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The Garden of the Forking Paths: Difference and Repetition in BTS “Epiphany”

Dr Colette Balmain examines the BTS comeback trailer for Love Yourself 結 Answer:

Epiphany: main post image

“Epiphany” is the comeback trailer for BTS’ last entry in the LOVE YOURSELF Series: Love Yourself 結 Answer. LOVE YOURSELF is a transmedia and multimedia project involving the expansion of the BTS Universe through the construction of a metafictional storyworld established by Music Videos, Highlight “Reels”, Concept photographs, the “Notes” (fictional diary entries by the group’s members), three albums: Love Yourself 承 Her; Love Yourself 轉 Tear and of course Answer, one short film Euphoria: Theme of Love Yourself 起 Wonder and the “FlowerSmeraldo” blog run by a flowershop of the same name. The “Notes” connect the storyworld of LOVE YOURSELF with that of The Most Beautiful Moment in Life series (2015-2016).

Fittingly it is Kim Seokjin (Jin), the oldest member of the group and the final member to lead a comeback (it is the vocal line who have introduced the four components of LOVE YOURSELF), who takes centre stage in this climatic trailer as he is the pivotal character in the LOVE YOURSELF storyworld. In the LOVE YOURSELF Highlight Reels which accompany the series and provide contextualization, events are focalized through Seokjin. There are four Highlight Reels: ‘起’ (introduction/beginning); ‘承’ (development); ‘承’ (twist/turn) and finally ‘起承轉結’ which concludes the series. Briefly these play out like a Korean melodrama about the vagaries of first love, jealousy, conflict, missed encounters and fatal meetings, ending in tragedy. The first event in the Reels is Seokjin’s encounter with a girl (whom he is fated to lose) at a railway crossing. She is carrying a red diary which she drops when she leaves. This diary plays a pivotal role in “Epiphany” connecting the MV directly to the narrative of love and loss constructed by the Highlight Reels and “the Notes”. In addition, it is significant that the events played out in the Highlight Reels are not in date order: Seokjin encounters the girl on 11th July 2022, after which past pivotal events in the life of the other members are depicted before going forward in time and back to Seokjin’s ‘love story’ with the final entry taking place on the 3oth August.

Fateful encounter in Highlight Reel ‘起’
Fateful encounter in Highlight Reel ‘起’

While the upcoming album is called Answer, anyone cognizant with the BTS Universe and the storyworlds constructed therein knows that the answer will only lead to more questions. The forking paths and labyrinthic structure of the BTS Universe does not give up its secrets easily and neither does it offer an easy solution to life’s questions. In “The Garden of Forking Paths” (“El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”, Jorge Luis Borges: 1941), Ts’ui Pen – the ancestor of the protagonist – withdraws from the public to concentrate on writing a book and/or constructing a labyrinth. However, after his death all that can be found is a “heap of contradictory drafts” and “chaotic manuscripts” but no labyrinth. His descendant comments “in the third chapter the hero dies, in the fourth he is still alive” (Borges, 2018, p. 5). It turns out that in fact the book and the maze are one and the same and that the labyrinth is not made of ivory but rather made of symbols. We are told that in this literary maze, unlike in other fictional works, when confronted with having to choose between a number of alternatives the protagonist “chooses – simultaneously – all them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves proliferate and fork” (Borges, 2018, p. 5-6). In a similar manner, the interplay between difference and repetition communicated through the multiple media that constitute the LOVE YOURSELF storyworld constructs a symbolic garden of forking paths in which the relationship between past, present and future is marked by contradictions, multiplicities and the singularities (possible events that exist only through actualization) that give rise to them. It is the malleability of the BTS Universe with its rhizomatic openings and pathways that allows us to engage with it at various levels of interactivity. Henry Jenkins writes:

Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of a story. (Jenkins, 2007).

