” Genius, 2023, genius.com
Soyeon paying homage to Madonna and Marilyn Monroe.

As stated above, Marilyn was both aware and involved in the presentation of her image. However, she was not responsible for men only wanting this from her. She was an intelligent self-made woman, but people thought that she couldn’t be more than a dumb blonde. The idea that she had agency over her body and femininity, but was also a victim of the oppression of her industry, is not as much of a contradiction as Oates and Dominik wanted to believe. Ergo, “Very flabbergasted by this sassy story” is a direct reference to Marilyn’s life.

It’s also worth mentioning that “sassy” can have multiple connotations in the lyrics of “Nxde”. The phrase in use is “싸가지없는”, which could also mean “rude” (to put it mildly.) However, “sassy” is the official translation, so it seems that Soyeon, (G)I-DLE, and CUBE Entertainment want this to have an ambiguous connotation. It could mean sassy in reference to a woman who’s unapologetic and trendsetting, or it could mean sassy in reference to a woman who is rude or vulgar. This ambiguity doesn’t just invoke Marilyn’s complex identity, but also invokes all of the other figures on this list.

The final screen of “Nxde” reads as follows:




Soyeon, Minnie, Miyeon, Yuqi, and Shuhua all knew exactly what they were doing when they channeled Marilyn and Banksy, as well as everyone else. They were communicating a very specific, very urgent message.

“Our bodies are not for you.”

Final Thoughts

I’m a very femme-presenting person. I enjoy the process of putting on a full face of makeup. My closet has more dresses than can reasonably fit in it. I like taking care of my hair. I even prefer walking in heels to sneakers – you can blame my high arches for that one though. I love who I am, whether I’m wearing mascara or not.

That said, there have been periods of my life where I have actively downplayed these aspects of myself in order to get through life and seem “tough.” Particularly in my grade school film classes, where I would sometimes be the only girl, I would want to seem like a different person than I was. I didn’t want to be “like other girls” – though, in retrospect, I don’t think I even knew what other girls were really like.

When (G)I-DLE releases songs like “Queencard” and “Nxde”, I get a profound feeling of hope. Soyeon, Minnie, Miyeon, Shuhua, and Yuqi are carrying on the legacy of the powerful women who came before them, who they pay homage to.

And I know, for a fact, that they will inspire girls to do the same.

The Vincenzo Villain Saga: Part II

NOTE: This is Part 2 of a series on Studio Dragon’s Vincenzo. This article series has heavy spoilers for the entirety of the show, so please proceed with caution.

The series will be as follows:

1) Introduction + Acting

2) Writing – YOU ARE HERE

3) Other Character Interactions

4) Scene Analysis #1

5) Scene Analysis #2 + Conclusion

For those of you who haven’t watched the show, this is the last warning. I will be spoiling the entirety of Vincenzo in this character analysis.

Pronto? Andiamo.

PART II: The Writing

NOTE: I had to get screenshots from YouTube videos, so please support the following YouTube creators: “Hell is empty and all the devils are here” and sophie야.

The Mystery – 1, 2, 3, 4

When they revealed Jang Hanseok to us, the audience, at the end of Episode 4, I was surprised. However, what surprised me more was how much sense the reveal made. Beyond Ok Taecyeon’s acting, the writing of the show – but especially in the first four episodes – is absolutely stellar. Hanseok’s identity is presented in the early episodes of the show is a mystery to be solved by the leads – possibly the main mystery of the show. However, Vincenzo isn’t a mystery show. It’s more of a race – each episode presents new challenges, and whoever beats the other to the punch effectively wins.

In the case of Hanseok’s identity reveal, it actually shows how much of a leg up Hanseok has on Vincenzo – he’s literally ten episodes ahead of him. He has enough time to get a grip on Vincenzo’s process and take him by surprise – which is, of course exactly what he loves. In Hanseok’s mind, surprise is a form of power.

Hanseok having a head start on Vincenzo means that by the time Vincenzo does find out about him (in Episode 11) Hanseok has already mentally prepared to deal with a mafia consigliere. Whether or not Hanseok is actually physically prepared, though, is immaterial. He generally leaves it to the people around him to take care of business. It’s not about being literally prepared, but psychologically prepared. And he is very, very prepared to deal with a mobster.

It’s important to note that the show actually seeds the Junwoo/Hanseok reveal very early on, so that it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Hanseok carefully sizes up Vincenzo upon meeting him, and asks him his name without butchering it, showing a degree of competence. He compliments Chayoung’s watch, which is relevant to a later reveal about his heinous actions. And, of course, there’s Hanseok and Chayoung’s first meeting with Han Seo – which we’ll get to in the next article.


There are two words that describe Jang Hanseok better than all others: Magnificent Bastard.

The Magnificent Bastard is a trope referring to a character – usually a villain – who is supremely intelligent, charmingly charismatic, and steadfastly driven towards a specific aim. To quote the description on TV Tropes:

  • They are brilliant and utterly devious, a smooth operator. They are also savvy and do not fall for obvious traps; bringing them down is no easy feat.
  • They have a goal, and they’re not going to stop until they’ve completed it. Even when the goal is suicidally over-ambitious, they succeed with style.
  • They are charismatic, often charming, their personality is like a physical force. While they exist on the darker end of the moral spectrum, they never take disgusting actions that undermine their magnificence, leaving them diabolical but in a way the audience can’t help but enjoy. And they are definitively not cowards. Ever.

Overly Sarcastic Productions on YouTube expounded upon this definition, explaining that a Magnificent Bastard (or “Charismaniac”, as it were) cannot be impulsive. They can be petty, but they have to be calculated. Because if the character loses control regularly, or has none to begin with, it implies that the character is acting entirely on a whim and is less intelligent than they let on. Therefore, they can’t be a Charismaniac.

The Core – “God enjoys making people suffer.”

If this were a test, Jang Hanseok would pass with flying colors. Hanseok is the epitome of the Magnificent Bastard. He has a goal that he will accomplish no matter what, no matter who he steps on. He’s unnervingly charming – the moment he’s on screen, you can’t look away. And I have never – never – seen a character as convincingly sadistic as him. But what cements him as a true Magnificent Bastard is his intelligence – nearly every moment on he is on screen, he’s calculating the correct play. No matter the hand dealt to him, he knows how to maximize his advantage.

Jang Hanseok is the definition of a Charismaniac.

And his goal is power.

Hanseok being ominous.

Hanseok spends the majority of his time in the show leveraging his power as the secret owner of Babel and accumulating power via as many other means as he can. He started by removing familial threats – killing his father and abusing his brother Han Seo – to consolidate power in the most intimate social circle he had. Fortuitously for Hanseok, this social circle was the center of Babel leadership. Once Hanseok had his brother under his thumb and his father six feet under, Babel was effectively his.

Junwoo – The world’s most terrifying himbo

Let’s focus on Hanseok’s alter ego, Junwoo. “Junwoo” appears to be a manchild, an archetypical himbo. He has a number of juvenile-coded personality traits, like getting overemotional, fumbling when he’s doing simple tasks like parking his scooter, and trying to impress people. He’s presented to the audience as a comic relief character. Then, at the end of Episode Four, the showrunners pull the rug out completely from under us.

There is one scene that sells us on “Junwoo” being a comic relief character, thereby making the Hanseok reveal that much more insane. In Episode 2, Junwoo is cleaning up in Han Seunghyuk’s office when he overhears Seunghyuk talking about the demolition team coming to Geumga Plaza. He’s slightly more subdued than we’ve seen him before, but he still opens his mouth in shock when he realizes what’s being said. Since he is not being observed, he’s not as over the top as he could be. However, because he’s still in the office with Seunghyuk, he is still technically in character as Junwoo. We catch a glimpse of the real Hanseok here – actively calculating the correct move, not showing his hand to the characters but subtly cluing us in that there’s more to this character than meets the eye.

The way Hanseok is written after the reveal also has to be internally consistent for this story to work – and it is. I talked about this more in the previous article on Ok Taecyeon’s acting, but the traits that make Junwoo endearing are the traits that make Hanseok terrifying. Both personas are relaxed at best, lackadaisical at worst. But those lackadaisical traits that make Junwoo seem like a youthful, sweet soul are the exact same traits that indicate Hanseok’s complete and utter lack of fear or self-preservation.

His apathy is our fear.

Revisiting the importance of casting

Part of the reason this works is casting. Casting a K-Pop idol, particularly a K-Pop idol who has done a lot of comedy, was an incredible misdirection on the part of the production. K-Pop comes with its own associations, one of which is aegyo. To paraphrase, the term aegyo is basically just “acting cute,” but generally refers to a series of gestures like finger hearts that can often be construed as childish. So when we see Ok Taecyeon, a famous K-Pop idol, behaving in a stereotypically “cute” manner connects the audience with this concept of aegyo. So when “Junwoo” does a complete 180 and becomes Hanseok, we are floored because it subverts our understanding of the behaviors expected of an idol.

However, Ok Taecyeon wouldn’t be able to act the role as well as he did if it weren’t for the way Hanseok is written.

Acting out the role of the dense-but-kindhearted Junwoo, thereby putting himself in the place of an intern, is the ultimate power play. “Junwoo,” being a law intern, is privy to all of the strategies that the lawyers for Babel are putting together. He can see exactly which knife is sharpest, and which one cuts deepest.

But there’s more to the decision to be a lowly intern. “Junwoo” is practically invisible in the eyes of Wusang Law. He’s an intern, assigned to do menial tasks like paperwork and picking up after the partners. Based on his position and his overall childlike demeanor, they never think anything of him. They barely talk to him.

And whenever he is not talking, Hanseok is listening.

The bluff of the century

Hanseok holds all the cards without anyone knowing. People trust him because they think he’s a dense intern. But he’s always observing and taking in information – information that he is very good at using against people. As an example: Hanseok got kicked in the back by Han Seunghyuk (the managing partner at Wusang and Chayoung’s former boss) while masquerading as Junwoo. After revealing himself as Hanseok, he kicks the table while looking at Seunghyuk – which immediately sets Seunghyuk off. And, since Hanseok knows Seunghyuk is a habitual butt-kisser who hates making powerful people upset, leveraging the fact that Seunghyuk had kicked a powerful person in the back when that person was perceived as powerless pushes Seunghyuk into a corner that he can’t escape from.

Junwoo’s modus operandi is incredibly effective.

Character flaws

One of the hardest lessons to learn in scriptwriting is that characters need to be flawed. Sometimes, the writer will get so invested in a character that the narrative as a whole will treat a singular character as the most important human being alive. Even if they’re the villain, they’ll seem to know absolutely everything, and get away with absolutely everything without much more than a handwave.

Vincenzo, luckily, doesn’t have this problem. Every character feels like a person. And that’s because they all have flaws. Vincenzo Cassano avoids letting people get close as guilt for everything he’s done, and his self-isolation is a driving force in his character arc. Hong Chayoung puts the assignment above her own feelings, which is great for taking down Babel and Wusang, but also means she has to compromise her own morals to do so.

However, it’s important to note that neither of these character flaws are inherently negative traits. Vincenzo’s private nature is part of what leads him to be so good at getting the job done – he is very good at bluffing and not showing his hand. Chayoung’s pragmatism lets her think of outside-the-box solutions (or, frankly, out-of-pocket solutions) that are almost always successful. These character traits are not flaws because they make them bad people – in fact, they’re generally good qualities. They become flaws when put in the wrong circumstances.

And Jang Hanseok’s drive for power, while being what makes him most compelling, is his character flaw. But, it’s not for the reason you think.

hanseok’s Fatal Flaw

Greed – and being singularly focused on it – would theoretically beget the flaw of being blind to anything else. However, Hanseok is a calculated individual. Hanseok is not emotionally adept in the way Vincenzo and Chayoung are, but he is adept at figuring out exactly what makes people afraid. Han Seunghyuk is afraid of offending authority – Hanseok leverages that. Choi Myeonghee is afraid of endangering herself – Hanseok leverages that too. Han Seo is afraid of Hanseok himself – and yet again, Hanseok leverages that.

