|News: Cho Seung-woo shines in 'Running Boy'|
In a press preview of "Running Boy" held at a cinema in downtown Seoul on Monday afternoon, something unusual happened. First, reporters clapped and cheered at the end of the film, are some of them were wiping off tears. Second, an interview room was so crowded with reporters that it was almost impossible to move or even breathe.
Very few Korean movies, if any, received such an applause in recent months not because movie reporters are cold-hearted but because many of them fail to meet surging expectations.
"Running Boy," a film based on a true story about an autistic young man who communicates with the world through a marathon, may not be a masterpiece, but it is fair to say that its refined storytelling has served well, at least given the reaction from the audience.
The real attention, however, was placed on Cho Seung-woo, 25, an actor whose popularity is soaring on the strength of his versatile performances in various movies and musicals.
"Jekyll and Hide" musical, for instance, was a huge hit last year, and is continuing to sell out during the ongoing encore run.
Cho plays Cho-won, a normal-looking child who likes chocolate cookies and zebras. Finding out he is autistic, his mother Kyung-sook (Kim Mi-sook) has to live with the painful burden of reality. However, his mother discovers his love for running, and begins to train him.
Twenty years later, Cho-won's intelligence is still that of a five-year-old boy. He farts everywhere, bows to his younger brother, and dances to music wherever he is. However, his mom dedicates herself to training him to accomplish a 'Sub-3-Hour,' which is completing a marathon below three hours, a dream for amateur runners.
From this point, the film portrays the innermost conflict that a mother feels when she has to raise an autistic son, who has to be cared for all the time. Affection, however, can go to the extremes, and director Jeong Yun-chul keeps a balanced pace in depicting the dilemma, blocking the film from becoming a predictable tear-jerker.
Underpinning the drama is Cho's impressive acting. He doesn't look at others in the eye when talking, uses a high-pitched childish tone of voice, and shows poor chopstick handling, all of which are the results of his painstaking efforts to play Cho-won in a believable manner.
For those who remember him best as Mong-ryong, a young, pansori-singing son of a local governor in director Im Kwon-taek's 2000 film "Chunhyang," or a struggling gangster in "Raging Years" by the same director, Cho's transformation is a pleasant surprise.
During the 50-minute post-premier briefing session, reporters asked more than 20 questions, which was also rare, and Cho did not hesitate to express surprise over such an enthusiastic reaction.
"I have never received so many questions in the interview sessions like this, even when I participated in a major foreign film festival," Cho said.
Asked on why he is enjoying a sudden popularity, Cho said he hasn't changed at all as an actor and never regarded himself as a "popular entertainer."
"When I saw some fans in a musical performance or some people on the street recognize me, I feel I'm an actor, but that is all. I don't think I'm a popular entertainer who has to be special," he said.
But his acting was far from ordinary. Every detail about the autistic man was meticulously organized. The danger in playing this kind of role is over-acting, or too much artificial movement. But Cho showed quite natural acting. The reason: Cho met with Bae Hyung-jin, a real-life person whose story inspired the movie, observed Hyun-jin at home, at school, and ran with him, to portray his character as real as possible.
"There are excellent foreign films concerning an autistic person, but I did not think about such works. Instead, I tried to be true to my own emotions and feelings, and Hyung-jin helped me a lot," Cho said.
Cho said he had felt deeply lonely throughout the acting because he had to avoid eye contact as much as possible. Not any longer, given the praise from enthusiastic fans and critics.
By Yang Sung-jin
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