We couldn’t resist seeing the irony of cutting short our recent trip to Mt. Apo, the highest mountain in the Philippines, to watch a screener of the first episode of iQiyi’s “Jirisan,” about park rangers responsible for search-and-rescue operations on the highest peak in mainland South Korea.
To say the least, we were impressed by the “heavy-hitters” involved in the 16-episode K-drama series that began streaming last Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m.—and they didn’t disappoint.
“Jirisan” doesn’t just entrust its mixed bag of drama, adventure and the supernatural to Korean superstars Gianna Jun, aka Jun Ji-hyun (“My Sassy Girl,” “Il Mare,” “My Love from the Star”) and Ju Ji-hoon (“Kingdom” and “Along with the Gods”), it also fields some of K-drama’s most visible actors to help incorporate its themes, including Oh Jung-se (“It’s Okay to Not Be Okay,” “When the Camellia Blooms”), Cho Han-cheul (“Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha,” “Vincenzo”) and Kim Young-ok (“Reply 1988”).
Putting these terrific actors through their thespic paces is director Lee Eung-bok (“Descendants of the Sun,” “Mr. Sunshine,” “Goblin”), along with writer Kim Eun-hee (“Signal,” “Kingdom”), who spins an intriguing yarn about a rookie ranger named Kang Hyun-jo (Ji-hoon) and his more seasoned partner, the hard-driving Seo Yi-kang (Gianna).
Hyun-jo’s drive to pursue his calling—the source of a deeply guarded secret—gets a boost from the instinct and experience of Yi-kang. Together, they go off the beaten track scaling the steep and tricky peaks or climb down the deep ditches of Mt. Jiri to save lives and put everything in order. But the end of Episode 1 quickly turns the story on its head when it surprisingly fast-tracks its storytelling two years later by showing what has become of Yi-kang and Hyun-jo since and how the duo’s connection, despite physical estrangement, remains entangled by their psychic bond.
At a recent press conference attended by Ji-hoon, Gianna, Jung-se, Han-cheul, writer Eun-hee and director of photography Choi Sang-mook, the “Jirisan” team shared with the Asian press their experience of working on the series.
“I had never set foot on Jirisan before I wrote the script for the series,” Eun-hee admitted when asked how the idea for the series came about. “So I had a very abstract admiration for that mountain. But I have read and heard so much about it in school and from books talking about it as a mountain where everybody went to pray for their wishes.
Sense of mystery
“Over the years, I felt that those prayers and wishes must have already accumulated on that mountain—which gives the place a sense of mystery. There are so many secrets buried in it! So, that was the feeling that I had when I approached this project as I began to investigate.” Beyond romanticizing the majestic mountain, the highest peak in South Korea after Hallasan on Jeju Island, the story that really holds the series together is anchored on the people that inhabit it.
“I found out that whenever there was an accident on the mountain, it was not the 911 team that went there to rescue the people, but the mountain rangers who looked after the safety of the stranded. In the past, stories about these incidents would always revolve around the investigation after people are killed, but the rangers’ mission isn’t to retrieve [dead bodies] but to rescue people. They’re there to save lives.”
For cinematographer Sang-mook, the task at hand required more than just capturing the majesty and treachery of Mother Nature as represented by Mt. Jiri.
“I wanted to portray as much the fear as the beauty it’s known for. I wanted to show how the characters in the series interact with the mountain, especially during rescue missions, so it was crucial for us to incorporate that balance [in the scenes viewers see onscreen].”
More of the Q&A with the “Jirisan” team:
Gianna and Ji-hoon, you did two dramas in a row with Eun-hee. What did you think was the unique aspect of this particular project?
Gianna: When I read Eun-hee’s script, there were a lot of details I could use as reference points as an actress. What sets her script apart from others is that a lot of the scenes that I initially took for granted actually gave me helpful hints about the plot as it unfolded. So as we filmed, I gradually began to see the power of the details in the script. Ji-hoon: I’ve been working with Eun-hee for about five years already. So now I feel like she’s an auntie of mine (laughs). She recently moved close to my house, so I would hang out at her studio and discuss details of the script with her—which was helpful to me as an actor. There are a lot of challenging and very emotional scenes, and she somehow makes them easy for viewers to understand.
Gianna, your portrayal of Yi-kang here and your iconic character in “My Sassy Girl” are both very charming. Didn’t Yi-kang strike you as just a more mature version of your earlier iconic character?
Personally, I feel that the two characters are quite different. But they’re both autonomous and very independent, so I think those are just their shared similarities. I did not in any way intend to depict a strong and independent woman for this role, but I think that’s the trend these days—to bring to life a lot of dynamic female characters in media.
Ji-hoon, there’s a mysterious element to your character Hyun-jo. He has the ability to see visions and sense danger. How did you prepare for this?
Ji-hoon: I took the simple approach. I met frequently with our writer; I did not want to work on this alone—and that was my guide.
Jung-se, you’ve established yourself as one of the most sought-after actors in Korea, especially after your memorable turns in “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay” and “When the Camellia Blooms.” What drew you to “Jirisan”?
Jung-se: I’m as excited about “Jirisan” as the viewers. I love the title, which carries such weight to it, such gravitas. It’s directed by Eung-bok and written by Eun-hee. Moreover, it was impressive just looking at the list of its cast members, so I had no reason not to take on this project. Accepting the role [of practical ranger Jung Goo-young] was a must for me.
Han-cheul, you portrayed comic characters in “Vincenzo” and “Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha.” You play the rangers’ team leader Park Il-hae. What do you fondly remember about doing “Jirisan”? And how do you feel about being called the star of tvN (Total Variety Network)?
Han-cheul: I’m honored and grateful to be called that way, especially after working on three different projects for tvN. I’ve already hiked and climbed Mount Jiri a couple of times even before we began filming the show.
The experience makes you feel very small in relation to the vast land you see in front of you. And it makes you realize the need to live in harmony with nature. That’s what I thought when I was climbing the mountain. It made me ask a lot of philosophical questions.
The hottest entertainment news straight to your inbox
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.