It’s been a while since I last talked about Sunmi and since then, there have been a number of releases from her, which gives me a lot to talk about. So, when doing some research on her new releases, I decided to take a listen to “Noir”. And, let’s be honest I was blown away.
“Noir” is a strangely serene, eerie alternative-pop song. It’s very repetitive in its underlying tracks and chorus, but for some reason it still feels new every time I listen to it. The song transports you to another world, a bubble that colors your whole world around you. It’s not a bubble of safety but a bubble of perspective. The music video itself is all about perceptions and changing how you act to appeal to a mass audience.
Honestly, this is something I personally grapple with as an artist and as a child of the internet. Do I tell people about all of the hard things I go through? Do I put on a smiling face? Or do I do what some people do and capitalize my troubles? “Noir” is a beautiful video that explores this issue in a number of creative ways, all with bright colors and crisp visuals. While the video does go in some scary, downright frightening directions, it never ceases to be visually pleasing – which shows the exact issue that the music video is struggling with.
The aspect ratio of the video is 1.375:1 approximately – the video is generally letterboxed on the sides. This narrows our perspective and gives us a retro feeling. 1.375:1 is in fact the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences standard. It’s an interesting choice because the standard aspect ratio of YouTube and most music videos is 16:9. So even though the music video is intended to talk about the internet and modern day, it’s shot to give the feeling of traditional filmmaking – the kind you’d send to be developed off site and not know how it looks until you are in the cutting room.
The colors of the video are generally pastels, but there are some bold colors that stick out – red, fuchsia, blue, turquoise, orange. There is minimal use of black, but it stands out whenever it appears – usually on one of Sunmi’s outfits, or in the shadows. But what makes the film so dynamic is the texture. In fact the first shot we get is pure texture – Sunmi’s barely-chapped, gloss covered lips. Her hair and her clothing also provide texture, not to mention cloth backgrounds, furniture and of course, fire.
The symbolism hits particularly hard, specifically with regards to how actual filmmaking works. I will deliberately choose to not be patronizing and explain the purpose of the cell phones, selfie sticks, use of “like” and “dislike”, etc. because those are so prevalent in modern culture. But what makes Sunmi’s “Noir” work is the subtle symbolism. The reference to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the knife game, the reference to “Gashina” – none of this is explicitly spelled out for the viewer, but due to our collective internet culture, we feel the weight of those visuals. They mean something to us.
However, what impacts me the most is the way framing of the shots, both on a broad and small scale, impacts the symbolism as a whole. Framing a shot can make or break your whole movie. The effectiveness of the way “Noir” is framed can be shown in four specific scenes: the flowers scene, the wine/death scene, and the makeup-gone-awry scene. The first two heavily rely on the phone as a tool for framing, but the makeup one does not – and we’ll dive into why.
The flowers scene is comprised of two specific shots. The first has Sunmi singing next to some flowers, in what looks like a rose garden. It’s edited to look like an instagram post of Sunmi’s. But in the next shot, we get a wide of where she actually is – a bathroom, with some strategically placed flower pots on a shelf next to her. She’s perfectly centered in this wide shot, sitting on a toilet in some glamorous, designer outfit, with her hair filled with butterflied as she sneezes into some toilet paper. The shot is continuous, slowly dollying into her face. In two shots, we have a whole story.
The death scene is composed of three shots, though two are nearly identical. It’s effectively the inverse of the other one, in that we start wide, then see the phone perspective. It’s pointed downwards on what seems like a tripod, but because the floor is at an angle everything feels weirdly slanted. Sunmi dominates one third of the screen. A wine bottle pours straight downwards, while a wine glass sits on the far left perfectly normal. The shadows are intensely dramatic, making Sunmi look extremely ominious. The next shot is a close up of her on the ground, next to the spilled wine, which looks suspiciously like blood. She sits up unharmed as the camera pulls away and we see her full body – but the next shot, through her phone, is an image of her on an Instagram Live, looking fairly dead next to that wine. People in the comments are worrying about her. Framing is everything.
Without the phone being used as a viewpoint, the makeup scene is particularly haunting. We get the mirror shot in the bathroom, with the main viewpoint being Sunmi’s lips as she puts red lipstick on in a pastel green room. We punch closer – the lipstick is now being spread across Sunmi’s face. The next shot of her we get, her hair is teased up, her eyeshadow is smeared, her lipstick looks kinda like the joker’s smile. Finally, we get a wide of the bathroom we saw earlier, however at an angle. She’s smack in the center, barely illuminated while her shadows fall across the wall. The intense angles of the shadows in this scene show just how broken she’s become by the time we get here – and yet she’s still taking photos for the world to see.
Sunmi’s “Noir” is a beautiful way of showing just how complicated our world has become with social media. It takes an anti-social media stance, however, I don’t think it’s completely against it. I think it would be more accurate to say this is against using social media to make a false version of yourself. As with any medium – film, literature, art – your phone can be used for good and evil. Film has been used for propaganda, literature has been used to control people, art has been used in politics. We now have the ability to cause world change with our fingertips with our phones, and yet we spend our time on social media creating false versions of ourselves. We have a powerful and dangerous tool at our disposal now. Sunmi is hyper-aware of that, and the power that comes with being an idol.
With the death of Choi Jinri, better known as Sulli of f(x), hitting headlines yesterday, we have to call into question how we treat other people online and how we depict ourselves. Sulli was actively against cyberbullying, having been the target of much of it. We have to call into question the role that K-Pop fans and anti-fans played in her life, and how we can learn from what we collectively did right and wrong. We also have to call into question the pressure idols feel to always have a good time on camera and never show their struggles – or if they do, to monetize their struggles. “Noir” is incredibly important in showing us the pain of an idol’s experience, as well as the experience of the individual. It’s not that we should collectively harness the power of social media to “do good”, but rather be aware of the power we have, and how it can positively and negatively affect our lives.
This is Part 2 of a multi-part series. Please check out part 1 [here.]
Fashion is one of the most effective tools in all of filmmaking – in fact, one of the most effective tools for communication in general. Fashion tells a person your personality, your background, and your artistry. Fashion can be used to create a character. It can be used to make a good impression. It can even be used in diplomatic relations, to communicate an idea. Fashion is one of the most useful things in the world, because it ultimately is a form of communication. In film, there are a lot of variables that change what the costume designer will choose. While that may seem like something that everyone would agree with, the decisions behind costumes are not intuitive ones. One swatch of material can alter the entire film.
What makes K-Pop so fascinating is how fashion is used to communicate a group aesthetic. Girls wear matching skirts and heels, while boys wear baggy pants and oversized shirts. Of course, there are a number of reasons K-Pop group fashion is the way it is. Everything has to give enough freedom of movement for the idol to dance. There needs to be cohesion so that no one looks out of place. And each member still needs to look individualized enough to be identifiable so that you can pick a clear favorite.
In addition to these principles of K-Pop fashion, there are also elements directly affected by the music video or song. The genre of the music video dictates whether you dress in an edgy or cutesy or creepy way. If the music video takes place in a different time period than the present, all the outfits have to be period as well. If there is a story arc, then the outfits must reflect the individual characters – what their interests are, what their past is, what their eventual fate might be. If anything feels askew to the audience then the spirit of the video is lost.
ITZY has only had two major music videos as of the writing this article, but their awareness for fashion is incredibly acute. While everything is eye-popping and beautiful, there is a level of harshness that makes it all the more wonderful to watch. I don’t mean harshness in that their fashion is bad – I mean that in the sense that it goes against the grain of what most K-Pop girl groups are doing, and therefore shatters expectations. It doesn’t capitalize on its weirdness, but it capitalizes on its difference. What makes it harsh is how it is used and what it communicates.
In this exploration, we’re going to cover “Dalla Dalla” and “Icy” at the same time, and we are not going to split it up by members. Instead, we’re going to cover four themes: cohesion, branding, makeup, and message. There will also references to other bands or works of art. None of this is meant to insinuate that ITZY is stealing their fashion from anybody – rather, it’s to provide a frame of reference so as to clearly illustrate the impact these girls have. The only way to make art is to learn from the artists that came before you.
Cohesion (or lack thereof)
As stated before, there is this tendency for K-Pop bands to have extremely coordinated outfits. Bands like AOA are good examples of this, where everyone wears the same outfit. I find this extremely frustrating in videos, unless it’s a video like gugudan’s “Chococo” where the plot kind of relies on everyone being dressed the way. It just feels a little lazy to me. K-Pop relies heavily on people being able to choose their favorite member, so when everyone is dressed the same my first question is “but why?”
A lot of boy bands manage to get away by the seat of their pants by having everyone dressed in the same style. BTS, SHINee, and EXO all do this – and they are not the only ones. So many sport coats or various forms of jacket, tight pants that are weirdly wide at the crotch (so as to maximize dance movement) and minimal difference between outfits. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it always tends to be the same kinds of outfits that get this treatment. It’s usually done to create a sense of unity between members so that they all look like they’re part of a group. The thing is, some bands take the same basic outfit and manage to do a fantastic job of differentiating members with subtle features as opposed to just “here have a scarf” (see my articles on EXID’s “L.I.E” and Dreamcatcher’s “PIRI”).
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are times when bands just don’t care about cohesion at all and do whatever they want. Again, this is usually a guy group – BIGBANG and BTS specifically. I plan on doing an article on BIGBANG’s “Fantastic Baby” sometime soon (Burning Sun ruined them for me as I’m sure it did for many people, so I’ve been apprehensive about writing one) but one of the things that has always stood out to me is how different everyone looks. No one is wearing a matching outfit until the final moments of the video. Then of course we have BTS’s “Dope” which relies almost entirely on everyone wearing outfits for different professions. Girl bands also do this, but usually when they’re isolated, not in fully choreographed parts of videos. Boy bands have less restrictions in this respect.
ITZY leans into individuality more than cohesion which is incredibly refreshing. This largely has to do with the fact that the band relies on its message rather than typical K-Pop group creation. Their fashion largely reflects their “I don’t care” disposition and as a result, they aren’t relying on looking like each other.
Take for instance, “Dalla Dalla”. Their are two elements that tie all the outfits in together – the color black and the occasional splash of glitter. At one point they all wear fur but it’s only for a brief moment. But their styles are wildly varied. Their accent colors are also widely varied. Their jewelry and hairstyles are varied. They also don’t have an overabundance of pencil skirts – I mean pants are more comfortable for dancing. And walking. And everything else.
In “Icy”, they almost completely do away with coordinating styles except for white accents on some of the outfits and some branding in one choreography section. The styles are even more varied than before, akin to something like a BIGBANG video. This does have to do in part with the plot, but not very much. The plot of “Icy” is girls not caring what other people think of them, so they get placed in a number of situations where they are clearly outsiders. So they are simply meant to look “different”. I actually think that this is fairly effective here, more so than it would be in “Dalla Dalla” where there is not much plot. What we get in “Icy” is a fully realized version of that idea.
Branding in fashion has been an interesting component. It’s been a major part of fashion since the 1960s that has phased in and out of style over time. It used mainly to flaunt a brand, and was adopted tenfold by the black community in the late 20th century to the point where brands such as Chanel began to copy black designers and their use of logos. Our current century of fashion doesn’t really advocate for “branding”. If anything I’d say the retro album t-shirt has replaced the designer logo among millennials and Gen Z. Furthermore, modern fashion emphasizes people combining different pieces however they decide so as to turn it into a form of expression. You may notice certain groups claim different fashion trends – but very specific ones, so as to let you combine whatever you like and express yourself, how you choose. (For anyone who is interested, I recommend watching the CNN docuseries “American Style” to learn more.)
Brands in K-Pop, however, have generally been sparse until recently. Logos and designs have been common, but in a genre that generally relies on the coordination of its idols, it can be distracting for everyone to have a logo. As a result, virtually nobody has a logo on their jacket – unless it’s a hip hop style boy band which, again, pulls influence from African-American fashion.
