As someone who until very recently did not have contact with the K-pop world, I was eager to see what impression Light Up the Sky would have on me. The Netflix documentary, directed by Caroline Suh, was released in October 2020 and follows the story of Blackpink, one of the most popular groups in the K-pop genre. It takes the viewer from their debut to their most recent accomplishments, while reminiscing on their days as trainees and focusing on each of the four members individually.
Having only followed BTS for about seven months, I was hoping the documentary film would help me expand my superficial knowledge of the K-pop industry, focusing particularly on a female group’s success. Going into Light Up the Sky as a non-connoisseur of the group made the experience of getting to know the four girls the most fun part. Seeing how Lisa, Jisoo, Jennie, and Rosé are all so different from each other, yet have such an evident synergy, was something that I was expecting but still captivated me.
One of my first reactions was how impressed I was with the girls swiftly switching from English to Korean and even Thai in Lisa’s case. It’s not really the fact that they dominate different languages, but rather what this signifies for their multiculturalism as a group labeled as Korean pop. For starters, I didn’t know two of the Blackpink members, Lisa and Rosé, weren’t born in South Korea — Lisa was born in Thailand and Rosé in New Zealand.
Learning about their different ethnic backgrounds was particularly significant as it relates to a question Teddy Park, the group’s producer and songwriter, asks straight into the camera: “What is K-pop?”
“We’re just Korean people trying to do music, so if Korean people make music, it’s K-pop? I don’t even get it,” he said.
Park’s statements set the frame for an interesting, overarching contrast of the documentary: being a part of the K-pop genre while simultaneously transcending it.
The documentary spends some time providing context to K-pop and a brief history lesson on the industry. At first, I didn’t understand this decision. Considering the documentary is aimed to reach international audiences, including that sequence could make the international audiences feel more disconnected from this industry. But by the end, I realized the documentary’s narrative quality — starting with the environment in which the group came to be, which obviously determines how they are now, and ending with their efforts to go beyond that.
Jennie said that what sets K-pop apart from everything else is the time artists spend as “trainees,” which is the preparation time before a group makes its official debut. This is a process all Blackpink members went through for years, and the documentary doesn’t deny the hardships and pressures that came with it. In fact, it extensively covers them, as well as other characteristics very important in this industry, such as the emphasis on group dynamics and thriving as a team. Rosé even says, “I never knew I would live in Korea. Now Korea is my home.”
But even as the girls embrace their origins and the culture that surrounds them, I can understand Park’s frustration in being so strictly categorized as K-pop. It means that the group and their whole production team constantly have the responsibility to internationally represent the genre in a way that shows the world they can be interesting. They are constantly proving a cultural point, which is something I’ve become acquainted with in my experience following BTS.
Toward the end of the documentary, we get to see more of one of their milestones: being the first female K-pop group to perform at Coachella. The girls show some of their anxiety performing at an international festival. They even say they are afraid nobody is going to show up to their stage — which speaks loudly to the pressure of their K-pop tag. But when the girls reflect on this event, what they highlight is precisely the diversity of “races and types of people” in that audience. “This represents Blackpink,” Lisa says in English after explaining in Thai—symbolically confirming her statement.
The documentary does a good job of blending this message with their path-breaker role as one of the most successful female groups. It also covers the general demands of touring and life as stars, which often drive these types of documentaries.
During the final minutes, the Blackpink world tour footage, breaking cultural boundaries, finally transitions to them eating and talking intimately like the four friends they are. This final scene wraps up the documentary with a narrative important for pop artists in general, but especially for K-pop idols—whom international audiences can perceive as a product of a heavily manufactured industry. Everything ultimately comes back to their humanity and individuality as people pursuing art and music.