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A Thousand Faces

15

Chapter 15

19

That morning.

W Broadcasting, Production Team Leader’s office.

Jungil Park was gazing at a draft projected on the screen above his desk. The presentation’s title glowed back at him: “Actor Kingdom: The Birth of a Star.”

This wasn’t just any show; it was a grand-scale reality show aimed at uncovering natural talents in acting from both within the country and beyond.

There were no limitations on who could compete. Anyone who loved acting, regardless of age, gender, nationality, or experience, was welcome to apply.

Before the program began, selected participants from the preliminary audition held by W Broadcasting would battle it out on live TV.

Of course, the judging criteria was pure acting prowess.

This survival-style program promised to whittle down competitors to a single, final winner. The victor would earn not just a hefty cash prize but also a starring role in a film directed by one of Korea’s best directors.

That was the pitch—at least on paper.

“Everyone’s an actor these days. But if everyone’s good, where’s the suspense?”

Jungil Park, head of production at W Broadcasting.

He was sprawled back in his office chair, flipping through the materials on the screen with a remote. Suddenly, his desk phone rang. He answered swiftly.

“Yes, Chairman!”

In an instant, Jungil Park, previously relaxed with his feet propped up, leaped up and even bowed reflexively. “Yes, of course. Don’t you worry. This isn’t my first production, sir. After all…”

He glanced around the room—empty except for him—and lowered his voice.

“Of course your son will win. I’ll make sure of it. Yes… yes… that’s right. Editing is where the magic happens. Just trust me on this…”

Just like that, the winner was chosen.

The person on the other end of the line was Geonim Kang, the chairman of the Daemyung Group. A titan in the industry, Daemyung boasted annual revenues reaching into the tens of trillions of won.

His only son, Hyeok, was the reason for this program’s existence.

Jungil had a valid reason for his earnest appeal. Chairman Kang’s investment made up over half the project budget, a sum exceeding 200 billion won.

All of this was a scripted play to turn his son into a star.

After ending the call, Jungil’s gaze returned to the screen, his hand absentmindedly stroking his chin.

“Well, it’s not rocket science. The real challenge is catching and holding the audience’s attention from the get-go…”

In a show like this, the main character doesn’t usually take center stage right away. To avoid viewer backlash against an apparent setup, they had to be careful not to spotlight the chairman’s son too much, too soon.

With ten years in the game and a hand in several audition shows, Jungil knew the playbook well. He planned to introduce the chairman’s son like a background character, gradually shifting audience perception through strategic editing.

“To kick things off, we’ll need a decoy. Someone who’ll shine brightly, then exit stage left…”

Jungil thought aloud, contemplating the strategy. Going for the usual mix of lackluster talent, overzealous ambition, or a heart-tugging backstory felt too by-the-book. “There has to be a fresher angle we can take, right?”

At that moment, a knock sounded at the door.

“Come in.”

Sangjun Yoo entered, a document file in hand, and bowed his head.

“Any updates?” Jungil said. “Anything interesting?”

“Actually, yes. There’s something timely that just came up.”

“Something timely? What’s that? Fill me in.”

Jungil, who hadn’t been expecting much, found himself intrigued. Sangjun passed the document over.

Opening up the folder, Jungil read aloud, “Junwoo Han?”

“Right. That’s Junwoo Han’s profile, along with articles and forum summaries from the theater community’s reaction to him.”

Jungil raised a finger as if something had come to mind. “Oh, I heard about that. He’s the one who got the offer from Junho Gil. He’s not half bad, huh?”

“He’s already created a buzz in the theater scene. There’s also video footage of his acting…”

“Skip the details, will you? I don’t have time for all that. Just give me the facts.”

“Understood. But I’ve done some research, and…”

Sangjun paused, noting the numerous blanks in Junwoo’s profile. It was unusual for someone like Sangjun, who typically had detailed information on everyone. Junwoo’s lack of a past, including his family background and school history, was glaringly obvious. But on the contrary—

“You think this could actually work?” Jungil asked.

A smile tugged at the corner of Sangjun’s mouth. “A young, earnest actor from the countryside, with no parents or education. He visits the Joo Theater daily, showing his dedication and forming a close bond with the director, Mansik Joo, who appears to be a father figure to him.”

As Jungil perused the documents, he nodded thoughtfully, absorbing the story.

“Witnesses say he even went directly to NK to persuade Junho Gil to watch his performance once. Can you imagine the level of determination and passion that must have taken?”

“Is that so?” Intrigued, Jungil flipped through the pages. “Huh. Not bad-looking, either. I think he’ll get some attention.”

“Nowadays, many aspiring actors hide behind their looks, basing their success on superficial things. Modern audiences see through that. The authenticity and raw ambition of a country boy, fighting hardships and feeling outpaced by his city-bred peers, could captivate viewers, at least for a while. An early setback for a character like this could deliver a powerful emotional punch. It’s the perfect promotional strategy.”

As Sangjun outlined the plan, a grin slowly spread across Jungil’s face. He raised a hand.

“Alright, that’s enough. You’ve convinced me! Get him on board right away.”

“But then…”

“What now?”

Sangjun had already reviewed Junwoo’s video footage.