What makes Hanseok’s greed his flaw is not blindness to anything else.

No. It’s the circumstance.

How can you leverage fear on someone who has nothing to lose?

In the case of Hanseok, the only way to make him feel fear is to make him as powerless as his own victims. While power is what drives Hanseok as a character, it is also the source of his fear.

The language of fear

Hanseok talks about a nightmare he had in Episode 12, in which he is being buried in an unmarked grave, dying in obscurity, without anyone knowing who he is. On the surface, this reads like a fear of dying without fame, but in context, this is a dream of dying without power. Hanseok has, up until this point, gained power by selectively revealing himself – his true self, his sadistic self – to a few people with a lot of who he can manipulate for influence. Han Seo obviously knows who he is by default, but he reveals himself to Myeonghee and Seunghyuk with intent.

Hanseok confiding his fears in Myeonghee.

There is a correlation for Hanseok between power and the security of his identity. In the same scene, Myeonghee tells him that his greatest weakness, in fact, is his anonymity. If people don’t know who he is, they don’t know he has power. This comment is what prompts the decision to reveal himself to the Babel board.

The board

When Hanseok reveals himself to the Babel board, he doesn’t reveal his sadism outright. Rather, he triggers Han Seo and the chief prosecutor by revealing his sadism to them specifically. To Han Seo, he lets him know that the pain of being shot was excruciating. To the chief prosecutor, all he has to say is “It’s ME!” and that’s enough to scare him. The triggering of these memories strikes fear into onlookers, as their normally relaxed colleagues are acting like they just saw their worst fears come to life – because, in fact, they did.

Hansoek’s revealing of his identity is, theoretically, a way to control his circumstance and turn his flaw into his asset. However, his both figurative and literal bloodlust is what leads him to make mistakes. He assumes that everyone who fears him is loyal to him because of fear.

But, as Vincenzo reveals again and again, there’s always something or someone scarier than you.

The Psychology of Hanseok

As with any character who is purportedly insane, we do have to ask the question about the nature of Hanseok’s mental state.

In Episode 15, we learn that Hanseok has a psychopathy diagnosis. I, as a rule, don’t like the word “psychopath”. Technically speaking, there is no true diagnosis of a psychopath. What a psychopath is Hanseok does give the impression of being narcissistic, but since they just gave him a general categorization of “psychopath” we can’t fully analyze his narcissism as an actual disorder, merely a personality trait.

There is a very real concern about ascribing a character with a mental disorder, because it can perpetuate stigma against people with such disorders – especially if the person writing them isn’t writing from a place of copious research or personal experience. Neurodivergent people are not inherently violent, just as neurotypical people are not inherently violent.

The sadism of hanseok

The only saving grace with Hanseok’s character in the psychological diagnosis is that he actually has to have someone explain to him things that “normal people” understand more innately. Specifically, Choi Myeonghee has to explain to him that yes, normal people do care about their families. His actual confusion at the concept (and the way Myeonghee handles it by explaining) is one thing I can say is probably him having some sort of personality disorder, though we don’t definitively know what disorder he has. He clearly doesn’t care about “normal” people the same way he does about power.

I do think that the show does a good job of establishing Hanseok’s sadism as separate from his disorder. His disorder isn’t revealed until episode fifteen, after we’ve gotten to know him as a person and a villain. At that point, the framing is such that this isn’t the reason for his sadism – or even really an explanation for his behavior – but instead a new piece of backstory we have to understand as a part of him. So he’s not a sadist because of his disorder, but because that’s who he is. It narrowly – narrowly – avoids the pitfall of most “psycho stalker” movies, wherein the character’s diagnosis is a scapegoat for fundamental problems with the story logic.

Hanseok sees people as toys, regardless of what diagnosis he might have.

A Toy Playing God

I find it interesting that a lot of people ship Hanseok and Chayoung. To me, that relationship always seemed like cold manipulation on his part. Hanseok never sees people as more than pawns. It’s part of his goal of being a God on Earth. To assume Hanseok sees Chayoung as anything but a tool implies he has more emotional acuity than stated. Furthermore, when he confesses his love to her in the second to last episode, it’s a fairly flat confession. He literally is holding her hostage in the scene.

And then he shoots her.

This scene doesn’t read as someone who is genuinely in love. In the localized version he describes himself as “madly in love” with Chayoung, but he does so without emotion. These aren’t the actions of someone who actually cares about a person. This is someone who thinks this may win over another person. It reads at someone who, backed into a corner, is saying what he calculated as the appropriate response. Actually, it’s the response he thinks will get him the right reaction – loyalty.

Notably, Chayoung is completely at odds with Hanseok. Chayoung has no respect for Hanseok, though he demands it of her. Regardless of his status or potential power, she doesn’t care about how he might see her. That’s on brand for her, considering how she’s willing to make a fool of herself for her own satisfaction. Hanseok, on the other hand, focuses way too much on his on image. Chayoung’s joke about his new hairstyle looking like an idol’s is more than a joke about Ok Taecyeon’s other job. She’s actively criticizing his emphasis on trying to seem approachable.

Vincenzo and Hanseok – more different than YOU’d think

But what about Vincenzo? He’s always talking about the suits and the mafia. He’s focusing on his image too, right? 

Well, not quite.

Unlike Hanseok, Vincenzo is honest to a fault. He can pull off a plan where he has to play a character – we all love the Episode 8 seduction. However, when he’s himself, he can barely stop himself from saying he’s in the mafia in polite company. Vincenzo wears the suits because he was practically born to wear them. Vincenzo doesn’t care if he’s approachable, and frankly he doesn’t care if you respect him. He always gives the most honest answer he feels he can. He doesn’t even really care if people find out he’s in the mafia – he taunts people with this.

Vincenzo also allows himself to play the fool when he has to. In Episode 15 he plays a shaman that channels the spirit of an antagonist’s dead brother, among others. This is the last thing Vincenzo wants to do – he wanted Chayoung to play the shaman. But, he gives it 1000%, as always. His shaman persona Yeo Rim is melodramatic, sassy, and wearing a white poppy in his hair. When “channeling” the spirit of the man’s dead brother, Vincenzo/Yeo Rim not only shivers and whimpers in his trance, but stands up and drags the man across the floor.

Vincenzo being an absolute icon as the shaman Yeo Rim.

Not exactly the move of a dignified mafia member, but by God does it work.

Acknowledging counterarguments

The counterargument to this being unique to Vincenzo’s character is that Hanseok performs as the foolish Junwoo, up until he can’t anymore. He even tries to fool Chayoung after the reveal. Theoretically this would mean Hanseok is as comfortable as Vincenzo in putting on a charade for others.

However, there’s no way this is true. If we are to believe that Hanseok’s greatest fear is dying powerless and in obscurity, then this betrays an intense insecurity on his part. As we’ve seen time and time again, he has to be in control of every interaction. He has to be liked or respected by others. When Hanseok playing Junwoo, he’s using that role as a means to get the respect of others by subverting his own likeability. However, once he stops playing Junwoo, Hanseok preoccupies himself with his image and his respectability, as well as hiding his own illegal acts.

Wrapping up part II

Once we understand Hanseok as an insecure character, the name of his company begins to make sense. Babel. The tower of Babel – the tower of mortals who fancied themselves as powerful as God. It might as well have had an Icarus Division, if they wanted to make it clearer. Hanseok wants nothing more than to be a god, playing with people like they’re toys, building towers out of Legos and knocking them down as he pleases.

But it’s the man Hanseok fancies as a mortal who is able to play him.

Hanseok is the toy.

Vincenzo is the god.

Part 3 Arriving Soon

Burnout – A Reflection

I have come to realize that, while my creativity is limitless, my ability to harness my creativity is limited.

I have been told that I think in words, to the degree that all of my thoughts – visual, auditory, or otherwise – get converted into complete sentences with increasing specificity. As time has gone on, I have learned that this is more true than I possibly could have imagined. It’s like having dictation software in my head.

So, in theory, this means that I have a limitless supply of ideas, right?

Well, not quite.

I do have an extensive library of story ideas. They constantly bump into and separate from each other, like nuclear reactions happening within the confines of my skull. When they line up exactly the right way, the atoms could power my projects for decades.

But you can only have so many of those before Chernobyl happens.

When I saw that BTS was going on hiatus, I was happy for them. Their careers have been exploding, which is honestly incredible, but the pace at which they were making content was worrying. As someone who also works in the arts – albeit at a much smaller scale – I know how hard it is to flex those muscles constantly. And BTS seemed to be fundamentally aware of that issue.

However, while most people seemed to be thinking about this development in a positive way, a lot of people seemed to think that this meant BTS was over. There were a number of articles and think-pieces trying to clarify if BTS was really gone “for good,” and plenty more that tried to get people to calm down. BTS’s company HYBE did some heavy lifting to convince people that this wasn’t really a hiatus, at least not completely – they were still going to do solo releases and figure out who they were as artists and individuals. And yet, I had to explain to a number of people that no, BTS was not breaking up, they were just taking care of themselves.

A novel concept, truly.

This is where my (admittedly shame-inducing) history as a BIGBANG fan shapes my perspective. I got into BIGBANG in 2013, just after their career-defining Alive album came out. No members of BIGBANG were in military service, and Daesung’s accident was practically ancient history. However, they were in the midst of a hiatus nonetheless. This hiatus persisted until mid-2015, when BIGBANG came back bigger than ever before with their album MADE. And, while there was a lull in 2014 as far as “major” K-Pop releases were concerned, the genre didn’t evaporate into thin air. In fact, some of my favorite releases by other bands came out when the biggest band in the world was taking a break. (VIXX’s “Error” and Orange Caramel’s “Catallena” come to mind.)

But today, the idea of a K-Pop band as big as BIGBANG or BTS is considered unusual at best, and worrying at worst.


I don’t have a definitive answer, but what I can say is that this issue is not new. It seems to be manifesting more in the K-Pop fandom now than before, but the idea of artists being a “content factory” has been present at least since people started monetizing their art via commission work, however many centuries ago. That’s not to say that making money off of your art is bad – I think it actually can be a very good thing. But as long as any industry exists, there will be people who feel entitled to your work, whether they are people within your community or observing it from the outside.

The most insidious aspect of this, however, is that when you see other people making content regularly, it forces the realization that you are not making content regularly enough. And while you may be okay with that, other people may not understand why you are making that decision. And when you fail to deliver by the standards of others, whether implicit or explicit, the discontent with what you make grows.

There is also the expectation that everything you make has to be seen by others to achieve validity. You can’t draw a picture without the expectation that it will go online for everyone to see. You can’t write a story without expecting the world to read it. You can’t edit a fan video just for fun. Everything you do as an artist has to be for the consumption of others.

I have had so many people in my community tell me that I should be making TikToks, or YouTube videos, or podcasting, or anything in between. What those people fail to realize is that it takes just as long for me to script a video, or edit a TikTok, or record a podcast, as it does for me to do my actual paid work. And I never have just one project going on – I always have at least five at any given time. That’s just how my brain works. So when deciding which personal projects to work on, I often struggle to balance them out.

Anyone who goes through my article log will notice that my articles have gotten more and more sparse since I started this website. There were articles I wanted to write – like analyses on Dreamcatcher’s “Rose Blue” and Sunmi’s “Pporappipam”. There was the series on Vincenzo’s villain that I was working on (which I do intend to finish.) And because of the YouTube copyright gods, I never got to finish my BTS web series.

This isn’t out of lack of interest in keeping up with Reel K-Pop. It really isn’t. But for me to write something I am happy with consistently, I have to put a lot more effort into what I do. And, when I am keeping up with paid jobs, commissions, and the screenplays I need to finish so that they can actually come to fruition one day, I lost sight of the other, smaller projects I loved, like this. And nothing prepares you for the guilt of not writing consistently enough to build an audience. I have mulled over the possibility of making a podcast or YouTube videos in lieu of written articles. But again, those take just as long – if not longer – to create.

