The three-year-old ONF has always had a unique position in the K-pop scene. An underrated name that has mostly remained in the shadows due to their infrequent comebacks and sparse promotions, the WM Entertainment group has also caught the attention of many casual listeners, albeit quietly so, with their well-received discography. For fans, ONF has also stood out with their beautifully shot music videos, colourful vocals, and challenging choreography. It was evident early on that the only thing that was holding ONF back from flourishing was exposure.

Their big break then came in the form of Mnet‘s recently concluded competition series Road to Kingdom. Despite not winning, ONF is considered the biggest benefactor of the show, having entered the competition as underestimated opponents and eventually ending the show as the overall runner-ups amongst stiff competition. Along with their creative and unique approach to their stages, the members’ showmanship and artistry were finally spotlighted, and ONF have since received much praise and increased attention.

Two months after the show’s conclusion, ONF finally make their anticipated return with their fifth mini-album Spin-Off with the oddly-titled “Sukhumvit Swimming” as the lead single. The song was first teased to fans as a mysterious ending to the official instrumental of fan favourite song “Moscow Moscow” back in February and is named after Sukhumvit, a bustling area in the blazing hot capital of Thailand. With ONF’s track record of music videos filmed in locations all around the world (various parts of Europe, USA, Vietnam), it is likely that the music video was intended to be filmed in Thailand before the onset of the global pandemic.

Having connected storyline music videos is no new innovation in K-pop, but few groups have an MV-verse that is taken as seriously as ONF, and their music videos tend to be a visually stunning spectacle that might be confusing for non-fans. Yet, as the name of the album suggests, ONF diverges from their existing storyline in “Sukhumvit Swimming”, resulting in a music video that is entertaining and dynamic as a standalone piece, while still full of easter eggs for fans familiar with their MV-verse.

ONF is shown in an alternate universe taking on seemingly random character types in different settings — a cowboy, a dutiful guard, The Little Prince, a wanderer living a life of luxury, a (digital) pirate, and a Tuk-Tuk (Thai trishaw) driver. The member’s individual roles and behaviors mirror their previous music videos, but they manifest in entirely different forms visually.

Filmed mostly through the use of green screen technology, the music video features an odd mix of ONF’s signature futuristic aesthetic, gunfights, massacres, but with a fun light-hearted twist. Similarly, while ONF is dressed in summery casual wear in the group choreography scenes, this is a distinct juxtaposition from the song’s intensity and sense of grandeur. Along with the video’s use of bright and extremely saturated colours, the effect created is one that of an appropriately bizarre and disorienting sense of adventure and chaos.

The turning point of the video is when U reaches out for a bright blue drink after walking into a party of masked men, which then cuts to the first shot of the members together. The drink is then possibly the key that unlocks the barriers between the different worlds the members are in and the members’ worlds begin to collide with the group choreography scenes scattered through the video. Upon drinking, it sends him into a state of trippiness that looks nearly like a hallucination.

“Sukhumvit Swimming” also features strong fantastical elements: time stops, the members teleport, clone themselves, and time travel — suggesting an otherworldliness or a fictitious world altogether. Fans will also recognise familiar motifs like masked men, asteroids, and clocks from “Sukhumvit Swimming”. Interestingly, the barcodes tattooed onto the necks of the members in their previous videos are absent here, instead replaced by shots of falling barcode tags. Along with quick successive shots of scenes from previous music videos, “Sukhumvit Swimming” seems to suggest that ONF’s departure from their storyline is fleeting and temporary and that even then, traces of the world they came from will continue to follow them.

The video comes to an end through a series of climactic and mysterious scenes — E-tion watches on Planet Earth as fireworks explode in celebration, J-us looks on in worry and shock at something the audience does not see, and Hyojin‘s death is seemingly reversed as time moves backward. The final shots show an unchanged clock that was featured at the start, and the masked men on the train moving in normalcy, with ONF absent from the scene.

Despite the sidetrack from their preexisting storyline and mood of their past few releases, it is impressive to note that the key elements of ONF’s music identity are not at all lost. Members MK and Wyatt participated in writing and composing the track, which was produced by Monotree, who has worked with the group on their entire discography and is familiar with the members’ strengths vocally. The song’s lyrics about diving deep into a fiery passion would be otherwise cliche for a summer comeback, but ONF puts their own stamp on it through the inclusion of themes such as dreams, memories, and connections that have been explored through all their title tracks.

By remaining consistent with the use of an instrumental hook in their title tracks while incorporating subgenres future bass, the summery-sounding reggae, and even hints of a bluesy guitar, ONF succeeds once more at executing an experimental take on popular music trends in K-pop. The overall result is a fresh and unconventional way to approach a summer comeback stylistically, visually and musically. It’s clearly summery, but yet not quite, and “Sukhumvit Swimming” manages to fit itself nicely alongside ONF previous title tracks.

As ONF breaks all their former records just one day into the album’s release, “Sukhumvit Swimming” is sure to be a milestone era in the group’s career. It is hard to say where ONF will go from here musically, but as they have continued to prove, it will be an unpredictable yet impressive feat.

(YouTube, Images via WM Entertainment.)