I’ve been a big fan of MAMAMOO’s since 2016, so you can bet I’ve been playing Hwasa’s “Maria” nonstop virtually since it came out. Judging from the fact that the video got 12 million views in less than three weeks, I’m not the only one. The song is an absolute bop, with powerful lyrics and a great melody. Hwasa’s voice and the Latin beat add a dimension of acoustic authenticity to the synthetic sounds within the song.
But as good as the song is, the video itself hearkens to something deep within me. The lyrics of the song are exemplified by visual cues and dynamic scenes. The colors strike a balance between green and red, warm and cold, vibrant and muted. It’s an elegant affair, yet it has elements of grit. There’s fluorescents and fire for lighting, flickering, even palpating. And, of course, the iconography – the dinner scene, the funeral, the crown, the asylum, the scissors. It’s truly a masterwork.
There’s one specific thing about the video I want to review for how brilliant it is, and it’s the shot composition. The framing of the shots themselves is part of why the video works so well. I will break it down into three categories: Dynamic Shots, Negative Space, and Set Design.
This is an easy one to discuss: there is not a single moment in the video with static framing. The camera is never on a tripod. Shots that would normally be on a tripod are done via handheld. The movement may be slow, but it is always – always – moving. This injects energy into every scene, because you always feel like you’re moving alongside Hwasa. Whether or not the camera is pointed at her, you experience everything with her.
In a music video, this is especially important, because the idol is in fact the star of the whole thing. We have to feel engaged with her personally, or else we lose interest once the song is over. But keeping the camera alongside an interesting subject keeps the viewer on their toes and eager to continue watching.
According to Lights Film School, negative space controls the color palette of a shot, simplifies the shot, adds depth, and isolates the audience’s attention. The negative space in “Maria” accomplishes exactly that. Looking at the iconic shot with the lighters, the background is pitch black, minus a soft light on Hwasa’s face. Then, hands carrying lighters enter the shot, giving color and illumination via the power of editing.
What makes the shot work is the negative space in the background. You could divide the shot in half – the top half empty and the bottom half filled. Hwasa’s face is framed by negative space on either side. The hands all point upwards towards her face, driving the focus towards her. Her hair, eye makeup, and lips are red, while the rest of the shot is gold and black, making sure she’s the focus of your attention.
Negative space isn’t always an expanse, though. It’s emptiness, and that can be on a stage as well. And the sets are sparsely populated. Hwasa often stands isolated, with nothing behind her. The asylum set is particularly empty most of the time, and the white, glossy tiles give a feeling of sterility. When offset by naturalistic imagery like rose petals and flames, it establishes a range of emotions that Hwasa is trying to get you to experience.
However, there is also a lack of negative space in many scenes. A lot of shots have monitors or other actors, filling the space. Other shots are extremely close to Hwasa, putting her in claustrophobic framing. This parallels the lyrics about dealing with adversity and loneliness, even in (and especially in) her position as an idol.
By far, the most important part of the shot composition is the set design. The set design is what drives the attention towards Hwasa – no matter the scenario, it can’t overwhelm her. In this music video, however, the set design accomplishes the tremendous feat of highlighting Hwasa while still being unique on its own.
Let’s talk about shapes
While I could go on and on about the asylum and all its monitors, or the beautiful funeral scene with flowers and chairs surrounding Hwasa, or the dinner scene with inedible objects as food, let’s take a different approach. I want to talk geometry. I can hear you scream at me from beyond the screen, “But math isn’t art!” And I am here to tell you no: math and science make up the building blocks of art and life. From Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” explaining the proportions of the human body in geometric terms, to Fibonacci’s “Golden spiral” representing the logarithmic spirals we find in the natural world, to even the patterns you might find in feathers on a wing or leaves on a tree.
The sets in Hwasa’s video are emblematic of various geometric design principles. According to Debbie O’Connor of White River Design in Australia, squares, triangles, and circles give off very specific emotions. To paraphrase, squares represent stability, triangles represent aggression and metaphysical direction, and circles represent unity and harmony. Any of these qualities can be positive or negative. Stability can be monotony, aggression can be power, unity can be homogeneity. Shapes accomplish powerful things as principles of design.
A world without rectangles
In “Maria,” most of the sets are not rectangular. Instead, they are either a very sharp triangle or a circle/oval. There are two prominent sets: an asylum and a triangular bathroom. The circle loops all attention towards Hwasa via the curves in the walls and her placement on screen. The triangle creates leading lines that directly point towards Hwasa, making her the center of attention always. Even the hallway set resembles an abstract polygon.
Round and round we go
Circles, while generally associated with positive qualities, can be put in a negative context. In Westworld Season 2, Episode 4 director Lisa Joy put a character in a circular room filled with spherical objects to show the central character’s monotonous life and spiral into insanity. In “Maria”, we see the same effect as in Westworld. The circle room is an asylum setting – sterile and pure. The mission of the “Maria” is to show how Hwasa deals with adversity and loneliness. Through the circular design elements, we feel that, regardless of whether or not people accompany her.
By contrast, the round set with the Mediterranean archways is palatial, with a chandelier. The set is regal, just as we are meant to view idols as royalty. (Note the crown of nails that appears throughout the video.) It also has a cathedral-like quality (again, note the crown of nails, which might as well be a crown of thorns.) Through these two sets, we can see the different design principles of circles at play.
The Math of Fear Triangles
The triangular bathroom, meanwhile, is also palatial; however, because of the sharp angles, it’s not serene, it’s unnerving. Hwasa’s hair is matted from the bathtub. Her makeup is smudged. She’s wearing plastic gloves in a bathtub, or more specifically, an area you’d assume she’d be more vulnerable in. The liquid in the tub is unnatural shade of white. The tile is dirty, and the painted paneling mixed with the wallpaper is borderline chaotic. She’s surrounded by velvet rope, like at a theater, closing her off from the others. The press as depicted in this music video blaspheme an otherwise private display.
The combination of these elements perfectly showcases the mission of the video. Hwasa lays her psyche bare for us. She wants us to feel the intense emotions that come with her fame: the chaos, the loneliness, the beauty, the pain.
That is, until the end.
The picture of stability
There is only one shot in the entire music video that has a rectangular composition. Where the set pieces form a rectangular frame. Where the composition indicates stability, strength, and comfort.
It’s the shot where her bandmates from MAMAMOO come to comfort her.
While “Maria” deals with heavy concepts, it doesn’t end in sadness or misery, but in joy. It ends in a serene composition. Her friends stand in a brightly lit environment. It communicates to us that in spite of the trials that Hwasa faces, she’s surrounded by people who love her. It doesn’t erase the burdens, but it provides reprieve.
When making a movie or analyzing a movie, you have to keep in mind how pieces play into a greater whole. If there is a theme central to a story, every shot should enhance that theme, whether to exemplify or subvert it. “Maria” accomplishes this in every possible way. The whole of Hwasa’s work is, needless to say, positively breathtaking. The rawness, the vulnerability, and the creativity – these are the pieces that make up the future of K-Pop.
When I was fourteen, K-Pop was starting to pop up in western reaction videos. Random YouTubers would either post on their own channels or congregate with bigger names like the Fine Bros., where they would react to videos such as “Fantastic Baby” and “I Got a Boy”. One of the things I noticed repeatedly through these reactions is how much the reactors would poke fun at K-Pop videos. People would look at the brightly colored hair and hear the English choruses mixed in with the Korean and laugh because the phrase “Fantastic Baby” seemed like a stupid non-sequitur compared to everything else going on. There was no attempt to engage with what drives K-Pop videos.
Obviously, being a fourteen year old, I thought the videos were hilarious as well. Nevertheless, when I finally took my deep dive into K-Pop during high school, I began to actually look at the videos more closely. I noticed the burning cars in “Fantastic Baby” and remembered that one of the members, Daesung, had been in a car accident where someone had died, and had taken a break from singing for almost a year out of guilt. He was chained to a wall, like a prisoner. That got me wondering what was going on in the video as a whole, and I started looking into it more closely. I found very few analyses that covered it in any detail, and the lack of information actually became one of the reasons I started this blog.
4Minute’s “Whatcha Doin’ Today”
Fast forward about seven years later. I’m complying with the stay-at-home order and working on some personal projects. I tend to listen to music while I work because it keeps my brain from wandering too far. In this case, I was listening to a lot of 4minute, and I stumbled across their song “Whatcha Doin’ Today” and started listening to it.
I didn’t know what on earth was going on.
Sohyun was cleaning a carpet, Gayoon was playing with the Disney Channel wand, Jihyun made men make out with magic candy and has their heads inflate like balloons, Jiyoon was sitting on a toilet with her pants around her ankles, and HyunA was…being HyunA I guess. (Ironically she may be the least weird in the whole video.) Everyone’s wearing shiny dresses and bows, up to childish antics or over-sexualized antics, and partying like it’s the end of the world. And there’s no clear story to any of these scenes, so it’s really unclear what’s going on at any point. For all we know this is a day in the life of 4minute. Honestly, I doubt any of us would be surprised.
