Why Writer Moon Ji-won Writes Autistic Characters

Updated: Aug 26

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 for those scenes, she comes to set starving. Woo Young-woo Kimbap is often sliced ​​thinly so that she can eat a lot. Maybe that's why she prefers to eat it vertically. However, there is no scene that Park Eun-bin's ideas haven't been incorporated into. Whenever we get to the set, we watch how Woo Young-woo does the scene one time. are amazed the second time, and film it the third time. (laughs)


Is there something you're trying to say through the character Kwon Min-woo?

Moon Ji-won: I thought a lot about how the people at a big law firm would feel if someone like Woo Young-woo was thrown into their mix. Young-woo is marginalized and needs some consideration and concessions, but at the same time, despite his privilege, Min-woo can't keep up with her even when he tries his best to win. I felt people around her would have complicated feelings. There would be some opinions like Attorney Choi Soo-yeon and some who would talk about reverse discrimination like Attorney Kwon Min-woo, so I tried to show varied realistic reactions. Inevitably, my thoughts are reflected in the work, but in my opinion, when the creator tries to say something through the work, the viewers quickly feel that and become bored. Rather than trying to speak, I am careful not to speak. I didn't write lines saying, "Let's live like Choi Soo-yeon. Let's not live like Kwon Min-woo."


Some say that Woo Young-woo is loved because she is autistic, but her disability is less exposed, harmless and cute.


Moon Ji-won: If anything can make our society a more livable or better place, I think it will not be our drama, but the opportunity the drama sparked for all this discussion. As members of society, we are trying to listen to these discussions as humbly and seriously as possible. Yes, like any drama protagonist, Woo Young-woo was created for the drama by the production team. But if you say that it’s impossible for this character to actually have ASD, that’s not true. Somewhere in this world, I am sure that an autistic person like Woo Young-woo can exist. There are concerns about the character's positive aspects being highlighted, but when we showed our advising professor the script, they said that they liked that the story's approach is to focus on Young-woo's merits. They said that up until now, fictional works have emphasized the "darker" or more difficult side of autism, so they support focusing on the interesting, attractive, and impressive aspects of autistic people. I took heart from that and proceeded. I think some people may feel uncomfortable. Rather than defending myself, I would like to say that I understand and sympathize with that, and that there are inevitably limits to my work.


Yoo In-shik: From the reactions I've seen, the one that made me the most emotional was a video uploaded by a mother raising an autistic child. She said, "I tried not to watch because I thought I would be upset whether it portrayed ASD accurately or not. But because Park Eun-bin saw the cute and charming parts of Woo Young-woo, I felt that the cuteness and brilliance only I saw in my child could be loved by society. I liked that."


After I saw that [video] I cried a lot while filming. It is true that Woo Young-woo was written with that intention, but after the show started airing, we worried because most autistic people are not like Woo Young-woo, and experience different struggles than her, so it might upset them. [But through that video] I found out that there are actually people like that. As the author said, if you ask if Woo Young-woo can represent everyone on the spectrum, I don't think she can. The autism spectrum has so many different aspects, and no one can say, "This person is the representative of ASD."


Woo Young-woo has the best characteristics of the spectrum and great intellectual ability. However, when we begin working on a drama, we imagine what would happen if a certain character was in a certain situation. This drama starts from the question of what would happen if an autistic person entered the world of a law firm where truth and lies collide with countless people, interacted with non-autistic people, and walked the path of a lawyer. It is a character created to embody that question well and with at least a minimum amount of realism. If it was meant to tell the story of an autistic person struggling to become a lawyer, Woo Young-woo would probably have a different side.


Woo Young-woo is set up to be the protagonist that can best deliver the story of this drama. Rather than the verisimilitude and real-life likelihood of her character, the production team is concentrating more on doing our best to tell this story through her. There were limits to including other aspects. Furthermore, I am aware of and regret the problem of a non-autistic person playing an autistic woman, and I think the drama would have been more sincere if we could have [used an autistic actor].


I think it's hard to make such a story into a drama in this industry until we have more communication with the public. As we received love for this drama, it also gave us an opportunity to think about various things. As clear as the limitations of our drama are, if it can contribute to a future where autistic actors can play autistic characters and disabled actors can play disabled characters, in dramas that have greater authenticity and receive love from viewers—if our drama could help that happen even a little bit faster, that would be so meaningful.


Some say that a character like Jung Myeong-seok is a fantasy. What are some things you considered in the composition of the supporting characters?


Moon Ji-won: I put in a lot of what I think are cool attributes for someone in their early 40s into Jung Myeong-seok. These are the things I think are cool in your 40s. When it comes to Myeong-seok and the people around him, the title is Strange Lawyer Woo Young-woo, so I thought it would feel like Woo Young-woo and her sidekicks. They don't get a lot of screen time. I wanted all these characters to feel as individual as possible, so they'd be able to shine even in that short time onscreen. It's true that I created someone who would work at a real law firm while also thinking, "This is the cool thing about being in your 40's."


