I am not a fan of K-Pop. As a former expat, living and working in South Korea for almost five years, I tried to like the genre, but it all seemed too bubblegum to be taken seriously. The knowledge that everything: the songs, the performances, the very image presented were mere inventions of a committee rubbed me the wrong way. Of course, no matter how much I disliked K-Pop it was impossible to escape its grasp. You couldn’t ride a bus, wait for a subway, go to a department store, or even go out to eat without being inundated by the multitude of products, screens, and speakers peddling some new girl group or well-established boy band.
My sympathy for K-Pop performers and the industry itself was altered after watching Hark-Joon Lee’s documentary film 9 Muses of Star Empire (2012). A candid look at the process of how a company takes a group of young ambitious women and whittles away their identity, spirit, and humanity all for a chance to be a star. It was remarkable to find out that Star Empire, the agency that is invested in 9 Muses success, actually gave full access to Lee, and even made him one of the group’s band managers.
Lee’s sobering portrayal of the members of 9 Muses captures not just their training, but also the quiet moments when each of them is alone and faced with their own insecurities. Although he couldn’t grant equal screen time to each member, in fact, the roster kept changing at such a dizzying pace that I felt as if there were actually 10 or 11 Muses instead of 9, but the members he did focus on each had their own singular arc alongside the story of 9 Muses itself. Sera, the put-upon leader of the group, can sing, but her role as the leader is constantly being challenged as the other girls show up late or don’t even show up for practice. Hyemin and Jaekyung are quiet and introspective, but as the deadline to their debut approaches both of them face criticism from the company and also diminishing roles in the group as other members begin to shine brighter. Hyuna is the new girl, hired a month before the debut, and has to struggle to memorize a laundry list of choreography. As the days and nights of practice grind on,
Lee’s camera charts the highs and lows of each member. More often than not, one of the girls is running away from the agency in tears, or Star Empire’s CEO, Shin Joohak, or some other employee is berating the group for an infraction like “not practicing enough”. None of the girls escape from verbal abuse, in one scene Shin even going so far to call one of the members dumb-looking and another fat. Typical of most K-Pop groups, an army of stylists and managers crafts 9 Muses image, and the film does a great job of capturing the process as Shin, Choi Jungyoon, the group’s stylist, and Star Empire’s platoon of managers debate and argue on exactly what look will garner the group the most popularity.
From watching these scenes one can assume that the primary template is, as Star Empire’s PR Director Nam Jiyeon says, a combination of decency, beauty, and intelligence. Of course, with all that said, the only concern that the Star Empire staff has is exploiting their looks. It has become a cliché to bring up the over-sexualization of K-pop’s stars, specifically its treatment of female performers, but the casual and banal way that Shin and others talk about having “costumes designed to highlight leg lines”, or making each of the girls “sexy at their best”, or even the mention of “honey thighs” as the desired look each girl should have is somewhat jarring.
During my research on 9 Muses of Star Empire, I was shocked to learn that Hark-Joon Lee, the film’s director, was known mainly for his reportage on North Korean defectors in China. The jump from covering a serious issue like North Korea to something as confectionary as K-Pop seemed at first to be such an odd turn, but K-Pop’s global success is a topic that warrants serious discussion. Hark-Joon Lee, an avowed fan of K-Pop, chose an up-and-coming group from a small agency because they are a microcosm of the good and bad in Korean society. The mentality that hard work pays off and dedicating oneself to whatever job you are doing is counterbalanced by the fact that commercialism has erased any sense of fun or personal identity that these girls have is a tragically common story in South Korea. So, although 9 Muses of Star Empire hasn’t changed my opinion of K-Pop, I have far more respect for those singing, dancing, and talented groups and artists of Hallyu. Here’s hoping that 9 Muses gets their chance to ride that wave to the top of the charts.