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.
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.