ITZY, however, leans into the branding completely. Precisely 38 seconds into their first video, “Dalla Dalla”, we get a glimpse at a brand name. Again at 1:06, and again at 1:10 (this time more than one, as all five members are there). They’re peppered throughout the rest of the video. It’s usually a belt buckle, or something on the shirt. “Icy” goes all out – when we first see all five girls together, four of them have logos on their shirts – largely because they’re wearing athletic wear, something that has an abundance of logos. In one of the other dance sequences, the band has matching outfits, all from the same brand, with matching logos. But, it’s all very different pieces from this brand (Iceberg, in case you’re wondering.)
“Icy” is branded content but not in the way most people would understand it. There is a lot of promotion of different fashion labels – Versace, Iceberg, Chanel, Sportmax, DSquared, and many others – the promotion is centered around the members themselves and the labels do not get explicitly mentioned. The pieces are used to build the personalities of the members, not distract from them. Furthermore, these are all luxury brands, and I find it unlikely that most fans would have the means to buy them. Not implausible, but not likely, since most younger fans are probably going to be dependent on their parents and parents are not typically willing to spend that much. I find it much more likely that they’re used to depict ITZY as a band that’s indulgent and takes care of themselves, which is at the core of their message. Obviously, it’s unlikely that the members chose these outfits themselves since JYP probably has an army of stylists. But ITZY appears to be a brand promoting self-indulgence, self-care, and a general “Screw the rules” attitude.
In essence, they’re the embodiment of the “Treat Yo Self” principle.
When I was ten years old, I went to a birthday party. A bunch of my female classmates were there already, and they were being treated to manicures and makeovers. All of the girls went straight to picking their favorite colors for eyeshadow – glittery greens and blues that looked extremely gaudy. I ended up surprising the makeup artist when my fourth grade self asked for brown. I had been reading fashion magazines, and I had light olive skin, I knew that warmer colors looked good on me and my brown eyes would look even bigger if I had brown eyeshadow on. I was super proud of my choice, and the makeup artist seemed to like it too. I remember getting a bunch of blank stares from all my classmates, but in the end it didn’t matter. I looked damn good, and went home feeling like I made a good fashion choice.
I don’t wear a lot of makeup now, but I always take great pride in it. I love experimenting with tons of different colors, brands, etc. One of the reasons I love cosplay is because makeup is such a beautiful and powerful component to it. I used to spend a lot of time filming videos for theater in my high school, and my favorite thing to film was always the makeup room, because you could see a person transform into someone else.
Makeup is always interesting in K-Pop because it’s used by everyone. Men use it. Women use it. It can be over the top and it can be bareface, which means that you don’t want people to think you’re wearing anything, but secretly you are. It’s extremely transformative, but it affects how you see the idol. From G-Dragon’s glitter covered face in Bang Bang Bang, to his lip art in Fantastic Baby, to his sunken eyes in Coup D’Etat…basically, everything G-Dragon has done to his face is worth an article.
The point is, makeup is a transformative tool that no one should ever take for granted. So it’s interesting to me how so many female groups are minimalist in their makeup choices. They actively avoid overwhelming you, the audience. ITZY is no different in this respect, but I think it’s done for a different reason. Most girl groups go for bareface makeup with small bits of color. This is largely done to emphasize innocence. But ITZY is actively against that textbook innocent message. So what does the minimalist makeup do?
It’s actually pretty simple.
It makes them look good.
ITZY’s entire core is about making you feel good about yourself. Live vicariously through them and learn their lesson of not giving a f*** about what other people think about them. So when they wear makeup, they’re not doing it to be eye catching. They’re doing it to look good. Take, for instance, “Dalla Dalla”. Most of the eye shadow is smokey brown or black, but it’s not overt. It does just enough to highlight their eyes. Their lips are generally neutral tones, warmer glosses or nude lipstick, neither of which makes them look artificially pretty. There’s a little bit of shine/strobing but it’s actually very tastefully done.
It gives you a reason to pay attention to their face. Similarly, there is minimal hair dye in this – their hair is dark, either brown or black, which makes it look much more natural. The styles are varied, and there are colored accents, but it keeps them from feeling doctored.
The concept changes somewhat in “Icy”, but it still makes them look natural. The whole theme of “Icy” is inserting girls in situations that don’t match their personality types, so the makeup reflects that. As such, Ryujin has a cat eye going, because she is surrounded by prudes at her job interview. Lia has deep red lipstick because she’s wearing a formal outfit in a restaurant that is not. Yeji has glitter under her eyes, but her outfit is ostentatious and she’s in a grocery store, so it absolutely works. I’d also like to point out her aesthetic is incredibly similar to that of Jolyne from the Japanese manga Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure – a character who exudes “I don’t give a crap what you think of me.”
Yuna has similar makeup to what she had in “Dalla Dalla”, but it’s actually much less overt – not smokey, a little more pink. Chaeryeong is wearing pretty much the same kind of makeup as in “Dalla Dalla” but like Yuna, not as overt. This largely has to do with the fact that she’s just casually on the street, looking cool and doing street performance – which is considered a natural, genuine form of art.
But the fact of the matter is the makeup never distracts from the members themselves. Because they make it work. They look great, it’s not done to make all the members look the same or be part of some major theme. It’s instead emphasizes their core message. I will say that the hair is a bit distracting, but what’s a summer K-Pop release without bleaching your hair.
ITZY’s makeup is all about making the members seem individual. They are a band, but they have lives, independent hobbies, and so on. JYP wants you to be aware of that. So, when it comes to the most beautiful expressive and beautiful of the human body, the face, they want you to see the members as beautiful on their own terms.
As evident by everything I’ve said so far, Itzy’s image revolves heavily on them seeming organic and unabridged. Nothing is done specifically to shock you as the viewer, nor is anything done to make them seem copy-pasted. Each member is unique. This is not just evident in their songs and videos, but in their fashion as well.
What this ultimately tells the fans who are watching is that it’s okay to be yourself. These idols are young adults in the modern age, where young people are struggling to find a balance between image and authenticity, being present online and being present in the real world. This is a loaded thought when it comes to K-Pop, an industry that is extremely manufactured – however, something about ITZY’s combination of fashion, music, and video work makes them feel more alive than many idol groups do.
ITZY wants its viewers – particularly its young female viewers – to feel heard. Having this seemingly random combination of logos, a relatively minimalist style of makeup, and a lack of cohesion between members makes them feel all the more like a unit. But it also makes us feel like we can relate to them. JYP Entertainment, as I’ve said before, has always been good about finding a hole in the market and filling it. When BTS went into a more pop direction, the hole they left behind for edgy social commentary got filled by Stray Kids. As Red Velvet has teetered the line between vibrant colors and vaguely disturbing imagery (“Peekaboo”), we got Twice, a band that uses its cheerfulness as a way to subvert expectations. And now we have ITZY, which fits both markets, but simultaneously represents the group that fits in neither.
So if you fit in ITZY’s demographic – even if you don’t – take some lessons from the way they dress. No I don’t mean dress in Versace all the time. But dress to make yourself feel good, and confident. If that means wearing overalls and sparkly makeup in the middle of a bustling city, go for it. If you don’t want to wear much makeup and dress in all black, do it. If you like dressing like a character from a manga, I am in full support. But the point is that you need to dress the way that makes you feel good, the way that makes you stand out. It’s not that wearing brands will make you stand out – your confidence will do that for you. So when you wake up tomorrow, make sure you feel good about yourself.
This is the first in a series of articles covering JYP’s newest girl group ITZY.
I tend to jump all over the place with the K-Pop bands I listen to, whether they’re male or female, pop or rap, OG or 4th generation. As of late though, it’s been hard to keep up with all the new groups. There are so many, from many companies, all of varying degrees of quality, as well as an over-saturation of the long-standing top bands, such as BTS.
As a result, I didn’t get around to listening to ITZY until a few weeks ago, but I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by how high quality they were. I’ve heard them referred to as JYP Entertainment’s version of Blackpink, but I honestly don’t think that’s doing them justice. I think that they’re a response to Blackpink, or at least the type of band Blackpink is. At the same time, I think they’re a response to Twice, JYP’s biggest group. It combines elements of both, and yet it’s neither.
There are three camps of girl groups right now. There are the extremely girly bands, like Saturday, Momoland, and Twice. Then there are bands that take a more “mature” approach, like Blackpink or EXID. There are benefits to either approach, often revolving around what age group the fan base consists of. Then there are bands that try to be antithetical to both of these. Dreamcatcher would be the best example of that: it’s a band meant to be totally unique in a genre where it’s very easy to fall into a trap.
ITZY is, in my opinion, in the third camp because of how it incorporates elements of the first two, but the band has other unique qualities that make it stand out. First off, their title tracks have been hooky and electronic, but also relatively upbeat without crossing into the territory of being too procedural.
Secondly, they have sharp dance moves that require full body like GFRIEND, as opposed to a band like AOA where their choreography is mostly small movements. But it’s the sharpness that makes them stand out – it’s something guy groups tend to embody more than girl groups.
Thirdly, their songs have a message of loving yourself, but not watered down like BTS’s new catchphrase “Love Yourself” is. It’s much more about people viewing you negatively for the way you are and not caring, as opposed to the simple act of loving yourself because you’re special – in short, it’s not a superficial self-love, it’s anger and vehemence at a system that tries to pigeonhole you. (Ironically, this message was most prevalent in BTS’s early content, particularly “N.O” and Rap Monster’s single “Do You”.)
Lastly, they have an intriguing use of fashion and branding in their videos. It’s very much meant to enhance the members as opposed to rope them into a concept.
If we look at these qualities, it becomes clear: ITZY is a girl group handled exactly the same way a boy group is. They’re a band with good songs, sharp dance moves, and clothing that enhances their personality as opposed to distracts, who’s also allowed to be angry. These are all qualities you’d see in a big name guy group like BIGBANG or SHINee. I mentioned in my article on Twice’s “Like OOH-AHH” that Twice is given guy group-style songs that have more punch, and called them a cinnamon bubblegum band. If Twice is cinnamon, then ITZY is a ghost pepper. They don’t hit – they bite.
I think that this makes them antithetical to many other girl groups because it’s in direct opposition to the way most girl groups are conceived. JYP has always been good about finding an opening in the market and making a band that exactly embodies this. I think that Itzy is the closest thing we have to a representation of what a modern late teenage, early twenties aged girl is like. They have more depth than that, as well as charm. They’re not a stereotype in any particular way, they just kind of exist. None of them are typecast into particular roles.
This movement away from typecasting probably started around 2010, as people generally speaking prefer chemistry between idols. I talked about this a bit in my Super Junior article, but the status quo of creating a group still held until at least 2010, perhaps even later. That status quo: you need a cute member, a mature member, a funny member, a cool member, and a stereotypical maknae. I would not say that ITZY has that – ITZY does have a member that’s more extraverted than the others but I would not say that a personality type is necessarily a role. From watching ITZY on weekly idol I would venture to say that they seem more like a friend group and less like an idol group. Perhaps that is a carefully constructed image, but it is an effective one. I do believe that ITZY more clearly represents young girls than most idol groups do.
ITZY has an innate connectivity to its audience of young girls that I think is really important. They don’t seem over the top happy all the time, and their songs are sassy and angry. They carry themselves with confidence and yet seem relatively calm and humble. There is less visible pressure on them to act like a stereotype, and that is something that audiences can clue into. I am not saying that their lives are devoid of pressure – they are idols, that unfortunately comes with the industry. But it’s clear that the pressure we normally see – bright smiles and constantly playing is not there. Perhaps the pressure is to seem more calm and reserved, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. In any event we’ll likely never know – it is, however, an image that can reach a wider audience.
I think ITZY is a group we need to think about more. They have a lot of positive qualities that I think other girl groups should have. I think the takeaway should be that idol companies should not be trying to create what is currently popular, but find the gaps in the market where people need more. K-Pop should ultimately be about giving people what they want, not telling people what they should want.
