Fear not! Your time has come! Joseph Losey has delivered, along with Secret Ceremony set dresser Jill Oxley! It is like nothing I’ve ever seen! I could not stop myself from screenshotting basically the entire thing and here are my findings with special exclusive commentary.
This iron tree structure really makes the atmosphere, I think. At some point Richard Burton’s character also fashions an Alexander Calder-esque mobile out of iron, which is unexplained. Did Calder get royalties? (This is interesting because a linguistics lecturer once pointed out to me that these mobiles resemble Chomsky’s syntax trees (C-structures), which are rooted in a supposed universal knowledge of grammar, ie. the linguistic equivalent of many psychoanalytic theories which have been used to explain mythology and dreamy films like this one.)
This shot is superb! Felliniesque! The glow of the enclave and the red costume of the Witch of Capri (played by Noel Coward), and the blood, but also look, a monkey! I actually really can’t recount the plot of this film properly because things like this kept happening and caused me to go into raptures. This composition is extra interesting though – we follow a path of red out onto a balcony, where violence turns into heterosexual desire…
She also spends a lot of time dictating memoirs to her secretary, which turn into the most bizarre monologues ever. The script is so hysterical that it brings down the tone of the entire film, but in a nice way.
I love the way the costume designer has considered the cast as a whole while making colour decisions so nobody clashes in these few scenes. This betrays the film as more of an experiment in visual style than character or narrative – and that’s the way I like it!
I really enjoy late 60s-early 70s Italianate cinema interior design (whitewashed walls, dark ornate furniture), and the influence of all that on this film is very clear – especially in these darkened scenes, where the green velvet armchair is a bridge between the usual contrast. She’s just making a phone call but this looks so cultic: lit candles and a roaring fire? A lectern?
I wrote a poem! This is a direct reaction to my blocking YouTube (my only music platform) across all my devices, realising the loss of lyrical content depressed me, trying to write songs, realising I did not have the patience required to learn music theory, then adding a million different puns, references and what people I look down upon would probably call ‘Easter eggs’. I absolutely think that I belong in the field of poetry – that I have come home. I blame several things for keeping me away for so long: English teachers attempting to make poetry ‘relatable and fun’ (ie. cringe and culturally bankrupt), googling the name of a student teacher in sixth form and finding a video of her slam poetry performance piece which explored gender variance through the metaphor of vegetables who can talk, and being trapped into several other spoken-word poetry performances since. Did you know that poetry can actually be written down? I have thankfully found that out again. I’m currently planning a translation of Farewell, My Concubine without any E’s (Farwll, My Concubin) but for now, here’s my first poem! It’s about several different things and intended primarily as revenge. I exclamation-marked the title because that should be standard for titles, in my opinion.
The sonar falls and the lunar increases,
sets at hand as you fall out of the
sky, cycle past the rip,
Links it so a harmless anchor yields you at the hip, green,
cloaked, lest I, standing and helpless at year’s begin,
Madame! Inventor of the safety-pin! Dead. Downwards spiral. Despondent verb.
Listless in some autumn hail (what does it say?) and yet
The rain arcs over, I do regret, she
Lolls in some amnesiac hell at Yemen
old mid-East, and here I scheme them.
(Many lactic returns for the chosen jewel
I am born again, and scattered over the tlantic.)
Bring plots and plans to von Nordeck’s school – think of the glassy ball, the magic mirror, sand-timer, trailing satin, blood smoke.
Heed distortion: two-strip, female glaze.
Now struggle out from under-mansion,
leg immense, swells at her atrophied yard,
Cloud County, Wichita, and astra per aspera,
von Masoch, roared the lion, de Sade.
You lived it, sang at heart as yin-yang scansion,
Pounce out over-coiled – lit in saffron
angst, harsh and yellow, ready-tarred.
Adrian, a devil-child! O, brag of your handiwork,
as she bursts at the flash, flammable sun.
Black-market kingdom, heidaodai.
“Loss is suffering, and hearts always yearn”
The phrase traces your path all under the sky.
Here are Flanders Fields, your dreadful earth,
go if flower-fingered arrival requires drowse,
listen, Somnifera, for I must earn –
I’ll paint my face all lacquer-black – will let the xiaoren caw and grab
as they hang, Metro’s bats, acro-tacked. Old one! Gudian!
I have been very busy in the last few months (someone decided to give me an actual job for some reason? I realised I could go on long cinematic tirades and send them in to my university newsletter and they would actually publish them? I discovered new ways to get ebooks for free? I watched too many films?). I will make up for it by going on about my favourite singer (who is currently under-analysed and under-listened to) instead.