Life also gets in the way. I had an entire video essay scripted, and intended to post it last fall. I had gotten all the materials to produce it, when tragedy hit my family August of 2021 – we lost my father to a heart attack. My father’s death was a tragedy to everyone who knew him, but the loss for me manifested differently. Beyond the emotional aspect of losing the man who raised you, in losing him, I also lost my creative mentor.

My father had been my biggest creative resource. He was my toughest critic and my fiercest ally. He critiqued my fanfiction when I was a teenager to help me improve my writing. He would sit with me while I edited my videos for class assignments in high school and in university. As a musician, he was able to teach me things about music that informed how I wrote and directed. Between him and my mother – an avid art fanatic herself – I was always learning something about how to be a good artist.

The loss of my father meant something else too.

I lost my concert buddy.

It may sound silly, but my dad was as big of a K-Pop fan as I was. He was constantly sending me new videos and singers to look into. He took me to my first concert – KCON NY 2015 – and loved it so much that he took me to KCON again not long after. When I was taking Korean during the peak of COVID and we were all working from home, my dad would pop in and tell me how great I sounded. I found out after his death that he would show his coworkers at his law firm the K-Pop videos I was sending him excitedly.

My dad was the person who would read my articles, and encourage me to keep writing.

Losing my father to something so sudden and so meaningless as a heart attack was the worst moment of my life. It was also the impetus for the most profound writer’s block I’ve ever experienced. I could barely write for weeks, and every idea I tried to pursue felt like it went nowhere. I managed one article that entire period, and though I did start writing a couple more, nothing went anywhere.

One thing I learned during this period is that grief comes with guilt. Not just guilt about the death itself, but guilt that you’re letting people down. That by taking the time away from your work or your projects, you aren’t doing what you need to be. That your grief should be secondary to the needs of everyone else around you. People were always kind enough to tell me not to worry, just to take the time I needed and come back to work and projects when I was ready.

But that doesn’t stop the guilt.

Not by a long shot.

I finally got into the swing of writing back in February, almost a full six months after my father’s death. Since then, my stories have been taking shape, I’m writing my scripts and working on other projects. However, even though I know I’m doing exactly what I need to be doing, the guilt of leaving this place in permanent limbo is omnipresent.

This brings me back to the topic of this essay – the necessity to do what you need to do to keep your art alive, regardless of whether or not you’re fueling the content factory. But what I’m learning is that no matter what I do, even if I do everything to preserve my mental health and make myself feel better, the guilt of not building an audience with my writing hurts. I keep moving the goalposts – trying regular versus irregular upload schedules, only working on articles that interest me, setting time aside on my calendar to work on articles for this site – but I always end up second-guessing myself, or not being content with what I’m doing.

I started this website to help film students and film aficionados learn through K-Pop – in other words, learn about how to tell a story through the media they’re passionate about. I want to continue doing that, but I feel like I can’t do that if I keep adding articles to my list of things to do, and making promises I can’t keep. I have no intention of killing this site, or not working on it at all.

But it’s clear to me that if I want to keep doing this, I have to take care of myself.

So, here goes nothing: I am going to keep writing. Some of that might be articles, some of that might be fiction that I announce later, but it will be what I want to be. A lot of it will also be in video form, so that it’s easier for me to get my thoughts out. With the exception of the Vincenzo series and one other I have drafted, I don’t have many other articles planned, but that’s only because I intend to write about what inspires me from now on.

I hope you all can do the same.

The Vincenzo Villain Saga – Part I

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Yes, I know I have been inactive for a very long time. I was finishing my schooling at NYU and starting a new job, and it was impossible to work on this blog. Personal reasons also kept me away for a while, which I may talk about at some point. Now that I have graduated and am gainfully employed, I can dedicate more time to this, and I fully intend to do so. Some projects that are on the horizon include a video essay series and a podcast, which will see updates in the near future.

If you told me that my favorite show of the last five years would have been a mafia drama where people used parties, bees, pigeons, shamans, and zombies to stop a capitalist overlord from tearing down an apartment building, I would have told you to stop reading fanfiction.

But, here we are.

Studio Dragon’s Vincenzo (2021) has been out for a few months, and it was an absolutely wild ride beginning to end. There’s something about it that keeps you watching, and it somehow delivers on both a satisfying conclusion and making you want the show to never end. It is honestly the most surprising show I’ve watched in a long time. I was here for typical K-Drama shenanigans in mafia framing, but what I got was much, much more. The acting was great, the cinematography was incredible, and the writing – oh my god the writing.

However, what gives the show a special place in my heart is the villain. I have to say, I can’t remember the last time I was this compelled by a villain. Even Orphan Black, my favorite show of all time, took its extremely compelling Season 1 antagonist and redeemed them – the character stayed compelling, but the reasons completely changed over time. I have not seen a show in a long time where the focal point is a character who is genuinely irredeemable.

And, to be honest, I love Vincenzo’s pure-evil reprobate with all my heart.

Villains who lack good qualities are hard to write. They often turn out like omnipotent superpowers or emotionless cardboard cutouts (or caricatures of real people with real issues.) There is also a weird trend in popular discourse that if you like a character, you must like everything they stand for. To avoid this problem, the trend has been to make villainous characters sympathetic, or have something about them that offset their evil.

But, let’s be honest, “old school” Disney villains like Ursula, Scar, and Maleficent are more fun.

The other alternative to making a completely reproachable villain is the twist villain – a character who we have come to know in one capacity, and then is revealed to be someone completely different. Whether it’s a secret identity or an aspect of their personality they’re hiding, there’s some sort of reversal. The main issue that arises is that the villain might be more compelling if it’s not a twist. If the villain is going to be secretly evil, without a shred of good, why bother making them pretend to be a good person?

The fact that Vincenzo is able to pull this off so well is a testament to how good the writing is. A twist villain who also falls into the “pure evil” category, but manages to be compelling without compromising the integrity of the earlier parts of the story – that’s really hard to do. But it works. That’s what throws me so hard. It works. It takes these tropes and it doesn’t subvert them (a trope isn’t always a bad thing) but instead executes them perfectly.

So, while everyone else on the planet is talking about Squid Game, I’m going to take some time to talk about my favorite antagonist on all of television. This will be a five-part series on why the villain of Vincenzo is one of the best villains – if not the best villain – on television this year. The series will spoil the entire show, so I strongly encourage you to watch the show first before reading it. However, if you’re not sure whether or not to watch the show yet and are looking for more in depth reasons to watch, then this series might help you come to a decision.

The series will be as follows:

  1. Introduction + Acting – YOU ARE HERE
  2. Writing
  3. Other Character Interactions
  4. Scene Analysis #1
  5. Scene Analysis #2 + Conclusion

For those of you who haven’t watched the show, this is the last warning. I will be spoiling the entirety of Vincenzo in this character analysis.

Pronto? Andiamo.

Source: dramabeans.com

Introduction: Episode 4

At the end of Episode 4 of Vincenzo, Vincenzo Cassano (Song Joong Ki) and Hong Chayoung (Jeon Yeo Bin) have decided to burn down the tyrannical Babel Pharmaceuticals – literally. Disguised as a cleanup crew, they evacuated the building, sprayed it with gasoline, and disabled the sprinkler system. While safely tucked away in a van, Vincenzo flicks his signature Cassano Family lighter and drops it into a trail of gasoline, blowing the building sky high.

Source: zoomerscorner.com

The chairman of Babel Group, Jang Han Seo (Kwak Dong Yeon) gets out of his car and panics upon seeing the damage. As we come to realize, however, he’s not scared because of the loss of revenue. The building blowing up is a problem for his safety…from another source.

A black car pulls up.

The door opens.

A pair of black Oxfords hit the ground.

Jang Han Seo stares, horrified.

Stepping into focus, wearing a scowl that could kill – and probably has – is…

Source: zoomerscorner.com

…Chayoung’s former law intern.

Jang Junwoo, the plucky himbo we’d come to love for his awkward English interjections, was secretly Jang Hanseok (italics intentional) Han Seo’s half-brother and the true owner of Babel Group.

Han Seo panics and tries to salvage the situation. He starts screaming at the wreck about how he’ll get the people who did this, Hanseok silences him. He doesn’t have to shout back at him, he doesn’t have to physically overpower Han Seo. All he has to do is quietly tell his brother to be quiet, and his brother complies in abject fear.

We have barely encountered Hanseok’s true nature.

And yet.

We already know.

Jang Hanseok is a force to be reckoned with.

I swear to god, when this twist happened, I was jubilant. This isn’t a new trope – on tvtropes.org, it’s called “Beware the Silly Ones”. But this is the best execution I have seen of this trope yet. And I am not exaggerating. Every time I watch the show, I get chills when I encounter the true Jang Hanseok again. My friends who’ve watched the show at my suggestion have been just as impressed as myself, and we join forces on the regular to analyze our favorite villain.

Perhaps motivated in part by my love of villains, perhaps also motivated by my love of 2PM’s Ok Taecyeon, this will be a very, very deep dive into Jang Hanseok, to help us understand how to write villains – and how to direct them, as filmmakers.

Source: zoomerscorner.com

PART 1: Ok Taecyeon’s Acting

We can’t analyze Vincenzo as a whole without addressing the acting. I was thoroughly impressed by the acting of everyone in the show – some roles were definitely played more for comedy, but I was never taken out of the immersion. Song Joong Ki and Jeon Yeo Bin have amazing chemistry together, and there isn’t a Geumga tenant I didn’t like.

However, the show rides on Taecyeon’s acting more than Song Joong Ki’s. Since we know that Vincenzo is a consigliere from the first minute of the movie, there are no twists in regards to his character or what he’s capable of. So yes, Song Joong Ki’s acting is brilliant, especially with how he subtly shows emotion and throws himself completely into any and every disguise.

But if Ok Taecyeon didn’t sell us on Jang Junwoo, Jang Hanseok wouldn’t be nearly as shocking or compelling as he is.

Taecyeon has to make sure that we’re just as caught off guard as the other characters when we find out who Junwoo really is. However, there has to be at least some consistency between the role of Junwoo and the role of Hanseok, otherwise it’s not believably the same person. Taecyeon’s acting is literally the hinge on which the plot swings.


Source: zoomerscorner.com

The use of English is probably one of the more interesting traits that’s shared between Hanseok and Junwoo. As Junwoo, it comes across as a quirk, almost to establish a childishness. It also implies that Junwoo has a problem assimilating in Korean culture, since he defaults to English constantly. He even states a lack of understanding by asking questions in an almost joking manner – “Koreans forgive you when you beg, right?” It implies that Junwoo is a “safe” character, because he is (allegedly) more focused on not causing a faux pas in this new space. People feel comfortable sharing sensitive information in front of him because they think he’s a fish-out-of-water American. (Without getting into spoilers for Burning, it’s like Steven Yeun’s character in that.)

However, when Hanseok is himself, he is able to fully articulate himself in both languages – using English is a choice as opposed to a default. He will talk business in Korean with a degree of fluency his brother doesn’t have. However, if he needs to, he’ll use English in negotiations – and since his lawyer accomplice Choi Myunghee (Kim Yeo Jin) struggles to do the same, this implies his reach is broader than any of his minions.

Hanseok uses English as a scare tactic as well. Since it is a language he grew up speaking, he expresses himself in anger with English. The angrier he is, the more English he tends to use. Take the car scene, where he screams “STAY. IN. THE CAR.” After beating the car to a pulp, he says, “Am I dreaming? I’ve never lost twice in a row in my life.” Then, to Choi Myunghee and CEO of Wusang Law Firm Han Seunghyuk (Jo Han Chul) he says, “This isn’t real. What is this?!” He does these things in English to establish the severity of the situation. Han Seunghyuk tries speaking English with him, but he’s not nearly as fluent and goes back to speaking Korean. In this scene, speaking English is a form of power that Hanseok wields.

