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A Thousand Faces

22

Chapter 22

1

“I’d rather see it with my own eyes than hear more about it.”

Sungrae concluded with those remarks and lowered the microphone. Pen in hand, he watched Junwoo take his place on stage.

The character isn’t shown on-screen, so maybe that’ll make it easier to bring to life.

It was a reckless move.

Reckless, yet clever.

While the judges had certain criteria for evaluating the other characters, all of whom had well-defined personalities, “Mu-myeong Kim” was essentially an original creation by Junwoo himself. It was fair to say he was the only one who truly knew the character.

If his rationale was persuasive, and if he could somewhat embody the character’s essence through his own interpretation, he might score impressively.

Daewon and Cheong-myeong felt the same. They couldn’t help but be curious about how well this young contestant had fleshed out a complete character in such a short time.

A lunatic? A psychopath? Let’s see which angle he takes.

As they watched with bated breath, Junwoo’s performance began.

In an instant, he became Mu-myeong Kim.

“Why did you act like you didn’t know? You were the one who pitied me. I…”

His monologue kicked off in the tone of a middle schooler.

A sorrowful, poignant voice flowed out, conveying a deep reluctance to be despised. He hesitated, struggling not to be rushed because of the fear of hatred. The young man delivered lines brimming with emotions; he could no longer bear it.

Sungrae nodded.

Age well captured. This could really take his performance to the next level.

Suddenly, Mu-myeong Kim dropped to his knees with a thud.

“I-I’m sorry, Sanmin. We promised we wouldn’t do this. Please, just…”

In that moment, the youthful face of Mu-myeong Kim disappeared, replaced by his twenty-something-year-old self. He begged fervently at Sanmin Tae’s feet.

That was just the beginning.

As time progressed, a growing sense of disillusionment and anger toward human nature showed on his face—the characters of Black Spirit Island passing through his life.

“I was the fool, surrounded by traitors. I clung to hope, only to be met with betrayal…”

The scene continued, rapidly flipping through each character, showing the hidden core of their pasts. Only the emotions and moments in time changed while the character of Mu-myeong Kim remained.

Sungrae, without realizing it, became engrossed, his eyes narrowing in concentration.

So, what story does he intend to convey through Mu-myeong Kim?

Initially, the monologue’s direction seemed uncertain, filled with new stories. But as time went on, the puzzle pieces began to fall into place.

“You should be the ones punished, right?”

This was the full, winding tale revealing the tragic downfall of the characters in Black Spirit Island.

Duhyeon Baek’s life.

Tae Sanmin’s life.

Jang Mi-ryeong’s life.

Other characters and extras.

Their woven threads unraveled out from the seed called Mu-myeong Kim.

Sungrae’s pen slipped from his grasp as it finally struck him. He could see it now.

From Mu-myeong Kim’s first line on stage to all the scenes, the flow of time, the rise of emotions, the perfect arrangement. All the interconnected stories of Black Spirit Island flowed from that single character.

Sungrae felt a chill run down his spine. Even though the characters from the movie hadn’t appeared on stage, it felt like they were alive. This short performance felt like a prequel to Black Spirit Island.

They weren’t watching a made-up character at all; this boy was Mu-myeong Kim.

The judges sat frozen, momentarily lost for words. The young contestant had just proven his earlier point through his acting alone—that this “invented role” was indeed pivotal.

That the judges were mistaken.

And I thought I was being clever with the other characters! Daewon Gu thought.

The kid’s choice had struck the challenge objective head-on. Mu-myeong Kim was indispensable to this movie.

“Thank you,” Junwoo said as he ended his performance.

It was too unbelievable. How on earth could they air this?

“Okay, we’re going to take a break now!”

As soon as Jungil Park’s voice broke the silence, Sungrae grabbed the microphone. The crew behind him looked surprised.

“Uh, we’re not rolling…”

But all they could do was watch. They had never seen Sungrae Jo so confused and flustered.

