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Q & A : ‘9 Muses of Empire’ director Hark-Joon Lee on IDFA

-Why are all the characters in your movie passive? They just cry without facing their lives proactively. Isn’t it because you chose unattractive characters?

We have to think about the roles of women and teenagers in South Korea. Although South Korea becomes economically prosperous, catching up the western economy, the Asian values seem not changed.  Women still have less power than men and teenagers have less power than adults. It is deeply rooted as custom in my society.

What do you think of the tears of the girls in the movie? They can’t complain the hardships no matter how unreasonable the reality is because they might loose the apprenticeship at the agency. They can’t forgo the opportunities that they got out of endless efforts and hard work. I think the tears of girls is a tool to express them

-The characters in your movie talked a lot about their parents. I don’t understand the reason they pursue idols is because their parents want them to become stars.

One of the most important values in Asia is filial piety. These days, old people criticize teenagers for not being obedient enough to their parents as old generation did in the past. I also thought that young people care less about their parents. However, I was surprised when the girls endure hardships for their parents. They turned out to be similar to my generation.

I’ve met some of their parents and understood why the girls kept talking about their moms. Sera’s mom wanted to become a singer but couldn’t realize her dream. She wants her daughter to pursue the dream that she herself failed to achieve. That’s why she worked long hours as a shop keeper and paid whatever costs come to Sera to become a singer.  

Lana’s mother is fighting for her life suffering from liver cirrhosis. The hospital has given her three months to live but she is still going strong three years after she received the shocking news, but she still takes care of her daughter and it is her wish to see Lana succeed as a singer.

The girls know their parents’ hardship for the sake of realizing their dream. That’s why they feel sorry to their parents and want to achieve what their parents want.

-The way the CEO and mangers treated the girls are sexually harassed and inhumane. Why didn’t you protect the girls’ human rights in this situation?

The agency allowed us to film a documentary under two conditions. One is that they want our production staff to work as the girls’ managers while filming and the other is that we don’t speak up against what the agency would make decisions for the girls.

We quietly observed their daily life and waited till they opened up their minds and talked to us. And I think that was the right behavior from my side.

I can understand mangers from another perspective. Before we shoot a documentary, we thought that mangers are inhumane and heartless because they treat the teenage girls as a tool to make money, the common opinion from those who know the entertainment industry.

Yet, the managers happen to have a reason to act inhumane. They need to reap the profit out of the girls and if not, they need to shut down the business because they invested in hundred and thousands of money for the girls. Of course, it is right to criticize their heartless behaviors but the clear distinction between virtue and vice is not what the movie wants to show.

The girls all know the cruel reality of the industry and gave a shot for their dreams.  

-I was shocked by the scene that the agency took it for granted to train the girls and drag them to performance despite the girls are sick. This situation has to be improved. What do you think?

I agree with you. I think human comes first before money.

Rankings in K-pop are easily changing. It is hard to enjoy at the top for a long time like billboard chart.

Idols got recognized when they rank at least top ten, a gateway to the profits such as record sales, number of stage performance and popularity. The girls became well aware of the reality soon after debut.

-What is South Korea’s regulation related to the question above? Does it have solutions?

I know they prepare for law. The law clause does not allow teenagers to act at night and restrict the work hours for celebrities including idols. I heard agencies and managers resist against the law but there should be positive changes soon thanks to strong willingness of Korean Parliament to push the law.

-The agency treats the girls as commodity, not as human beings. I was disappointed by k-pop after watching this movie.

I think everything has bright and dark side. Without the fierce competition, there could not be glory of K-pop. This movie reflects more on the girls side and that is why the agency’s inhumane treatment is emphasized. It is fierce and hard to realize one’s dream regardless of areas/industry.

-What is dream concert and Hallyu concert? It is not a concert of a big star. It is a strange format.

Dream concert and Hallyu concert are held by major agencies in Korea as a means for fan service every spring and fall. The ten most popular idol groups perform in the concerts. The competition between agencies and idol groups is fierce to be selected for the concert performers.

Of course, each idol group holds its own concert. But dream and hallyu concert become unique culture of K-pop.

-According to your explanation, the Korean government support K-Pop in abnormal way?

Dream/Hallyu concerts are not fully supported by the government, but by companies.

But after Psy’s big success, the government started to support K-Pop such as building a special stage for K-Pop. The government sometimes provides some funding for the idols’ performance abroad.

