The global success of cable channel ENA’s series “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” meant that it also became a target of criticism, particularly about its main character — genius rookie attorney Woo Young-woo who is on the autism spectrum.
While some have called out the series’ portrayal of a character with autism spectrum disorder, the general consensus in relation to Park Eun-bin, who plays Young-woo, is that the actor embodied the young lawyer.
The production crew was so sure that Park was the perfect fit for the role that they waited a year for the actor to finish filming the series “The King’s Affection” (2021) on KBS so that she could star in the series.
What the crew didn’t foresee, however, was just how big of a hit the show would become, mostly thanks to Park’s brilliant portrayal of the lovable attorney, tackling case after case as well as the stereotypes she faces from people who expect her to fail.
The series, which began with a viewership rating of 0.9 percent, finished in a blaze of glory with the final episode, which aired on Aug. 18, garnering a rating of 17.5 percent. Also available on Netflix, the series remained in the No. 1 spot on the platform’s Global Top 10 chart for weeks, while global media outlets such as CNN dubbed it the next “Squid Game” (2021) and predicted a bright future in content production for Astory, the local production company behind the series.
“The series was devoted to the quality of the narrative, so how well people would respond to it was impossible to predict,” Park said at a press interview at Apgujeong-dong in southern Seoul’s Gangnam District on Monday. “We knew it was only up to the viewers to judge after the series begin airing and didn’t have any expectations. The series saw an explosive response from the beginning stage so as an actor, I was a little daunted. Because the channel itself was new to begin with, our aim was to introduce the channel through the series. We thought we were aiming high if the series could exceed a viewership rating of 3 percent, but [the final result] exceeded anyone’s expectations.”
The actor also talked about why she initially hesitated to take on the role.
“I think that being an actor means that you’re on the frontline of criticism,” she said. “As I read the script I thought it could be a good story, but I also felt it was a character that I can’t approach lightly. I had to be free of prejudice or stereotypes, and I wasn’t confident that I could fill the role. I didn’t know why writer [Moon Ji-won] and director [Yoo In-shik] believed in me so much, but I told them what I honestly felt about the role and why I was hesitant. They told me that my caution and deliberation [over the role] were crucial in telling this story, and I decided that if they’d put their trust in me and it was a story that needed to be told then I would try to meet their expectations.”
By the time Park decided to take on the role, she only had two weeks to prepare. However, the actor was determined not to take any shortcuts. During an interview with fashion magazine Allure Korea released in June, the actor revealed that she decided not to reference any content related to autism spectrum disorder, but instead took time to study the disorder so that she didn’t misrepresent the autism community.
“I didn’t want to hurt anyone in the process of depicting Young-woo,” she explained. “’Extraordinary Attorney Woo’ and the character of Young-woo cannot be a representation of all autistic people […] If I had more time to prepare, it would have been good to meet and assimilate into the character by meeting people [with autism spectrum disorder] and a variety of experts. But since I only had two weeks, the best alternative was to make Young-woo a distinctive, but believable character that could stand out on her own. I excluded the option of watching content based on characters with autism or referencing real-life models because I did not want to imitate them — I felt a moral obligation as an actor that I cannot use them as a means for my performance. I sincerely hoped viewers would see a person like Young-woo could exist within the context of ‘Extraordinary Attorney Woo.’”
As popular as the series has been, it has also been subject to backlash related to how unrealistic the character of Young-woo is. Related experts pointed out that Young-woo is an extremely rare case of a person with high-functioning autism, known as Savant Syndrome. Young-woo is also able to form a romantic relationship with her co-worker Jun-ho, which is also considered to be highly difficult for autistic people.
“What I felt through this series was that there was no limit to what a person can be capable of,” Park said. “There are no set guidelines about what content should be created solely based on reality or precedents. It’s up to the creative freedom of the creators to say what they want to say through Young-woo’s character and to say that there could be a romance between Young-woo and Jun-ho. People may think that [their relationship] may be too idealistic or unrealistic, but I truly believe that if people can open up to accept and embrace each other, then they could accept that the love between Young-woo and Jun-ho could exist anywhere.”
Park singles out her favorite scene, which takes place in the sixteenth and final episode.
“My favorite scene from the series is when Young-woo admits that she is the narwhal within a pod of belugas,” Park said. “She says that the life of a narwhal is not a solitary one, because it is her life. It may seem strange or peculiar [in the eyes of others], but it is just as valuable and beautiful.”
After successfully wrapping up the series, the actor hopes to take a break to recharge before moving onto her next project.
“My prior series ‘The King’s Affection’ was also a project that I was really devoted and dedicated to,” she said. “Before I had the time to recharge, I took on this series and had to spend the next seven months with Young-woo and every day felt like I was under the microscope, being tested. Now I feel like I need a bit of a break. It’s been only approximately a month since shooting for this series wrapped up, so I feel like I should take some time off and look for my next role.”
A second season of “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” is already on the table, but the actor seemed hesitant to discuss it.
“I found out about the news through the media,” she said. “I’ve had many worries and deliberations until I decided to take on this project, so if I do decide to take on the next season, which has to meet the expectations of the masses, it would take even more courage than the first season took. To be honest, I have cherished this role and this series and it has all been wrapped up with a bow, but if I am to open up this box again […] I would have to take much more consideration as to how I should depict Young-woo again. In my mind right now, Young-woo has fully felt the emotion of ‘fulfillment’ and she is set to work on becoming a better attorney, and for me, that imagination [alone] makes me very happy.”
BY LEE JAE-LIM [email@example.com]