I actually had to blink twice and look down at the face on the magazine cover I was holding to recognize the face smiling at me, passing by as if in a whizz.
That’s him?! Ji Chang Wook (or Ji Chang-wook), the Korean heartthrob and famous actor we were to interview in an hour or so. We were in Seoul.
He stepped out of the studio where he was doing a photo shoot for Bench, walked toward us seated on the bench, smiling, and went past us on his way to the door for a brief break.
A warm boyish smile. He spotted us before we spotted him.
That was our casual introduction to this guy whose face is seen the world over, from Seoul to Russia, Iran, Vietnam and the Philippines, where on his birthday last month his fans flashed their greeting to him on the MAXX Eye Led and MOA Globamaze.
Turned out, his casual vibe would set the atmosphere that afternoon three weeks ago in Gangnam-gu in Seoul, Korea.
The 33-year-old famous actor (“Empress Ki,” “Healer,” “Suspicious Partner,” among others)—the Hallyu star with 9 million followers on Instagram and whose fan base in the Philippines is solid, very active and hardcore—is warm and chummy in the flesh. No airs or affectations. He struck us as candid, not distant at all.
From our interview later that afternoon, it was his constant smile and laughter that I would take away.
And especially, I was touched by the spontaneous way he reached out across the table to shake both my hands when I told him, “And regards to your mom” at the end of our interview. His eyes lit up, he broke into a happy (or was it amused?) laugh, like the good son this only child is reputed to be, and walked around the table to me for our souvenir shot.
He was in a loose high-fashion-brand pullover in the faintest of pink—a biggie shirt with oversize sleeves, quite cutting-edge for a guy. He’s known for his preference for away-from-the-body tops—an irony, considering his “Healer” drew fans worldwide to his buff body in the snug black jacket. His shirt that afternoon camouflaged the signature broad shoulders so known among his fans.
“Are his shoulders really broad?” one of our desk editors asked me upon learning that we met him.
It was July 11, a reinvigorating spring day in Gangnam-gu. Ben Chan, the founder and head of Bench (chair of Suyen Corp., the firm that owns Bench), flew me and Philippine Star Lifestyle editor Millet Mananquil, with the Bench team, to Seoul, to meet the latest endorser of Bench fragrances—whose identity was to remain secret until the nationwide launch today.
However, the moment Chan posted on Instagram a photo of himself standing before the wall art or graffiti of Chang Wook on a side street in Gangnam-gu, the fans in the Philippines went into a frenzy of speculation—is Chang Wook the next Bench endorser, is he coming to Manila? Like other passersby on the Gangnam-gu street, we took turns doing selfies at the wall art of Chang Wook, striking a pose to make it look like his right arm was on our shoulder. Ingenious street art.
Federer, Nadal, Djokovic (whom I met), Roddick (my all-time favorite)—ask me about them, and chances are I will have an answer. But Korean drama, the Korean wave or Hallyu? I’m clueless. (Or I was.)
So before the trip, our former Malacañang reporter who’s a K-drama expert and a diehard Ji Chang Wook fan, Nikko Dizon, gave me a crash course on the Korean wave that has been sweeping the world and has kept enthralled a good, interesting demographic of the Philippine population. I fast-forwarded episodes of “Suspicious Partner,” the last romcom series Chang Wook did right before he started mandatory military training in August 2017.
July 11, after lunch, in Gangnam-gu, at the WonderBoy Studio of Kim Do Won, the photographer who usually does the shoots of Chang Wook, we sat waiting around the table loaded with snacks and drinks. Nearby was the buffet table. Next room was the studio where Chang Wook was doing a shoot.
Ben Chan and his team were in the studio to meet Chang Wook and to watch the shoot. Millet and I were in the receiving room, outside the studio, and I was bored seated at the table—until Chang Wook appeared in front of me.
I would learn later that apparently, unlike other stars, this guy mingles. He popped up at the studio at call time at noon and joined the pictorial team casually.
Someone who was at the shoot earlier recalled, “Usually stars have their food brought to them and they would eat in the dressing room. But JCW (Chang Wook) himself went to the buffet table, got his own food, smiled at us. Then after eating he got his toothbrush. We saw him brush his teeth outside the washroom, as he waited for the previous occupant to finish in the washroom and open the door.
“He would walk around, smile at us all the time and acknowledge us with a nod.”
The behind-the-scenes spectator added, “Tao siya, hindi poon (He’s human, not a god).”
We found that conclusion a bit much until, the more we looked into the Hallyu phenomenon worldwide, the more we realized that the Korean stars not only have a growing following worldwide, they also enjoy a fan adulation approximating that of a “demigod” (an observer’s term). Fans travel far and wide, even in the dead of winter, just to see the stars in the flesh, buy tickets to fan meets, follow them physically or digitally, organize themselves into fan clubs who try to outdo each other with events and projects. They become possessive of the stars.