Transmedia texts encourage audience interactivity. In S/Z, Roland Barthes distinguishes between two types of text: a) readerly and b) writerly. The readerly text is any type of media content that requires us merely to absorb the content without any effort on our part. In opposition to this is the writerly text. This type of content requires us to work, to actively make meaning, because meaning is not given to us:

The writerly text is a perpetual present, upon which no consequent language (which would inevitably make it past) can be superimposed; the writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world (the world as function) is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages. (1975: 5)

“Epiphany” which means moment of [self] awareness represents not the end of search for answers but rather a beginning through a revision of the past through difference within its multiple repetitions. It does this through direct address to its audience encouraging them to world build in order to discover connections creating both agency and emotional investment as it is possible to build one’s own story into this world. In Storytelling Across Worlds, Dowd et al point out that: ‘By having story elements span a variety of mediums, viewer/users have to rely on each other to construct a complex (or as complete as possible) understanding of the intellectual property’ (Dowd et al, 2013, p. 50).

The labyrinth of meaning

The Split Self: Recognition and Misrecognition in “Epiphany”
The Split Self: Recognition and Misrecognition in “Epiphany”

Not only is Seokjin the protagonist of “Epiphany”, but he exists in three different temporalities which converge and diverge throughout the MV. In key scenes, the different versions of Seokjin co-exist in the same space while being unaware of the other’s existence. As such we are offered three different ways in which to negotiate the narrative. This is clearly demonstrated in the opening scene. The MV begins with a black and white wide-angled shot of Seokjin (1) in patterned shirt and trousers sat in the centre of an old-fashioned room with an analogue television on a stand just to the front and right of him. Further to the right and towards the back of the room, another version of Seokjin (2), this time wearing a jacket over the shirt, is staring at himself in the mirror. The room is dimly lit, with only a patch of natural light filtering in through the window which is towards the front of the room. The jacketed Seokjin (2) turns off the light at the top of the mirror and exits through the only door in the room, to the right. The camera pans in as the music starts bringing into focus a vase of Smeraldo flowers to the left and a book to the right of where Seokjin is sat. The flowers and the book are key signifiers of the mythology of the LOVE YOURSELF storyworld as we will see later in this analysis. Seokjin reaches over and picks up the diary and starts to read it. The camera pulls back to reveal another version of Seokjin (3) crouched beneath the window. These multiple versions of Seokjin coexist in the same space but at different times. This reminds me of the use of space in Voice (Cho Ik-Hwan: 2005), the fourth film in the Whispering Corridors series, in which the school exists simultaneously in two temporal dimensions. While the space reminds constant, the status of the characters changes when they move from one temporal zone into the next unaware of the duplicity of their self across time.

Against the elements: Fluidity and Femininity in “Epiphany”
Against the elements: Fluidity and Femininity in “Epiphany”

The spaces in “Epiphany” are also constant: the room, outside the room, and the beach from the HYYH trilogy. The third space clearly situates LOVE YOURSELF as an expansion of the storyworld constructed in the early trilogy. Within the room, Seokjin is constrained by the boundaries that define the body as a constant in space, while in the outside spaces transformation is possible as there are no discernable borders that imprison the self within the language of authority and the state. It is raining in the second space which can best be characterized as an anonymous any-space-whatever as it is directionless and does not relate to any real space outside of the diegesis. As Seokjin stands in the pouring rain, the direction of the rain changes moving upwards instead of down: an impossible movement signifying the possibility of change and transformation. Water is a signifier of both fluidity and femininity in direct opposition to fixity and masculinity. Keeping in mind that gender and the association of binary gender with femininity and masculinity is challenged in the work of BTS (of course nowhere clearer than in the recent concept photos which I discuss briefly in the epilogue to this analysis), this repetition with difference of the same scene also functions to critique the alignment of gender with heteronormativity as predetermined by one’s genitalia at birth. Lacan talks about this in his analysis of how the subject comes into being, with his contention that a baby has to be gendered in order to enter into the symbolic (society, institutions, laws, languages). Butler also points this out in their work on gender by stressing the performative as the opposition to the conformative as constitutive of gender. Typically, the male subject has been considered stable and secure, while women are defined in relation to the male through lack and absence. Here, as elsewhere, BTS deconstruct such binaries by situating femininity and masculinity as a continuum and not an opposition. This can also be understood in relation to the opposition between the [Western] biomedical body and the [Eastern] cosmological one: the later positing a continuum of gender and sexual difference (Balmain, 2019). To be feminine and to be manly are not in this schema mutually exclusive.