Twice began their successful journey with their show Sixteen, but the inciting incident, you could say, was “Like OOH-AHH”’s success. As stated in my article on “Like OOH-AHH”, Twice tapped into a new way of approaching bubblegum pop by adding a ton of spice to it and subverting the idol making machine. This is what I dubbed cinnamon bubblegum pop – definitely sweet, but with a powerful underlying kick. Now the question is – would this be a one time thing? Or would they continue this format?
All was answered by the time “Cheer Up” came along. “Cheer Up” is one of Twice’s most iconic music videos. It’s incredibly creative both in concept and in film technique. It’s a beautiful example of color correcting and editing – both of which are intrinsic to K-Pop – but it also shows what is most unique about Twice, which is their ability to subvert the expectations of what K-Pop idols are.
“Cheer Up” as a song is a very lighthearted song with a great hook. While it’s electronic predominantly, there is some instrumental elements and a beat that sounds almost like it belongs in a rock song not a pop song. It doesn’t have the best line distribution of K-Pop songs but generally speaking the verses give each member a moment to shine. The hook is balanced with English and Korean, though the English parts are accented and arguably mispronounced. However I think this adds to the charm so I have no complaints.
The concept of the video is introduced in the very first moment. We see a man with a camera instead of a head, with a colored magnifying/tinting lens in his hand, looking at all the girls as they eat in the kitchen. He finally sets his sights on Nayeon, puts magnifier in front of the camera lens.
Suddenly, the entire video changes. Nayeon is sitting on the floor, as she was previously, but she has a 90s-early 2000s era phone instead of a smartphone. The color grading is completely different, making it much darker, and we can see from the light from the windows that it’s supposed to be night. The room is much cleaner. She and her friends seem scared. It’s clear that the lens changed not just Nayeon, but the genre Nayeon appeared in.
In short, the video is about portraying each girl in a way that matches their personality by surrounding them with a genre of film or TV that clearly illustrates certain traits. However, there are a number of ways to interpret this idea. You could argue that each genre is supposed to represent each member in the real life – I don’t necessarily agree with this because certain members have either ultra-specific or ultra-broad genres applied to them, and it’s also hard to pick a genre that specifically encapsulates a person. There may be another interpretation though. The website kpopmap.com drew an explicit comparison between each member and a specific movie. Therefore it wouldn’t be so much about representing each member as it would be representing these particular films. While I love this idea, I don’t think that it’s as clear cut as that. But the beauty of art is that it can be interpreted any number of ways. I could very well be wrong, maybe they were meant to indicate specific movies, but I don’t necessarily have the same frame of reference so I was not able to read all of the potential indicators.
Before getting into my interpretation, let’s look at what we have:
Nayeon has a dark, saturated video that looks emblematic of most horror films, particularly the 2000s style with films like “Paranormal Activity”. She is holding a phone though, and this is where I agree with Kpopmap: I do think the phone is a specific reference to Scream. Scream – which came out in 1996, features an iconic scene where Drew Barrymore is being harassed on the phone by who we later find out is a serial killer. But in short, I think this is meant to show Nayeon in a general horrifying situation (obviously made Safe For Work), which in turn establishes her character as timid, fearful, or perhaps more accurately, cautious.
Mina is dressed in a schoolgirl uniform, a style emblematic of teen slice of life or romance in pop culture. Her shots are colored very softly, with light pinks and yellows and whites dominating the shots. She spends most of the video holding a card, waiting under cherry blossoms, while her friends encourage her to do something (presumably go and meet this boy, or maybe even the viewer, and confess love). This establishes Mina’s character as someone romantic and gentle.
Sana’s section is overly colorful, in all the craziest ways. Everything is saturated pink and yellow, the set pieces are patterned, and all of the girls wear colorful outfits and hold wands or other fun objects. Little animations are scattered throughout the video, mostly of objects that shouldn’t have faces with cute eyes on them – mainly musical notes. It’s very Banjo-Kazooie in that respect. As mentioned in my “Like OOH-AHH” article, Sana’s member profile establishes her as a very optimistic person – I think the magical girl style is meant to give us that personality trait.
Tzuyu, the beloved maknae, is in a sepia-toned section, with her dress being laced up by the other girls. She has an old fashioned bed with a canopy in the room, along with a vanity and paintings. Eventually she runs outside, carrying her skirt with her, and the outside is a beautiful mansion complete with a fountain. This is meant to establish Tzuyu’s character as sophisticated and formal.
Momo’s parts of the video show her in a subway, wearing all black with a green jacket and holding guns. She has Jihyo and Jeongyeon on either side of her, also holding guns, being her wingwomen. She’s in what appears to be a dilapidated New York subway (note the exit sign has the 1, 2, 3, 7, A, C, E, and S trains, all of which are metro stops – I have yet to find the station which allows you to transfer to all of them though.) I think this is meant to make Momo seem like a badass, sexy cop-type girl or secret agent. This would in turn establish a type of maturity.
Jeongyeon’s segments remind me of art films in general – you know, the kind that tend to get the Oscars. She has an apartment with tons of furniture, dangling curtains, plants, fans, art…all the things to establish a mysteriously enticing character in a film. She herself is wearing a silk shirt with pink accents and a dark patterned slip – she’s meant to be sexy in a more adult way, as opposed to Momo’s action type sexy. She also has a promise ring, which establishes her as someone’s significant other – probably yours. But it could also be she’s just wearing jewelry for the sake of wearing it. Either way, she has soft colors as well, but darker ones, making her seem like a deeper, more spiritual person.
Jihyo gets the chorus parts – she’s dancing the choreography in sporty uniforms with all of the others, and the brightness of the video makes it look like it belongs in some teen movie like High School Musical (though probably better.) There isn’t much to say here, but it does establish Jihyo as a dancer, and while her main function in the band is leader, this will come into play later.
Chaeyoung, one of the band’s two rappers, gets to be a cowgirl, but a slightly more modern one. She gets a car, she gets a gun, she gets a wanted poster, she gets a super-gold color scheme, hyper-saturated colors, and film noise put over her screen. She gets the quintessentially American setup, which is in complete contrast to the other rapper in this band.
Dahyun, the last rapper, gets the traditional Korean hanbok, fan, and palace. All of the camerawork in her scenes makes it look like she was shot for a drama. Her color scheme is mostly greens, reds, and whites, with some elements of gold, but everything is undersaturated so it doesn’t overpower anything. I think since she and Chaeyoung are the two rappers in the band, they are meant to mirror each other by being representative of two cultures.
My personal view of the video is that it is meant to use cultural iconography – some specific to a work of pop culture, some not – to show us specific personality types in their extremes as the basis of making a group. Idol groups are often constructed under the false pretenses of “you need X member to fit X personality type” in order to create something relatable. While I don’t want to be the kind of person who thinks every music video is somehow about the idol industry (just as I don’t think every movie is about capitalism) the argument can be made that art only exist because of the climate in which it’s created, and in many ways reflects that specific climate. I think that Twice’s “Cheer Up” reflects idol culture by dissecting what it means to have “the funny girl” in a group with “the sexy girl” or “the grown up girl” or “the childish girl”.
Twice is an interesting group in this respect for a number of reasons. They were made through television, so it doesn’t much matter which member fit which specific responsibility so long as they were all talented and had good chemistry. Continuing, they all come from different places: Momo is from Kyoto, Japan; Sana is from Osaka, Japan; Mina is from San Antonio, Texas and is of Japanese heritage; and Tzuyu is Taiwanese. There isn’t really much of an opening to tokenize any one member as “that foreign girl” in an industry where that happens far too often. And lastly, they all have different personalities and JYP Entertainment has always been able to bring out the best of individual personalities in its wide variety of idols without making it feel inorganic.
The video ends back in the original kitchen, except rather than having the members back to the way they were, they’re all wearing the outfits from the different genres. Tzuyu is standing as if waiting for someone asking her to dance, Mina is being shy and clutching her handbag, Nayeon is still on the floor panicking over the phone, Momo and Sana are in a gun versus magic shootout, Dahyun is fanning herself, Chaeyoung is spinning her gun and blowing it off like she’s shooting with it, and Jeongyeon is dancing around with a cup of what’s likely alcohol. But the most interesting subject for me is Jihyo, who we established earlier, functions as the dancer in this metaphor, is dancing still. In fact, she’s doing the exact same choreography, on a loop, seemingly not getting tired. This is one of the main reasons I think that the video comments on and subverts the idol industry.
The camera man scratches his head in confusion before putting one of the lenses back in front of him. He doesn’t quite know what to do with all these girls and their varied personalities. I think ultimately though, that’s okay. There’s a reason I had to stop picking biases of the groups I liked – every member has something unique about them to love. I think that the video for Cheer Up is emblematic of that – that it’s okay to be different, to not quite match up with everyone else, because when you’re in a group of your friends, it doesn’t much matter what sets you apart. All that matters is what brought you together initially.
When a group becomes particularly popular in K-Pop, it’s for one of three reasons. One is that they take another group’s concept and do it (arguably) better – many boy groups tend to be offshoots of each other for this reason. The second reason is that they’re marketed really well to specific demographics. BTS’s popularity in particular largely lends itself to the brilliant marketing by Bighit Entertainment and the American label handling their US distribution, Columbia Records. But then of course there’s the third option: that the band is doing something unique, that hasn’t been done before.
Now that we have a couple of generations of K-Pop stars to look up to, not to mention a massive amount of younger groups, it’s a lot harder to find that one, unique idol that speaks to you personally. A lot of it boils down to personal preference – how you relate to the singer and the art matters just as much as what the company is trying to market. For me personally, I try to find artists that have something to say. Usually this translates either into the artist is in control of their writing or they have a spin on something we already are accustomed to. I tend to quantify that as combining different “concepts”, changing “concepts” frequently, or using their platform as a way to subvert expectations in some way. I don’t like it when groups get too comfortable in something safe – when I see a group do something challenging, that’s when I get interested.
I was regrettably a bit late to the Twice train, but I must say I’m on board now. It’s honestly hard for me to quantify what makes them unique because, like Super Junior upon their 2005 debut, they’re a bit of a perfect storm. A series of seemingly incidental things that seem to line up perfectly. Twice was formed through a TV show called Sixteen, similar to I.O.I, Wanna One, and VIXX. The nice thing about TV shows is that, while edited, they do expose an organic side to a person, particularly young artists. Often, this organic nature is revealed when the person is under pressure, for example some sort of singing challenge or test, or when people are interacting with each other in a somewhat private situation. Therefore, fans got to see the group form in real time based on relationships formed between members. This is easily one of the better ways to form a group.
Twice’s popularity has been rapidly increasing. Their most recent videos, “Fancy” and “Breakthrough”, have been doing incredibly well – “Fancy”, which came out 2 months ago as of this article’s posting, now has 143 million views, while “Breakthrough”, which came out on their Japanese channel three weeks ago, has 25 million. Their older videos, “Like OOH-AHH”, “Cheer Up”, and “Signal” all have 309 million, 342 million, and 180 million views, respectively. They’ve maintained a TV presence, they’ve been on tour in the US and abroad, they’ve done multiple commercials and had many endorsements: they are the biggest asset to JYP Entertainment overall.
If you ask me, the reason behind this success lies in Twice’s music and approach to videos and concepts. Their musical style evolves not in broad strokes, but smaller, more subtle ways. They generally maintain a bubblegum pop style, but even that is a bit unfair to the band. I’d say they have a cinnamon bubblegum pop style – that is to say, their music has a bit more kick to it. The underlying beats actually sound more like songs that would be in a boy group’s musical repertoire while the overall melody is an uplifting, sweet style quintessential to most K-Pop girl groups. It’s an interesting mix that isn’t common in K-Pop anymore – generally you either go hard and fast, or you go soft and sparkly. But why not have sparkles moving at the speed of light? That’s effectively what Twice is.
