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A Thousand Faces

5

Chapter 5

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A quaint theater in the countryside.

The employee hung up the phone, his face creasing with frustration as he muttered curses under his breath. He hesitated, dreading calling out to the waiting room where Mansik Joo sat, reviewing the script for the day’s play.

Before the theater employee could say a word, Mansik’s calm expression turned to anger.

“Another no-show?”

“It seems so. How many does that make now? I don’t know what we can do.”

Mansik scoffed. “What can ‘we’ do? They’re a bunch of ungrateful leeches. Even after we doubled their fee to account for the travel, they still can’t keep their word.”

“Maybe we should consider changing the venue. It could be the location itself that’s the problem.”

“Bah! Location has nothing to do with it. You saw how great they started off. There were no problems then.”

And it was true. Despite its remote setting, Mansik Joo’s theater had quickly made a name for itself. While most theaters chased after big names to draw in crowds, Mansik took a different approach. He focused on undiscovered talent, believing that the essence of a memorable play wasn’t in the fame of its actors but in their ability to embody their roles and connect with the audience.

Mansik dedicated himself to finding aspiring actors who, despite their talents, remained unnoticed due to the overshadowing presence of their big-name co-stars. More often than not, these newcomers poured their passion and emotion into their performances.

Under his guidance, many previously unknown actors emerged as shining stars in the industry, and his theater gained recognition as the venue that discovered hidden gems.

It was a successful start.

However, it didn’t last long. While Mansik treasured and nurtured the talents he discovered, the newly acclaimed rookies had their sights set on bigger stages.

The allure of Seoul, with its prestigious theaters, eventually drew them away from the rural setting that had given them their big break. As soon as they felt they had gained enough attention at Mansik’s theater, they would move on. Their dreams ultimately lay in the city.

That was exactly what had happened today. When a well-known theater in Seoul offered an audition, the current show’s rookie lead fled without a second thought.

This was the third such case.

“Ah, these kids today are all the same. Always running off without a thanks,” Mansik grumbled.

The employee made an apologetic sound at the back of his throat. “This time, let’s go for damages. Why should you always clean up their mess?”

“Let it be,” Mansik sighed. “What money would they have anyway? They’re only just starting out. Getting involved with them will only end up with me being dragged through the mud.”

A momentary bitterness crossed Mansik’s face, too fleeting for the employee to catch. If he had a mind to, he could squash the first stirrings of media attention these newbies were currently enjoying.

Still, he had to admit, he couldn’t lash out at them for seeking the same success he once craved. The thought of retaliating against young folk who left for better opportunities didn’t sit right with him.

“How long until curtain?” Mansik asked, his frustration still simmering.

“About five hours,” the employee replied. “But what about the audience? Some are traveling a long way. Shouldn’t we go on without the lead?”

“Absolutely not. A compromised performance is out of the question. I’d rather call it off.”

“With so many expecting a show? Remember last time? The backlash was no joke. I spent the whole day answering calls. I swear I almost died.”

In the employee’s opinion, it would be easier to proceed with the performance and apologize for the absent lead later. But he knew Mansik all too well by now; once the theater owner had made up his mind about something, there would be no changing it.

The last time this had happened, they’d had to field dozens of angry calls from audience members who had booked trains and hotels to come and watch the play.

The employee knew that Mansik was someone who took the stage seriously. He viewed an imperfect performance as a disservice to those who traveled from afar with high expectations. Thus, he felt a deep sense of responsibility to put on the perfect show.

“It’s our only option. Refund the tickets, check the transport and accommodation costs, and send the whole thing to me.”

“Really? The losses could be quite substantial…”

“Don’t worry about that. I’ll cover it.”

“Okay… I’ll draft an apology for the website.”

“Who’s going to read that now? Get their contact details and write to them individually. Skip the long explanations; just keep it short and sincere. Got it?”

Before establishing the theater, Mansik Joo had been a respected member of the National Assembly at forty-five.

Despite reaching a prominent position, Mansik found himself frustrated with the inner workings of the political world. One by one, those he had trusted had betrayed him, and almost every day was another power struggle. He had reached his standing with steadfast integrity, but after being implicated in manufactured scandals, everyone turned their backs on him. Exhausted and alone, he became determined to escape dirty politics.

And so, Mansik took a bold first step into the business world. He had always felt out of place in politics, believing it clashed with his inherent nature. Starting a business would be a fresh start.

But even that didn’t last long.

Unlike the blatant backstabbing in the political arena, the world of business was filled with people who tricked and lied while smiling. He realized he was facing the same situation.

Talented individuals he had trusted and given opportunities betrayed him overnight. Companies he viewed as equals turned predatory, seizing moments of vulnerability to negotiate contracts more in their favor. The frequency of such betrayals kept growing.

“Trust is everything in business,” went the saying, but it felt like a cruel joke.

Am I the problem, or is it the world?

Everywhere he turned, more problems awaited. More than anything, he had grown weary of people in general.

Mansik’s bold venture collapsed in under a year.

I’m tired.

A sense of desolation overwhelmed him. He had nothing left. Not a shred of enthusiasm remained. Simply enduring became a burden, and aimless days at home felt like an insult to his dignity.

