In K-Pop, when a band debuts, it’s one of the defining moments of that band’s career. Whether it establishes a style or is the jumping off point for a variety of concepts that follow, a strong debut will be a factor in that band’s success later on. Of course that is not true for every band – Girls’ Generation’s debut was marked with a black ocean, where all of the audience members at a music show turned off their lightsticks. But it certainly was a defining moment for their careers nonetheless, especially when you consider the success that followed for them.
In 2017, the band Dreamcatcher went for an ambitious goal – a horror music video re-debut. Horror music videos, while not common in K-Pop, are certainly not unfamiliar. The most prominent ones that stick out to me are VIXX’s “Voodoo Doll” and Cross Gene’s “Black or White,” but there have certainly been others since then (though I would argue that the first truly successful and impactful horror MV was “Voodoo Doll”). But Dreamcatcher’s ambition comes from them being a female group, and them doing this as a debut music video. I consider this a debut because, even though Dreamcatcher did exist before this song, they existed under another group name, MINX. Their reformation signifies – at least for purposes of this analysis – a totally new group. Anyway, most K-Pop girl groups will usually go for a sugary sweet cutesy concept. On occasion, one will go for something sexy. There is nothing wrong with a particular approach, but doing something different on the first try could backfire tremendously on you.
That said, Dreamcatcher did not completely abandon the cutesy young girl group aesthetic or the mature sexy aesthetic. Their first video, “Chase Me”, was a curious blend of styles. The song itself was curious – a rock/pop song more akin to an anime theme than anything you would normally see in K-Pop. The vocals were strong, backed by heavy, fast guitar music, but with a playful, melodic edge that still worked with the girls beautifully. It was definitely the right song, for the right band. It certainly wouldn’t be for everybody – I can certainly see where K-Pop fans could get turned off since most music of the genre is more pop than pop rock. But there certainly is an audience for this style and Dreamcatcher makes it sound great.
The video sports an early 20th century vibe with some mid-to-late 20th century contextual items to make it seemingly timeless. The sets are beautifully ornate, in mostly dark colors, both cold and warm. The most common colors are darker shades of teal, green, blue, and gold, with the costumes in mainly black, white, or a maroon-red. The makeup is mostly pale on the girls, with red/dark pink lipstick mostly and black eyeliner, but nothing extravagant. This definitely coincides with most K-Pop makeup styles, but they do a better job in later videos of not whitewashing the girls. With all this in mind, the analysis can begin.S
Storywise, it’s a little hard to follow, but generally still easy enough that you’re not completely lost. The video opens with Jo Donghyuk, an actor brought on for this project, walking through a hallway. This could be an apartment but judging from the suitcase and the predisposition of the horror genre to associate hotels with hauntings, I’m going to just say it’s a hotel room. Donghyuk has a suitcase in one hand and a camera in the other, and films the room number, 808, before he enters. Right as he’s about to open the door, however, he sees JiU standing on the other end of the hall, holding a doll and wearing a white and gold dress.
Judging from the headwear, we can infer that she’s a nurse of some kind, or at least dressed as one. But that does call into question why she’s holding the doll if she’s dressed like an adult. I’m willing to buy that she’s dressed as a nurse for sheer aesthetic purposes – anyone who’s heard of Silent Hill will know that nurses are a staple of that franchise. However, I’d like to give this video a little more credit and say that there is a purpose for the costume choice.
In any event, Donghyuk films JiU, only for her not to appear on the camera, and then decides to ignore her and go inside his room. It’s a pretty standard hotel or apartment room, but it has ornate furniture. It actually, oddly enough, reminds me of Rubin Hall, a retrofitted dorm for New York University that used to be a hotel in the early 1900s. While a college dorm wouldn’t have such ornate furniture, the hardwood floors and decently high ceilings definitely allows the imagination to run wild, easily letting you picture what was there before.
Donghyuk takes out some papers and new clippings that he’s evidently collected over the years and tries to annotate them, but his pencil breaks. I mean, to be fair, he is sharpening his pencil with a knife. I wonder what elementary school he went to that taught children to use knives as pencil sharpeners.
Looking at the papers he’s reviewing, there’s some text, apparently in French and Italian, that reads:
“O.L. DE [covered]
88, Rue Osseghem,
BRUXELLES – 8
Stmo. Signor DE RYNCK!”