Visually their videos emulate this complicated nature in a lot of interesting ways. This article will be part of a series on Twice’s videos – specifically “Like OOH-AHH”, “Cheer Up”, and “Likey”. “Like OOH-AHH” because it’s the first music video, “Cheer Up” because it’s a perfect example of what I want to share, and “Likey” because…well I really like “Likey”. Don’t judge.
“Like OOH-AHH” has a number of different styles going on. The verses generally are fast paced pop bits mixed with slower, higher, melodic elements. Korean words are mixed with English throughout, in fact less so in the chorus than other parts of the song. The bridge is comprised of one incredibly soft and slow singing bit to recalibrate and then an incredibly fast and vibrant dance break. In layman’s terms, this song is an absolute bop.
Ironically, Twice’s “Like OOH-AHH” has a video based entirely around a duality. The video takes place in a zombie apocalypse while all of the girls are wearing girly, clean, adorably fashionable outfits and not showing any fear or sense of self preservation. Zombies have been done before in K-Pop. T-ARA’s “Lovey Dovey” featured a zombie apocalypse breaking down in a dance club with a number of references to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”; Cross Gene made an entire zombie movie called ZEDD to promote their song “Billion Dolla”. But Twice taking two entirely opposite concepts made for something surprisingly fun. Whatever your expectations are going into the MV, you have none by the end. That’s what makes it so entertaining.
Looking at the intro sequence in particular, it’s clear we’re not dealing with something normal. We see a number of zombies walking around an abandoned helicopter and what appears to be an abandoned hospital. But the colors are saturated – particularly gold and rose colors, as opposed to blue like in most zombie films. Twice’s logo is in pink. The song itself is starting happy. We know we’re not in for anything normal.
Suddenly Nayeon pops out of the bed with perfect makeup in an adorable white shirt and yellow, red, and black plaid skirt, fishnet pantyhose and wedge heels and even a choker.
So already the tone of the video is set and it’s basically about as “normal” as a 40 minute movie to promote one song. But in many ways that’s a good thing. Twice doing something so different right out of the gate set the stage for what the band would be like in the future. This theme of changing expectations is rampant throughout the first half of the video – Jihyo walking past zombies on red treadmills, Tzuyu reaching for the screen while the zombies reach ahead, cutesy dancing in a building that’s actually crumbling around them, all of which makes the girls in particular seem like they radiate all that is well in the world.
Weirdly enough, the song is about something directly opposite that. Rather than the lyrics being about a girl who is a shining beacon around people who don’t care, the girl is the one who doesn’t care, and the people around her are trying to get her to feel something. It’s about a girl who wants to fall in love but just can’t, so she needs someone to prove to her that they’re worthy so that she can open up to them. So to see a video that deliberately turns this concept on its head makes a very interesting video.
Costume-wise, this bizarre rift becomes obvious with the way the girls are dressed versus how the zombies are. All of the zombies are wearing tattered clothes, more in dark tones, whereas all of the girls wear bright, clean clothes that has no rips, whether for style or for aesthetic. The girls’ outfits are mostly reds, pinks, blacks, and whites, in a variety of styles to bring out the character/personality of each member. The leader, Jihyo, wears athletic wear while Tzuyu, the youngest, wears a schoolgirl uniform. Sana dresses like a cheerleader while Momo dresses in tighter, more mature clothes. Each member has a particular way of dressing to make sure you can immediately know them.
There are also moments throughout the video that allow you to immediately remember the members. We see Mina and Momo doing stretches like trained ballet dancers while Sana struggles to get her foot up but tries to impress whoever the viewer is. This scene on its own establishes Sana as a funny optimistic person – aligned with her reputation in the K-Pop community and online profiles — and Mina and Momo as the trained dancers they are (Mina trained as a ballerina for 11 years and Momo was brought back after elimination during Sixteen because of her superior dancing ability.) That one moment in the video lets us into what kind of people we’re dealing with, both on screen and in real life.
As the video progresses, the girls dance in front of zombies in a small cement lot and inside a school bus while the zombies slowly descend upon them. This eventually turns into dancing with the zombies, who then dance with them – at first in a spastic way, but then in a more fluid way. The girls don’t care at all about the zombies being undead and have fun with each other, ultimately this leads to the zombies becoming human, as we see in the tail end of the video.
“Like OOH-AHH” is a surprisingly exciting video, with a lot of twists right from the first few seconds. Twice ultimately tapped into something that K-Pop has lacked in many respects – combining concepts and subversion of the typical tropes associated with idols. While they’re still very much a popular group, with accolades and endorsements to boot, they have an angle that’s been missing from K-Pop for a while. They’re aware that they’re popular but they also have a level of risk-taking that very few groups have had in the past fifteen years. I think what we need to keep looking for in the future with Twice is if this is maintained – but as we’ll see with “Cheer Up” next time, cinnamon bubblegum pop is definitely very much a successful endeavor.
This week I’m doing something a little different, and updating you all on a project I’ve been working on for a while. Before we do, however, I feel compelled to tell you all a story.
Like many artists, I have anxiety and ADHD. I choose to treat them like assets. ADHD allows me to be a perfectionist and tackle multiple projects from different angles. Anxiety acts like a motivator. However, while I am better adjusted now, throughout middle and high school I had difficulties with them. I usually expressed my anxieties through art, as it was what allowed me to connect with others – it didn’t matter whether or not someone had the same experiences I did exactly, but so long as the feelings could get across to my audience, I felt a sense of victory. Unsurprisingly, I became attached to K-Pop because of its unique way of expressing emotion.
My film teacher in high school gave me a great environment to work in, one in which I could escape from everything else that stressed me out. My freshman year I started editing with K-Pop music videos, particularly BIGBANG, for assignments. One of my videos took a month of work, a video art piece comprised of a number of pop culture references talking explicitly about my anxiety. Looking back on it, it was by far not my best work, but it was an important piece for me in my artistic development.
For the rest of high school I had a safe and secure outlet for everything happening in my life. I spent a lot of time editing K-Pop videos, molding them to match messages I wanted to communicate. My sophomore year, I made a two-part video art piece about the two sides of the K-Pop industry. One was emblematic of the poppy, bright, and happy side we were all accustomed to, the other was a darker piece that was explicitly about artists who either evolved in different ways or struggled to get to where they are (particularly BIGBANG and Super Junior, but with a lot of VIXX mixed in for their Error and Voodoo Doll concepts.) I ended up posting it under the pseudonym Romana Pond, one that I’ve had since I was fourteen to conceal my identity to avoid people finding my location online (there aren’t exactly a lot of people with the last name O’Hop in the United States.)
My anxiety hit its worst point when I was seventeen, for reasons best reserved for another day. However, my friends at the time were very protective me, and I entered therapy. At the same time, BTS was in their Most Beautiful Moment in Life phase. “Run” had just came out, and I sat with a friend at school and started running through all of the connections between that, “I Need U”, and “Prologue”. I watched a couple of theory videos online about what the plot may be, but I wasn’t quite satisfied with the stories that were being told. Not that there was anything wrong with them, I just didn’t connect with the fan interpretations in the same way I connected with the music videos.
Thus, Neverland was born.
Neverland was one of my first experiments in narrative filmmaking. I wanted to build a cohesive, concise narrative and tell the story I wanted to tell. Obviously, that’s hard with nonlinear music videos, all of which have different aesthetics. Not only did I have to base my story off of the existing motifs, I had to create my own. One of them turned out to be subtitling – I synced some subtitles with the music in the background or dragged them out longer for maximum impact.
The second motif, however, was much harder. I wanted color to be an important storytelling element, as a way of justifying and connecting the different aesthetics. This required me to go frame by frame and cut certain people out, making them grayscale to explain certain plot elements – particularly, deaths. I had tried a similar effect in my video art pieces before, but it’s a different situation when you have a 40 minute short film as opposed to a 6 and a half minute art piece. However, in spite of the difficulties, I enjoyed working on it. I ended up using this effect in another experimental piece in college, using clips from the K-Drama Blood to depict the relationship between the two main characters. I recommend watching it, but there are spoilers for the show, so if you do want to watch a vampire doctor crime show with an adorable romance…maybe save this video for later.
The editing process ended around the time BTS’s Wings came out. I spent a month trying to get support for the video at my high school, so I could have a screening. Finally, I got permission from the school to show it at a small lunchtime screening in early December. It got fairly good reception from my peers at my small high school. To get a wider audience, I posted it on my pseudonym account. Anyone who met me would know that I was the person behind it, but I was careful not to release that information elsewhere. Besides, I didn’t really care about glory or anything, the satisfaction of other people’s enjoyment was enough. The full movie is below.
Fast forward almost three years later. I’m about to start my third year at NYU Tisch School of the Arts as a Film and Television major. I’m not much of a BTS fan anymore – I just don’t particularly like their new music, and after seeing BIGBANG fall apart from one night to the next, I’m always skeptical when a band becomes that famous. This isn’t out of dislike for the members themselves, I have a lot of respect for them. It’s more about personal taste.
That said, I rewatched Neverland recently. I was still proud of everything I had accomplished, but I realized there was so much I had learned in two years of NYU Film that I felt I could do much better. The story still means a lot to me, and BTS’s music from 2 Cool 4 Skool through You Never Walk Alone will always be among my favorite K-Pop songs. I am still enough of a fan at heart to appreciate what they created.
I still have other projects: a documentary that will be officially announced shortly, and a number of scripts and commissions, not to mention updating Reel K-Pop. But there is a feeling of satisfaction that comes from K-Pop editing that I have honestly missed, since schoolwork tends to pull me away from the personal projects I want to work on. Now that I have time over the summer, even with summer internships, I wanted to get back to what I love: writing and editing.
Which brings us to The Neverland Project. The Neverland Project is a remaster of Neverland, this time in 1080p with (hopefully) better editing. I plan on doing it in episodes as opposed to one full movie, and updating this website on my progress. I’ll also give mini analyses on what my thought process was in how I edited the final product. I plan on uploading a teaser in the very near future, but again, since I have other projects going on and articles to write, that might not be for a while.
My aim with this work is not to take anything away from BTS – instead, I want to show where the heart of BTS’s work was, and where my heart is. I want to show people what K-Pop is, and also what it can be. I want to be an educational resource for film students and enthusiasts. And with any luck, my experience in creating this work will be useful to others who want to find their own voices.
Before we start, I just want to apologize for the lack of uploads these past months. School took a lot out of me and since I’m on vacation, I have a number of personal projects that I’ve been working on, one of which will be announced soon. Also, because of the event in April, K-Pop for Filmmakers, I had the most historical case of burnout, and it took a long time to get my creative juices flowing again. So here we are, two months later, finally with an article. In order to prevent this kind of burnout from happening again, I’m going to stop with the regimented schedule, but also add more personal updates. I will also write smaller articles so that they can come more often.
I talk about VIXX way too much in this blog but here we are again, with another solo – instead of Ravi, though, we have Leo. Leo, or Jung Taekwoon, is the second eldest member of VIXX, as well as one of the band’s primary vocalists. He’s a fan favorite for a number of reasons – early in his career he was quiet and reserved. Members would play games like “make Leo laugh” to try to get him to break under pressure, usually by blowing balloons in his face or doing aegyo and whatnot.
As VIXX evolved so did Leo. He became much more outgoing and lively on screen, and his quietness turned into something more artistic. Silent cuteness turned into an ethereal beauty. This is a transformation that all of the VIXX members went through. I remember seeing VIXX live when I was a teenager, and my dad commented that in their dance routines, they moved like paintings. Every move was a work of art.
