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Any time a filmmaker or a musician is asked if they knew that their big movie or song was going to be a hit while they were creating it, they almost invariably say, “There’s no way you can know that.” Or, “No one can sit down and write a hit song.”  This may be so, but it hasn’t stopped anyone from trying, particularly in South Korea, where the engineering of the Next Big Thing is practically an art form.  Recording companies like YG Entertainment and S.M. Entertainment have made media events of their searches for young talent to formulate into the stars of tomorrow.  They all hope to duplicate and expand the success of music groups like Big Bang, Super Junior, 2NE1, SHINee and Girls Generation.  It’s that latter combo of nine beautiful girls with model looks all trained to sing and dance with drill team precision that might stay at the forefront in K-Pop fans’ minds as they watch 9 Muses of Star Empire.  This is the story of a smaller entertainment company’s attempt to equal and surpass that successful Girls Generation blueprint and the overwhelming pressure heaped on the nine young ladies recruited to endure the arduous training backwards and in heels.

Star Empire is looking for a hit group.  They have already spent over a million dollars investing in what they hope will be the next big K-Pop girl group.  Based on varying criteria such as singing talent or dancing skills - but above all, photogenic looks - they have manufactured 9 Muses; an assortment of nine young women in each in their late teens or early twenties.  Overall, they seem to have very little in common, but for a modelling background and/or a desire to be famous (Midway through the film one of the Muses confesses her desire to leave the group and parlay her musical popularity into an acting career.). 

Then there is Sera, whose joy in life has always been singing and her participation in the great 9 Muses experiment will allow her to do what she loves for a living.  Apparently because she is the most dedicated and talented, Sera is the group’s “leader;” a sketchy proposition wherein she takes all the blame and responsibility for members’ failings and undependability, with absolutely no reward.  Being at a median age - neither the youngest nor eldest - is also a problem for Sera, who doesn’t feel that she can assert herself with the older members.  Watching the young woman’s pressures build as the documentary catches the group mere weeks before their all-important public debut is harrowing.  They are all scolded regularly seemingly by everyone from the CEO of Star Empire to the janitor (Or at least a snippy coordi-noona or stylist).  Sera is charged with corralling eight other high-spirited girls with varying and oftentimes negligible levels of talent.  Mostly we see her being told off and insulted constantly by 9 Muses’ managers with no encouragement other than the possibility of fame, for which they will remain under tight contract to the company.  And as if that wasn’t enough of a mixture for combustion; the group’s already battered spirits are broken with the unfair decision to replace Sera as leader with only two weeks before the big debut.  

This is show business displaying its rottenness.  The Powers That Be are all middle-aged men who haven’t one kind word for these inexperienced and terrified young women.  It never occurs that shouting at the girls that they should be more confident after referring to a specific member as “you” because remembering their names doesn’t actually seem important, isn’t going to get the desired result.  Besides being the money-man and yet another scolder, the CEO has nothing to contribute other than to command that the girls’ outfits be cut in half to be sexier. 

The group’s time in the recording studio is shocking: Most of them simply cannot carry a tune in a bucket; a fact aggravated by the absolutely terrible debut song chosen for them.  The management seem utterly gobsmacked to find that after a disastrous showing on their first television show, the group was excoriated by K-Pop fans who complained loudly about 9 Muses’ obvious lack of talent, even when singing along to a backing track.  

The documentary is several car crashes (literally) at once and captures the pain of disillusionment of selling one’s soul to make their dreams come true.  Towards the movie’s end, Sera, ousted from the leader position, tells the camera crew she wished they’d stopped filming before their debut because she feels like in that time, enduring physical collapse, heartless and cynical personnel changes, and the constant, soul-destroying berating of their managers, that some of the girls’ humanity has been lost.  

That K-Pop companies work their charges to exhaustion is not news and perhaps the lack of a single kind word to any of the women is a cultural oddity to a westerner, but it’s the meat market mentality and the lack of care about the girls as people that glares through the documentary.  The Muses have nothing to do with the direction of their own group and are made to feel like disposable dolls; just there to hit their marks and do as they’re told.  I get that the company is not a den mother and that this is business, but it’s still shockingly cold and unkind and smacks not a little of the harsh words of a pimp to his stable of ladies.  There’s even a weird scene when they bring in a psychoanalyst to tell the girls what anyone with eyes can see; that they’re all suffering from extreme stress and depression, but that news either isn’t conveyed to or makes no difference to the ones who pull the strings.  More than once we see members flee the rehearsal rooms in panic mode, or simply fail to show up to practice. 

Considering all we’ve seen them endure, the end credits' epilogue, informing us of the departure of approximately half of the group, is sad, but not surprising.  9 Muses of Star Empire is a bitter pill to swallow in the face of the bubblegum joy usually associated with the danceable, disposable perfection of K-Pop and is utterly fascinating.

9 Muses of Star Empire is the curtain in front of the great and powerful K-Pop that fans, non-fans and the increasing number of new fans alike will be compelled to peek behind.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

July 26th, 2013



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