K-pop is full of fantastical concepts, so it is no surprise that many K-pop MVs employ visual effects (VFX) to bring their outlandish visions to life. Some MV’s use just a touch of VFX to add whimsical details to a live-action scene, like Exo’s “Ko Ko Bop”. Others build entire universes with digital effects, as in the playful videogame world of Cherry Bullet’s “Q&A”.

Iz One’s “Secret Story of the Swan” is the latest release to enlist VFX in the hopes of bringing a wondrous fantasy to life. Unfortunately, the huge quantity and poor quality of the visual effects in “Secret Story of the Swan” overwhelm the MV’s many positive aspects. In this case, digital effects don’t create magic, but rather disappointment.

Through their debut “La Vie en Rose” and follow-up hit “Violeta”, Iz One established a unique identity as a girly but elegant group. In their long-awaited comeback “Fiesta”, they injected a bit of chaos into that elegance, with vibrantly satisfying results. “Secret Story of the Swan” clearly intends to further the bolder image created in “Fiesta”. It is a cross between the symbolism and performance-focused MV types, intercutting dance scenes with aesthetic shots of the members in settings which evoke specific moods and themes.

The symbolic choices of “Secret Story of the Swan” are smart, elevating what is lyrically an unremarkable love song. The entire MV is in a fairy tale aesthetic, which fits with the way the lyrics frame Iz One’s love story:

With your glance toward me, I, I
I get into you more and more
It starts from at the tip of your fingers, the fairy tale

One of the MV’s recurring motifs is clocks, connecting to Iz One’s wish that “this moment right now will stay forever”. Another repeated visual is doors and portals. This ties into the lyrics’ description of how love is opening doors for Iz One, leading them into new worlds metaphorically in the lyrics, and literally in the MV.

Even the car that several members drive through the sky — which initially seems incongruent with the rest of the imagery — makes some sense in the context of the lyrics alluding to the fact that love is sending Iz One on a journey. The careful and consistent connections between the MV’s symbolic features and the lyrical content of “Secret Story of the Swan” are impressive, and gratifying when unpacked.

The most obvious opportunity for symbolism in “Secret Story of the Swan” comes from the titular animal. While there is a notable visual illusion to swans in the MV, when Wonyoung, Minju, and Yuri wear delicate white outfits and ride in boats surrounded by feathers, the most prominent connection comes in the choreography. The central dance move is a flapping-like motion executed with both arms. There is something undeniably awkward about the movement, as well as some of the other bird-inspired pieces of choreography.

Still, the dance is unique and memorable. Best of all, the MV’s performance sequences are executed to perfection by the members. This is particularly true of the climactic dance break, led by the always spectacular Chaeyeon.

Alas, these interesting elements and impressive qualities are undermined by the poor VFX which dominates “Secret Story of the Swan”. It seems possible that Iz One’s management may have been unsatisfied with the MV as, shortly before its scheduled release, it was delayed for over twelve hours. Unfortunately, the extra production period does not seem to have been enough to resolve the significant VFX issues.

The VFX is just plain bad. The members pop out from the backgrounds in a very “I am using the green screen feature in my video chatting app” kind of way. It is quite shocking that a professional digital effects service turned in results that have such an amateur feel. It is even more surprising that Iz One’s companies, Off the Record Entertainment and Swing Entertainment, ultimately allowed this unpolished product to be released.

Even with the dismal VFX, the overall quality of “Secret Story of the Swan” might not have been so compromised if the digital effects weren’t so omnipresent. It is hard to find a single shot in the MV that doesn’t include VFX, often in prominent ways. Due to this, there are many moments when the conceptually sound ideas of “Secret Story of the Swan” are tarnished by the poor application of special effects. For example, a series of sequences in which Minju, Wonyoung, Chaeyeon, and Nako are surrounded by hanging pocket watches should be whimsically engaging, but the poor VFX makes it come off as tacky.

There are a few memorable visuals which survive the digital effects’ onslaught, like Eunbi’s scene reclining on a colorful clock in regal attire. However, it is frustrating to see so many of the promising ideas of “Secret Story of the Swan” damaged by the inadequacy of the VFX.

That is not to say that there isn’t a place for kitsch VFX in K-pop. Look no further than Oh My Girl’s “Nonstop”, a delightfully unpolished digital adventure. However, the reason the objectively poor VFX works in “Nonstop” is because the mood of that song is playful, and not a little absurd. When the purpose of an MV is to be fun, the special effects don’t have to be perfect, and may actually be more enjoyable if they are charmingly clunky.

In contrast, “Secret Story of the Swan” is supposed to convey a feeling of romance and wonder. When pursuing a more serious mood while using VFX, it is crucial that the effects are high quality. That way, they become almost invisible, allowing viewers to get blissfully lost in the fantastical universe being created. It is in this way that “Secret Story of the Swan” fails, with its faulty VFX constantly highlighting itself, instead of the fairy tale Iz One is trying to tell.

“Secret Story of the Swan” is a disappointing outing from Iz One, made even more unsatisfactory because of its clear potential. The MV has many compelling elements and memorable visuals, but is ultimately sabotaged by its overabundance of low quality VFX. Hopefully next time around, Iz One can return with a MV that is worthy of their considerable talents.  

(Billboard, YouTube. Lyrics via YouTube. Images via Off the Record Entertainment, Stone Music Entertainment, Swing Entertainment)