In March of this year, “Kick It” had NCT 127 announcing themselves as heroes. Both the Korean and Chinese song titles translate to “hero”, and the final choreography set had the members kicking and punching in front of a traditional Chinese portal with the phrase “new hero gate” inscribed on it. 

The hero’s journey is one of the most classical story templates in the world. In summary, it refers to narratives where a character sets forth from the common world into an adventure, faces numerous conflicts, and comes back transformed. It is a perfect template to be explored by K-pop groups, as it allows infinite variables and build-ups without necessarily needing an end.

Following that theme, NCT 127 are back with “Punch”, the lead single from the repackage album Neo Zone: The Final Round. While the concept is a straightforward continuation of “Kick It”, the release offers a fresh interplay of sounds and visuals.

The electronic background offers a solid structure to the track’s most experimentalist sections. Drawing inspiration from video game soundtracks and grandiose boxing entrances, it blends surprisingly well with the contrasts of whispered raps and honeyed vocals. As is typical of NCT 127, this track is a collection of initially odd sounds that prove to grow well with time.

The MV follows that line, bringing the group as characters trapped inside a retrofuturistic game. Like “Kick It”, there is no definitive plot to follow, and like NCT Dream’s latest comeback “Ridin’”, it relies heavily on SM‘s staple digital boxes and astonishing close-ups. Compared to both, it can be said that “Punch” is their bare-bones cousin, where symbolic references and fancy props take the backseat.

This does not mean “Punch” falls flat. On the contrary, it features impactful styling and visual effects. Starting with the dashing outfits and makeup, the opening scene reveals goth-NCT, clad in black leather, spikes, and chains. Then, there is the cleaner version where whites and racing jackets abound. Finally, for the ending chorus, they wear red military jackets and contrasting light blue jeans — a memorable interaction of royal and casual styles.

The overall aesthetics allude to movies such as Tron and Speed Racer, and an array of glitches and distortions reinforce the idea of a parallel dimension where members fight to breakthrough.  It is interesting to notice the spaces where NCT 127 are enclosed in. In some moments, they stand in what looks like a boxing ring with blinding spotlights; in others, it’s a translucent cube from which we observe them dancing inside. Digital rectangles in neon colors run along with the background in solo shots. Like the Wassily chair where Haechan is sitting, their surroundings are sleek, modern, and steel-cold.

Punching the screen is a default move, whether literally or for choreography purposes, but even when they are beaten up and bleeding, there seems to be no escape from this metaphorical game. In one scene, Mark uses a bat to hit the screen, but the glass splinters transform — Inception-style — into a scene of Taeyong holding a bat, too.

Entrapment is a recurring theme for the group, who have been stuck inside dreams and other dimensions in “Superhuman”, “Regular”, and “Simon Says”, among others. As the hero’s journey progresses, its trials become more complex, but NCT 127 faces them by being present in the moment:

Hey we ballin’
We fight together
That punch! Throw it
Run more and shout, babe
My heart is passionate
Hey We Ballin’
A fighter who’ll change everything
Come to my world
Who are we?

The lyrics focus on the primal, exhilarating energy of a battle, inviting the listener to become a fighter too. They mainly explore themes of perseverance and self-improvement, but there is also room to wonder what escape feels like:

My own universe
A very long fight in it
Even though I keep running
The exit looked far away
I felt your signal
Only I saw the light
The secret is unraveling
Only you are my exit

While their exodus doesn’t come onscreen, at least in the real world Neo Zone has proved to be a breakthrough era for the group. Reportedly selling over 1 million copies and achieving their best performance to date in various album charts, it seems like the world is finally waking up to NCT 127’s talents. The Final Round brings up the decisive “Punch” to cement their careers, and it’s satisfying to know they are as boundary-pushing and daring as ever. 

(YouTube, Naver. Images via SM Entertainment.)