Director: Caroline Suh
Streaming Platform: Netflix
Fame is heady, and noxious. But having achieved it, it’s easy to wonder, “what next?” It’s easier to wonder this if fame comes early, on the threshold of adulthood, as it did for the all-female record-breaking K-pop group Blackpink.
The documentary BLACKPINK: Light Up The Sky attempts to ask this question, “what next?”, but forgets about it soon enough, morphing into an extended promotional video for Blackpink’s recently released studio album ‘The Album’. Make no mistake- this is a PR film, and an adequate one at that.
I had not heard of this band, with Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa, till I watched the documentary, so I realize I am not the target audience. And the problem with the documentary is just that: it is made for a target audience- the fans of Blackpink who can confirm their fan-knowledge and see the objects of their adoration descend from the ivory tower, even if perfunctorily,
The documentary attempts to throw light on the gruelling industry that makes these bands, but it keeps its distance from the sludge. The bands are not formed organically, not high-school friends who decide to band-up, perform gigs and travel. There is a systematic algorithm, decades of training, millions of dollars, permutations and combinations, schooling and vetting, till the final band is formed and their song drops, into either ecstatic fame, or washed up oblivion.
This is a brutal machine, one that Fatima Bhuto delves deep into in her book “New Kings Of The World”. It sometimes involves gruelling control over the stars, especially after one of the first breakout K-pop stars Hyun Jin-young was nabbed for drug use. From the chord progression, to eye-makeup, everything is planned to the T. 14 hour days, one day off every fortnight- it’s not ideal if it’s not exactly what you wanted. But the blood and sweat, no-drinking-no-smoking-no-tattoo policy is only part of the story. The other, more brutal part, is untouched by this documentary.
Fatima notes in her book, “standard K-pop trainee contracts now include seven to twelve non-negotiable surgeries from double eyelid surgery— which involves cutting the eyelid skin to create a crease—to jaw shaving. Some boy-banders undergo leg breaking surgery to add a few centimeters of height while others, bending to the Korean aesthetic of skinniness as the height of attractiveness, inject poison into their necks in order to atrophy their muscles.”
None of this is even hinted at here. The people interviewed too are, strategically, just the four singers, their producer, and their very close friend. It’s a paean in praise of them. The parents are mentioned off-handedly but none are spoken to. The brutal regime is seen as hard work-for-payoff. Beauty is brought up ephemerally but is doused under the giggles and platitudes. Similarly the camaraderie between the four girls, while sunny and cohesive, feels un-tested.
There’s a beautiful moment towards the end when they wonder in twenty years where they will be. Will they be married? Will they have kids? Will they still be performing? Elsewhere, there is a giddiness to the camera following them right before their performance at Coachella. Then, there is a quiet moment in the hotel room when one of the band members orders poached eggs and eats it alone, wondering out loud, if what she is feeling is homesick. It’s a carefully curated moment. Perhaps it is heartfelt, but if you spend the hour and half documentary showing me these peripatetic figures as adjectives, not telling me what home is for them, how do then I feel their homesickness?