I wasn’t going to write the video off, though. It was weird, but K-Pop usually uses weirdness as a thematic device to communicate something. Even the most bizarre images are done with very specific intent.
What’s 4 minute doing today?
After way too many viewings, I can infer that “Whatcha Doin’ Today” is a satire of assumed masculinity and femininity. It’s not necessarily making a statement on whether or not those traits are bad or good. Rather, it’s exaggerating those stereotypes, both among the female characters (the members and their backup dancers) and the male characters (also backup dancers.)
The various members of 4minute are not dressed conservatively, but their outfits are comparatively everyday. They also act as the dominant characters, picking on men and being attended to by women. The backup dancers, regardless of gender, are objects of attraction, dressed homogeneously and being teased by them. In short, the video is satire about the ways we objectify both sexes.
As for the various weird images, like school hallways with lockers and bathrooms and parties, these are actually very literal interpretations of the lyrics. Gayoon asks for an Americano and some guy comes out from under a table to present her with one. Sohyun talks about being at school and doing housecleaning, with those lines directly corresponding to her locations. The bathroom isn’t explicitly mentioned but Jiyoon’s corresponding rap verse correlates with the choreography: when she says that people watch boring shows on TV and laugh, all the backup dancers turn towards her. The images of people partying usually correspond with someone announcing a party or saying “have fun!”
However, because of the language barrier between Korea and the west, a lot of that is lost when people aren’t motivated to turn on subtitles. What is directly connected to the song seems irrelevant because people can’t actually tell what is or isn’t connected.
What qualifies as “Weird”?
This train of thought got me thinking more broadly about what we in America qualify as weird when it comes to K-Pop, and why we’re so ready to write K-Pop off as bizarre without trying to understand it. And why the answer seems to be obvious – culture barriers between the east and west – I’m more interested in understanding the specifics of what we classify as weird.
My focus with this blog is filmmaking, so what are the filmmaking techniques specific to K-Pop that people in America actively avoid understanding?
Lighthearted kPop videos
The big feature of K-Pop is that it’s very rare that a K-Pop music video gives you all the information at face value. Even if you have the lyrics to go off of, usually the videos get meta with their symbolism. Often production design is what is a conduit to symbolism. Details about the world communicate things to the audience. Even narrative-based videos will often have some sort of a reversal at the end that changes how you view the whole MV.
For the sake of this analysis, we’re not going to talk about videos that are intentionally dark or serious. We’re going to keep it on the happier end of the spectrum, because lighthearted music videos tend to have the most “weirdness” potential. Furthermore, serious videos tend to be more overt about when they’re making a statement (regardless of what culture or genre the video is from). Consumer-friendly music videos have room to be discreet.
Within K-Pop there are four general categories for videos that sit on the lighthearted end of the spectrum. These are Coolness-Driven,Narrative-Driven, Performance-Driven, and Statement-Driven. These categories are not mutually exclusive, as something narrative-driven can also put a strong emphasis on making a point, coolness-driven videos can have a strong emphasis on the dance. With that in mind, let’s get into the various categories:
Coolness-Driven K-Pop Videos
The number one category that drives western scrutiny of how “weird” K-Pop can be is the Coolness-Driven (CD) category. CD videos basically center around how cool the artists in question are. G-Dragon’s videos circa 2012, “Crayon” especially, are usually in this category. It’s largely about spectacle, but generally there to drive the point that this singer is just so cool.
Looking back at “Crayon”, G-Dragon is wearing a hat that says GIYONGCHY. GIYONGCHY is a pun on his given name (Kwon Jiyong) his stage name (G-Dragon) and the fashion brand Givenchy. That is some SERIOUS pun game with the only purpose of making G-Dragon seem like the coolest person around. Not only can he afford Givenchy, he’s so rich he can probably own his own fashion house. This of course assumes that you associate wealth with coolness. The two are not mutually inclusive, in my opinion, but it works in “Crayon.”
What drives the CD category is a lot of aesthetic shots that are seemingly unrelated to anything happening in the story, assuming there even is a story. In girl group videos, this is usually in the form of sexy, expensive outfits. In men, it’s…well, it’s about the same. But CD videos heavily emphasize the members, so that you can both see yourselves in them and and see them as especially cool. The dance, which is always a primary feature of K-Pop as a genre, is more secondary in this category. It’s more about holding up the singers as a desirable ideal, wherein the dance functions primarily to achieve that.
Western audiences tend to conflate this attempt at establishing coolness as showy or tactless. In some cases they’re right. The flashy visuals can be dialed up to an extreme that doesn’t sit well. But that’s not K-Pop’s fault, that’s the artist’s fault. G-Dragon went too far with “MichiGo” (don’t look it up, trust me) being extremely flashy and provocative to the point of being creepy. But that’s not a reason to write off K-Pop as a whole. It’s an extreme example. There are plenty of instances where western media artists do the same thing.
So why is K-Pop exposed to more scrutiny than other genres?
Narrative-Driven (ND) videos are videos where a story features centrally. The story acts as a vehicle for us to get to know the members of a band. The story can be extremely simple, like a bunch of nerdy girls learning how to be sexy to win a contest (T-ARA’s “So Crazy”) or falling in love with a girl but being so shy that you panic every time she approaches you. (Seventeen’s “Nice”) Sometimes the story is vague, but the setting is prominent. Therefore, you get a sense of a story, even with a few moments of action. (TWICE’s “Like OOH-AHH”, EXID’s “L.I.E”) But even when the story is simple or implicit, the video is incomplete without it.
C-Clown’s “Far Away…Young Love”
On the other hand, there are videos where the story is a major part of the experience. The best example I can think of is C-Clown’s “Far Away… Young Love”. The video is at first glance very serious, but quickly becomes anything but, which is why I count it as a lighthearted example. There are two versions of the video, one with the other members of C-Clown and one with just Kangjun. The solo version, however, is the one we’re talking about. I honestly don’t want to spoil it for people, so please watch it. I beg of you. (Also, it has the same baseline as the Gerudo overworld theme from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Seriously.)
The point is, everything in the video is played up for comedy. However because we spend so much time with Kangjun and get to know his character in this video, we get the sense that we know him.(Even though we don’t really. Please beware the dangers of parasocial relationships.) ND K-Pop videos are enable us to have a very direct relationship with the singers in them. We see how the members react to the various changes in their environment, what relationships form, and most importantly, what actions they take, if any, to change their situation.
Sometimes this actually trickles into expanded universe territory, as narratives will form across videos and you learn about the members as if they were characters in a TV show. BTS is the example everyone thinks of, and they did establish the connected universe as a viable option for K-Pop. But I want to bring up VIXX’s “Conception” series, which had an implicit narrative explored through different aesthetics. LOONA, which has the LOONAVERSE, is also worth mentioning. I honestly don’t know much about the LOONAVERSE, but the wiki has a very good breakdown.
Is K-Pop really that confusing?
The story delivery is what confuses people in America…for some reason. Some people may say this is because a K-Pop draws on Korean cultural norms that are “unknown” to western audiences. However, I honestly can’t think of too many examples of that being the case. Maybe some references are unique to K-Pop, but overarching storytelling techniques should stand on their own.
It may come down to a difference in storytelling technique. Again, K-Pop largely relies on “meta” details to communicate something to the audience. But I also don’t think that’s sufficient. I have watched many movies where nothing happened, and my colleagues would zero in on a detail that was more vague and “meta” than anything in K-Pop. I don’t think meta narratives are the problem.
There are also issues that plague music videos in general. People mistaken melodrama for a lack of quality, or see an implied story as incomplete rather than implied. It’s worth noting, though, that many western artists make videos that are over-the-top, melodramatic, and lack background detail, but get millions if not billions of views.
Performance-Driven (PD) K-Pop is when the dance is more at the forefront than the members themselves. This isn’t as big a thing now, but it was really big in the early 2010s. SM Entertainment nailed these videos with bands like f(x) and EXO, with “Electric Shock” and “Overdose” respectively. miss A and T-ARA, while not from SM Entertainment, also nailed dances with such titles as miss A’s “Bad Girl Good Girl” and T-ARA’s “Sexy Love”. It has made a bit of a resurgence with bands like Momoland and Stray Kids, where the dance is the most primary part of their videos in many cases.
This can actually be a very positive thing for a band, because PD videos focus almost entirely on the members’ talents. It also makes departures from this format that much more noteworthy, such as f(x)’s “Red Light” and “4 Walls”. Since most K-Pop bands put a strong emphasis on dance, so picking it up feels second nature. That said, I wouldn’t say dance is universal to every K-Pop group. BIGBANG’s videos generally lack choreography, focusing almost entirely on the vocal performances. (Arguably, these could indeed count as PD videos because the vocal performances feature so prominently.) That said, I’d argue that this is the most uniquely K-Pop category, as dance and other modes of onstage performance are so important to the genre as a whole.
Performance or “Weirdness”?