Leo in particular tends to embody this artistic sensibility. While the other members of VIXX definitely do (I spoke a lot about this in my article on Ravi’s “NIRVANA + Alcohol”) they also tend to delve into comedy a lot and while Leo does do that, he has a different angle for it. Rather than making jokes he usually comes at comedy from a more serious angle. This is likely because he’s an actor as well as a singer (most members of VIXX are) but he prefers to adopt characters rather than make gags. As a result, most of what you get with him is subtle and flowing as opposed to handed to you outright.
All this in mind, Leo’s song “Romanticism” is in turn about someone he views as a work of art (to quote, “a pervading and perfect masterpiece”.) The song is all about sensuality. It’s very provocative while still classy. It’s very smooth, mostly electronic sounds, kind of like listening to music through dream. It’s not very “hooky” but it’s still a nice song to listen to on a warm day or on a date night. It’s not meant to be powerful, it’s meant to be sweet and romantic.
The video is almost purely visual, and I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. A lack of story is not a detriment to a music video. What pieces we have of a story are a woman running away, lights flashing, both Leo and the woman falling through the air with Leo reaching, and some scenes of them whispering and caressing each other.
The video ends with them sitting across a dining room table, staring blankly at each other, transitioning to Leo sitting at the end of the table alone. If we take what we see at face value (which we kind of have to considering the lack of story overall) is just a sensual relationship, but if the last scene is any indicator, there is probably not a lot of conversation between the two parties. This is a fallback of an overly physical relationship.
“Romanticism”, as an MV, is incredibly simple, which creates some brilliant uses of space to drive a mood forward. There are only five sets throughout the MV – a hallway, a bedroom, a dining room, a beach, and a studio. However, these locations turn out to be incredibly versatile. Bedrooms lend themselves well to close-ups and more creative angles, whereas hallways and long dining rooms generally require more consistent perspectives, usually focusing only on one or two points. Outdoor scenes give a sense of openness that’s hard to get – in fact nearly impossible – to get from a room of any kind, except maybe a cathedral. Studios are the most versatile sets, with lighting from all sorts of angles and the ability to change the lighting setup when necessary.
The color scheme of the video is mostly warm colors – golds, pinks, blues, and browns. Of course there’s white and black to offset both. However, the beach scene is very cool-toned, which we’ll come back to later. In fact, despite the warm colors, there are also plenty of times where the same colors are cool toned as opposed to warm toned. Cool tones give a sense of calm while warm tones give the feeling of passion. I feel like this is a pretty accurate description of Leo himself – a quietly crackling fire of musical and artistic spirit.
Let’s focus on what this fire is wearing. Stylists for K-Pop are always able to isolate the idol visually so that you are immediately able to identify them. Often, this is done by hair color, but the entire outfit needs to be able to highlight personality traits about the singer, and then the outfits of the dancers need to highlight the singer while underscoring those same traits. Leo’s style is generally large, thin shirts and tight pants. Big jackets are always a thing, and rarely are those jackets zipped up. It’s a very polished look but it’s also very free looking. He wears black and white, with occasional blue and gold accents.
While dancers wear these colors too in this video, often they will wear white while Leo wears black, or a different style of clothes so that it’s obvious who’s the centerpiece. The girlfriend character wears pink, light and dark, and is the only person in the video who does this, so she is immediately recognizable. She also wears dresses, skirts, etc. which gives her a unique silhouette. As stated before, hair is also a big factor. Leo’s hair is blonde, unlike anyone else, and he has some nice angular side bangs going on. Likewise, his girlfriend in the video is the only girl with short hair.
Ultimately though – this is all well and good, but the video stands out in one powerful way. Lighting. The video is lit in very clever ways, since most of it was filmed indoors, on sound stages. For example, the studio I mentioned earlier was lit in different ways – with a diffuse light behind that changes color, face and fill lighting in the front, and LED lighting on top of the awning. This allows for a number of different lighting options and since it’s easy to change the colors of those lights with gels (or even via computer) you can construct a wide variety of moods.
In other shots, there is a significant use of “practical” lighting. Practical lighting is when a lighting fixture in the scene is visible to the audience. When you see a lamp in a movie, that’s practical lighting. In this case, there are candles, ceiling lamps, and table lamps. At certain points throughout the video the lamps in the hallway flicker.
But what makes this lighting interesting is that it lends itself to surrealism. The combination of the practical lights, something we are all very familiar with, and diffused background lights make the space feel like it’s glowing. The combination of the two is somewhat otherworldly.
The most interesting use of lighting though is in the beach scenes. They’re filmed after the “golden hour”, which is when the sun is about to set and the light is intense. These shots, instead, are much softer. Clouds streak across the horizon but there is still plenty of sky to see. It’s a nice soft blue, with gold from the little bit of sun we can see. But what makes it fascinating is they still brought face lights for Leo. The face lights are pink, putting him in a stark contrast to the background. While everything else is cold and somewhat gentle, he is a bright highlight, like a posh firework.
What makes “Romanticism” special is its simple understanding of the principles of filmmaking. It doesn’t require fancy hair or masks or high heels to make an experience worthwhile. I think the lesson Leo gives us is not to let extravagance get in the way of the soul of the art – and this music video is a clear example of that.
Trigger warning: Violence, Gore, and Mention of Abuse.
Looking back onto my childhood, I remember other kids thinking it was odd that I liked horror. I mean, I was a girl who liked pastel dresses, pretty hair, dolls, and fairies. But then, around the time I stopped believing in fairies – a bit late, admittedly – I was enraptured by stories of vampires, demons, and the underworld. At the time, I much preferred reading it than I did writing it, but that wasn’t to say I didn’t experiment with the genre as best as a middle schooler could. When I was in high school, taking one of my first film classes, we did a unit on horror. My fascination with the genre expanded, as I was introduced to how creators designed fear.
So, you can imagine my delight when I found VIXX’s “Voodoo Doll” for the first time.
I’d seen a cosplayer – FadingForest on Deviantart – do a design based on the visual of VIXX, Hongbin, and his character in “Voodoo Doll”. I decided to go exploring on my own. So there I was, watching one of the craziest K-Pop videos ever, and absolutely in love with it. It mixed the gothic and the modern, body horror and psychological horror, hot guys and black eyeliner.
It was never the gore factor about horror that I enjoyed. In fact generally speaking, I dislike gore. Body horror has never been something I could really stomach. But when it came to horror, I enjoyed observing the extremes of the human condition. It was never about the literal story, it was all about the underlying intentions. A vampire story is about the loss of humanity when you reject the one thing that all humans have in common – death. A possession story centers around a person who shares a body with an entity completely opposite them. A story of the underworld, the afterlife, addresses what we don’t know about our own souls, and how much that makes us scared.
And voodoo stories encapsulate our fear of losing free will.
VIXX is one of my favorite bands for a reason. Their heart and soul goes into everything they do. They all have an insane talent for the stage that allows them to take on any persona for any song. When they dance, they don’t dance just to move, they dance to make you feel something. Everything right down to their facial expressions is done to make you feel something. They are among the select few that do that for every comeback. Some bands will put a lot of care into one comeback and not in another, others will kind of rock one persona throughout their career and never change it up, even others will try to intentionally avoid having a persona so that they seem authentic.
But I wouldn’t say VIXX has a persona, at least not in the way we would associate a K-Pop band with a concept. They are artists first and foremost, and that’s what they make their careers out of. Not being pretty, not being funny, not being sexy. They do it by shocking you. VIXX also stands out in part because it’s well known that they are actors, well known that they are dancing talents, and well known for being down to earth and not pretentious. Building off what I said in my article on Ravi, VIXX’s rapper, while they were inspired by older, more famous idols, VIXX has a unique voice in their understanding of K-Pop and their enigmatic take on it.
In 2012, the year before “Voodoo Doll” came out, (which is also the year that VIXX debuted) we were awarded with many K-Pop videos, but many of them were lacking in substance. Those that weren’t lacking, for example BIGBANG’s “Fantastic Baby”, were written off by American audiences as crazy videos with men and women with weird hair. While there was a niche market for K-Pop videos that had a creative edge to them, no one really cared at the time. And that’s not to say that creative K-Pop videos weren’t being made – they were. But American audiences were neither attuned to them nor intending to seek them out. It was ultimately tragic, as we see the ripple effects now in how most American media portrays K-Pop.
VIXX ultimately started like most other K-Pop bands – on a pink soundstage with terrible hair. As endearing as “Super Hero”, their debut song, was, it was nothing compared to what they would ultimately become. They went through a number of phases, mostly hovering around the cutesy concepts, before eventually finding a voice in “On and On” in early 2013. On and On featured a story about vampires in space, which…okay yeah the premise sucked. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.
Afterwards, VIXX came out with Jekyll and Hyde, two albums that intentionally mirrored each other. One was light and happy, one was dark and…well, had eyeliner spilled all over it. Both were excellent. Hyde’s music video featured some fascinatingly eerie imagery, though it was really crazy and not subtle enough for my liking. It’s a good watch though.
“Voodoo Doll”, though, is what put VIXX on the map. Shockingly vivid imagery, violence, and magic that pushed beyond aesthetics or a simple story – all this was missing from K-Pop until 2013. While gore has not been revisited by VIXX, the shock value and the idea of high concept certainly has. VIXX’s video quality is incredibly consistent, and they’re constantly pushing their own limits.
“Voodoo Doll” itself is hard to unpack. It seems at first glance that the video is about a girl torturing boys with magic, and that they’re trying to escape. On repeated watches however, it’s a little more indirect. For one thing the song is about a sort of magical servant who is even willing to kill for their master. In a broader sense, it’s about a somewhat toxic relationship where the person is willing to take the pain of someone else onto them, regardless of the damage this does to their own personal well being.
Visually, this is exemplified by the way each member is imprisoned within a cell surrounding a hexagonal room. At first I thought that they were trying to escape while the girl was mocking them and torturing them with her powers. But then the more I watched, the more I realized – the members don’t have identities when she’s not around. If you look closely at the cells, Leo wanders aimlessly in his cell, with his back hunched or fully arched. Ken dangles from the ceiling. N lies limp like a doll. Hyuk stares outside of the cell, watching the girl. Ravi does…something, it’s hard to tell because all we see is his hand. They don’t animate until she gives them purpose.
She’s toying with their love for her.
It’s all about a toxic relationship between these boys and a “master”. Now toxic relationships are something that many artists talk about, but it’s usually from a place of posthumous anger or depression in the moment. Sometimes a singer will go even so far as to make it seem like everything’s okay, and have a cheerful edge to the song in spite of dark material. VIXX doesn’t do any of that. VIXX mixes passion and rage and uses voodoo dolls as a means of explaining power dynamics in such a relationship.
Let’s break down a few of the features of an abusive relationship, and how VIXX addresses them:
Intimidation: I think this one is obvious. There is a lot of physical violence in this music video. Hongbin has pieces of glass stuck to his arms and is inside a box, Hyuk, Leo, Ken, and N all have piercings all over their body that bind them to the ceiling, and Ravi is physically restrained with ropes. Throughout the music video the girl repeatedly stabs voodoo dolls that control all of them, and we see her cutting up and stitching members while they bleed. There’s a lot of physical intimidation.
Isolation: again, this one clearly shows itself. Each of the members is in a cell of sorts, and each of the members has been restrained. They aren’t able to go far enough forward to see the other members or reach them – in Hongbin’s case he can hardly move at all. Even when the members escape, they don’t see each other. There is never a moment where they are all physically together, beyond the dance sequences.
Coercion: Coercion is a little harder to pin down since there is no dialogue. But we can see the girl clearly go up to the members and seemingly tempt them. Not sexually, just by her presence alone. That’s enough to drive them crazy. Furthermore in the actual song, Ken sings:
“웃는 너의 얼굴 한번이면 족해/내가 대신 다 해 네가 바라는 것들” (“utneun neoui eolgul hanbeonimyeon jokhae/naega daesin da hae nega baraneun geotdeul”)
“If you smile just once I’m satisfied/I’ll do everything instead, everything you wish for”
The whole point of the song is that this girl is degrading the members and using them for entertainment. They want to help her, give her everything even if it makes their own lives hell.