Anglosphere commentators have been obsessed with ‘girl power’ rock musicians for a while now. Some of these obsessions are justified, some not, but for the best part of a decade a specific group of alt-rock women have been ubiquitous in discussion – Kim Gordon, Kathleen Hanna, Courtney Love, Joan Jett, all of Sleater-Kinney. There is clearly a drive to centre a female outlook in criticism of a male-dominated genre, which I think is brilliant- but for one notable, curious omission. Nina Hagen, the German opera prodigy with the beautiful, eclectic, bilingual discography, is always left by the musical wayside, memory-holed. 1978’s monumental Nina Hagen Band album, which spans from reproductive protest (Unbeschreiblich Weiblich) to gorgeous prog-esque lament (Auf’m Friedhof – listen to it!) lies buried in the sand. 1982’s Nunsexmonkrock, although a) in English, b) a wonderful technical accomplishment, c) a stellar example of the sonic female psyche, has all but ‘been disappeared’. Angstlos (Fearless) and In Ekstase, Cold War masterpieces, are barely remembered, to say nothing for the low-stakes genius of 1991’s Street, maligned by even Hagen’s casual fans. Nobody I know in real life has heard of her. Some even announce proudly that they have not heard of her. I once played Naturtrane at a flat party and it totally killed the mood. When will the world wake up?
Listening to a Nina Hagen album is like stumbling into a simulated haunted house while also being on psychedelic drugs. Her songs are quotable, theatrical flights of fancy, often serving as political satire and sprinkled with surprise operatics (her vocal range once spanned around six octaves). My favourite of her spoken monologues is on Antiworld, where she recounts the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac (‘Once upon a time…when Jesus was walking-down-this-way on Earth, he met this man who was possessed… BY A DEMON!’), but I also love Atomic Flash Deluxe, which, with its low-register refrain of ‘Babylon must fallllll’ is the actual musical equivalent of the ‘powerful sense of dread’ bit from Peep Show. Another song deserving of attention is 1993’s Gypsy Love, and its spoken interlude ‘On wild wild horses of cosmic evolution and across deserts of DEATH’.
Her Street album appears comparatively toned-down at first listen, but really deserves acknowledgement as the foremost camp masterpiece of its time – a little bit of the ’60s, shifted forward thirty years without really even being aware of it. Blumen für die Damen, for example, samples Rex Harrison (!) in My Fair Lady (1964) (!!!) In Love-Hi, she serves Elizabeth Taylor a catty put-down (possibly because nothing else would rhyme with ‘failure’) and thus also invites instant comparison. Gretchen is a Schubert lied but disco-style – it would not be out of place in Mae West’s last film. (I will not rest until everyone has seen Mae West’s last film.)
One notable thread across Hagen’s discography is her obsession with Zarah Leander (the Third Reich singing Nazi version of Greta Garbo). Her own theatricality, homosexual appeal and half-Jewish background create an interesting conflict here, culminating in my fan favourite Nina Hagen song, the homage-parody Zarah:
Hagen is often touted by her remaining fans as notable for experimenting with outlandish stage costumes ‘before Lady Gaga’. While I’m not a proponent of the ‘only ONE woman can dress weird EVER!’ rule, I totally concur with their admiration for her trailblazing fashion and makeup, and feel very let-down that it hasn’t yet been recognised, with later artists hailed as pioneers in her stead.
Obviously she has many defined visual ‘eras’ just like any modern alt-pop artist. I literally can’t pick a favourite because of all them are amazing and worthy of attention, so here are some highlights:
(nb. Angstlos is my favourite Nina album along with its English counterpart, but the outstanding visual example there is the video for Zarah, which I already linked above)
Nunsexmonkrock era (early 80s)
Christian iconography, androgyny, and dark discordant sounds.
In Ekstase era (mid-80s)
Very fun – many Cold War references, patternedtights and her most overt punk hair/makeup. Some have suggested that her In Ekstase styling might have influenced the current portrayal of superhero (?) Harley Quinn.
Nina Hagen era (late-80s)
I find it hard to sum up this era aesthetically, but I’m including this video because it’s one of my favourites ever made.
Revolution Ballroom era (mid-90s)
A note: This stage in Hagen’s career is very special to me, because it is so misguided but simultaneously unique and wonderful. At this point she got really into Hinduism (audiences today would call it ‘cultural appropriation’ – I think she’s actually very nice and respectful in the process – she clearly held a sincere spiritual interest), started dressing like the goths presumably did in 1994, and, unfortunately, engaged in HIV/AIDS denial, taking a book called Roger’s Recovery from Aids onto various French talk shows and even discussing it in gay clubs next to bemused drag queens. I understand in my heart that this is wrong, but it is now politically-aware 2021 and I treasure the opportunity to watch an eccentric travel around Europe, committing various well-intentioned but totally cancellable offences while dressed in head-to-toe latex. This kind of thing will probably never happen again and I want to write a sitcom about it.
