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.
K-Pop and horror is an unlikely combination, but it makes a lot of sense. K-Pop relies heavily on background details or subtle things to communicate ideas, and horror works best when it’s details that communicate a sense of tension. The issue that arises is: how do you make the bands seem cool when you are also trying to creep people out? How do you get close to the edge without crossing the line?
Most bands get around this by taking horror tropes and not actually making the video scary. Which isn’t a bad thing! I’m all for comedy videos involving zombies or vampires! And this category actually gives us some interesting examples. T-ARA’s song “Lovey Dovey” is in this nebulous area where it’s mostly a comedy video but it plays with horror and zombie tropes to give a sense of unease, especially at the beginning. It’s also meant to be a callback to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, which has comedic elements as well (though I’d argue it’s mostly straight horror.)
Even so, despite the general sense of unease, “Lovey Dovey” is more funny than scary. The girls continue dancing as zombies attack, until they’re eventually overrun. Then afterwards, they still continue dancing, and they’re still pretty cute zombies with minimal decay. It’s not a very frightening video, it’s just good fun. And that’s all right too! I love “Lovey Dovey” with all my heart.
But I’m a sucker for horror, so let’s look at something legitimately creepy.
(Also, I’ve written about Dreamcatcher so much that I’m not going to cover them here. I’m sorry in advance, I have a lot of articles on them already so I wanted to cover horror in other artists’ repertoires. If you are interested in Dreamcatcher, please click here!)
The Cross Gene Conundrum
Cross Gene is a band that kind of went under everyone’s radar. And it makes sense why: they kind of never broke out of music show hell, minus that one time their dance for “Amazing Bad Lady” was banned for being too sexual. (In fact, they’re the only boy group to ever have a dance banned.) After two out of the six members left the band (one of whom was Takuya, one of the band’s leaders) I find it extremely unlikely that another comeback will happen.
That said, Cross Gene did some crazy things when they were active. They’re probably best known for doing a whole zombie movie, ZEDD, to promote one song in the last three minuets. And the zombie movie is kind of…bad, honestly. Most of the background actors are terrible and the plot makes little to no sense. (Sorry to all the high school friends I forced to watch it when I was a hardcore stan.) But the band members are the best part of it – they all do a fantastic job. The mood shifts from generally lighthearted to downright heartbreaking halfway through, and their acting sells it, making it a fun watch. The zombie design is also pretty creepy, and there are some legitimate scares. So it’s honestly worth watching all 40 minutes, just don’t expect Train to Busan.
But we’re not actually going to talk about ZEDD. We’re going to talk about Cross Gene’s video “Black or White”.
“Black or White” is actually one of my favorite K-Pop videos because it completely shook me when I first saw it. The six members of Cross Gene are trapped in various nightmare situations – a car crash, a coffin, a warehouse chase, a creepy bedroom, an abandoned hospital, and a bathroom where all water turns to blood. The members of the band are plagued by these nightmares in various ways, but things take a turn for the worst when they’re killed by mirror versions of themselves.
“Black or White” is straight up creepy. Everything is grungy and dirty, but the members themselves – particularly their mirror counterparts – are mostly pristine until they’re bloodied. The video itself is sharpened to high heaven, so all the details are uncannily crisp. The death scenes are incredibly visual and creative as well as not being overly gory (save the one with the glass shard.) The sound design is also equally creepy, as most noises are not heard under the music, just the ones that maximize the emotional impact.
And the acting.
Oh my god, the acting.
I don’t know what Shin was smoking the day of filming, but when his mirror self drowns him in a blood filled sink, you believe it. You believe both him struggling to breathe and his mirror trying to kill him. Yongseok too is also a hidden gem, getting choked out by his mirror self and his eyes rolling back as he dies. All of the members are great actors (as evidenced by how they single-handedly prevent ZEDD from being unforgivably awful) so you just can’t look away. It’s honestly fantastic.
So far we have two examples on opposite ends of the horror spectrum. We have the fun, lighthearted “Lovey Dovey” and we have the dark, intense “Black or White”. But what other videos are scattered across the spectrum? Let’s look at three different interpretations of what horror can be:
If you haven’t seen SHINee’s “Married to the Music,” now is the time to stop and just have the experience. While the video is incredibly effective no matter how many times you’ve watched it, there’s something to be said about just watching on your own. So before you keep reading, stop and enjoy the surreal experience this video is.
