It’s been three years since Han Geng terminated his contract with SM Entertainment and left groups Super Junior and Super Junior-M to return to China. And in that time, many things have changed for him. He’s absent from the K-pop world, but enjoys an arguably greater amount of success in the Chinese popular culture scene: he’s enjoyed ventures into acting and has been seen as a true international artist over the last few years, kickstarting a world tour and obtaining both domestic and international accolades for his work.
Only a month ago were we hearing news about Han Geng’s casting in the upcoming Transformers movie, a huge franchise that will bring him even more publicity in the future. It’s easy to say that his career was reborn after he quit SM Entertainment, which makes the recently released documentary about Han Geng’s life, Youth: The Best of Times, all the more interesting, as it serves as a quick biography of his life. The piece starts from his time of studying traditional Chinese dance in his teenage years and ends with the comfortable celebrity life he enjoys now in China, approaching the age of 30.
The 45-minute special focuses most of its time on Han Geng’s struggles during and after his schooling: he and a narrator do most of the speaking, with intermittent commentary provided by relatives, mentors and friends who influenced him along the way. Han Geng struggled with poverty during these years, even to the point of suffering from malnutrition complications while doing intensive dance training. In fact, he was on the verge of signing a contract with SM Entertainment and could barely provide for himself, looking for work in his hometown and in Beijing and often coming up short.
One would expect his commentary about his signing with SM to be a positive turning point, but from Han Geng’s narration it becomes an ominous and ultimately regrettable choice. He even mentions that his father felt as if he had “sold his son.” Such harsh words allude to a contract with unfair conditions, especially for Han Geng who had no prior knowledge of Korean laws or labor contracts. Understandably, no formal terms about the contract are discussed, but even as sparing clips of his time with Super Junior are shown, he admits to exhaustion, illness, and great stress – all accompanying serious bouts of depression. The termination of his contract is interpreted as a sign of salvation: he was free to return home, to pursue all of the acting and promotional activities that SM Entertainment prevented him from doing, and to capitalize on his growing level of popularity in Asia, especially in China proper.
His choice eventually turned him into possibly the greatest success story for the pool of K-pop artists that chose to leave their agency to pursue separate endeavors. Han Geng is truly a star in his own right, and while this success is important, the documentary also reminds us of how far the industry has come and how far it still needs to improve.
Han Geng paved the way for foreign idols in K-pop, and one would hope that the struggles he experienced are not shared by some of the idols today. While contract terms will always be shrouded in mystery to fans, we hope that they are treated respectfully — receiving proper compensation, rest and fair treatment from their agencies. 2009 was a year filled with discussion about how K-pop entertainment companies treat their idols, especially with respect to SM Entertainment, which dealt with contract disputes with Hangeng of Super Junior and Super Junior-M along with Junsu, Jaejoong, and Yoochun of DBSK.
This is a conversation that takes us out of the fun of K-pop and into the reality of the business aspect of the industry, but it is occasionally worth a thought. The documentary doesn’t go as deeply as most fans wanting information and answers may like, but compared to the very mild-mannered film I Am released by SM Entertainment last year, Han Geng’s piece in Youth: The Best of Times sends a stronger message about the potential dark sides of the industry and how those hardships are capable of breaking a person down. Super Junior fans and Han Geng fans alike will flock to this documentary, but for anyone interested in looking past the glitz of the industry and seeing an idol from a much more personal perspective, this is a good 45-minute experience, earning a solid 4.3/5.
(Sohu, SM Entertainment, YouTube, Yue Hua Entertainment)