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[Herald Interview] ‘Time to Be Strong’ follows retired K-pop idols’ self-discovery

By Kim Da-sol

Published : May 3, 2024 - 17:17

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“Time to Be Strong” (JIFF) “Time to Be Strong” (JIFF)

JEONJU, North Jeolla Province -- This year’s Jeonju International Film Festival saw its iconic Korean Competition section receive the highest number of submissions ever -- 134 films.

While a majority of the submissions focused on female narratives, director Namkoong Sun’s “Time to Be Strong” clearly stood out among the 10 films in competition for the top three awards.

The rookie director’s second feature film “Time to Be Strong” follows three retired K-pop idol singers on a trip to Jeju Island, a somewhat belated school trip they missed as students. After failed careers and missed milestones, they go on a journey of soul-searching and self-discovery during a crisp winter in Jeju.

The director said the movie sheds light on the human rights of K-pop idol singers. The movie was funded by the National Human Rights Commission.

Director Namkoong Sun (Kim Da-sol/The Korea Herald) Director Namkoong Sun (Kim Da-sol/The Korea Herald)

“I was asked (by the agency) to make a movie on human rights. I specifically wanted to tell the story of K-pop idol singers because I thought that the idol culture and the system in which they are trained could depict well the feelings of those in their 10s and 20s,” Namkoong told The Korea Herald in an interview in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, Thursday.

For many K-pop idol singers, speaking out about human rights has been difficult. Doing so is actively shunned because discussing physical and emotional health issues coming from rigorous training schedules has been regarded as “unprofessional.” Some agencies' restrictive contracts with their singers, known as “slave contracts,” limit the singers' personal and financial freedom.

“During my research, I was surprised to find out that about 100 people debut as part of an idol group each month. But the public only gets to know a small number of them. When you look deeper into the industry, the troubles and hardships they go through from a young age are just at another level,” she went on.

While the movie follows solid narratives of three young adults in their early 20s, frequent flashbacks of their harsh training and unfair treatment from their agency hint at why they left the industry.

“What I wanted to tell through the movie was not to urge for a change in the industry, but to show how such experiences (as an idol singer) can impact their lives -- they are constantly competing and abiding by a system which treats them as a commercial product," the director said.

She mentioned the dual meaning of using the word “strong” in the movie’s title.

“One is about an individual gaining strength and resilience. The other meaning implies the power we have but do not realize we do as a society that can support those in need,” she said.

“Time to Be Strong” is screening at theaters in Jeonju during the 25th Jeonju IFF which continues until May 10.

The three winners in the Korean Competition section will be announced during the award ceremony on May 7.