Red Velvet’s “One of these nights”: The Sewol Ferry Theory Explained

Red Velvet’s “One of These Nights” MV has been, from the moment it was released, a personal favorite and a conspicuous example of an “instant classic.” Awash from beginning to end with spellbinding imagery, captured with peak technical fluency, “One of These Nights” would be, even without any search for hidden meaning, a work of such profound masterful artistry and poignant beauty as to demand praise as nothing less than a masterpiece of the genre.

That is how I haled the video upon its debut, and from that day forward I have been capable of watching this video over and over again in a row, mesmerized by its power and struck by a profound sense of gratitude simply to live in a world where such a shimmering work of imagination is possible.

But whatever vague intimations I might have pondered from time to time about any “hidden” meanings, it was only a few months ago that I stumbled upon mention of “The Theory” that this video is a symbolic dramatization of the Sewol ferry disaster. This lightning-bolt made the general thrust of the imagery startlingly clear; and now, with the discovery the other day of the particular angle concerning Joy (who appears to be always “handled” differently in each Red Velvet video), who here plays a survivor, I delved into as much commentary as I could and present this precis as my own set of observations and a primer on the jist of The Theory.

0:01-0:18: On a superficial level, this “green room” scene shows us pop stars Red Velvet getting dolled up, an entertainment-centric activity whose interest for fans is self-evident. As an emotional and theatrical ballad, “One of These Nights” lends itself to this kind of feminine display; indeed, the song’s stage choreo emphasizes just such qualities, blending a lot of somber facial expressions with slow, stylized movements that present a kind of kabuki quasi-stage, quasi-dance interpretation.

However, in light of the Sewol Theory, the girls here are in character either as the victims or their waiting families. The waiting families, “getting ready” to see their children return, I think is a stretch and too counter-intuitive. It makes more sense to conceive these as the victims. Some have suggested this is them getting ready for the trip, others them on the boat in its last peaceful moments. Let’s just adumbrate all this into symbolically compressed terms and say this is the victims, seemingly unaware of what is about to take place, though given their expressions and the somber lilt of the song’s opening it is of course as if they already possess an awareness of their fate. Perhaps, thinking of the end of Cameron’s Titanic (an ending I admittedly hate) the videographers were thinking in terms of a kind of limbo the victims inhabit aboard the wreck, forever reenacting their trip and their demise. But for the viewer’s purpose, we can content ourselves with saying that here we introduce the tragic victims and begin to lay out their fate.

The video begins with Joy, who will be portraying The Survivor. As the camera pans into the mirror, we see the blurry outline of a pearl necklace with a pendant that looks vaguely like a cross or a descending bird. (0:02) This appears to be of yellow or golden hue, and in the wake of the Sewol disaster yellow ribbons were worn in remembrance.

We cut to Seulgi, who is being made up by another, unidentified person’s hands. It may be one of her fellows, but the passivity suggested here may foreshadow their fate.

The shot of Yeri at 0:06 in a somewhat anxious-looking profile highlights a drawing of a yellow butterfly on the wall. Beneath and to its left is a further panel seemingly portraying butteflies or some other winged insects. Yellow is the color of hope in Korea; as to the butterfly, I’m going to make an unscholarly leap and suggest it invokes “psyche” in the Western sense. Invoking hope here is a poignant irony, and these doomed souls will be forced to leave their earthly lives prematurely. Also, the yellow butterfly likely invokes the real-life yellow ribbon motif, alerting Korean viewers to the hidden text they are about to receive through the video.

We then see an anxious-looking Wendy and a comparatively regal (resigned-looking?) Irene, putting in an earring. I’m going to suspect I should know who is in that card affixed to the mirror (an androgynous looking–fellow SM Ent artist?). I don’t have anything to offer for the card bearing what looks like an ‘8’ either (invoking the infinite?) so let’s pass on . . . .

But as the camera pulls back slighty and pans as Joy gets up to walk out, we see that one of the lights on her mirror has gone dead (0:18). The disaster has begun.

Wendy walks out into the hallway of what clearly is a ship, the camera tracking back ahead of her. The shot continues pulling back, through a keyhole, and we find Seulgi on the other side. Significantly, this door does not have a handle. Seulgi is a victim trapped below deck, possibly representing those who were instructed to remain in their rooms. (0:29)

We pull back still further, to discover that Seulgi’s room is a surreal cell with a balcony, standing horizontal upon an ocean, over which bright lens flares pass. These are seen by many to represent search beams. (0:36ff)

At 0:44 we meet Irene, seated before a mirror that obviously doubles as a porthole. In this mirror, if we pay close attention, we can clearly see a very waxen Irene who does not match the position of the seated Irene with her back to the camera. Irene’s character is represented here in the moment of terrified discovery of the ship’s predicament (cf. the way her lips begin to part in terror at 0:45). But the camera discreetly pans past this, so we are left with only a very stylized, subliminal hint of the horrifying drama that underlies the superficially serene, if somber, procession of imagery.

