A Life Less Analog, Entertainment

‘BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky’ review: You never know

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Even if you don’t know anything about BLACKPINK or K-pop, the Netflix documentary “BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky” would still be worth watching because it’s a well-made film about four articulate female artists with compelling stories to tell.

For those of us who are BLINKS, however, watching “BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky” is a very emotional experience. Even those who were BLACKPINK fans from the very beginning of their journey will still feel awed and grateful. Our idols truly opened up to Korean American documentary director Caroline Suh and made themselves vulnerable. Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa spoke with so much insight and candor because they wanted to tell their story to the whole world. And it turns out that what they said in their song was true: you never know.

‘Every time I show up’

"BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky" is a well-made documentary about four articulate female artists with compelling stories to tell.
Image credit: Netflix

Unless you’re the BLINK equivalent of Jisoo (who is always the last to cry because she has to remain strong for the other girls), I don’t think any BLACKPINK fan can make it through “BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky” without crying.

Suh does a great job of telling BLACKPINK’s story in non-linear fashion. She begins with the day of their debut on Aug. 8, 2016, when YG Entertainment formally introduced four nervous young women to the media in South Korea. Then subverts expectations by jumping ahead to three years later, with huge crowds cheering for the four members wherever they went. The documentary then does a fine job of introducing each member individually, through footage of their daily routine as well as one-on-one interviews.

Many of us already know how hard their pre-debut days as YG Entertainment trainees were. But it really hits you in the gut when Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa calmly and candidly describe all those years they spent training in the most demanding conditions. Jennie trained for almost six years (five years and 11 months), Lisa for five years and three months, Jisoo for five years, and Rosé for four years and two months.

Korean Idol System

This is because the South Korean music industry has the Korean Idol System. Every K-pop idol has to live together in a dorm, undergo rigorous training, pass monthly evaluations, and meet the strict standards of the music company before they make their public debut. In fact, thousands of trainees never get to debut at all. And while it would be so tempting to look at the Korean Idol System through a Western lens, I believe “BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky” strikes the right balance in neither romanticizing nor demonizing it.

For all its imperfections, the Korean Idol System has succeeded in making K-pop a global phenomenon and helping young men and women succeed beyond their wildest dreams. It’s better to compare K-pop idols to world-class athletes. They started training when they were very young, and have finally made it to the Olympics. But, of course, everything comes with a price and personal sacrifice, and the BLACKPINK members are quite candid about it.

“It’s sad to say the very first group of people that trained with me, none of them are here with me right now. And as soon as Lisa came in, that’s when I thought, ‘Wow, there are people born to do this,'” Jennie said.

‘It was us four’

For her part, Lisa, who moved to South Korea at age 14 after beating 3,999 other applicants when YG Entertainment held an audition in Thailand to become the music company’s first non-Korean trainee, said meeting Jennie was a godsend.

“I didn’t speak any Korean. I only knew how to say ‘hello’, so it really was a new start. Fortunately, there was Jennie. She was the only who could speak English among the trainees. I spoke English with her, and if something were to happen, I would talk to her,” Lisa said.

One thing that every member said throughout the documentary is that they survived because the four of them met, clicked as a group, and stayed strong because and for each other. They each admitted that they thought of giving up. But eventually, YG Entertainment also saw something in the four of them and decided that this group would be the one to debut.

“A great thing with us is everyone wants the best for the group as a whole. Since we perform as a group, we try to strike a balance that works for everyone,” Jisoo said.

There was even this beautiful sequence with Rosé and Lisa recounting Rosé’s first night at the dorm in separate interviews.

“The first night in the dorm, they were all in the same room. Everybody was sleeping,” Rose said.

“She brought a guitar from Australia, and I was like, ‘Play something for us,'” Lisa said.

Rose continued: “It was us four. I don’t even know why, but it was us four. We covered songs ’til morning. All four of us, we were singing. Somebody was harmonizing. I think Jisoo was harmonizing. It was so funny. Can you believe it?”

‘See the potential in us’

Now that BLACKPINK has become a global phenomenon, it’s easy to forget that Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa never knew that they would end up being chosen.