Above all, Nina Hagen makes excellent, joyful, energising, manic music and it absolutely never fails to make me happy. I will leave you with three songs from my absolute favourite (gay-club-friendly, accomplished, fanciful, have at some point been obsessed with each and every song on this album) Angstlos phase:
My only commentary on this track is “What!!!!!!!! How!!!!!!” I’m about to start praying for those who persecute me. It’s a convincing song.
I’m picking the English version of this song because this helps me understand the lyrics, which are very funny and a perfect lampoon of French New Wave elitism. There’s also a great German version which you should NOT confuse with the Rammstein song Frühling in Paris (theirs is worse generally and more depressing, you couldn’t play it in a gay club. I hoped it would be a cover.)
I actually do fear death quite a lot, and this song has genuinely helped me to come to terms with it (or with the fact that actually it doesn’t exist). The fun, jaunty rhythm – the intermittent yodelling. Thank you Nina.
When I become attached to a prolific dead-or-very-old person, it’s usually at least partially because of what they represent in the wider world. Hagen, I believe, is the figurehead of many things that are very important to me – the notion of being both sophisticated and ridiculous, of using spirituality to enhance creative work, of paying attention to old films and music. I am proud to be one of her few remaining Anglosphere fans and think the time is ripe for more to discover her fantastic music.
‘Wow, you’re doing a Chinese degree?’ people like to say to me. ‘That’s so smart and forward-looking! China is becoming an economic superpower!’
Little do they know! I’m only taking Business Chinese because of scheduling conflicts, I spend much of my study time researching the origin of the chengyu I have to learn (there’s something appealing about quoting the Romance of the Three Kingdoms for professional gain), and instead of occupying myself with the Financial Times or discussing trade wars like the actual serious people on my degree who actually deserve to be there and probably never do anything wrong or regret anything, I have been trying to seek out the campiest Mandarin films of the 60s and 70s, which I like to watch in bed in total glee like some kind of flamboyant hibernating cinema stoat.
These have all been produced by the Shaw Brothers, but the ones I enjoy aren’t the company’s signature martial arts films – they’re melodramas, prototypical dramatic Hollywood women’s pictures transplanted to 1960s Hong Kong. All the new mod fashion and music is there, and they have clearly been influenced by the entrance of Cinemascope a decade earlier, meaning the best productions all look a bit like Godard’s Contempt. Instead of cutting-edge Nouvelle Vague direction, however, I’m met every time with around ninety minutes of Classic Hollywood-esque narrative delight.
Madam Slender Plum (1967, 欲海情魔 Yu Hai Qing Mo, lit. something like ‘The Romantic Demon in the Ocean of Desire’, dir. Lo Wei), remake of Mildred Pierce
I didn’t realise this was supposed to be Mildred Pierce until half an hour in, when Diana Chang Chung-wen opened up her own restaurant and started arguing with her daughter. It significantly out-camps the original; I worried the main cast would not live up to the excellent portrayals in that version, but I needn’t have worried at all! The director seemed to have missed the stylistic point of the original by miles, eschewing Curtiz’s feminine take on film noir for something that reminds me a lot of Sirk, that Demy film I reviewed and, not even unfortunately, John Waters.
It helps that Veda Pierce, who is supposed to start as a young girl of about 12 and end up a young woman, is played by the clearly-grown-up Jenny Hu, who is made up consistently for the whole film, and is also obviously really tall. Veda’s little sister, who dies at the start of the film, doesn’t look much younger but still spends all her time onscreen holding an oversized teddy bear. I was reminded of Female Trouble and Taffy Davenport, except this isn’t even making a thing of it.
The issues of misogyny present in the original become very tongue-in-cheek here. Miss Plum takes a job waitressing at a sleazy bar in the face of financial ruin, and is often harassed and objectified by male drinkers. She later opens her own, and in one of the most memorable scenes, lines a team of skimpily-dressed waitresses up for inspection.
Is this a protest against late-60s girlbossery to the detriment of the working woman? Is it engineered as a moral counterpart to the racist contradictions of the original, where Joan Crawford rises to the top but Butterfly McQueen remains in domestic drudgery? I think it’s an interesting sequence that adds a new dimension to the story. This is the sort of remake that doesn’t bother me at all!
Remember the final twist in Mildred Pierce? We don’t really get that here; instead, the characters take turns accusing each other and taking the blame for the murder that begins the film, like a wholesome (God I hate that word) version of Rashomon. Luo strays very far from the original’s tone here; it is far more heartfelt, with familial love and no bloodthirsty acting.
Torrent of Desire (1969, 欲焰狂流，dir. Lo Chen), remake of Written on the Wind
I will set this straight: I saw the original Written on the Wind a hell of a long time ago (was I doing A-levels? I’m not sure) and can’t make many useful comparisons because I can’t remember much of it. (I actually really want to rewatch the original because I’m now totally obsessed with late-stage Lauren Bacall and everything she’s done, and probably didn’t appreciate her performance enough the first time I watched it).
