Kpopalypse is back with more film reviews! This time, we’re taking a look at the infamous k-pop documentary “Nine Muses Of Star Empire!”
A well-known documentary in k-pop circles that many of you may have already seen or at least heard about, but which very little is actually written about anywhere that still survives, “Nine Muses Of Star Empire” had been on my watchlist for many years. I had already seen the cut-down made-for-TV version of the film that was circulating around YouTube and was originally aired on the BBC, but I more recently managed to get my hands on the full feature length version of this documentary film (which does also sneakily rear its head on YouTube from time to time ahem cough). So – how is it? Does it meet required documentary standards? Is it worth your time? Let’s find out!
Running time: 82 minutes
Nine Muses were a group with a reasonably decent ratio of good songs throughout their career, and have featured from time to time in Kpopalypse yearly favourite lists, so the idea of getting to know the group a little better through a documentary that has been hyped around the k-pop world as one that pulls no punches and gives a realistic inside view of the k-pop world, certainly appealed.
Unfortunately, the better Nine Muses songs such as “Wild” and “Gun” aren’t covered in this movie, as they didn’t exist at the time. “Nine Muses Of Star Empire” was filmed in the months leading up to k-pop group Nine Muses’ debut with their honestly pretty annoying JYP-penned song “No Playboy” in 2010.
The film then covers the debut of this song, the couple months of promotions afterward, and then stops at the release of their second even more irritating single “Ladies” at the end of 2010. So basically, we get the shit end of the stick musically – but that’s fine, as the purpose of this film isn’t in looking the music itself, but in examining everything surrounding it. So, what happens in “Nine Muses Of Star Empire”?
Plot synopsis: I’m not going to worry too much about “spoilering” this film, as it’s not a drama film, and most readers know what happened to Nine Muses in the end (basically a “rags to more rags” story). Unlike a lot of films that I review, there’s not much benefit here to going into the experience blind, so I’ll do my best to be descriptive about anything relevant while still leaving a few surprises.
The film begins with a very short basic introduction to what k-pop is, as scenes of rabid k-pop fans joyously filling up stadiums and statistics of the so-far successes of k-pop as a global pop-cultural movement (which look quaint these days) are cut with much more stoic footage of the Nine Muses members preparing to debut on stage. The implication from the outset is clear – the fan experience is nothing like what is happening internally. Fans are singled out from the crowd with infographics and labelled with their (supposed) fandom biases, with all the big second-generation names coming up – SNSD, Super Junior, TVXQ, Secret, Miss A, T-ara, 4Minute, Sistar, KARA, even PSY… the point being, quite clearly, not Nine Muses. The tone is effectively set.
The film can be divided vaguely into two halves. Most of the first half of the film is shot in Star Empire HQ, where the girls train for debut. Some of the group members have short interviews direct to camera, but for the most part the documentary is filmed “fly on the wall” style, with no narration of any kind. Also filmed are all the key management staff, the CEO, manager, choreographer, vocal coach, etc. and there is also some brief interview footage of some of them but once again most footage is just observing. Everyone seems pretty at ease with the documentary crew as there isn’t a lot of acknowledgement of the camera in general, it’s clear that they became like the furniture at some point, and this is where the film gets most of its power – as everyone kind of forgets that the crew are there, you see a lot of unedited detail in terms of feedback to the girls, and also in the way that management make decisions. Nothing super scandalous in terms of management policy is really shown during training (you don’t get to see the no-doubt horrible diets for instance) but coaching sessions with the girls are pretty harrowing, with many members of the group being berated often for lack of performance in various aspects, and these sessions are very blunt with nothing in the way of positive reinforcement. The girls are repeatedly told that confidence rather than skill is the key aspect to both visual and audio presentation for a performer (which is absolutely true), but the girls are given little in the way of tools or encouragement to help with that confidence, and cracks in the team start forming almost immediately as anxiety and self-doubt inevitably takes hold. Nine Muses member Sera’s position as “group leader” is specifically strenuous as she shoulders a lot of the responsibility for the group’s shortcomings, but isn’t visibly given any support or power to enact any change in the conditions that are contributing to her group’s failure, seeing her fruitlessly trying to carry the group and encourage cohesion and solidarity among her demoralised team represents some of the film’s most gut-wrenching scenes.
The second part of the film is concerned specifically with the broadly unsuccessful debut of “No Playboy” (above), the accompanying promotions, and the resulting impact on the team. The general feelings of listlessness multiply as several members of the group start to question why the fuck they are wasting their life for a song that debuted at 147th on the charts and an increasingly pitiful-looking shot at fame. Management is of course pissed off and react to the group’s underwhelming performance by tightening the screws further, repeatedly making the girls listen to their own crappy vocals and cutting them no slack whatsoever even for ill health, and the film ends with monologues from some of the members heavily questioning the journey they have taken so far, and admitting that it has changed them in profoundly negative ways.