The “weirdness” factor comes in when you consider that western videos don’t really emphasize performance in the same way. Whereas most K-Pop idols are strong all-around talents, western artists tend to focus on one category or another. Just because you’re a specialized singer does not mean you have to be a specialized dancer, and vice versa. It’s also my impression that westerners think idols who don’t perform on instruments are somehow not artists, just performers…as if not playing a guitar or the drums devalues the agonizing amount of time and training required to get the dance right. Art comes in many forms, all of which deserve recognition.
This last category is the hardest to pin down, but it’s the most effective. Sometimes, K-Pop videos try to make statements about other forms of media. A lot of these tend to be serious, but, as stated earlier, we’re explicitly talking about lighthearted videos that align more closely with “Fantastic Baby” and “Whatcha Doin’ Today”.
The driving aspect of Statement-Driven (SD) K-Pop videos is an underlying theme that transcends the video. Often, this is communicated through the various filmmaking choices. This is intentionally vague on my part, precisely because there are so many ways this can be implemented. The thing that separates this from other categories, despite the overlap, is that the other categories can exist without an SD component. SD, meanwhile, has to rely heavily on the other categories in order to subvert them. You can’t get on a soap box and scream your thoughts at people unless you’re in Washington Square Park. In spite of potential coolness-factor, narrative, or performance, the statement aspect will supersede the other categories.
EXID’s “Ah Yeah”
Let’s look at EXID’s “Ah Yeah”. There is a narrative aspect and a performance aspect, in that there is a pretty clear concept and implicit story, along with dance breaks and recognizable dance moves. But rather than being connected by a setting or an explicit group dynamic, they’re connected by the central theme. The theme in this case is sexualization and censorship. You think the girls were censored for lewd content, as implied. However, it turns out they’re doing fairly innocent things. Even so, through most of the video, the girls’ hips are censored when they’re dancing. The only guy in the video is plagued by Hani, who’s playfully seductive, and LE, who’s angry and violent. The video is making a statement about the autonomy of women, particularly from a consumerist standpoint.
Orange Caramel’s “Catallena”
Orange Caramel’s “Catallena” has a similar theme. The three members of Orange Caramel play cuts of fish. Specifically, they are fish that were once free in the ocean, then get put in a grocery store, then are repeatedly discounted because no one wants them. They get made into simple nigiri sushi and are neglected. Eventually, some human girls (also played by the members) eat them and have what effectively amounts to a religious experience. This video is completely over the top, with repeated cutaways to mermaids, a mean octopus lady, and CGI tears.
It’s worth noting that KBS thought the “Catallena” music video “disregarded human life”. But…did it? Consider “Catallena” as a metaphor for the commodification of women – of people – in entertainment. Being taken out of their natural habitat, put on display for people to buy into, eventually cheapened and cut down into something easily consumable – it’s pretty clear what the intent is. I’d argue that it’s notably effective because the images sit with you for a long time. When you sit for a while and consider what it might mean, it clicks internally.
Let’s look at an example of a male group, specifically SHINee. Their music video “View” takes at least two viewings to really understand because, like most K-Pop, it really hides it’s story in the details. Most of the video surrounds the members hanging out with a group of girls who seduce them in some cases and just generally play around with them in all cases. They sneak into people’s pools, rob a bodega (I guess?) and go clubbing. However, if you watch the video closely at the beginning, there’s one detail that flies by.
The girls kidnapped them.
With that in mind the video takes on a very weird message. It’s clear that the members are more or less okay with their kidnapping, which is really weird.(DON’T KIDNAP YOUR IDOLS. PLEASE.) They never make any attempt to escape. In fact, they avoid being recognized. It’s fairly clear from the opening scene that they’re idols in this universe as well. There are a lot of weird details. Pictures of the members on the walls of an abandoned building. Various moments where people try to record them on their phones. Members sprinting past cars.
So what gives?
Well it’s simple.
The members don’t want to be found.
The Horrifying Realization of “View”
The girls function symbolically in this story, hence why we barely see their faces. They represent a reality the idols are no longer a part of, and the desire the members have to go back to that reality. They’re up to fun shenanigans and avoiding responsibility. It shows what a world devoid of idol pressure would be like for them. It shows exactly how liberating that would be. Since the death of Jonghyun came two and a half years later, posthumous context makes this reading that much more heartbreaking.
And yet, in this video, the song is lighthearted. The activities are fun. The members are happy. The cuts are so quick, you can easily miss things if you just turn your head to ask your mom for a sandwich. But the video and song are lighthearted and serene, and more than anything, it’s memorable. Even if you don’t get the story, it will sit with you just because you remember it well.
The reason people write off these kinds of K-Pop videos so frequently is because symbols can fly way over your head if you’re not looking actively for them. And that’s not a bad thing. If you keep going back to a video, you have a better chance of finding the subtleties on your own. Yet many western audiences laugh or “aww” at the videos, because they don’t want to find subtleties. It doesn’t matter if “Ah Yeah” is about censorship, “Catallena” is about commodification, and “View” is about escapism.
In film school, a teacher told us to watch a video for the first time to enjoy it but the second time to understand it and analyze it. There’s nothing wrong with watching a K-Pop video purely for the enjoyment of it. But enjoying something consumer-friendly doesn’t make it bad. Marvel movies are mainstream but those can be amazing. TV shows that are high in melodrama are beloved by many. We watch America’s Got Talent and revel in seeing talented singers and dancers, so why is it bad when someone listens to a band where all members are more than competent at both?
K-Pop is an art form. It’s a medium. It provides unique challenges but unique opportunities. But it’s not just consumer-friendly, it’s consumer-challenging. The best videos are the ones where they sit with you. Maybe it’s because they’re flashy like “Catallena” or you want to learn the dance to “Shine” by Pentagon or maybe you just think G-Dragon looks really good in hats. But the more they sit with you, the more they challenge you to think about them. However “weird” they may be, don’t write them off because they were funny that one time you watched at a friend’s house.
Trigger warning: this episode talks about heavy themes, including suicide and abuse. If you are in need of immediate help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
The fifth episode of my fan series Neverland is finally done. I wanted to get into some of the side plots at this stage, plots I’d hinted about for a while but hadn’t actually covered in detail. In this case, it was Jungkook and Suga’s story – it’s one of the few stories that we actually get detailed scenes of, and can form a narrative around.
It’s pretty straightforward what happens between the two of them as far as the videos are concerned; however, there are so many scenes that are scattered around that refer to the plot, it was hard to make decisions about them. I ended up having to cut a shot I desperately wanted to keep, one that was at the end of the Run MV. But that’s what editing is about, trying to decide what best suits your story.
The title of the episode, “Delirium”, comes from a dystopian book series of the same name. The series, written by Lauren Oliver, was about a world in the not too distant future where love is deemed dangerous and illegal. To prevent people from falling in love, or even experience parental or friendly love, a procedure is done to get rid of the capacity for those emotions. It’s all about the beauty and danger of love, and it’s an excellent read if you have a chance. Back to Neverland, love is the primary theme of the episode – specifically, the risk of pushing people away.
The episode starts with one of the hyper-saturated sequences (so presumably a dream or other version of reality) where Jungkook is on a train. He flashes back to a memory of himself sitting on the floor, seeing the other members partying around him, but when the camera pulls back, no one is there, and the colors are sapped from the world. You may notice, as per usual, Jin is glitching black-and-white, but someone else also seems to be suffering the same affliction…
We then get flashback glimpses of a scene between Jungkook and Suga (indicated by subtle changes in the color grading, as well as Jungkook’s hair because I am unfortunately limited in my editing prowess) where we see just what kind of a relationship they have.
It’s not 100% clear what kind of love Jungkook and Suga have, be it agape or philia or pragma or what have you. Nevertheless, it’s clear that there is love between the two in this story, so when editing I tried to capture that as much as possible. The scene in question is when Suga has been drinking and starts destroying everything in the little apartment they’re in. Jungkook physically tries to hold him back, but Suga pushes him away and into the ground.
Interspersed between these clips is Jungkook walking alone outside, when he accidentally runs into someone. The guy picks a fight wit him, pushing Jungkook around in a very similar fashion to Suga. I want to compliment Jungkook for his acting in the original music video because wow the pain in his face feels so genuine! I was genuinely impressed seeing this in the original “I Need U” music video and I’m impressed to this day.
Anyway, Jungkook eventually collapses on the ground. In the saturated dream sequences, we see him running through a darkened train, which opens out in front of a motel with the name Omelas. (Please see my article on Episode 1 for an explanation of the reference; the short version is that Omelas is a sort of paradise.) As soon as Jungkook runs towards it, we catch a glimpse at reality, where he finds himself looking straight into an oncoming car.
Suga’s story, meanwhile, is very solitary and lonely. He breaks into a music store and plays on a piano, but falters partway. Then he hears a whistle – the same whistle repeatedly associated with Jungkook. He goes to follow it, and sees a coming, so he jumps out of the way. Based on the context clues, this is the same car that Jungkook saw. He runs towards the crash, blood staining the ground, and the music store has been destroyed. He still hears the whistle, but it’s far away and hollow. The flames that engulf the piano turn black and white, while the rest of the world is still in color.