The use of English also establishes a closeness in stature to Vincenzo. There are only three characters who speak more than one language fluently – Hanseok, Vincenzo, and the manager of Geumga Plaza, Cho Youngwoon (Choi Young Joon). These characters all have one up on the rest of the cast in some capacity (though Cho’s actual role in the story isn’t revealed until much later.) And, since the main conflict is between Hanseok and Vincenzo, the fact that both are fluent in another language establishes them as relatively evenly matched, making for a fantastic rivalry.


Source: pinkvila.com

Posture is important for an actor because it’s one of the primary ways we observe tension in a scene. If characters are standing at attention, it implies that there is a need to assert oneself, whether as subordinate or superior. Alternately, a character who appears relaxed portrays a disinterest with appearing inferior or superior. A shift in posture implies a shift in the dynamics.

Hanseok’s posture throughout the show is very relaxed, which implies a disinterest in exercising prowess over another. This plays a major factor when Hanseok is Junwoo. Appearing relaxed at all times implies that he’s willing to let other characters step all over him (which, as we find out when we learn his identity, is a power play.) It also makes him seem more lackadaisical and awkward, which means people look over him like he’s not even there.

Which, of course, is exactly what he wants.

However, the relaxed posture creates an interesting dynamic when Hanseok is his normal identity. Hanseok rarely stiffens or stands to attention – instead, his body remains relaxed, even when threatening another character. This communicates to the audience that Hanseok’s prowess doesn’t need to be stated by the character himself. If Hanseok were consciously standing upright the whole show, it would mean that he has to assert his power. But people are afraid of him no matter what he does. He has no need to appeal to show how powerful he is.

Source: pintrest.com

In fact, most of the posture shifts come from Hanseok bending down to someone shorter. It’s an interesting way of establishing dominance because rather than staying above you, he makes it a chore to come down to your level. He’s subconsciously always above you. The only other time that Hanseok shifts his posture is when the shift in power is disrupted – usually towards Vincenzo and Chayoung, but also towards Han Seo. These are the only times in which he stiffens, usually because he’s trying to calculate the next move. It is rarely, if ever, out of fear. I would argue that Hanseok never telegraphs feeling fear. (In fact, I will argue that, but in a later article.)


Source: twitter.com

Ok Taecyeon’s ability to express emotion with his eyes is actually incredible. Most of Hanseok’s character is expressed through his facial expressions, often very subtly – which is interesting considering that the character is very over the top. However, it’s Taecyeon’s eyes that I want to talk about here, because so much of the character is wrapped up in them.

Hanseok and “Junwoo” both artificially widen their eyes – by which I mean, holding them open wider. I really hope that Ok Taecyeon invested in eye drops for the role because he does this so often. But what’s interesting is that Taecyeon communicates something completely different for both Hanseok and Junwoo by using the same tactic. For Junwoo, he portrays a childish quality; for Hanseok, he portrays a deranged quality.

Junwoo’s eyes communicate innocence, especially because they’re often held open for comedic effect. When Junwoo messes up, his eyes are wide. When he acts exaggeratedly, his eyes are wide. It gives him the illusion of a babyface, despite having a jaw that cuts you by looking at it. This is key for the misdirection of the first four episodes, because his face literally telegraphs his manchild status among the other characters.

However, Hanseok’s eyes.

Hoo boy.

Every time Hanseok’s eyes are wide you know something is wrong. He most often does it to get under the skin of another character – like he does with his minions constantly. He pierces Han Seo with his gaze constantly, to the point that Han Seo rarely looks him in the eye. After the reveal, when he does his typical Junwoo-isms like acting childish, he’s almost always doing it to catch another character off guard, and his eyes being open helps with that.

Where it most freaks me out is in the scene where Hanseok beats someone to death with a hockey stick. His eyes are wide the entire time, in a sadistic glee. As he’s threatening Chairman Jang in the same scene, he uses his eyes to completely disarm him. This gets under my skin like nobody’s business, especially paired with the high-pitched cooing he does. Which, of course, is the intent – to make you feel his gaze in your bones.

(Bringing another actor into this, Jake Gylenhaal achieves a similar effect in the movie Nightcrawler. No spoilers. Please watch that movie.)


It’s amazing how Ok Taecyeon is able to portray the character of Jang Hanseok so perfectly. Taecyeon mentioned that playing Hanseok allowed him to show “a different side” to himself, and while the pretense worries me a bit, I can see that he threw himself into that character. I don’t know what Taecyeon’s process is as an actor, but I would love to find out what he used to get into character.

That said, we can learn a lot from how Ok Taecyeon plays the role of Hanseok about how to portray both comic relief characters and villains. The shared traits not only keep the character consistent, so that he’s recognizable both as Hanseok and Junwoo, but they completely subvert our understanding of the archetypes these characters belong to. The consistency also makes it easier to see what is uniquely Hanseok – that being violence and power.

There is, of course, much more about Ok Taecyeon’s acting that could be unpacked. However, to avoid turning this into a dissertation, I am going to cap it here. We’ll come back to this when I do scene breakdowns later on, but I want to make sure there are at least some surprises!

For now, I say: ci vediamo!

Read part 2 Here

æspa and the Rise of Digital Idols

Like most preteens I had a favorite singer. Her name was Rin – she had blonde hair – and Rin’s songs echo through most of my middle school memories: the field trip to a Civil War reenactment, my eighth grade promotion, and several mile runs. But, unlike most preteens, I couldn’t see my favorite singer in concert at the time. Rin was a Vocaloid, a virtual persona that only existed in my laptop. 

International K-pop fans face a similar situation. With most idol groups, especially smaller groups, their activities are mainly focused in Korea. Tours are often logically focused in East Asia. Most fans, both international and domestic, would interact with their idol through the Internet. 

But, with SM’s new girl group æspa, the interactability of some members may be limited to the Internet. The group consists of eight total members, four real members and four virtual members. 

æspa’s debut music video and song, Black Mamba, is mostly composed of wide shots, punctuated by fast cuts from scene to scene. These shots not only help capture æspa’s dancing, but also frames the music video’s sets very well. The video’s bright colors heightens its sleek atmosphere. 

Black Mamba’s wide shots serve an additional purpose – to emphasize the contrast between different sets. Unlike the bright colors and futuristic atmosphere of the previous environments, the music video transitions into a dark fantasy-esque set midway through. A black background, with the girls framed by gold headpieces and jewelry, has a red smoke cloud explode in the background. This scene may appear out of place, but it heralds a transition in the video’s tone. Early scenes of the girls dancing were occasionally interspersed with the darker sets, but now, they primarily appear in these darker sets. 

Although the lighting for both are relatively dark, the backgrounds are different in tone. The blue-purple, aurora borealis-like sky illuminates the trees. The trees in the first set (left picture) are covered with glowing orbs and willow-like branches, whereas the trees in the second set look more barren. Also, the different colors in the blue sky are vertical while the pink clouds remain at the bottom and top, creating a horizontal strip.

The contrast between the two subway car sets go beyond just two separate types of lighting .They are decorated with complementary colors – purple and green – with opposing states of growth. Unlike the green car that’s filled with dark vines, the purple car is covered with cheerful flowers. The plants in the purple car are concentrated on the floor, whereas the plants in the green car cover the walls and ceiling.

Given the video’s emphasis on technology, I was surprised that the first appearance of their digital selves was at 2:34. Black Mamba blurs the line between the real and the virtual by introducing their virtual members as reflections. By doing so, the virtual æspa members are portrayed as extensions of the human members’ selves.  Just as æspa can exist within two entirely different sets, the group can also exist within two separate dimensions: real and virtual. Additionally, æspa’s virtual members are framed within the window and mirror. These shots parallel how the audience might view æspa also through the frame of their phone or laptop screen.

Overall, the video emphasizes technology and social media. The theme stretches beyond just a music video concept; it’s part of æspa’s identity as a group.

SM has never shied away from introducing groups built upon unique concepts into the K-pop market. The company has a long history of attempting to introduce a rotational boy group – groups that allow members to leave while the group remains active – to the Korean pop market with varying degrees of success. Super Junior was intended to transition into a rotational group, only for an intensely negative fan reaction to halt the project. EXO was rumored to have a rotational concept, ultimately settling on two groups (one for Korea and one for China). NCT provided the natural expansion to EXO’s concept – initially planned to have a group per country – which currently seems to have halted at five. A rotational group could significantly change how the fandom surrounding that group operates. While having biases being rather important in merchandise sales and even allowing certain trainees to debut (through competition programs like Produce 101), rotational groups would emphasize brand loyalty rather than loyalty to an individual member. 

æspa seems to be a continuation of SM’s attempt to alter the relationship between fan and idol. K-pop fandoms are built upon parasocial relationships. Perse and Rubin describe how parasocial relationships are “developed with media personalities through shared experiences existing only through viewing of the personality or persona over time.” K-pop fans may find their experience similar; although they may have never personally met their idol, they have followed their favorite groups from comeback to comeback.  The same study proposes a relationship model in which liking is replaced by attraction as the factor that increases relationship importance. As a result, the idol industry’s high beauty standards only seem to encourage attraction. 

With virtual idols, æspa fans could potentially have their bias – or at least, the avatar of their bias – living at home with them, which would further blur the definition of a parasocial relationship. Virtual members, whose presence you can purchase and appearance you can potentially customize, provides more intractability than posters or photocards. This trend seems to follow SM creating merchandise with virtual reality experiences that make fans really feel like they are speaking to their idol. For example, the SM Atrium boasts virtual “dates” with idols like EXO’s Kai or Red Velvet’s Irene. 

Although æspa’s concept might be unique to the industry, digital idols are not unique to æspa. Vocaloids and K/DA both represent groups of popular digital singers. First released in 2004, Vocaloids were voice synthesizers that had virtual personas with each voice. K/DA, produced by Riot Games and Stone Music Entertainment, first became active in 2018. Like Vocaloids, K/DA members took their voices from real singers. However, these singers had separate careers and personas outside of the group. Riot Games also produced several other virtual bands made up of alternate universe versions of champions from the popular game, League of Legends. 

However, æspa is unlike these previous groups in one aspect – they have real members. Although Vocaloids and K/DA draw their voices from real people, they do not have human members as part of their groups. Human members will eventually age, possibly leave the agency, pursue solo activities, etc. But virtual members? They would be able to sing and perform for decades.

Some have already expressed concerns over æspa’s digital members. They worry that the possibility of purchasing the virtual counterpart of a living human would blur the already thin line between an idol and their private life. Because æspa’s NingNing is still underage and most members just barely past 18, there are troubling implications about the types of interactions available to fans and consent as well. æspa’s human members and their virtual counterparts must be clearly distinct from each other; not only from appearance, but also with boundaries.  

With æspa’s debut, another preteen girl might have them become her favorite virtual singer. But now, she’ll be able to see æspa both in person and online.

Author’s Note: Hey, everyone! I’m another new writer on the Reel K-pop Team. Feel free to click on the “About Us” page to learn more about me and my fellow new writer, Erika. Thanks for reading!

SuperM(anliness) and TXT(estosterone): Blurring Masculinity

“Be a man”. This phrase is commonly thrown at men when they are displaying acts of vulnerability or weakness; traits often associated with femininity. To “be a man” is to cast out anything “girlish”: no complaining, no sparkly clothes, and absolutely no crying. Calling a man a girl is taken derivatively, since femininity is something to fear and avoid. Even in the case of women themselves, being too girlie is to be called an “airhead” or less intelligent than their serious “manly” counterparts. How can society flip the narrative on femininity? How do we figure out that it isn’t the end of the world and is by no means an insult? By constantly blurring the lines between what is considered “masculine” and “feminine”, blending them together instead of putting one up against the other, we can start to find some answers. A place to look for these answers is none other than the world of K-pop.