Okay. Let’s get started.
“Married to the Music” is a bizarre music video. I don’t know if it’s scary with a capital S, but it’s definitely creepy, unsettling, unnerving…it’s something. But it’s still fun. It has a plot thread – a girl literally stealing body parts of the SHINee members to create a perfect boyfriend. But what actually makes it scary is the…weird stuff that goes on. In no particular order:
Minho’s head getting set on fire
Magic drinks that make the party appear/disappear at will
A disoriented Onew getting his nose stolen
Taemin’s eyes getting bashed out of his head
Key’s head sliding off a knife then getting punted into the air while he continues singing
A kiss ripping off Jonghyun’s lips
Color changing cookies making Jonghyun puke confetti
People dancing in the puke confetti
What actually makes this video weird aren’t overt horror aspects, though. Instead, it’s the actual filmmaking style that’s most bizarre. The video continuously changes styles, from tracking Onew as he fumbles around drunkenly to one-point perspective on Minho (and Key’s discarded head.) Bright colors juxtapose what should be fairly horrific visuals, which, while adding humor, also serve to make you feel a lot more disturbed. There’s also the fact that you never know what time of day it is or how time is passing, which just generally disorients the viewer. You don’t even know what time period it’s in based on the incredibly inconsistent costumes.
The collection of bright colors, disturbing imagery, and lack of consistency in visual style make a consistently bizarre music video. Will it give you nightmares? Probably not, but it gives you an experience, a thrill of watching something unlike anything else. It is incredibly visceral, but that actually contributes to the charm. Nothing like watching people rush to catch puke confetti when you’re having a bad day.
It’s no question that sometimes monsters are characterized as sexy or glamorous – that’s the whole premise of Twilight. Rather than being afraid of the unknown, some people find the mystery and ambiguity intriguing. And it’s easy to see the appeal – so of course K-Pop capitalizes on this as well.
One of the best examples of this is Sunmi’s “Full Moon”. Sunmi stars in the video (along with the rapper Lena) as a cerebral vampire girl in a nightgown, who bites the neck of a man (unsurprisingly.) We learn that he is paraplegic, and through a flashback, we also see that he knew Sunmi, or at least admired her from a distance. In the final moments of the video, the man transfers and awakens as a vampire, potentially curing him of his inability to walk.
The mythos of vampires in “Full Moon” is revealed mostly indirectly, but it works. Everything takes place during nighttime, so we can infer that this isn’t a sparkly situation. Sunmi and Lena have super speed, and Lena and the backup dancers can teleport. There’s also a lot of traditional vampire iconography, like coffins, standing on rooftops, and painful transformations. Most importantly though, Sunmi seems indifferent to the pain the man is going through, even smiling as he transforms, probably because she knows what he’s turning into.
The dance also has an important function in “Full Moon.” The cutaways to Sunmi’s dance sequences do more than show off her abilities, they establish how elegant and seductive she is when she’s not around humans. Assuming the other backup dancers are vampires or otherworldly beings, this is what Vampire Sunmi is like when completely in her element. This is the seductive world that the man will eventually find himself in when he awakens as a vampire and joins Sunmi.
Another addition to this category is 4minute’s “Volume Up,” which is light on the story but heavy on the aesthetic. It’s not really clear what the concept is – though you assume vampire because of HyunA’s red eyes – but everything is so beautiful to look at that you honestly don’t care. And it doesn’t seem random, it seems meticulous – there is a concept here, but they keep it mysterious. So while indirect about the kind of supernatural they’re working with, it still works effectively.
We can’t get through an article on horror without talking about VIXX. VIXX are unabashedly the untouched kings of K-Pop horror, largely because they span the whole range from outright scary to melancholy. But one of the things they are fantastic at is subtle, subdued horror, the kind that sits with you for a long time.