One thing I want to say about this remake: the set design is the best in any film. I’m not kidding! Just look at this!
Look at this hotel room! Conversation pit! White crystal chandelier! Guoxue woodblock prints! Almost-70s tree mural! Who designed this set and have they been living in my brain?
I’m not even going to say anything about this miraculous many-columned lilac hotel lobby, just look at it!
Also this bizarre Mexican ranch situation (did such interior design exist in real ’60s Hong Kong, or is this an imaginary America?)
And this completely OTT graveyard!
Here’s some set dressing in a style I like to call ‘Woah. What???’
There’s a sort of psychedelic almost-sex-scene here where (I’m pretty sure) the director was mimicking the rainbow lighting from another Sirk film, All That Heaven Allows:
Some of the costumes in this are brilliant (specifically, all of Angela Yu Chien’s costumes; she’s a fantastic character-y actress in this and I can’t wait to watch her other films). Take some screenshots and run:
In conclusion: why are these films not (gay) cult classics already? They’re so good and so overdesigned; I propose a charity scheme where they are subtitled, placed on hard drives and dropped through the chimneys of camp cinema fans worldwide. This was totally worth learning Mandarin for.
An ‘aesthetic’ is a stylistically consistent, multimodal manifestation of an imagined lifeworld. This is probably incoherent to anyone who hasn’t been up at 3am thinking about it like I have. Here are two examples:
Early-2010s Bambi-Gypsy Tumblr
I panicked because initial research on this led me absolutely nowhere (surely every self-respecting participant, including me, must have deleted all their content by now?) but just stumbled upon a treasure trove of nostalgia! Thank you, random users who probably lost their passwords and are immortalised on the internet as a result. (I won’t lie, I still think this is all very cute and have cried a little bit).
This aesthetic, which now appears to be completely dead, was a manifestation of a dream minimal-surreal indie-pop desert California lifestyle. It boasted a pastel colour palette and was sprinkled with gold star stickers, pictures of oil spills, 90s cartoons and cacti. In retrospect, this was strange because, as cohesive as it was, there seemed to be no cultural precursor for it beyond a few Rookie Magazine editorials. We only liked modern pop music (Lorde, the Arctic Monkeys, golden-age Lana Del Rey) and 1990s throwback television (The Simpsons, Daria). Was this an effort to feminise the fake-quirky ultra-minimalism of trendy Silicon Valley companies, or to sterilise 60s free love? Were we distancing ourselves from everything we knew?
Seven or eight years later, in 2021, these pictures together still make me feel very blissed-out and happy. They are so surreal – the lack of perceptible shadow, the pastels, the girls who dress as alien ravers without being under coloured lights or doing drugs or apparently eating, the 90s Simpsons nostalgia (not pictured) – that they suddenly become very engrossing. The Bambi-Gypsy universe existed in an in-between state: we named our blogs things like ‘clouhd’ or ‘stahrs’ or ‘flowerii’ but refused to acknowledge or post the natural world if it wasn’t the arid American desert, and LOVED oil spills and shoes made of transparent plastic.
Bambi-Gypsy was multimodal, expressed stylistically through photos, text and music: pastel imagery, aspirated nature words, the minimal quirk of contemporary indie pop. It manifested on thousands of Tumblr blogs, and sometimes in advertising, and later (too late) its motifs were found decorating mass-produced clothing – but it never really came up anywhere else.
It was a lifeworld, too much of a wonderland to really exist and yet planned out in full. The Bambi-Gypsy heroine ate snack food, collected succulents, put glitter around her eyes, lived somewhere near Los Angeles, was always dressed for a rave, worked as a model or freeloader and always felt alienated and strangely surreal. It was imagined, and we imagined it together, memetically, building on her lifestyle with each iteration…
2. Lana Del Rey and Born to Die
Here’s another multimodal imagined lifeworld: this one is rooted in some variation of mid-century Americana that exists entirely in its creator’s head. The lifeworld is that of a young, glamorous ingenue who (you guessed it) loves older men. This pretend woman’s visual, emotional and stylistic experiences are reflected in evocative lyrics, in purposely-aged music videos and in the sound of the music itself. In sync with internet users, the aesthetic filters from the music industry and makes its way online. Del Rey takes misremembered Old Hollywood films, misinterpreted books and misunderstood history – like a neural network, she generates enough imagery to spit back out and turn into nearly a complete lifeworld…
In the textual mode of her song lyrics, we encounter the first trappings of this imaginary life: it is specially curated and all incredibly anachronistic. Del Rey is always filmed at this stage wearing 1960s hair and makeup, but the Chateau Marmont had fallen into disrepair by that decade; she tacks together her infamous Lolita quote (from a fictional pedophile of letters) and the AAVE of ‘give me them coins’. Walt Whitman, Monaco, Marilyn Monroe musicals, and the Grand Ole Opry never occupied the same cultural sphere; she is merely saying old things and hoping they will stick (while somehow impersonating both Monroe and Barbara Jean from the film Nashville, which heavily featured the Grand Ole Opry but happened to come out in the 70s). Her stage name brings to mind Old Hollywood, but it’s an unrealistic, accepting Old Hollywood: the ‘Del Rey’ tacked on to exoticise would probably never have brought her the era of mainstream glamour shown in her music videos, and would only have entailed racist typecasting (Rita Hayworth had to change her name from the localising Margarita Carmen Cansino to be considered a sex symbol). The imagery nevertheless fits together, as if her songs are slapdash Pinterest boards, cohesive in their mistakes. Anachronism is the style. Accuracy is not an aesthetic; facts must be stylised too. A heavily-perfumed woman cuts a hole in a piece of paper and walks through it.
