From Girls Generation to Super Junior, everyone wants a piece of the beats-and-ballad-driven, glamour-obsessed multibillion dollar industry of South Korea, otherwise known as K-Pop. With thousands of dollars invested in each act, however, expectations run extreme.
And it's upon the shoulders of the young, still-developing talent that the pressure falls.
Lee Harkjoon's no-holds-barred documentary 9 Muses of Star Empire exposes K-Pop girl- and boy-bands as literal sweat-shops. Focussing on 9 Muses, members are shown being run through exhaustive choreography training and constantly berated by emotionally abusive management. There are plenty of tears, rampant depression, and team-destroying internal competition. Almost every member expresses the desire to leave the group and go solo. Morale is virtually nonexistent.
Lee, in a chat with the Georgia Straight at the Centre of Performing Arts at the Vancouver International Film Festival's Dragons and Tigers Award ceremony, explained how he managed to get such unfiltered access to the group and industry.
"The current K-Pop entertainment industry is pretty big so it was really hard but I was trying to convince them for six months on the condition that I could be one of the managers doing the job," he said via his translator. "So I was with them for one year, working and staying with them full-time and then the entertainment corporation called Star Empire—it's the fifth biggest corporation in Korea."
The reaction to the film among the group members turned out to be mixed.
"Some of the girls in 9 Muses, they were pretty happy with the film because they were thinking that 'Oh yeah, we were like that in the past. Yeah, we were like that a few years ago.' But some [of the] other girls will be like 'Oh, it's too honest. It's too raw.' So some of them were not too happy with the film."
With such damning footage, there are, as expected, certain others who are concerned about what the film reveals.
"At first, the company didn't say anything about the movie. But as the film got more recognition—it was even screening on BBC and other countries and other film festivals—they were getting a bit anxious about it. But we have the contract. So a contract is contract so they cannot say anything about it too much."
Lee expects things to get better in the industry but he also wanted to remind viewers that he is showing only one part of the industry.
"The part I show in the film is only showing the dark side so please don't think that's the only side of K-Pop. Of course, there is a light part of K-Pop and then the shady part of K-Pop, and…my film is showing the shady part rather than the light part."
9 Muses of Star Empire screens at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Wednesday (October 9) at 9:15 p.m. at the Cinematheque.