‘Super Junior: The Last Man Standing’ review: a nostalgic look at the band’s 18-year history and K-pop’s own beginnings
The K-pop industry has long been notorious for the impermanence of its acts; there are as many groups who disband as there are new ones that storm onto the scene each year. Some fall to the dreaded seven-year curse – where bands part ways once the seven-year clause in their contracts is up – while others to an indefinite hiatus from which they never return, so it’s rare see a group persevere in the face of the K-pop industry’s unforgivingly rapid turnover.
Enter Super Junior. The group are revered for their longevity, having debuted in June 2005 as a 12-member unit. The SM Entertainment-founded boyband have become one of the industry’s first-generation pioneers who helped lay the foundations for the global behemoth that is K-pop today. Disney+’s latest documentary on the group, Super Junior: The Last Man Standing, revisits their rich history in unprecedented detail. The docu-series exhaustively chronicles the group’s 18-year journey, starting with their lesser-known origins as Super Junior 05 all the way to their far-reaching influence today.
The Last Man Standing is a treasure trove of Super Junior lore, presenting an entire repository of archival footage starring the group throughout their career, kept off the record until now. Supplementing this abundance of videos across the eras are personal interviews with each of Super Junior’s nine active members – Lee Teuk, Hee-chul, Ye-sung, Shin-dong, Eun-hyuk, Dong-hae, Si-won, Ryeo-wook, and Kyu-hyun – reflecting on the blood, sweat and tears it has taken them to get to where they are now. (Contextualising Super Junior’s monumental debut and lending insight on their influence on K-pop are music critics Kim Yoon-ha, Im Jin-mo and others who have both closely worked with and observed the group over the years.)
While Super Junior are not the first K-pop band to receive their own documentary, nor will they be the last, The Last Man Standing is particularly refreshing. The candour of the Super Junior members, who at this stage of their careers are less afraid of opening up about both the highs and lows of their time together, makes this documentary a sincere and worthwhile watch (its credits show SM Entertainment and the Super Junior-dedicated Label SJ were heavily involved in its production).
The way Super Junior’s members recall the band’s key milestones and some of the ways they set the precedent for future K-pop groups (group size, for instance) never comes across as boastful. They are down to earth and gracious in their interviews while recalling the immense anxiety that came with being a group achieving many firsts of their time, the hard work poured into each song they released, and even the animosity felt among the group during occasional conflict (including the addition of Kyu-hyun to the group shortly after the original line-up debuted). Here, Super Junior show that no matter how iconic our K-pop idols seem, they are still humans at their very cores.
Unlike a fair few other K-pop documentaries, The Last Man Standing is surprisingly beginner-friendly. After four generations loaded with hundreds of groups’ histories, Super Junior’s is still probably one of the most intimidating to approach due to the sheer volume of albums, shows, projects and information that come with nearly 20 years of activity. Thankfully, The Last Man Standing is an accessible catalogue of everything to know about Super Junior.
That includes less sunny, more contentious moments in the Super Junior story: it was especially satisfying to see footage and mention of members who have since left the group, namely Han Geng, Ki-bum and Kang-in (compare this to other, younger groups that often scramble to cover up any mention of past members in their videos and social media presence). Longtime fans will no doubt appreciate the acknowledgment of these former members and their contributions to the group and their history.
One thing The Last Man Standing shares with other K-pop documentaries is a puzzling sense of pacing. Episodes are not intimidating in length – they run less than an hour – but sometimes dwell for too long on particular incidents (say, Ryeo-wook’s addition to the line-up); these fixations could exasperate viewers not already invested in Super Junior to begin with. The Last Man Standing is still worth a watch for K-pop enthusiasts, though, as it doubles as a remarkable deep dive into the industry’s beginnings. It’s not merely for older fans craving nostalgia, but for newer converts looking to learn more about an entertainment powerhouse that shows no signs of slowing down.
Super Junior: The Last Man Standing is now streaming on Disney+.
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