"Nine Muses Of Star Empire” is a film like no other.
Director Hark Joon Lee spent a year following the K-pop girl group Nine Muses around with cameras and acting as their manager, the latter being a requirement for participation, from their record label Star Empire.
For festival and premiere-goers lucky enough to view the film, or anyone who caught the abridged version back in 2013 on BBC World, (Lee is still pursuing international distribution) the film offers a inside look at an entertainment industry known for its secrecy, showing the blood, sweat and tears that it takes to get a K-pop group off the ground.
On Thursday evening, following the second-ever US screening of “Nine Muses Of Star Empire" for a crowd of 50 people at The Korea Society in New York City, Lee discussed why he made the documentary, what it was like being a K-pop manager and why a recent reunion with Nine Muses left him feeling depressed, in a public question-and-answer session and an exclusive one-on-one interview with KpopStarz.
In addition to encouraging several aspiring filmmakers in the crowd in whatever they were working on, Lee revealed his initial motivation behind “Nine Muses of Star Empire.”
Since completing his first documentary, “Across Land, Across Sea,” about North Korean defectors, the director had been looking for a subject that was a bit lighter. But it was his experience attempting to get quotes out of another K-pop act in his job as a reporter at the newspaper Chosun Ilbo (Korea Daily) that led him directly to the subject.
"Their answers were answers that came like they were coming from a text book," Lee said.
"I was actually surprised by this, because I wasn’t like that in my teens or early 20s. I wasn’t like that at all. And so I was asking myself ‘is really this the truth? Is this all that’s going on? Or, is there something else behind this?’ So, I really wanted to see if this was just some sort of robotic response or if there was a different story behind it."
So he made it his mission to find out what was behind those canned responses stars gave.
"I wanted to see the inner workings of the K-pop industry," Lee said. "At first I wondered if it would actually be an impossible endeavor."
Star Empire was the fifth record label Lee approached with the idea of making a documentary about an up-and-coming girl group on the condition of unlimited access.
The other four turned him down.
"I wanted to capture the moments behind the curtain, the candid moments," said the documentarian.
Yet once the cameras started rolling, even Lee, who initially imagined “Nine Muses of Star Empire” as a lighthearted view of the travails of showbiz, was surprised how badly the members of Nine Muses were feeling, with at least a dozen scenes in the film involving a band member crying.
Through it all, there was one band member who stood out in particular to the director for her struggles as an artist.
"I especially identified a lot with Sera in the film," Lee said. "She strives so hard and she wants to become the best, but then she suffers. And even though she suffers, she just can’t break away from the industry at all."
Though he did his best to stay neutral, Lee’s affection for Sera during his time managing Nine Muses was apparently impossible for him to conceal.
"Sera was my favorite member of the group, but as their manager I couldn’t discriminate," Lee explained.
"So, if Sera wanted watermelon, I was getting it for the whole group of 12 girls [the Nine Muses and their three backup singers]. I liked Sera because she was like me, kind of shy. I thought I had kept the secret [that I favored her] well. But after editing the film I went to see them and everyone knew I had been favoring her."
Lee has kept in touch with the members of Nine Muses, although a recent meeting with the group, whose popularity has grown significantly since the director documented their debut in 2010, left him cold.
"I felt they had really become celebrities and they were actually giving me very textbook answers," Lee said. "There was a great distance between us."
But by then he had a notion of why their comments were so tightly controlled.
"I think record companies want to make the perfect star, stars that have no flaws," Lee said. "And I feel that the people producing K-pop bands, they want to produce this flawless star image. That’s a unique thing in K-pop."
Though several scenes in “Nine Muses of Star Empire,” document the band members being pushed to the limits of physical exhaustion, the director claims to have come out of the process actually having more sympathy for the band’s management.
"When I first started filming I thought that all of the managers were absolutely evil and the girls were good," Lee said.
"But once I [got further into the project], I realized it’s not such a black and white issue. Most of the managers have invested their whole life savings on this project. So there is a reason they are so harsh."
Yet, he admits some of the record label executives, particularly Star Empire CEO Shin Ju Hak, have their eccentricities.
"The CEO had this really strong superstition that the group had to be nine girls," Lee said. "He was reading in Greek mythology that Zeus had nine daughters, so he specifically thought this group had to have nine people."
According to the director, Shin has always had a clear concept of what Nine Muses should be.
"He did a nationwide search and the qualifications were, as you can see in the film, they had to be tall, they had to be a good singers and also good dancers," he said.
"For the CEO, it wasn’t so much a matter of who becomes a member, but I think he had a grand vision of what he wanted to produce and he wanted to fill in those holes [in the band] with models, singers or dancers."
For Lee, who has plans to screen the documentary at several more international film festivals this year, the connection formed with the band members over the 12 months they spent together was more personal.
As his last act as manager, Lee told Nine Muses that he would always be their number one fan.
"I told them ‘whenever you are performing, I will watch you guys and I won’t judge you like other people, because I know how hard you work,’" he said. "And that’s how I left it with them as their manager."
watch seohyun turn out to be dating the president
OH GOD NO
actually she’s dating ban ki-moon
lol she thinks she’s dating ban ki moon but she’s actually dating me in a unsg ban ki moon’s mask
nah she will never leave her goguma
she’s dating gogumas #4lyf