K-Pop, or Korean pop music, is a place where all idols, both boys and girls, are often seen sporting sparkly eyeshadow and often androgynous clothing in many music videos, public appearances and photo shoots. The debate surrounding what is “manly” with K-Pop boy groups is not a new one. Many new western audiences can’t seem to wrap their heads around a presumably straight boy putting on lip tint and shimmery eye shadow for fashion. These idols that seemingly have soft or feminine features are referred to as kkonminam, or “flower boys”, and are seen often as desirable and sought after in the recruitment process. Masculinity is becoming more and more ambiguous, which is a concept most expertly represented by comparing the two boy groups SuperM and TXT. By putting their recent comebacks side by side, we can start to explore how each group interrogates masculinity and femininity and whether or not it is empowering to choose one or combine the two in harmony.

SuperM, who had its recent comeback in September of this year, refer to themselves as “the Avengers of K-Pop”. Comprised of members stemming from different mega-groups from the behemoth SM Entertainment, such as SHINee, EXO, WayV and NCT, it is no surprise that this group is one to look out for. What is surprising, however, is how un-innovative the new supposedly innovative boy group turned out to be.  With their recent music video “One (Monster & Infinity)”, “boys-being-boys” seems to be the slogan of the day.

Though this may be a terrible screenshot, Kai’s violent snarl while he claps is a must see. Additionally, Ten looks like he’s conjuring a spell to take your first born, Baekyun is playing hot potato and Mark looks like he just discovered a neat rock.

The members are seen sporting three outfits throughout the video; one being very military-esque, with sand camouflage and war medals sprinkling their chests; another being black dress-wear with green highlights (something reminiscent of the 1999 film The Matrix); and the final displaying NASCAR inspired driving coats and muscle tees. Each outfit displays a sense of authority, where the metals on their military outfits convey aptitude and prowess and the muscle-tees showing physical strength. There are many references to stereotypically masculine movie franchises sprinkled throughout the music video. The member Kai is seen scaling a glass tower, reminiscent of the famous scene found in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, where Tom Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, is seen dangerously climbing outside of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai for various secret spy activities. The lyrics “landing in the Matrix, tryna break it” is also a reference to The Matrix, where the lead Keanu Reeves is celebrated for his superman abilities and fighting style. The overall message of the song is that of excellence; the members are seen boasting of their ability to overcome anything and warn others of their existence through lines such as “I’m the one, better run” and “Bring the battle, gimme what I want”. 

Through the lyrics and the visuals, SuperM seems to want to advertise what it means to be manly. The action movie references all add up to what  “the perfect man” should be; one who, not only isn’t afraid of a fight, but wants it, is able to handle such crises as climbing a huge building and has enough money and tenacity to accomplish anything else. The “no pain, no gain”, a phrase boasted by many gym-dwelling young men, lyrics explore this further. With little to none references to things that may be considered feminine, with the only exceptions being the traditional K-Pop makeup and notably the sparkly jewelry that accompanies the military garb, the group seems to be saying that in order to be this “perfect man”, you must reject anything feminine. But is this the only answer? Does masculinity have to be so black and white where in order to “be a man”, one should only adopt the ideals of the music video? The group that seems to directly challenge SuperM’s manly mantra is none other than TXT.

Huening Kai is the only one pictured here with cold elbows.

TXT, an acronym that stands for Tomorrow by Together, is the second boy group from BigHit Entertainment, the first being the world-wide phenomenon that is BTS. Needless to say, the younger boys have some huge pants to fill since their older brothers are breaking records in every surface and crevice of this Earth. Since many eyes are on them, it was interesting to see what they would do for their recent comeback that occurred a month after SuperM’s. Titled Blue Hour, the theme of their concept photos and music video seems to be that of imagination and wonder. In the music video, the boys go on a magical journey. From lazily sleeping on a tree, to dancing in front of a colorful merry-go-round in the sky, and shrinking to miniature size to stroll through a pastel forest, playing pranks on each other and interacting with sweater wearing squirrels, “Blue Hour” is a direct opposite of “One (Monster & Infinity)”. The lyrics tell a tale of being in-love, where the boys express that the time that they spend with their lover at the cusp of night and day, or the “blue hour”, exists in a different, magical reality.

The outfits in this music video seem to directly challenge stereotypical men’s fashion. One set of outfits has each of the five members in blue jeans but with various sweaters or coats. Notably two of the members, Yeonjun and Taehyun, are seen wearing crop-top sweaters, with Yeonjun’s being bright pink. Another ensemble piece utilizes cowboy inspired shirts and hats but with a twist. Again, Taehyun is seen with a vest/t-shirt crop-top combo, Beomgyu has sparkles on his cheeks, Huening Kai wears a leather jacket and Yeanjun sports a pink mullet complete with a black cowboy hat, jeans with holes around the waistband that expose his lower hips, and cowboy boots. By mixing traditional men’s wear – i.e. the blue jeans, cowboy hats and leather jackets – with soft, pink crop-top sweaters, pastel colors and an abundance of sparkly makeup and jewelry, TXT seems to blend masculinity and femininity together. They didn’t choose to wear 100% traditional cowboy clothing, where the western cowboy is often seen as a symbol for gritty, dirty, toughness. Instead they combined typical femine indicators with a masculine cowboy image. In the bridge of the song, it shows Huening Kai being dressed by blue birds who drop a cowboy hat on his head and drape a thin, pastel green trench coat over his shoulders. The way the birds dress him is almost a scene straight out of a fairytale, where animals help a princess get ready for an elegant party. 

He looks … kind.

Watching the two music videos back to back is a jarring experience. One boasts dark and menacing colors complete with rigid, precise choreography, while the other is overflowing with pastels, soft sweaters and smooth, gliding dance moves. Though each video is a work of art in their own rights, they celebrate two different things. Expanding beyond the music videos, the concept photos for each comeback are worth comparing. SuperM’s SuperOne concept photos show off the members posing in front of sports jersey’s with their names on them, complete with a strange combination of red tracksuits and plaid formal wear. TXT’s concept photos, on the other hand, is very retro with bright colors, where members are seen wearing even more crop tops, with Soobin’s rainbow crop-top is paired over a sheer, sparkly black long sleeve. Again, SuperM is perpetuating typical masculine fashion through sport-like images and TXT is seen blurring the line. With everything that is witnessed, what can be learned from the two groups?

Okay intellectual conversation aside, some of these outfits are war crimes and the biggest offender is Lucas’ socks.

SuperM’s comeback exists exclusively on one side of the masculine vs. feminine coin. It indirectly puts the concepts against one another, claiming that to be one is to be completely rid of the other. To be a man is to 100% be rid of anything feminine. Meanwhile, TXT exists on the plane of the coin that’s neither side. They exist in the inbetween, or the “blue hour” between what is feminine and what is masculine, if you will. They seem to say that they can still be cowboys even though they are pastel cladded with shimmery stars painted on their cheeks. They can still be their own form of “the perfect man” through different and more innovative ways; something their SM counterparts argue against. To become the “perfect man”, or really the “perfect human”, TXT seems to be saying that you need to be inspired by both sides to this complicated coin. Just because one is wearing a pink, crop top sweater doesn’t mean that they don’t have the capability to scale a skyscraper. Choosing both doesn’t make you weak, it makes you stronger, and it is in this lesson where labels are no longer needed to “be a man”.

A/N: Hey guys! My name is Erika and I am a new author here! I hope you liked the article! 🙂 Head on over to the About Us section to get acquainted. Thank you for reading!

Hwasa’s “Maria” – A Brief Intensive on Shot Composition

I’ve been a big fan of MAMAMOO’s since 2016, so you can bet I’ve been playing Hwasa’s “Maria” nonstop virtually since it came out. Judging from the fact that the video got 12 million views in less than three weeks, I’m not the only one. The song is an absolute bop, with powerful lyrics and a great melody. Hwasa’s voice and the Latin beat add a dimension of acoustic authenticity to the synthetic sounds within the song.

But as good as the song is, the video itself hearkens to something deep within me. The lyrics of the song are exemplified by visual cues and dynamic scenes. The colors strike a balance between green and red, warm and cold, vibrant and muted. It’s an elegant affair, yet it has elements of grit. There’s fluorescents and fire for lighting, flickering, even palpating. And, of course, the iconography – the dinner scene, the funeral, the crown, the asylum, the scissors. It’s truly a masterwork.

There’s one specific thing about the video I want to review for how brilliant it is, and it’s the shot composition. The framing of the shots themselves is part of why the video works so well. I will break it down into three categories: Dynamic Shots, Negative Space, and Set Design.


This is an easy one to discuss: there is not a single moment in the video with static framing. The camera is never on a tripod. Shots that would normally be on a tripod are done via handheld. The movement may be slow, but it is always – always – moving. This injects energy into every scene, because you always feel like you’re moving alongside Hwasa. Whether or not the camera is pointed at her, you experience everything with her.

In a music video, this is especially important, because the idol is in fact the star of the whole thing. We have to feel engaged with her personally, or else we lose interest once the song is over. But keeping the camera alongside an interesting subject keeps the viewer on their toes and eager to continue watching.


According to Lights Film School, negative space controls the color palette of a shot, simplifies the shot, adds depth, and isolates the audience’s attention. The negative space in “Maria” accomplishes exactly that. Looking at the iconic shot with the lighters, the background is pitch black, minus a soft light on Hwasa’s face. Then, hands carrying lighters enter the shot, giving color and illumination via the power of editing.

What makes the shot work is the negative space in the background. You could divide the shot in half – the top half empty and the bottom half filled. Hwasa’s face is framed by negative space on either side. The hands all point upwards towards her face, driving the focus towards her. Her hair, eye makeup, and lips are red, while the rest of the shot is gold and black, making sure she’s the focus of your attention.

Negative space isn’t always an expanse, though. It’s emptiness, and that can be on a stage as well. And the sets are sparsely populated. Hwasa often stands isolated, with nothing behind her. The asylum set is particularly empty most of the time, and the white, glossy tiles give a feeling of sterility. When offset by naturalistic imagery like rose petals and flames, it establishes a range of emotions that Hwasa is trying to get you to experience.

However, there is also a lack of negative space in many scenes. A lot of shots have monitors or other actors, filling the space. Other shots are extremely close to Hwasa, putting her in claustrophobic framing. This parallels the lyrics about dealing with adversity and loneliness, even in (and especially in) her position as an idol.

Set design

By far, the most important part of the shot composition is the set design. The set design is what drives the attention towards Hwasa – no matter the scenario, it can’t overwhelm her. In this music video, however, the set design accomplishes the tremendous feat of highlighting Hwasa while still being unique on its own.

Let’s talk about shapes

While I could go on and on about the asylum and all its monitors, or the beautiful funeral scene with flowers and chairs surrounding Hwasa, or the dinner scene with inedible objects as food, let’s take a different approach. I want to talk geometry. I can hear you scream at me from beyond the screen, “But math isn’t art!” And I am here to tell you no: math and science make up the building blocks of art and life. From Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” explaining the proportions of the human body in geometric terms, to Fibonacci’s “Golden spiral” representing the logarithmic spirals we find in the natural world, to even the patterns you might find in feathers on a wing or leaves on a tree.

The sets in Hwasa’s video are emblematic of various geometric design principles. According to Debbie O’Connor of White River Design in Australia, squares, triangles, and circles give off very specific emotions. To paraphrase, squares represent stability, triangles represent aggression and metaphysical direction, and circles represent unity and harmony. Any of these qualities can be positive or negative. Stability can be monotony, aggression can be power, unity can be homogeneity. Shapes accomplish powerful things as principles of design.

A world without rectangles

In “Maria,” most of the sets are not rectangular. Instead, they are either a very sharp triangle or a circle/oval. There are two prominent sets: an asylum and a triangular bathroom. The circle loops all attention towards Hwasa via the curves in the walls and her placement on screen. The triangle creates leading lines that directly point towards Hwasa, making her the center of attention always. Even the hallway set resembles an abstract polygon.