The final space of the beach s one of the main symbolic spaces that is present not only in the LOVE YOURSELF storyworld but also within the wider BTS Universe as already mentioned. At first, Seokjin is on his own against the jeep. In its repetition, he is now with all the other members of BTS: a glitch in time signifying temporal dislocation.

Possible futures: Temporal dislocation in “Epiphany”
Possible futures: Temporal dislocation in “Epiphany”

The Truth Untold

Frames, Flowers and Feelings in “Epiphany”
Frames, Flowers and Feelings in “Epiphany”

The Smeraldo flower and the red diary are important story elements in “Epiphany”, linking into the wider storyworld and form central parts of its mythology. Both link to the girl that Seokjin meets in the first Highlight Reel. The Smeraldo flower is representative of the intricate nature of the BTS Universe that this storyworld is an expansion of. The Smeraldo is a fictional flower sold by the equally fictional Smeraldo Flowershop. The notice of the opening of the shop was posted on 9th August 2017 over a month before BTS comeback with Love Yourself Her on 18th September 2017. The Instagram account has pictures of the flower with the words “sincerity that was not able to be delivered” and the accompanying Navar blog gives additional details about the flower’s origin as well as telling us that the Smeraldo is “Seok Jin’s flower”. There is a whole backstory to this fictional flower which involves a story of unrequited love in which a disfigured hermit falls in love with a flower seller and grows the uniquely beautiful Smeraldo as a visible signifier of his love as he is afraid of rejection because of how he looks. The tragedy is that the girl dies without knowing this. The story asks us to question what would have happened if he had been honest with her about his feelings rather than hiding them away. This tale of tragic love is known as “the truth that couldn’t be told (“non potevo dire la verita”) and one of the tracks on Love Yourself 轉 Tear is “The Truth Untold”, the lyrics of which directly reference this tale of doomed love. In addition, these are the flowers that Seokjin orders from the shop and takes to his date with the girl who he meets at the beginning of the Highlight Reels which plays out as a repetition of the original fictional story of origins.

Secrets and Lies in “Epiphany”
Secrets and Lies in “Epiphany”

The red diary is also highly symbolic and another example of a prop that can found across the multiple media that make up the storyworld of LOVE YOURSELF. The diary is the same one that Seokjin picks up in the first Highlight Reel on his encounter with the girl. Diaries in Korean cinema often represent the silenced voice of teenagers articulating desire and sometimes difference (I am indebted to Choi Jinhee for pointing this out). And of course, the “Notes” and the “Reels” take the form of diary entries, which are rarely coherent and almost always contradictory. This use of the diary here is self-reflexive foregrounding the metafictional nature of the storyworld. In addition, its placement on the table almost opposite to the vase folds “Epiphany” into that of the larger labyrinth that is constitutive of the BTS Universe itself. It is also significant that we see Seokjin (2) exit the room without it at the beginning of the video and then later Seokjin (1) pick up the diary before he leaves the room for the final time.

Repetition and Difference

The repetition in “Epiphany” of key scenes as above foregrounds the interplay between repetition and difference. In the first scene, Seokjin (2) gets ready to leave while Seojkin (1) is sat in the foreground. In the second scene, the “original” Seokjin prepares to leave the room. Not only is there no-one else in the room but in this repetition colour has returned to the frame. The final version is almost an exact replication of the first with the exception that there is only one Seokjin in the frame. This interplay is necessary in order for transformation to replace stasis. This can also be seen in the “Reels”. At the end of the ‘承’, we watch Seokjin getting ready for his date with the girl. This is then repeated with key differences at the end of 起承轉結’.