The example most of you are probably thinking of is “Voodoo Doll”. (I actually have an article on that video already, where I discuss the symbolism of an abusive relationship.) But we all know that “Voodoo Doll” is a tour de force of K-Pop horror. In fact, it’s arguably the first viable horror MV in the Korean Pop industry. In the spirit of keeping things new and fresh, we’re going to talk about two other videos – “Blossom Tears” and “Eternity”.
“Blossom Tears,” a duet with VIXX’s lead vocal Leo and another singer named Lyn, is a bit more obviously creepy. The music video follows a couple comprised of Leo and Lyn that we very quickly learn is abusive. Leo’s character – a fashion designer/tailor – is prone to violent fits of rage; while Lyn’s character – his girlfriend – tries to get through to him. Through small story hints – a bottle of pills here, a mysterious box there – we get a sense that Leo’s problems have been persistent throughout his life.
The climax of the video revolves around Leo finding Lyn dead in a bathtub. His pill bottle lies empty on the floor, surrounded by rose petals, and his box sits open next to the bathtub – it implies that Lyn discovered Leo’s dark secrets and decided to kill herself. However, what makes this video deeply unsettling is that it’s not that clear. Immediately before this, there was a scene where Lyn embraced Leo, and Leo looks at the dress he was making from across the room. His eyes are blank and predatory – it’s downright creepy.
The creepiness is compounded when we find out Leo has a shelf of preserved organs and turns Lyn into his mannequin so she can wear his dress.
“Blossom Tears” gets under your skin because it spends the entire duration of the video making you feel uneasy, and it isn’t until the end you learn what Leo is doing to all of his past girlfriends. And then, when the reveal comes, you’re like “UM. HOW ABOUT NO. THANKS.” It doesn’t need to be full of jump-scares or monsters. What makes it good is the fact that it’s not trying to be scary, but unnerving. The ending, where Lyn is wearing Leo’s dress in death, is particularly uncanny, and that makes it more disturbing.
“Eternity” is very similar in how it achieves a horror experience. This time featuring all six of the VIXX members, the video seems like it’s relatively happy at first. The members are shown with their girlfriends (all played by the same girl) in various situations (painting, dancing, playing piano, drinking coffee, or just teasing.) Because of the forlorn and intense expressions of the members while they sing, you do have a sense that the video it will end badly for everyone involved but you don’t know how. The aesthetic of the video itself also contributes to the feeling of unease, with the generally muted colors and perpetual blue making seemingly happy images feel more melancholy.
Then the girl turns to dust.
We see the members looking around for their girlfriend, leaving us thinking potentially that she’s just gone, maybe a ghost. But then Ravi is dancing with the air, in blissful ignorance, while the girl is watching him from across the room. We see N interacting with the air as well, though it’s only a glimpse in reverse. And lastly, Ken’s picture of the girl disappears in the final notes of the song, showing that the girl was never real to begin with.
This definitely counts as horror because it’s unabashedly eerie. It breaks your expectations of where the story is going towards the end and casts the rest of the video in a different light. The plot itself captures the nuance of the song, specifically tonally as it has both elements of cheerfulness and gloominess. It sticks with you long after you watch it, more than I would say “Blossom Tears” does. Both are excellent, but “Eternity” is the one that makes you contemplate your own existence when you’re done.
Horror is not a genre that is built exclusively on motifs and monsters – rather, it’s built on feelings of mystery and despair. While you wouldn’t say “Married to the Music” is necessarily straight-up horror, enough elements are pulled from the genre to make an unsettling viewing. Just because “Eternity” and “Full Moon” don’t necessarily adhere to typical genre conventions of horror doesn’t mean they aren’t considered a part of the genre either. The thrill of being scared, regardless of format – that’s part of the fun. Horror is an ambience of unease, not a jumpscare.
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 videos were played up as a joke. 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.
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 – which is actually one of the reasons I started this blog.
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 got incredibly distracted because 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, though 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. After way too many viewings, I can infer that “Whatcha Doin’ Today” is probably a satire of various traits of masculinity and femininity. It’s not necessarily making a statement on whether or not those traits are bad or good, but it’s exaggerating those stereotypes, both among the female characters (the members and their backup dancers) and the male characters (more backup dancers.) The various members of 4minute are not dressed conservatively, but their outfits are comparatively everyday than the outfits the male and female backup dancers wear. They also act as the dominant characters in every scene they appear, picking on men and being attended to by women. The other characters, regardless of gender, are objects of attraction, dressed homogeneously and obeying the members (or 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.