In the final scene, Suga is in bed, playing with his lighter. Eventually he pours gasoline around himself and lights the room on fire, bearing one last pained expression. Meanwhile, Jungkook, in his black-and-white world, puts together a letter and looks ahead, wings spreading in his shadows, and his world starts to turn color again.
In this story, Jungkook and Suga are meant to symbolize innocence and experience, or rather innocence and self-destruction. Jungkook tries to be there for Suga while he becomes violent and self-destructive, and stays that way until the end. He takes beatings, he barely fights back, because he wants to see good in Suga. Suga is on the opposite end – he symbolizes self destruction. Even with Jungkook around, he’s a tornado of conflict, causing havoc wherever he can. The moment Jungkook is gone, he spirals out of control, and can’t handle it. He makes active choices, but they end up causing pain for others and himself.
The relationship between these two characters, from the glimpses we get in the music videos, is like a Shakespearean tragedy. They love each other, but it ends up being painful. One constantly shows his love, but he never gets through to the other, who shows his love too late. The essence of Neverland is meant to be bittersweet, and in this episode, we get the bitter.
When I was growing up, I watched telenovelas with my mom. It started because my grandmother (her mom) came over when I was fourteen. She doesn’t speak English very well, so we spent our days watching Univision soap operas instead of CBS cop shows for late night entertainment. Our house became quickly addicted, and we spent our days binging Un Refugio para El Amor and Por Ella, Soy Eva.
While I do not aspire to make soap operas, I respect them for their compelling characters and storylines. This is where Korean dramas come in. I started watching Korean dramas around the age of fifteen, when I was getting into K-Pop for the first time. There was this intensity to the experience and while some plot points didn’t make sense to me I still was drawn into this world that had been created for me, the viewer. The heightened emotions of the characters helped with that, because I could see everything they were feeling, and if they were feeling complex emotions, I could see those complex emotions. Say someone was feeling happy and sad at the same time, or happy and angry – I could see that, in full, and understand that character in a different way. This speaks nothing of the production value, which was above and beyond American serial dramas I was watching at the time.
Which brings us to Blood, the 2015 vampire doctor crime romance. I was following the show while it was coming out, and was absolutely engrossed in it. I am a sucker for vampire shows and movies – I admit, without shame, that I was a part of the Twilight craze. So watching Blood and seeing this K-Drama spin on vampires was perfect for me. But as I got older, I realized, for a soap opera, it was surprisingly well written…and I am here to explain why.
Blood follows the story of Park Ji-Sang, a young man who was born infected with a virus that makes him a vampire. Originally born in America, Ji-Sang was brought as a child to live on Jeju Island, the island just to the southwest of mainland Korea. He lives in complete isolation with his mother, struggling with his abilities and thirst for blood, when he meets Yoo Chae-Eun, a girl on vacation with her family who is mysteriously attacked by wolves. He saves her and decides to dedicate his life to saving others.
Ji-Sang’s mother is mysteriously killed, setting Ji-Sang on a dangerous course. He becomes a surgeon who saves lives in war-torn countries with very little self-preservation and only one friend, Hyun-Woo, who acts like an in house nurse (and comic relief.) He gets a lead about the origins of the vampire virus – and potentially how to cure it – so he begins to work at a cancer hospital. His new subordinate is one Yoo Rita, an outspoken, abrasive surgeon with a lot of baggage about a boy who supposedly saved her as a child…
In a twist absolutely no one saw coming, Rita and Chae-Eun are the same person. What starts out as hatred between Rita and Ji-Sang turns into friendship and then love. However, the main conflict of the show revolves around the supposed cure for vampirism, and the people who want to use the vampire virus to create a cure for all diseases – whatever it takes to get to that point.
Blood is, at its core, about ethics. Vampires, much like zombies, are used to show an underlying problem. In this case, the problem is “What matters more, steps taken to solve a problem, or the end result?” There are two factions at play in Blood, those who want a cure for vampires (Ji-Sang and his parents) and those who want to use the virus as a cure (the villain, Lee Jae-Wook, and his host of subordinates.)
Ji-Sang runs lots of tests on himself to minimize outside impact, but in doing so self-isolates from the rest of the world. He takes suppressants for his thirst so that he is not motivated to drink blood, but then when he’s off the medication, his desire comes in full force. He tries to keep his emotions out of his work, but in doing so hurts the feelings of terminally ill patients and their families needlessly. In the end, he does win in finding a cure, but this journey takes away many of the people he loves. Was it worth it to go on this journey if he lost the people who made him happiest?
Jae-Wook, meanwhile, uses unwitting victims, often the poor and terminally ill. His justification for this is that these people will die anyway, why not have the chance at improving their lives? There are a number of reveals about Jae-Wook’s character, particularly that he got into this line of work because he became close to a foster child with cancer, and that child’s foster family rejected her when the treatment became too expensive. The child then threw herself off the hospital rooftop. While Jae-Wook’s actions are beyond reprehensible, we can empathize with him – he simply doesn’t want people to suffer.
These factions consist of vampires, but the human characters all exist in gray areas. Rita is career oriented but also highly emotional, which means she makes may decisions based on her personal biases as opposed to the hard facts. Hyun-Woo is also incredibly emotional (he invents a robot named L.U.U.V.Y. to “give love to people”) and dedicated to Ji-Sang, to the point where he doesn’t have a reason for existing outside of his friend. Rita’s uncle, the chairman of the hospital, has made a number of shady decisions, but he opens a free ward for people who can’t afford insurance. Furthermore, his actions are motivated by self preservation, as he has a life threatening disease.
Perhaps the only character who you could argue is purely ethically sound is Jung Ji-Tae, a doctor who works in pathology and becomes an ally to Ji-Sang. Ji-Tae is human and on the sidelines for the first half of the story, simply hanging along the sidelines. The second half of the story he becomes an incredibly important character in the plot, helping Ji-Sang make a number of hard decisions.
However, Ji-Tae is the most important character. He is the grounding character, the one closest to the viewer. Morally, he’s comparatively good, with proper decorum but boundaries that he will not cross emotionally. He is a mentor to Rita’s best friend Soo-Eun, but also learns from Ji-Sang and is willing to admit what he doesn’t know. He is the character who is along for the ride – just as we are along for the ride.
With the exception of Ji-Tae, the characters all put themselves in morally difficult situations. While Ji-Sang and Jae-Wook are obvious, Rita is interesting in this regard – largely because it’s much more subtle. Rita, as I said before, makes many decisions based on personal feelings, be it love or spite. In this way, she’s very similar to Jae-Wook, who makes decisions based on his own personal beliefs. She and Ji-Sang frequently butt heads over how Ji-Sang outright refuses to comfort people, even children. However, her version of comfort could be construed as lying, as she tends to skirt around the truth to minimize the damage. Similarly, Jae-Wook treats information as strictly need-to-know, to make sure he appears as the best possible version of himself to everyone. Rita does much the same – except rather than trying to seem agreeable, she tries to seem strong and unaffected.
Building on that, Rita and Ji-Sang both try to seem unaffected. Both pretend like their trauma doesn’t exist, to the point where it comes out in intense outbursts. They do such a good job of suppressing their feelings that they can’t acknowledge them anymore. In knowing each other, however, they are able to actually recognize their own pain and deal with it appropriately. Without spoiling anything, in the final few episodes of the show, we actually see two characters who have grown considerably in being able to acknowledge their pain. Rita asks Ji-Sang to list things he wants to do before he dies, a symbol of complete trust and honesty. Rita also uses Ji-Sang as emotional support when dirt about her family is revealed.
The show is not just about vampires falling in love with humans, it’s about how far we go for the people we care most about. Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? And does “the few” include or exclude us?
Melodrama – the essence of the soap opera – is the conduit to a theme in its rawest form. Everything is over the top, but because the world within the story is over the top. And often, the over-the-top reveals complex and powerful emotions. Melodrama does not mean bad, it means heightened.
There’s a lot that can be learned from melodrama, particularly because it cuts to the chase emotionally with its characters. Shying away from melodrama is like shying away from superheroes. There are perfectly justifiable reasons as to why you wouldn’t want to go there, but it’s also just fashionable in the film community to aim for realism/naturalism instead of melodrama or superheroes.
Melodrama does not equal poorly written. Melodrama is a style in of itself. It is very much a difficult balance to master – too much means your characters come across as fake, too little means that your characters come across as flat. But the right amount creates a heightened experience where there is just enough distance from reality that you don’t get torn down by the bitterness of reality, but close enough to reality that you feel immersed in the world they’ve created.
One of my film school professors had us watch The Miracle Worker. The Miracle Worker is a movie about the deaf/blind Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, that was made in 1962. It’s based off a play and uses many of the same actors, which means the reality of the film is incredibly theatrical. In fact, the very first scene quickly devolves into panicked, ear splitting screaming, as Helen’s parents realize that she can’t see or hear.