The veteran actor was speechless. He wanted to say something, but his mouth wouldn’t open. He had been so immersed in the performance that he had forgotten his role as a judge.

I don’t know if I’m even qualified to evaluate this.

Doubt made him pause, despite being renowned across South Korea for his keen ability to scrutinize and objectively evaluate acting.

Junwoo had deconstructed the film efficiently, crafted new scenes, and even made up dialogue. He had transitioned seamlessly from portraying a child to a middle-aged man in an instant. Try as he might, Sungrae couldn’t find a single flaw.

In the end, what came out of his mouth wasn’t an evaluation but pure curiosity. Still struggling to regain his composure, he asked, “Honestly, I’m astounded. How did you manage such a deep character analysis on your own? Was it the result of studying each character in detail?”

It was like he’d forgotten he was sitting on the judging panel.

After the performance, Junwoo was back to his usual nonchalant self. He paused to contemplate the question before raising his microphone.

“It was more about understanding Mu-myeong Kim that allowed me to delve into the other characters. Since the theme was about roles, I concentrated on the characters. Understanding Mu-myeong’s core was the key.”

Sungrae caught something in his answer. “Hold on, what do you mean ‘Since the theme was about roles.’?”

“The first round was about roles, so I prepared accordingly.”

“But you seem to grasp other elements as well. Can you give us examples? Are you talking about directing, camera work?”

Examples? Junwoo furrowed his brow for a moment.

“I’m not sure if there are specific terms for these concepts. I’ve read a lot of theory, but… giving examples or putting it into words is tricky.”

Junwoo answered measuredly, still in contest mode, as if his answers were being evaluated. Sungrae felt a moment of embarrassment at his own eagerness.

But what did the boy just say?

Is he suggesting he’s developed a sort of instinct for this, without the need for specific terminology?

More curious than ever, Sungrae attempted to steady himself. He cleared his throat and continued in a calmer tone, “If you can’t explain with words, how can you prove it?”

“I don’t know. I could show you, but that would be outside the scope of the challenge.”

“Well, there we go. You could show us.”

Junwoo glanced around, his gaze lingering briefly on Daewon Gu, the creator of Black Spirit Island.

“That would mean making unauthorized changes. Out of respect, I wouldn’t want to overstep in front of the film’s director.”

Cheong-myeong, still reeling from Junwoo’s performance, finally snapped back to reality. Fear began to creep in. His intuition told him this was all going wrong, from the broadcast to the judges’ reputation.

This kid shouldn’t be here.

Cheong-myeong quickly picked up the microphone. “I’m sure you wouldn’t have had enough time to prepare that thoroughly. Let’s not overextend ourselves, now. It’s perfectly fine to admit it.”

There was a hint of disdain in his voice, as well as some underlying anxiousness.

The show had already been brought to an abrupt halt.

Off-stage, Jungil and Sangjun had grasped the serious nature of the situation and were hurriedly responding.

“A-Alright, hold on. We will handle questions about the contestant one at a—”

“I’d like to see it, too,” Daewon Gu cut off Jungil’s panicked voice. “If that’s alright with you.”

The director, who had been quiet throughout the aftermath of Junwoo’s performance, made the whole studio fall silent. After watching what had just happened on that stage, his career was the last thing on his mind. He wanted to know.

“Okay,” Junwoo said.

This was a little troubling. The judges’ intense gazes were fixed on him. It seemed like they were determined to see what he could do—like they wouldn’t be able to continue with the show if they didn’t.

“But it’ll take some time. About twenty-three minutes.”

It seemed the contestant had done a quick calculation in that brief moment. The judges couldn’t fathom what it was that required that exact amount of time. They simply waited, refraining from further comments.

Finally, Junwoo began his next performance. The studio was engulfed in silence.

Even though he was still portraying the same Mu-myeong Kim, his approach and the elements he incorporated had changed. His previous performance consisted of snippets of each character’s journey through Mu-myeong’s eyes. But this…

What I’m seeing right now is…

The movie itself.

