Warning: this review may contain spoilers.
A few months ago, SM Entertainment fans were delighted to learn that SME was planning to release a documentary-esque movie featuring never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage of their favorite stars with a focus on SM Town Live in Madison Square Garden, a milestone concert that represented the fulfillment of many of their artists’ greatest dreams. At the time, I myself expressed doubt that any sort of documentary made by and for SM Town would contain any information or footage that fans would really want to see; after all, SM Town has an express interest in not making themselves look like a slave-driving, robot-producing demon company, and so whitewashing a documentary to make their company’s artists look like happy, healthy best friends who love everything and each other wouldn’t be unsurprising. Of course, some admission of the hardships of the idol lifestyle would have to be there, but for the most part, I speculated that they would be swept under the rug by sunshine, butterflies, and rainbows.
The movie has finally been released in Asia and has been playing in select theaters since the end of April. All in all, it is about two hours long and contains plentiful eye candy — which is very good for those viewers who care less about content and more about screaming their heads off at the mere sight of precious, baby-faced pre-debut Tae-min. For those of us hoping against hope that it might include some actual substance…ehhhh not so much. But “I AM” isn’t totally devoid of any sort of meaningful footage. As does all movies, it has good points and bad points, all of which must be considered in order to objectively evaluate the movie.
Let’s start with the positive.
Contrary to my expectations, “I AM” hardly focused on the ups and downs of the idol lifestyle at all — there was almost no mention of the grueling schedules, the insane fans that try to kidnap them on stage, and the stress of being under scrutiny nearly 24/7. However, the documentary instead shared a great deal about the incredible pressure under which our most beloved stars entered the company and began their training — an intense, years-long period in which they sacrificed many of the aspects of normal adolescence (and in some cases, childhood) for the sake of pursuing their dream. Many of the stars (SNSD‘s Taeyeon and DBSK‘s Chang-min, for example) were quite frank about the identity crises and pain that they went through as they morphed from awkward teens into instant superstars. Added to this was the pressure of living up to a stage name and the identity and skin that came with it — one that, as was expressed, can often be vastly different from the true identity and personality of the individual in question.
Indeed, the documentary’s greatest success is likely that it manages to humanize SM’s artists, to take them down from their idol pedestal and turn them into relatable people with emotions who undergo hardships and cry tears just as do any of us. In addition to providing idol testimony about their training periods, “I AM” also features footage of audition tapes and pre-debut practice sessions, some of which tear at the heartstrings. Also notable is the inclusion of video taken immediately before and after SNSD, Super Junior, f(x), and SHINee debuted — most of which was intensely emotional and may or may not have made this writer shed more than a couple of tears. Centering the entire documentary around the concert in Madison Square Garden — which can be seen as the culmination of years of hard work, sweat, blood, and tears — brought the entire film full circle; indeed, performing at Madison Square Garden, on the very stage on which Michael Jackson moonwalked and Madonna did her thing, was the fulfillment of an elusive dream that probably none of them thought possible when they first entered the world of Korean entertainment. One can’t help but feel joy and accomplishment along with SM’s artists as they watch the concert’s jubilant farewell stage.
Sadly, those who probably could have benefited the most from seeing SM’s perfectly polished idols turned into relatable human beings will likely never see “I AM.” In fact, the fans who are shelling out ticket money to go see it are almost certainly the last people on earth who need to be reminded of the fact that SNSD and Super Junior worked impossibly hard to get to where they are today. But such is the case with a ticketed production.
In regards to the not-so-good aspects of the film: well, as mentioned, it is a documentary made by and for SM Entertainment — and so there’s a not-so-subtle propaganda aspect to the entire thing. The film makes a concerted effort to portray SM Entertainment founder and former CEO Lee Soo-man as a lovable father-figure who maintains an endearingly personal relationship with all of his artists. Of course, an outsider looking in cannot say for sure that this is totally false — perhaps he really is seen as something of a Papa Bear to the entire SM Town family. However, his inclusion in the film seemed to this writer to be just a little bit contrived.
Additionally, for every heartwarming scene about the joy and relief of debuting, there is about a thousand years’ worth of concert footage from SM Town Live at Madison Square Garden — and that exaggeration is only slight. Realistically, roughly 25% (maybe even more) of the entire movie was just performances from the concert — like, entire songs. This is great if you’re a Korean fan who did not attend the show in Madison Square Garden (and admittedly, this is the primary audience for movie, so it is kinda-sorta understandable), but for those of us who actually attended the concert, watching it was a bit maddening. On more than one occasion, I dearly wished for a fast-forward button. Moreover, it isn’t as though die-hard SM fans haven’t seen these songs performed before; I mean, a promotional cycle is basically nothing but the same performances being broadcast over and over ad nauseum for over a month. The enormous chunk of time spent showing concert footage could have been devoted to sharing more unseen pre-debut footage, or interviews with idols, or basically anything else besides stuff that viewers have definitely already seen dozens upon dozens of times.
Given that SM Town promotes a considerably large number of artists, the amount of screen time dedicated to each was somewhat paltry, leaving some fans complaining that there wasn’t enough time or video devoted to their favorite singer or group (i.e. not enough Tiffany, obviously) — and this makes the decision to fill space with concert footage all the more frustrating. In lieu of showing concert footage, they could have provided a great deal more coverage of the idols themselves; and really, I think that this is what most fans would have greatly preferred to see. Yes, the glitz and glamour of actually being at SM Town Live is poignant and telling in its own way — but the filmmakers could have achieved the same effect while relying on far less video footage.
Finally, there is just…not too much that is new about this movie. Nothing that fans couldn’t have guessed, nothing that fans really didn’t already know or assume, nothing that really stands out. Was the behind-the-scenes footage fun? Sure. Was it enlightening? Not particularly. As much as it contributed to the humanization of the celebrities, it didn’t really contribute too much to the overall cannon of knowledge that fans have already assembled about their favorite celebrities.
Overall, am I glad to have seen “I AM”? Yes, more or less; it was nice getting to know a little bit more about the artists that we see only in their most perfect form on television. However, the content of the movie wasn’t necessarily new, surprising, shocking, or revealing — and this was made worse by an over-reliance on concert footage as propaganda. Ultimately, I saw what I generally expected to see — but the fact that my suspicions were correct doesn’t make the disappointment any less profound.
I hope that one day an outside production company will make a true documentary about K-pop. Unlikely, since the Powers That Be will almost certainly never let anyone without a vested interest in a positive portrayal anywhere near their celebrities, but hey — a girl can dream, right?
Movie Rating: 6/10
(SM Entertainment, Daily Kpop News)