Minimization: again, difficult to really get to the bottom of when the only words are in the song. But we can see how the different members are dehumanized by the girl. She objectifies them physically with promiscuous outfits and then she also treats them like toys. When she stabs her doll she laughs at them even as they’re in clear, visible pain. They’re less than puppets to her, they’re surrogates for whatever emotion she wants them to feel.
Visually this turmoil between partners is made clear through a number of visual cues. The colors are all vibrant and angry – reds, blacks, oranges, greens. It is brighter than the color scheme of most horror movies but I think it suits this video. It’s also overly sharpened – many K-Pop videos in 2012-2014 were sharpened to extreme lengths. I don’t normally like this, but I think in VIXX’s case it actually is advantageous to the gruesome nature of the video. It makes the gore feel grittier, like it’s less supernatural and more serial killer story. The costumes give each character a personality while still seeming relatively uniform.
N’s character is almost like a twisted version of his actual personality. He’s known for being a very sweet, soft person, and I would say loose turtleneck sweaters and couches are indications of someone very sweet. But the torn clothes, being tied to the ceiling, painted mannequins and the covered abandoned couch, all show a person with a kind heart that’s been twisted by this process.
Leo’s room looks almost like an underground chamber, like a subway covered in crinkled metal. His clothing is basically rags, as if he’s been cut on everything, but unlike the other members the only physical wounds he has are the piercings that tie him to the ceiling. But he’s a member that does some of the most expression with his body.
Ken is trapped in a box that is almost like an elevator. He’s covered in burns and tied to the ceiling. His outfit is probably most like a K-Pop idol, thin shirt and pants, but like everything else it’s all ripped. I’d say the outfit he wears is the sleekest, cleanest one, in spite of the whole video.
Ravi is in a kitchen of sorts, with food that appears rotted on the table. The window in front of him is covered with equations, chemistry diagrams, and all sorts of weird things. His own body is covered in tattoos, including one of his skin ripped open and his heart underneath. His eyes are Xs, which has become an icon of this story. The way he grits his teeth at the girl and stares her down, it’s all fairly on brand for Ravi – as I’ve said before, he’s so enigmatic in his embracing of the arts and sciences, as well as the typical hip-hop persona. This very much fits into that dichotomy.
Hyuk is in a room with a tree, with a shattered window in front of him. He’s wearing leather and thick eyeliner like a typical bad boy. He’s covered with stab wounds. The most interesting thing though is that there is bark coming off of his arms. If I had to guess as to why this is the case I imagine he’s undergone so much abuse that he’s become a part of this world that the girl has created – to escape would be to lose himself.
That leaves Hongbin – ultimately the focal point of the video. The normally cute visual is twitching, scratching, contorting inside a box. His arms and chest are covered with glass. He still has piercings in his shoulders, but they’re not attached to anything. His clothes are in actual tatters. He has the iconic Xs in his eyes. He acts like a terrifying, insane creation, less human than a corpse. It’s scary but it’s admirable how amazing he’s able to act.
Hongbin is the only character we see in the end after all is said and done. The girl comes back to her room to find all the boys have escaped, and are trying to find their way back to, presumably, our world. The girl angrily starts stabbing the doll, still bound to all of them. They all get hurt and eventually float, as they are forced into various positions. Eventually we see Hongbin fall, and get pulled back into the room.
The girl puts the glass back in his arms, restores him, and stitches him. He blinks, unfeeling, not even looking at her. She got her doll back.
A lot of people have assumed that this means the other members escaped. I don’t think this is true. If you watch closely, Ken falls too – it cuts off right before he does. This means to me that he didn’t escape either. And it seems unfair to think that just the two of them were taken back. I think that the girl is focusing individual attention on each of them, as part of her intentional control of them. She likes to play with these boys and make them completely codependent. And, judging from Hongbin’s reaction, this costs him everything that he is.
The song ends on a relatively somber note:
누가 됐든 잘 봐 그녈 울리지 마 (nuga dwaetdeun jal bwa geunyeol ulliji ma)
더 이상 잃을 무엇도 없는 나 (deo isang irheul mueotdo eomneun na)
그 누구도 모르는 내 가슴속의 슬픔은 (geu nugudo moreuneun nae gaseumsogui seulpeumeun)
째깍 째깍 다 사라지리라 (jjaekkak jjaekkak da sarajirira)
Whoever this becomes watch carefully, don’t make her cry
VIXX’s “Voodoo Doll” will ultimately go down in history as one of the greatest K-Pop Mvs of all time. It’s overdone as far as budget is concerned. It’s just incredibly tight in terms of all the things that count – plot, editing, and the music. The singers themselves are what make this music video so amazing. It set a course for a number of K-Pop bands to come, allowing bands like Dreamcatcher to go full on horror for almost every comeback and bands like Cross Gene to do incredibly graphic music videos like “Black or White”.
While I do believe that this video is about an abusive relationship, there is some ambiguity. But I believe that is intentional here. I don’t think a good K-Pop video is meant to tell you how to feel, or what you should think of it. I think it’s supposed to guide you in a direction and allow you to figure it out for yourself. There are a number of interpretations that can come from “Voodoo Doll”, some literal and some not. But one thing’s for sure, VIXX has something. And it’s not something that is easily recreated.
EXID’s one of those girl groups that everyone knows and everyone likes no matter what. Even if you don’t love them, there’s always one or two songs you can’t stop listening to. While I am not quite a big enough fan to necessarily consider myself a part of the fandom, I always thought their dance routines were on point and they had a very natural chemistry. The songs were great, their voices were all distinct…there has always been a lot to like about them. Not only that, a number of people around me are big fans of theirs, so I have a pretty consistent exposure to them. Heck, my dad’s bias is Solji.
I definitely wanted to do an article on EXID at some point, it was really a matter of figuring out what to write about. Yes, “Up and Down” is iconic, but I wanted to start with something different. “Ah Yeah” was a great choice too, but I felt like that had been picked apart already by everybody. “I Love You” is on my list, but I didn’t want to go with something too recent. EXID’s had a lot of hits after all.
I finally figured out what video I wanted to write about when making the pre-show playlist for an event I’ve been preparing at university on K-Pop. I asked my girlfriend for help, as I didn’t want to have videos from groups I already was covering, I wanted to show the diversity of K-Pop as a genre. I knew I wanted to show an EXID video, and my girlfriend suggested I watch “L.I.E”. I watched it and fell in love with the video quickly, and added it to the lineup.
So there we had it. I had the perfect choice for a music video to write about.
In 2016, K-Pop was getting increasingly popular. Blackpink, Momoland, I.O.I, Pentagon, and KNK all debuted. VIXX had their Conception trilogy. BTS had “Young Forever” and “Blood Sweat and Tears”. SHINee sold out of their “1 of 1” cassette tape in twenty four hours, and not because everyone with a cassette player suddenly started listening to SHINee. 4minute broke up, but HyunA continued making music. Jessica Jung made her solo debut after leaving Girls Generation. It was not the biggest year K-Pop would ever have, but it was by no means their worst year, and the journey would be far from over.
2016 was also the year that we found out about Solji’s hiatus from the group to take care of her life-threatening hyperthyroidism. As a result, L.I.E would be the last song in two years we would see a five-member EXID. EXID was also at major popularity – not the peak that they got from “Up and Down”, but the consistent kind of popularity that comes from when a group is genuinely good at what they do. As for the music video, it’s a creative little video, with a high production value and gorgeous colors.
Everything sports a pink hue, with purples a a secondary color, and red as a tertiary color. We also get teals and blues that are positively gorgeous, and the occasional black accents – a dress, painted doors, and so on. Oh, and don’t forget the sparkly gold embroidery on the uniforms. And yet, there is something about it that feels distinctly not cheery. It hides something behind its own cuteness and suggestiveness. There seems to be a quiet anger – sometimes an overt one – and a distinct sadness to a number of elements. But still, it doesn’t stop cheering you up. If anything, the misplaced melancholy makes it almost more fun to watch, because it’s hard to understand why it’s there in the first place.
Which brings us to the Five Stages of Grief.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a 20th century psychiatrist from Zurich, Switzerland, wrote a book in 1969 called On Death and Dying. As near-death studies were her focus, she proposed a theory about how people deal with the end, or any tragedy. She broke it up into five parts – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. This was the birth of the Five Stages of Grief.
So, naturally, I’m going to connect a theory from the late 60s to a music video about sexy Korean girls in hotel uniforms.
Kübler-Ross proposed the stages as a way to understand the way people deal with death, but they can apply to any other kind of tragedy. For instance, let’s say a breakup. Where on earth would we get this notion? Perhaps, I don’t know, from the mysterious man at the beginning of the video, in a mask?
Keep in mind, there has been a fair amount of fan discussion to this end. Looking at the comments of “L.I.E”, people have noticed that it appears that each girl represents something. It’s just a question as to what that something is. Some people think that the story is very literal and that the girls are about to go murder the guy who checks into the hotel. Some even go as far to say that it’s a revenge kill on behalf of Jeonghwa, who we see lying in the elevator. Other people have a different theory entirely and say that the girls are representative of different ways of dealing with anger. I think that both of those theories have merit, but I personally disagree with both.
I think that to say that all K-Pop videos have a cut and dry story, especially when there’s craziness and weirdness going on, is kind of undercutting what the music videos try to do. As a filmmaker I can tell you that many K-Pop videos are trying to challenge the viewer, not just be aesthetic. In fact I would go as far to say that aesthetic is a secondary component to most videos – the difference between K-Pop and Western music is that the two concepts are not mutually exclusive in K-Pop. You can have a video that challenges you while still being visually pleasing. I’ll cover a number of videos I think that do a good job of that, but let’s keep the focus here, on EXID.
The reason I think that the girls represent the five stages of grief is because there’s five of them, for one thing, but they’re all in very different, isolated situations. They all behave differently and even though they generally speaking wear the same uniforms, they all have different color schemes attached to them and different ways of wearing those uniforms. Because of this we can more easily split them up and try to figure out what each member signifies. It’s kind of like tarot, each card has a different meaning. So let’s see what we can read here.
The song is a pop song, but I would say more of a classic pop song. Electronic music is mixed with some solid drum beats and some easy guitar parts. It has a clear build to the chorus and the bridge is still playfully climbing. There’s a rap break, and two electronic dance breaks – which I would say is more of a feature of K-Pop than it is of anything else. It’s a product of the fact that the members have to dance as part of training. Very few K-Pop groups can get away with not having this training (unless you’re in YG Entertainment).
All of the line distribution is fairly reasonable, so each girl has a chance to shine. I’ve mentioned this in other articles as something that bothers me heavily about K-Pop is when bands give certain members all of the lines and then ignore other members. This song by and large avoids that pitfall. I’d say there’s always an issue when you have a member who does mostly rap, because they will likely only do the bridge or one verse. But in spite of that the band generally keeps things even between members.
The set really leans into the hotel concept, with everything taking place on a sound stage that’s made to look like different parts of a hotel. We have the front lawn, the front desk, a hallway, an elevator, a bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen. However, as is a pitfall of having a video shot on a sound stage, it’s hard to make things look realistic.
EXID and the production company August Frogs lean into the lack of realism. The colors are bright and vibrant and there is no attempt at making you feel like you’re really there. If you get immersed you get immersed because of the beauty. Frankly, I don’t know of many hotels that are a single story but also have at least six floors represented by their room numbers, and two elevators, one red and one pink. I also don’t know of many hotels that have such vibrant reds and purples…except maybe The Grand Budapest Hotel.
I’ll cover these set designs more with each individual member and show pictures accordingly, so as not to be redundant.
