How time flies. It really has been 7 years since Ji Chang Wook’s entertainment debut on 23 October 2008. Since the launching of our Ji Chang Wook’s Kitchen website last year, we have had several readers ask us:
“What is your favorite character role played by Ji Chang Wook?”
So in honour of this auspicious occasion, your Admins will try to answer this question in a two-part series, with each of us providing commentary on our absolute favorite Ji Chang Wook character… starting now!
Character: Baek Dong Soo (백동수)
Drama: “Warrior Baek Dong Soo,” based on the manhwa “Honorable Baek Dong Soo,” written by Lee Jae Heon
Length: 29 episodes; 1 special episode
Network: SBS; Monday and Tuesday evenings at 9:55 PM
Dates Aired: 4 July – 11 October 2011
(Note: If you have not watched the series yet, the post below will definitely contain spoilers.)
As you all probably know by now, I’ve been following Ji Chang Wook’s career since 2007, when I took notice of a few photos contained in a Naver blog on up-and-coming Korean actors. Shortly thereafter, I happened to catch parts of his segment in the movie “Sleeping Beauty” at a film festival in 2008, and immediately recognized his face from those two tiny pictures seen the year prior. Even though Ji Chang Wook had been on the musical stage before then and had a bit part in the movie “Days…” in 2006, his management decided that 23 October 2008 (the same date “Sleeping Beauty” premiered in Korea) would count as his official “debut date.”
Of course, now this youngster piqued my interest, and I found a fair amount of information in early internet searches, which led me to subscribing (at great personal cost) to KBS’s online streaming content just so I could watch episodes of the daily drama “You Are Very Good.” Then came Ji Chang Wook’s big break into Dramaland after being cast in the role of Song Mi-poong, the youngest son in “The Sons of Sol Pharmacy House.” After that wrapped, I watched “Hero” on MBC and then the daily drama “Smile Donghae” on KBS2. Suddenly Ji Chang Wook’s name was on everyone’s lips. Up-and-coming actor indeed!
But instead of dwelling on the past, I will instead explain why my favorite Ji Chang Wook character (to date) is Baek Dong Soo from “Warrior Baek Dong Soo.” This was Ji Chang Wook’s first lead role in an evening mini-series. After the success of “Smile Donghae,” he decided to accept the first action role of his short career. When his casting was first announced, there was a lot of discussion in the Korean media whether or not the 23-year-old Ji Chang Wook could pull off such an historical character like Baek Dong Soo (as the script originally intended), since up to that point Wook had only portrayed simple, humble characters. But I believe he more than rose to the task and vividly brought to life a character that only existed via folklore tales and inside dusty history books.
Quite a lot has been written about Baek Dong Soo, in both historical annals and a very popular manhwa series; a humble fellow who grew up to become one of the greatest swordsmen during the Joseon era. Baek Dong Soo was also one of the three authors of the Muyedobotongji, a multi-volume compendium commissioned by King Jeongjo during his reign (1776-1800) which illustrated the marital arts skills of Korean, Chinese and Japanese warriors at that time.
SBS had publicized WBDS as a “humanistic action historical drama” (what we more commonly know now as a ‘fusion sageuk’) set against the backdrop of political maneuverings in Joseon between the different Korean factions and the Chinese and Japanese governments jockeying for power during that time. Add to that mix a scripted fictional covert assassins’ guild named ‘Heuksa Chorong’ intent on bringing down the Korean government, and you have the makings for a drama a bit more different than your average sageuk.
Baek Dong Soo’s romanticized on-screen life started out quite eventful as the child of a Palace Guard father, wrongly-accused of traitorious acts in following Crown Prince Sado’s revolt against the Noron Faction, and a mother who went into hiding thereafter but died giving birth to him. Spending his early years growing out of his newborn deformities while tethered to hard wooden braces, his character started out as a boy that went through life with a constant chip on his shoulder… but with that chip came enough bravado to keep him from being a pushover.
For once, the episodes featuring the younger actors did not annoy me as much as in some past sageuks, and Yoo Jin Gu did a fantastic job setting up the backstory on the once-crippled boy who would eventually become the Warrior Baek Dong Soo. You could see the seamless transition between Yoo Jin Gu and Ji Chang Wook in Episode 5, as Dong-soo retained that playful yet guarded attitude throughout the next several episodes. I wonder how much of the real Ji Chang Wook manifested itself in Dong-soo throughout filming, as we all know how mischievous and a prankster this guy can be. (I bet it was quite a bit. Hee!)
Growing up as a disabled child, Baek Dong Soo was subjected to all kinds of taunts and discrimination from the village children. Time and time again, Dong-soo would not take the abuse and fought back as best as he could while hindered with the braces intended to strengthen his bones. But as a carefree boy at heart, sometimes that mindset would get him into trouble more often than not, and Ji Chang Wook was able to portray those emotions like a fine-tuned instrument. With him using a small lift of an eyebrow or a smirk forming across his face, you knew exactly what would come next… pretty much yet another situation Dong-soo would have to use his ‘street smarts’ to extricate himself from.
When Dong-soo was finally told about his lineage, the facts barely fazed him as he travelled to visit his parents’ graves to pay his respects. You can see how he accepted the news with grace and instead of being overcome with grief and sadness, decided it would be more fitting to tell his parents about the crush he had on this girl instead of weeping over their mounds of dirt. Here we see Ji Chang Wook going with what he does best: analyzing spot-on that his character would not dwell on past events and ‘went with the flow.’ (I remember replaying this scene over and over again because he was just sooooooo amazing in realizing that there was nothing he could change from the past and he was just going to focus on his present.) If there’s one thing that Ji Chang Wook is quite adept at, it’s showing how well he portrays a boy in love. Those shining eyes say more than any script could ever put in writing.
