The town office was so remote that you had to drive there. Fields ripening into golden reeds swayed quietly along the side of the road. As soon as Director Shin Seonghyeon returned to his hometown, he started preparing a late lunch in the kitchen. Various side dishes, including fried eggs, found their place on old dishes piled on a large platter.
“Why are you going through all this trouble? Just boil a quick pot of ramen.”
“When you get old, health is not something to take for granted. I’m tired of always eating ramen whenever I visit home. And throw out the expired stuff. Everything is dried up and twisted. And what’s with all this dust? It’s not like you’re advertising that you live alone. Anyone who sees this would think it’s abandoned.”
“If you’re going to nag, go back up to Seoul. Get me the leftover soju in that cupboard.”
“Please drink less soju. The doctor said your liver is not in good shape, and you should stop drinking.”
“Why should I listen to some quack doctor? That’s why I told you not to waste money on such nonsense. When it’s time to die, things will sort themselves out.”
In the end, Director Shin Seonghyeon’s father headed toward the cupboard. Perhaps because of his bent back, even reaching his wrinkled fingers to the cupboard seemed difficult. His father’s once broad back now looked frail. Left with no choice, Director Shin Seonghyeon got up from his seat and took out a bottle of soju and a glass.
“You’re only drinking one glass.”
“Sheesh, fine. How is it that you’re not even married, but your nagging seems to increase? By the way, how is that movie you’re working on going?”
His father asked as he gulped down the soju. He looked like a swallow at the last of its bottle of medicine.
“When have I ever had success? Things are just flowing like water.”
“Seonghyeon, don’t say that and learn a skill. Before it’s too late, learn a skill to make ends meet. When you finished your army service and said you would make movies, you promised you would become famous quickly. Now look, you’re aging, can’t marry, and are as stubborn as a mule. That’s why you can’t get married. I’ve given up hope of ever seeing a grandchild in my lifetime. Given up.”
“Why bring that up? The man who once said he didn’t have the money to help me get married. And what woman would come here and like it? It would be a relief if they didn’t get scared thinking there was a ghost here.”
Director Shin Seonghyeon shoved fried eggs into his mouth. Seeing his father alone in the countryside made him uncomfortable. He had always tried to bring him to Seoul, but his father vehemently refused.
“Why leave my hometown when I’m close to dying.”
Knowing his father’s feelings, Director Shin Seonghyeon didn’t press the matter further. In reality, there wasn’t really a place for him in Seoul. Although he was technically a director, in terms of commercial viability, Seonghyeon was virtually unknown.
“Father, I’m leaving.”
“Seonghyeon, I’m sorry.”
“Why are you suddenly making me feel weak? I left money in the cupboard, so buy some groceries and don’t buy soju. I’ve told Mr. Kim at the corner store not to sell you any, so know that. It’s getting chilly with the autumn wind, so don’t go out.”
An old car rumbled on an unpaved road. The autumn reeds at the edge of the fields swayed complicatedly as if expressing Director Shin Seonghyeon’s feelings.
* * *
“Yeongguk, are you really not going to Phuket?”
CEO Kim Seonghwan leaned forward as he asked again.
“PD Kim called and told me to ask you again. The last episode got the highest viewer ratings of 40.9 percent. The drama department is not just offering a reward vacation but also a stay in a 5-star hotel. You’re only going to be there for about a week anyway. It’d be good for you to have a short break.”
“It’s okay. Actually, my head hurts when I get on a plane.”
“For someone who has only been on a plane a few times, you have too many worries.”
I understood why CEO Kim Seonghwan was insisting on the reward vacation.
Normally, it would be better for an actor to continuously act like a hardworking ox. But he was also an artist before a company president. He was worried that I would easily get tired without rest. Especially since, to the outside world, I was still a high school student.
“So, what about meeting the Japanese fans?”
In an attempt to change the subject, I brought up the yubikiri I had made earlier. I promised my Japanese fans that came to the filming site that I would schedule a fan meet with them.
“Other actors think about going on vacation when their work ends, but you only think about your next project or your fans. And you’re still reading all the fan letters and even have the time to respond to them?”
“Of course. It’s not that hard to read them. I try to reply as much as possible, but it’s difficult to do all of them.”
“Your fan service is really impressive.”
I’ve never received a fan letter in my last life. Receiving a letter filled with someone’s feelings wasn’t easy. I started writing back to the fans to show appreciation for their heartfelt sentiments. One of the fans who received my reply even submitted it to a reporter, and it became a topic of discussion. I unexpectedly gained an image of an actor overflowing with love for his fans, following the title of the “nation’s first love.”
