Documentarian Hark Joon Lee is no stranger to taking risks in pursuit of a story he thinks is worth telling.
The director of “Nine Muses of Star Empire,” which makes its Canadian premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Monday, claims he illegally crossed international borders a dozen times making his first documentary about North Korean defectors.
For “Nine Muses of Star Empire,” a film that caused a stir for its candid look at the band, the director became the group’s manager during the filming process.
In an exclusive interview, Hark Joon Lee opened up about his childhood love of K-pop, why he chose Nine Muses for his film and how he got their record label to go along with it.
KpopStarz : Star Empire allowed you the access to Nine Muses for your documentary only if you agreed to also act as the band’s manager.
Weren’t the record label executives worried about giving you complete control over the band? HJL: I think that it was a clever move on the agency’s part to allow someone to act as a manager and film the trainees simultaneously.
As I worked as their manager, I became very affectionate for the Nine Muses and the trainees.
As a third person observing, there may be many aspects that can be criticized, but once I stepped into the situation, I could better understand the things that people may consider to be controversial.
Aside from the president of the agency, the other managers all opposed the filming of the documentary.
But after time passed, they acknowledge that the president’s decision had merit.
The film seems to have raised more awareness about the Nine Muses amongst K-pop fans, and many fans showed deep support.
KpopStarz: How do you feel the film has been received? Many critics have touched on it being controversial.
HJL: Despite what I was worried of, many who are interested in K-pop responded that they liked the Nine Muses after watching the film.
And also that they were enlightened of the tears behind the flamboyant and showy stage of K-pop stars.
Some critics said that it was regrettable that there weren’t more scenes that were more bitter, and others said that it showed too much of the dark side of K-pop.
But as the director, I think I gave it my best during the time I had to film the Nine Muses’ lives.
I believe that it is the role of the documentary to convey what is, truthfully.
KpopStarz: How did the members of Nine Muses react to your film? HJL: I am still in contact with some of the members of the Nine Muses.
Some of them said that they were reminiscent of their hard times every time they watch the film.
Others expressed regret that the documentary could not include more beautiful parts of their journey.
KpopStarz: What made you choose Nine Muses as the subject of your documentary? HJL: When I decided K-pop to be my subject, I told myself that there are two criteria that a group must meet in order to be the subject of the film.
The first is that it must be a group that will show viewers exactly who they are, as they are.
The second is its star potential.
And Nine Muses had both.
Of course, before contacting Star Empire, I knocked on the doors of major entertainment companies like S.M.
but all refused to reveal the inner side.
KpopStarz: Before “Nine Muses of Star Empire,” you were best known for reporting on North Korean refugees.
What was it that made you decide to focus on the South Korean pop music scene? HJL: The K-pop documentary film marks my first experience directing a film, and my second time as a documentary director.
Previously I clung onto the topic of North Korean defectors.
I spent close to five years doing so, and during this time I crossed borders illegally 12 times and two of those times were by boat.
So this time around I wanted to deal with a brighter subject, and chose to focus on K-pop.
From when I was little, I often pondered about stars and their lives when they stepped off the stage.
KpopStarz: Are you still a K-pop fan? HJL: I am of course a proud fan, and my favorite group is Nine Muses.
I await the day that they hit the top of the K-pop chart.
I enjoyed listening to American and British pop and rock music when I was young, but lately I have become a fan of Korean indie bands.
KpopStarz: If your teenage daughter wanted to be in a K-pop group would you allow her to join? HJL: My first child will be born in January of next year.
I do hope it is a daughter.
But I do not wish that my daughter will be a part of a K-pop group.
The reason is that it is extremely demanding and difficult to become a K-pop star and I also do not think it would be so desirable to get so much attention and publicity.
KpopStarz: Do you believe that the demands placed on South Korean pop stars are more rigorous than those put on Western pop stars? If so, why? HJL: [The way The Nine Muses are portrayed in ‘Nine Muses of Star Empire], in my opinion, reflects all pop stars in the world.
I suspect that many would share similar experiences of the loneliness and stress offstage.
I think that the characteristics of the entertainment industry must be similar wherever you go.
KpopStarz: What do you want viewers to get from your film? HJL: Many aspire for the fancy and luxurious life, but often we forget about the tears and efforts that came behind it.
I hope that viewers remember that although K-pop stars demonstrate brilliance onstage, the process that leads up to that point its filled with an immense amount of effort as well as many moments of despair.
I’m sure that applies not only to the music industry, but also to the lives of everyone.
Also, we cheer and adore the famous and successful K-pop groups but there are numbers of groups that have not achieved fame and are left in the shadow.
Sometimes we only remember the best and the brightest.
But I hope that people will cheer on those who, despite giving it their all, have not been able to climb up to those positions.
KpopStarz: What is next for you? Do you plan to continue to cover the entertainment world? HJL: After the completion of a documentary, I will try to write a book on [the subject].
I have already written about my experience with North Korean refugees, and it is scheduled to be published in English in the United States next year.
I am also trying to write about what I experienced about the world of K-pop.
It is my hope that I can communicate with many K-pop fans through it.
As for documentaries, I am thinking of two topics.
The first is about a children’s choir that is composed entirely of North Korean orphans.
The title will be “Hulla Baloo Choir.” And the second is a story of a many who is a broker and a human rights activist for North Koreans.
I am tentatively calling it “The Broker.” KpopStarz: What did the experience of making “Nine Muses of Star Empire” teach you? HJL: K-pop fans are adamantly loyal.
The first time this film was [shown publically] was at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.
Afterwards I attended the after party, and a DJ from Seoul had come along. Many fans from all over the Netherlands had come to the screening, and I remember all the people dancing when the DJ put on K-pop songs.
I wish to thank them.
Click here for more information about this week’s screening of “Nine Muses of Star Empire” at the Vancouver International Film Festival