Biweekly Binge: Run On- Flung Out of Space
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Run On
Early in Run On, written by Park Shi-hyun and streaming on Netflix, we see Oh Mi-joo (Shin Se-kyung), a translator/film subtitlist in a coffee shop, poring over the script of Todd Haynes’s Carol, adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt. The novel was first published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan because Highsmith didn’t want to be labelled as a “lesbian-book writer”. The camera zooms in on the page of the instantly recognizable “flung out of space” restaurant scene with Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara), and Mi-joo is jotting down notes next to the lines. It lingers for four seconds but proves momentous for the larger themes of Run On. One, it plays hide and seek with queerness of all its main characters and whenever presented with an opportunity, the side characters too. Second, this Korean drama is a bildungsroman; Run On’s premier characters are aloof, alone or both and unable to communicate effectively within their worlds.
A good film subtitlist chooses her words carefully and with appropriate context to convey the import of an exchange (Run On throws in a couple of references to stress this fact). Translating “flung out of space” literally into Tamil or Korean won’t cut it for that over the shoulder shot, scenes preceding it and Rooney Mara’s muted acknowledgment of bespoke flattery.
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“Flung out of space” defines Run On, Carol explaining her own rhetorical, “What a strange girl you are”, to Therese. Every character is displaced in some form, seeks transformation of some kind and is struggling to discover their identity. Seon-gyeom (Im Si-wan) is awkward in more than just social setting and circumstance displaces him from his prisons – track and field and his family, a marriage of convenience between elite political and social class. Korean dramas are often great in highlighting the tedium of everyday life within larger plots. Like loans and rents for Mi-joo, who loves cinema but is forced to take up work as tutor or interpreter, entering Seon-gyeom’s inner circle.
To this pesky drama, Run On adds shades by introducing another inter-class relationship in the push and pull of SeoDan-ah (Sooyoung), girl boss extraordinaire, the attitude a carefully constructed façade that the writing gradually uncovers, and art student Yeong-hwa (Kang Tae-oh), one who can pour his heart out but cannot take it in kind. Their displacement, straddling of each other's worlds brings out the best and worst in them – Seon-gyeom in Mi-Joo's Yeong-hwa’s world, Yeon-hwa’s in Dan-ah’s, Dan-ah in Mi-joo’s or even Seo Tae-woong, Dan-ah’s half-brother often finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
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It’s not new to use displacement as a narrative device to tease liminal queerness or even establish such a universe for queer forward piece of art. In Run On, paths and worlds collide often. A dominatrix Dan-ah bullying Mi-joo (a wink is impeccably timed) or Yeong-hwa and Seon-gyeom as roommates (the scene where Yeong-hwa helps Seon-gyeom wear his contact lenses is a particular favourite) and the former’s open declaration of affection to everyone around him, sometimes proving detrimental like in the case of his closeted best friend Ye-joon. Just when we witness a three-pronged dynamic established, the show opens itself up to more forces crowding the romance, everybody is sceptical of the other’s equation with the third wheel – Dan-ah says as much, “I thought we were in a love triangle” – only for more dots to magically appear for us to join –Woo-shik (Lee Jung-ha), Seon-gyeom’s junior and protégé or their track and field friend Young-il, appearing to shake things up, and that one scene with Dan-ah’s executive assistant Ji-hyun and Tae-woong – “I heard you are old enough to ask me out now”. An endless veritable carousel of amorous intrigue. May, the Judy Greer romcom figure and Mi-joo’s best friend, is asexual and gets a great moment with Ji-hyun later. Some of it can be misconstrued as queer baiting but Korean mainstream dramas are just about getting comfortable with LGBTQ+ characters and when creators work around limitations to add layers to their work, the paratextual embellishments are more rewarding than main plot elements.
One can’t miss a rainbow graffiti in the play area outside Yeong-hwa’s modest home. Mi-joo calls Dan-ah Lady Hideko, a reference to queer masterpiece The Handmaiden and half the joy is in Se-kyung’s unimpressed face when nobody gets film references. As if on cue, there is a suggestion for a non-heteronormative family, Mi-joo’s home the setting for a lot of soul searching.
Things are more eventful in the edges of Run On, just as fascinating as its storyline and crystallizes our relationship with the characters and their solace in individuality and self-care – also checking privilege in exchanges between Dan-ah and Ye-joon. Even its formal flourishes work, the characters merging into the film within the show in an episode. Throughout Run On, there is a mutual effort to let the other person grow and find themselves, even stressing on the inviolability of personal identity. Which is why Oh Mi-joo is at the centre of this universe, her job complementing her character as the force of nature around whom everybody congregates. As she puts it, “Delicate and sensitive individuals should live happy lives”. It’s not as profound as "flung out of space" but that is the charm of a brightly lit, slice of life k-drama. It can be cheesy and life-affirming all the same, like Mi-joo feeling the light within, inside the darkness of a movie theatre.