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?
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 this is done through production design, where details about the world are what 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) whereas things that are meant to be consumer-friendly 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 literally wearing a hat that says GIYONGCHY, which is a pun on his 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 largely centered around sexy, expensive outfits. In men, it’s…well, it’s about the same. But CD videos heavily emphasize the members themselves, so that you can both see yourselves in them and and see the members 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?
Narrative-Driven (ND) videos are videos where a story features primarily, acting 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, so you get a sense of a story while the plot is reduced to only 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.
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, but the other one (the “Member Version”) is totally worth watching anyway. I honestly don’t want to spoil it for people, please watch it. I beg of you.
The point is everything in the video is played up for comedy, but 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 meant for 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 bands. 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 of all the different theories surrounding it.
The story delivery is what confuses people in America. This may be because a K-Pop video is drawing specifically on Korean cultural norms that are virtually unknown to western audiences, but I honestly can’t think of too many examples of that. It may come down to a difference in storytelling technique – again, K-Pop largely relies on “meta” details to communicate something to the audience. There are also issues that plague music videos in general: people mistaken melodrama for a lack of quality, or see the implied story as incomplete rather than implied. However, it’s worth noting that many western artists of VERY high acclaim make story-based videos that are over-the-top, melodramatic, and lack background detail to balance it, but get millions if not billions of views. Food for thought.
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”. This format can also be picked up by any band with ease, since most K-Pop bands put a strong emphasis on dance. That said, I wouldn’t say this is picked up by all groups. 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.
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. K-Pop deserves to be recognized as such.
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 that there is an underlying theme or message that transcends the video, and it 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, and no one will listen to you there. In spite of potential coolness-factor, narrative, or performance, the statement aspect will supersede the other categories.
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, as you think the girls are being censored for heavily implied lewd content but 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, and the only guy we ever see in the video is plagued by two EXID members – 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” has a similar theme. The three members of Orange Caramel represent themselves as cuts of fish for sushi, ones that were once free in the ocean, then get put in a grocery store to get sold, then are repeatedly discounted because no one wants them. They get made into simple nigiri sushi for easy consumption and basically go neglected until 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” by having the girls wrapped in plastic and styrofoam to be bought. 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, and when you 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’s not given as much screen time or emphasis as is due.
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 like pictures of the members on the walls of an abandoned building and various moments where people try to record them on their phones.
So what gives?
Well it’s simple.
The members don’t want to be found.
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. So as they’re up to fun shenanigans and avoiding responsibility, it basically shows what a world devoid of idol pressure would be like for them, and how liberating that would be. And since the death of Jonghyun came two and a half years later, posthumous context makes this reading that much more sad.
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 the sad moments 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 these kinds of K-Pop videos get written off so frequently is because a statement or symbol runs the risk of flying way over your head if you’re not looking actively for the subtleties. And that’s not a bad thing, because if you keep going back to a video, you have a better chance of finding the subtleties on your own. Yet many western audiences watch the videos and laugh or aww for one reason or another, 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.
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 used as 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 is a lot of normal people placed into highly emotional and stressful situations, and often times succumbing 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, and judging from the fact that the military force is entirely male and Narsha is sexualized as a pet, there are themes of 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.
Let’s go back to the idol elements though. The sexual exploitation of women in entertainment as a whole appears to be what’s on blast here, judging from how all the women are imprisoned. Narsha’s character is interesting because she’s hyper-sexualized, but seems to be torn between enjoying the attention, from how she doesn’t ever reject the cameras and lights, and being autonomous, from joining the protest ultimately.
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 parallel this imagery to idol culture because she is literally forced to be a spokesperson in this scene. She’s forced to speak for this regime presumably – she isn’t speaking for the revolution, that’s for the dance part. She’s speaking for the people who oppress her. That’s not unlike an idol who is being 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 systematic 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 a transformation, one that can be seen but not easily quantified. During that time where it’s not articulated by the person who is struggling, when they 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 how beautiful it 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.