Forking Paths in Highlight Reel ‘起承轉結’
Forking Paths in Highlight Reel ‘起承轉結’

Once again, the differences lie in the detail: Seokjin knocks over the vase of Smeraldo flowers in the first scene while in the second he catches the vase before it falls; he exchanges smart clothes for casual clothes and puts on a cap and instead of leaving the room, Seokjin goes upstairs in the repetition. This offers us the possibility that tragedy has been avoided. Other repeated scenes in “Epiphany” include Seokjin in the rain, Seokjin (2) and (1) looking in the mirror and of course the contrasting ending shots. The shift from black and white to colour also highlights the centrality of repetition as difference. Traditionally black and white is associated with pastness signaling that which has happened and is now history (personal/public). The contrast between black and white and colour in the same film is often utilized to stress an opposition between reality and fiction. However here black and white not only represents “pastness” but is also contradictorily associated with falsehood and deception. It can also be interpreted as reflective of a life without love, a life alone, drained of its potential colours. This is one of the possible futures for the diegetic members. In this future, Seokjin is the only member alive while in another scenario, Seokjin is the devil leading the others into temptation (Wings, 2016-2017). Perhaps this is just a dream had by a man dreaming that he is a butterfly or that of a butterfly dreaming he is a man as in the story of Chung Tzu and the butterfly as written about in the Chinese philosophical classic Zhuangzi.

The multiple selves of the LOVE YOURSELF storyworld and the wider BTS’ Universe of which it is an expansion communicate a politics of resistance by refusing closure and privileging one interpretation of events over the next which would fix the future as predetermined. Instead like the protagonist in Borges’ short story “The Garden of Forking Paths”, the subject can choose not to conform to societal and familial prescriptions by taking the forked path and negotiating their way around the labyrinth in order to take charge of their own destiny rather than stay on the narrow path of obligations and expectations.

Conclusion: SEES the light

Seokjin seeing the ‘light’ in “Epiphany”
Seokjin seeing the ‘light’ in “Epiphany”

Seokjin puts in a powerful performance here, communicating meaning not only lyrically but through the expression of bodily emotion, gesture and expression. Even in translation, the poetry of the words is not lost even though some of the nuance may well be as is always the case in translation.  It seems no coincidence that the first letter of the four videos/comeback trailers rearranged spells SEES (Serendipity, Euphoria, Epiphany, Singularity). The narrative arc of “Epiphany” is a circular one in which loving oneself is a precondition of loving the other. The opening lyrics “I loved you so much / adapted to you with everything / I wanted to live my life for you” develop the theme of trying to fulfil the other’s desire by negating the self. In Lacan’s work on love and identity, desire can never be satisfied as it is always marked by loss and absence. The oedipal narrative dictates that the male child desire to have the phallus as he identifies it as that which the mother desires in his incestuous thoughts. On the hand, the female child desires to be or become the phallus, or the object of desire, because she identifies herself as lack. In “Lacanian Perspectives on Love”, Darlene Demandante points out that ‘It is not really the other that one loves; rather, it is the self in the other. Love is defined in terms of a narcissistic relation to the subject” (2014, p. 106). How then does the subject break free of the constraints of the subject-object relation in which desire is always associated with negation? Our answer, perhaps, is contained in the intertitles at the end of “Epiphany”.

Circularity in “Epiphany”
Circularity in “Epiphany”

The end of my journey of finding myself, is going back to that place again /
In the end, the thing I need to find is a map of my Soul,
which is the beginning of everything /
The thing that everyone has, but not anyone can find / I will start to find mine now

In conclusion, the presence of storyworld elements across media as well as multiple or fragmented selves in “Epiphany” resists simple narrativization. The forking paths and possible diverging futures insist on change, transformation, choice and agency. This folding in of the storyworld across diverse platforms and media requires the agency of the audience to interpret and give meaning to it. This is representative of the labyrinth or the maze which is ‘etymologically [said] to be multiple because it contains many folds’ (Deleuze, 1993, p. 3). In doing so, “Epiphany” challenges us to see the world differently in a similar manner to that posed by Claire Colebrook in her discussion of Deleuze’s cinema of the time-image:

A cinema of singularities would present colours, movements, sounds, textures, tones and lights that are not connected and organized into recognized and ordered wholes. In so doing it would take us back from the ordered world we view as a day-to-day level and allow us to think the singular and specific differences from which life is lived. (Colebrook, 2002, p. 33-34)