Round and round we go

Circles, while generally associated with positive qualities, can be put in a negative context. In Westworld Season 2, Episode 4 director Lisa Joy put a character in a circular room filled with spherical objects to show the central character’s monotonous life and spiral into insanity. In “Maria”, we see the same effect as in Westworld. The circle room is an asylum setting – sterile and pure. The mission of the “Maria” is to show how Hwasa deals with adversity and loneliness. Through the circular design elements, we feel that, regardless of whether or not people accompany her.

By contrast, the round set with the Mediterranean archways is palatial, with a chandelier. The set is regal, just as we are meant to view idols as royalty. (Note the crown of nails that appears throughout the video.) It also has a cathedral-like quality (again, note the crown of nails, which might as well be a crown of thorns.) Through these two sets, we can see the different design principles of circles at play.

The Math of Fear Triangles

The triangular bathroom, meanwhile, is also palatial; however, because of the sharp angles, it’s not serene, it’s unnerving. Hwasa’s hair is matted from the bathtub. Her makeup is smudged. She’s wearing plastic gloves in a bathtub, or more specifically, an area you’d assume she’d be more vulnerable in. The liquid in the tub is unnatural shade of white. The tile is dirty, and the painted paneling mixed with the wallpaper is borderline chaotic. She’s surrounded by velvet rope, like at a theater, closing her off from the others. The press as depicted in this music video blaspheme an otherwise private display.

The combination of these elements perfectly showcases the mission of the video. Hwasa lays her psyche bare for us. She wants us to feel the intense emotions that come with her fame: the chaos, the loneliness, the beauty, the pain.

That is, until the end.

The picture of stability

There is only one shot in the entire music video that has a rectangular composition. Where the set pieces form a rectangular frame. Where the composition indicates stability, strength, and comfort.

It’s the shot where her bandmates from MAMAMOO come to comfort her.

While “Maria” deals with heavy concepts, it doesn’t end in sadness or misery, but in joy. It ends in a serene composition. Her friends stand in a brightly lit environment. It communicates to us that in spite of the trials that Hwasa faces, she’s surrounded by people who love her. It doesn’t erase the burdens, but it provides reprieve.

When making a movie or analyzing a movie, you have to keep in mind how pieces play into a greater whole. If there is a theme central to a story, every shot should enhance that theme, whether to exemplify or subvert it. “Maria” accomplishes this in every possible way. The whole of Hwasa’s work is, needless to say, positively breathtaking. The rawness, the vulnerability, and the creativity – these are the pieces that make up the future of K-Pop.

K-Pop and Horror – A Complete Deconstruction

Get ready for a wild ride.

K-Pop and horror is an unlikely combination, but it makes a lot of sense. K-Pop relies heavily on background details or subtle things to communicate ideas, and horror works best when it’s details that communicate a sense of tension. The issue that arises is: how do you make the bands seem cool when you are also trying to creep people out? How do you get close to the edge without crossing the line?

Playful horror

Most bands get around this by taking horror tropes and not actually making the video scary. Which isn’t a bad thing! I’m all for comedy videos involving zombies or vampires! And this category actually gives us some interesting examples. T-ARA’s song “Lovey Dovey” is in this nebulous area where it’s mostly a comedy video but it plays with horror and zombie tropes to give a sense of unease, especially at the beginning. It’s also meant to be a callback to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, which has comedic elements as well (though I’d argue it’s mostly straight horror.)

Even so, despite the general sense of unease, “Lovey Dovey” is more funny than scary. The girls continue dancing as zombies attack, until they’re eventually overrun. Then afterwards, they still continue dancing, and they’re still pretty cute zombies with minimal decay. It’s not a very frightening video, it’s just good fun. And that’s all right too! I love “Lovey Dovey” with all my heart.

But I’m a sucker for horror, so let’s look at something legitimately creepy.

The Cross Gene Conundrum

Cross Gene is a band that kind of went under everyone’s radar. And it makes sense why: they never broke out of music show hell. There was that one time their dance for “Amazing Bad Lady” was banned for being too sexual. (In fact, they’re the only boy group to ever have a dance banned.) But that’s wasn’t enough to save their careers, unfortunately. After two out of the six members left the band (one of whom was Takuya, one of the band’s leaders) I find it extremely unlikely that another comeback will happen.

That said, Cross Gene did some crazy things when they were active. They’re probably best known for doing a whole zombie movie, ZEDD, to promote one song. The song only comes up in the last three minutes, too. And the zombie movie is kind of…bad, honestly. Most of the background actors are terrible and the plot makes little to no sense. (Sorry to all the high school friends I forced to watch it when I was a hardcore stan.) But the band members are the best part of it – they all do a fantastic job. The mood shifts from generally lighthearted to downright heartbreaking halfway through, and their acting sells it, making it a fun watch. The zombie design is also pretty creepy, and there are some legitimate scares. So it’s honestly worth watching all 40 minutes, just don’t expect Train to Busan.

But we’re not actually going to talk about ZEDD. We’re going to talk about Cross Gene’s video “Black or White”.

Cross Gene’s “Black or White”

“Black or White” is actually one of my favorite K-Pop videos because it completely shook me when I first saw it. The six members of Cross Gene are trapped in various nightmare situations – a car crash, a coffin, a warehouse chase, a creepy bedroom, an abandoned hospital, and a bathroom where all water turns to blood. The members of the band are plagued by these nightmares in various ways, but things take a turn for the worst when they’re killed by mirror versions of themselves.

“Black or White” is straight up creepy. Everything is grungy and dirty, but the members themselves – particularly their mirror counterparts – are mostly pristine until they’re bloodied. The video itself is sharpened to high heaven, so all the details are uncannily crisp. The death scenes are incredibly visual and creative as well as not being overly gory (save the one with the glass shard.) The sound design is also equally creepy, as most noises are not heard under the music, just the ones that maximize the emotional impact.

And the acting.

Oh my god, the acting.

One of the best performances in all of K-Pop

I don’t know what Shin was smoking the day of filming, but when his mirror self drowns him in a blood filled sink, you believe it. You believe both him struggling to breathe and his mirror trying to kill him. Yongseok too is also a hidden gem, getting choked out by his mirror self and his eyes rolling back as he dies. All of the members are great actors (as evidenced by how they single-handedly prevent ZEDD from being unforgivably awful) so you just can’t look away. It’s honestly fantastic.

Um…Shin? You okay there?

So far we have two examples on opposite ends of the horror spectrum. We have the fun, lighthearted “Lovey Dovey” and we have the dark, intense “Black or White”. But what other videos are scattered across the spectrum? Let’s look at three different interpretations of what horror can be:

Crazy Horror

If you haven’t seen SHINee’s “Married to the Music,” now is the time to stop and just have the experience. While the video is incredibly effective no matter how many times you’ve watched it, there’s something to be said about just watching on your own. So before you keep reading, stop and enjoy the surreal experience this video is.

Okay. Let’s get started.

“Married to the Music” is a bizarre music video. I don’t know if it’s scary with a capital S, but it’s definitely creepy, unsettling, unnerving…it’s something. But it’s still fun. It has a plot thread – a girl literally stealing body parts of the SHINee members to create a perfect boyfriend. But what actually makes it scary is the…weird stuff that goes on. In no particular order:

  • Minho’s head getting set on fire
  • Magic drinks that make the party appear/disappear at will
  • A disoriented Onew getting his nose stolen
  • Taemin’s eyes getting bashed out of his head
  • Key’s head sliding off a knife then getting punted into the air while he continues singing
  • A kiss ripping off Jonghyun’s lips
  • Color changing cookies making Jonghyun puke confetti
  • People dancing in the puke confetti

SHINee Horror Picture Show

What actually makes this video weird aren’t overt horror aspects, though. Instead, it’s the actual filmmaking that’s most bizarre. The video continuously changes styles, from tracking Onew as he fumbles around drunkenly to one-point perspective on Minho (and Key’s discarded head.) Bright colors juxtapose what should be fairly horrific visuals, which, while adding humor, also serve to make you feel a lot more disturbed. There’s also the fact that you never know what time of day it is or how time is passing, which just generally disorients the viewer. You don’t even know what time period it’s in based on the incredibly inconsistent costumes.

The collection of bright colors, disturbing imagery, and lack of consistency in visual style make a consistently bizarre music video. Will it give you nightmares? Probably not, but it gives you an experience, a thrill of watching something unlike anything else. It is incredibly visceral, but that actually contributes to the charm. Nothing like watching people rush to catch puke confetti when you’re having a bad day.

Got your nose.

Glamorous Horror

It’s no question that people think monsters are sexy or glamorous – that’s the whole premise of Twilight. Rather than being afraid of the unknown, some people find the mystery and ambiguity intriguing. And it’s easy to see the appeal – so of course K-Pop capitalizes on this as well.

One of the best examples of this is Sunmi’s “Full Moon”. Sunmi stars in the video (along with the rapper Lena) as a cerebral vampire girl in a nightgown, who bites the neck of a man (unsurprisingly.) We learn that he is paraplegic, and through a flashback, we also see that he knew Sunmi, or at least admired her from a distance. In the final moments of the video, the man transfers and awakens as a vampire, potentially curing him of his inability to walk.

The mythos of vampires in “Full Moon” is revealed mostly indirectly, but it works. Everything takes place during nighttime, so we can infer that this isn’t a sparkly situation. Sunmi and Lena have super speed, and Lena and the backup dancers can teleport. There’s also a lot of traditional vampire iconography, like coffins, standing on rooftops, and painful transformations. Most importantly though, Sunmi seems indifferent to the pain the man is going through, even smiling as he transforms, probably because she knows what he’s turning into.

Sunmi should get her own vampire drama, honestly…

The dance also has an important function in “Full Moon.” The cutaways to Sunmi’s dance sequences do more than show off her abilities, they establish how elegant and seductive she is when she’s not around humans. Assuming the other backup dancers are vampires or otherworldly beings, this is what Vampire Sunmi is like when completely in her element. This is the seductive world that the man will eventually find himself in when he awakens as a vampire and joins Sunmi.

I really miss 4minute…

Another addition to this category is 4minute’s “Volume Up,” which is light on the story but heavy on the aesthetic. It’s not really clear what the concept is – though you assume vampire because of HyunA’s red eyes – but everything is so beautiful to look at that you honestly don’t care. And it doesn’t seem random, it seems meticulous – there is a concept here, but they keep it mysterious. So while indirect about the kind of supernatural they’re working with, it still works effectively.

Subtle Horror

We can’t get through an article on horror without talking about VIXX. VIXX are unabashedly the untouched kings of K-Pop horror, largely because they span the whole range from outright scary to melancholy. But one of the things they are fantastic at is subtle, subdued horror, the kind that sits with you for a long time.

The example most of you are probably thinking of is “Voodoo Doll”. (I actually have an article on that video already, where I discuss the symbolism of an abusive relationship.) But we all know that “Voodoo Doll” is a tour de force of K-Pop horror. In fact, it’s arguably the first viable horror MV in the Korean Pop industry. In the spirit of keeping things new and fresh, we’re going to talk about two other videos – “Blossom Tears” and “Eternity”.

VIXX’s “Blossom Tears”

“Blossom Tears,” a duet with VIXX’s lead vocal Leo and another singer named Lyn, is a bit more obviously creepy. The music video follows a couple comprised of Leo and Lyn that we very quickly learn is abusive. Leo’s character – a fashion designer/tailor – is prone to violent fits of rage; while Lyn’s character – his girlfriend – tries to get through to him. Through small story hints – a bottle of pills here, a mysterious box there – we get a sense that Leo’s problems have been persistent throughout his life.

Leo is honestly a fantastic actor because I am very afraid of him here.

The climax of the video revolves around Leo finding Lyn dead in a bathtub. His pill bottle lies empty on the floor, surrounded by rose petals, and his box sits open next to the bathtub – it implies that Lyn discovered Leo’s dark secrets and decided to kill herself. However, what makes this video deeply unsettling is that it’s not that clear. Immediately before this, there was a scene where Lyn embraced Leo, and Leo looks at the dress he was making from across the room. His eyes are blank and predatory – it’s downright creepy.