Instead of uncovering each member in chronological order, like I did with “PIRI”, or doing it with a criteria of how much screen time each member gets, like I did for “Fly High”, I am going to instead do it in order of the five stages of grief, and what each member inherently represents. Again, the five stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Anxiety. Therefore, that is the order I shall do this in. For each member, I’m breaking this up into two parts, production design and story. This isn’t an act of laziness, to group up the costumes, colors, and sets in this way – I just think those three things, such as they appear, are inextricably linked in this video. The symbolism will ultimately arise from discussion of each member.
Before we do that though, I just want to take a moment and highlight the outfits that the band wears in the dance sequence. There is no particular significance to these, but they are sexy and powerful in heels and I love them for it. I also like the silver accents and how each member manages to stand out. Each member looks good in their own special way. The long socks really highlight Solji’s height. The high neck on Jeonghwa’s shirt and the silver accents on the waist draw your eyes to Jeonghwa’s long torso in a really pretty way. Hani’s got the short sporty sleeves and a nice V-neck which gives her figure a lot of dimension. Hyerin is tiny so the off-the-shoulder look is perfect for her. And LE…well LE just looks great. High ponies and long sleeves are a good look for her. Then again I’m biased.
Solji – Denial
Part 1: Production Design
Solji spends the majority of her time in the hallway, which is lit coolly with fluorescents and small ornate lamps. The deep turquoise is more unfeeling than it is for any of the other members, largely due to this lighting. This is further exacerbated by the black doors, but undercut by the red carpeting. Blue hues usually indicate sadness or calm but red indicates nearly the opposite – rage and passion. She also appears in the red elevator. The red elevator is gilded with gold and is smooth and pristine, with a lighter red carpet below.
Of course we can’t talk about color without talking about Solji herself. Solji is a paler person so she looks good in cool tones, and she can also pull off orange hair. Anyone who looks good in orange gets points in my book. Her hotel uniform is white and a cool, bright purple, with a red streak on the side, a small red bow tie, and black heels. The shirt is open in the back, and the skirt is long but tight – she’s tall, she can pull this off. Of course, don’t forget her hotel EXID hat and her “KILL X” name tag. Her makeup is also cooler, with pink lipstick and eyes that are smokey enough to grab you, but also not smokey enough to be distracting.
She also wears a black dress, when she’s in the red elevator. This stood out to me because it seemed so out of place against the red and gold. Black, gold, and red is a weird combination. But I think this has to do with what Solji is intended to represent in this story. Either way – not gonna lie, this dress is gorgeous. It’s something I’d definitely wear for myself.
Part 2: Story
As stated before, Solji spends most of her time in the hallway, the shots of her in the elevator appear to just be inserts (though that’s not to say they’re not important in understanding her character). We see her lying on a room service cart, holding a room key and looking at it. This happens to be the room key for the aformentioned masked man, which happens to be 690. I don’t know if this is inherently a “69” joke but judging from the inherent sex appeal of the MV, I wouldn’t put it past the filmmakers.
Solji also sits on or in front of the cart on her knees, singing to herself or looking at the camera. Then of course, there are the numerous shots of her carrying a tray of food, knocking on doors, etc. Typical room service actions. There is something weird about the way she acts though – as we’ll see in later segments, she is basically the only member who is completely calm. Everyone else is kind of losing their minds but she’s somehow managing to keep it entirely together.
It’s simple, she’s in denial.
It’s pretty clear that the guy at the beginning of the video is meant to represent a generic boyfriend, not necessarily anyone’s in particular. Solji is the one member who doesn’t seem angry with him even as she is probably fully aware that he has another girl with him. The doors are closed, so she can’t see it – maybe it doesn’t exist if she just ignores it.
I also think that this makes sense when we consider this weird framed shot of a peach over Solji’s rear – again, this is mostly a sex joke because EXID does that a lot. They’re one of those girl bands where sex and attractiveness are kind of linked to their humor. Usually they do this by subverting expectations, and this random peach is no exception. But it’s kind of fitting if you consider the themes of denial surrounding Solji. Solji turns around to look at it/the camera, as if to be like “What are you doing?” If we consider that Solji represents the Denial stage of grief, she probably is only just now coming to the realization of her own objectification and lack of importance in the relationship.
Or it could just be a peach that’s meant to represent a butt for the hell of it.
Hyerin – Anger
Part One: Production Design
Hyerin spends half her time in the hallway and the other half in a hotel room. The hotel room is turquoise with wooden floors and a blue comforter on the bed, with white and black accents all over. There is a distinct mix of cool and warm lights – cool coming from the window but warm coming from the lamps. It’s very theatrical. This is further exemplified by the way the hall looks in all of Hyerin’s scenes – more often than not, the doors are open and light is pouring in, likely because she’s supposed to be a maid. But this creates a disorienting mix of lights that leads to a chaotic feeling for Hyerin’s character.
This chaos is brought to light in the form of Hyerin’s clothing. Hyerin’s maid outfit is practically made of weird fancy textures. There’s a frilly apron, a frilly trim along the skirt, lace around her neck, and bows along her chest. And of course there’s the hat, the black heels, and the KILL X name tag. However, she disregards the hat and heels quickly. Her hair is also short, and quickly becomes a mess after the hat’s off. When she’s in the hotel room she’s dressed similarly – while it is a fancy black dress, the cut of the top and the choker are still reminiscent of her maid outfit, and her hair is curled more.
Part Two: Story
If the outfit and lights weren’t enough to convince you that Hyerin is representative of anger, how about the fact that half the video is spent depicting her throwing things. When we first see her, she’s staring at a Ken doll in her room, before ripping his head off and singing to it. She seems almost drunk, but I feel like she’s more disoriented than intoxicated. The rest of her scenes in that room are spent with her ripping flower petals off of some roses and throwing the petals around, before lying on the ground next to her Ken doll surrounded by the petals.
This then brings us to her scenes in the hallway, where she’s dressed as a maid. She pushes her cart down the hall, seemingly polished, before hitting the door of room 690 with her duster. The duration of the time spent in this hallway is spent with Hyerin throwing towels and pillows, playing with her duster, hitting everything with her duster, ruffling her own hair, and even singing into her shoe. You could argue that this is Acceptance and not Anger, but I feel like she’s being happy to intentionally spite someone. I mean hitting doors is not indicative of someone who’s particularly level headed.
Hani – Bargaining
Part 1: Production Design
Hani spends a lot of time at the front desk, and in the kitchen. The front desk room is red with blue in the foreground, light colored wood making up the desk and key wall. The entire room is cool toned, from the black trim to the pink bells on the desk, but Hani herself isn’t – in fact, in this room, she looks particularly vibrant and radiant. Yes her skin is pale but her uniform is not.
We then get to the kitchen, where the production design is fairly different to that of the front desk – or really, any other room in this video. It is a small, confined space – low ceilings and thin walls, and the camera always shoots downwards to make sure you see Hani and the room as small. Even the lamps dangle low around her head. The walls are an unmemorable pink and the furniture is a distinctly bland teal with brown accenting. There is a weird spread of food on the table, including lemons, meat, and three different pepper shakers. There are also oranges across the room and flowers all over the place. But again, it’s alright, because Hani seems to take all the color that the walls and furniture left behind. She looks like she’s not meant to be there.
She is also the only member lacking in a costume change. She has a coat on top that has ruffles, and a skirt on the bottom. There is red trim along everything and gold buttons along the front. She also keeps her hat on until the end. And let’s not forget the Kill X on her name tag.
Part 2: Story
We begin Hani’s story at the front desk, where a mildly upset Hani hands the key off the wall and gives it to our masked boyfriend. She doesn’t even touch him, just drops the key in his hand. When the boyfriend takes his new girlfriend’s hand, he doesn’t seem to notice how Hani is reacting – she’s watching their hands with a blank, yet seemingly angry facial expression. She turns to the camera and smirks when the two leave.
The immediate next time we see her, she’s in the kitchen, preparing to cook. She tenderizes the meet with mallets and also examines one of her several pepper shakers. She also spends a bit of time looking at one of the oranges, which has been cut but not fully lengthwise – which makes me wonder if this has to do with the peach scene and my theory about objectification. But oranges do symbolize fertility, luxury, and even good luck in some cultures. So I think the orange is more about what you read into it as opposed to having a concrete meaning. Plus, she is cooking. So maybe it just has to do with that.
Interspersed with this are inserts of Hani sitting on the front desk, or just abesntly pressing the buttons on the front desk. She seems bored but also expectant. Something is clearly supposed to happen, but it hasn’t yet. Eventually though, Hani has clearly had enough. Her lyrics in the bridge consist of her singing “go to hell”, and after this point, Hani throws the pepper shaker, rips her hat off, starts drinking champagne, even going so far as to pour some of it on her head. The room seems to start moving as the lamps begin rotating and the camera tilts.
There’s a lot to get into here. The main reason I think Hani is representative of Bargaining is because she seems to be forcing herself to ignore things. It doesn’t feel like willful ignorance the way Solji’s acting does. Instead it seems like she’s trying really really hard to not pay attention to things. She’s also the only memeber who doesn’t change uniform, as if she’s trying really hard to be a good hotel employee and good chef at the same time. Or, perhaps more accurately, trying to balance her own interests and the interests of this guy. That could also explain the boredom she feels at the desk – she’s probably thinking “If I do all of this right, he’ll come back to me.” Of course, this doesn’t happen. Hani eventually gives up and gives into some pettiness and starts overdoing the pepper, likely just to irritate and anger her (former) boyfriend.
Jeonghwa – Depression
Part 1: Production Design
Jeonghwa has three sets – the hallway, which is lit the same way it is in Solji’s scenes, and both elevators. The pink elevator and the red elevator, as far as I can tell, are actually the same elevator, but the shots are colored so wildly differently that I will refer to them separately. Nonetheless, the pink elevator has fluorescent lighting from the top, whereas the red elevator has a spotlight that’s a much warmer hue.
In both elevators, Jeonghwa is wearing her uniform, which has a grayish mauve piece underneath a shrug, and let’s not forget the red trim and gold buttons, and the KILL X name tag. But Jeonghwa also wears a police uniform and ankle boots, an outfit that seems to come out of nowhere. It’s a dark blue, as police uniforms often are, with a belt and a V neck so her chest is shown off – your typical sexy police uniform fare.
Part 2: Story
The biggest indicator I have for why Jeonghwa represents depression is the fact that she’s lying on the floor for most of the video. This is one of the reasons many people have actually speculated that she’s supposed to be dead, especially since she has her body in that typical murder outline shape. But the thing, is lying down and doing absolutely nothing is a typical symptom of depression. In a way the fact that she’s lying in a presumably moving elevator (while her shoe floats through the air no less) is likely indicative of the fact that the world is moving without her.
The biggest hitch in that analysis is why she’s dressed in a police uniform for part of the video. My best guess is that she is meant to be channeling a sort of “what else has he done” attitude, and trying to figure out the extent she should be upset at all. It’s a fairly defeatist attitude, but it’s the best I’ve got.
It also strikes me as odd that the man presumably comes into the elevator while she’s in there. There are two possibilities for this that would give somewhat of a justification to this. One, maybe the guy is coming to beat her down even further in her state. Two, maybe it’s not the same guy, and some sort of rescuer. I mean we only see his shadow, it’s not so far fetched that this could be the case.
LE – Acceptance
Part 1: Production design
LE’s sets are the front lawn and the bathroom, but two different parts of the bathroom. There’s a lot of hot pink in her sets, mostly in the lights. Her blue bathroom has pink lighting (and a cactus for reasons I can’t even begin to explain) while a cold spotlight shines down on her. When we have close ups of her in the bathroom, by the mirror, the light on top is pink, causing the light blue tiles to look pink, and the mirror is the color of bubblegum. While the lawn has almost no bright pink, there is still a soft pink that makes everything glow a bit against the blue bricks and white columns.