Korean drama, like K-pop, could become an addiction. Start with one and you need to go on to the next, sundown to sun-up. But it’s an addiction that is well deserved by South Korea’s creatives industry, and we say that grudgingly.
Why? Because the Philippines is supposed to be the Hollywood of Southeast Asia, if not Asia (excluding Bollywood), and we gave the world our Lea Salongas, our talents who have enthralled and enriched the world’s entertainment and theater.
And yet, Korean drama and entertainment have progressed way beyond our reach, it seems, for now, at least—in story and production values, in branding, and most of all, in their stars. The more you watch Korean drama, the more you get embroiled in its characters and story—until the line between the star’s onscreen character and his actual persona blurs, the sense of empathy extending from virtual to the physical reality. You fall in love with them. That’s how good the writing could be, the character development, and how good the star build-up is. But that topic is for another day.
I use it to understand better the context of why Chang Wook’s down-home charm and seeming accessibility are a whiff of fresh air in today’s world of virtual demigods. What a perfect choice of endorser for Bench’s So In Love eau de toilette, a women’s fragrance with oriental floral touch, Sure Blue eau de toilette, and Live Life with Flavor eau de toilette.
Fans—across ages, economic and cultural backgrounds—are in love with the Hallyu stars. And Chang Wook apparently has his endearing way of loving them back.
There’s a fan’s video post showing him on the front seat of the car, his hand extending out the window to receive a Vietnamese fan’s gift package. It would be reported later that the girl inadvertently left her purse in the package, which Chang Wook’s team then turned over to the Gangnam police, with a personal note from Chang Wook himself advising the girl to be more careful next time.
Expectedly, that story went around the fan sites, shared by countless fans who were touched by such a thoughtful gesture.
Another video taken by a fan showed him arriving at Incheon Airport in Seoul last weekend on a red-eye flight from Vietnam, where he graced the opening of a Korean retail chain. It was dawn, but even at that ungodly hour, fans had massed up at the arrival area to see and take a video of him. (This fan-sleuthing amazes me.)
As the actor strode in, flanked by bodyguards, there was a slight commotion: a fan, it turned out, dropped her/his phone. Sensing that something was wrong, he stopped in mid-stride to ask if everything was ok. His clear glasses hardly concealing his tired eyes—it was a full-day trip—he was courteous and mindful enough to ask about the fan.
Apparently such immense popularity and the actor’s considerable following prodded Chan to sign him up as the brand’s endorser—that, and Chan also found him friendly. Chan himself is a K-drama fan. He loved Chang Wook in “Empress Ki,” “Healer,” “Suspicious Partner.”
Chan told us, “As an actor, Ji Chang Wook can take on any role, and that applies to how he represents Bench as well. Like the scents he’s endorsing, he’s got charm and versatility that allow him to embody different styles and personalities. So In Love and Sure Blue, two of our best-selling scents, as well as our new EDT, Live Life with Flavor, are timeless scents that still manage to be young, dynamic and cool, just like Ji Chang Wook. He fits the bill perfectly.”
In truth, Chang Wook is a very good actor and singer. When I finally watched his works (on Netflix) after I met him, I realized how wide his range is: a tragic hero who can make the fallacy of his character lovable (“Empress Ki”), a mysterious criminal (“Healer”) whose vulnerable heart can make you tear up, an idealistic prosecutor (“Suspicious Partner”) who has a cute dash of wickedness. He can go from historic drama to the action genre and romantic comedy. He can also do musicals, where his career started, and concerts.
He has a way of lending these characters his comedic flair—enough to see you through a marathon of episodes. He was so funny in one scene where his death-defying “Healer” character acted so terrified when thrust before a—fashion stylist for a makeover.
And it doesn’t hurt that the camera loves that face: the almond eyes (fans love those natural double eyelids), the chiseled cheekbones and jawline—the menacing profile of the “Healer,” the brooding stare of the “prosecutor.”
It doesn’t hurt also that he gives engaging, funny interviews where his self-deprecating wit comes out now and then.
An only child whose father died of cancer when he was in grade school, Chang Wook was raised by his mother, which perhaps explains that strong mother-son bond that emerges in many stories about him.
At Dankook University in South Korea, he was a theater and film major. He began his career as a theater actor in 2006, and joined the Korean show-biz industry in 2008.
It was in “Empress Ki” in 2013 that he gained renown as far as China, and the “Healer” became one of the most followed Korean dramas abroad. Hallyu fans also know him for his movie, “Fabricated City.”