The creepiness is compounded when we find out Leo has a shelf of preserved organs and turns Lyn into his mannequin so she can wear his dress.

Why Your Skin Crawls While Watching “Blossom Tears”

“Blossom Tears” gets under your skin because it spends the entire duration of the video making you feel uneasy, and it isn’t until the end you learn what Leo is doing to all of his past girlfriends. And then, when the reveal comes, you’re like “UM. HOW ABOUT NO. THANKS.” It doesn’t need to be full of jump-scares or monsters. What makes it good is the fact that it’s not trying to be scary, but unnerving. The ending, where Lyn is wearing Leo’s dress in death, is particularly uncanny, and that makes it more disturbing.

VIXX’s “Eternity”

“Eternity” is very similar in how it achieves a horror experience. This time featuring all six of the VIXX members, the video seems like it’s relatively happy at first. The members are with their girlfriends (all played by the same girl) in various situations (painting, dancing, playing piano, drinking coffee, or just teasing.) Because of the forlorn and intense expressions of the members while they sing, you do have a sense that the video it will end badly for everyone involved but you don’t know how. The aesthetic of the video itself also contributes to the feeling of unease, with the generally muted colors and perpetual blue making seemingly happy images feel more melancholy.

Then the girl turns to dust.

We see the members looking around for their girlfriend, implying that maybe she’s just a ghost. But then Ravi is dancing with the air, in blissful ignorance, while the girl is watching him from across the room. We see N interacting with the air as well, though it’s only a glimpse in reverse. And lastly, Ken’s picture of the girl disappears in the final notes of the song, showing that the girl was never real to begin with.

Why Our Hearts Break While Watching “Eternity”

“This”Eternity” definitely counts as horror because it’s unabashedly eerie. It breaks your expectations of where the story is going towards the end and casts the rest of the video in a different light. The plot itself captures the nuance of the song, specifically tonally as it has both elements of cheerfulness and gloominess. It sticks with you long after you watch it, more than I would say “Blossom Tears” does. Both are excellent, but “Eternity” is the one that makes you contemplate your own existence when you’re done.

Horror is not built exclusively on motifs and monsters. Rather, it’s built on feelings of mystery and despair. While you wouldn’t say “Married to the Music” is straight-up horrifying, it channels the genre enough to make an unsettling viewing. Just because “Eternity” and “Full Moon” don’t necessarily adhere to typical genre conventions of horror doesn’t mean they aren’t a part of the genre either. The thrill of being scared, regardless of format – that’s part of the fun. Horror is an ambience of unease, not a jumpscare.

Current Events and K-Pop’s Role in Activism

The world has been watching the United States closely these past few weeks, rightfully so – we’ve effectively imploded. Centuries of mistreatment of Black people have come to a head as, even with COVID-19, people are taking to the streets in droves to protest. Those who haven’t taken to the streets are still voicing their support, often through social media and donations. People in other countries worldwide are supporting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement too, standing with BLM while they face down police brutality at protests against police brutality.

I do not frequently post about politics; however, if you know me in real life, you will know that I have very strong beliefs and will drop everything for a political debate. I was raised very liberal, having grown up in a multicultural household and having gone to a diverse private school Washington, DC. Nevertheless, my efforts are mostly focused on researching current events and movements so that I can be a better ally to the people in my life.

But right now, I feel an urge to speak.

One of the surprising forces throughout the past two weeks has, in fact, been the K-Pop fan base. K-Pop stans have been flooding hashtags like #whitelivesmatter and #maga with fancams of artists they love so that it’s harder to find anti-BLM posts. When the Dallas Police Department asked people to send in videos of protesters in “illegal activity,” K-Pop fans crashed the app by sending fancams in instead. And when BTS promised a million dollar donation to BLM, K-Pop fans matched that donation in twenty four hours.

K-Pop is by no means perfect – it has its own problems with racism, colorism, and cultural appropriation. I’m not going to pretend those issues don’t exist, especially after being a K-pop fan for seven years and seeing artists like PRISTIN’s Kyla get undue hate for no reason whatsoever. All K-Pop fans should do their due diligence and research the history of these issues in the industry in order to be a responsible listener and consumer of this music.

What I will say, though, is that the world of K-Pop has become a distinctly unifying force since it hit the global stage. The common appreciation of the artistry of Korean Pop has brought people together from across the globe, creating a common point of reference we can all identify with on some level. People are not only invested in the bands themselves, but the history and environment those bands are a part of. And even if you’re not a fan at all, there is still a level of mutual appreciation due to quality of the body of work.

K-Pop became a force to be reckoned with, by virtue of creating something many people can enjoy.

The platform that K-Pop has created for issues is honestly extremely strong. Whether you’re a BTS fan or an EXO fan or a TWICE fan, there is still a level of trust based on the shared experience of enjoying art together. The fact that everyone enjoys the same thing, the specific bands one “stans” coming down mostly to personal preference, means that the capacity for unity is extremely powerful.

Things are still bad in the United States. They won’t stop being bad unless action is taken. And it’s not just small things like the murderers of George Floyd being charged for their crimes – the issues of systemic racism are broad, plaguing our whole country in every conceivable way. But seeing K-Pop fans from around the world coming together to put a stop to some of these horrors, using their platform to promote a message of togetherness and solidarity – it gives me hope.

If you won’t sleep on your favorite groups, don’t sleep on these issues. Let’s dismantle the systems of oppression that try to pull us apart, and break down the barriers between us.

Please donate to the following organizations and help us end systematic racial oppression for good:

K-Pop is Art – let’s take it seriously. What drives K-Pop videos?

When I was fourteen, K-Pop was starting to pop up in western reaction videos. Random YouTubers would either post on their own channels or congregate with bigger names like the Fine Bros., where they would react to videos such as “Fantastic Baby” and “I Got a Boy”. One of the things I noticed repeatedly through these reactions is how much the reactors would poke fun at K-Pop videos. People would look at the brightly colored hair and hear the English choruses mixed in with the Korean and laugh because the phrase “Fantastic Baby” seemed like a stupid non-sequitur compared to everything else going on. There was no attempt to engage with what drives K-Pop videos.

Obviously, being a fourteen year old, I thought the videos were hilarious as well. Nevertheless, when I finally took my deep dive into K-Pop during high school, I began to actually look at the videos more closely. I noticed the burning cars in “Fantastic Baby” and remembered that one of the members, Daesung, had been in a car accident where someone had died, and had taken a break from singing for almost a year out of guilt. He was chained to a wall, like a prisoner. That got me wondering what was going on in the video as a whole, and I started looking into it more closely. I found very few analyses that covered it in any detail, and the lack of information actually became one of the reasons I started this blog.

4Minute’s “Whatcha Doin’ Today”

Fast forward about seven years later. I’m complying with the stay-at-home order and working on some personal projects. I tend to listen to music while I work because it keeps my brain from wandering too far. In this case, I was listening to a lot of 4minute, and I stumbled across their song “Whatcha Doin’ Today” and started listening to it.

I didn’t know what on earth was going on.

Sohyun was cleaning a carpet, Gayoon was playing with the Disney Channel wand, Jihyun made men make out with magic candy and has their heads inflate like balloons, Jiyoon was sitting on a toilet with her pants around her ankles, and HyunA was…being HyunA I guess. (Ironically she may be the least weird in the whole video.) Everyone’s wearing shiny dresses and bows, up to childish antics or over-sexualized antics, and partying like it’s the end of the world. And there’s no clear story to any of these scenes, so it’s really unclear what’s going on at any point. For all we know this is a day in the life of 4minute. Honestly, I doubt any of us would be surprised.

I wasn’t going to write the video off, though. It was weird, but K-Pop usually uses weirdness as a thematic device to communicate something. Even the most bizarre images are done with very specific intent.

What’s 4 minute doing today?

After way too many viewings, I can infer that “Whatcha Doin’ Today” is a satire of assumed masculinity and femininity. It’s not necessarily making a statement on whether or not those traits are bad or good. Rather, it’s exaggerating those stereotypes, both among the female characters (the members and their backup dancers) and the male characters (also backup dancers.)

The various members of 4minute are not dressed conservatively, but their outfits are comparatively everyday. They also act as the dominant characters, picking on men and being attended to by women. The backup dancers, regardless of gender, are objects of attraction, dressed homogeneously and being teased by them. In short, the video is satire about the ways we objectify both sexes.

As for the various weird images, like school hallways with lockers and bathrooms and parties, these are actually very literal interpretations of the lyrics. Gayoon asks for an Americano and some guy comes out from under a table to present her with one. Sohyun talks about being at school and doing housecleaning, with those lines directly corresponding to her locations. The bathroom isn’t explicitly mentioned but Jiyoon’s corresponding rap verse correlates with the choreography: when she says that people watch boring shows on TV and laugh, all the backup dancers turn towards her. The images of people partying usually correspond with someone announcing a party or saying “have fun!”

However, because of the language barrier between Korea and the west, a lot of that is lost when people aren’t motivated to turn on subtitles. What is directly connected to the song seems irrelevant because people can’t actually tell what is or isn’t connected.

What qualifies as “Weird”?

This train of thought got me thinking more broadly about what we in America qualify as weird when it comes to K-Pop, and why we’re so ready to write K-Pop off as bizarre without trying to understand it. And why the answer seems to be obvious – culture barriers between the east and west – I’m more interested in understanding the specifics of what we classify as weird.

My focus with this blog is filmmaking, so what are the filmmaking techniques specific to K-Pop that people in America actively avoid understanding?

Lighthearted kPop videos

The big feature of K-Pop is that it’s very rare that a K-Pop music video gives you all the information at face value. Even if you have the lyrics to go off of, usually the videos get meta with their symbolism. Often production design is what is a conduit to symbolism. Details about the world communicate things to the audience. Even narrative-based videos will often have some sort of a reversal at the end that changes how you view the whole MV.

For the sake of this analysis, we’re not going to talk about videos that are intentionally dark or serious. We’re going to keep it on the happier end of the spectrum, because lighthearted music videos tend to have the most “weirdness” potential. Furthermore, serious videos tend to be more overt about when they’re making a statement (regardless of what culture or genre the video is from). Consumer-friendly music videos have room to be discreet.

Within K-Pop there are four general categories for videos that sit on the lighthearted end of the spectrum. These are Coolness-Driven, Narrative-Driven, Performance-Driven, and Statement-Driven. These categories are not mutually exclusive, as something narrative-driven can also put a strong emphasis on making a point, coolness-driven videos can have a strong emphasis on the dance. With that in mind, let’s get into the various categories:

Coolness-Driven K-Pop Videos

Screenshot from Orange Caramel’s “My Copycat”

The number one category that drives western scrutiny of how “weird” K-Pop can be is the Coolness-Driven (CD) category. CD videos basically center around how cool the artists in question are. G-Dragon’s videos circa 2012, “Crayon” especially, are usually in this category. It’s largely about spectacle, but generally there to drive the point that this singer is just so cool.

G-Dragon’s “Crayon”

Looking back at “Crayon”, G-Dragon is wearing a hat that says GIYONGCHY. GIYONGCHY is a pun on his given name (Kwon Jiyong) his stage name (G-Dragon) and the fashion brand Givenchy. That is some SERIOUS pun game with the only purpose of making G-Dragon seem like the coolest person around. Not only can he afford Givenchy, he’s so rich he can probably own his own fashion house. This of course assumes that you associate wealth with coolness. The two are not mutually inclusive, in my opinion, but it works in “Crayon.”

What drives the CD category is a lot of aesthetic shots that are seemingly unrelated to anything happening in the story, assuming there even is a story. In girl group videos, this is usually in the form of sexy, expensive outfits. In men, it’s…well, it’s about the same. But CD videos heavily emphasize the members, so that you can both see yourselves in them and and see them as especially cool. The dance, which is always a primary feature of K-Pop as a genre, is more secondary in this category. It’s more about holding up the singers as a desirable ideal, wherein the dance functions primarily to achieve that.

