What does it mean to be a fan of someone who turns out to be a criminal?
That’s what South Korean film student Oh Se-yeon wanted to explore in her debut documentary Fanatic, which was a surprise success at the 2021 Busan International Film Festival (Biff) in October.
“It was so touching for me to present the film at Biff with the audience,” Oh, 22, tells the Post. “We laughed and cried together.”
That is more or less the point of Fanatic, which is described on the film festival’s site as a comedic true-story documentary exploring the lives and feelings of female former fans who are “suffering more because they’d loved” male South Korean celebrities.
A drawing by Oh of Jung Joon-young, the Korean rocker for whom she had openly professed love but who was charged with sex crimes and jailed for five years. Photo: Busan International Film Festival
Fanatic was created to understand fan behaviours and to serve as a coping mechanism. The film’s different names in Korean and English reflect its multifaceted nature: Fanatic is also known as Seongdeok, the Korean term for a “successful fan”.
Oh herself was a well-known fan of Korean pop rocker Jung Joon-young and had even gone on popular television programmes to discuss her love for him.
Then, in 2019, Jung was accused of various crimes, including gang rape and secretly filming and sharing videos of his sexual encounters. He was ultimately sentenced to five years in prison in 2020.
In Fanatic, Oh reaches out to fans of other Korean celebrities who have been caught up in crimes, from sexual assault to embezzlement to drink-driving.
“When [Jung’s] case first happened, I was embarrassed. I was furious and full of sadness,” reflects Oh. “Back then, I didn’t think of making a film. But as time passed, I became calmer. But I still had anger in my mind. And then I realised that there are certain fans still supporting him, and I couldn’t understand that at all.
“I was wondering why they still are supporting him, so I wanted to find the answer of why there are still fans, and also why I gave unconditional support to him. All those questions brought me to make the film.”
Considering the intensity of parasocial relationships – ones in which people have “the illusion of friendship” with public personae – in South Korea’s music industry, the conversations Oh has with her friends and other fans are heartfelt, contemplative and often laugh-out-loud funny.
Throughout their discussions, these former fans explore what it means to hold on to or let go of fond memories once you’ve been betrayed by someone you once loved.
“When I started this project, maybe I began with anger. But I didn’t think that should be the end, so I talked with friends and fans, and it was interesting to see many of us had similar experiences.
“We made fun of each other. Each of us loved somebody for a long time; however, we were betrayed. The major feeling was sadness.”
Among those who share their thoughts in Fanatics are former fans of Seungri, a member of K-pop boy band BigBang who was recently handed a prison sentence for prostitution-related and gambling offences, and Oh’s own mother – a fan of actor Jo Min-ki until he was accused in 2018 of sexually abusing his students in his role as a university professor.
That most of the crimes involve men who have risen to stardom with the support of female fans using their power to abuse women is especially painful for many. Fanatic was born out of Oh’s feeling of shame – a form of self-blame shared by most of the women featured.
“I end up hating myself,” said one interviewee. “I want to free myself,” said another. “I think it’s my fault to be a fool,” said a third.
A still from “Fanatic”. Photo: Busan International Film Festival
Everyone who talks to Oh (and Oh herself) expresses a multitude of feelings about their idols’ illegalities and abuses. Some think fans are secondary victims, others think that they have contributed to the crime through the way they support these celebrities.
At one point, Oh goes beyond pop culture fandom to explore the universality of humans supporting larger-than-life individuals. She attends an event held by supporters of former South Korean president Park Geun-hye, who is currently in jail for corruption.
There, she talks to Park supporters and ponders what makes some continue to defend someone who has, in the eyes of others and a court of law, done something wrong, whether it’s a celebrity or a politician.
A still from Fanatic. Photo: Busan International Film Festival
“There may be people who have never fallen in love with a celebrity before; however, I think if you’ve loved someone or respected someone, you may relate to this.”
The poignancy of Fanatic is that many of the interviewees – and Oh – still think there’s something beautiful about the time they were fans.
“When I first started this project, I felt regret over all the years I fell in love with him, and I was embarrassed about myself,” Oh says. “However, my thoughts have changed now. I don’t have to feel regret about my past.”
Most of the women say they’ll never be able to give their all to a celebrity again – but at the end of the film in a follow-up, many experience that same feeling about a new celebrity.
Oh says she “may become a fan of somebody again”. Photo: Busan International Film Festival
“To be a fan can be a good thing,” says Oh, although she expresses caution. “A celebrity can inspire you to have a very lively life. But you never know what can happen, so don’t spend too much money and keep a certain distance as a fan. You have to remember human knowledge and human eyes are very limited, so don’t give your full trust to somebody.”
Will she ever be a fan again?
“I think that I am someone who always is inclined to be a fan of somebody, so even though I may be determined [not to] I cannot reduce my internal desire to become a fan.
“There are so many attractive, talented and good-looking people out there, so I may become a fan of somebody again. However, I cannot be very sure if I can give all my energy to them like I did before.”
She pauses, then adds: “But you never know.”Internet Explorer Channel Network