Would you ever agree to administrate a database of something you knew nothing about? Do you often speak authoritatively of this thing about which you know nothing, while using totally punctuated sentences in a chatroom (please get a life, you total weirdo)? Do you assume to know more about something you know nothing about than someone who has created a website about the thing you know nothing about? Yes? Then you’d feel at home at the Aesthetics Wiki!
It is becoming clearer and clearer that the moderators themselves have absolutely no idea what an aesthetic is. Is it a music genre? No. Is it a type of Japanese fashion? No. Is it a random thing you like with ‘core’ on the end? No. Is it just any subculture, anywhere? No. And yet these pages make up the extreme majority of wiki content, and when you delete them – you, the creator of the Wiki, have to be thrown out, not the people who lack basic understanding of the concept of the website they’ve agreed to moderate.
What is an aesthetic? An aesthetic is a coherent multimodal schema based on a certain, often fantastical, life-world. You should be able to look at a picture posted online and say ‘that’s [my aesthetic]’ without it needing to contain any one certain element; while aesthetics are dictated by visuals, you should be able to find music that fits just as well. Things that have been mistakenly been called aesthetics by people who deem themselves experts: pictures of food, the entirety of Korean culture, punk music, studying science, liking holographic surfaces.
Things that actually are aesthetics: Dark Academia (an audiovisual manifestation of being in a specific literary genre), Cottagecore (an audiovisual manifestation of a bucolic life-world), American Gothic, the 2014 Tumblr fluorescent-Arctic Monkeys-alien phase, speculative but highly visual genres like steampunk, the Virgin Suicides phase where everyone fantasised about being 70s suburbanite Catholic teenagers, film noir, the Gothic Art Nouveau in the film Secret Ceremony, the idea of being a cowboy on the prairie as in, specifically, a Spaghetti Western.
That’s my contribution to the field – perhaps I will do for aesthetics what Sontag did for camp. Why do we fetishise total ignorance on the part of grown adults? Why are we expected to condescend to people who know nothing and are seemingly proud of it? My guess is that I’ve made myself the villain again – I am usually the villain – simply for pointing out the basic concept or truth behind something instead of condescending to the illusions of the self-assured and misinformed. At least – as always – I’m right, and am not someone who learns about the world from sixty-second videos, someone on Letterboxd with ‘Hamilton’ in their favourites section, a Twitter user, or a gamer.
It’s true! It was me, me, a teenage outcast, an underqualified linguistics research assistant, a student journalist. I was up in the very early hours and thought it might be a good idea. Now it’s becoming a phenomenon. We had around four million pageviews in January 2021, according to this Atlantic article about us, which I also only found out about today. I checked my email a few hours ago and found an information request from American Vogue, which I managed to totally overlook for nearly two weeks.
The truth is, I can go for months without ever organically thinking about the website, which has morphed from something full of slightly ironic familiarity into something completely foreign to me. I spent New Year’s Eve on Tumblr in 2013 and 2014, and lived my life on the site up until 2020; I saw Cottagecore and Lovecore and Dark Academia and Pastel Grunge erupt in real time. I even participated in that really strange and totally memory-holed ‘gypsy’ aesthetic where people went on Polyvore and cut typographic letters out of photos of oil spills. At 19, I’m obsessed with being behind the times and feel far too old for any of this; I get my aesthetic fix from old Italian and Czech films, currently refuse to use any social media or watch movies made after 1979, and have disabled my YouTube recommendations so the only ‘new’ material I see is Nina Hagen archival footage. I feel more technologically skilled than the users of the Aesthetics Wiki (while they are stuck in an algorithmic Tik Tok cycle, I often provide my classmates with textbook downloads and have employed MI5-level tactics to successfully locate my crush’s LiveJournal from 2006) but have literally no idea what any of them are on about, ever. Perhaps this is the real generational gap.