They endured day after day of hard training, sacrificed their childhood, and fought all their fears and doubts — all without any guarantee that they would even get to debut.

“All I wanted was people to see the potential in us,” Jennie said.

That really was it. They just wanted to prove that they were worthy of being given the chance to debut. And they truly earned it. Whatever success they are enjoying now, they worked hard for it and paid the price for it.

BLACKPINK and BLINKS

That’s one thing I truly like about the Korean Idol System and K-pop idols. Unlike some Western pop stars, they don’t act as if they’re entitled to success. Or as if they’re so much better than ordinary people.

K-pop idols remain humble because they went through a long period of apprenticeship and were told time and again to their faces what their flaws are and what they need to improve. And they did, through hard and determination. We don’t have to like every K-pop idol or become their fans because of course we have different tastes, but we need to respect all of them because they went through a lot.

Like many BLINKS, what drew me first to BLACKPINK was their music. I was never a K-pop fan. With all due respect to other K-pop fans, I always associated K-pop before with the bubblegum pop of Wonder Girls and later TWICE, or the weird novelty songs of PSY. I liked 2NE1’s songs, especially since I liked Dara (Sandara Park), whom many Filipinos of course adore because of her showbiz career in the Philippines. I also liked the songs of MONSTA X because my daughter is a Monbebe, and she turned my wife and I into fans as well.

But I never truly idolized K-pop idols until BLACKPINK. I wasn’t even aware of them from the start. In 2017, however, I heard “As If It’s Your Last” and really loved the song. It was also a thrill to see its music video being played in a scene in the “Justice League” movie, and from then on I liked their music.

‘This a letter from me to you’

It was this year, however, that I truly fell in love not just with their music, but also all four members, especially my bias, Lisa. That’s because I started watching their web shows like “BLACKPINK House”, their V LIVE streams, and the countless videos of them BLINKS have uploaded on YouTube. And because they were finally going to make a comeback and launch their first full album in South Korea. It seemed like being part of a new beginning with them.

Moreover, BLACKPINK and their music have helped me get through tough times, especially in the months after my father passed away in May, just when I was still getting over my shock at my favorite Japanese pro wrestler and “Terrace House” housemate Hana Kimura committing suicide because of cyberbullying.

The four of them inspire me. The four of them make me laugh, cry, and feel alive.

BLACKPINK duality

I guess there are other factors that also made it easier for me to like BLACKPINK, apart from their inspiring story. Unlike many K-pop groups, they don’t have a gajillion members. They also have distinct personalities and styles. This makes it easier to love them as individuals while appreciating them as a group. And their music isn’t the cutesy bubblegum pop that just isn’t my cup of tea.

BLACKPINK has always been one of the most Western K-pop groups when it comes to their music. That’s something I really appreciate. I want them to make whatever kind of music they want. Instead of worrying too much about arbitrary labels and esoteric discussions on “what makes K-pop, K-pop”.

K-pop is an industry, not a genre.

And, yes, I love BLACKPINK’s duality. I love how they embrace their black and pink side. Their pretty and savage side.

And they have swag. Lots and lots of it.

‘Unless you walk in my shoеs’

As they said in their song “You Never Know”, which talks about the hardships and hate they’ve endured:

But you’ll never know unless you walk in my shoеs
You’ll never know, my tangled strings
‘Causе everybody sees what they wanna see
It’s easier to judge me than to believe

“BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky” helps us walk in their shoes. And I feel that I know them even better now, and love them even more.

So what does the future have in store for these four talented young women?

What I like is that the four of them have remained grounded. In “BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky”, they even talked candidly about the day they will grow old and leave all this behind. For now, however, they are just enjoying the moment. And they are eager to share new songs with their fans and show the whole world what they can do.

As Jennie said: “It’s just the beginning.”

“It doesn’t matter if we grow old and get replaced by a new younger generation. As long as there is still someone talking about us. Because they will still remember how we shone so bright,” Lisa said.

Thank you, BLACKPINK, for lighting up the sky.