In his broken state, Mansik sought refuge in theaters and cinemas, places where he could be alone with his thoughts. Initially, it was just a way to pass the day as quickly as possible. Immersed in another world, he could escape from the things that tormented him in this one.

Then, unexpectedly, while idly watching a movie as usual, tears welled in his eyes.

He was taken aback.

This vulnerability was new to him. Even during all his interactions with the unsavory characters of his past, he had never allowed himself such a display of emotion. As he wiped away tears, cursing and wondering if anyone had seen this pathetic sight, something within him was changing.

For the first time in forever, he felt a stirring of emotion.

It was in this moment that Mansik Joo understood his true calling. Pooling his remaining assets, he established a theater in the countryside. It was his last chance.

Maybe this strategy of casting rookies was never going to work.

The theater that everyone had abandoned—that’s what it was now.

Facing today’s debacle, Mansik dismissed his employees early, choosing to remain alone.

He sat in the middle of the empty audience seats, his mind swirling with thoughts. As he had done countless times before, he reached up to touch the projector hanging from the ceiling. A record of a previous play began to play on the screen that filled the stage background.

The lights dimmed, the curtain slowly rose. In front of the breathless audience, the actors began their performance. Voices echoed around the theater through the speakers. The audience was still, captivated by the rising emotion and passion of the rookie actors.

Not bad at all…

Was it really an issue with the venue, as his employee had suggested? Mansik had confidently launched this venture, and in the initial months, it seemed like his efforts were paying off.

Yet, once again, it turned out that people were the problem. He hadn’t anticipated that the lack of commitment would have such an impact. He had thought that getting the place up and running would be the most challenging part.

Mansik had believed that if he started with good intentions, good people would naturally follow. But after being disappointed several times, he had to question if what he clung to was just illusions fueled by his own misguided optimism.

As Mansik mulled over these thoughts, a noise caught his attention.

The creak of a door, followed by footsteps.

He’s here again.

There was no need to turn his head to the newcomer. The same young man had been coming for weeks, loitering around.

He had a headful of messy curls, a baby face, and a tall build—a high school student, if Mansik had to guess. But his attire didn’t match his age. He was always dressed in dirty work clothes from a construction site.

At first, Mansik thought he had wandered into the wrong building.

However, the next day, and the day after, every time Mansik found himself alone reviewing the recorded performances, the guy kept hanging around the theater.

Given his age, he should have been in school. But considering he was coming here every day and there were no schools in this neighborhood, he clearly wasn’t enrolled anywhere at all.

This area was very much rural, with only construction workers and elderly people as residents. It was rare to see kids except for those with their families during the holidays. Rarer still was seeing a kid covered in dirt like this.

But he wasn’t doing anything illegal, nor did Mansik know him. There wasn’t any reason to strike up conversation or chase him away.

Mansik had ignored him the past few times. What was funny was that the boy ignored him, too. He didn’t sneak in; he confidently took a seat in the back, engrossed in the play. Their eyes had met once when Mansik turned around, and the boy had shot him a look that seemed to say, “What’s your problem?” before refocusing on the screen. Mansik was left feeling puzzled.

Despite Mansik’s constant awareness of the teen’s presence, the kid himself didn’t seem concerned with anything but the play. Mansik found that slightly annoying.

If there was one issue, however, it was the mess he left behind. Mansik had to sweep up the dirt that settled on the theater floor. After one such cleaning session, he was locking up for the day when he spotted something. He let out a bitter laugh.

Look at this guy.

A few crumpled, muddy bills were wedged in the doorframe—the young visitor’s ticket payment.

Well, that complicates things.

Wondering if it was okay to accept money from someone who clearly needed it more than him, Mansik scratched his head. The amount didn’t even cover half the ticket price, but having received it, Mansik didn’t know what to do now.

He thought there must be some explanation. Maybe he was a runaway teenager who had ended up in construction work because he needed the money.

But Mansik couldn’t resist his curiosity today.

In the history of this theater, there had never been a guest who regularly visited like this, especially to watch fuzzy recordings where you could barely see the actors’ faces. What could be the reason? What was this young patron seeking by repeatedly coming here?

Mansik wanted to know. Or maybe he was just desperate to distract himself from his looping thoughts after all the drama today.

He reached up toward the projector. The bright screen turned off with a click.

The young man in the back, engrossed in the play, unconsciously furrowed his brow. What the…? The story had been about to reach its climax. In an attempt to find the source of the issue, he tore his eyes away from the screen and scanned the seats.

Huh? Where’d he go?

The man who had been sitting in the middle of the theater was nowhere to be seen.

With a puzzled expression, the boy craned his neck for a moment before he heard a voice from the back.

“Why do you keep hanging around here?”

The boy turned his head and weakly pointed outside the theater. “I’m just passing through.”

Even though he hadn’t really answered the question, the boy’s face was deliberately innocent.

“How old are you? Why aren’t you in school?”

“I’m seventeen. And I don’t go to school.”

Mansik awkwardly cleared his throat. Maybe he shouldn’t have asked.

“What’s your name?” he went on.

This time, however, the boy looked reluctant to answer as he clamped his mouth shut.

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