My hero from the age of 11 onwards was Tavi Gevinson, the child-prodigy blogger and editor of Rookie magazine. It was at her beckoning that I listened to my first Hole album, read and watched The Virgin Suicides, and learnt to make moodboards, to identify some visual element from some bygone period that I liked and stick with it. My pre-adolescence was built of homemade shrines, suburban impalement fantasies and Courtney Love’s screams. It was sensational – I had so much fun! I suppose I could have been considered precocious, except I spent too much time writing out Lana Del Rey lyrics and making my own zines to actually concentrate or do well at school. The Aesthetics Wiki was an attempt to stick to the Gevinson tradition, to identify things I saw every day and turn them into something coherent and special.
I am sad to say that many of the articles today do not go along with this scheme whatsoever. Some are ramblings from twelve-year-olds who have been allowed to spend too much time online; some are by older people who should know better. Instead of categorising things that already exist, our website is full of imaginary figments. It also exists as a fashion advice repository, because our users love to define themselves by what they buy. Thousands flock to our forum and comment section, listing totally irrelevant information in a bid to discover what ‘their aesthetic’ is. Gone are the days of free exploration or experimentation, or even very basic cultural context!
The aesthetic subcultures of Tumblr have been politicised by people with a five-year-old’s understanding of politics. Cottagecore is for Nazis, they shout, unaware that rural living has been romanticised for millennia by everyone from Tibullus to Mao to the second-wave feminists. No, it’s very special to lesbians, others reply, having no concept of what a lesbian actually is beyond someone who is annoying on Tik Tok. Lesbians are very protective of their aesthetic, they say, as if we are all Tumblr users who are under sixteen years old (for the record, I am a lesbian who exists in the cultural sphere of Old Hollywood actresses and fin de siècle painters; I have never felt any desire to work on a farm and I can’t listen to Girl in Red, their gold standard of cultural lesbianism, without wanting to vomit). Young people are probably about to go into debt because of Dark Academia: they like the idea of studying and being eccentric more than they are actually willing to devote themselves to academic interests or develop any real eccentricities. In a few decades, our university professors will know practically nothing, but will at least dress well and have some suitable music playing in the background.
I have created a monster – a database for people who want to be exactly the same. Tumblr aesthetics barely provide visual pleasure anymore; they are merely a way to categorise yourself in relation to others. Teenagers on the site who want to pick one and stick to it should stop being so silly. Watch films from periods that aren’t your own! Read books! Learn about art history! Be original for once! This would never have happened back in my day.
K-pop videos should be written about more by critics and academics. I’ve loved the high production value, intense cultural borrowing and forced innovation of the genre for years now, and have come here to share my expertise with you.
I’m just focusing on videos here, so the music featured within them doesn’t come into play in my decision. This is also a very personal list. I do not aim for objectivity. My criteria include: general aesthetic appeal, originality, shock value, ability to stand the test of time, and a certain je nais se quois. Also this is very (entirely?) biased towards videos made for girl groups and female artists – because that’s all I listen to. Sorry men.
CLC – Hobgoblin (2017, dir. Vikings League)
Where do I start? This video is a masterclass in angles and camera movement. Just the thumbnail itself (Yujin holding a pink baseball bat towards the camera – it is wrapped in barbed wire) is, to use Twitter parlance, iconic. The director has taken the age-old Western ‘girl crush’ schema and magnified every bit of it. CLC have never been the most popular group in their five-year run, but has anyone ever watched this video and forgotten any part of it afterwards? I doubt it. It also features one of the most memorable styling jobs in history – none of the outfits seem to work together, but they do for some reason, and it is this series of arbitrary choices that tie the entire comeback together.
LOONA – Girl Front (2017, dir. Digipedi)
I have loved LOONA since pre-2018 full group debut, so I obviously have a slight tendency to favour their videos over others – this MV probably wouldn’t have made it into my top 20 had I not already fully understood and obsessed over the story behind it, which features magic powers, travel between universes, a search for alter egos, and so on, imbuing every scene with self-important cryptic value. But I also think it’s made a huge impact, with instantly-recognisable scenery and outfits and a brilliant sense of space. It truly brings me joy!
HyunA – Lip & Hip (2017, dir. Lumpens)
For HyunA, whose videos has been famously provocative throughout all living memory, even this is a bit out-there: while her MVs were originally designed to show off her sexual appeal, this production uses visual puns, exaggerated sets and some of the weirdest camera angles in the genre to make (or pretend to make) a statement on the taboos of sexuality. The result is grotesque, unsettling and one of the most memorable K-pop videos ever made. Did you see the toilet scene? It seems almost like a genre first, even though it probably isn’t.
Red Velvet – Peek-A-Boo (2017, dir. Ziyong Kim)
I’m including this MV for two reasons: its colour scheme, which is barely seen in girl group MVs to this day, and its bizarre story – a gang of girls who conspire to murder pizza men? Where was the idea formulated? It seems as if the director was in the midst of shooting an actual feature film about pizza murderers and took time out so the actresses could mouth lines to a song on set. It’s almost too well-fleshed-out to be a video less than four minutes long.