Epilogue: Masks, Marionettes and Meaning

Love Yourself Answer: Concept Photos E
Love Yourself Answer: Concept Photos E

While the “Reels” allow a retroactive reading of heteronormative love by focusing on individual member’s relationships with unnamed girls, the performances, choreographies, concept photos and other transmedia materials deconstruct such gender and sexual norms. This might explain some of the negativity surrounding the S and E concept photos which dropped last week. This was expressed in gendered terms in that some of the group, particularly Kim Taehyung (V), were seen to be too feminine in posture and costume. As I have suggested in my other work on BTS, transgression of gender norms in KPOP is permissible only in so far as it ultimately reinforces binary gender. In terms of men, masculinity is expressed through permitted aggression after perceived lapses of gender identity. In these terms the performative must become the conformative. In these concept images, BTS clearly collapse the distinction between the two performative by constructing gender as a continuum rather than a norm and thereby freeing desire from the dialectics of lack and absence that structures gender binaries. At the same time, these concept images also critique the stress on uniformity in the KPOP industry as well as the continuing negativity of the some of the media, netizens and antifans. The coloured ribbons in the boxes that are holding up Jeon Jungkook (Jungkook), Min Yoongi (Suga), Park Jimin (Jimin) and Jung Hoseok (J-Hope) creates a visual analogy with marionettes whose movements are controlled by a puppet master (by the state? the media? by fans?). The dominant metaphor in the LOVE YOURSELF series is that of the mask and the interplay between inside and outside, and self and other. It is necessary to lift the mask in order to embrace one’s authentic identity and in the process liberate oneself from the chains that would define it in predetermined and oppressive forms. In her work on liberating desire from patriarchal constraints, Helene Cixious writes: ‘I ask of writing what I ask of desire: that it have no relationship with the logic that puts desire on the side of possession, acquisition, consumerism-consumption …’ (Cixious 1974, p. 23).

Music Video Credits

Director : YongSeok Choi (Lumpens)
Assistant Director : Guzza, HyeJeong Park, MinJe Jeong (Lumpens)
Director of Photography : HyunWoo Nam(GDW)
Robot Arm Operator : DaeHong Kim
Gaffer : SeungHoon Shin
Art Director : JinSil Park, Bona Kim (MU:E)
Technical Director : SukKi Song
Key Scenic artist : YeongJun Hong
BigHit Entertainment. All rights reserved.

References and selected bibliography

Balmain, C. (2019). East Asian Gothic Cinema. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Barthes, R., (1975). S/Z. translated by Richard Miller. Cape.

Borges, J. L. (1941/2018). The Garden of Forking Paths. Penguin Modern.

Butler, J. (1988). Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory. Theatre journal, 40(4), 519-531.

Cixous, H. (1974) Prénoms de personne. Paris: Seuil.

Choi, J. (2010). The South Korean film renaissance: local hitmakers, global provocateurs. Wesleyan University Press.

Coutinho, S. (2017). Zhuangzi and early Chinese philosophy: Vagueness, transformation and paradox. Routledge.

Deleuze, G. (1994). Difference and repetition. Columbia University Press.

Deleuze, G. (1993). The fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). Introduction: rhizome. A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia, 2, pp. 3-25.

Demandante, D. (2014). Lacanian perspectives on love. KRITIKE: An Online Journal of Philosophy, 8(1), 102-118.

Dowd, T et al (2015). Storytelling across worlds: Transmedia for creatives and producers. Focal Press.

Colebrook, C. (2001). Gilles Deleuze. London: Routledge.

Jenkins, H. (2007). Transmedia Storytelling 101. Confessions of a Aca-Fan. [Online] (accessed 20 August 2018).

Lacan, J. (2001). Ecrits: A selection. London: Routledge.

Muller, J. (1985). Lacan’s mirror stage. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 5(2), 233-252.

4 thoughts on “The Garden of the Forking Paths: Difference and Repetition in BTS “Epiphany”

  1. Whoah! This is like a BTS masteral thesis. So detailed and elaborate using some refenrences I’ve never heard before. And this is why BTS can make us read books we normally would not pay attention to. Just to understand what’s going on, we not only need to listen to the music, read translations and watch the videos; we also need to do research.

  2. Thank you for such an insightful analysis of each of the music videos. I’m composing a thesis/research project for school and I will be using your article/research as a source in both my essay and bibliography!

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