By all counts,’ Good Doctor’ was an astounding success. The show hit above 20% and averaged more than 18% throughout its run. This is an even better showing than the acclaimed ‘Brain’. For weeks after the show ended, Korean forums were still abuzz with ‘Good Doctor’. Many factors were instrumental to its success but none more important and significant than its lead actor Joo Won who exceeded all expectations in his portrayal of Park Si On, the autistic savant doctor.
Park Si On is the heart and soul of Good Doctor. Yet, he is the most unlikely hero in dramaland. He stands with stooped gait, his shoulders are hunched forward and they rise up and down like a mood barometer. Forget the swagger of a cool dude because our hero shuffles his feet and scampers instead. In many kdramas where either writers get lazy with dialogues or feed the frenzy of fangirls with minutes-too-long stares from the hero, there are hardly any from Si On. Si On avoids eye contact when he can and even if he does, its duration is nowhere long. Instead of a deep and manly voice, we get one akin to that of a 10 year old boy. Park Si On does not zip around town in a sexy topless cabriolet either, the only accessory he has is his trusty sling bag which he holds on tightly like a security blanket. Despite all these, Park Si On found his way into the hearts of viewers, young and old. For this, we have to thank Joo Won for bringing Park Si On to life and gifting us one of the most memorable and lovable hero in Korean dramas.
Having followed Joo Won’s career since I first saw him in Ojakgyo Brothers, I am not new to his talent or his commitment to his art. At first look, one might be inclined to dismiss him as another pretty face or flower boy in Korean showbiz. But I can assure you, once you watch him act; you will never think that way again. Joo Won is a chameleon; he is able to get under the skin of his character so much that when we see him on screen, we see the character and not Joo Won. Yet, I was not without doubts when I first read news of him accepting this role.
Park Si On is an extremely difficult character to play. He is autistic but is a savant. He is 27 years old but has the mentality of a 10 year old. To make it more improbable, the story is about his pursuit to become a pediatric surgeon, a journey during which he also falls in love. It is almost like having to have all the planets aligned in order to hit jackpot.
I do not know if Joo Won was the first choice for this role. There were talks of Kim Soo Hyun being offered but he declined. I cannot think of another actor in his generation which can possibly pull it off. So far we only have veteran actors who took on similar roles. For example, Shin Hyun Joon played Ki Bong in ‘Barefoot Ki Bong’, Ryu Seung Ryong as Yong Goo in ‘Miracle in Cell No. 7’ and Cho Seung Woo as Cho Won in ‘Marathon’. All these characters have mental disability and ‘Marathon’ was based on the real life story of an autistic man. However, Joo Won knew he had to portray a character which is vastly different from any of these.
This role is one which needs a lot of research and thinking through in order to do well. At that time, Joo Won had just completed ‘7th Level Civil Servant’ and signed on for the movie ‘Catch Me’. He had also announced his return to the musical theater stage in ‘GHOST’ the musical. Taking on a new drama was the last thing I expected. On one hand, I was delighted because I had been bemoaning about not being able to see him on small screen for a long time. But on the other, I was afraid and worried about how he can juggle so many things on his plate. This is not just any other role but an extremely demanding one. I felt as if I was watching a diver on a 5 meter platform about to execute a dive of utmost difficulty. If Joo Won messes up, there will be a huge splash and the media will have a heyday tearing his performance to bits. If he does a flawless one, the crowd will grow wild with applause and I can imagine the judges giving him the perfect ten. The stakes were high, you bet.
It turned out despite his one hell of a schedule; Joo Won did a lot of research on autism and autistic people. His ever supportive mom bought him books, videos and reading materials. Joo Won visited the Center for Autism in Korea where he spoke with the director and came face to face with the autistic people there. Joo Won came back from those experiences not just with knowledge and understanding but also with a burden. He felt the pressure of portraying Park Si On accurately because failure to do so would cause more misunderstanding towards autistic people instead of enlightenment. He was also mindful that his portrayal should be respectful to autistic people and not reduce them to caricatures.
I remember my initial reaction when I saw the first teaser of Good Doctor. Before I felt awe, I was shocked. This is not the first time Joo Won has done it to me. In Gaksital’s first episode, I was horrified to see no trace of sweet and subdued Hwang Taehee (Joo Won’s character in Ojakgyo Brothers) in the supposed hero. Instead I got a shouty Lee Kangto who was a s.o.b and did not hesitate beating up his countrymen including slapping a girl. Truthfully, when I saw Joo Won in that trailer as Park Si On, I cringed at how awkward he looked. His shoulders were rounded and completely hunched; he wore a dazed look as Park Si On’s senses got overwhelmed by the unfamiliar surroundings, sights and sounds. His gait was strange and he walked, no, he scuffled across the pedestrian crossing. Once again, Joo Won disappeared and all I saw was Park Si On.