LOONA/Heejin – ViViD (2016, dir. VM Project Architecture)
The very first video in the LOONA canon, ViViD mixes together a million different influences (the late Victorian era, mid-century fashion, Alice in Wonderland, Clueless, a little-known Magritte painting with lots of little rainbow bunnies) and it somehow all works perfectly. The set design, with its exaggerated shapes and toned-down colour scheme, reminds me of a 1950s cartoon. Also – the scene where Heejin is going through a door, and the rabbit next to her is also going through a tiny little door at the same time! Inspired!
Red Velvet – Russian Roulette (2016, dir. Shin Hee-won)
Finally! I would go as far as to call this the most recognisable and influential Korean MV ever – every shot, transition, outfit and set you see here has no doubt been copied by another group in the last four years since its release (see CLC for one incredibly blatant example). The fact that someone was asked to direct a video for a girl group and decided to a) base it around the idea that each member was plotting to murder another, b) make it look like this, is incredible. The muted colour palette and quick transitions help viewers to grasp the plot of Russian Roulette without distraction, and it is remarkable that it is always aesthetically consistent despite switching from one aspect ratio to another, from handheld-camera dance scenes to Wes Anderson-style tableaus, and even from the real to the cartoon world. It is also brilliant in its supposed timeframe – it is clearly and believably ‘vintage’, but not specific enough to allow viewers to relate to it or point out anachronisms. A masterpiece!
WJSN – I Wish (2017, dir. Ziyong Kim)
This one should need no introduction – just look at it and you’ll find out…
I have to say, though, that I love the way the director has synthesised the predominant ‘kawaii’ 2010s Tumblr visual scheme into a high-budget video and consistent imaginary landscape. It doesn’t feel trashy or dated, and it definitely doesn’t feel like an attempt to keep up with the younger generation. I love the scenes with the unicorn standing in pink grass. Also worth mentioning is Secret (same group, same director) – I haven’t given it its own entry because it actually is starting to look dated to me, but it’s constructed along similar lines.
LOONA/Chuu – Heart Attack (2017, dir. Digipedi)
I’m including this video not because of the ‘representation is important’ cliche, but because it’s incredibly clever. Here’s another example of a very vague 50s/60s pastiche, except this time, as per Late Phase Predebut LOONA, it’s wrapped up in a million cultural references: Magritte and Hopper paintings (both are adapted into actual scenes), Clueless, real Penguin crime novels, The Little Match Girl, and even the group’s own Christmas single from the previous year. The colour palette is consistent, unusual and puts the video into its own visual universe. Also – note that the video clearly takes place over one day, with the lighting adjusted consistently until Chuu ends up in the dead of night! The attention to detail amazes me.
EXID – DDD (2017, dir. Digipedi)
To be fair, it would be hard to make an EXID video without totally engaging your viewers in some way – they were arguably the most charismatic K-pop group ever, both on and off the stage. DDD is sexually loaded in both a latent and blatant sense. The scenes with Hani in a red-painted room are genius. The scene where her facial expression turns sour is genius. The appropriation of fetish imagery and bizarre angle is risky and genius. The nervous cuts from shot to shot are genius. It’s just genius!
Gugudan – A Girl Like Me (2017, dir. Digipedi)
This was impressive three years ago and it’s impressive now. Most of the individual scenes are without precursor or offspring in K-pop as a whole (the yellow room and photocopier, the green room with mirrors, circus psychedelia hell). The cuts and angles are perfect. Another of these productions where 20th century throwback elements are present, but not actually identifiable. It works very well here.
IU – Last Night Story (2017, dir. BTS Film)
Everything about this video is legitimately perfect to me – a cover of a late 80s song, it blends aesthetic elements from the 60s, 70s and 80s together in a way that seems lovingly researched, while aiming to create a ‘vibe’ rather than anything accurate that might challenge historical memory. The result is similar to Russian Roulette‘s, but the overpowering colour scheme and cluttered sets make it even more successful at building a lived-in universe. It is quirky but still stylish and ironic without being mocking – when will the Anglosphere ever manage to produce a historical pastiche like this? IU’s black dress and gloves are also the kind of thing an actress might wear in a film and be remembered for forever. It’s too bad that the director’s name is basically unsearchable – here’s a Vimeo link.
Red Velvet – Automatic (2015, dir. Shin Hee-won)
Here’s another ambiguously 60s/70s video from the mastermind behind Russian Roulette – except this time it’s gorgeously, L’Atalante-underwater-scene style lyrical, and cites endlessly from all manner of cinematic sources. Every shot here is beautiful and gentle, and I appreciate the whole thing more the older I get and the more films I watch. The darkened, aged colour scheme is so rare for a girl group to use and immediately distinguishes this MV from the crowd. I’m not even sure how to write about it properly for fear of getting overwhelmed, but here are some scenes of note:
About 35 seconds in: shot with Wendy looking into the camera, posed behind a bowl of lemons. Looks like an actual Rembrandt painting. Unbelievable
At around 1:10, the girls dancing form a diagonal line across the screen from background to foreground, which should be utilised more in MVs. It is especially eye-catching here as they’ve been styled to look identical.
