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A Thousand Faces

21

Chapter 21

1

Black Spirit Island.

Daewon Gu’s movie was the theme for the first round.

Stranded on a deserted island overnight, a group of people—of all different ages and backgrounds—find themselves utterly alone.

In these extreme circumstances, the story unfolds, revealing deep truths and unearthing the characters’ pasts. Their stories weave together in a flawlessly crafted narrative. Every actor in the cast delivers outstanding performances throughout the perfectly structured plot, all the way to an incredible ending.

On the set of Actor Kingdom, the judging had covered over half of the remaining contestants. One by one, they took to the stage.

“As expected, Duhyeon Baek and Sanmin Tae appear the most. A bit too predictable, maybe?” Daewon Gu said.

“Well, they are the most intense characters,” Cheong-myeong replied, nodding.

With no restrictions on the role or how it would be acted, the contestants showcased a variety of styles. Some portrayed the movie characters exactly as they were, while others offered fresh interpretations of their own.

Of course, there were the occasional bad performances, which, more often than not, ended in tears.

Then came the next contestant, then another.

As the round progressed, the skilled performers began to stand out. Cheong-myeong expressed his admiration for the emerging talents.

“The skill level is actually quite impressive compared to what I expected.”

“Agreed. Makes me wonder how much better the film could be if we’d gone for some of these interpretations. Have I lost my touch?”

“Oh, come on, Director Gu. That’s going too far,” Cheong-myeong said, chuckling. Then, turning to his side, he asked, “What do you think, sir?”

Sitting to Cheong-myeong’s left was Sungrae Jo, who had been mostly quiet, save for the necessary evaluation comments.

“Maybe you could learn something from their passion and energy,” Sungrae chided Cheong-myeong, clearly unimpressed by his casual demeanor throughout the judging process.

“Ah, you’re right. I should really reconnect with my roots,” Cheong-myeong said. At the same time, he thought to himself, Says Mr. Critical.

He found it somewhat unfair that the veteran actor would say something like that after being so stingy with his praise and even making several contestants cry.

In Sungrae’s mind, he was judging based on the passion and ambition he observed in the aspiring actors, regardless of their skills. He also gave them brutally honest feedback meant to push them to improve.

Cheong-myeong thought it was pointless to be so nitpicky with the comments, considering there was only going to be one winner at the end. Shaking his head, he was about to check the information of the next participant when he suddenly perked up.

“Oh, there he is. Our rising star.”

The profile in his hand belonged to Hyeok Kang.

“He wasn’t shown on the prelims, was he?” Daewon said. “This will be everyone’s first time seeing him act.”

“He chose an extra. A risky move.”

Cheong-myeong signaled to Sangjun, who was below the stage. It was a signal to the crew to focus on Actor Kingdom’s main character.

Soon, Hyeok Kang walked onto the stage and bowed his head respectfully. “Hello. I’m contestant number 11, Hyeok Kang.”

All eyes were on him. People who had only heard the name whispered among themselves.

Hyeok Kang stood tall, his striking features marking him as an actor even before he spoke. His voice and articulation were already well-polished.

At just eighteen, he exuded a level of poise and confidence rarely seen, and his manners were the finishing touch to his compelling aura. It was clear Hyeok Kang had received education in areas well beyond acting. Everything about him exuded “heir of a mega-fortune.”

The judges couldn’t hide their astonishment; it was an incredible first impression.

Daewon Gu picked up the microphone. “I see you’ve made an interesting choice.”

“Yes. I chose the role of an extra, Minjun Lee.”

“That’s a bold move. Can you explain what made you choose that character?”

There was a brief flicker of unease on Daewon Gu’s face. If he were to give a disappointing answer, the interest generated from his great entrance might diminish.

Hyeok met Daewon’s eyes unflinchingly. “Minjun Lee is weak and fearful, a bystander in the shadows while the others shine. On an isolated island, he might seem like just a plot device to highlight the rest of the cast, but…”

The judges all listened to Hyeok’s explanation with rapt attention.

“I think he’s the only one capable of being an impartial witness to the events and emotional shifts of the main characters. He’s the mirror for the audience, allowing them to see the story through his eyes, to feel as though they’re part of the narrative themselves. Influenced by Minjun Lee’s reactions and perspectives, of course.”

Daewon Gu was so impressed that he couldn’t help but let slip a soft “Whoa…” under his breath.

“I think that’s what you were going for, Director Gu,” Hyeok continued. “I think the film’s suspense was kept up because of Minjun Lee. It never got boring.”

“Wow, I’m surprised,” Daewon said into the mic. “How did you figure that out?”

