I was a young K-Pop fan when I first encountered Super Junior. I was still going through my angsty emo phase (i.e. a whole lotta euro-EDM and alternative rock) so K-Pop was still new to me and relatively unexplored territory. I was mostly a BIGBANG fan, with a healthy side of Brown Eyed Girls, and I didn’t really care about pushing myself to learning new groups. But eventually I managed to branch out into other boy groups and girl groups – SHINee, VIXX, f(x), and various soloists.
A friend of mine, who I consider a sister to this day, recommended Super Junior to me, and I ended up getting hooked on “Mr. Simple”. “Mr. Simple” was relatively new at the time. It was electronic, and incredibly catchy. The video wasn’t great but I wasn’t expecting it to be – it was typical music video fodder of the time. Plain sets, bright lights, mostly dancing. But I didn’t care. There was something fascinating about those idols…they had something that other bands didn’t. Presence. Now I don’t use that phrase lightly. Presence to me is the ability to command your attention by doing both something serious and something ridiculous. That comes both with personality and talent – commanding your audience without doing much at all.
But Super Junior has something else – authenticity. Many companies manufacture the personalities of their idols, and Super Junior’s main label, SM Entertainment, is no stranger to that. EXO, one of the biggest groups in K-Pop, comes under fire once in a blue moon for manufacturing a happy-go-lucky band when the members don’t really like each other, creating a sexy personality for Kai when according to family he was always quiet and shy. And this isn’t just SM – groups go through copious training processes to come up with a persona and train in dancing and singing. It becomes difficult to distinguish what is real and what is not. It’s one of the reasons many veteran fans find it hard to get into younger groups – there is an overabundance of them and at varying degrees of legitimacy. This begs the question: why should you believe Super Junior is real?
Understanding Super Junior
The Super Junior we know now almost didn’t exist. Super Junior was a project group made out of trainees that SM had that all had other talents that had nothing to do with being idols, and were generally not “good enough” to be in TVXQ. The intent was to rotate them out when they hit a certain age, like After School would ultimately do. The Super Junior we know was originally Super Junior ’05, because there was no intention of keeping the group together forever.
But these 12 boys would stay together. They had a chemistry that would put any science project K-Pop group to shame. People weren’t tuning in just because they were cute or talented. They laughed at each other, screamed at each other, fought together, cried together. They were hilarious. And they were real.
I obviously am not an expert in idol psychology. But I have been lucky enough to see idols live, and I can tell you – you can pretty much tell when an idol is faking it and when they’re not. The second time I went to KCON NY, I saw Stray Kids, Heize, Pentagon, Red Velvet, and Super Junior. But what struck me seeing all of these acts was how Super Junior dominated that night. Sure there were other groups who get more views on YouTube more consistently, but Super Junior got the best reaction from the audience. They were on fire, above the hundreds of fans, getting higher and louder screams than anything I’d ever heard in my life.
Again, you can tell, when a band is onstage, if they’re faking it and if they’re not. Super Junior was definitely poised and seasoned, but to say that they were fake would do a huge disservice to what the band has. They made jokes and didn’t overdo it. They didn’t try to be bad boys. They didn’t try to be anything but themselves.
The argument can be made that this in of itself is an act. But I don’t think it is, for a very simple reason – no one has been able to replicate this. Many groups have tried to throw together more than ten members just to see if something sticks, male and female. Even SNSD/Girls Generation was made as a counterpart to Super Junior. But Super Junior seems to be tied together by this red string of fate that wants them to keep going. Members have left, but they stay friends with the band. One member got married, but he still has a home with them (at least in the eyes of the band, many fans are still angry with Sungmin for no reason). One member, Kangin, developed alcohol abuse problems, but the band didn’t throw him under the bus – instead there was quiet anger, one I can only associate with brothers watching a brother screw himself over, and not being able to do anything about it. Through all of the playful and casually adversarial dynamics members may have, it’s clear to me that they love each other. I can think of very few groups that have this love. There are some who do, but it’s hard to spot them in a world where everyone’s just looking for the next big thing.
Most of this probably seems irrelevant. This is a film analysis blog and here I am talking about how much a group loves each other. But there’s a reason. Super Junior is the band I would consider to be the first modern K-Pop group. There had been other Korean bands and even Korean boy and girl bands before them. But Super Junior popularized the obscenely large group, had natural chemistry, weren’t overtly sexy, had catchy hits, and even came up with the term K-Pop to describe their own style. They were a perfect storm and that storm was a hurricane.
So the argument can be made that “Sorry Sorry” is therefore, the first real K-Pop song, and thus the first real K-Pop music video. Trying to isolate members in meaningful ways so that they can be differentiated, yet showing the unity of a complete group. They also had English hooks, easy dance moves, and distinctive parts in different ranges. Anyone can do at least part of “Sorry Sorry”, and everyone knows part of the chorus. And while TVXQ’s “Mirotic” and BIGBANG’s “Lies” came out before “Sorry Sorry” did, the songs were not nearly as accessible on a large scale – “Mirotic” is really angling to be sexy, which alienates fans who can’t see themselves that way (or that don’t find Yunho attractive) and “Lies” tries really hard to be American while also being too much of a ballad. “Sorry Sorry”, unlike either of those two, is a song for everyone.