Joo Won acknowledged that it will be hard to portray Park Si On because autism is a wide spectrum. He knew from onset that he had to avoid stereotypes and all conventions of how a mentally disabled person should be portrayed. He said this in an interview on his interactions with autistic people: “”I was surprised at how well they spoke. It was difficult to piece together what the general public understands, what I learned and what I needed to show in the drama.” When I read this, I gave him kudos for being one of the most perceptive and intelligent actors of his generation. In the end, Joo Won gave his own interpretation of the character and he nailed every bit of it, from the posture to the unique tics to the child-like voice. More than this, Joo Won brought Park Si On to life. Every week, we giggled, laughed, cheered and cried for Park Si On. It is by no means a small feat because this character is one where it is easy to underact and overact.
Being autistic, Park Si On does not express emotions the way people normally do. His face is usually rather blank. Yet, we know that he has emotions and feelings beneath that rather expressionless façade. In the hands of a lesser actor, we might end up with just blank looks and stares. These days, this is so common in kdramas where bad acting is considered as understated or nuanced. I abhor those scenes where the lead actor is supposed to have cast a supposedly meaningful stare but come across as contrived and unnatural to say the least. In ‘Good Doctor’, there are many occasions where I felt keenly all the emotions of Park Si On through Joo Won’s heartfelt acting.
The scene where he tried to tell Yoon Seo that he likes her, I could feel how exasperated, embarrassed and frustrated he was by his inability to make her understand him. These were achieved without any melodramatic outburst or crying. One scene that gutted me most was when Yoon Seo announced to the team at dinner that she and Si On were dating. Joo Wong gave a totally understated yet powerful performance. As usual there were not much said and no huge display of emotion, yet we felt so acutely the embarrassment, awkwardness and hurt Si On felt through his small gestures, a twitch in the corner of his lips that was to pass for a smile and oh, that look in his eyes. Ouch.
Joo Won has always been very good at expressing emotions with his eyes. In this aspect, he surpassed himself as Park Si On. Many a times, Si On’s face is void of expression but Joo Won manages to convey every emotion that Si On feels solely through his eyes. In them, you can see the anxiety, panic, bewilderment, determination, disappointment, fear, exasperation, tenderness, love and literally the gamut of emotions.
On the flip side, Park Si On is also a character where he can easily become a caricature through overacting. At first I was very concerned about how Joo Won will act Si On’s voice. I cannot stand the childish, whiny voice that many actors are inclined to put on whenever they act mentally disabled people. Believe it or not, in each drama, Joo Won pays attention to the voice of his character or rather the way the character speaks. He is very detailed in his acting to this extent. If you have watched each of his dramas, you will realize that he imbued different and unique characteristics in each role. Each character has its own set of tics, body posture, walk and manner of speech. Thankfully, Park Si On is no exception. Joo Won got all the autistic characteristics, mannerisms, tone of voice and manner of speech pat down. And about the voice, my fears were unfounded. Instead of an annoying childish voice, Park Si On’s voice and speech was incredibly cute and adorable. Who can forget Park Si On’s “Pali Pali” or “Arrest, Arrest!”? These became catchphrases amongst fans of the drama.
After the show aired, the director of the Centre of Autism wrote to Joo Won to thank him for portraying the role well and exceeding his expectation. To me, more than these, Joo Won makes Park Si On’s childlike innocence very realistic and adorable. It is here where Joo Won lends a part of himself and his innocence to make Si On an lovable and heartwarming character.
Dramas rarely succeed due to one factor or a particular actor. Good Doctor’s success can be attributed to good writing, direction, production quality and a wonderful cast. Everyone, from lead actors to supporting actors to child actors played his/her part to perfection. Yet amidst all these wonderful and talented people, Joo Won stood out. I dare say if Joo Won had been any less in his portrayal of Park Si On, the whole drama would have fallen apart ceteris paribus.
Park Si On became the nation’s most loved drama character, many viewers also expressed their gratitude for the hope, encouragement and enlightenment that Joo Won brought to them through this role. I felt likewise. Because of Park Si On, my empathy for people who are different from me, increased. I fist pumped when Si On successfully completed his first solo surgery, I cried like a proud mama when Si On stood before the board of SeongWon University Hospital and gave his inauguration speech. Throughout the 20 episodes, I felt as if I personally accompanied Si On on his journey to become a son, a lover, a good doctor and a good man.
It is to Joo Won’s credit that viewers like me are able to step into the drama world and feel for his character the way we do. This is a man who wants to be an actor more than a star. Without any vanity in the way he portrays every character, Joo Won loses himself entirely in the role and gave us Park Si On. I wish I can say that he will win the Baeksang or even KBS Top Excellence award. After last year’s Gaksital debacle, what little amount of credibility I hold for these awards dwindled to zilch. Of course, I still hope that he will win one because no matter what I think or say, these awards are the only official recognition an actor can get. The year has not drawn to a close but I think it’s safe to say one man deserves to be called the best actor and his name is Moon Jun Won.
picture credits: KBS official stills, DC Joo Wongall jb, coolreborn
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