LE’s costumes are among the more provocative. Her uniform is short shorts and jacket with her stomach exposed. She mostly rocks a curly ponytail, sometimes high sometimes low, and her makeup is mostly neutral, which makes her bright red nails stand out. She also wears a silky bathrobe for a number of scenes, and is naked in the bathtub for the rest. Everything about her character is confident and relaxed. Oh and the KILL X name tag. Let’s not forget that.
Part 2: Story
LE has minimal story, but it strikes me as interesting that she’s the first member we see. She’s the valet of this hotel – the boyfriend drives his car up, gets out with his girlfriend, and LE apathetically takes the keys while the boyfriend is chummy with his girlfriend. The rest of her shots are all inserts – her in the bathtub, her looking in the mirror, her lounging in the car. It’s pretty black and white here.
The biggest reason that I believe LE represents acceptance comes down ultimately to the fact that she has no story. She mostly lies surrounded by floating rubber ducks. But I think that’s the point – she’s apathetic to the guy, and has moved on from whatever pain she felt. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s apathy. She just doesn’t care. And that’s the important thing here.
There is, of course, one character I have omitted from this analysis: the boyfriend.
The X referred to on the KILL X name tag is probably the boyfriend. He looks like a dopey guy in suspenders and he’s also wearing floral print and a mask. Everything about him just seems ridiculous. It begs the question what they saw in him in the first place – but I think that’s the key here. People have 20/20 hindsight about relationships and we see here, the attraction that these girls feel is inherently misplaced. At the end of the video, he stumbles out of the hotel room, looks around, and explodes into yellow foam. I don’t think the yellow is of any particular symbolism, it’s just an opposite color to turquoise and a primary color alongside red. So it’s a visual technique. But why would he stumble out of the room? He probably got kicked out by his new girlfriend, and explodes when he realizes he can’t keep cheating but still doesn’t want to take responsibility. Or maybe he just explodes in the minds of the girls as they officially move on.
I love “L.I.E”. I really love it. It’s so gorgeous and playful but also has plenty to uncover. It’s a good song, and each member has a moment to be the star. It’s a fun romp with an uplifting message: screw boys who wrong you, they don’t matter.
At the end of the video we see the girls running through the halls together, laughing, having fun. Everything is on their terms now, and they don’t need some adulterer to validate them. With such a milked topic, it’s interesting to me that EXID and August Frogs could do something so unique. Any and all K-Pop fans should watch this video, to learn how to mix the crazy and the symbolic. The joy in this MV is trying to understand, after all.
I was a young K-Pop fan when I first encountered Super Junior. I was still going through my angsty emo phase (i.e. a whole lotta euro-EDM and alternative rock) so K-Pop was still new to me and relatively unexplored territory. I was mostly a BIGBANG fan, with a healthy side of Brown Eyed Girls, and I didn’t really care about pushing myself to learning new groups. But eventually I managed to branch out into other boy groups and girl groups – SHINee, VIXX, f(x), and various soloists.
A friend of mine, who I consider a sister to this day, recommended Super Junior to me, and I ended up getting hooked on “Mr. Simple”. “Mr. Simple” was relatively new at the time. It was electronic, and incredibly catchy. The video wasn’t great but I wasn’t expecting it to be – it was typical music video fodder of the time. Plain sets, bright lights, mostly dancing. But I didn’t care. There was something fascinating about those idols…they had something that other bands didn’t. Presence. Now I don’t use that phrase lightly. Presence to me is the ability to command your attention by doing both something serious and something ridiculous. That comes both with personality and talent – commanding your audience without doing much at all.
But Super Junior has something else – authenticity. Many companies manufacture the personalities of their idols, and Super Junior’s main label, SM Entertainment, is no stranger to that. EXO, one of the biggest groups in K-Pop, comes under fire once in a blue moon for manufacturing a happy-go-lucky band when the members don’t really like each other, creating a sexy personality for Kai when according to family he was always quiet and shy. And this isn’t just SM – groups go through copious training processes to come up with a persona and train in dancing and singing. It becomes difficult to distinguish what is real and what is not. It’s one of the reasons many veteran fans find it hard to get into younger groups – there is an overabundance of them and at varying degrees of legitimacy. This begs the question: why should you believe Super Junior is real?
Understanding Super Junior
The Super Junior we know now almost didn’t exist. Super Junior was a project group made out of trainees that SM had that all had other talents that had nothing to do with being idols, and were generally not “good enough” to be in TVXQ. The intent was to rotate them out when they hit a certain age, like After School would ultimately do. The Super Junior we know was originally Super Junior ’05, because there was no intention of keeping the group together forever.
But these 12 boys would stay together. They had a chemistry that would put any science project K-Pop group to shame. People weren’t tuning in just because they were cute or talented. They laughed at each other, screamed at each other, fought together, cried together. They were hilarious. And they were real.
I obviously am not an expert in idol psychology. But I have been lucky enough to see idols live, and I can tell you – you can pretty much tell when an idol is faking it and when they’re not. The second time I went to KCON NY, I saw Stray Kids, Heize, Pentagon, Red Velvet, and Super Junior. But what struck me seeing all of these acts was how Super Junior dominated that night. Sure there were other groups who get more views on YouTube more consistently, but Super Junior got the best reaction from the audience. They were on fire, above the hundreds of fans, getting higher and louder screams than anything I’d ever heard in my life.
Again, you can tell, when a band is onstage, if they’re faking it and if they’re not. Super Junior was definitely poised and seasoned, but to say that they were fake would do a huge disservice to what the band has. They made jokes and didn’t overdo it. They didn’t try to be bad boys. They didn’t try to be anything but themselves.
The argument can be made that this in of itself is an act. But I don’t think it is, for a very simple reason – no one has been able to replicate this. Many groups have tried to throw together more than ten members just to see if something sticks, male and female. Even SNSD/Girls Generation was made as a counterpart to Super Junior. But Super Junior seems to be tied together by this red string of fate that wants them to keep going. Members have left, but they stay friends with the band. One member got married, but he still has a home with them (at least in the eyes of the band, many fans are still angry with Sungmin for no reason). One member, Kangin, developed alcohol abuse problems, but the band didn’t throw him under the bus – instead there was quiet anger, one I can only associate with brothers watching a brother screw himself over, and not being able to do anything about it. Through all of the playful and casually adversarial dynamics members may have, it’s clear to me that they love each other. I can think of very few groups that have this love. There are some who do, but it’s hard to spot them in a world where everyone’s just looking for the next big thing.
Most of this probably seems irrelevant. This is a film analysis blog and here I am talking about how much a group loves each other. But there’s a reason. Super Junior is the band I would consider to be the first modern K-Pop group. There had been other Korean bands and even Korean boy and girl bands before them. But Super Junior popularized the obscenely large group, had natural chemistry, weren’t overtly sexy, had catchy hits, and even came up with the term K-Pop to describe their own style. They were a perfect storm and that storm was a hurricane.
So the argument can be made that “Sorry Sorry” is therefore, the first real K-Pop song, and thus the first real K-Pop music video. Trying to isolate members in meaningful ways so that they can be differentiated, yet showing the unity of a complete group. They also had English hooks, easy dance moves, and distinctive parts in different ranges. Anyone can do at least part of “Sorry Sorry”, and everyone knows part of the chorus. And while TVXQ’s “Mirotic” and BIGBANG’s “Lies” came out before “Sorry Sorry” did, the songs were not nearly as accessible on a large scale – “Mirotic” is really angling to be sexy, which alienates fans who can’t see themselves that way (or that don’t find Yunho attractive) and “Lies” tries really hard to be American while also being too much of a ballad. “Sorry Sorry”, unlike either of those two, is a song for everyone.
What “Sorry Sorry” Does Right
Coming at it from that angle, “Sorry Sorry” is indicative of the shift in focus at the time from solely music to group dynamics. The dance routine by itself is moderately simple until we get to Eunhyuk’s popping and locking during the bridge. The focus is not on how well the members can dance – we know that some members of Super Junior don’t really have the best dancing ability, and Heechul in particular has a number of medical conditions that prevent him from dropping onto the floor in a breakdance. So having a moderate dance routine keeps everyone on even footing. Then having a dance break were the members that can dance well can show off…well that highlights the individual responsibilities of everyone in the group.
The video is also black and white, which is another equalizer. K-Pop is known as the genre where no one can keep a hair color for more than ten minutes. When you eliminate color, the focus is immediately on the members’ faces. To an extent also on their outfits, but you’re going to want to look where the movement is, and the movement is often constrained to the faces or dance moves. There are very few aesthetic shots in this MV. The set is not much to speak of. There are no flashing lights. So where are you going to look but their faces?
The opening shots are, in fact, aesthetic shots, but they’re also such non sequiturs that they don’t have much bearing on the music video itself. In terms of these shots right at the beginning though I think it’s important to note that Kibum is the only member whose face is visible, as he is an actor first and foremost. This opening does set the tone for something sexy but also classy, as all the objects depicted – stocking and garter, string of pearls, envelope with a wax seal – are indicative of wealth. Yet despite the connotations of the girl lifting her dress to reveal the stocking and garter, none of the members in the group are exposed. Romance is not meant to be the point of the video otherwise we’d probably get more overtly sexy shots – SM hasn’t shied away from this stuff before. We don’t get a face to this woman either, she is only the object of desire insofar as the subject of the song.
The woman is important though, because she operates as a viewer insert character. We do see her eye at one point, looking through a keyhole. This becomes a recurring motif, not because of the keyhole itself, but because of the fisheye look that many of the shots have. It’s meant to look like members are standing outside your room and looking in, trying to win you over. It’s actually pretty effective, because you feel closer to the members by being all up in their business, or them being all up in yours.
The final shot of the opening is the pearls falling, with the title of the video and all the members’ names. I think this does a good job of directing the focus of the viewer to the individuals – even if you can’t tell the difference between Donghae and Siwon (though you absolutely should) you at least know their names and that each member has an individual identity. This is further emphasized by the fact that there are both small differences in the members’ outfits when they’re intended to match somewhat – different shades of shirts, different ties, different jewelry, different styles of suit – and large differences when they’re not. Each member looks like they have their own personality. Yet I wouldn’t say that the personalities are shoved in your face, with the exception of the sunglasses on Eunhyuk and Han Geng which is just a try hard move when anyone does it. Sorry.
PSA: Don’t wear sunglasses indoors.
The biggest problem I have with the MV is probably Heechul being so underused. Heechul is a personal favorite idol of mine. He’s a great talent with a great personality. He’s irreverent and he’s smooth. However he was distinctly shafted in this video. It might be because of his health problems, or it might be because they were trying to put a focus on younger members, but in any event, he has two lines in the ENTIRE song, and one of them is just him laughing. This is remedied by the time “Mr. Simple” rolls around, but it does bother me as someone who values groups that keep even line distribution.
Back to Basics
In my scriptwriting course at school we were taught that ultimately, every movie or play is a pantomime, and that dialogue is just kind of a nice treat, an addition to that. Therefore, the silent movie would be an ultimate form of storytelling, and if you can nail that you’re golden. Obviously it’s more complicated than saying mastering the silent movie makes you be able to master all stories ever, but you see my point. “Sorry Sorry”, in this context, is a silent movie, stripped down to the absolute basics of what makes K-Pop…well, K-Pop.
This video serves as a road map for all K-Pop to come after. Most group MVs are variations of the format that Super Junior provided. Not to say that each group is intentionally trying to rip off SuJu. Rather, K-Pop as a medium and a mode for creativity is defined by what Super Junior successfully did. I think a comprehensive study of K-Pop should separate it into two distinct zones, before and after Super Junior. Before Super Junior the genre was kind of going through an adolescent period of taking American styles, mixing it with Korean styles, and not really knowing what was going to stick. “Sorry Sorry”, however, cuts everything out and makes something both catchy and accessible, while highlighting the members as parts of a whole and not reducing them to mere archetypes. The success of “Sorry Sorry” showed the industry what fans actually wanted. And I think that’s where Super Junior can teach us where the soul of K-Pop actually is.