The star of the documentary is Sera, the original leader of the K-pop outfit. The viewer heartbreakingly follows the likable singer as she enthusiastically tries to encourage her members to work hard, though her effort is met with crushing results when she is blamed for 9 Muses' lack of success and removed from the position.
Moreover, while the doc highlights the glamorous life of shooting music videos and TV appearances, a dark side emerges in seeing the girls criticized for their makeup or when certain members get minimal TV show screen time. A critical moment of the doc comes when the group finally makes their TV debut and, despite a highly technical performance most Western girl groups could only dream of pulling off, 9 Muses' debut performance of "No Playboy" is considered a disaster.
The second half of the doc comes after the "No Playboy" debut when the mood is shifted with an unspoken (or unseen?) newfound focus on excruciatingly hard work. Now, rehearsals are absolutely mandatory even when the girls, bruised and bandaged from a car crash, continue their rigorous practice. A standout tragic moment comes when a sick member is crying in a backroom, telling another, "I can't tell him that I'm sick... they are the type of people who will give a painkiller and make me dance through tears."
By the end of the documentary, it's clear 9 Muses' discipline changed the group as the girls rehearse in hallways a minute up until going on stage. But at what cost?
The brilliant final scene ends with Sera singing a ballad in a rehearsal room. She tells the camera, "This could have been a beautiful documentary if it was up till our debut," agreeing that their lives became much more rigorous after their flaws were exposed on national TV. The doc leaves the viewer with an uncomfortable emotional stirring, wondering if these performers can truly be happy in the K-pop life, as Sera admits her stress is only relieved when she sings, despite a contradictory teardrop sliding down her face signaling otherwise.
Despite a few typos on the translated captions, the documentary's message is clear: "9 Muses of Star Empire" is ultimately an examination of how humans treat each other -- whether you're an artist or a CEO -- while following dreams in the Korean entertainment biz.
Directors: Hark-Joon Lee
Executive producer: Chung-Oh Bang
Producers: Suk-Kee Lee, Style Chosum and Min-Chul Kim, Mich & Films
Running time: 82 minutes
North American Premiere: July 26 at Film Society of Lincoln Center, as part of its Sound + Vision series, at 4:30 p.m. There is another viewing on July 30 at 8:30 p.m. Get tickets here.
Luckily, there is a happy ending for 9 Muses that the documentary doesn't show. The group is back together with nine members, which is beneficial for their namesake. As well, their latest single, "Wild," peaked at No. 18 on the K-Pop Hot 100 chart in May, continuing the group's upward chart climb.