All That Makes Run On’s Ki Seon-gyeom a Great Male Lead

In a cinematic world that traps its men into alpha males or “soyboys”, K-Drama lead Ki Seon-gyeom finds a way to unshackle himself
All That Makes Run On’s Ki Seon-gyeom a Great Male Lead

Whether it's in a 60-minute episode or a 30-second YouTube short, K-Drama heroes seem to perpetually be dragging a woman by their wrist, seething in suffocating jealousy or engaging in cute, everyday sexism. Look at any of Park Seo-joon's characters – arguably one of the top male leads of recent years, especially since the highly-celebrated Itaewon Class (2020) – and it's easy to see how they all fit the mould of an overprotective, distant-but-soft-inside alpha male. On the other hand, we have beta leads like Park Bo-gum, remembered best for his role as the soft-spoken genius Choi Taek in Reply 1988 (2015). Reply 1988 paints a great contrast between an alpha male tsundere character (played by Ryu Jun-yeol) and a "soyboy" like Choi Taek, as they both pine for the same girl. Despite the nuance most K-Dramas include in their writing, male leads are often relegated to either of these templates, without much to show for their journey. And then along comes a male protagonist like Ki Seon-gyeom (played by Im Si-wan) in Run On, who takes the best of both worlds. 

Initially, Seon-gyeom seems like a regular larger-than-life hero. He's an illustrious field athlete who demands the authorities take some action when a junior athlete is bullied and beaten up by seniors. This would have been a grand enough gesture for most K-drama heroes, but Run On underlines Seon-gyeom's decisions for what they are: Naive. Seon-gyeom's utopian logic gets a reality check when he realises that no matter how he acts out, he is protected from punishment because his father is a powerful politician. Also, Korean society is stiflingly hierarchical and the violent bullying is dismissed with the explanation of "boys will be boys". Seon-gyeom is asked to focus on his own career instead of the institutionalised harassment. He chooses to retire, but quietly; without any self-righteous flourish. The writing in Run On sees more heroism in this dignified exit than in the stunts Seon-gyeom pulls or the punches he throws earlier. 

Central to Run On is the romance between Seon-gyeom and Oh Mi-joo, a translator and film subtitler who often seems like Seon-gyeom's opposite. She's outspoken, impulsive and radiates confidence while Seon-gyeom seems quiet and unsure, especially after he retires and finds himself with nothing to do. He temporarily moves in to live with Mi-joo, fulfilling the K-drama trope of setting up the flimsiest possible excuse to get the lead pair to live together. However, usually, it's the woman who moves into the man's house because she has nowhere else to go. In Run On, it's Seon-gyeom who needs shelter and once he starts living with Mi-joo and her flatmate, the ex-athlete proves to be an excellent homemaker. The man cooks, does laundry and stocks up the fridge. He repeatedly chides Mi-joo for working too long and not eating well (in a hilarious juxtaposition, we see Seon-gyeom cooking piping hot food for himself while Mi-joo blends some fruit and calls it a meal). When Mi-joo and her roommate have to leave for a week-long work assignment, Seon-gyeom is the epitome of domesticity, packing at least half a dozen boxes of homemade food for them. To contextualise this further, the exchange happens a day after he and Mi-joo have had a fight. When Seon-gyeom hands over the food, Mi-joo responds with stony silence. In a brilliant reversal of conventional gender roles, he reminds one of the ubiquitous housewife, attempting to redeem herself through acts of service in the face of a stereotypically harsh, forever-busy husband. 

Seon-gyeom's retirement (which comes in as early as episode 4) seems almost like a state of repose. He rests and learns to journal. He mentors a young school team. He strengthens his relationships through care and support. He stays away from the spotlight. It's only in the latter half of the show that Seon-gyeom starts taking steps towards starting a new career as a sports agent. He picks as his first client the athlete who was bullied at the start of the show. Every meeting that Seon-gyeom has with sports academies, trying to place his new client in a team, ends with the academies offering Seon-gyeom a place instead. Every time, he politely declines. His choice to remain in the background and perform unglamorous roles is further underscored by the display of male ego around him, by characters like his father who doesn't hesitate to spin a scandal about his own daughter to achieve his own professional goals.

Until Seon-gyeom is able to accept his innately-caring nature as a strength rather than as a vulnerability, his relationship with Mi-joo stumbles despite the two of them being attracted to each other and sharing a wonderful friendship. The only real kiss in the drama shows up in the 14th episode (out of 16), after Seon-gyeom breaks down and asks Mi-joo to be there for him.  

To orchestrate a passionate kiss (by Run On's standards, that is. Keep in mind this couple's first kiss was barely a peck) after the hero is reduced to a blubbering mess is to signal that Seon-gyeom has come into his own as a man, in every sense of that term. As the wise Alaine De Botton once said, "One can't as a rule both hate oneself and be having a terrific time in bed." Seon-gyeom's virility – often a given in fictional men – is rooted in his emotional needs and the catalyst is not power, objectifying others or any sense of entitlement. In sharp contrast to the bluster and posturing of the domineering men that flit in and out of Run On, Seon-gyeom is open about both his strength and his fragility. He needs to cry, be held and be loved — accepting this about himself instead of shutting himself off helps Seon-gyeom redefine masculinity not only for himself, but for the audience as well. 

You can stream Run On on Netflix

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