J-Hope in the Box: A Record of Creation

The process of creation is painful. There’s a reason why it is often compared to giving birth. There is an inevitability: this baby needs to come out whether we want it or not. The elation, relief, and exhaustion of finally bringing into the world a work of creation, resembles the moment a baby is finally out of the womb. In creation, as in birth, there’s also fear, sometimes terror involved.

I thought of all these things when watching j-hope’s new documentary J-Hope in the Box, released exclusively on Disney+ on February 17.

j-Hope is one-seventh of the iconic South Korean band BTS. A rapper and lyricist who has contributed to dozens of the band’s songs over their 10-year career, j-hope, real name Jung Ho-seok, is also the main dancer of BTS. In this role, j-hope has honoured his roots as a young teenage street dancer while elevating many of the styles he’s proficient in to world stages thanks to the success of BTS.

The documentary tells the journey of j-hope’s first foray into solo activities: his first solo album release, Jack in the Box (second after his first mixtape Hope World, released in 2018), and his preparation for his first solo stage: a headlining show at Lollapalooza, the legendary Chicago music festival, in August 2022.

For BTS fans, called ARMY, the context of this album release and concert is heavy in meaning and symbolism. In June 2022, during their annual anniversary celebration as a band, Festa, BTS announced the closing of one chapter and the beginning of another: they would be pausing band activities and embarking on solo projects for a while. While much suspected and discussed among ARMY, and to the fans’ dismay, a general public lacking important context, the reason behind the pause was finally revealed in October: the need for the members to fulfill mandatory military service in their country.

The documentary, however, does not touch on any discussion of the band’s military duty — a topic of contention among many of the band’s fans. Its focus is entirely on j-hope’s vision for his album and the monumental effort of putting together a headlining festival show. Told in non-linear form — the narrative moves back and forth in time from several months before Lollapalooza, to days before, and then back to weeks before the release of the album — J-Hope in the Box is ultimately intimate, intense, and revealing, even for an artist who has been under the scrutiny of the camera eye for the best part of the last decade.

The intimacy and intensity come from j-hope himself. After a brief introduction of j-hope finally coming “out of the box” (like a jack-in-the-box figure) during the opening of his Lollapalooza set, we go back in time to the grueling days when he was working alone in his studio recording the songs for Jack in the Box.

In a fascinating montage, we see j-hope alone in front of his computer recording vocals and ad-libs, typing, thinking, slumped in his chair at moments, a collection of paper cups in front of him. Then the image doubles up and we see two j-hopes, one dancing in front of the computer while the other types, or one sitting working away while another crashes on the couch behind him talking to his mother. It’s lo-fi, self-recorded footage and it’s quite moving. It’s the equivalent of a writer showing all the previous, unfinished versions of an essay along with the finished version, the messiness of the process familiar to anybody who has ever engaged in a creative journey.

While not uncommon, the behind-the-scenes musician documentary has become an almost rite of passage (Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, Selena Gomez, and even Lady Gaga have all released documentaries in recent years), there is a raw and unvarnished feel to that sequence that truly brings home, in a relatable way, what it feels to be consumed by an artistic vision and the need to let it out into the world. Here, bare-faced and tired, j-hope is Jung Ho-seok, the writer and musician behind the sunny, brilliantly fashionable persona j-hope represents in BTS.

“This is how you end up in a rut,” j-hope says to the camera. “You don’t know why you’re even doing this. There’s no reason for me to push myself so hard. But I guess this is who I am.”

j-hope working in his studio. Still from the documentary J-Hope in The Box. Photo: BigHit & Hybe.

The sequence is a great example of the type of transparency ARMY has gotten used to receiving from BTS members. They have never been afraid to show the process behind the music and performance, the ugliness of fatigue and self-doubt, or the many failures that make up a success.

And yet, BTS is also intensely private. For a new fan, this paradox is difficult to understand given the thousand upon thousand of hours they have given of themselves to ARMY over the years, not only via regular music promotions such as music videos and interviews, but via personal videos or “lives,” where they chat with fans for minutes or hours at a time, through their long-running variety show Run BTS where they compete against each other in numerous games, their traveling shows, and much more.

