The tidal wave that is K-pop (Korean pop music) has only just begun to crest the shores of the United States, heralded by the juggernaut of quirky rapper Psy's "Gangnam Style." However, widespread mainstream awareness in the U.S. has yet to come for many of the K-pop girl and boy bands (Super Junior, 2NE1) that bring a high-octane, flashy, fizzy brand of pop music that would put One Direction to shame (it doesn't hurt that the groups often boast upwards of seven to ten impossibly attractive young members). The documentary "The Nine Muses of Star Empire," directed by Hark-Joon Lee attempts to go behind the scenes of the K-pop star factory, with an intimate and arresting look at just what goes into this shiny, futuristic pop.
The middle-aged male managers who sit around talking about how the girls aren't hitting with fans because they aren't attractive enough or they can't sing are juxtaposed with the nine girls, impossibly thin and beautiful, dancing through illness, injury and anxiety, seeming to break down more and more each day. The film finds its heart and hero in Sera, the "leader" of the group and pretty much the only one with singing talent or a passing interest in music, and we follow her emotional ride through their debut and the aftermath.
After their dismal first showing, the film eventually descends into a tearstained hell-scape soundtracked by the Muses' single "No Playboy." The amount of times that this song is played in the film verges on Guantanamo-level torture, which is something the managers inflict on the poor girls themselves, forcing them to watch recordings of their performances 10-15 times, in order to identify the problems. With every member of the group only interested in their post-Muses career, and the psychological and physical torment that pushes them to the brink of insanity, it seems impossible that the Muses will ever get off the ground. But it's not just the process that breaks down, as the film shows that even if you reverse engineer a popular girl group (nine beautiful women + endless dance rehearsals + chirpy pop songs), the fans always dictate what hits and what doesn't.
The film works best when it hangs back and just lets the moments of authenticity and humanity ride, focusing on the girls when they are not playing the role of perfect sexy pop automatons, and just being themselves, their honesty showing through. Sera is a wonderful protagonist and the film hinges on her emotional journey. The beginning and end are marked by profoundly odd stylistic choices that feel wildly inconsistent with the rest of the more observational tone of the rest of the film (the end especially, as Sera sings an emotional ballad over "where are they now" style updates on the band members feels out of step). The middle portion of the film has a bit of a "Heart of Darkness" twinge, as everyone involved seems to descend into either madness or despair. Ultimately, it's a profoundly depressing film about a very upbeat and happy style of music. Still, the Nine Muses and their managers are compelling characters, and the film is a fascinating look into this particular showbiz industry, and a further introduction to K-pop for the West. [C+]