However, this insane display of emotion creates the universe that we will be taking part in, and for the rest of the film, the acting doesn’t bother us. Because the heightened standard of emotion is set, we actually get to experience the whole movie on its terms. And it makes the ending hit that much harder – starting at such an intense low for Helen’s parents means that the high, the elation of the finale is so much more hard hitting. This put The Miracle Worker on the list of my favorite movies of all time.
Blood, in turn, follows a similar pattern. The first episode starts with a high stakes surgery in a war zone, and is quickly followed by an action sequence, and then some intense exposition on the part of Ji-Sang. This tells us everything we will need to know for the rest of the show through what this character goes through on his worst days. Furthermore, the exposition ends with Ji-Sang stating that he isn’t human, which establishes his ultimate goal – to become human.
There are a lot of scenes in this that break the illusion of reality – at least, our reality. The world of Blood works because it has clear rules and establishes that everyone feels emotions at 1000%, all the time. And that’s okay! It’s not only part of the charm of the show – it’s what makes the show work. You can’t have a serious version of this show where everyone takes everything with a straight face, or the occasional brooding stare. This isn’t Twilight.
Blood is riveting in how deeply emotional it is, even with vampire rivalry. Its intensity is part of what makes it so lovable, but also so proficient in its ability to tackle different things. It’s not a perfect show, and it’s not for everyone, but if you’re like me and run headfirst into melodrama, then this show will be perfect for you. Don’t just take the melodrama at face value – try to think about what the melodrama accomplishes. With any drama like this, if it resonates in spite of the heightened emotions, try to see if the heightened emotions are why it works. And to the filmmakers and writers out there, never shy away from writing melodrama – it can pay off in the long run!
Taemin’s one of those idols that’s just mesmerizing. His voice is very smooth, his dancing is very elegant. He constantly is pushing the envelope, trying new things and making his mark on the K-Pop industry forever. He is objectively an excellent performer in pretty much every way.
I love Taemin’s videos because they always go all out. The visuals are always very precise, very meticulous. Whoever directs his videos puts a lot of thought in to them, and it shows. However, there is a consistent overuse fo VFX in the videos, as opposed to practical effects. And while in many cases the videos are excellent with the extra animations, I find them overwhelming on occasion. There’s nothing wrong with a video using special effects to that degree, but it can distract from the performance. Today, I want to talk about one of Taemin’s music videos which has comparatively few special effects – most of the editing being in color grading, filters, and cuts.
I am talking about “Move”, one of Taemin’s releases way back in 2017. The video has no real story, it’s pure aesthetics. The lyrics don’t help shed light on any story either, they’re mostly about a girl who dances seductively. But that’s okay – it’s meant to showcase who Taemin is as a performer. The result is what’s mostly a performance video filmed in Hong Kong, with symbolic elements and a gentle dance beat.
There are three primary sets throughout the video – a street, a bridge at night, and a studio, which has three setups but none so elaborate that I could call them “sets”. The personality of the video comes primarily from the gritty street scenes, where there is trash, posters, and neon lights. The coloration of the street scenes is largely blue tinted, with Taemin’s lips tinted red and his skin tinted gold. Your eyes automatically gravitate towards him in any shot because of this. The bridge scene is largely tinted gold, while the studio scenes use lights to tint the environment the three primary colors to distinguish them from everything else.
This grittiness comes in direct contrast to the clothing Taemin and his backup dancers are wearing. It’s clearly designer clothes, too expensive to be “street”, but it’s trying to emulate a particular casual style. It actually reminds me of G-Dragon’s “Crooked” video, where G-Dragon sports similar sleeveless tops. However, I’d argue that Taemin’s style is more refined – not in terms of quality of clothing, but in how it’s put together.
Nevertheless, Taemin’s clothes separate him from the background. If the environment is dominated by light colors, he’s wearing black, and vice versa. His backup dancers usually wear solid black, with occasional designs. However, if they are wearing designs on their clothes, he is not. They also are all wearing jewelry, and lots of it, while Taemin usually only has a bracelet on. There is of course the scene where they’re in the studio and Taemin has a glittery mask on…I still don’t really know why he has it but I think it’s meant to just showcase his coolness.
In terms of practical effects – which I would argue are the best kind of effects – there is only one major effect. That would be rain. Rain is used throughout the video, and with good reason, too – it makes everything seem more spontaneous. Adding the extra layer of movement adds depth to the world. Suddenly, you can feel the rain on your own skin and hair. Filming in rain is really challenging so I imagine they used a rain machine, but I could be wrong. My classmates have filmed in the rain, and I’ve been on sets in the sleet. (Word of advice: don’t shoot in sleet. Everyone’s miserable.)
Shooting in the rain is not something everyone does because it’s cumbersome. It requires a lot of patience and dedication, as well as a lack of self preservation because shooting in rain can get cold and uncomfortable. The point is it’s very impressive that they shot a good chunk of the video in this setting. The video would not be complete without this touch.
Now for the fun part. The use of VFX is much lighter in Move than it is in other videos, but that’s not to say it’s completely absent. For one thing, the colors are much more intense than they would be naturally – even the outdoor shots come across as theatrical. Then much of the video has a soft, vaporwave style filter over it, while another good chunk of it has full-on TV style glitches. In those situations it feels intense.
The thing is, the video is not reliant on these effects. These are purely done for aesthetic purposes, to give a feeling of a world. They’re not necessary. One only needs to look at the solo version of the video, which features Taemin dancing with his backup dancers but cuts out all the ancillary inserts. In fact, the most important editing in the video is done through strategic cuts or transitions. On occasion, the frame will move slightly within the shot, but always on the beat. The cuts, in turn, are built around the beats and Taemin’s dance. Taemin is always the centerpiece.
There are three moments where there are lots of VFX – however, these three moments are isolated. You have the rain moving backwards, which is just an act of rewinding the video. You have the faces being blotted out, which is mostly just masking the video and putting some cool stuff underneath, and making the mask glitch out. Lastly, there’s the sequence at the end where Taemin’s body seems to fade in and out. I don’t entirely know how they did this but my guess is they keyed out one color, or a range of colors, slowed down the footage below, and added some effects to it. It seems pretty simple, but it’s a hard balance to strike.
As filmmakers, it’s our job to find the emotional core of something, and for “Move”, the core is Taemin himself. Any visual effects are just accessories so that the true gem can shine. This whole video is designed to showcase Taemin as a performer. It’s kept very simple, the camera rarely leaves him. There’s no story, because the video relies on Taemin himself to carry the mood. And that’s a good thing. When you have raw talent like that, you just have to let them do what they do best. Sometime the best directing is no directing at all. Just let the person exist, in their space, as they are.
TRIGGER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE DISCUSSES THEMES OF DEPRESSION AND SUICIDE.
Science fiction and K-Pop have a long and storied history. From the likes of Lee Jung Hyun’s “Wa” to the stylings of bands like BIGBANG in the early 2010s, science fiction has been both a stylistic and a symbolic element in many music videos. This stems from a number of cultural and social contexts that, while prevalent in other countries, are particularly prominent in South Korea. But, what’s fascinating about K-Pop is how varied the aesthetics of the sci-fi are, while still retaining many of the same themes.
For cultural context, it’s pretty easy to see the correlation between dystopian sci-fi and South Korea’s relationship with it’s northern neighbor. Dystopian themes in fiction often are reactionary towards events that are occurring in a certain time period. And South Korea’s been in a dire political situation for over 60 years. Even before that, Korea hasn’t known peace, having to deal with Japanese imperialism long before the conflict with the North. It’s no wonder that there’s always been a large amount of K-Pop videos that deal with dystopia – while I don’t read everything as explicit political commentary about the relationship between the North and South, I do think that it’s stemming from a very real place in the cultural psyche.
Now is when I state the obligatory: this is not a political essay. I have no intent of telling you what you should and shouldn’t believe. Capitalism versus socialism versus libertarianism, that’s not the issue I am putting at stake here. What I am trying to say is that there are certain aspects of the world that contribute to why K-Pop is the way it is, and what its music videos communicate in context. I know many film critics like to bring anything and everything back to politics, but as an artist that has never been my angle. I do think, however, science fiction has inherently political connotations, and therefore I desire to put it in context.
However, there are more layers to K-Pop’s use of sci fi. One is the cultural context of suicide and depression in the country – Korea has the 10th highest overall suicide rate in the world, according to the World Health Organization. Depression is not well treated, and age discrimination (as well as socio-economic discrimination) largely contribute to this.
As a result, you get visual representations of this stress in media. In K-Pop, what we see are normal people placed into highly emotional and stressful situations. Often times, they succumb to whatever situation they’re in. Science fiction, much like horror, takes that to a natural extreme, wherein the circumstance often leads to demise of some sort.
Lastly, there is a particular irony that arises from science fiction used in an idol setting. I have found in my six years of listening to K-Pop that the genre is incredibly self-aware, in spite of its treatment towards idols. The institution knows that it puts these people – often young kids, through horrible processes in order to create an easily accessible product. However, it does so by intimately incorporating us, the fans, into their lives – something which other sects of the music industry haven’t figured out yet. While this does give idols a connection with their fans, which I view as inherently positive, it does put the idols in a perilous position of feeling like their own actions aren’t really their own.