The dynamic in those public-facing videos and shows is of a band of brothers working together while loving each other. The bond between the members — its sacredness, its unbreakability — is one of the most magical elements sustaining ARMY beyond listening to BTS’s discography. The music, naturally the core of BTS’ work despite the many prejudices it engenders by being classified as K-pop, is multi-genre, of impeccable quality, wide emotional resonance, and deep lyrical intelligence. A legacy of over a decade of songs that could certainly represent the voice of the first truly global generation.

To see j-hope moving about his creative process and exploring his limits and desires on his own is revealing. It’s a portrait of what it takes to fulfill fiery ambition and creativity, even after a hugely successful career at the top.

“Fame and money don’t mean everything, I already know it. My work makes me breathe, so I want MORE,” j-hope sings in “More,” a moody grunge rap track and one of the two title songs in Jack in the Box. Ambition and drive are also two of the main themes of Jack in the Box, and it’s appropriate that the documentary let us in this crucial moment of j-hope’s life.

Another moving and important moment in J-Hope in the Box is when j-hope visits his family in Gwangju, a city in the south of the country, where he was born. “Safety Zone,” a gorgeous R&B track from Jack in the Box, plays in the background.

“Where’s the ray of light to relieve me in the darkness? Is it a tranquil home? Or the blue that is far, far away? Where’s my safe zone,” the lyrics say as he gets out of the car to photograph the woods or when he talks about his band members on the way there. At home, he is welcomed by his parents (we hear them and see them at the margins of the frame only) who have filled their home with mementos and photos of their son’s career.

The contrast between this j-hope–safe, protected, nourished with food and love by his parents–and the one we will soon see commanding a huge stage in front of thousands of people, is truly staggering, not so much in how j-hope himself behaves, but in showing the extraordinary psychological leap artists at a certain level must make to inhabit their artistic selves. What’s beautiful and telling in J-Hope in the Box, is that we are full witnesses to the transition from person to performer he must make.

In between, we see the toll that it takes: as the performance draws nears and j-hope works with musicians and dancers during rehearsals, he becomes increasingly nervous. Consumed by hyper-concentration, he is unable to eat or sleep — a marathon runner numbing the exhaustion in the last couple of kilometers before finishing a race. It’s almost agonizing to watch.

Thankfully, the documentary also intersperses footage of his performance at Lollapalooza, or Hobipalooza, as the concert was nicknamed by ARMY. Boasting an incredibly satisfying sound mix, these are some of the best moments of the film, where we get to see and hear the results of j-hope months-long labour.

His performance of “Equal Sign,” a gorgeous song where j-hope expresses some of his most personal values about equality, peace, and solidarity, is an unforgettable musical moment. As he reaches the English chorus, and 70,000 fans sign back to him the word “same” with one voice, it is cathartic and emotional as well.

Some of the lyrics of “Equal Sign,” by j-hope. Photo: screen capture Doolset Bangtan Lyrics

Throughout, one more aspect of j-hope’s character shines: his deep collaborative and respectful nature. We see it in the way he greets every staff member at his Jack in the Box listening party in Seoul, attended by a who’s who of South Korean artists and celebrities, or by the way he greets each band member or backup dancer in his crew. It’s not as if this is anything new, BTS is known to be the utmost professionals among industry peers, but it is still admirable and wonderful to witness.

Finally, anytime a BTS member appears next to another, the fun and warmth of any solo member or group activity double or triples accordingly. J-Hope in the Box is no exception. The moment Jimin, j-hope’s bandmate and fellow dancer, travels all the way from South Korea to support his solo concert debut, the mood of the film shifts as if the sunshine has finally appeared. Jimin’s presence has a deeper meaning too: only somebody who has experienced what j-hope is going through can truly understand what he’s feeling.

Although J-Hope in the Box was made very much with BTS fans in mind, it does serve as a compelling introduction to j-hope’s solo and group music. Most of all, it is the record of a moment in time for j-hope, an artist who has reached unimaginable heights but one who we suspect, will just continue to soar.

J-Hope in the Box is available for streaming on Disney+.

All lyric translations by Doolset Lyrics.