I was, I AM, I will be
So this whole I AM documentary hullabaloo has been going on for a pretty long time now, yeah?
I actually watched I AM in a theater (yes, one with seats and a big screen and everything!) about a month and a half ago when I was in Taiwan, and completely by accident — I was out shopping with my mom and we happened to pass by a movie theater where I AM was playing. Before this, I knew that the bootleg subbed version had been floating around the internet but hadn’t gotten around to watching it. Nevertheless, being the incredibly acute person that I am, I didn’t realize that the traditional Chinese subtitles on the bootleg video had anything to do with a possible theater showing in Taiwan. One hundred points for Gryffindor!
So in short — SM, you’re welcome for the $400NT that went into my movie ticket, especially since I could have very well watched it for free, like 90% of the people who will ever watch your movie.
In long — well, the main reason why I’m posting about this now is in light of the LA premiere yesterday, which I doubt many sensible people will spend money to see as a) the bootleg version has been around for about two months now, and let’s not pretend that we don’t feed our K-pop addiction through questionably legal means anyway, and b) it’s really not worth seeing — that is, unless you’re one to habitually overanalyze your pop and you want to leave the movie theater feeling really, really sad. Like me.
On a technical level, I AM is pretty much the epitome of SM’s artistic work — in that it is as sharply produced, well-organized, and systematic as it is boring and unimaginative. The structure of the movie was completely predictable — interview segment here, predebut clip there, snippet from SMTown concert over there — in a way that was suspiciously similar to any SM-produced music video since 2008. Overall, I AM was a very flat movie with very few merits apart from the fact that there was an SM idol’s face on screen at all times — which, if you’re a member of I AM‘s supposed target audience (fans who are interested in the faces of SM idols), is what you’re probably paying to see anyway.
Considering the global buzz surrounding recent popumentaries like Michael Jackson’s This Is It, Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never, and Katy Perry’s Part Of Me, it seems that I AM was more or less SM’s effort to keep up with a trend and to check another item off their List Of Things That Big Entertainment Companies Must Do. It’s true that I AM is the first feature-length popumentary to hit the K-pop scene, but even as the “pioneer of K-pop popumentaries” (lol) SM has set an unchallenging standard to meet. Honestly, the only impressive thing about I AM is SM’s fierce efforts in advertising the film (Super Junior wearing promotional t-shirts on SNL? Give me a break), but then again, obnoxious self-promotion has always been one of SM’s favorite talents.
The general complaint surrounding I AM is that it wasn’t “revealing” enough to be much of a documentary. SM has arguably become the hate-to-love and love-to-hate K-pop company of the decade and they probably have enough secrets to fill Gretchen Wieners’ hair, so naturally, our curiosities expect a feature-length documentary about SM to be a giant, 150-minute long exposé on all their exploits. But let’s be real here; a self-produced documentary billed as a feel-good idol film is not going to touch anything remotely scandalous with a forty-five foot pole. If you’re looking for scandal, you’re probably better off staring at Yunjae fancams for two and a half hours.
The vast majority of the movie discussed the hardships that came with training under SM, but honestly, there’s not really much to be said about trainee life that hasn’t already been said over the course of a decade filled with SM artists going on variety shows and having “heart-to-heart” talks about the hardships of being an idol. It’s safe to say that a documentary like I AM isn’t going to reveal any deep, dark secrets outright. But that isn’t to say that there aren’t any merits in watching an SM-produced documentary about SM. If anything, it’s interesting to watch the little things that slip through.
Perhaps the most profound moment of the movie was when Kangta talked about “descending gracefully” and making room for hoobae artists to take the spotlight. He explained that there will come a time for every artist to descend from their peak in popularity, and that while they are making this descent downwards, they will also watch hoobae artists rise up and take their place at the top. As a sunbae artist, one can either be bitter about this act of “replacement,” or one can descend gracefully and instead focus on the task of being a good sunbae.
It’s both interesting and a bit jarring to see Kangta constantly being juxtaposed against the other active SM artists at SM events. It’s as if the mere presence of Kangta serves as a looming reminder of the Horrors of Post-Idoldom Life — and it’s not to say that Kangta’s life right now is bad, but it sure ain’t the same as being an idol.
Nearly all of K-pop is guilty of propagating the idealistic message that idols last forever, but SM seems to have a special propensity towards this idealism. The whole facade of SM being a “family” has been pierced with lawsuits and scandals on several occasions, but it hasn’t kept SM from sheltering this idea of “SMTown” from any notion of reality. If an idol goes to the army, we expect him to be back on stage two years later. If an idol group disbands, we expect the individual members to continue promoting on their own. If a hoobae group starts picking up popularity, we expect them to look up to their sunbaes, not to take over their spots at the top. We don’t ever expect an idol to “retire” unless he or she has become physically incapable of upholding an idol career. There is no peak, no tipping point, no descent downwards, graceful or otherwise.
The expiration date on an idol career is a cruel reality, a reminder that the dream does not last forever. But despite their years of experience in the entertainment industry, this is the one thing that SM has never really addressed outright. That’s what makes Kangta’s statement all the more jarring. Even though the majority of I AM is filled with the bright-eyed, idealistic dreams of SM’s current artists, Kangta throws this little punch of reality that is capable of changing your perspective of the entire movie.
For me, this was the most important part of I AM, this admission of truth where Kangta, as a sunbae, ultimately presents his hoobaes with a choice: when the time comes, will your descent be bitter, or will it be graceful? SM hosts some of the longest running idol groups currently active in the industry, and while that ought to be worn as a badge of pride, it also forces them to face a reality that doesn’t fall within the idealism of K-pop.