With quarantine going on and not a lot for me to do but do commissions and watch K-Pop videos on repeat, I’ve had time to reconnect K-Pop as a whole. Three recent releases in particular connected with me more than others. One was Hwasa’s “Maria”, another was Sunmi’s “pporappippam”, and the last one was Dreamcatcher’s “R.o.S.E. Blue”. This isn’t a slight at other K-Pop releases that have come out recently, these were just the ones that clicked with something in me personally. Other songs will click with other people on the same level. But this is my blog, so I want to take some time to talk about these in full.
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. I will jam out to it when I’m doing literally anything. It’s that good.
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 florescents 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.
However, 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 set on a tripod, shots that would normally be still 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 lighter shot, the background is shrouded in darkness, 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 is mostly negative space while the bottom is 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 is often isolated in a frame, 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.
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 framed in a positive or negative light (stability/monotony, aggression/power, unity/homogeneity) but the point is they can accomplish powerful things as principles of design.
One thing I noticed about Hwasa’s video is that most of the sets, save one, are not shaped as a typical rectangle. Instead, they are shaped as either a very sharp triangle or a circle/oval. There are two prominently featured sets an asylum set 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 subset is mismatched and angular – in spite of the rectangular doorways, the shape of the hallways resembles an abstract polygon as opposed to a simple rectangle.
Keep the mission of the video in mind – it’s meant to communicate how Hwasa deals with adversity and loneliness. In nearly every shot, Hwasa is either center stage or completely alone and isolated. 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”, the same effect is achieved. The circle room is an asylum setting – sterile and pure. By contrast, the set with the Mediterranean archways is palatial, with a chandelier. We are meant to view the set as regal, just as we are meant to view idols as royalty (note the crown of nails that appears in the video.) It also has a cathedral-like quality (again, note the crown of nails, which might as well be a crown of thorns.)
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 – which is an unnatural shade of white – and 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 tile is dirty, and the painted paneling mixed with the wallpaper is borderline chaotic. She’s surrounded by velvet rope, like a movie theater, almost like this private place is only here for her to be put on 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.
There is only one shot in the entire music video that has a rectangular composition. Only one shot where the set pieces form a rectangular frame. Only one shot where the composition is meant to indicate 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, where her friends are framed visually by 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.