42% of 10478 children surveyed by Daum, the Korean equivalent of Yahoo, in 2010 claimed that they wanted a career of being commoditised by their bosses and the masses, scrutinised by media agencies, endure endless hours of repetitive tasks and constant surveillance by their superiors. They wanted to be singers and performers in the entertainment industry. (Source)
K-Pop has thus far been the primary catalyst of Hallyu (한류; ‘Korean Wave’) with the rapid ascent of boy bands and girl groups performing their well crafted dance numbers to perfection on stage. As seen by the survey results, many dream of the idyllic Korean celebrity lifestyle of numerous live performances, appearances on TV shows and awards ceremonies. However, very few people know about events taking place behind the scenes; the directors thus serve a role to fill in that exact gap in knowledge.
The documentary (check the KOFFIA screening schedule) starts with 9 Muses set to perform in 2010’s ‘K-Pop Dream Concert,’ in which the members are instructed on their positioning and eventually led to the stage as the opening act. This serves as a form of allusion to the film’s conclusion of the girls’ performance at the Seoul World Cup Stadium and the road to stardom hitherto taken by the girls and their entertainment agency – Star Empire Entertainment – is shown.
Star Empire, just like other Korean entertainment firms, operate on strictly calculated schedules to maximise positive publicity for their groups. Shin Joohak, CEO of Star Empire, justifies his grounds for micromanagement by stating that training an idol group is akin to investing in significant amounts of money into a business; over a million dollars were already spent for 9 Muses’ training sessions and living costs prior to their showcase at ‘K-Pop Dream Concert.’ Therefore, the firm revolves around ensuring ‘success’ for all of their artists – frequent appearances on K-Pop Television shows (as well as the wider catalogue of Korean television such as dramas and comedy/recreation programs), a burgeoning fan base and executing an ‘all-kill’ – obtaining the #1 position on all Korean music portal websites – for any new singles released by their groups.
꿀벅지; term originally coined to describe Uee from After School), highlighting the commoditisation of girls and boys as objects of sexual desire in the K-Pop realm. Trainees are treated as commodities, as seen by the binders of eligible – tall enough, good looking and able to sing and dance simultaneously – women in their 20s and member attrition rates; Jaekyung leaves the group during the documentary due to exhaustion. As Nam Jiyeon, PR Director of Star Empire would say: “You should look pretty, decent and not stupid. It’s all about the image.”
Surrounded by echoes of ‘one, two, three, four!’ while practising dance moves, the constant pursuit of perfection is contrasted by inevitable moments of personal crises. Humans are inexplicably intertwined with perfection but are unlikely to attain it; this is similar to people who sail to try touching the horizon. Internal conflicts are highlighted as the primary cause of mental and physical maladies – Sera is unequivocally criticised for any faults committed by other members, but they do not realise that they have erred. The documentary succinctly captures the girls in their most vulnerable moments as they question their initial imaginations of life as a Korean celebrity.
But perhaps the most jarring moments of the documentary arrive when the girls’ living quarters are shown: cramped and dictated by timetables; your favourite celebrity could end up living in the same generic apartment complex as you in suburbia, despite leading a completely different life during the day. One of the stylists says while criticising the attitude of the members: ‘If it feels unfair to you, become a star. Then, we will treat you like [one].’ Despite expectations of low stress and depression levels by a psychiatrist, all 9 girls are immensely stressed based on tests. Fame is often conflated with happiness by members of the entertainment sector, but this is an unrealistic assumption.
Amidst all the sobering images of jealousy and ideals from Taylorism, major issues in contemporary Korean society are portrayed: a ‘clash’ of collectivist, Confucian and traditional versus more individualistic, modern values, the commoditisation of people fuelled by hyper-competitive service markets and a need to renegotiate gendered roles between men and women. Just maybe, the entertainment industry serves as a microcosm of the successes and tribulations Korean society is currently undergoing; watching this documentary would serve many people well.
So the next time you want to criticise a group whose music you dislike or assume all Korean entertainers lead opulent lives, think again; there is more to K-Pop than what we can see and hear.
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