Is this what it felt like to find talent? Hyeok Kang was explaining exactly what was in his head. It was hard to believe he was so young.

Cheong-myeong caught the look on Daewon’s face. It was beyond admiration—it was pure astonishment.

I guess we have a standout here. Can’t wait to see him act.

Hyeok Kang walked to a corner of the stage instead of settling into the center.

He’s alone up there anyway. Why leave the stage empty?

The judges watched, initially uncertain. Yet, as Hyeok’s performance began, they were soon won over.

His entire body trembled with fear, and his eyes darted around the stage as if watching the movements of invisible characters. Suddenly, his face froze in sheer panic.

They could tell what he was seeing just by his expression alone.

It was the scene from the middle of the film, where a group of people, having lost their humanity, performed a ritual around a victim of a brutal murder.

Even though he didn’t say a word, his performance was flawless. Everyone in the room was mesmerized. It was hard to believe that he had only practiced for a short while.

The judges were so impressed that they immediately started writing in their evaluation sheets.

“That’s all for now. Thank you,” Hyeok said as he finished.

A stream of compliments followed his performance. As soon as he stepped off stage, the judges began talking excitedly among themselves.

Cheong-myeong, finally relaxing, leaned back in his chair. “I don’t think we need to see any more. We have our winner. Director Gu, you worried for nothing.”

Sungrae gave an almost reluctant nod. “Geonim Kang wasn’t wrong.”

The evaluations continued.

A few contestants later, the faces of the judging panel sank as they reviewed the profile.

Junwoo Han looked at them from center stage.

“Hello.”

The warm atmosphere of a moment ago evaporated into an icy chill.

Before the cameras began rolling, the judges, having turned off their mics, had a whispered discussion.

“He wrote down a role that doesn’t exist.”

“I think he might’ve confused it with another movie.”

“I guess he just wants attention, huh? It’s okay if he opts out of this one.”

“Hmm…”

Daewon struggled to suppress his annoyance toward the contestant who seemed to disregard the careful craftsmanship of his film for the sake of popularity. No matter how important the first round was for attracting viewers, he couldn’t tolerate such disrespect.

“I won’t say anything. You can take this one,” Daewon muttered.

“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of this, so just watch,” Cheong-myeong replied, smiling as if he had a plan.

The camera panned to the judges. Cheong-myeong’s expression changed immediately.

His voice dropping to a serious tone, he said to Junwoo, “What is this?”

Cheong-myeong’s face was full of confusion, unlike the ease with which he had treated the other contestants.

He held up Junwoo’s submission so the camera could get a good shot. There was only one name written on it: Mu-myeong Kim.

“Was this name in the movie?” Cheong-myeong asked.

“No, I made it up.”

“That’s what I thought. But why? Were you trying to get noticed? I can tell you now, inventing a role without permission raises questions about your commitment to acting.”

“I didn’t invent a role. I chose a nameless role, but they asked for a name, so I just wrote something down.”

“Isn’t that the same thing? Junwoo, I get that you’re young, but there’s a limit to how much we can let things slide. We’re not here for jokes.”

The atmosphere in the room became tense. The contestant’s attitude, which seemed to show no remorse, even in the face of criticism, seemed to be making Cheong-myeong angry.

“Wow, it’s like it’s scripted.”

The staff watching the scene live muttered to each other off-stage.

Everyone had the same opinion. From the first round, the contestants, crew, and judges were either puzzled or sympathetic about why Junwoo Han had made such a decision.

The truth was, Cheong-myeong wasn’t angry at all. He was actually secretly enjoying himself.

This scene is going to be a real attention-grabber.

Audition programs thrived on such moments. Seeing Junwoo at a loss for words confirmed he had made an impact, albeit not in the way he might have hoped.

Cheong-myeong saw this as an opportunity to turn a potentially discouraging moment into a valuable lesson for the aspiring actor.

Just as he went to speak, someone else beat him to it.

“I don’t think his intention was baseless,” Sungrae Jo interjected, seizing the microphone.

Caught off guard, Cheong-myeong’s head whipped to his fellow judge, his face a mixture of curiosity, anticipation, and doubt.

Leaning forward, he whispered, “Sir…? If you do this—”

“What was your intention behind this choice, Junwoo?” Sungrae pressed, overriding Cheong-myeong’s protests with a slight hint of annoyance. His gaze was fixed on Junwoo. “Can you explain?”

“Yes.”

As Junwoo straightened, there was a noticeable shift in his demeanor, as if he was ready to dive into the discussion. Sungrae found the change intriguing.

Did he think it wasn’t worth explaining?

