Ever since I first saw actors Boun Noppanut and Prem Warut paired together in the BL drama Until We Meet Again, I’ve been anticipating seeing them coupled on-screen again.
As soon as it was revealed that they’d be a part of Studio Wabi Sabi’s 7 Project, a series about seven couples inspired by seven different songs, I’ve been anticipating their episode. Titled Once Upon a Time, Episode 4 introduces Balloon and Mek, two very different young men who come from two very different backgrounds.
Based on the teasers, I went into the fourth episode of 7 Project expecting something different than what was delivered. I expected a raw, gut-punching tale about a closeted young man and the lover who cheats on him.
But, oh, how wrong I was.
While just as raw and gut-punching as I imagined it would be, Once Upon a Time was also so much more than I expected. For a one-episode story, it delivered a compelling message about being part of a gay relationship where one partner is closeted but the other is not. It’s a tricky thing falling in love with someone who doesn’t have the luxury of revealing his/her/their sexuality for one reason or another. Once Upon a Time explored this subject in a delicate, heart-rending way.
Brilliantly portrayed by actor Prem, Balloon is the eldest child in his well-to-do family, his role as the oldest son leaving him with many pressured responsibilities. His parents expect him to set the standard for his siblings, and he doesn’t want to disappoint. This fear of failing is why falling in love with fellow film major, Mek (Boun), isn’t in the cards. However, the human heart doesn’t care about responsibility or supposed societal norms. When the heart loves, it loves.
Mek, unlike Balloon, has no family. Alone in the world, his only responsibility is to himself. Although he isn’t restricted by the same strict standards Balloon has resigned himself to, Mek is understanding of Balloon’s predicament and is open to being part of a secret relationship, even if hiding how he feels hurts him. But things take an unexpected, complicated turn when Balloon’s brother, Ozone, comes out to their father. The reaction isn’t a positive one, leaving Balloon feeling even more pressured to be the perfect son his father expects him to be. This perceived perfection leads Balloon to pull away from Mek, causing the strained secretive wall already existing between them to crumble.
And herein is where I really fell in love.
Once Upon A Time realistically shows that gay relationships where the partners are in different stages of coming out can work if the couple is willing to communicate. But it also shows that it’s okay to be honest with your feelings, even if it means choosing yourself over a relationship. At some point during this drama, I quit caring about the outcome of Once Upon a Time. The ending didn’t matter. It was Mek and Balloon that mattered.
Although the teasers for this episode revealed a scene where Mek potentially cheats on Balloon, the actual scene in Once Upon a Time was much different than presented and much more poignant. I know I’ll probably be scolded by some viewers for this, but I loved that Once Upon a Time did not hold back with the kiss between Mek and Jinny. What happened between these two characters in the bar isn’t about romance; it’s about pain. Pain often finds comfort in pain, especially when a person’s judgment is already impaired by something (such as alcohol). Drinking doesn’t excuse an action, but in Once Upon a Time, Jinny and Mek’s momentary lapse in judgment was surprisingly heartwarming. Full of conflicting thoughts and shared pain, they both sought a type of personal validation. I love that Jinny pushed Mek forward, encouraging him to communicate with Balloon about his feelings. She became a character that helped rather than hindered, a character who recognized a mutual pain and did something to fix it, and I respected her for that.
The same goes for Mek. What surprised me the most in Once Upon a Time was the realization that Mek walked away from Balloon, not because he couldn’t handle being in a secret relationship with a closeted partner, but because he felt he was the ultimate cause of Balloon’s pain. In a heartbreaking flashback, the viewers discover that Mek is privy to an emotional moment between Balloon and his brother where Balloon reveals the pain and inner turmoil he is experiencing. Broken by what he’s seen, Mek chooses to break free from Balloon, not for himself, but for the man he loves.
My heart broke.
Once Upon a Time conveyed a truly selfless romance between two men who wanted to protect each other, two men who misunderstood each other’s inner desires as much as they understood the love they shared. In the end, after a face-to-face meeting outside a taxi and an end credit roll that left me ready to weep, a final scene suddenly pops onto the screen. In it, Balloon and Mek are a happy couple in a shared room. It’s uncertain whether or not Balloon is still closeted, and at that moment, it doesn’t matter. Because the ultimate message here is that it isn’t selfish to love someone, that it’s okay to be weak sometimes, and that honesty and communication goes a long way in a relationship.
Although I wish the 7 Project, especially Once Upon a Time, was much more than an episode long, I’ve been continually impressed by the messages each story is trying to convey. The short format leaves a little to be desired, but the stories themselves are well constructed.
I’m not going to forget Balloon and Mek anytime soon. Boun and Prem’s portrayal and how they connect on-screen never disappoints. Their performance also builds anticipation for their upcoming series Between Us, and I, for one, certainly can’t wait.
Rating- 4 out of 5