Since his discharge from military training last April, after more than a year, his fans have been looking forward to his first post-military-stint drama, “Melting Me Softly.”
He plays a successful director who himself volunteers to participate in his latest production, Frozen Human Project, along with his female assistant. They are supposed to be frozen for only 24 hours, but they wake up 20 years later.
It sounds like “Somewhere in Time” but with a twist: to survive, they must keep their body temperatures at 31.5°C.
It was “Melting Me Softly” that I would talk about with Chang Wook that afternoon in the Bench shoot—after I asked about the mom.
With the translator to my left and his Korean coordinator/agent to my right, I sat at the table across from Chang Wook, who greeted me with a friendly handshake.
He didn’t look tired after that afternoon shoot. His hair, parted in the middle, seemed shorter than in the dramas, making him look younger.
His face looked thinner than onscreen, but the cheekbones and jawline were there. And those weren’t the “Healer’s” eyes that gave a sense of foreboding and imminent danger or the sad eyes in “Suspicious Partner”; those were the smiling eyes of a young guy who’s in a good place in life right now.
The smile and the laughter were the mainstays of our brief interview. I didn’t expect such light vibes from the Hallyu galaxy.
How did he celebrate his birthday—he turned 33 July 5—we began.
“I didn’t do as much as I expected to do. I had breakfast with my mother. I was busy working. (He’s started the shoot of ‘Melting Me Softly.’) After my work, my mother and I and the rest of the staff had dinner together, in front of our house.”
Your fans in the Philippines had a big LED greeting him “Happy Birthday,” we continued; they would want to know what you wished for.
“I didn’t wish for anything, but if I were to wish for something, it would be to stay healthy, to continue everything I’m doing at the moment, and that my new drama would go well.”
When we said that the fans spotted his mom in his first fan meet after his military training, and asked how she must have felt, he said, “My mother always comes to my fan meets. She’s always thankful and grateful for the fans.” Again, he smiled.
His mother didn’t expect him to be an actor. In an interview in 2010, he was asked how his mother must have felt about his growing popularity as an actor. His reply: “My mother told me, ‘Do not get overly excited, keep your head down and work hard.’ But my mother is able to see the work that I do, so I thought she would like it. She watches my drama regularly.”
In a 2011 interview, he was asked about his mother’s support of him in his early success. He said, “My mother was also a big source of strength. She woke up at dawn every day to pray for me. She would go to a temple on the mountain in the morning to pray for me. She did this every day, even if it rained or snowed. I feel sorry and very grateful.”
What effect did the military service, which took him away from his career for almost two years, have on him, we asked.
He said, “It gave me time to think deeply about myself and who I am. Those times I spent in deep thought helped me grow and mature.”
In a recent interview published in Korea about his military stint, he said, “I became not actor Ji Chang Wook but trainee Ji Chang Wook. Spending time with the young, I recalled myself in those days a lot. I met various people in the army and learned a lot. All the people have a thing to learn, regardless of their age or strengths or weaknesses….”
We shifted talk to “Melting Me Softly” and why he chose it as his comeback drama that will air this year.
He said, “I found the theme ‘a frozen person’ very interesting. Also, the comedy within the drama was very funny to me. Also, I trust the producer, the production team behind it.”
Asked if he enjoyed doing it, he said, “It’s been three to four days since I started doing the drama, and also me and the staff starting to work as a team. But the drama is fun and I’m looking forward to the people watching it and having fun with me.”
How about the Bench fragrances—how does he find them?
“I tried them all. Overall, they smell very fresh and good for the summer. Nice colors (of the packaging). Each one was different, but very nice.”
While the women’s So In Love eau de toilette has an oriental floral touch, Sure Blue men’s fragrance has an aromatic scent, and the Live Life with Flavor men’s fragrance has fougere, aqueous, ambery scents with notes of bergamot, mandarin, lavender and cedarwood.
What to him is a manly scent?
“I love perfume and use it a lot. Personally, I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘manly element’ in the scent. I just have different feelings when I try on different perfumes. I don’t believe that a scent is the key element to being manly.”
Well said. How about his favorite scent—what is it? “It depends on what I have (going) for that day.”
As his agent prepared to take our souvenir shot, he stood close to me, his left hand forming the popular Korean sign of the forefinger/middle finger pointed at me—I stole a glance at it, obviously not as brisk with it as he was. Under my breath, I muttered to him that the scent he had on smelled good; what could it be? It was the Bench fragrance they sprayed on him during the shoot.
Still laughing, sensing that I couldn’t copy his sign, he changed it to a thumbs-up as he put his right hand on my shoulder. Click!
That beats my selfie with the Ji Chang Wook street art in Gangnam-gu.