“I’m planning to do it once. We will gather not only your Japanese fans but also local fans. Although my intentions sound grandiose, the number of people won’t be that high. It will become a burden if we gather too many from the beginning. I’ll adjust the schedule later and let you know.”
“Even though you are busy, you don’t have to tell me directly. You can tell me through Bongchun-hyung or some other department heads. Whenever you do this, Bongchun-hyung thinks I’m your right-hand man.”
“Is that wrong? Or do you want to be my left-hand man?”
This was CEO Kim Seonghwan talking playfully. The size of Sonwon Entertainment was still not big. That’s natural since many actors left when the prosecution investigated the pr
evious co-CEO, Hwang Cheolsu.
There weren’t many actors from the start, so now there were even fewer. However, I had no doubt that this small agency would soon be filled with the stars of South Korea.
“Yeongguk, you also have to prepare your individual skills, right?”
“Do you think a fan meet is just a place where the actor sits and communicates with fans? If fans demand it, the actor has to sing and dance. That’s why you made such a bold promise to Japanese fans. I’m dying with inquiries coming in from overseas. I’m doing my best, even using Japanese dictionaries, to answer their questions without interpreters.”
Though I didn’t take a flight, I suddenly felt a headache coming on. Anyway, I had never done a fan meet in my previous life. Not only was I not sociable, but I didn’t have any individual skills to show. I was only looking at acting. In the end, I got up from the spot as if to run away.
“Are you running away at the mention of individual skills? You don’t have a schedule today, right?”
“Who’s running away? I’ll prepare my individual skills perfectly, so you guys can stop worrying. And why don’t I have a schedule? I have to prepare for the next project.”
Watching Yeongguk’s receding back, CEO Kim Seonghwan couldn’t help but reflect. He believed he did well recruiting him, no matter how he looked at it. It was not just about being good at acting. After all, actors existed because of their fans. In that sense, Yeongguk was an actor who qualified to receive fans’ love.
* * *
The engine sound was weak, as if it had been blackened by coal smoke. Both the exterior and interior were rusty here and there. The seat was filled with a musty smell of mold, and it sagged deeply as if it had carried people for a long time. Director Shin Seonghyeon, who was holding the steering wheel, sneaked a glance at me as he explained.
“Actor Jang, it’s been ten years since I’ve been together with this guy. I only kept it because I had a backseat driver’s license. But these days, my AD has been urging me to drive it occasionally. It was a used car when I got it, so the ride couldn’t be helped. The car is quite old, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s enough to ride around. What?”
It was not a lie. In my previous life, I always walked to the filming site to save on transportation costs while going from minor roles to minor roles. It was a luxury to hitch a ride on such a thing. Anyway, when I tried to turn on the air conditioner, a sudden warm wind came out. The director’s face flashed with embarrassment, and I quietly lowered the passenger window.
“How nice would it be if all actors were as enthusiastic as Actor Jang? You turned down your overseas vacation that everyone wants to go on? And for what? So that you could prepare for your next project like this. As a director, I can only be thankful.”
“Of course, the next project comes first. That’s why I’m getting help from the director like this.”
A character Interview.
Before shooting a movie, an actor must understand the script’s character. Hadn’t I visited a former gangster in the past to play a gangster role? The same was true now. I had gone to the diocese to learn about the priest, but that alone felt insufficient to truly understand the protagonist’s inner feelings.
The old car soon entered the outskirts of the countryside.
“This village used to be a clan village. Now everyone has gone elsewhere, and there are few people left. All are old people, so they may disappear soon.”
It was quite different from the fishing village. Instead of the fish of the southern port and the rippling waves, the smell of cow dung from livestock farms and the ripening rice fields in golden color were visible. The old car drove endlessly along the winding unpaved road. The reeds at the village’s edge seem to welcome him, shaking fiercely.
“Director, why did we come here?”
Sure enough, when Director Shin Seonghyeon first said he would help with the character interview, I only thought I would meet a mortician located in the suburbs of Seoul. I had no idea I would travel on the highway and reach a quiet countryside like this.
“Actor Jang wants to understand the character, so I wanted to show you the person I thought of as a role model while writing the script. You know the protagonist’s father was a mortician.”
“A role model, you say?”
I didn’t know this even when I was so engrossed with The Priest’s Confession in my past life. That meant Director Shin Seonghyeon didn’t disclose this information to the public.
