Ju Ji-hoon plays Kang Hyun-jo, a rookie park ranger in the Korean drama Jirisan. Hyun-jo has a secret and it’s one that helps him execute rescue missions others might abandon. Minutes after arriving at his new assignment, he’s sent on a dangerous mission that demonstrates his unusual abilities.
“Hyun-jo probably isn’t someone who dreamed of becoming a ranger since he was little,” said Ju. “He is an army captain who graduated from the Korea Military Academy, but he quits his stable job and becomes a mountain ranger in Jirisan of all places. He definitely has his reasons, but I’ll stop here because I don’t want to spoil it for you.”
The drama was filmed in Jirisan National Park, one of South Korea’s largest parks. The scenic 182 square mile park is thickly flowered with azaleas in the spring and known for its colorful fall foliage. It’s also home to several temples and attracts millions of visitors every year. While the drama hints at a supernatural presence, Ju says that it’s the park’s natural elements that really inspire awe.
“If you go to Jirisan, you’ll see how big it is,” said Ju. “You become overwhelmed by Mother Nature. It’s eerie, but at times it also feels spiritual.”
Writer Kim Eun-hee played a big part in Ju’s decision to star in the drama. Before creating the script for Jirisan, Kim wrote the time-travel detective story Signal and the historical zombie series Kingdom. Ju played a Joseon-era prince in two seasons of Kingdom and it only increased his admiration for the writer’s work.
“Each actor has a different way of creating a character,” said Ju. “When I decide to do a project, I tend to go speak to the writers and the directors often. I create the character in the process of meeting them and talking to them. I did the same for Kingdom. I think I met with Ms. Kim Eun-hee to the point where she became annoyed with me.”
During their talks Kim would tell the actor other stories she was working on.
“I was always amazed how she could think up such stories,” he said. “She always has a new story to tell. So every time I work with her, I look forward to the story she will be telling. Of course her scripts aren’t easy for actors to work with, but I was drawn to the interesting story. I believe that was why I was able to be on both seasons of Kingdom and Jirisan. It was an honor.”
Ju found it interesting to learn more about what park rangers do. They perform many tasks the public might not be aware of.
“Ms. Kim Eun-hee did so much research on rangers for the script, so she told me a lot about them,” said Ju. “The script also described the kind of tasks they were in charge of, but when I got to indirectly observe them working while on the set I learned that they are in charge of many different tasks and how important they are. Each ranger is assigned a different task, but some of them include caring for the safety of hikers, finding and rescuing the distressed, identifying, observing, and recording animal and plant life, and checking up on the facilities that require maintenance. Rangers protect the mountains, animals, plants and people.”
Although Ju enjoys hiking in his free time, filming the drama’s arduous scenes required training.
“I had to exercise a lot to improve my physical strength,” said Ju. “It was hard to film in the mountains because the ground wasn’t flat. Just standing alone made me very tired. Scenes where I climb the mountain, hike in heavy rain, and fall over were all required for the shoot. You can only do these things when you’re physically strong. So, I increased my stamina by riding my favorite bicycle across Jirisan and by taking a lot of walks around Jirisan.”
The drama’s cast includes Jun Ji-hyun aka Gianna Jun, Sung Dong-il and Oh Jung-se. Working with these gifted actors was a rewarding and positive experience.
“I’ve been a fan of Ms. Jun Ji-hyun’s since I was young, so I still remember the first time I met her for Jirisan. It was an amazing experience to be working with someone who I’ve been a fan of even before my debut.”
Jun plays an experienced, although sometimes reckless, ranger that Hyun-jo must follow around. At first she warns him to keep up, but soon realizes he might be useful. Sung Dong-il and Oh Jung-se also play fellow rangers.
“Mr. Sung Dong-il made a special appearance in the movie Along with the Gods,” said Ju. “So I had met him briefly then, but now I got the chance to work with him for a longer period. It was my first time working with Mr. Oh Jung-se. I have been seeing them on the big screen long before I started acting, so it was great to be working on the same project with them. All of them are experienced actors, so the atmosphere on the film set just couldn’t have been bad. It was very friendly.”
Jirisan is streaming at a time when there is new and heightened interest in Korean drama, thanks to the popularity of the Netflix
“Until now, most investments and production budgets were planned with just the Korean and the Asian box office in mind,” he said. “The better Korean media content becomes, the more interest it will attract from abroad. With more co-production and investment opportunities, we will be able to create better and more wonderful works. The quality of the project does not rely solely on its budget, but I’m looking forward to the possibility of producing greater works with improved quality in a better environment with a larger budget.”
Ju, who also appeared in the TV dramas Hyena and Mask, as well as both Along With The Gods films, will next appear in Gentleman, an action crime film, and hopefully another season of Kingdom.
“You will be able to see it in theaters and on OTT platforms next year. Many people are waiting for the next season of Kingdom and all of us actors are also very much looking forward to it. Although the production of an additional season has not been decided yet, there are many more stories to be told. I am also hoping that it will be made.”
Jirisan, an iQiyi Original Drama, was produced by Studio Dragon.