While Irene remains in profile, at 0:50 we see Joy, the survivor. She stands in a room with a ladder and begins to mount it; as the camera cranes up with her and revolves around ahead of here, we see there is now an ocean beneath her (0:58ff). Joy makes it out, but, in a narrative transition of equivocal meaning, her image in turn becomes a cloud of memory in a cup of tea, which we find a distracted, perhaps distraught, Seulgi idling over (1:05ff).

Seulgi may be representing a different character here– given that she is alone in a room at night, with a window that looks out onto a street, it is tempting to think of her here as standing in for the grieving families and loved ones, perhaps in the stage when they still held out hope for rescue or at least recovery of their lost ones bodies. I think the filmmakers can readily be forgiven for making this equivocation– Red Velvet are playing “types” here, not individualized characters. And since through the rest of the videos the dead and the surviving Joy seem to interact and understand one another’s fate, I think it’s best that we accept that this interlude between Seulgi and Wendy is a temporal disjuncture in the video. Here, we are placed among events after the disaster; later, we will resume the original timeline and witness further (in this highly symbolic form, obviously) the fates of the dead.

In any event, melancholy Seulgi at first sings by the side of the window, then throws it open to the rain in a stylized gesture, not seeming to have any real cognizance of anyone waiting out there for her (1:14-18). Some have suggested this act of opening the window enacts the regretful dead Seulgi making an attempt at rescuing herself which she didn’t try before her death– a kind of ritual regret for following the poor instructions which exacerbated the death toll. As I say, however, I think it’s problematic to shoehorn this particular vignette into one of two ghosts interacting. It seems as if rather Wendy is a ghost trying to revisit a waiting loved one but not really making any contact. Seulgi steps back, in a motion which, literally interpreted, would allow her to see Wendy, but I think this is instead a stylized gesture to show us that Seulgi’s character doesn’t see anything and perhaps is started to “recede” from Wendy’s grasp. Perhaps it forebodes the erasure of memory or, less painfully, the simple realization on ghost Wendy’s part that, alas, from her world she cannot touch again the loved ones she longs for and would comfort. There may be a counterargument to make here: perhaps Seulgi represents victims who loitered too long, based upon bad instructions, and Wendy is a victim who succumbed quicker, who appears as if to warn the complacent Seulgi to struggle for life before it’s too late. That’s possible but, as I say, I think the vignette makes more sense as a sad, fitful moment of attempted sharing between living and dead.

So Wendy continues alone in the dark wet rain (1:21). The image telescopes into a dark nimbus which dissolves into a closeup of Wendy’s tearful eye. What is the line in Shakespeare about “hadst thou not water enough, that thou should shed such tears”? Whatever Wendy’s mission before Seulgi’s window, it has ended in failure.

We transition to perhaps the video’s most blatant piece of drowning iconography, Yeri’s lonely little boat filling with water in the rain. Yeri as the maknae was of approximately the same age as the majority of Sewol victims, and the video will continue to highlight this throughout. Yeri’s character, clearly, is represented as slowly drowning to death (1:36).

At 1:38 we have a very Maurice Binder-style transition, as Joy’s head swings into view, consuming the screen in a closeup. Behind her, the other four members sit with cups of tea at what was Seulgi’s table. They look on anxiously as the trick shot pulls back while (I assume) zooming in. Joy remains constant as they recede from view and then fade out into darkness.

At 1:52 we take at least a full-second break of blackness before resuming the deathly narrative of events aboard the Sewol, with what I think is brilliantly and correctly construed as Seulgi’s death. Showing her in profile, it is as if she can tread on, or pass through, the water. But the lights ominously flicker on and off, perhaps signifying her last gasp of life, and the set seems to revolve, so that we now the water appears as a cinematic illusion (which, since she’s now dead, it technically is, seeing as she’s now “out of its element”). Seulgi walks forward and opens the door to Heaven/the afterlife (2:08). Inside, Yeri, stands in a brightly lit forest, overexposed to the point of phosphorescence. 2:16 cuts to Seulgi, who is no longer wearing her dress but rather the ghostly white “pyjamas” that Yeri, Joy, and Irene are wearing. She has taken her place in the Beyond.

