'Fanatic': Stories of the fans behind fallen idols

Director Oh Se-yeon apologizes to a reporter named Park Hyo-sil for resenting her in her debut documentary “Fanatic." Park was the first reporter to cover the news of Jung Joon-young’s victim in September 2016 when she sued Jung for sexual assault. [

How would you feel if your oppa, one day, turned out to be a criminal?

That’s what happened to 23-year-old director Oh Se-yeon, as documented in her film “Fanatic.” Oh was a seongdeok — a Korean portmanteau referring to successful fanatic — of former singer-songwriter and entertainer Jung Joon-young. Jung, who gained recognition when he finished in third place on Mnet’s music audition program “Superstar K4” in 2012, was sentenced to six years in prison in 2019 for rape and molka, or illegal filming, and distributing the footage in mobile chatrooms.

The definition of a true seongdeok is subjective, but the generally accepted standard of the title points to when your favorite celebrity is able to recognize you in some way or another, whether it be online or offline.

Sixteen-year-old Oh appears on TV wearing hanbok (traditional Korean dress) to recite her love letter to Jung. [AUD]

Oh did all but throw herself at Jung to be recognized by him, frequently going to fan meet-and-greets, and even appearing on TV while wearing hanbok (traditional Korean dress) to recite her very own love letter expressing her attachment and dedication to the singer. Finally, she was recognized — Jung knew her, and that truth alone crowned her with the title of seongdeok.

However, when news of Jung’s crimes surfaced in March 2019 as part of the Burning Sun scandal — an infamous sex, drugs and police protection scandal surrounding a nightclub of the same name — Oh was surprised, but she wasn’t in denial.

“There were many scandals [related to celebrities] happening around that time, and I don’t know — maybe it’s because it wasn’t his first time to be involved in a crime like this, but I didn’t want to deny it,” director Oh said at a press interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Sept. 20 at a cafe in Yongsan District, central Seoul. “I am surprised, shocked, sad, angry — I can’t describe or define how I felt.”

Oh attends Jung’s first trial. [AUD]

“I became a deokhu failure,” Oh recalls at the beginning of her debut documentary “Fanatic.” Deokhu is a Korean slang deriving from the Japanese word otaku that refers to someone who is obsessed with someone or something.

Following the reports of Jung’s crimes, all of Oh’s seven-year-long devotions suddenly turned into an embarrassing past of deokjil, another Korean slang for fangirling activities. The same went for her friends who were in the same position as she was — their favorite oppas, whom they absolutely revered, turned out to be criminals involved with drugs, sexual harassment, rape and gambling.

“I initially started this film because I wanted to dig deeper into the fandom culture of idolization and the fans still supporting Jung,” Oh said. “However, as I interviewed and heard my friends’ voices as fans, I wanted to focus more on their stories. That’s what I was good at, and I thought it would be meaningful because, before, there was no content highlighting the fans, the ones behind the spotlight. They all are the protagonists of their own lives, and what’s more, they knew exactly what they wanted. I wanted to give a voice to the individuals in this film.”

Director Oh Se-yeon [AUD]

Oh reminisced on the first time she fell for Jung.

“I was flipping through the TV channels when I saw him performing on ‘Superstar K4,’” Oh said. “I think the song was ‘Waiting Everyday.’ He just swept the stage and I became curious about who he was. He was a rising star at the time, and there was a lot to study about him. I was in seventh grade, a model student at the time who knew nothing but studying, so I was thrilled when I fell for Jung. I began to subscribe to his fan communities and participate in the program’s text votes.

"He's like, he wasn't typical," Oh explained to the reporter about Jung's charms. "When I'd imagine a celebrity, I thought them to be polite and refined, but he was different. He was much more frank and open, but it felt natural. And during the time, there weren't a lot of singers who did rock music, but he was so sure of what he did. I loved the way he honestly said what's on his mind, and even though others might not accept it, he could hold his own."

Just like that, Jung became her idol, and she would do most anything for him.

“I think that any form of love is about dedication and sacrifice,” she said. “But when you become a fanatic, when you love someone to that extent, you don’t realize that you're doing that, that you're the giving tree. I wanted to give everything to him, but I didn’t feel like I was sacrificing or giving up too much. That’s how immersed, devoted I was.”

Oh's own mother appears as an interviewee, as she was once a fan of actor Jo Min-ki. [AUD]

Oh interviews fans of Jung and other celebrities involved in scandals like Park Yoo-chun, Kangin and Seungri — including her own mother, who was a fan of late actor Jo Min-ki, who committed suicide after being accused of committing sexual assault.

One surprising similarity among the fans was that when their stars were reported to be criminals, they also experienced feelings of guilt.

“I think I absolutely understand how they feel,” Oh said. “From an observer's perspective, one may feel that fans’ love for their stars is unilateral, like it’s a one-sided relationship that can easily end if a fan turns their back on them. But we, the fans, feel that we’ve formed an intimate relationship with our special someone. So when the person you love, you revere, does something wrong, it feels like you did something wrong as well, just because you liked [them]. It’s like the fans assimilate their feelings and actions — when he commits a crime, fans also carry the weight of his atrocities.”

To portray fans’ mindsets, Oh even visited the so-called Taegukgi Troops, a group of extreme political conservatives who hold rallies supporting former president Park Geun-hye.

“From the start of this film, I was curious about idolization, and when I thought about the remaining fans, I felt it would be similar to fandom in politics,” she said. “Simply put, the person they are still supporting is a criminal, but they still love and support them. I thought it was hard to accurately describe this, so I instead showed it with [the scenes of the rallies].”

The film also shows her friends moving on to dote on new celebrities.

A scene from the film "Fanatic" where fans are filming with their phones hoping to catch sight of their favorite celebrities. [AUD]

“I mean, I think we’ve become a world where you can’t purely like and appreciate someone to the fullest,” she said. “But we still do it, maybe hoping that this time, it would be different. I’ve also moved on to other celebrities, but sometimes it doesn’t always pan out. I think it’s somehow inscribed in my DNA, to like someone as a fanatic. And I think the saying holds true — once a fanatic, always a fanatic. It’s because we already know how fun it is to dote on someone that way — there’s a certain energy we gain from that.”

Despite all that’s happened, Oh still considers deokjil to be a good thing.

“It’s really hard to live out your life these days,” Oh said. “Generations of all ages — whether that be a child, a student or an adult — we all have our own baggage to carry. But when you’re doing deokjil, you can immediately become happier just by pushing that celebrity’s picture in front of you. I know it’s cliché, but I haven’t yet found any other words to describe the feeling. Deokjil really becomes your life’s energizer, it becomes your driving force to lead your life. It’s something that can unconditionally make me happy, which is very rare to find in our lives.”

"Fanatic" was released in local theaters on Wednesday.