Screenshot from G-Dragon’s “Crayon”

Scrutinizing “Coolness”

Western audiences tend to conflate this attempt at establishing coolness as showy or tactless. In some cases they’re right. The flashy visuals can be dialed up to an extreme that doesn’t sit well. But that’s not K-Pop’s fault, that’s the artist’s fault. G-Dragon went too far with “MichiGo” (don’t look it up, trust me) being extremely flashy and provocative to the point of being creepy. But that’s not a reason to write off K-Pop as a whole. It’s an extreme example. There are plenty of instances where western media artists do the same thing.

So why is K-Pop exposed to more scrutiny than other genres?

Examples of CD videos include: AOA’s “Miniskirt”, NU’EST’s “Action”, Blackpink’s “Boombayah”, miss A’s “Hush”

Narrative-Driven K-Pop Videos

Screenshot from Girls’ Generation’s “I Got A Boy”

Narrative-Driven (ND) videos are videos where a story features centrally. The story acts as a vehicle for us to get to know the members of a band. The story can be extremely simple, like a bunch of nerdy girls learning how to be sexy to win a contest (T-ARA’s “So Crazy”) or falling in love with a girl but being so shy that you panic every time she approaches you. (Seventeen’s “Nice”) Sometimes the story is vague, but the setting is prominent. Therefore, you get a sense of a story, even with a few moments of action. (TWICE’s “Like OOH-AHH”, EXID’s “L.I.E”) But even when the story is simple or implicit, the video is incomplete without it.

C-Clown’s “Far Away…Young Love”

On the other hand, there are videos where the story is a major part of the experience. The best example I can think of is C-Clown’s “Far Away… Young Love”. The video is at first glance very serious, but quickly becomes anything but, which is why I count it as a lighthearted example. There are two versions of the video, one with the other members of C-Clown and one with just Kangjun. The solo version, however, is the one we’re talking about. I honestly don’t want to spoil it for people, so please watch it. I beg of you. (Also, it has the same baseline as the Gerudo overworld theme from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Seriously.)

Screenshot from C-Clown’s “Far Away… Young Love”

The point is, everything in the video is played up for comedy. However because we spend so much time with Kangjun and get to know his character in this video, we get the sense that we know him. (Even though we don’t really. Please beware the dangers of parasocial relationships.) ND K-Pop videos are enable us to have a very direct relationship with the singers in them. We see how the members react to the various changes in their environment, what relationships form, and most importantly, what actions they take, if any, to change their situation.

Cinematic Universes

Sometimes this actually trickles into expanded universe territory, as narratives will form across videos and you learn about the members as if they were characters in a TV show. BTS is the example everyone thinks of, and they did establish the connected universe as a viable option for K-Pop. But I want to bring up VIXX’s “Conception” series, which had an implicit narrative explored through different aesthetics. LOONA, which has the LOONAVERSE, is also worth mentioning. I honestly don’t know much about the LOONAVERSE, but the wiki has a very good breakdown.

Is K-Pop really that confusing?

The story delivery is what confuses people in America…for some reason. Some people may say this is because a K-Pop draws on Korean cultural norms that are “unknown” to western audiences. However, I honestly can’t think of too many examples of that being the case. Maybe some references are unique to K-Pop, but overarching storytelling techniques should stand on their own.

It may come down to a difference in storytelling technique. Again, K-Pop largely relies on “meta” details to communicate something to the audience. But I also don’t think that’s sufficient. I have watched many movies where nothing happened, and my colleagues would zero in on a detail that was more vague and “meta” than anything in K-Pop. I don’t think meta narratives are the problem.

There are also issues that plague music videos in general. People mistaken melodrama for a lack of quality, or see an implied story as incomplete rather than implied. It’s worth noting, though, that many western artists make videos that are over-the-top, melodramatic, and lack background detail, but get millions if not billions of views.

Food for thought.

Examples of ND videos include: EXID’s “I Love You”, MAMAMOO’s “gogobebe”, SHINee’s “Married to the Music”, Super Junior’s “Black Suit”

Performance-Driven K-Pop Videos

Screenshot from Solar’s “Spit It Out”

Performance-Driven (PD) K-Pop is when the dance is more at the forefront than the members themselves. This isn’t as big a thing now, but it was really big in the early 2010s. SM Entertainment nailed these videos with bands like f(x) and EXO, with “Electric Shock” and “Overdose” respectively. miss A and T-ARA, while not from SM Entertainment, also nailed dances with such titles as miss A’s “Bad Girl Good Girl” and T-ARA’s “Sexy Love”. It has made a bit of a resurgence with bands like Momoland and Stray Kids, where the dance is the most primary part of their videos in many cases.

This can actually be a very positive thing for a band, because PD videos focus almost entirely on the members’ talents. It also makes departures from this format that much more noteworthy, such as f(x)’s “Red Light” and “4 Walls”. Since most K-Pop bands put a strong emphasis on dance, so picking it up feels second nature. That said, I wouldn’t say dance is universal to every K-Pop group. BIGBANG’s videos generally lack choreography, focusing almost entirely on the vocal performances. (Arguably, these could indeed count as PD videos because the vocal performances feature so prominently.) That said, I’d argue that this is the most uniquely K-Pop category, as dance and other modes of onstage performance are so important to the genre as a whole.

Performance or “Weirdness”?

The “weirdness” factor comes in when you consider that western videos don’t really emphasize performance in the same way. Whereas most K-Pop idols are strong all-around talents, western artists tend to focus on one category or another. Just because you’re a specialized singer does not mean you have to be a specialized dancer, and vice versa. It’s also my impression that westerners think idols who don’t perform on instruments are somehow not artists, just performers…as if not playing a guitar or the drums devalues the agonizing amount of time and training required to get the dance right. Art comes in many forms, all of which deserve recognition.

Examples of PD videos include: Red Velvet’s “Red Flavor”, GFRIEND’s “Glass Bead”, Pentagon’s “Shine”, 2NE1’s “Fire”

Statement-Driven K-Pop Videos

Screenshot from GOT7’s “Just Right”

This last category is the hardest to pin down, but it’s the most effective. Sometimes, K-Pop videos try to make statements about other forms of media. A lot of these tend to be serious, but, as stated earlier, we’re explicitly talking about lighthearted videos that align more closely with “Fantastic Baby” and “Whatcha Doin’ Today”.

The driving aspect of Statement-Driven (SD) K-Pop videos is an underlying theme that transcends the video. Often, this is communicated through the various filmmaking choices. This is intentionally vague on my part, precisely because there are so many ways this can be implemented. The thing that separates this from other categories, despite the overlap, is that the other categories can exist without an SD component. SD, meanwhile, has to rely heavily on the other categories in order to subvert them. You can’t get on a soap box and scream your thoughts at people unless you’re in Washington Square Park. In spite of potential coolness-factor, narrative, or performance, the statement aspect will supersede the other categories.

EXID’s “Ah Yeah”

Let’s look at EXID’s “Ah Yeah”. There is a narrative aspect and a performance aspect, in that there is a pretty clear concept and implicit story, along with dance breaks and recognizable dance moves. But rather than being connected by a setting or an explicit group dynamic, they’re connected by the central theme. The theme in this case is sexualization and censorship. You think the girls were censored for lewd content, as implied. However, it turns out they’re doing fairly innocent things. Even so, through most of the video, the girls’ hips are censored when they’re dancing. The only guy in the video is plagued by Hani, who’s playfully seductive, and LE, who’s angry and violent. The video is making a statement about the autonomy of women, particularly from a consumerist standpoint.

Orange Caramel’s “Catallena”

Orange Caramel’s “Catallena” has a similar theme. The three members of Orange Caramel play cuts of fish. Specifically, they are fish that were once free in the ocean, then get put in a grocery store, then are repeatedly discounted because no one wants them. They get made into simple nigiri sushi and are neglected. Eventually, some human girls (also played by the members) eat them and have what effectively amounts to a religious experience. This video is completely over the top, with repeated cutaways to mermaids, a mean octopus lady, and CGI tears.

It’s worth noting that KBS thought the “Catallena” music video “disregarded human life”. But…did it? Consider “Catallena” as a metaphor for the commodification of women – of people – in entertainment. Being taken out of their natural habitat, put on display for people to buy into, eventually cheapened and cut down into something easily consumable – it’s pretty clear what the intent is. I’d argue that it’s notably effective because the images sit with you for a long time. When you sit for a while and consider what it might mean, it clicks internally.

SHINee’s “View”

Let’s look at an example of a male group, specifically SHINee. Their music video “View” takes at least two viewings to really understand because, like most K-Pop, it really hides it’s story in the details. Most of the video surrounds the members hanging out with a group of girls who seduce them in some cases and just generally play around with them in all cases. They sneak into people’s pools, rob a bodega (I guess?) and go clubbing. However, if you watch the video closely at the beginning, there’s one detail that flies by.

The girls kidnapped them.

With that in mind the video takes on a very weird message. It’s clear that the members are more or less okay with their kidnapping, which is really weird. (DON’T KIDNAP YOUR IDOLS. PLEASE.) They never make any attempt to escape. In fact, they avoid being recognized. It’s fairly clear from the opening scene that they’re idols in this universe as well. There are a lot of weird details. Pictures of the members on the walls of an abandoned building. Various moments where people try to record them on their phones. Members sprinting past cars.

So what gives?

Well it’s simple.

The members don’t want to be found.

The Horrifying Realization of “View”

The girls function symbolically in this story, hence why we barely see their faces. They represent a reality the idols are no longer a part of, and the desire the members have to go back to that reality. They’re up to fun shenanigans and avoiding responsibility. It shows what a world devoid of idol pressure would be like for them. It shows exactly how liberating that would be. Since the death of Jonghyun came two and a half years later, posthumous context makes this reading that much more heartbreaking.

And yet, in this video, the song is lighthearted. The activities are fun. The members are happy. The cuts are so quick, you can easily miss things if you just turn your head to ask your mom for a sandwich. But the video and song are lighthearted and serene, and more than anything, it’s memorable. Even if you don’t get the story, it will sit with you just because you remember it well.

Symbolism Summarized

The reason people write off these kinds of K-Pop videos so frequently is because symbols can fly way over your head if you’re not looking actively for them. And that’s not a bad thing. If you keep going back to a video, you have a better chance of finding the subtleties on your own. Yet many western audiences laugh or “aww” at the videos, because they don’t want to find subtleties. It doesn’t matter if “Ah Yeah” is about censorship, “Catallena” is about commodification, and “View” is about escapism.

Some people just don’t care.

Examples of SD videos include: BTS’s “Dope”, ITZY’s “ICY”, Stray Kids’ “MIROH”, MAMAMOO’s “Hip”

Screenshot from SHINee’s “View”

Final Thoughts

In film school, a teacher told us to watch a video for the first time to enjoy it but the second time to understand it and analyze it. There’s nothing wrong with watching a K-Pop video purely for the enjoyment of it. But enjoying something consumer-friendly doesn’t make it bad. Marvel movies are mainstream but those can be amazing. TV shows that are high in melodrama are beloved by many. We watch America’s Got Talent and revel in seeing talented singers and dancers, so why is it bad when someone listens to a band where all members are more than competent at both?

K-Pop is an art form. It’s a medium. It provides unique challenges but unique opportunities. But it’s not just consumer-friendly, it’s consumer-challenging. The best videos are the ones where they sit with you. Maybe it’s because they’re flashy like “Catallena” or you want to learn the dance to “Shine” by Pentagon or maybe you just think G-Dragon looks really good in hats. But the more they sit with you, the more they challenge you to think about them. However “weird” they may be, don’t write them off because they were funny that one time you watched at a friend’s house.

Music videos are art.

K-Pop is art.

And art is beautiful.

Screenshot from VIXX’s “Dynamite”