Roar writer Scarlett Yu on Blackpink’s recent Netflix documentary Light Up the Sky.
The worldwide renowned South Korean girl group Blackpink took centre stage in their new documentary Light Up the Sky, directed by Caroline Suh, which follows the story of their skyrocketing rise to global fame. The film is narrated retrospectively from their arduous trainee years at YG Entertainment, one of the biggest music and entertainment companies in South Korea, to their much anticipated debut, and ultimately their explosive success as influential K-pop artists around the world. Through a combined display of footage, individual interviews, and snapshots of their music career, Suh not only records the most exhilarating and sentimental moments of Blackpink’s journey throughout the years, but more significantly, she pushes the audience to question the suspicious background and intricate operations of the K-pop industry.
For those who aren’t familiar with K-pop, it is a music trend that prevailed wildly among South Korea and peripheral Asian countries in the early 2000s. Well-known for its catchy music, dance performances and the promotion of glamorous boy and girl groups, K-pop has made a powerful impact on many people, particularly teenagers and young adults, with some even aspiring to become K-pop idols. However, within the chains and mechanisms of the industry, its strict rules and principles shouldn’t be overlooked.
As mentioned in Blackpink’s documentary, the training experiences have been long and thorny. Apart from going through a continuous series of rigid vocal lessons and intense dance practices, the trainees must follow rigorous guidelines that are strongly established and enforced. They have to comply with every rule and principle that companies demand in order to meet the high-level criteria as outstanding idols. This includes a disciplined maintenance of their physical appearance and, above all, the cultivation of a perfectly idolised image: beauty, confidence, and admirable star traits. Essentially, throughout the trainee experience, perfection and professionalism must be achieved. The unspeakable, dark side of the K-pop industry hides an unimaginable series of training processes that require innumerable efforts and hard work, which create the shining façade of the idols.
Becoming an idol isn’t easy, most undoubtedly when it’s at one of the most acknowledged entertainment companies in the nation. Through the insight of Blackpink’s story, we see and hear each of the members recounting their vivid memories of their debut as well as how their ‘idol dream’ started, tracing it all the way back to their individual childhoods. Blackpink consists of four members – Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa – who trained for an average number of five years before debuting in 2016. One of the primary reasons for their prevailing global success lies in the group’s diverse backgrounds. While Jisoo and Jennie originate from South Korea, the latter moved to New Zealand at a young age of 8. Rosé is an Australian, whose parents emigrated overseas when she was born. Lisa, the youngest member, comes from Thailand. When all four of them are put together as a K-pop group, it creates a multicultural atmosphere where their music is able to naturally bond with international fans. The rich diversity in their individual backgrounds, as well as the unique charm each member holds and emits, are what makes Blackpink special.
Over the years, the group has continuously released several viral K-pop songs which were hits on many streaming sites and social media, from the debut single ‘Whistle’ – which granted them first place on local music shows within 20 days of their debut for its addicting melody and upbeat swings – to the major release of billion-viewed music video, ‘DDU-DU DDU-DU,’ on Youtube. They have received streaming nominations and awards at paramount music awards, such as the Golden Disc Artist Award in 2019. Their popularity is incredibly unprecedented, and their brilliant presence has become the driving force in creating a music legacy beyond one’s imagination.
Extending to the scopes of international markets, they were the first Korean female girl group to perform at Coachella, one of the biggest music festivals in the world. With their charismatic performances and girl dashing image brought to the global stage, K-pop is turning into a worldwide music sensation that’s equipped with the power to raise awareness and social recognition of Asian culture across multiple countries and races. In addition, the kind of power and aura that Blackpink unleash with such potency is notably a sign of feminine empowerment and strength. This has most likely led to the attraction of millions of young women, who not only appreciated the novelty in K-pop but were significantly inspired to stand upright and strong in a society that’s still affected by problematic gender relations. To millions of global fans, Blackpink aren’t merely K-pop idols they adore and respect, but a novel representation of the ideal figure of women in contemporary society.
Leading up to the emphasis on individual style and powerful image, the documentary highlights the personal moments of the girls’ bustling life as popular K-pop stars, which show their individual characters. In a way that’s different from the usual footage and videos displaying their glamorous idol lives, Suh seeks to offer the audiences a meticulous portrayal of the girls’ identity as normal people pursuing goals and living their best lives. It’s a common phenomenon, especially in the K-pop culture, that idols are automatically depicted as unrealistically perfect figures that should only appear in the imaginary visions of their fans. As a result, they are only allowed to behave in radically specific ways that align with public interest. What Suh implies in the documentary is the acknowledgement that Blackpink exist as both highly regarded K-pop artists and as ordinary people – just like us. Strikingly, she raises a provoking question of whether the vast public truly understands Blackpink when they witness, closely and tensely, the whole journey of the girl group’s incredible leap to massively popular artists. Is their understanding of Blackpink built solely upon their preconceived impressions and rigid stereotypes?
There are several intimate scenes of the members, shot as one-on-on interviews, where they wholeheartedly express their inner sides. A plethora of emotions bursts out in the middle of the conversation, as the girls talk about their concerns during trainee days with sadness, frustration, loneliness, and self-doubt. During the scenes of their self-reflection, Jennie says something unexpectedly shocking. When she talks about herself during a session with her Pilates teacher, she explicitly refers to the teacher as “one of the few ‘friends’ I have.” In such a casual and natural tone, Jennie reveals something about herself that millions of her fans would not have anticipated. From this particular footage, it’s perceptible to gain a realisation of how much the public’s controlling gaze might have overwhelmed and subsequently ignored the authentic truth of Blackpink’s identity.
Light Up the Sky presents itself as an oblique vision of Blackpink’s personal stories, jumping through different time periods of their exciting, dream-pursuing journey. With the determination to grasp and explore the inner world of their increasingly idolised life, Suh’s primary aim is to incorporate creative techniques into the documentary’s production, in order to shift the audience’s perceptions of the popular K-pop girl group and possibly evoke a sense of empathetic resonance. As Blackpink continues their ever-expanding aspirations to become the world’s K-pop girl group and generate more influential performances, their supportive Blinks (Blackpink’s fandom) shall also remember them as four normal girls who dream and reach for the stars at night.
The documentary is available on Netflix, if you would like to see Blackpink from a different perspective.