Art imitates life at the best of times. K-Pop, especially in the last ten years, has given us a lens into the lives of idols, both in a positive and negative way. Sci-fi in K-Pop largely orients us in the negative aspects of their lives, but at its best, it orients us in both, and shows us the discrepancy between the two. We get both the elation of glamour and the fear of failure, all in one. When most of the world separates the two, showing elegance as a byproduct of capitalist oppression, K-Pop uses it to communicate something else – the issue of fame.
While K-Pop’s use of sci-fi tends to blend these elements in certain ways, it’s not necessary for videos to use all three at any given time. Let’s look at an example: Brown Eyed Girls’ “Sixth Sense”. This is one of my favorite K-Pop videos, in part because of nostalgia. This was one of the first K-Pop videos I ever saw, when I was fifteen. Brown Eyed Girls was one of the first groups I ever “stanned”. While I do not consider myself a true stan of any group anymore, I have a special place in my heart for Brown Eyed Girls. If I ever met Ga-In in person, I would probably die on the spot from a heart attack, my life’s purpose complete.
Anywho, “Sixth Sense” combines the elements of politics and the idol industry without including the themes of depression and anxiety, at least not overtly. The video mainly revolves around a protest, where an authoritarian regime is gearing up to attack unarmed protesters. These unarmed protesters, in true K-Pop fashion, protest through dance. Peppered through the video are vignettes with each of the four members. Ga-In is sitting in a chair, wearing a military jacket and having her wrists bound. Narsha is in a pen of some sort, surrounded by cameras and lights, walking around on all fours. Jea Kim is lying in a pool, being rained on, also with tied wrists. And Miryo is chained in front of some microphones.
Immediately we get a sense of some sort of mythos that we don’t know the details of. Judging from the visual context, all four of them are prisoners of this regime. Judging from the fact that the military force is entirely male, the overarching theme is exploitation of women. However, the mass synchronicity of this military is very visually reminiscent of videos of North Korean soldiers. The clothing is also fairly contemporary; the only thing that seems particularly futuristic is Miryo’s red coat and thats only because it’s leather. Narsha’s character is particularly interesting because she’s hyper-sexualized, yet visibly torn between enjoying the attention that results from that and joining the protest.
There’s also Miryo’s role as being the spokesperson and rapper. Rap is often where the anger and resentment in a song comes out, but also is one of the most easily accessible modes of musical storytelling. As the rap speeds up, so too does her discontent increase, until she rips out of her chains. I compare this imagery to idol culture because of the shackles. She’s forced to speak for this regime, not the revolution – that’s for the dance part. She’s speaking for the people who oppress her. You can draw a parallel between her and an idol put onstage by a record company that doesn’t care about them. (I am not making any accusations towards any company in particular, I am dressing a systemic issue.)
“Sixth Sense” is an excellent video for its use of politics and its commentary on idol culture. But let’s go in the opposite direction – something with very few political connotations, but one that covers anxiety, depression, and tragedy.
VIXX’s “Error”, when it came out, got me so hyped I started pacing around the room to calm down. But I couldn’t help it. My teenage heart was freaking out. The visuals were so powerful, the story was so communicative, and the music – my god, the music. VIXX never fails to deliver on the vocals.
The story is Frankenstein meets Romeo and Juliet. Hongbin, the visual of the band – and one of several members who are professional actors – is some sort of robot tech. He has a girlfriend (played by Heo Youngji from girl group Kara) who dies from some untreatable illness. In his grief, he…well, it’s unclear. I think he turned himself into a robot and removed his heart so that he could cope. The bit that’s not clear to me is if he was a robot in the first place, I have always assumed not.
Anyway, after surgically removing his grief, Hongbin decides to rebuild his girlfriend as a robot, since that’s clearly his area of expertise. He creates the body but there’s malfunction, so he fixes her dispassionately. His expressions fascinate me in these scenes because there’s clear internal struggle, but his reactions are incredibly subdued. When he looks at Youngji, he doesn’t look at her with desire or sadness, simply determination and wonder. It isn’t until he gives Youngji her memories back he actually emotes, and even then it’s subdued.
Eventually, some suited authorities find Hongbin and Youngji and see that Youngji was an illegally created robot, so they plan to take her away, presumably to either reprogram or decommission her. Hongbin pushes the suits away and runs to the building chamber, where he and Youngji share a look of resignation. He kisses her on the forehead, and they walk towards the operating table, to which my teenaged brain practically screamed “OH MY GOD THEY’RE GOING TO DIE.”
And they do. The machine above them dismantles them as Hongbin cries silently. Youngji closes her eyes right as the machine goes to deliver the final blow, but Hongbin just sits and watches. All that’s left is a heart, which sputters and dies. I don’t really know whose heart it is, but I don’t think it matters.
Grief plays a huge role in the video, particularly the stage of Bargaining, whereby the person grieving decides “maybe if I do XYZ I’ll be happy and the pain will go away.” I have found, at least in my personal journey with mental illness, that Bargaining has played a huge role, because I and people I know have avoided getting help because they think it’s a sign of weakness. While making a robot of your dead girlfriend and giving it her memories isn’t exactly orthodox, I do think that the sentiment holds. There is no magic to make depression or grief go away, only ways to cope with it.
Obviously, Hongbin’s character does not cope with this loss, and ends up dying with Youngji. But there is a note of happiness in his resignation, because he got to spend a few more minutes with Youngji and come to terms with her death. He had to realize that she was not really alive, and that they both had to stop this charade. But the tragedy is: in accepting Youngji’s death, he dies too. It’s easy to experience a loss and think that the world will end because of this loss. He doesn’t even give himself a chance to start over. That’s heartbreaking.
This story couldn’t really work in fantasy. Yes you could have an Orpheus and Eurydice style resurrection, where one mistake sends the loved one back into the abyss. You could also have something like the Resurrection Stone in Harry Potter, where even though you bring back the dead, they don’t really belong in our world anymore. However, both of these have external consequences, wherein the universe is somehow thrown out of balance for your actions.
The reason “Error” is powerful is because you have a completely internalized struggle externalized through science fiction. Yes, the authorities do get involved. However, the authorities are not the ones who see the emotional core of his actions, nor do they necessarily hold him accountable. They just want the body back. In this way, the authorities are not the governing body of justice, it’s only Hongbin who experiences the consequences of his own actions. He’s the one who gives up his humanity. He’s the one who creates the metal body. And he’s the one who ultimately suffers. The only person thrown out of balance is himself.
Science fiction and horror allow for the externalization of the internal, something most genres don’t get to depict in the same way. Science fiction works best when it’s the creations of humans that turn against them, whether systematic like in “Sixth Sense” or literal like in “Error”. This is humans creating a situation because of some sort of need, that they then must experience the consequences of. Horror too works best when it’s based on internal struggles. Look no further than the works of Junji Ito for that – while the manga artist creates fantastical situations, the more terrifying elements are what occur when humans get involved in such circumstances. It’s the humans that tend to be more terrifying.
I’d like to look at one more example for thematic understanding of sci-fi in K-Pop: BIGBANG’s “Monster”. As I’ve said before, I generally avoid talking about BIGBANG on my blog because of Burning Sun. However, there’s no way I can’t talk about this video in this context.
BIGBANG’s “Monster”, like “Sixth Sense”, doesn’t have an explicit story – it’s mostly just the five members of BIGBANG trying to escape a science facility. They are, evidently, the world’s most glamorous experiments. They are adorned with bizarre costumes that look almost humorous in how extra they are, however when shadows creep into the frame, we see their eyes and faces morph. Sometimes their eyes glow. Sometimes they have cuts across them. Sometimes they have black tattoos. At one point, Daesung’s eyes are glowing gold, but his reflection has the black markings appearing all over. They transform in a number of overt and subtle ways.
What makes the video so poignant, however, is the ending. When G-Dragon finally escapes, there’s nothing outside. Just ash. A city is on the horizon, but with the ash falling like snow, how can we even be sure there are people there? Visually this, to me, is indicative of a sensitivity in South Korea to aerial warfare and its consequences – the idea that everything you know and love can be wiped out in a second.
In terms of where the themes of depression come up, “Monster” is lyrically a song about someone who undergoes a transformation that makes them seemingly unrecognizable to their loved ones. When applied to this setting it means that they have undergone so many experiments that their loved ones don’t see them in the same way. This is hits me hard because mental illness causes such an intense transformation, without the person realizing. During the time when the struggling person can’t put their finger on what’s wrong – that’s when the most damage is done.
Simply replace experiments with training, and you get an extremely dark self portrait. And yes, I say self – G-Dragon was one of the writers of the song. It also explains the elaborate outfits and “hidden self” imagery – we view idols in a public forum and put pressure on them to reach a personality ideal they can never reach.
I go into more detail in my article on Twice’s “Likey”, but my personal belief is that we need to stop treating idols as objects and more as people. “Monster” is a video that visualizes the struggle these idols go through in a very interesting way, by depicting the singers as prisoners. It’s a great storytelling technique, but it could easily fall under the radar under the VFX and fun costumes.