Bruxelles is French for Brussels, Belgique is French for Belgium, and Signor is Italian for Mr., akin to the Spanish “Señor.” None of this appears to be a reference to anything in particular so I imagine this was written for the story that Dreamcatcher is trying to tell. The author of the letter is apparently writing from a hotel, judging from the stationary. It appears to be typewritten. Due to the weathered quality we can infer that this is probably not a recent letter, but something archival, or an heirloom of sorts. Behind the paper, we seen an envelope from the same hotel, but further behind that, we see something that reads PATIENT twice, and then some unintelligible letters, parts of words that are cut off. So the nurse’s outfit that JiU is wearing starts to make a bit more sense.
Of course, I’m neglecting the elephant in the room, the picture of the 7 dreamcatcher members sitting like they’re the Shining twins in white dresses. This is also weathered, and warrants the significance of being placed on top of this letter. I wouldn’t be surprised if the photograph came from the letter but there isn’t enough to go off of. This, does, however, note what everyone probably inferred at this point – we’re dealing with seven ghosts of young girls. If we want to stretch this a bit we could also make a guess as to where we are – either the Palme Lugano hotel that the letter game from, or Brussels, Belgium. But that’s still stretching it a bit.
Donghyuk proceeds to deal with a number of strange occurrences, precipitated by the ghosts of the girls he’s apparently seeking. SuA swings a pendant back and forth, in typical hypnotic fashion, while Donghyuk sleeps, but when he wakes up, he can’t see her. Siyeon holds the door closed and keeps him from leaving. Gahyeon throws some books off a shelf to startle him. Yoohyeon changes the numbers on all the doors so that they all say 808. JiU floats in the hallway, sensually posed and ominously staring at Donghyuk.
The only two who are seemingly absent from this are Handong and Dami. Handong gets a few inserts where she’s sitting on a table and there’s a lamp swinging around her. She’s also in the reflection of a window that Donghyuk is looking through. Dami is the subject of – and later participant – of a cult ritual involving the other girls, also an insert. The cult imagery is recurring in many of Dreamcatcher’s later videos.
The ritual image appears later in the video, towards the end, inside one of the hotel rooms and in a video format. However when it comes up, it’s not the ominous ritual with the girls in veils as it is in the insert during the rap break with Dami. Instead it’s bright, and cheerful. It seems as though the girls, though their pranks have been seemingly harmless in their afterlife, they were all involved in something a bit less harmless than that, but were still somewhat innocent.
The girls’ pranks end up backfiring on Donghyuk as he finds himself locked out of his hotel room, hallucinating himself without eyes, and being tormented by JiU. He rewatches the film of himself getting scared and crawling away from JiU who, as previously stated, is imperceptible by his camera. It’s not clear if this event is taking place before or after he gets locked out of his hotel room.
In any event, he is later forced to break into what appears to be his hotel room with an axe. However, when he breaks in, it doesn’t appear to be his room – the walls are light colored and the photograph of the girls is in a giant frame. We see some more flashbacks of the girls in that room specifically, having a pillow fight, then we see Donghyuk smile ominously. The screen then cuts to the band’s name, as well as the song’s name. Furthermore, the song playing at the end are the opening notes from their next song + music video, “Good Night”, which I’ll cover next week. Even if you didn’t know that, it seems that there is something more there, a lack of a resolution. I mean…there’s also a To Be Continued there, but the ominous smile makes it more interesting to me.
There are many elements here that make this video memorable. First and foremost the aesthetic of the whole video keeps you on your toes. I always applaud K-Pop videos for having the perfect color scheme and aesthetics. I find that many other music genres, while they may look pretty, don’t have the right colors to associate moods with. Sure, bright colors might indicate happiness, but just because you have the bright colors of a Xerox machine in your video doesn’t mean you actually use them well. Dreamcatcher’s color scheme is mostly on point. I say mostly because it suffers from Harry Potter syndrome – if you’ve seen The Deathly Hallows Part 2 you know that having too much oversaturated green isn’t the right thing to do to give a sense of tension. Dreamcatcher’s video has this issue, though to an infinitely lesser extent. It’s also fixed in “Good Night” so I’m willing to write this off as just first-video problems.
Let’s focus on the positives for a minute. The timeless nature makes it more mysterious. The practical lighting makes it feel more real. The ghosts have a playful aura about them and the protagonist is both bland enough and compelling enough to show be a good viewer-insert character. There’s plenty here to leave you wanting more.