What “Sorry Sorry” Does Right
Coming at it from that angle, “Sorry Sorry” is indicative of the shift in focus at the time from solely music to group dynamics. The dance routine by itself is moderately simple until we get to Eunhyuk’s popping and locking during the bridge. The focus is not on how well the members can dance – we know that some members of Super Junior don’t really have the best dancing ability, and Heechul in particular has a number of medical conditions that prevent him from dropping onto the floor in a breakdance. So having a moderate dance routine keeps everyone on even footing. Then having a dance break were the members that can dance well can show off…well that highlights the individual responsibilities of everyone in the group.
The video is also black and white, which is another equalizer. K-Pop is known as the genre where no one can keep a hair color for more than ten minutes. When you eliminate color, the focus is immediately on the members’ faces. To an extent also on their outfits, but you’re going to want to look where the movement is, and the movement is often constrained to the faces or dance moves. There are very few aesthetic shots in this MV. The set is not much to speak of. There are no flashing lights. So where are you going to look but their faces?
The opening shots are, in fact, aesthetic shots, but they’re also such non sequiturs that they don’t have much bearing on the music video itself. In terms of these shots right at the beginning though I think it’s important to note that Kibum is the only member whose face is visible, as he is an actor first and foremost. This opening does set the tone for something sexy but also classy, as all the objects depicted – stocking and garter, string of pearls, envelope with a wax seal – are indicative of wealth. Yet despite the connotations of the girl lifting her dress to reveal the stocking and garter, none of the members in the group are exposed. Romance is not meant to be the point of the video otherwise we’d probably get more overtly sexy shots – SM hasn’t shied away from this stuff before. We don’t get a face to this woman either, she is only the object of desire insofar as the subject of the song.
The woman is important though, because she operates as a viewer insert character. We do see her eye at one point, looking through a keyhole. This becomes a recurring motif, not because of the keyhole itself, but because of the fisheye look that many of the shots have. It’s meant to look like members are standing outside your room and looking in, trying to win you over. It’s actually pretty effective, because you feel closer to the members by being all up in their business, or them being all up in yours.
The final shot of the opening is the pearls falling, with the title of the video and all the members’ names. I think this does a good job of directing the focus of the viewer to the individuals – even if you can’t tell the difference between Donghae and Siwon (though you absolutely should) you at least know their names and that each member has an individual identity. This is further emphasized by the fact that there are both small differences in the members’ outfits when they’re intended to match somewhat – different shades of shirts, different ties, different jewelry, different styles of suit – and large differences when they’re not. Each member looks like they have their own personality. Yet I wouldn’t say that the personalities are shoved in your face, with the exception of the sunglasses on Eunhyuk and Han Geng which is just a try hard move when anyone does it. Sorry.
PSA: Don’t wear sunglasses indoors.
The biggest problem I have with the MV is probably Heechul being so underused. Heechul is a personal favorite idol of mine. He’s a great talent with a great personality. He’s irreverent and he’s smooth. However he was distinctly shafted in this video. It might be because of his health problems, or it might be because they were trying to put a focus on younger members, but in any event, he has two lines in the ENTIRE song, and one of them is just him laughing. This is remedied by the time “Mr. Simple” rolls around, but it does bother me as someone who values groups that keep even line distribution.
Back to Basics
In my scriptwriting course at school we were taught that ultimately, every movie or play is a pantomime, and that dialogue is just kind of a nice treat, an addition to that. Therefore, the silent movie would be an ultimate form of storytelling, and if you can nail that you’re golden. Obviously it’s more complicated than saying mastering the silent movie makes you be able to master all stories ever, but you see my point. “Sorry Sorry”, in this context, is a silent movie, stripped down to the absolute basics of what makes K-Pop…well, K-Pop.
This video serves as a road map for all K-Pop to come after. Most group MVs are variations of the format that Super Junior provided. Not to say that each group is intentionally trying to rip off SuJu. Rather, K-Pop as a medium and a mode for creativity is defined by what Super Junior successfully did. I think a comprehensive study of K-Pop should separate it into two distinct zones, before and after Super Junior. Before Super Junior the genre was kind of going through an adolescent period of taking American styles, mixing it with Korean styles, and not really knowing what was going to stick. “Sorry Sorry”, however, cuts everything out and makes something both catchy and accessible, while highlighting the members as parts of a whole and not reducing them to mere archetypes. The success of “Sorry Sorry” showed the industry what fans actually wanted. And I think that’s where Super Junior can teach us where the soul of K-Pop actually is.