2:29 cuts to a new scene, Wendy behind a door and most definitely holding on to the doorknob. She, and Seulgi, again seen back at that window seemingly somewhere in the world of dry land and possibly the living, are not in their “ghost uniforms”. However, it may be that the wan white garments are transient signifiers of the fact that they are dead, and now as ghosts they may be free to continue reenacting their misfortunes, back in the guise they wore when they were living. If so, Seulgi’s home-alone character may have been dead all alone. It is, I admit, counterintuitive to assume the same member in the same costume and environment is playing different characters. The cutting back and forth gives the impression of a renwed attempt at “contact”, and this would seem to reinforce the reading that Seulgi at the window is a living loved one, since we will shortly be introduced to the very strange “séance” all the Red Velvet members, including Joy, will participate in. What does it mean that Wendy clutches the doorknob? Are we looking at the other side of the portal through which Seulgi entered the realm of the dead? She is still holding on to the doorknob until we cut to Seulgi, but when we cut back to Wendy she has stepped back from the door. Has she tried the doorknob before and found it locked to her? Or does the door actually allow itself to be opened, but Wendy now regretfully weighs that there is no point to be gained by trying to pass through it, because she cannot truly speak to or at any rate never truly comfort those she is separated from? Nonetheless, we do cut back again to Seulgi, who looks on feverishly and then bows her head before her rainswept window, as if she is sighing many a night there, desperate for some sign (2:39).

At 2:42 we transition to the very strange “séance” sequence of the video. Wendy crawls beneath what seems to be a surreal transmogrification of the round tea table. The tablecloth pattern is the same, but in a different color scheme, a harsher orange and black rather than the pale blue/pink earlier. This whole object looks to me vaguely like some dream logic version of a tea caddy: I’ve never been sure what it’s supposed to be, exactly. It has a sort of green dome placed over it, the end of the table seems to curve slightly inward, and the whole thing is placed on some sort of round dais, whose green has odd flecks of white upon it and, more obscurely and off further to the edges at the left of frame, a play of light as if reflected from water.

The space within is governed by dream logic, as they are seated upon a stage, itself at least as big as the mysterious edifice they entered, which itself hovers in endless darkness. They sit around an irregular assortment of candles, some of which are greatly advanced into becoming molten wax hulks. This suggests to some commenters the passage of time, as the ghosts mourn on in their stylized grave, while to others it suggests the slow panic and desperation of victims who lingered on for a long time on the stricken ship before their safe refuge was lost. At any rate, the girls look up (2:49). At 2:52, a gloomy Irene turns away, as if in frustration, and crawls out throug a different-looking cloth. Alone in darkness, she meets her reflection in a horizontal sheet of water (2:58). We cut to Yeri in her boat, in a fairly close shot that highlights the watery-blood pink flesh tone that lines the bottom of it. As Wendy’s voice swells into the ballad’s big finale, Irene mournfully nose-kisses her own reflection, and we cut to Yeri, now sitting up in her boat as a torrential rain pours down into it in a night full of stars. We cut back to Wendy, in one of the video’s rare acknowledgements of the convention of allowing a vocal diva to be recorded singing with emotion, and then to a shocking tableau that now shows the girls sitting in their ring beneath a sky lit up with a pink aurora borealis (3:11). It’s a shockingly sublime visual epiphany, perhaps hopeful if you read the video in terms of the fairytale evoked by the song’s lyrics, in which the gods have condemned the two faithful lovers only to meet one night per year (July 7th). It is, in fact, hard not to read this image as, in some sense, hopeful– for it is a certain, spectacular revelation of light in darkness. The heavens above the girls are vast, yet there is this beauty lighting them up. Is this perhaps the love of God, still shining down for them, a promise to guide them out of the darkness of watery despair and bring them back one day to their lost families?

We cut back to Seulgi, then Irene, who has unannounced rejoined the circle. Is this because she was still seeking escape when she met the wall of water? Her eyes are full of pain, like Seulgi’s witnessed right before her and Wendy (no longer singing for the camera) right after, and then we cut again to Yeri in her boat and see a faint flicker of lights– suggestive to some of search lights failing to find survivors– as she pensively turns her gaze towards the lens (3:18). And then we cut dramatically to Joy, the survivor, now seen in the Heaven forest glade, but not dressed as a ghost but rather in a dark and obviously stylized dress whose significance, however, is above my present insight!

