Photo: ‘Blackpink Light Up the Sky’/Netflix
Ask the average person what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you say “K-pop”, and there’s a very good chance that first thing is three letters: BTS. The second is most assuredly Blackpink.
From documentary filmmaker Caroline Suh (previously of the Netflix docuseries Salt Fat Acid Heat), we now have ‘Blackpink Light Up the Sky’, a documentary which traces the group’s beginnings as well as their meteoric rise over the course of four years, from their initial debut in 2016 to their history-making performance at Coachella in 2019 as the first female K-pop group to perform. But Suh does more than just that: in peeking behind the curtain, she finds the group’s humanity and gives viewers a better sense of each member as individuals.
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I feel a quick disclaimer is in order: I’m not exactly a K-pop fan, let alone consider myself a “Blink” (shorthand for Blackpink fans). I’m aware of the genre’s rapid meteoric success in both the East and the West, as well as how passionate fans in general can be on social media. I have nothing against it; it’s just not my genre. So I came into this as someone who’s quite neutral about the whole thing.
And yet, by the time the credits rolled I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for the group. So, mission accomplished.
Blackpink In Your Area
In fairness, Suh sticks to the traditional music documentary template. Interspersed between interviews with the group—consisting of members Jennie, Jisoo, Lisa, and Rosé—we have the prerequisite archival footage of the girls as kids, as well as footage of their auditions and extensive training. We see them in the studio recording with their producer/songwriter/mentor Teddy Park. And we’re also treated to footage of throngs of adoring fans extolling their love of the group and cheering them on in countless packed concerts. It’s very straightforward stuff. Suh does implement a fun recurring bit as we see the members together in an empty movie theater analyzing their old footage.
But it’s in the interviews and footage of the girls in their downtime where the film shows their surprising vulnerability and relatability.
We see Jennie—Blackpink’s main rapper—during a Pilates session casually commenting on her instructor being one of the few friends she has. While at a make-up session, Jisoo—the oldest member of the group, and the only one who doesn’t speak fluent English—admits to being put down by her relatives, who called her ugly as a child. We see Lisa—the main dancer in Blackpink—excitedly browse a store and gushes over a sweater and a box of cereal. And while at a solo recording session, Rosé—the group’s main singer and most musically gifted—is prone to second-guessing herself; as Teddy mentions, Rosé has stories in mind for her songs that are personal to her and is shy about sharing them. That’s one thing she has in common with Jennie, who admits early on to being reluctant to talk about herself during the interviews.
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Beyond just the physical toll their careers take on them, equally illuminating are the moments when we see them open up emotionally. One heartbreaking example has Lisa recalling a visit to her native Thailand and feeling unworthy despite being hailed as a success story, and unsure if she’s good enough to be their role model. Likewise, Rosé laments how despite her love of being on stage she feels she doesn’t have a personal life: “What I’m basically living for is tomorrow’s show”. Jisoo even points out how, having started her training at a later age, she has more memories of a normal life, which Jennie feels is what she herself should’ve done. It’s in these admissions of loneliness, self-doubt, and emptiness that the documentary fares very strongly.
We’re All in This Together Now
The film also touches on the difficulties of rising up in the K-pop industry. In South Korea, the process of grooming talent to be the next big star is something of an industry in and of itself through companies like YG, the entertainment company behind Blackpink as well as Psy (remember “Gangnam Style”?). We learn that trainees can start out as young as eleven years old and that their living experiences are akin to a boot camp/boarding school, with long hours put into training in singing and dancing and rules to follow. And not everyone’s lucky: some make their debut in just months. Others take years (the members of Blackpink averaged about 6-7 years of training) or not at all. The argument is made in that the long training days at young ages allows them to better absorb the lessons they’ve learned, which can carry over in later years.
This knowledge is somewhat bittersweet in that despite instilling the girls with a strong work ethic, discipline, and determination, one wonders what they’ve sacrificed as mentioned earlier.
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And yet Blackpink thrives. We see how well they get along as they goof off and support each other in their downtime. Teddy suggests their differing cultural backgrounds (Jennie and Rosé lived and grew up in Australia and New Zealand respectively while Lisa is from Thailand, with Jisoo as the only native South Korean) allows them to complement each other. Jennie and Jisoo each feel that unlike most other groups where members try to jockey for prominence (“I want to sing more”, “I want to be in the middle”), each member of Blackpink has figured out their roles—what each brings to the table—and settles into them; the result is better synergy. There are also brief segments where the girls pair off; Lisa and Rosé bond over their shared status as foreigners and how they went from mild rivalry to supporting each during their time in the trenches, while Jennie talks of how she refers to Jisoo as her “unnie”, or older sister, who the others turn to for advice. Such is their friendship, which the film captures.
‘Blackpink Light Up the Sky’: “You Can Never Tell How Long This Will Last”
Another fascinating note the film touches on is the group’s self-awareness; specifically the knowledge that their obsolescence is almost inevitable.
There’s something of an unspoken rule among K-pop girl groups—the “seven-year curse”, which is basically the number of years before idol groups disband or lose a member. The idea is that a group’s popularity wanes once the members hit a certain age. At the same time, the seventh year is also when most talents’ contracts expire and the artists can choose whether to renew or leave, which is usually the impetus for many girl groups’ separation. And it’s been four years since Blackpink made their debut to the Korean public.
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Despite their success, we see the group fret over the pressure to maintain their momentum as their success grows. There’s a telling moment that Suh captures as we see the girls pack for their world tour; Jisoo points out how equally stressed she is about both working and not working; and Rosé admits that the random nature of their careers, and by extension fame in general, doesn’t allow for any sense of regularity. There’s the sense among them that the group’s end is not a matter of if, but when (they even already joke about their comeback tour). It’s a surprisingly fatalistic view for a group whose first full LP just recently debuted at No.2 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart.
And yet that kind of honesty is refreshing. If anything, one ends rooting a bit for them. Even when they first arrive at Coachella, on top of the pressure of representing their country, they continue to worry over how American fans, and music fans in general, will react to their music. They don’t take their success for granted, which makes their joy infectious as they see the massive crowds at their performance; Jisoo points out the crowd’s diversity is a representation of Blackpink itself. By this point, the group’s gratitude feels genuine.
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Early in the film, Jennie tells Suh how they’re “always halfway there. We have the songs there. We just need to record them”. That speaks to a pang of hunger in her; the belief that the group still has more to show. On the other hand, Lisa accepts that even if they do get replaced by a younger generation, they can still take pride in the fact that they’ve left their mark and will be remembered. That’s quite a mature outlook.
Despite being a marketing tool for their album, Blackpink: Light Up the Sky also works as a look into the system that shaped the four members into who they are today, as well as a testament to how they related to each other, and the strong bond they share. And at a lean 79 minutes, including credits, it moves at a fast pace and is never dull. If you’re a Blackpink fan, you’re already going to love this. And if you’re a casual like me, give it a chance: you might be surprised.
By Mario Yuwono
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