Some pointed out that the show might be uncomfortable for families with developmental disabilities.


Moon Ji-won: To be honest, if I was autistic, or if my family or acquaintances were autistic, I would have been uncomfortable watching the drama Woo Young-woo. I can't easily call it 'fun'; I'd probably be conflicted about whether to watch it or not, and no matter how much the drama is full of goodwill and good intentions, I can imagine the complicated feelings. Even if you don't want to watch the drama, the whole world is saying "Woo Young Woo, Woo Young Woo," because it's doing so well. So I fully sympathize with the complicated and distressing feelings they must be going through.


My thoughts aren't "I'm sorry for making this," but I would like to tell them, "I also sympathize." What was intended for the character Woo Young-woo was to have extreme strengths and extreme weaknesses in one body. This drama doesn't have a particular antagonist or enemy[2] because I thought that the biggest difficulty in Woo Young-woo's career as a lawyer may be her autism itself and the prejudice about it she faces from others. It is true that many people love Woo Young-woo, who is played brilliantly by actor Park Eun-bin, but when I made the drama, I didn't try to avoid the difficulties caused by autism. I tried to show them as much as I could. I worried a lot about the concentration and degree of these hardships, because I was afraid of showing them in a way that would hurt autistic people. I wanted people to support and root for the character Woo Young-woo not because she is pitiful and they feel sorry for her, but because she is lovable, courageous, and cool. As a result, there is a limit to how much we can address such points.


Yoo In-shik: Young-Woo cannot represent every disabled and autistic person in the world. Young-woo's stage is a normal workplace, and the story is about Young-woo, who is a bit different from us, living with non-autistic people—her difficulties and joys and sorrows, large and small. We thought it was a story worth telling viewers. It would have been nice if it was a story that could cover all aspects of autism, but our drama has its limitations. We did our best to be as sincere as possible in the story we were trying to tell. However, I sympathize with and feel regret for the relative deprivation that autistic people feel, the sense that they must have some kind of special talent to have value or to be worthy of being the main character. Even so, we were not able to start with a story that could embrace all those issues.


The reaction abroad is also hot.

Yoo In-shik: I am also amazed. It's strange and surprising that overseas viewers like it even though it's not a Netflix series that uploads all the parts at the same time, but a drama that comes up according to our schedule. On the other hand, people's lives are much the same everywhere. I wonder if we all have similar concerns in these times.


Why did whales appear?


Moon Ji-won: I joined when the director had written about 8 episodes[3], and the director said that it would be nice to have a device to show Young-woo's inner life visually. Since autistic people often fall deeply into certain subjects and gain expert knowledge, we agonized over various candidates. In general, dinosaurs, trains, weather, and cars are popular, but the reason I decided to choose whales is because they look cool. I thought it would visually enrich the mise-en-scène. So, I did some whale research, and from Episode 1 on, I found places to put a whale and inserted "Goreka".[4]


Casting actors for special appearances


Yoo In-shik: If you look at Writer Moon's script, these are clearly guest actors, but in many cases they have almost as much screen time as the main character. It took up a large part of the running time and had a lot of dialogue, so we needed actors with some gravitas. So, as soon as a script would come out, the first thing I'd do was search for an actor. With quite a few of the episodes, I would start but there would only be a handful of people who fit the image, could play the role well, and had space in their schedule, so at times I adjusted the shooting schedule and waited for the actors be available. As soon as I saw the role of Dong Geurami's father in Episode 4, I felt it had to be Jung Seok-yong. And his face inspired the name Dong Dong-sam. The moment I saw the script for Episode 9 and wondered, "Who can do this?" I thought of Gu Gyo-hwan and couldn't imagine any other actor in the role. I'm grateful that all the actors did so well.


How did you design the characters at Hanbada Law Firm?


Moon Ji-won: It was nice to hear that actor Kang Ki-young enjoyed the screenplay from the first time he read it. I was impressed that he understood my intentions regarding Myeong-seok's attractive attributes.


Jun-ho's character is the one Director Yoo and I had the most trouble with. While I was mulling over what kind of man we could put next to Young-woo that wouldn’t feel distasteful but also wouldn’t seem like a fantasy doll, I met actor Kang Tae-oh. When I first met him, he said that his parents have cats, and he thought that the relationship between Jun-ho and Young-woo was like a person who takes a cat for a walk. When walking a dog, a guardian pulls the leash to go here and there, but when you take a walking cat[5] for a walk, you keep one step away and follow the cat's path, and protect it from falling into any real danger. When I heard that, I slapped my knee. I thought it would be nice to capture that feeling.


Attorneys Chi Soo-yeon and Kwon Min-woo represent the two reactions that I find most interesting when someone like Young-woo is thrown into a large law firm with fierce competition, excessive workload, and a lot of smart people. I named him Kwon Min-woo because I thought he was a person with inner conflict, like the sunlight on a spring day but sensitive to power, and I designed him with the feel of a small villain with a cute side that does not hesitate to compete for survival.[6]


A webtoon is also in production. Do you have any plans for a second season?


