There was a time in my life when I ate, slept, and breathed K-pop. A friend I met in high school introduced me to these infectious songs and the irresistible idols behind them. While our mutual infatuation eventually faded as so many adolescent interests do, I can’t help but think back on those years as a new age of K-pop takes the world by storm. With it being at the forefront of the all-consuming hallyu (“Korean Wave”) movement, it was only a matter of time until K-pop went global.

In its homeland, this enticing and chimeric style of modern Korean music has been (ear)worming itself into people’s heads since the early nineties; only recently did it become popular elsewhere. Particularly, more famous artists have crossed over to the West without giving up their language or culture. Along with the increasing awareness and availability, K-pop’s downsides have also come into view.

An unexpectedly cutting critique of this competitiveand sometimes soul-crushingbusiness can be found in White: Melody of Death, a 2011 South Korean horror film whose subject matter resonates with K-pop fans all across the board. Although the commentary is encased in a standard ghost story, there’s no mistaking the events herein as anything but keen observations about an indomitable industry.

Kim Gok and Sun Kim‘s movie presents a familiar tale of fame-chasing and all the ensuing challenges. Set in the cutthroat world of K-pop, a struggling girl group called Pink Dolls is on the verge of obscurity. Their salvation appears in the form of an unreleased demo track that turns the Pink Dolls members into an instant sensation. However, the more they perform the mysterious song “White,” the more unfortunate things happen to the members.

Celebrity life in general is demanding, but K-pop’s own unique strain includes backbreaking training, excessive promotion, extreme diets, relatively low pay, strictly monitored personal lives, and zero tolerance for scandal. South Korean society’s fixation on success is also a big concern regarding mental health; failing while in the public eye is even worse for these high-profile entertainers. In the teeth of these significant drawbacks and sacrifices, many people still aspire to be K-pop stars. So, it’s only understandable that Pink Dolls will do absolutely whatever it takes to stay relevant.

The trouble begins when group leader Eun-ju (Hahm Eun-jung) finds an ominous videotape containing a music video for “White,” an infectious song performed by an unknown source. The management quickly revamps Pink Dollsthe other members are A-rang (Choi Ah-ra), Je-ni (Jin Se-eon), and Shin-ji (Kim May Doni)and immediately throws them into a showcase event where they’ll debut their new image and song.

This hastened and perfected re-training method underlines the manufactured and interchangeable qualities of K-pop and just how easily these groups can be made or unmadeartistry frequently comes second to marketability. Having Pink Dolls adapt another group’s music and appearance so easily shows how malleability is crucial if you want to make it in this specific business. This detail is further reinforced by the label’s callous choice to keep Pink Dolls active even as three out of four members succumb to freak “accidents.” 

The creative cannibalization peaks once there’s only one Doll left standing and she continues as a solo artist. How readily the fans are able to accept this sudden change in the wake of such tragedy is an exaggeration about the insensitive nature of fandom, but that “the show must go on” mentality can feel especially icy in the context of K-pop. No one is irreplaceable, nor is longevity ever a promise, as Eun-ju’s best friend Soon-ye (Hwang Woo-seul-hye), a former idol herself and now a vocal coach, explains so frankly as she and Eun-ju flip through the pages of a noraebang (“song room”) track book. “Where are they now?” they ask in regards to the countless idols of yesteryear.

At the very outset of the movie, we can’t help but feel for the pressure cooker conditions these performers live in. Pink Dolls has fallen out of favor with audiences; they have to rebrand and train harder at a house paid for by an enigmatic sponsor. Real-life K-pop stars are expected to have grueling work schedules like any other full-time entertainers, but the training alone is engrossing. That’s a lot of time and money spent, and the benefactors and labels expect a return on their investment.

This urgency for gratitude is depicted in White: Melody of Death through emotional manipulation, physical abuse, and sexual coercion. The idols are outright slapped as they stand up for themselves, or they’re shamed for their commercial setbacks. And when one Doll asks the aforementioned sponsor for help with her solo career, she’s compelled to return the favor in a way that leaves her wholly traumatized. So, while there is a vengeful ghost haunting the characters who dare sing that cursed song, you realize she’s not the only sizable threat in the movie.

Fans, who helped make it possible for K-pop to reach this level of renown, haven’t always had it easy when it comes to seeking out the thing they lovethat first generation of international fans, including myself, had limited access to the music at one point. Today, it’s easier than ever to find K-pop. Current conveniences like the internet just so happen to shed light on a subset of fans who are so devout to and fiercely protective of their idols. White: Melody of Death bitterly satirizes this aspect of intense fandom in several scenes, but the underlying message is unmistakable.

Towards the end, the fanaticism and entitlement in combination with Pink Doll’s performances have all become ingredients in a ritual of sorts. The group’s fans are essentially possessed by the energy of it all, they lose touch with reality, and, finally, they endanger themselves as well as the celebrities they worship. It’s the movie’s own shrewd way of addressing zealotry in K-pop culture.

At last, the surviving Doll has become her own monster. Fear of failure after surrendering so much of her dignity and morality mars her ascent to solo stardom. Claiming credit for writing “White” is her greatest offense, and the movie’s viewers may have run out of sympathy by then. In consideration of the choking pressure to succeed in a world designed to break those who can’t play by the unbending rules, we can afford some leniency. After all, Pink Dolls and the ghost both fall victims to the same system.

Two of the main actors being actual K-pop entertainers off screen adds another layer to the movie given the condemnation herein. Hahm Eun-jung was part of the successful girl group T-ara before launching a solo career, whereas Kim May Doni’s personal experience in the business reflects the events of White: Melody of Death. Kim, who trained for eight years starting from the age of eleven, ultimately exited the program due to conflicts with her management.

In addition to her weight being strictly monitored and how any interaction with boys was forbidden, May felt that being critiqued in front of her peers was the label’s way of encouraging rivalry. Based on this information, it is reasonable that Kim’s participation in a movie all about the downsides of K-pop is really her seeking closure when understanding why she left the problematic industry.

What White: Melody of Death lacks in scares, it makes up for in insight. The filmmakers obviously embellish for effect, but there are shreds of truth here and there that will raise questions about something millions of people revere. Knowing what goes on behind the scenes or how idols’ lives are so orchestrated and policed, fans might reevaluate their roles in the process. The glaring flaws of the K-pop industry have only worsened since its emergence, and had I known any of these facts then, I might have felt differently about my own consumption. Even so, the burden can’t be placed solely on the fans if the labels and studios aren’t willing to make changes on the inside.

Enjoyment of the music doesn’t necessarily mean someone condones the unsavory side of the K-pop business. The fans remember what drew them to the music in the first place, and if they’re like me, it was that instant sense of community that’s both overwhelming and unmatched. The distinct way this hobby deepened my relationship with the friend who introduced me to it, is something I wouldn’t trade for the world. Like with Eun-ju and Soon-ye, the friendships formed from K-pop are ultimately more important than the music.

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