“No, never mind. Even if this kid manages to attract some attention in the beginning, he won’t be a match for Hyeok. He’ll be forgotten quickly.”

Hyeok Kang. Backed by his father’s vast resources, the young man had been through the Justrine Acting School in New York since childhood, the International Theater Academy, and had cut his teeth with Broadway and Hollywood’s best. They might be of similar age, but their backgrounds couldn’t be more different.

Sangjun decided to put aside any unnecessary worries.

“Are you serious?” Jungil snapped. “How long have you been in this game? With a face like that and this early attention, other agencies will be all over him. Come on, get to it.”

He shoved the papers into Sangjun’s chest.

“You want to throw away 200 billion won? Don’t even think about coming back if you can’t get him on board.”

“Huh? Oh… right!”

***

Sangjun entered the barbecue restaurant after a grueling four-hour ordeal, his hair disheveled.

Mansik, now aware of the program, could see Sangjun’s hidden agenda in his sly expression. It was clear he sought to leverage Junwoo for his company’s ends.

“Just a casting, is that it?” Mansik mused.

Sangjun let out a bemused chuckle. “Mr. Joo, this isn’t just a casting call. The whole nation will see his acting. You’ve always been his biggest supporter, haven’t you? Unless I’m mistaken…”

Mansik remained silent.

“If you don’t want to hinder the boy’s path, I don’t think it’s an offer you can refuse,” Sangjun continued. “Or are you afraid he might leave you?”

Scoffing, Mansik didn’t flinch. He knew Sangjun was deliberately provoking him.

He wasn’t particularly worried about Junwoo being taken advantage of. Even manipulative editing had its limits. The moment Junwoo’s talent shone through in a single scene, their plans would crumble. Moreover, Mansik was confident that the Junwoo he knew wouldn’t be swayed by such things.

But there was just one catch.

“Who else is there?”

“What do you mean?”

“Junwoo aside, are there confirmed cast members already? I’d like to know how far the contract negotiations have progressed. Mind telling me?”

Slightly taken aback, Sangjun laughed it off. “Ahaha. Well… nothing’s set in stone yet, so there’s not much I can divulge at this stage.”

Sangjun was surprised. Having pegged Mansik solely as a theater director, he hadn’t expected such insightful probing. Mansik’s poker face was impossible to read, leaving Sangjun clueless as to how far ahead this man was thinking.

An audition show…

Mansik’s uneasiness stemmed from the nature of such programs, which relied heavily on pre-established popularity even before they began.

These so-called “audition” shows were no different from popularity contests. The focus would be on idols, up-and-comers signed with big agencies, and social media stars who already had a following.

Junwoo, who had only recently stepped into the limelight, seemed poised for an uphill battle.

Getting him onto the show shouldn’t be a problem, but…

Even if the kid performed just one scene properly, the impact would be monumental. Yet, the control of what gets aired rested in others’ hands. A biased edit could render Junwoo’s participation invisible.

Still, it was an offer that couldn’t be easily dismissed. Sangjun’s earlier point lingered in his mind: The whole nation will see his acting.

Mansik had to admit he was already feeling aggrieved. Despite Junwoo’s incredible performance at the recent play, only a few dozen people had witnessed his acting firsthand. A national platform could change that.

But wait. Does he even want to do something like this? Would he need to?

It was actually Mansik who wanted this. No matter how much he thought about it, it was hard to imagine someone as talented as Junwoo engaging in an acting competition. The kid had a unique approach to the craft. The thought of him vying for attention amidst a sea of hopefuls seemed out of character.

Hmm. I can’t see it.

Meanwhile, down the table from them, Junwoo sat chewing on a piece of cooled meat.

I’ve got everyone in a frenzy lately.

He watched Sangjun’s animated face as he spoke, his enthusiasm evident in every word. Junwoo recognized him. He had seen the man on TV in his previous life.

Actor Kingdom. Yeah, that would’ve been about now. The winner was some ultra-rich guy’s son.

If memory served him correctly, the program had caused a stir nationwide as soon as it aired. In fact, its incredible scale drew attention from overseas as well.

Junwoo had watched as aspiring actors tackled innovative missions. They used unconventional scripts, and they played different roles in every episode. Watching from afar in his previous life, he had felt an odd pang of envy.

Lost in thought, Junwoo recalled a specific memory that seemed out of place.

A billboard in Seoul with his face plastered across it, the public’s scorn and derision directed at him. It was a moment of stark realization about the irreversibility of life. In that instant, a rush of forgotten memories flooded back to him.

When the after-party concluded, Mansik and Junwoo returned to the theater.

“Did you see him off?” Junwoo asked.

“Saw everything, did you?”

“Yes. I’m sorry for all the trouble.”

“Trouble? It’s nothing.” Mansik feigned exhaustion, a dramatic sigh escaping him. “Really, how did I end up as your manager?”

“I have a feeling you’re enjoying it.”

“Why do you think that? Have I ever not consulted you on anything? If everything’s already settled anyway, why bother asking?”

“…”

“No?”

Was the kid curious about something? Despite the attention showered on Junwoo after the performance, he remained indifferent. He had ignored every casting call and casually deflected inquiries until now.

As Mansik waited for an answer, Junwoo raised his head.

“Should we do it?”

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