Perhaps Junwoo had been reluctant to share his thoughts with someone who seemed unprepared to listen, suspecting that Cheong-myeong’s apparent anger was merely staged.

The underlying issue was clear: Cheong-myeong had prioritized the spectacle over sincere engagement with the contestants. He was more concerned with extracting engaging content for the show, making it unlikely for a tense and young newbie actor to fully express himself.

If Sungrae’s assumption was true, the observant contestant currently on stage was no ordinary kid.

“The first task was to choose a pivotal character in the film. In one scene, Mi-ryeong Jang confesses to witnessing an accident five years ago and choosing to ignore it. She considers this her gravest mistake. That’s how the character Mu-myeong is introduced.”

Sungrae tilted his head. He didn’t remember that part.

“What scene was this?”

“It’s the scene where Mi-ryeong starts her lines while sitting on a rock, starting at 23 minutes 48 seconds.”

Everyone in the studio, including Sungrae, looked puzzled. In a runtime of over two hours, the part Junwoo mentioned made up no more than five seconds. Even if he had just watched the movie before the challenge, it would be a near-impossible thing to remember.

“You seem to know the precise timings well. You won’t have had time to rehearse, I’m sure. When was the last time you watched the film?”

Junwoo hesitated for a moment. He couldn’t say it was twenty years ago.

“…I saw it recently.”

“Hmm. So why do you think this is the most pivotal role?”

“Because if Mu-myeong Kim hadn’t existed, none of the other characters, the plot, or elements of this movie could have existed.”

“Other elements? All this because of a character who’s barely in the movie?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“And you’ve considered this might simply be your interpretation?”

“I didn’t think the director would include such a line without a purpose. I appreciate the details he put into the work beyond the character, but if I’m reaching here, I apologize.”

Sungrae narrowed his eyes. He couldn’t quite grasp Junwoo’s intentions.

To Cheong-myeong, it sounded like this was all a desperate bid for attention.

“More than half of the participants chose Duhyeon Baek and Sanmin Tae. Is there a particular reason you didn’t choose them?”

“Duhyeon Baek portrays the most impactful character, but when pushed into extreme situations later, he gives very typical human responses. I felt that was deliberate, but I also believed that the emotions expressed could be replaced with any character.”

“Did you think the same of Sanmin Tae?”

“No, Sanmin Tae has the most significant emotional fluctuations at the beginning and end, but there were several instances in the middle where I found errors in the lines. Oh—” Junwoo cut himself off. “Of course, by errors, I don’t mean flaws in the work. It’s possible that intentionally creating an inconsistent character was part of the artistic intention.”

“Hmm, so you’re saying Mu-myeong Kim is the origin of everything, irreplaceable and error-free because he doesn’t appear.”

“Yes, exactly,” Junwoo replied, confidently engaging with Sungrae Jo, whose presence could be daunting. His responses weren’t mere attempts to impress; he shared his genuine insight and maintained a respectful tone.

His composure suggested he wasn’t just participating in a discussion; he was relishing it.

Sungrae was astonished. He had assumed that Junwoo had written the character of Mu-myeong Kim due to a limited understanding of the film.

How does he know everything? Even things I didn’t think of. It feels like I’m talking to the director of the movie himself.

Meanwhile, Daewon, who had been somewhat detached, found himself drawn back into the conversation.

I forgot about that character.

Daewon cast his mind back to a few years ago, during the movie’s creation. There had been a character that was the starting point for all the events. A character with barely any screen time.

He thought he had named him, but he honestly couldn’t remember.

Junwoo had named that character Mu-myeong Kim, and Mu-myeong was indeed the central axis of the film’s cast and narratives. The role Daewon had envisioned from the film’s inception, and the only one he had held dear.

Despite the movie’s success and the popularity of the main characters, this presence had gone forgotten for years. Critics and audiences alike had never mentioned this shadowy figure before. Frankly, the fact that it was coming to light now was suspicious.

It doesn’t make sense to act out a role that’s only five seconds.

Sungrae cut through the tension. “I’d rather see it with my own eyes than hear more about it.”

The room was filled with a variety of emotions—curiosity, anticipation, anxiety, dissatisfaction, boredom, indifference. Amidst the heightened tension, Junwoo took his place on stage.

And a short while later…

“Thank you.”

The moment Junwoo’s performance ended, a profound silence settled over the studio. The judges all looked as if they had witnessed something unbelievable. They were like statues, frozen in place. A pen dropped onto the table, but no one noticed.

The first to break the stunned silence was Jungil, who stood with his mouth agape.

He had realized that this would derail the entire show. Leaping onto the stage, he frantically waved his arms.

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