That’s the risk K-Pop idols run when they make a science fiction themed video. It’s easy to get caught up in how glamorous something is and miss the emotion behind it. And the emotion is very, very real. It is possible to watch these videos and enjoy them on that surface level. I certainly do enjoy that. But when you put a video in context, it makes me appreciate it that much more. And that’s what I’m here to do, help you appreciate K-Pop for what it is: a beautiful yet terrifying niche genre of filmmaking.
A new episode of Neverland is up! Without further ado, let’s dive into it!
This is the first time the opening sequence is showing in an episode – if you’d like to read my deep dive on the choices I made during the OP, please click here. We also get the title of this new episode: “City of Glass.”
This is a literary reference, though not to The Mortal Instruments book. Rather, it is a reference to City of Glass by Paul Auster, a mystery with heavy psychological undertones. Without getting into spoiler territory, the novel’s main themes are the perception of reality, child abuse, and language. I highly recommend reading the graphic novel version, which has been of huge influence to me as a visual artist and to how I have approached this remaster.
The connection with Neverland and City of Glass may seem superficial at first, but I wanted to communicate a similar disassociation from reality. The thing about music videos – particularly those in K-Pop – is the backstory is often told through bits and pieces, largely symbolic ones. The graphic novel version of City of Glass also uses highly symbolic elements to immerse you in a world inherently disassociated from reality. And, as you’ll see in this episode, a disassociation is beginning.
The first scene is from “Stigma”, the “Wings” teaser for V. V gets arrested (again) for vandalism, and is getting interviewed by cops. I didn’t do a whole lot of editing here because I genuinely really like the sequence as it stands; however, I did incorporate elements from later in the teaser, because I plan on using the rest of the teaser at a later point. The scene depicts V’s (presumed) father abusing him and his sister, using V getting beaten by an unseen figure to communicate this.
The video then cuts into “I Need U” (the original version). V is sitting around, takes a walk, takes out his anger on a water bottle, then goes back to his house. Upon seeing his (presumed) father beat the sister, V goes and kills him. I made sure that the music ramped up intensity, and the diegetic sound design fades away as the stabbing continues. It cuts back to “Stigma” right at the end of the sequence, and V asks the cop if he can make one last call. Full disclosure, whether or not the sequence with the cop is in reality or not is entirely up to you. While I have my own intent with the scene, I structured the scene such that it can be interpreted either way.
We then cut away to Namjoon in the “Reflection” teaser. Namjoon tattoos a bird on himself (gotta admire those fine motor skills) then burns the drawing he was basing it off of and drinks the ashes.
He then passes out and the colors get more intense. I played with the sound design a bit here because I wanted to communicate a feeling of suffocation and, as said earlier, disassociation. Interspersed are clips from “Blood Sweat and Tears” that depict V jumping off a balcony.
When Namjoon finally comes to, he hears a phone ring and tries to get into a phone booth. Try as he may, he can’t get in. If the call is coming from V, this means he can’t reach one of the people he cares about so deeply.
The final sequence is back to Jin in the black and white room. Weird things start to happen, like the distortion of the world around him. He goes to open the window, and instead there is a mirror – and his reflection is in color. When he turns away from the reflection, he turns to color as well, and walks to the door. Once again, I want the absence of color to communicate something.
Jin eventually walks down the hall and sees the same painting that Namjoon was tattooing. We see a number of flash forwards to events that will occur later in the series. He walks towards them, presumably to find something or someone, then we see on the floor of the black and white room – which is now in color – he has six photos, each representing another member of the group.
V is trapped in memories of something he did. Namjoon is removing himself from reality to the point where he can’t reach those he loves. And Jin can’t seem to fit into the black and white room. All three of them are trying to disassociate from their own actions, at some grave consequence. This is something I intend to play with further, but I think this is a good way to wrap up this analysis. The next episode will be up February 1st, 2020, and we will get more with all the members as opposed to vignettes.
But for now, I think we can leave this here. I welcome any constructive criticism, and I hope that you all enjoy the new episodes in the coming weeks!
To bring in the new year (and new decade!) I have brought to you the first episode of the Neverland Project. With it, I am giving a breakdown of the seven minute episode, so that without giving too many spoilers for my intent for the rest of the fan project, I can show you my own creative choices and what they might mean for future episodes.
BTS’s story as portrayed in these music videos centers around several themes – mental illness, abuse, youth, and death. While the first two are prevalent in the rest of Neverland, it’s the last two – youth and death – that are central to this episode. The title Neverland – which I pulled from a tag embedded in some of their promotional posts for “Most Beautiful Moment in Life Part 2” – is evocative of both. Neverland, as it originates from Peter Pan, is an island in the sky where children don’t grow up if they choose not to. Keep this in mind.
We start with lines from the end of The Ones that Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. LeGuin. This short story is once again about a paradise hiding something extremely dark, without spoiling anything. It’s something that is repeatedly referenced by BTS in Spring Day, and fits thematically with the rest of the work. But the lines are also about moving on from something tragic – in a way, accepting your grief.
I didn’t edit much of the first bit with the clips from Prologue. I honestly love this scene for how it establishes character relationships with little to no dialogue, as well as introducing the motif of the photograph. The gas station setting will also be relevant in later episodes.
The montage is taken directly from the original movie I made back in 2014, comprised of clips from “I Need U” and “Prologue”. It shows every character and the motifs of trains, water, and drugs. There is a film grain filter over it to establish this as a flashback. I also introduce color as a technique – note that Jin stays in grayscale, even when the rest of the world begins to turn to color when he finally looks at the photograph.
Next is V and Namjoon running from cops. I had to mix the audio myself, since this came directly from the “Run” video. I used “Dope” as the soundtrack, because V’s lines immediately flow into Jin’s, but then the scene cuts off. Plus, that’s a song about working hard and not caring what people think – very indicative of where this story begins, and not where it ends.
I always felt that “Begin” as a teaser was very ambiguous, and I wished to use many of the images from it. But in the original Neverland, I simply dropped the trailer in with minimal editing. But I hold myself to a higher standard than that now! I am a twenty-one year old film student, I want to show off!
So, I edited the clip – rearranging the clips so that it was an actual dream. The colors are also more vibrant and intense than in the original. I don’t know if this is what was intended by the band or the producers, but alas, I am acting as an editor to tell a story I think works. This is not a knock on the original. I simply wanted to give my own take.
The last sequence was most difficult. Everything starts grayscale, with the apple in red. When Jin focuses his camera, the flower alone enters color, and then as the candle blows out, the color returns, mostly. It’s still muted in areas.
There’s also a dream sequence, using clips from Spring Day, where everything seems to be happy but again, nothing really is.
Note that when Jin enters the room, in the last seconds of the video, he steps out of the color and into a grayscale room.
This may not be as long of a breakdown as the ones for later episodes, but I hope it shows you how proud I am of this project. The next episode will be up on January 15th, 2020 – with that, there will be more details about my process. But for now, I hope you like this episode, and that it’s able to interest you.
Before the first episode of Neverland goes up, I want to talk about another band that I’m very passionate about. They’re a band I saw live almost by accident at KCON NY 2018, and I’ve been effectively in love with since. They’ve got an edgy style, they’re not afraid to push boundaries, they’re talented dancers and singers, and – importantly for me – they write their own music.
I am of course talking about the JYP boy group Stray Kids. I honestly didn’t know them barely at all before I saw them (I was there to see Super Junior) but I quickly grew fond of them. They have a great spirit and are all about positivity – things I generally need in life. K-Pop is hard to love when you know the idol industry can be so taxing. To see a band so full of life – largely because of their own work – makes me really excited to be a fan in general.
Fans that keep up with Stray Kids probably expected my first Stray Kids article to be about “Levanter” since that’s been doing really well at the music shows and is their most recent release. And I do plan on talking about that – however, my heart is set on “Miroh” as of late. And can you blame me? It’s a great pop beat with a good hook, gets your heart racing, has great choreography and never has a dull moment. It’s a great song to jam out to. The lyrics also hit hard – “It’s not hard in this rough jungle” is very indicative of where new K-Pop is heading.
I actually want to talk about the VFX of the video – because that’s what caught my film student eye when I first watched this video. It was surprisingly not too fake looking or ostentatious, but is prevalent throughout the video. There’s also a variety of filters and camera effects that give the feeling of a cohesive time and place, a world that you want to experience more of.
Color is the basis of all film effects, and there is much to be said in way of color for “Miroh”. The entire film is very cool toned, with occasional warm lights to balance it out. Most of the video is blue and red, even the clothes falling along those lines. The backup dancers wear black and the boys begin to adopt black as a clothing color later in the video, along with neon green. However, since so much of the video is in the cooler palette, I’d say the dominant color palette of the video is the cool tones, with light and dark blue being the two dominant colors and red being an accent.
