Film Review: The Grim Reality of 'Nine Muses of Star Empire' is Essential Kpop Viewing
The debate over whether an idol is born or created does not hold much water in the world of Kpop. Most fans familiar with the genre’s intense idol training program would argue it is the latter. But how does one create an idol? Nine Muses of Star Empire takes us behind the scenes to witness the trials and tribulations of a Kpop girl group about to debut. Given unprecedented access to practice sessions, one-on-one interviews, and private management meetings, Director Hark Joon Lee exposes, for the first time ever, the side of Kpop that you’ve never seen before (and spoiler alert: it’s grim).
Though filmed during Nine Muses’ debut preparations in 2010, and originally released in 2012 (re-released in 2014), Nine Muses of Star Empire never feels dated. In fact, it feels more relevant than ever. Fans are well-aware of the cracks in the idol system, thanks to several recent high-profile incidents of idols complaining of slave contracts and unfair management practices. But those rumors, deleted tweets, and press releases hardly tell the whole story. Until now, what goes on behind the curtain has been off-limits. It’s that scrutiny of things previously hidden which makes Nine Muses of Star Empire a must-see for fans of Kpop.
In fact, it’s the kind of documentary that makes you wonder why Star Empire ever agreed to have the cameras around in the first place. It does not make them look good, and there is clearly no censorship or feelings spared. In one of the more telling moments of the film, the CEO and management hold a private meeting to discuss how poor Nine Muses’ live performance was, all while the women are forced to watch said performance over and over again, like children sent to their room to think about what they did wrong. The management does not seem to recognize the irony that while they bemoan the lack of confidence in the group, their future stars sit in shame in the next room, not even invited to the table. It’s not motivating stuff, but it’s likely what many face on the path to becoming Kpop idols.
The scene just described is actually fairly representative of the majority of interactions we witness throughout the film, where after performing a routine they have done countless times, Nine Muses is berated yet again by their management. Though you might expect drama, what we see is mostly tears. When Sera is stripped of her role as leader (a determination made by the management without seeking any feedback), there is no fight, no upset words, no discussion, even. There are only the tears and conciliatory hugs from a group of women who prove to have very little agency and very little control over their lives.
You can see their hopelessness as they practice the dance routine for “No Playboy” over and over, and the malaise of these women, so familiar with the song and the steps that they begin to look like mannequins, this malaise begins to seep into the viewer. Please don’t show them practice again, you might think as you watch the film, but Director Hark Joon Lee, importantly, shows it again. It is the only way for us to truly understand the depressive nature of creating an idol. Hearing that song again and again, watching as one more time Nine Muses move lethargically in front of the cold-eyed and sour-faced manager, clearly unimpressed and unhappy with what he sees; this is the daily life of the idol hopeful. Practice, as they say, makes perfect.
Ideally, this is the moment where we would turn this review on its head and tell you about all the positive things you’ll see in the film, about all the times you’ll laugh and enjoy getting to know these nine young women. Unfortunately, it’s not that kind of movie, and this isn’t that kind of review. The best we can do is recall an early moment when the camera invites Eunji to describe each member of Nine Muses by what her role would be in a high school setting. It’s a rare moment in the film, both for its lightheartedness and for its setting (one of the only times the cameras leave the Star Empire studio). Unfortunately, the film does not broaden its scope at any time. The director does coax some very raw emotion out of the women of Nine Muses, but we would have liked to see a few interviews with other people connected to the group: family, friends, industry experts, etc. Extending the reach of the film could have also provided another storyline, possibly even a happier one.
Though we’ve painted a grim picture of the experience of Nine Muses, it would be wrong to suggest this is completely Star Empire’s fault. Although Star Empire received a lot of bad press in 2014 over the brewing, but never quite boiling, issue with ZE:A leader Moon Jun-Young (stage name, Lee Hoo), this same company also managed the longest running Kpop girl group, Jewelry, for almost fifteen years (until their recent disbandment). With the focus of this documentary being so narrow, it would be easy to frame Star Empire as an evil corporation, but that would also be misguided. The management of Nine Muses is frequently heard suggesting both to themselves and to the women of Nine Muses that training would be much harder at other companies. Whether or not that is true, the perception highlights the systemic mistreatment of idols across entertainment labels. Attacking Star Empire for trying to keep up with the harsh conditions perpetuated by the rest of Kpop would be a trivial pursuit. But it should come as no surprise that when Director Hark Joon Lee revisits Nine Muses to conduct a follow-up interview, three of the members have already left.
We rate Nine Muses of Star Empire as a must-watch film, not because it will put a smile on your face, but because it will make you uncomfortable. Kpop is full of flash and fireworks, but rarely do we look at the blood, sweat, and tears that go into making it. The grim story this film tells is an important one.
You can watch Nine Muses of Star Empire on Hulu (link) or Vimeo (link).