It’s hard to beat the excitement of a K-pop summer, but fall releases are often packed with fun and surprises too. As always, the scene slows down a little in September for Chuseok, but the month also brought anticipated comebacks from Shinee‘s Key and BtoB (both back after enlistment hiatuses), Lee Hi with her first album under AOMG, and younger artists like Ateez and Itzy. October similarly ushered in releases from a mix of senior artists and rookies, with some highlights including Seventeen‘s mini album Attacca and CL‘s full length album Alpha.

MVs from the past two months have been filled with lush colours and a variety of visual styles, from 1980s retro aesthetics to Western-inspired sets and elements of East Asian folklore. For this edition of Unsung Artists, we review a mix of playful and symbolic MVs that are unabashedly theatrical in both image and sound.


BtoB are well-received beyond the K-pop fandom for their sentimental ballads, but I’ve always believed that they are in their best element when showcasing a more jazzy, goofy side. “Outsider” is an extension of the concept and sound of 2017’s funky “Movie”. It opens with a playful breach of the fourth wall, taking us behind the scenes to the members getting ready for the MV shoot; as quickly as they appear, they glitch and disappear from this set, as though entering the dimension of the MV proper.

We quickly learn the intent behind breaking the fourth wall, as Changsub plods into his office wearily, singing, “Deep dark circles, daily trouble, tiring day by day / It feels like my day is scripted, and I’m forcing myself to bear with this game”. This dreary scene looks like the daily reality of an assa—an abbreviation of “outsider”—Korean slang for a social outcast. But the song’s message is an unexpected one: instead of wishing to become a popular inssa who fits in socially, BtoB assert that they “don’t wanna be the same as everybody else” and soulfully croon that they want to be an outsider.

The MV’s pop culture references, drawing from socially wayward characters, underscore this theme. Peniel, sporting a half-bleached buzz cut and black-and-white dotted nail polish, looks much like Cruella de Vil, the villain of 101 Dalmatians who hunts down dalmatian puppies in order to make a coat from their fur. Eunkwang gamely practices zombie moves in hopes of becoming one and Changsub puts on a hilariously half-baked parody of Jay Gatsby, whose opulent lifestyle is funded by dishonest means. The result is a fun yet surprisingly earnest MV that goes against the grain.

CNBlue—”Love Cut”

Also returning from a military enlistment hiatus, CNBlue have their share of cinematic fun as well. “Love Cut” continues K-pop’s recent infatuation with Wild West aesthetics, casting the members as cowboys lurking in a saloon bar, seemingly in search of someone. The MV also features elements of film noir, depicting a femme fatale figure who helps CNBlue in a game of cards. By the time they realise belatedly that she is the woman in a wanted poster on the wall, she is already aiming for the kill.

The MV’s narrative is a creative interpretation of the lyrics: “Love Cut” describes a broken relationship that the persona has to cut themselves free from. Their ex-lover who has hurt him is likened to an errant cowgirl; the emotional wounds she inflicts on them is the gunshot we do not see. The ill-fated connection takes the form of red ropes that bind CNBlue and instead of aiming a gun in a scene that parallels the iconic Western shootout, they aim a pair of scissors and cut away these ropes.

E’Last—”Dark Dream”

Also taking its cue from the lore of the red string of fate is E’Last’s “Dark Dream”. Similar to CNBlue’s MV, “Dark Dream” presents an ill-fated connection: E’Last find themselves in a nightmarish state of being entrapped by memories of their lover. Their inability to let go of this connection is represented by the omnipresence of red cords, whether it’s thick strands of red yarn winding around Wonjun‘s grand piano, or swathes of crimson fabric looming in the background of the group choreography scenes.

Aside from this striking and effective visual metaphor, the rest of the MV is also crafted carefully. The sets evoke the grandeur of the song through vast sets: Wonjun’s grand piano looks small in the middle of a huge industrial backdrop and the group dances on a large stage flanked by Greek columns and high ceilings.

In line with the lyrics that speak of being entrapped, however, there are also images of the group being wedged into small places (the lift-like set), and scenes of individual members entangled in red yarn. This contrast is also worked into the costumes: even as E’Last don regal uniforms, they are bound by thick pearl chokers and weighed down by chains across their torsos. The result is a sweeping, atmospheric depiction of the struggle to move on from a love that has already ended.

Nam Woohyun—”Calm and Passion”

Like “Dark Dream”, Woohyun’s post-enlistment comeback MV, “Calm and Passion”, makes purposeful use of contrasts. The MV opens with a shot of wilted red and white flowers, and Woohyun calmly looks at a polaroid photo fading away. His relationship has ended, it seems, but he continues seducing his lover. Unlike “Dark Dream”, there’s no overwrought display of emotions here; Woohyun placidly acknowledges that his lover completes him, and croons his siren song to draw her in again.

The mix of calm and passion that the song’s title points to comes through in the use of blue and red. When Woohyun revisits his memories with his lover—the scene captured in the fading polaroid—his lover is wearing a red dress, matched by his red hair and jacket. The warm colour palette of the cafe and the repeated presence of red suggests the dominating emotion of passion.

In the present, however, Woohyun’s emotional state is more subdued. This is reflected in his clothing as well: he is dressed in a more neutral shade of white, and in the choreography scenes, he wears a cobalt blue shirt that strikes a contrast with his flaming red hair. While simple, the visual contrast perfectly complements the sultry tone of the song and lends the release an air of maturity.

Lee Hi (ft. B.I)—”Savior”

Lee Hi is off to a strong start in her new agency, AOMG, both musically and visually. Beginning with last year’s “Holo“, her MVs have taken on a more pensive and artistic slant. “Savior” shares this quality, but it also introduces a vague, droll sense of humour befitting of its artist.

In the opening scene, Lee Hi walks slowly down the aisle of a grandiose cathedral. Her accessories look out of place in the historical, sombre setting: she wears sports sunglasses and carries a big red umbrella. We soon realise red is a running motif—symbolically, but also literally, for the “i” in the intertitle’s “Savior” streaks downwards like a nosebleed that we see in a later scene.

The song sings of a “written in the stars” kind of romance, with Lee Hi coincidentally meeting her childhood sweetheart again in a deja vu sequence: she has a nosebleed, and he hands her a handkerchief and a lollipop shaped like a rose. But this romance is not idealised. Rather, it is treated with a deep sense of unease, as Lee Hi muses, “Is there such a thing as love without despair?” and declares in the chorus, “Without any words, I knew from the moment I met you / That you are the savior that has come to ruin me.”

This sense of unease is reinforced by the camerawork, which often shows Lee Hi from an extremely high or low angle. When she hugs her lover (played by B.I), the camera is tilted; this love is not comforting and stable, but rather quietly off-kilter. The recurring presence of the colour red is also disturbing, especially because it is linked from early on to the nosebleed. Despite all this, though, the MV ends on a slightly more reassuring, albeit still strange note. B.I makes Lee Hi laugh by using her blood to draw a nosebleed on his face, perhaps suggesting that pain and suffering is always a part of loving someone, but you get to share even that together.

(YouTube [1][2][3][4][5]. Images via Cube Entertainment, E Entertainment. Lyrics via YouTube.)