Appeal to average filmgoers: The “fly on the wall” style method of filming was absolutely the right decision for this documentary, as a narrator telling you what to think and how to feel at every step would have been a serious annoyance, but it does mean that a few of the scenes probably do require some explaining to the layperson not schooled in the k-pops. Footage of the Nine Muses bus driver breaking the speed limit to get the group to schedules, and the resulting group injuries (which the group still have to perform through – of course), will make more sense to k-pop fans familiar with the tragedy of Ladies Code than to the average filmgoer who won’t realise what a common practice this is or how often it’s ended up in disaster. Footage of Nine Muses being enthusiastically received at a military performance is shown, but it’s not explained anywhere just how popular they really were with the military, or how much of this type of work ended up being the sustenance for this group as well as many other broadly less successful k-pop girl groups over the years. I could go on, but I’m sure that you understand – without the context of already knowing the inner machinations of the k-pop world, the meaning of some of the more telling scenes may be a little lost, and novices may come away from this film wondering “what was the point of showing x”. If you’re someone for whom all of the above is not “news”, and you decide to recommend this film to any of your friends who are k-pop noobs, I also highly recommend that you watch it with them in order to annoyingly explain key context, they’ll thank you later.
Appeal to k-pop fans: On the other hand, if you’re someone like a long-time Kpopalypse reader who has read my interviews with Cheska, Kim Nayoon, Hanhae, Melanie Lee etc, and who broadly gets it, then you’ll understand everything about this film perfectly. While nothing shown here is really on a “group-sinking scandal” level, and most of the other stuff won’t even be much of a revelation to you at all, the main takeaway is just how utterly depressed and devastated the entire group looks, at almost all times, when not in front of any camera that doesn’t belong to the documentary crew. The mood starts off amiable and mild enough, but as the film drags on and more of the girls gradually crack under pressure, the feel of the film transforms as the human cost of the training process becomes clearer. The scene that brings it all crashing home is the “No Playboy” video shoot, the juxtaposition between the barely-held-together camera-smiles on the finished product and the way the girls are really looking, acting and feeling behind the scenes is very intense and very obvious. It certainly reveals the stark lie of all other “behind the scenes” footage in k-pop, all of which is produced specifically for image maintenance and fan consumption rather than as a third party human-interest documentary.
Look at the girls here, in regular k-pop format, doing their best on instructions from management to spin the movie as a net positive, all while saying “it’s real!” It’s little wonder that almost nobody has allowed this kind of unfettered access into the behind-the-scenes view of k-pop before or since. New k-pop fans who think that the world of k-pop is all sunshine and lollipops really need to watch this film and should make it mandatory viewing, as nothing significant in the industry has changed since this was made.
Appeal to Nine Muses fappers: What about if you’re a big Nine Muses fan specifically? Well, chances are you’ve already seen this film anyway and are probably just reading this because you want to know what I write about it, but if not, you’re certainly in for a very rough ride. Aside from the fact that the real A-list Nine Muses visual Kyungri is not in this film as she hadn’t joined the group yet, the girls who are present do not look good at any stage of the film beyond the first few minutes simply because nobody looks that great when they’re constantly questioning their life choices with every breath. By the time the typically k-pop style primped glossy music video footage finally appears, you’ve seen so much of the girls crying and miserable behind the scenes that it will all just look ridiculous and borderline-insulting to you. Nobody alive except the most sociopathic can fap to this – and that’s probably including Nine Muses’ management, for whom the entire ordeal is clearly all-business no-pleasure. The management team of mostly middle-aged men discussing skirt lengths and “honey thighs” with the bored detachment of a financial analyst looking to maximise their return on investment, just proves what I’ve been telling people for nearly a decade – you can objectify a k-pop idol all you want, it doesn’t even matter because the real life-changing objectification where idols are really treated like objects for sale and having their feelings and needs actually disregarded is all coming from the top down, not the bottom up. It’s not up to you to evaluate an image of someone and try to decipher how “on board” they are, it’s the responsibility of the people making those images to make them appropriately with respect for people’s right to fair working conditions, a fair say in representation and a fair environment.
Conclusion: A film about k-pop like “Nine Muses Of Star Empire” will probably never be made again. In fact, this film is exactly the reason why the bigger companies these days have readily available “behind the scenes” footage of all their idols that they carefully curate for public consumption and release in a controlled manner on YouTube and social networks. These companies specifically don’t want there to be a demand for future documentaries of this type, they want to make sure that you “know” that everything is totally okay and fine behind the scenes “I mean, we just did a behind the scenes special, didn’t you see? Nothing bad going on here!” Sure, sometimes companies do fuck up a little and release things that are a little rawer than what they thought they were (because internal staff who live with annoying group members are pretty desensitised to the human concern fans have for k-pop idols and sometimes may not see a bit of scolding and tears as a “problem”) but you’ll probably never again see this density of concentrated ennui and self-doubt in the k-pop world in the space of 82 minutes. For this reason alone, it’s a must-watch. Sure, nothing here is news that will shock the smart and already-aware, and that fact in itself shows why a film like this needs to exist and needs to be seen.
Final score: 4 tears rolling down Sera’s face out of 5, but add a fifth tear if you’re either already intimately familiar with the behind-the-scenes k-pop world, or can watch this film with somebody who is and can answer your post-film questions along the lines of “what the fuck [insert fucked-up business practice here], is that something that happens often?” (The answer is yes, by the way.)