An acupuncturist with day blindness is the sole witness to the murder of Korea’s crown prince in the historical thriller “The Owl,” which opened in theaters Wednesday.
For actor Ryu Jun-yeol, this plot with a weak and handicapped commoner holding the key to the greatest royal scandal of all times was what drew him in to take on the lead role of the partially blind acupuncturist.
“A low-class person with a handicap in the Joseon Dynasty [1392-1910] enters the walls of the royal palace and ends up with this sense of responsibility to reveal the truth about the most powerful individuals in the country,” said Ryu during an interview in Jongno District, central Seoul. “‘The Owl’ is a commercial film, but has an underlying message that is certainly worth discussion in today’s world.”
“The Owl” is a saguek (Korean historical drama) that bases its plot on the death of the Crown Prince Sohyeon (1612-1645), the son of Joseon Dynasty’s 16th king, King Injo (1595-1649).
The Veritable Records of King Injo records his son’s gruesome death as Sohyeon’s entire body turning blackish and blood coming out from all seven holes on his head. “He looked as if he had been drugged,” the record reads.
The movie puts its own spin on this bit of history by introducing the fictional character of Ryu’s partially blind acupuncturist who witnesses the prince’s death.
Ryu’s condition of day blindness, also called hemeralopia, renders him essentially blind in daylight, but partially sighted at night.
The actor said that he met with people with this handicap before going on the set of “The Owl.”
“I asked them questions and we ate a few meals together as well. And the time I spent with them broke my stereotype that all people with visual impairments couldn’t see at all and that they couldn’t do a lot of the things that we do. Many people at the center could run and eat without help.”
In addition to visiting the center for the blind, Ryu also took inspiration from runway models and his own past for the character.
“One of my hobbies is watching fashion shows, and I’ve always been fascinated with the eyes of runway models, which seem to me as if they have no focus on a particular object. I studied that and used it to act blind. Also, I have a relative who is blind. I remember meeting him when I was young and telling my mom that he looks like he is dreaming. He always seemed to be looking at something bigger than what we could see.”
Ryu’s character is partially blind, but also an incredibly skilled acupuncturist.
“I had to practice a lot, often on rolls of tissue paper,” he said.
Ryu debuted in 2012 as a supporting actor in various short independent films. His breakthrough came in 2015 through the film “Socialphobia” and tvN teen drama series “Reply 1988.” He has since gone on to star in blockbusters including “The King” (2017) and “Little Forest” (2018).
He has worked with veteran actor Yoo Hai-jin, who plays King Injo in “The Owl,” twice before, in films “The Battle: Roar to Victory” in 2019 and “A Taxi Driver” in 2017.
“Everyone was probably surprised that Yoo is the king in the movie, but I certainly wasn’t. I knew he would do a phenomenal job,” said Ryu.
Three of Yoo’s films — “The King and the Clown” (2005), “Veteran” (2015) and “A Taxi Driver” — sold over 10 million tickets, rendering him one of the most-watched actors on the local big screen.
Until recently, Yoo was on the local big screen for the action comedy blockbuster “Confidential Assignment 2: International.” For many of his past works as well, he has been in the public eye for similar down-to-earth and humorous roles, a stark contrast from the actor’s new role in “The Owl.”
Yoo said that the film’s director Ahn Tae-jin cast him as King Injo because he had been looking “for a new type of king that hasn’t been seen in the previous sageuk.”
In the film, he certainly strays from the archetypal Joseon Dynasty kings, who are often restrained in behavior and callous, rather than being more expressive, as Yoo depicts.
“I don’t think that kings in those days would have held back all the time, especially when they were by themselves,” he said.
The role also revealed Yoo’s wide spectrum as an actor. But Yoo said that while the public may not be so familiar with him in these more solemn roles, he has played “more serious and powerful roles like King Injo” during his earlier theater days before he made his film debut in 1997.
“I went back to my live theater days for this role and approached it as if I were on a live stage instead of in front of the cameras,” said Yoo.
Yoo is a theater major at the Seoul Institute of the Arts and was part of a theater group for some three years afterward, before making his big screen debut in 1997 through the mystery crime film “Blackjack.”
“I know my public image and ‘Confidential Assignment’ only recently closed in theaters, so I was worried that people wouldn’t be able to accept me as this much graver character,” said Yoo, which he said added to the pressures he felt during filming. “I didn’t want to become an obstacle for the film, so I really tried my best to believe that I really was a king. It helped when I put on the traditional Joseon Dynasty king’s gown.
“In the end, I was just glad no one laughed during my scenes.”
BY LEE JIAN [firstname.lastname@example.org]