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.