Caroline Suh was a bit of a K-pop newbie a year ago, but that made her a unique candidate to direct Netflix’s first K-pop documentary, Blackpink: Light Up the Sky, which follows the titular superstar girl group. A Korean-American filmmaker, Suh was eager to visit the motherland and immerse herself in the K-pop universe, expansive and overwhelming as it is. Entering the world with fresh eyes, she was able to craft a story that would enchant newcomers while delighting Blinks, the band’s most devout supporters.
“I wanted to make this film for Blackpink fans, but also to appeal to people who, like me, knew a little bit about K-pop, not that much,” Suh tells BAZAAR.com. “I wasn’t too in the weeds with all of the details. I kind of looked at their story as an outsider. And I think that helped.”
Netflix was already working with Blackpink on the project when it brought the opportunity to Suh, who directed and produced the streamer’s Salt Fat Acid Heat and Cooked. She was thrilled to oblige. “We all met with YG [Entertainment, the management company and record label behind Blackpink and other Korean stars], and everything kind of came together,” she recalls. Production moved quickly. They filmed in Korea in the fall of 2019, and then again this past February, capturing the band in the studio with producer Teddy Park, spending downtime together, and “doing what they like to do in their personal lives.”
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The resulting film is a heartfelt portrait of the quartet’s members: Lisa (born Lalisa Manoban), Jennie (Jennie Kim), Jisoo (Ji-soo Kim), and Rosé (Chae-young Park). They share baby photos and giggle at their audition footage; they tease each other while trying on outfits at a fitting; they let out their nerves before making history at Coachella; in one scene, they even listen to their Lady Gaga collab, “Sour Candy,” for the first time in the studio.
“It’s interesting to see them just kind of hanging around with each other and joking around with each other, and just feeling very comfortable,” says Suh. “They are like a family, so they have that kind of ease as people do with their family members.”
There’s individual footage of the members in everyday life, too, like Lisa shopping at a boutique, or Rosé writing songs on her guitar at night. Each member also sits down for one-on-one interviews, opening up all the way back to childhood. Jennie, for example, recalls almost moving to the United States to study before realising that she wanted to pursue music; Jisoo remembers her parents worrying when she was so deep in training that she didn’t come home.
We see their vulnerable sides too, like Jennie admitting she doesn’t like talking about herself in interviews or Rosé revealing her fears behind recording her own music. Suh had to build trust with the group to make them comfortable enough to open up on camera. “With every project, I like to just be very honest about what we’re trying to do and explain how we’re doing it,” she says. “And I think the members have never been in a project like this before, so it was a little bit new to them. We just tried to communicate with them as best we could what was happening and what we were trying to do. We also listened to them a lot and what their thoughts were, and they really wanted everything to be very real. So we really worked with them to make sure everything that we were filming was real.” The trust built over time, she says.
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The filming process was very enjoyable for Suh, and editing during quarantine was a necessary escape. “I have affection for all of them,” she says of the four members. “I’m much older than they are, so I feel almost, maybe slightly protective of them.
Suh also portrays the sincerity of the girls’ friendships with tender moments on camera. Lisa and Rosé step out for smoothies, taking street style photos of each other before reminiscing about the time they first met (and mistook each other for competition). Jennie and Jisoo make sweets in their dorm, while the former helps to teach the latter English. Jisoo, the oldest of the group, is “unnie” to her fellow bandmates. It’s a Korean term of respect and endearment for older sisters or close older female friends, which is common in Asian cultures. “We don’t call each other by names, it’s normally unnie if you’re older than me,” Jennie explains in the film.
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“I don’t know if everyone in the U.S. would know that, and I thought it was kind of an important idea in terms of how they relate to each other, because they do have this kind of familial bond,” says Suh. “So I kind of wanted to show that through having that discussion about why they call each other this sisterly name.”
There’s already plenty of footage of Blackpink on the Internet, aside from their official music videos, which each garner hundreds of millions of views. (A few have even surpassed one billion.) You can Google their YG auditions, and they have their own mini reality show on YouTube. “I know that there’s a lot about them already online, so we kind of went through what has already been released, but really, we were trying to tell a story of their journey,” Suh explains. The focus was showing how far the members have come, what their experience has been, and how they feel now.
“I wanted to find out how they became Blackpink and what it feels like now to have become this phenomenon. That was before we started filming, and then as we filmed, that story still held true,” Suh says.
The band only continued to rise throughout and after production. In 2020 alone, the group shared new collaborations with Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, and Cardi B, and dropped a new album to much fanfare. They set a new record for the most-viewed YouTube video in 24 hours, made the biggest chart debut by an all-female group in more than 12 years, and became the first Korean girl group to land a top 10 album in the United States. The documentary ended up becoming “[deeper] in terms of everything they had to go through to get to where they are.”
In their interviews, the members open up about the four to six years they spent in rigorous singing, dancing, and performance training before debuting as Blackpink in 2016. They trained for 14 hours a day, were graded by producers, and often had to see other fellow trainees get sent home. And the toil didn’t stop after they became a famous group. The rehearsals continue, paired with the physical challenges of traveling and performing around the world. “It’s intense,” Suh says of the group’s work ethic. “I mean, they seem to be always working. And I think you have to have a lot of stamina for that, to be always doing events and preparing and being creative, and, you know, there’s a lot that goes into their lives.”
As a Korean-American, helming Blackpink: Light Up the Sky was a memorable experience for Suh. “You know, it’s so fun for me to see how popular Korean culture is outside of Korea,” she says. “When I was growing up, there were no Korean people, and no one even knew where Korea was or what it was.” She relates to a scene in the doc when Jennie says, “Who would imagine, at Coachella, thousands of people singing in Korean?” Suh feels the same way. “I think that still always surprises me, and I always find that to be pretty awesome. … It gives me a lot of Korean pride.”
Suh is happy with the final product as well. “I think it’s a nice little portrait of them at this time and how they got here. So I’m sure there’s more to the story. To be continued,” she says.
So would she be interested in doing a part two, or exploring another K-pop group’s story? “Oh, definitely. I think that would be very fun.”
Blackpink: Light Up the Sky is streaming on Netflix now.
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US