At 1:40, Irene’s face in the rear-view mirror surrounded by the blue which breaks up the darker scenes
At 2:10, Joy turns her head while dancing and seemingly falls straight into bed – onto a tapestry, which gives enough visual interest by itself to instantly make the shot powerful
At 2:42, the camera pans around a new pink room and lands on Wendy.
The entire thing fulfils every cultural need I could possibly have.
I have a theory that the elements characteristic of Old Hollywood (restrictive management, genre and typecasting, attempts to broadcast sexuality and sexual mores despite restrictive censorship) did not merely die out along with the studio system, but slowly (metaphorically) trickled over to South Korea instead, when the resulting brilliant storytelling and stylish aesthetics would manifest themselves in the girl group music videos of the late 2010s. These videos will no doubt be shown in film classes in a century or so, when the world has finally woken up.
Remember Li Qingzhao? Of course you do, because I posted about her famous, incredibly relatable ‘Ru Meng Ling’ merely hours ago! But here is another poem, with the same name and meter, except it’s purely about her getting so drunk (900 years ago) that she accidentally rows her boat into some flowers. I think I have found a new role model.
Characters, pinyin, grammatical gloss
My prose translation:
I often remember the time I watched the sunset on the pavilion by the stream – so drunk that I had forgotten my own way home. Full of joy, I returned to the boat that evening, but accidentally entered an area entangled with lotus flowers. I struggled, struggled to row through it, frightening a flock of herons and gulls up into the air.
Another limerick (just to keep up the trend):
There once was a day by the stream
drunkened as if in a dream –
The boat homewards did float us
but then hit a lotus –
The herons and gulls, did they scream!
I actually am sorry about that one, that was terrible.
To conclude: at this point, Li Qingzhao is starting to feel like a good friend who possibly sort of has an alcohol problem.
I spent a lot of time this summer self-studying the poetry of the Tang (618-907 AD) and Song (960-1279 AD). While I fell in love with Bai Juyi, various natural riddles and a certain paltry ode by Luo Binwang (Goose! Goose! Goose! Your song to the sky I sing!), my favourite discovery of all was a short poem by the female writer Li Qingzhao, who lived from 1084 to 1155. In this poem, ‘Ru Meng Ling’ (如梦令 – lit. ‘As if in a Dream’, but one of two poems she wrote that has this title, because it’s also the name for the sort of poetic meter she uses ) she switches effortlessly from a rich literary style to a natural recounting of daily life, and back again. Li fulfils my natural need for unreliable narration – joining a large cast of characters, such as Humbert Humbert and Sir Digby Chicken Caesar, in the process – as she describes the painful morning after a comforting drink, and her subsequent worries about the crab-apple tree outside her window.
In Ru Meng Ling, alcohol is framed as a temporary escape from nature and the elements, even overpowering human sleep – but it is no stronger than the belief and meaning the poet holds for her tree. The underlying meaning of this poem is incredibly cryptic. Given that crab-apple flowers often symbolise female youth in Chinese literature, I personally believe Li is using the analogy to talk about her beauty: her drowsy but astute realisation that it has left her, while her servants continue to engage in flattery.
As if in a Dream (grammatical gloss by me)
As if in a Dream (my translation)
Last night brought rain in sprinkles and an onslaught of wind, and heavy sleep was no match for the liquor I drank. I try to ask her* as she rolls back the curtains, and she insists that the crab-apple tree is as it was before.
Doesn’t she know, doesn’t she know? It should be plump with foliage, with its red fruit wasted away.
*TN. although in the original poem the author uses 人, which is gender-neutral, every Chinese analysis I have read claims the person rolling back the curtains is Li’s maid
As if in a Dream (but it’s a limerick)(I’m not sorry and I absolutely will do it again)
Last night brought some blustery wind,
No alcohol did I rescind,
My tree – is it there?
The housemaid did glare!
What a lie – of red it’s been skinned!
I really do think this is the sort of cultural discovery that can change a person for the better – I relate so very much to this woman from 900 years ago. I like that Tang and Song poetry is so focused on pure, relatable human experience (drunkenness, appreciation of nature, existential dread) – it is possible to just ‘click’ with it to an extent that I couldn’t really do all the time while reading a lot of Roman poetry (with all its mythological names). I sort of appreciate that Chinese culture had its supposed ‘golden age’ of poetry synchronous to the West’s ‘dark age’, because it means there is another place to look to find out about the constant beauty of nature and the fact that all people are actually the same.