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Why Writer Moon Ji-won Writes Autistic Characters

Updated: Jan 23

The original Korean article published on Naver can be found here. Below is my own translation. We hope fans of Extraordinary Attorney Woo find this interview as interesting as we did. Note: We have preserved the literal translation of the original title, Strange Lawyer Woo Young-woo, because that word choice comes up in the article (and because we wish they'd kept that nuance in the official English title).


"Everyone relates to love and intelligence": Director & Writer Reveal Everything about Woo Young-woo [Q&A]

By Newsen Reporter Lee Min-ji

The writer and director of Strange Lawyer Woo Young-woo talked candidly about the various discourses surrounding the drama.

A press conference for the ENA channel Wednesday-Thursday drama Strange Lawyer Woo Young-woo was held at Stanford Hotel Korea in Mapo-gu, Seoul on the afternoon of July 26th. Both the director Yoo In-shik and the writer Moon Ji-won attended.

Strange Lawyer Woo Young-woo depicts the survival story of a new lawyer, Woo Young-woo, who has both a genius brain and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Strange Lawyer Woo Young-woo, which started with a rating of 0%, has been creating a sensation by breaking its own highest ratings with every episode. Its 8th episode recorded 13.093% of the viewer share among households that subscribe to nationwide paid platforms (Nielsen Korea).

Director Yoo In-shik and writer Moon Ji-won had a serious conversation about this viral drama's huge popularity, the writing and production process, and the various discourses surrounding the show.

Are you feeling the viral popularity, and did you expect it?

Yoo In-sik: I didn't expect that everyone would give it so much love. It started on a lesser known channel, and I wasn't sure if the subject matter would have mass appeal. If you use the metaphor of food, it's mild like Pyongyang naengmyeon, so I hoped the people it appealed to would find it through word of mouth, but I never imagined such an immediate, ardent response. I got calls from people I haven't been able to contact for decades. Not long ago, a high school teacher texted me. I was very moved. I'm just so grateful.

Moon Ji-won: People I haven't been able to reach have contacted me out of the blue. I saw people debating "Why did Tae Su-mi abandon Woo Young-woo?" in a cafe. I saw people watching Woo Young-woo on the bus. I’m living every day in happiness, wondering what on earth is happening.

It was impressive that Woo Young-woo and Tae Su-mi's reunion did not fall into "shinpa"[1] tropes. What did you focus on when writing?

Moon Ji-won: When I said that I was going to include a birth secret, the producers asked me, "Will it be okay to include such a cliche when we're trying to make a fresh, innovative drama?" Because I'd been working in movies, I wasn't used to the grammar of dramas so it seemed new to me. I tried to solve it by focusing on the relationship between the two without thinking about grammar, but I can only be grateful for the positive response.

Some viewers interpret that the name Woo Young-woo's friend, Dong Geurami, which means circle, is related to a characteristic of autistic people. Is this true?

Moon Ji-won: It's not like that. It's not that autistic people prefer circles, so I named her best friend "Circle". In my mind, the Geurami character is Young-woo's friend and moral support, but in some ways she's even stranger than Young-woo. I wanted to give you a unique name that you can't forget once you hear it, so I chose this name from among many candidates.

People's discomfort with and criticism of "Woo Young-Woo parody"

Yoo In-shik: I have read the articles and heard the concerned voices. As the director of the drama, I am also not comfortable with what's going on. People who imitated Woo Young-woo's character in their daily life or on YouTube probably didn't think of it as literally "I want to demean people with autism." If you see a character you love, you may want to copy them at least once. However, in our drama, you see and understand Woo Young-woo's actions on the basis of the context accumulated in the drama. When one of those actions is imitated outside of that, a totally different context arises. Since this [online] world is directly delivered to a mass audience, it can be interpreted in a context the creator didn't intend. This is an era where we have to be careful in that regard.

The sensibility that was accepted a few years ago and the sensibility of the present age are rapidly changing. I don't think this is an issue where someone can say, "From here on, it's a caricature, and from here on, it's a parody." I feel such standards will be created as we have public discussions about the social consensus and sensitivity of the times. Actor Park Eun-bin was also cautious, saying that Woo Young-woo's character and acting should not be done outside the drama itself. I understand that she is being careful of that during her interviews. As a director, I don't think it's worth arguing about how viewers enjoy this drama. In my opinion, since the drama is about a character who did not appear in dramas before and is gaining popularity, an issue has come up that we hadn't thought about before. I hope that wise viewers will set the standard for the times through discussion and public debate.

After the movie Innocent Witness, you again wrote a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder as the main character.

Moon Ji-won: The reason why this drama started is that three years ago, people from AStory came to visit me and asked if I thought Kim Hyang-gi's character Ji-woo could become a lawyer when she grew up. They asked me if I thought it would make an interesting drama. I said it I thought it was possible and it would make a good drama, so they gave me a chance. It may sound strange, but after making something, I sometimes get the feeling that the characters in that movie or drama continue to live somewhere in a parallel universe. Woo Young-woo is unlikely to see the movie Innocent Witness, but it's nice to think that Ji-woo is avidly watching Woo Young-woo somewhere in her world, imitating Young-woo's actions and being the one viewer who isn't mocking her. Rather than one character being a grown version of the other, I think that Ji-woo is living her own life, and Woo Young-woo is living hers.

I myself have not been diagnosed with autism, nor are there people with autism around me. The first reason I became interested in this was when I was putting together a thriller and wondered what it would be like if a witness was autistic. At that time, I started researching Autism Spectrum Disorder, and I was surprised to realize how charming many characteristics of autistic people are: their unique ways of thinking, eccentricity, a strong sense of ethics or justice, an excessively extensive knowledge of a particular area of interest, a tremendous memory, their perspective and patterns and ways of thinking. This is not the case for all people with autism, but these traits are often reinforced by ASD. So I felt a pull to the subject.

Is there a scene that you are satisfied with in terms of directing? What did you focus most on?

Yoo In-shik: Most of the good scenes in Woo Young-woo came out that way because of the actors' excellent and natural acting. My job as the director is not to interfere too much or cut too much of it during editing. That creates a rhythm that flows naturally like breathing. Nevertheless, for aspects where I wanted to bring out that flow dramatically, I consulted with the actors. For example, in the Episode 4 courtroom scene, when Geurami and her father are assaulted and the other side's lawyer asks whether the assault was induced, I thought Young-woo's line "Is there any evidence of that?" should be given room to breathe, with a measured approach from the camera. For that line, we matched the camera work with the actor as we rehearsed.

Why did you choose the title "Strange" Lawyer Woo Young-woo?

Moon Ji-won: I thought the word strange was very appropriate to describe the character Woo Young-woo. There are unfamiliar and heterogeneous negative meanings, but I thought that strangeness leads to creativity, and the power to make a better society.

Did you intend to have Woo Young-woo eat kimbap vertically and horizontally?

Yoo In-shik: I don't think it was intentional. There are many scenes where actress Park Eun-bin eats kimbap. She's actually a goddess of eating so there are times she eats a lot, but f