I just wish his female co-star was more worthy of receiving Dong-soo’s affections. *sigh* This was one of the few disagreements I had with Wook’s performance, and that was in the interactions with Ji-soo throughout the series. I understand that his character had not had the opportunity to interact with many female characters other than Jin-joo (and he thought of her more as a buddy to pal around with), but unfortunately, this is where Wook’s inexperience in not-quite-grasping the concept of wooing an onscreen girlfriend rose to the surface. That being said, I do give him major props for showing way more excitement in Dong-soo’s dealings with Ji-soo than she did with him since she had as much presence as a wooden log. (And I never want to see another crate of ginseng ever again!)
But of course, with much happiness comes great sadness. Time and time again, the obstacles thrown in Dong-soo’s path would have taken down a lesser actor. In the scenes leading up to Crown Prince Sado’s demise, one can see that this was no rookie barely going through the motions. I felt so heartsick to see how Dong-soo tried to cope with the realization that Woon was working for Heuksa Chorong, not to mention the terror you could see in Dong-soo’s eyes as he accidentally injures Ji-soo while trying to stop Woon’s walk to the dark side. With all those conflicting emotions presented in just that one episode, you would never think that such effort could come out of a young actor, but Ji Chang Wook rose to the occasion and proved yet again that his acting was top-notch.
News reports had stated how awful the filming conditions were, with the cast and crew constantly fighting off bugs, torrential rainstorms and the crippling heat that covered most of Korea in that summer of 2011. But these reports also stated how professional the young star Ji Chang Wook was throughout the filming, assisting with the crew where needed and constantly rehearsing his lines just to ensure that he made his Dongsoo-yah the best Dongsoo-yah ever.
And can I mention Ji Chang Wook’s little “chin wiggle” that shows up when he tries to stop himself from breaking out in sobs whenever a character requires it? He tries to keep his emotions in check in order to hold back the tears, but eventually all spills over and culminates in crying scenes designed to break your heart into tiny little pieces.
But the shining grace throughout all of WBDS was the ‘bromance’ between Dong-soo and Yeo Woon (Yoo Seung Ho). Even with a 6-year difference between them, both actors bonded immediately and this closeness shows throughout the episodes. At the outset, Dong-soo and Woon were equivalent to the Joseon “Odd Couple” — Mr. Serious and Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky — and as complete opposites, they would have to be besties from then on out. But as the boys each aged and settled into their early adult years, their paths diverged greatly. As Woon was hell-bent on following his destiny, Dong-soo would not let him forget that he would never give up on Woon no matter what path in life he chose — Woon’s family was with he, Cho Rip, and the rest of the members of Samo’s training camp. Here again, Wook portrays so well not just a comrade-in-arms, but more of a brother figure to Woon, trying his darndest to keep Woon from going over to the Dark Side. And after Wook shows us the heartbreak Dong-soo suffers when he finds out that His Woon is no longer The Woon he grew up with… it’s time to break out the tissues.
Again, more loss for young Dong-soo finally pushes him to make something of his life, and he decides to follow in the footsteps of Master Gwang-taek, the Sword Saint of Joseon. This turn in his character required Ji Chang Wook to gather up more strength to continue training day and night in different methods of swordplay required of Sword Saint’s apprentice. This is where the drama suddenly took more of a serious tone, since to play Dong-soo with such gravitas after losing the people close to him is a testament to the scrutiny Ji Chang Wook used in analyzing his character, because it would not make sense for him to continue living his life like he didn’t have a care in the world. He allows us to believe that Dong-soo has finally grown up into a fine adult (although I truly missed the Carefree Dong-soo we had all grown to love until then).
I can only imagine what brute strength and perseverance it took for Ji Chang Wook to get through the last few days of filming, especially in Episode 28 where Dong-soo fought off the 100 guards in the Palace Courtyard. By this time, weeks of live-shooting was starting to take its toll on the cast and crew, but even while covered in fake blood and sweating through his costume, Wook’s professionalism proved itself again, and by this sheer will and determination, he gave us the most epic episode of the entire series.
And most of you also know how I feel about the unnecessary finale Episode 29, so I will not expound upon it any further. Needless to say, we were ALL reaching for the makgeolli after the credits rolled!
But the best thing about Ji Chang Wook bringing life to the Baek Dong Soo character was being given the chance to sing his first track for a drama OST, which turned out to be a bonus for fans in that it set a precedent: With the exception of “Bachelor’s Vegetable Store,” an OST single has been released for every drama Wook has starred in to date. Score!
That’s pretty much all I can say about Ji Chang Wook portraying Baek Dong Soo without writing a treatise in his honour. It was an extreme joy to watch all 29 episodes of “Warrior Baek Dong Soo” and realizing at that time Ji Chang Wook has such a bright future ahead of him if he continues to challenge himself with uncommon roles such as Baek Dong Soo. And as we have witnessed throughout the years, he has obviously accomplished that with his career choices to date… while still keeping a sense of humour throughout.
So we raise a toast to our little Musical Student Reporter Chef Warrior Vegetable Seller Pianist Emperor Night Courier as we celebrate 7 years since his official debut. I cannot wait to see what Ji Chang Wook has awaiting us with his lead role in “Fabricated City” when it finally is released. And for any other projects potentially on the horizon, I hope he can keep his wits about him and not just choose any work that doesn’t meet his high standards. Wook, I hope you continue to keep your eyes wide open while perfecting your craft… and keep smiling, sweetie!
There’s more to follow, so stay tuned! See part 2 here.