However, no video is without sin and this video certainly has them. For one thing, the dance routine, while beautiful, is not shot well at all. Things move too quickly and there is some awkward slow motion segments that leave you ultimately confused. It makes the entire routine hard to focus on – which is a tragedy, because the dance is gorgeous. There is also the problem of too many flashing/flickering lights, which is something that many K-Pop videos suffer from. It feels like a lazy way of trying to ramp up the tension. That doesn’t mean it can’t be well done. VIXX’s “Voodoo Doll” is an example of it being done well – however, that video is more about horror than it is about playfulness, and the flashes are in different colors, so it’s not just blinking white lights. There is also a lack of soft focus. Everything feels almost too sharp and while that can come across as cinematic, the aspect ratio is wide so the sharpness comes across as artificial.
The video is still strong though, in spite of these problems. Each of the girls seems unique, though there isn’t a whole lot of overt personality showing. The inserts of the girls are cute, sexy, ominous, in whichever way best suits them. I think that JiU and SuA are most compelling here because their inserts are the best constructed and their costumes stick out the most. Furthermore, JiU is clearly relevant to the larger story these videos tell, so I kept my eye on her the whole time.
As stated earlier, “Chase Me” plays with notions of innocence, maturity, and sexuality well. It tries to balance the different themes, presumably for marketing, but also within the context of the story. Women’s sexuality is often characterized in the context of temptation and with JiU that seems particularly evident. It seems that if she is not tempting the male character, she’s mocking him for some reason. However, there is a juxtaposition here with the childish nature of the pillow fight scenes or the pranks that the girls pull. So regardless of the tempting nature of JiU in context, she still seems like a deep and nuanced character, because she has the capacity to be childish.
In terms of maturity there are multiple themes at play here. For one thing, horror always forces an adult growth in a character, or freezes a character in childishness. “Chase Me” does both. Even the playfulness of the characters seems mocking. Then there’s the fact that they manage to successfully do some sort of cult ritual. The cult ritual is shown with Dami as the main victim but also with dolls as victims. Eyes are ripped off of the teddy bear, and that in turn effects Donghyuk. So there is a subversion, or even rejection, of childhood.
Not only that, but there are plenty of references to horror films in this. I’ve mentioned numerous references to The Shining, but there are even more. There’s the rug being hexagonal, and while this isn’t the same pattern as The Shining (or by extension Toy Story since the pattern is used in that as well) it definitely is a callback to that. There is of course the use of cameras, a la The Ring or Paranormal Activity. But what got me most was Donghyuk losing his eyes in the mirror. It appears to be a reference to Poltergeist, where a character hunting a ghost watches himself decay in a mirror and literally tears his flesh off. When I first saw that scene, I was fifteen, and scared out of my mind. The effect had looked cheesy at the time but body horror has always stopped my heart. The films that are supposedly alluded to, or at least came to mind for me, all have something to do with maturity or children, particularly The Shining and Poltergeist. The eye thing could also be a reference to SHINee’s “Married to the Music” where everyone loses a body part – Kibum loses his body, Minho loses his head, Jonghyun loses his mouth, Onew loses his nose, and Taemin loses his eyes. I find this unlikely, but hey, it is K-Pop, so maybe this was something that they thought of.
There’s something else – disguising tension as fear. There’s a video by YouTuber Dan Root that elaborates on this concept further in the context of video games. The case study that’s used is Metroid, specifically Metroid Fusion. Dan Root states that using techniques to increase tension but masking them behind story elements related to fear in turn causes you to feel fear. A similar principle holds to “Chase Me”. I would not say that “Chase Me” is particularly scary, but it is definitely unsettling, and you get the sense that the protagonist is scared. It can’t be too scary because it’s trying to work with a number of other themes, but it manages to make you feel unsettled on the first viewing.
Overall, the video is well done, despite the flaws that stick out. Again, it’s easy to be forgiving when it’s a debut. Super Junior’s “Twins” has some of the worst hair styles ever and immensely cheesy effects but, since they’ve gone above and beyond that since, no one cares that there were glaring issues with those videos. (It was also 2005 and I would argue that while K-Pop was fully formed musically, the genre was still undergoing its music video puberty.)
It makes it truly admirable, that Dreamcatcher was able to pull off something so memorable on the first round. They kept this up with later videos, making sure to elaborate on the story, and add more cinematic qualities. But “Chase Me” has charm to it, charm that could only come from a new group. It makes their growth that much more meaningful, but at the same time is hard to surpass. Their next song, “Good Night”, would have a video that gave even more insight into the world these characters live in, but still take another direction. And as we’ll see next week, it pays off.