Using his positioning relative to the judges’ seats as the camera angles, Junwoo created entire scenes as he moved about the stage. His character Mu-myeong Kim gave another monologue, this time weaving together every facet of filmmaking, from the main theme to subplots.

It was a surreal spectacle.

And tying it all together was his unbelievable acting.

It was like he was making a short film in real-time, all by himself.

It was hard to believe that he was creating all of this with only the character of Mu-myeong Kim. As everyone sat stunned, Mu-myeong, who was thought to have disappeared, halted on stage.

The scene ended with him standing on Black Spirit Island alone. It was exactly twenty-three minutes.

Only then did Sungrae understand what Junwoo had said earlier.

Without Mu-myeong Kim, no element of this film could exist.

Even Daewon Gu, with all his experience, might not have delved so deeply into the character’s importance. Sungrae, who had collaborated on numerous projects with the director, was only just beginning to realize this.

How can I be so overwhelmed by one person’s acting?

This was a new feeling for Sungrae Jo. How could all this come from a young actor just stepping into the business?

His face, once full of awe, now reflected a complex mix of emotions. He looked like a man questioning his lifelong dedication to his craft.

Next to him, Daewon Gu’s heart was racing with the urge to make a director’s cut and a spin-off of Black Spirit Island, despite it being three years since its release. At the same time, he felt a sense of unease. Could he do it without the kid?

Only Daewon Gu, the creator of this film, and Sungrae Jo, who had devoted his entire life to acting, could understand what Junwoo was trying to convey. The others were simply left bewildered.

Was that even acting?

Even though they didn’t understand it, they could sense the absurdity of what they had just witnessed.

The set fell silent, unable to articulate their shock as they looked at the young contestant.

The young contestant who, evidently, had poured hours of study into this film for this very day.

But what they didn’t realize was that for Junwoo, Black Spirit Island was just one of many, many movies he had watched.

***

The aftermath.

Sungrae, still seated in the judges’ seats, was scratching his head thoughtfully when he suddenly burst into laughter. This whole thing was absurd beyond belief.

And they thought Junho Gil was the PR draw?

Pfft. Are people really overrating him that much?

Everything was starting to click—why the great actor Junho Gil had opted for such a small, rural theater, and why the media buzz had focused on this kid instead.

He burst out laughing once more as he imagined how Junho Gil, given his personality and ambition, would have flocked to that kid as soon as he saw what he could do.

Sungrae Jo had barely cracked a smile since the start of the show. Now, he sat laughing by himself, leaving Cheong-myeong looking at him with a puzzled expression.

“What’s… up with him?”

But Cheong-myeong’s question went unanswered by the still-reeling Daewon Gu.

A second later, Sungrae’s face was serious again. Based on his experience with actors, what that kid had shown today wasn’t even half of his capabilities.

Had I been younger, I might have quit acting because of him.

Sungrae felt a sense of relief at the thought of his impending retirement. Even in his prime, he wouldn’t have stood a chance against such raw talent.

Over his fifty-year career, he had played diverse characters that showcased the breadth of his acting. As he aged, however, he found himself pigeonholed, despite his talents. It was his manager who had suggested he leverage his knowledge and experience in nurturing promising newcomers.

While contemplating his career options, he had received a tempting offer from Jungil Park, who sought to enhance the program’s quality with someone of Sungrae’s fame and expertise. That was how Sungrae had joined Actor Kingdom, marking the culmination of his extensive career.

There was a new problem on the horizon now.

What if this airs?

It wasn’t about the audience or ratings anymore; Actor Kingdom was bound to be overshadowed. Predicting the extent of the attention Junwoo would draw was impossible.

But for Sungrae Jo, that was a secondary concern.

He was still dumbfounded by what had just happened. His body was trembling with excitement, and there was a prickling pain in his heart as he realized he had discovered this gem so late into the game.

Suddenly feeling impatient, Sungrae turned to Daewon Gu.

“When is the second round?”

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