Why Joy should be situated in this Heaven is certainly puzzling, since clearly she doesn’t (at present) belong there. Her expression shows intense longing, though not, to my view, despair. It suggests to my eye that Joy has achieved some kind of revelation, one that hasn’t cured her sadness but has perhaps fired her with a new sense of purpose. Is it some message she has received from God, a wellspring of new faith that her friends live on in the beyond and will be reunited with her one day? Or is it that, in some sort of unspoken ironic reversal of iconography, her light is that she is simply still alive, and she still tries to penetrate into the darkness to help her friends? For this shot does cut, as the music swells to new heights of drama, to the terrible image of Yeri, now prone and obviously drowned inside her boat– the film’s single most conspicuous image of death, though now the video will quickly unveil a series of further dramatic images of drowning. As the girls (besides Joy) are clearly already dead by this point in the “narrative”, it is as if, in this rush of dramatized remembrance, we see how the ghosts cannot let go of their agony and fear and sense of loss and betrayal. Or perhaps, again, it is that, in this fragmented representation of events, we jump back in time, finally being “privileged” to see (in this dreamlike form) what they suffered in their final moments.

So now we cut again to seemingly living Seulgi, or the person on land she represents, still waiting by her window in the pouring rain (3:26). At 3:30 we revisit Irene’s porthole-mirror, a mangle of black broken glass now clearly a (stylized) porthole through which rushes a torrent of boat-sinking water, before which she falls backwards in a pirouette like a paper doll. This intercuts with more séance-scene and Seulgi’s balcony that opens out from the sea (still strobed by those mysterious searching lights). An eye at a keyhole, which I have always assumed to be Joy’s (even without the narrative of Joy as survivor, I don’t think that could be anyone else’s, though Lord knows I don’t always trust my lying eyes on these things) looks on, and indeed we cut to her again in the heavenly meadow. So it would seem Joy watches these sad scenes; but since she is alive, this troubles our definition of that “heaven”. Is the Sewol ferry a kind of Purgatory, over which surviving Joy prays so that the souls of her lost friends can be rescued from it, letting go of the pain that holds them captive there? We cut from Joy to a descending overhead shot straight down onto the séance candles (3:45). Are these Joy’s prayers or God’s mercy descending upon them? Are the candles themselves part of a votive offering the ghosts make for their loved ones who survive and now suffer on their behalf? After a shot passing from the back of someone’s head to focus on Wendy (singing once again to camera), we cut to the borealis shot, and Irene, placed center, turns back to look, from a profile stance, at the camera and us. We cut to Irene, prone on a tilted floor (3:55) who again slowly moves her gaze (lifting her head this time) to meet our look.  There seems to be bits of furniture defying gravity above her, suggesting she in fact is totally submerged in water.

And now, in the final shot, Seulgi retraces the route Wendy took at the beginning, having opened a door which now clearly does have a doorknob–on the side from which she returns.  But the side that faces the hallway does not, suggesting now that there was no escape from the ship; and perhaps, as a grieving spirit, she has no escape from it now.  She wears a perhaps off-white outfit, not her hooded ghost clothes, but certainly not the grey dress in which the potentially living Seulgi character waits by the window. In any event, it would seem that “waiting” is over and, as she passes down the hall the four flourescent lights above go out; as the turns the corner so does the discreet bulb there, signifying the close of our story. What closure Seulgi and the other dead receive remains unclear; for now, it is as if, retracing Wendy’s steps out while they were still alive, they are doomed at least for now to bear out earthly time in a watery tomb.

All of this is, perhaps counter intuitively, perhaps less overwhelming to a Korean-language speaker, as the song’s lyrics do tell their own story, evoking a familiar legend, and it has nothing to connect itself directly to the ferry disaster. Even watching the video again with Eng subs, the tragic subtext suddenly feels lighter. Perhaps it is best then for the sake of this reading that one approach the video with one’s mind as close to empty as you can make it of he “07 07” fable, and focus instead upon the visual drama and the sheer sad evocativeness of the music.

No matter how it is received, “One of These Nights” is a soaring, exalted ballad and its video is a peak instance of music video filmmaking. Armed with the ability to decipher some of its covert narrative as a testimony to the nation’s mourning over the lost students of the Sewol ferry disaster, its poignancy and artistry are still further enhanced, allowing it to be experienced not only as an evocation of romantic love and loyalty (which surely the music itself, and the wonderful broadcast performances, renders, as we are not obliged to experience them under the rubric of the video’s narrative design), but as an audiovisual requiem for those who died tragically and needlessly young– a heartfelt attempt to understand the terror of so much suffering, and to evoke the providential mysteries of our own immortality and its meaning for the weight of our earthly suffering. This is a video which, I could have argued before, and readily argue now, deserves serious consideration as the best music video ever made.

 

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