It’s been a while since I last talked about Sunmi and since then, there have been a number of releases from her, which gives me a lot to talk about. So, when doing some research on her new releases, I decided to take a listen to “Noir”. And, let’s be honest I was blown away.
“Noir” is a strangely serene, eerie alternative-pop song. It’s very repetitive in its underlying tracks and chorus, but for some reason it still feels new every time I listen to it. The song transports you to another world, a bubble that colors your whole world around you. It’s not a bubble of safety but a bubble of perspective. The music video itself is all about perceptions and changing how you act to appeal to a mass audience.
Honestly, this is something I personally grapple with as an artist and as a child of the internet. Do I tell people about all of the hard things I go through? Do I put on a smiling face? Or do I do what some people do and capitalize my troubles? “Noir” is a beautiful video that explores this issue in a number of creative ways, all with bright colors and crisp visuals. While the video does go in some scary, downright frightening directions, it never ceases to be visually pleasing – which shows the exact issue that the music video is struggling with.
The aspect ratio of the video is 1.375:1 approximately – the video is generally letterboxed on the sides. This narrows our perspective and gives us a retro feeling. 1.375:1 is in fact the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences standard. It’s an interesting choice because the standard aspect ratio of YouTube and most music videos is 16:9. So even though the music video is intended to talk about the internet and modern day, it’s shot to give the feeling of traditional filmmaking – the kind you’d send to be developed off site and not know how it looks until you are in the cutting room.
The colors of the video are generally pastels, but there are some bold colors that stick out – red, fuchsia, blue, turquoise, orange. There is minimal use of black, but it stands out whenever it appears – usually on one of Sunmi’s outfits, or in the shadows. But what makes the film so dynamic is the texture. In fact the first shot we get is pure texture – Sunmi’s barely-chapped, gloss covered lips. Her hair and her clothing also provide texture, not to mention cloth backgrounds, furniture and of course, fire.
The symbolism hits particularly hard, specifically with regards to how actual filmmaking works. I will deliberately choose to not be patronizing and explain the purpose of the cell phones, selfie sticks, use of “like” and “dislike”, etc. because those are so prevalent in modern culture. But what makes Sunmi’s “Noir” work is the subtle symbolism. The reference to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the knife game, the reference to “Gashina” – none of this is explicitly spelled out for the viewer, but due to our collective internet culture, we feel the weight of those visuals. They mean something to us.
However, what impacts me the most is the way framing of the shots, both on a broad and small scale, impacts the symbolism as a whole. Framing a shot can make or break your whole movie. The effectiveness of the way “Noir” is framed can be shown in four specific scenes: the flowers scene, the wine/death scene, and the makeup-gone-awry scene. The first two heavily rely on the phone as a tool for framing, but the makeup one does not – and we’ll dive into why.
The flowers scene is comprised of two specific shots. The first has Sunmi singing next to some flowers, in what looks like a rose garden. It’s edited to look like an instagram post of Sunmi’s. But in the next shot, we get a wide of where she actually is – a bathroom, with some strategically placed flower pots on a shelf next to her. She’s perfectly centered in this wide shot, sitting on a toilet in some glamorous, designer outfit, with her hair filled with butterflied as she sneezes into some toilet paper. The shot is continuous, slowly dollying into her face. In two shots, we have a whole story.
The death scene is composed of three shots, though two are nearly identical. It’s effectively the inverse of the other one, in that we start wide, then see the phone perspective. It’s pointed downwards on what seems like a tripod, but because the floor is at an angle everything feels weirdly slanted. Sunmi dominates one third of the screen. A wine bottle pours straight downwards, while a wine glass sits on the far left perfectly normal. The shadows are intensely dramatic, making Sunmi look extremely ominious. The next shot is a close up of her on the ground, next to the spilled wine, which looks suspiciously like blood. She sits up unharmed as the camera pulls away and we see her full body – but the next shot, through her phone, is an image of her on an Instagram Live, looking fairly dead next to that wine. People in the comments are worrying about her. Framing is everything.
Without the phone being used as a viewpoint, the makeup scene is particularly haunting. We get the mirror shot in the bathroom, with the main viewpoint being Sunmi’s lips as she puts red lipstick on in a pastel green room. We punch closer – the lipstick is now being spread across Sunmi’s face. The next shot of her we get, her hair is teased up, her eyeshadow is smeared, her lipstick looks kinda like the joker’s smile. Finally, we get a wide of the bathroom we saw earlier, however at an angle. She’s smack in the center, barely illuminated while her shadows fall across the wall. The intense angles of the shadows in this scene show just how broken she’s become by the time we get here – and yet she’s still taking photos for the world to see.
Sunmi’s “Noir” is a beautiful way of showing just how complicated our world has become with social media. It takes an anti-social media stance, however, I don’t think it’s completely against it. I think it would be more accurate to say this is against using social media to make a false version of yourself. As with any medium – film, literature, art – your phone can be used for good and evil. Film has been used for propaganda, literature has been used to control people, art has been used in politics. We now have the ability to cause world change with our fingertips with our phones, and yet we spend our time on social media creating false versions of ourselves. We have a powerful and dangerous tool at our disposal now. Sunmi is hyper-aware of that, and the power that comes with being an idol.
With the death of Choi Jinri, better known as Sulli of f(x), hitting headlines yesterday, we have to call into question how we treat other people online and how we depict ourselves. Sulli was actively against cyberbullying, having been the target of much of it. We have to call into question the role that K-Pop fans and anti-fans played in her life, and how we can learn from what we collectively did right and wrong. We also have to call into question the pressure idols feel to always have a good time on camera and never show their struggles – or if they do, to monetize their struggles. “Noir” is incredibly important in showing us the pain of an idol’s experience, as well as the experience of the individual. It’s not that we should collectively harness the power of social media to “do good”, but rather be aware of the power we have, and how it can positively and negatively affect our lives.
Sunmi gives us a warning.
Sulli was a warning.
What will we do with this warning?