The color pushes the story to us. The story is admittedly a bit vague, but it’s the standard dystopian story with a Stray Kids twist – oppressive force appears, seems to be in control, dancing boys come in and save everybody. This has a number of symbolic meanings, largely pertaining to the idol industry but also to the way kids are treated in any environment where people enjoy ignoring them. Since the message of the song is pushing through adversity, the oppressive force of men in lavish suits is representative of such adversity. This is a theme that’s come up in K-Pop videos as early as Brown Eyed Girls’ “Sixth Sense” in 2011.
Blues invoke generally calm, peaceful, and melancholy emotions in us – so red as an accent stands out as a color indicative of passion. The combination of the two perfectly underscores the themes of the video. Most dystopian K-Pop videos either go the route of green undertones to look more cinematic or white overtones to look more sparse. Stray Kids does neither – they have their own spin on the visuals, which automatically sets their video apart from the norm.
The first instance of VFX we get is around 15 seconds in, and it’s a transition. We go from some security footage to I.N standing in front of the security televisions, but this is done through glitch effects that are centered around I.N himself, so it feels like they are moving with him.
The next (major) effect we get is Felix’s glitches. It starts with him speaking the lyrics to the song while the backup dancers run towards the oppressors. As the beat ramps up, it cuts between different clips of him talking, but saying all the same words, giving the feeling of being choppy. Then, the background turns into pieces of code and stock footage of the city they’re in, all animated to the tempo.
Of course there is the title card that says “Miroh” and the giant lion balloon. The balloon in particular shows up throughout the video as a repeated symbol of power. The thing is, in this video, it doesn’t show up in too many shots, and in those shots, it tends to be one of the only effects there. Digital VFX work best when you rely mostly on practical effects, (trigger warning: gore) and then use digital for certain elements that won’t carry otherwise. Everything that the boys interact with firsthand is a real set piece, so digital VFX like the balloon make the video even more powerful.
In terms of practical effects, there aren’t too many to speak of here, since the video generally relies on the band members and their dancing. But there are a few we can talk about, notably around 2:50 in the video. The setting goes from day to night, and while the backdrop is definitely digitized (very well, I might add) the lights on the band members change, so that it actually looks like a transition to night. This is a very simple and powerful effect that really works to establish a change in time. Building on this, there are also flood lights in the back that toggle in and out during dances, which also separate these scenes from the day sequences where we actually see the oppressors.
There are some other effects throughout the video. Bang Chan’s face and hands are stabilized as he physically moves in a circle, so it feels more like the world around him is spinning. There are also transitions that glitch across or bubble outwards, giving a sense of motion. The thing is if the video didn’t have these transitions, the video would still be great. A good effect means that the video could work without it, and these transitions generally elevate the video, they do not distract from it.
I want to come back to the backgrounds being digital for a brief second. We see the boys on rooftops a lot. These backdrops generally don’t change, beyond moving with the camera angle (the day night shift is an exception.) However, the backdrops are far enough away that we don’t have them in sharp focus, which I think is beneficial to the video. If they were in sharp focus we’d actually be able to see that they weren’t real (just look at any Transformers movie that tries to go into hyperrealism with its effects.) Plus, the dramatic camera shots give a feeling of believably to these images.
The last effect I want to talk about is the noise filter over everything. The entire MV has a noise filter over it, which makes it feel like the movie was shot on film and not digital. This is extremely important to the video as a whole. It flattens all of the effects, and gives us the feeling that everything is part of one environment. The issue with shooting on digital is you have perfect images, and adding effects to the background, while easier, can look fake. Having a noise filter over it makes it grittier and more real.
“Miroh” is a beautiful video. Stray Kids doesn’t cease to disappoint on even the smallest things. The scope of this video is very small but it feels so much bigger – and that’s what you want from a music video, the feeling that something is bigger without forcing it. “Miroh” does this perfectly, in great part because Stray Kids themselves have the skills to carry a video without the extra stuff. The effects just bring out everything good about them. Good filmmaking is best at its most minimal, but when you have special effects and they work, nothing can beat that.
Here is the opening sequence and breakdown for The Neverland Project, my fan project based on BTS’s music videos from “I Need U” through “Spring Day”. As someone who is seeking to educate through my blog, I think I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t give a rundown of techniques used on a project of my own. I will avoid spoilers as much I can for the actual project, but I may leave some hints scattered in – so keep an eye out!
Before I start, I want to say I’m not trying to “solve” the mysteries of these videos, or speculate as to what the originals are about. As far as I’m concerned, BTS made the videos with their ideas, and have even made comics in their universe and such. That is all unrelated to what I’m doing. I am telling my own narrative through this method. I’m using the members and their acting, and the various images, putting my own spin on them. Thus, I’m not really taking anything as “canon” or “not canon”, but creating a work that you, as viewers, can analyze and derive meaning from on your own.
I wanted to create an anime-style opening for Neverland, for a number of reasons. One was probably ego, since I wanted to flaunt my editing skills. But can you blame me? The other was a desire to use a lot of clips that I didn’t think fit in the actual narrative storyline. I particularly wanted to use BTS’s Wings Tour teaser, because I loved the experimental shots and general symbolism. I also have wanted to – even long after I stopped listening to BTS regularly – make a video using “Boy Meets Evil”, because I think it’s a song that climbs so beautifully. It ramps up tension extremely well. So, I figured, why not make an opening sequence? I’m doing an episodic structure anyway.
The theme went through a number of iterations, because I couldn’t settle on the order of images and the colors. I also had way too much going on in way of commissions, schoolwork, and another project I’ve been working on that’s completely unrelated to K-Pop. So I figured that a teaser video could expand upon my concept while I work on finishing the rest of it. The work itself is half done, with the first episode needing a bit of fine tuning before its release.
So now that we have a bit of context for the production of this piece, let’s get into it!
The opening shot is from BTS’s “Spring Day” – it is a train entering a tunnel. Tonally speaking, I think this is the perfect shot for Neverland. I feel like the themes I play off of from BTS’s work include anxiety taking away the figurative light from the lives of young people. So, since both come up frequently in the work, and both are in this image, this is the perfect opener.
Then, I have V climbing up the tower. (Prologue) This will be a scene in a later episode. Notice that this is all in black and white – color is a motif I use frequently in all of my work. It communicates emotion and personality well. But the absence thereof also says something.
We see V look at the camera. (Wings) Things become color for a split second, before we move into Namjoon walking through the train. (Spring Day) When he opens the train back door, it’s the Omelas motel.
Interspersed with this is Jin staring up the stairwell. (Spring Day) He’s in full color, the rest is in black and white. As he pulls his hands up to frame the screen, the world becomes color, and when he puts them down, he himself becomes black and white. Once again, this is my way of playing with color to indicate certain plot points or themes.
This next sequence revolves entirely around V. It cuts between two shots – the first is V growing wings. (Wings) The second is him standing on top of the tower from earlier. (Prologue) Below the wing shots, I’ve added color images from “Stigma”, which show a confrontation with cops. This will come into play early in the story, so log these images. Also log the absinthe imagery (Blood Sweat and Tears) and Namjoon standing in the train. (Spring Day)
The incidental sequences with J-Hope, Jungkook, and Jimin are all crucially important to the story. I won’t say how, but note that J-Hope is in full psychedelic color, while Jimin and Jungkook are in gray with elements of color around them.
Another grayscale scene – just Jin watching his friends through the camera. (Prologue) It cuts to a full-color shot of fireworks. (Reflection) Things become very montage-heavy after this. I heavily edited and layered many of these images, but note that the elements of color start to get bolder and more experimental – and we amp up to full color as the music progresses. I did this to increase tension, since viewers will acclimate to one way the motif is being used, and this acts as a change of pace.
Note the rest of the images used throughout the opening. J-Hope is pulling at the walls in a padded room. (Mama) V falls on the ground, beaten by an unseen force. (Stigma) All of the boys have a pillow fight. (Run) Distorted retro images of Jin and other experimental elements flicker across the screen. (Epilogue) Jimin submerges his head in water. (I Need U) Jungkook runs towards the motel. (Spring Day) Suga is surrounded by fire. (Epilogue) Jin’s face cracks open as if he’s made of glass. (Wings)
All of these images will become important scenes later on. I don’t mean that each one will be game changing, pivotal etc. But, these images will have much more clarity in the future.
In the final moments of the opening, I have BTS walking through a field. (Spring Day) Yes this image has appeared already, and I probably will use this image at some point in the Neverland episodes. But I also added V smiling at the camera, with his wings wide, and Jin’s face cracking again. (Wings)
I should note that V is not a malevolent figure in this story, but as you will come to see, his actions do affect the story significantly. So, who is the protagonist? Is it him? Jin? Or one of the other members?
This concludes the breakdown of my edits for the Neverland opening. I welcome any constructive criticism – anything can help me to improve my work. I started this project because it posed a challenge – creating a story from a bunch of connected films that take on wildly different filmmaking styles is no small task. It’s even more difficult to communicate a feeling through these constantly shifting pieces. So this has been an adventure for me. There will be more episodes coming soon, starting January 1st and generally releasing every few weeks.