Taemin‘s MVs usually have little room for complaints; the tendency is for them to have well-executed choreography, gorgeous scenery or dark grunge studios, and sleek vocals. It is a formula that has led the artist to have a solid solo discography and videography under his belt for six years running. From his debut with 2014’s “Danger” up to 2019’s “Want“, Taemin has managed to associate a niche sound and imagery to himself that is difficult to replicate.

Never Gonna Dance Again: Act 1‘s “Criminal” just pushes that bar even higher. The choreography goes a step further, as does the vocal arrangement, along with the styling, set design, and post-production of the video itself. Think of “Criminal” as Taemin Amplified™.

The song builds off the synthwave genre, starting with repetitive synth sounds and vocal notes before gradually introducing thumping beats of bass and layering more space-synth sounds over it. The excitement in the instrumental is not brought about by any crazy tempo switches or unexpected vocal bursts. Rather, the consistent nature of the textured synths magnetises the audience and pulls the vocal harmony along.

Basically, the song is good. But what makes it great is the MV. After having heard Act 1 on repeat a few times, I know that “Criminal” would have been one of my top three tracks even without an MV. (“Strangers” and “Waiting For” reign above). What makes it deserving of being the title track, though, is its accompanying MV.

One of the ways that “Criminal”‘s MV sells the song is through the choreography and the props used. Taemin dances the first minute of the choreography with his hands tied up, singing, “I don’t hate how your words make my feet entangled and dance”. Generally, dance MVs are only put out when an artist already has a strong choreography sequence — it is additional props that help to set an MV apart. The congruency between the lyrics and the little touches in choreography is something that is new in Taemin’s MVs thus far, and it is what makes “Criminal” slightly more thrilling.

Few viewers watch dance-based MVs expecting any sort of plot. “Criminal”, though, shows how heavy emphasis on motifs can make up for a lack of plot, and how it can amp up a performance MV just enough to make it alluring.

The thing with motifs is that they are tricky to execute: show too little of it and it just leaves viewers confused, show too much of it and it runs the risk of being redundant. In “Criminal”, symbols and motifs are shown just enough to elevate the level of mysteriousness that the song has by itself, highlighting the audio.

As Taemin dramatically opens the MV dancing on a floor of lava, surrounded with dancers donned in red who seem to personify fire, the grandiose sculpture dominating the background captures your attention. The artwork is almost akin to Frederick Hart‘s “Ex Nihilo” that was featured in Devil’s Advocate, setting a certain tone to the entire MV that is to come. “Ex Nihilo” was meant to represent the metamorphosis of energy, in which figures “emerge from the nothingness of chaos” and undergo never-ending transformation — becoming, becoming, but never having become.

The sculpture in “Criminal” seems to be just about the opposite, in which the subject — Taemin — is devolving to nothingness, crumbling and (willingly) getting destroyed by the devil himself.

So elegant, a criminal who destroys me.
Not okay, I try and shake my head.
Ooh but I’m only getting dragged in more deeply.
I don’t want to get away, destroy me completely.

This metamorphosis is later confirmed when Taemin becomes part of the sculpture, transforming the sculpture into what seems strikingly similar to the widely-known cross sculpture. Is Taemin paying for the sins of the criminal that has trapped him? Has the toxicity of the relationship disintegrated him into nothingness?

One can only assume, as Taemin partially morphs into a skeleton in the process of picking out a Tarot card to predict his future. As he selects the hourglass —- representing the passage of time and the finiteness of life — one is inclined to relate this to eventual end of his gullibility or purity: “The moment I fall for you, (it’s) the end of my innocence”.

Sure, it is all a little dramatic. Just a tad theatrical and pretentious. That is what brings excitement to the MV, however, and makes one come back to the MV instead of dismissing it as just another dance MV. “Criminal” gives ample space for discussion and interpretation, but does not set any one idea up concretely — essentially creating a stage for the upcoming Act 2.

It is not just the art direction, but also the production and post-production process, that has made “Criminal” almost flamboyant. For example, the camera movement makes the post-bridge chorus stand out even more. Of course, the vocal production heightens as Taemin’s vocals are layered to give more texture and depth to the track. At the same time, the camera movement is purposely made to have a handheld shake to it. The shake accentuates the higher notes that Taemin ad-libs with, bringing a slightly chaotic quality to the MV and ending the video on a bold rush of energy.

It makes me wonder if they could have done more. Could Taemin’s team have gotten even more climatic with the production, and provided a more sensational experience with added effects? Perhaps making the effect of fire embers even more pronounced by introducing flames, or having more thematic consistency between the different sets would have helped. Or perhaps it would have been too much and drowned out the song.

That being said, one has to give it to the editing team for the colour-grading. By bringing down the highlights and giving the video a faded effect, the smoky and mysterious visual of the video was made more prominent. Lowering the intensity of the blacks and bringing colours like red and orange into focus created an enigmatic feel to the video, emphasising the danger of the cryptic criminal without ever explicitly showing it.

In all the MVs Taemin has released so far, “Criminal” is probably one of the most ambitious, lofty, and showy videos he’s had. It works, though. The exaggeration through motifs, props, camerawork and editing emphasise the deviousness of the supposed criminal without ever laying it on too thick. It does make me curious as to whether Taemin will go even further for Act 2. I really hope he does.

(YouTube, Cutter & Cutter Fine Arts Gallery. Images via SM Entertainment.)