The government supports K-Pop because it enhances the country’s brand images which will generate more exports of Korean products. However, some people are skeptical about K-Pop’s longevity, centered around just dance movements.

-I felt weird watching the large scale mass game in North Korea. South Korea’s group dancing is similar to North Korea’s group gymnastics.  What do you think about this?

I filmed two news documentaries on North Korean refugees prior to this documentary. So I have some understandings on North Korea. I was also surprised to see the thousands of North Korean people dance in the same way like machines.

As I filmed this documentary and saw the idol group’s dance, I felt we are from the same origin after all.

A journalist from New York Times asked me the similar question when he came to report K-Pop in Seoul. He asked the delicateness of music is different between the two countries. But when it comes to dance, the excellence of group movement is similar between North and South Korea. At that time, I thought it is absurd but looking back now, I think his point is valid.

-In the movie, there is a scene that the female stylist scolded the girls as if she were the dictator over the girls. I don’t understand her because she is the one who protects the girls.

I think she scolded the girls more brutally since she is the same female. The youngest among the stylist group said bad things about the girls before the woman scolded the girls. She treated the girls harshly as she thought the girls are not polite at all.

Later, I asked her why she treated the girls harshly. She said it is better for a woman to point out the girls faults than guys do the same, an act that can be seen as sexual harassment.  Again, the views are always different for a single event.

-Do the girls’ parents all know about the harsh treatment? Do they ignore the situations knowing the truth?

Maybe, the parents know that their children have hardships but don’t know the details. Sera once said that she can tell everything to her mom but not the episodes happened in the practice. It may be the girls’ thoughtful care for their parents.

-What do you want to ultimately say in Nine Muses of Star Empire?

To succeed and get attention is basic desire for humans. It is regarded as best value to compete and succeed in our society. I want to ask people if the success from the fierce competition would make them happy.

I dealt with the entertainment industry in the movie. However, similar episodes happen in our everyday life. I want to give the time to reflect on ourselves and time to think about the reason to drive for success through this movie.

You wanted to talk about K-Pop. What is the reason that you didn’t reflect a story of big stars such as next generation.

If I used next generation in the movie, it will be more eye-catching and profitable from business perspective. But I didn’t film this movie to show a success story of stars. Rather, I wanted to see the nature of entertainment business hidden by the fancy stages and looks.

I wanted to find an agency and girl group who can tell their stories truthfully. So I think that it was not a bad decision to meet Nine Muses and Start Empire. I wanted people to reflect on their lives by watching the nine girls’ efforts and fierce competition to become stars.

-What is the reason that the teenagers endure the hard trainings? Why did they keep coming to the training despite they were unhappy and wanted to run away?

There are many reasons. First, they have a strong desire to become stars. From the childhood, they’ve been heard so many times that they got talented and potential to become stars. They got used to others’ attention. It is hard for them to easily give up on their dream.

Second, they have already invested much time to get trained and they have kept enduring hardships. So they didn’t want to stop easily.

Third, it is their parents. It might be hard to understand from western perspective. Filial duty is one of important values in Asia. So the girls knew that their parents sacrificed their life for the sake of the girls’ dream of becoming stars, the girls wanted to compensate their parents for their hard work.

-What is the reason for K-Pop’s quick success?

It can be summarized as four main points, the agency’s planning, the Spartan trainings, Hook song techniques and the marketing through Youtube.

The major agencies in South Korea are good at reading trends and finding talented youth. They try to find talented teenagers all over the world such as China, Japan, Thailand and America.

Hook Song uses repeated phrases and thus makes people addictive to the song. Group dancing is important as well as it looks attractive.

-Is Psy’s music made from similar process as your movie reflects?

Psy’s music is also part of K-Pop and he belongs to a major agency.

However, his music is different from idol stars’ music. He composes and produces his own music. Idol band performs with songs and dances that other people made for them but Psy performs with what he made for himself.

-What do you want this movie shown to audience?

First of all, I want to ask how you feel after watching this movie.

I want this movie remembered as a sad movie. I wish this movie could be regarded as a self-portrait for contemporary people who live and drive themselves just for success. 


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  15. crazylikeapopsicle reblogged this from 9muses and added:
    very interesting read...EVERY K-pop fan.
  16. ryubik reblogged this from 9muses and added:
    -Why are all the characters in your movie passive? They just cry without facing their lives proactively. Isn’t it...
  17. denizenmars reblogged this from 9muses and added:
    An interesting discussion...very pertinent issues...korean...
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