Yoo In-shik: The show is only halfway aired. As I said at the press conference, we've discussed Season 2 and Season 3 and that makes me happy as the creator. We are not talking about concrete details yet, as there is a lot to coordinate business and scheduling wise. I can only say that everyone has affection for Woo Young-woo World.


The whales appear differently each time, was that intentional?


Yoo In-shik: As I integrated the whales into Young-woo, from a directing perspective, four types of whales emerged. The first is a photographic memory that comes out when she suddenly gets caught up in a whale anecdote and starts chatting. For that one we have to find and show a lot of data. Another type is a cute whale that appears when she quizzes others on whale facts. I made a paper whale model with paper crafts and worked it in with motion graphics.


A third is the whale that appears at the moment of enlightenment called Goreka. We looked for every whale jumping scene we could acquire. I thought it had to be different for each episode. People have all kinds of interpretations: for example, that the size of the whale is different depending on the size of enlightenment. Strictly speaking, it didn't match up like that, but the writer did leave hints in the script. In Episode 6, neither of Young-woo's ideas were the best, so the script said, "The whale does not come out of the water, but looks around closely," and "The scene where it coolly spews a fountain." I felt the nuance that it wasn't a cool idea, so I wrote a dolphin snooping under the water on the billboard.


Fourth, once or twice I wanted to show whales appearing in the real world at special moments for Young-woo. For that part, we put our heads together with the CG team from the beginning and thought about which whales to cast and when they should appear. I did worry once we started filming. It's not what Yeong-woo sees, it's not what the people around her see, and it's not affecting the cases. Is it okay to put in that effort? What if people say, 'What is that?" But thankfully everyone has really loved them. There will be whales appearing in the real world in unexpected places in the future, so please look forward to them.


Same-sex couples, North Korean defectors, and other underprivileged people appear.


Moon Ji-won: If asked to create a story about an autistic person, many creators would make the narrator or main character someone that non-autistic viewers could relate to, and show the autistic person through that person's gaze. Innocent Witness was such a film. I challenged myself in doing Woo Young-woo, to make Woo Young-woo the sole protagonist and have direct communication between Woo Young-woo and the viewers, without a mediator. So, I think watching this drama is a miraculous experience for so many people, empathizing directly with strange, unfamiliar, autistic Woo Young-woo—crying, laughing, and growing up together. With that intention, I felt it necessary for the entire drama to carry the theme of diversity. The director and production company also welcomed this without any disagreement and actively provided their input. So same-sex couples and others naturally came into [the drama].


There are various opinions about the love line between Young-woo and Jun-ho.


Moon Ji-won: For Young-woo, whose autism makes her focus on herself and her inner world, I thought that an essential part of growing up would be to love and invite another person into her world, and keep pace with them. So I thought a love story was essential, but I had a lot of trouble figuring out how to include it. In the first half, they share precious and commemorative moments, like the revolving door scene, and others you will see in the future. If the first half is all about fluttering feelings and how they fall for each other, the second half will reveal deeper concerns. Young-woo will consider what it means for an autistic person to be with someone, and Jun-ho will consider what it means to love a woman with a disability.


Is there any reason why you insisted on casting Park Eun-bin?


▲ As you can see, there are not many actors who can play the role of Woo Young-woo. At first, when I heard, "Actress Park Eun-bin is reviewing it, but it seems like it will be difficult," I felt that without her it would be hard to make this project. In fact, as actress Park Eun-bin said, it is not an easy role to take on. I waited because there was no other alternative, and she's doing even better than I expected, so I want to say 'Park Eun-bin Forever' once again.


When I first read the script, it was in the voice of actress Park Eun-bin, but at first we couldn't hear Yeong-woo's voice, so we felt a bit lost. The large amount of dialogue is one thing, but she also had to speak and react in a different way than other people. We have to trust the actor, but it's not common to find an actor with such good concentration and solid basics that they can change drastically for each role, accurately conveying this large amount of dialogue without losing their own uniqueness. On the other hand, while doing that, the actor also needed the charisma to carry the title role of a drama that has the protagonist's name in the title.


I thought Park Eun-bin was almost the only one who could do it. With her in the role, I thought Young-woo would be fascinating.


There must have been concerns about the lack of awareness of the ENA channel.


Yoo In-shik: "What if our mothers can't find it because it's a low-profile channel? What if no one knows it's airing?" It's true we worried about this. It was a little more free than terrestrial broadcasting in terms of running time, and it was amazing to see an active fandom being created because viewers actively came to the platform and responded to it.


What should we focus on?


Yoo In-sik: If the first half focuses on whether or not Woo Young-woo could become a real lawyer, the second half is the process of Woo Young-woo becoming a good lawyer. Young-woo as a strange and unique person finds an answer in her own way as she ponders what makes a good lawyer. It will be fun to see the people of Hanbada also face the troubles of their own lives and change and develop. I hope you can also look forward to the performances of unexpectedly good actors like Gu Gyo-hwan.


There are various reactions and discussions about the drama.