When we finally reached our destination, an old man with a bent back noticed the car from the hill above and tilted his head.
“There he is, my father.”
* * *
The hearth had rusted from disuse, and a scrawny branch held up a magpie’s nest. The country house bore the relentless mark of time, as clearly as the discolored calendar. Exhaling a puff of cigarette smoke, Director Shin’s father asked,
“So, you want to know about the mortician’s work?”
His wrinkled eyes appeared as deep in thought as the smoke curling from his cigarette. To understand the protagonist’s psychology in the script, it was necessary to examine why he had become desensitized to death. That was why they were there right now. Eventually, the ash fell onto the rusted tray.
“It’s a tough job. I don’t know about it now, but in my days, if we found an unclaimed body, we had to go and clean it up ourselves. You know the old saying, ‘A ghost who dies of overeating is good-natured’? It’s all bullshit. People who starve to death are rather noble. Try dying when you’re obese from overeating in life. The rate of decay is different. That’s why at the crematorium, they often order by body weight. After all, it decomposes faster.”
I silently listened to the old man’s story.
“Doing the last rites, you feel a lot. At first, I was scared and cried a lot. But how can I show that in front of the grieving family? Over time, I became numb. As I bathed the dead, changed their clothes, and tied them with a mourning cloth, I had a lot of thoughts. No matter the luxuries they enjoyed in life, it all seemed worthless.”
I listened attentively to the old man’s confession, his life story unfolding word by word.
“Nowadays, you need a license, and there are schools, so such cases may not exist, but there was a severe labor shortage back in the day. So, it was common to work together when your child grew up enough.”
“So, did Director Shin also?”
“What? No, that brat wouldn’t have been capable of that. Ordinary people can’t do it since they are faint-hearted. They would fall sick after a few days. Also, superstitious people shouldn’t do it either. If you believe in that nonsense, you’ll keep seeing the faces of the dead in your head.”
“What if a child had witnessed that scene?”
“What kind of question is that? They would faint. That’s usually what happens. Many faint just by watching the last rites when they first learn to be a mortician. If a child was calmly observing that, it could mean one of two things: either they are emotionally dried up, or they are deep inside.”
As the end of his cigarette appeared, Director Shin’s father stood up from his seat.
The three of us had dinner together. The always sharp look in Director Shin’s eyes, behind his frameless glasses, resembled his father’s. After setting the dinner table, as Director Shin headed to the kitchen, his father suddenly grabbed my hand.
“My son told me he’s making a movie, and you’re the lead actor?”
“I’m counting on you.”
Why did I see the image of my mother in his wrinkled hands? Despite being father and son, they hardly spoke. They may not have known it, but they unknowingly supported each other. Even Director Shin was like that. The trunk of the old car was filled with groceries to stock the countryside home’s refrigerator. That’s probably why the engine sounded even weaker.
As soon as dinner was over, his father, like most elderly people, went to bed early.
“What a beautiful view, isn’t it?”
Director Shin Seonghyeon and I sat in a pavilion near the rice fields. The script was still in my hands. Seeing this, Shin Seonghyeon suddenly spoke.
“It’s not autobiographical. It’s just that, having seen the profession of an undertaker from a young age, I used my father as a model. I used to think that my father was a person without emotions.”
The autumn wind brushed past the pavilion.
“But one day, I realized it. My father was a person with emotions too. After my mother passed away from her illness, my father did the embalming himself. As a child, wanting to see my mother for the last time, I went to where my father worked. That’s when I saw it. My father, who had never shown emotion, sobbed as he cleaned my deceased mother’s body. That’s when I knew. My father was sad, just like me. The protagonist probably felt the same way. Of course, the direction of our lives was different. I shook it off, but the protagonist carried it deep within him.”
The golden rice field was suddenly covered with ground fog, losing its light and rippling like a night sea.
“I hope today’s talk has been helpful to actor Jang.”
Director Shin Seonghyeon went back inside the house first. I sat alone in the pavilion, looking at the streetlamp standing alone like a lighthouse at the edge of the countryside. At that moment, a sentence from the script that I didn’t understand before caught my eye.
“No one is familiar with death; everything just gets eroded away.”
Like a moth drawn to dim light, I had momentarily forgotten about my once happy life. Didn’t my past self also hesitate to face death? The saying that no one was prepared for death resonated in my heart. Just like a wretched child, I, too, acted that way in the face of my mother’s death.
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