What’s Up?: The truth behind the words of Professor Sun Woo-young

by: Raine

I just finished bawling my eyes out after watching episodes 19 and 20 of What’s Up? (Again.) For those of you who aren’t into K-drama, it’s still safe to read on, because what I’m about to say extends beyond the drama.

I was crying for the obvious reasons: a beloved professor’s decline in health and eventual death; the inability of the main couple to be together; college kids banding together in times of hardship.

When you follow characters for twenty episodes and the writer, Song Ji-na, really has a grasp on the message, the ending can really make or break the show. Sometimes, if the bulk of the show is strong, it can get away with a disappointing ending. But this show, despite its strength, would’ve really been hurt by a weak ending.

But the ending wasn’t weak. For me, it was because the ending really told my story: the journey of an artist in discovering art’s role in her life. It really tied the overarching themes together and made a point in a way that most musical dramas fail to do.

All of the characters are involved in art in one way or another: aspiring singers, current idols, hidden talents, ardent fans, parents of artists, children of artists, teachers of artists, the movers and the pushers.

Basically, if there is life and breath, there is art.

Art is the creative part of the human soul. After we work and eat and drink, what is left? It’s this strange, intrinsic desire to create and band together with people and nature. Art can become a chore if the artist creates for a purpose other than that immaculate connection with everything around the artist.

What does that MEAN?

For me and my art, music, I practice and work and sweat. It’s hard and sometimes infuriating work. I lose sight of what music is in my need to make a living.

But music brings me back. When I play, or when I make music with someone else, or when I rehearse and discuss ideas with other people, that’s when that intrinsic desire to create is fulfilled.

The part of the art that is the most fulfilling is the part I can never be paid for. It’s that unbreakable bond between people and life – it pulls you out of yourself and connects you to everything.

So what does the ending of What’s Up? have to do with all of this?

The professor who haphazardly guides the kids through their musical theater education, Sun Woo-young, speaks to his class. He is terminally ill and wants to leave them a taste of what he believes art is. Here is the dialogue between Woo-young and his students.

Jae-hun (student director of the students’ musical): We are in the process of gathering ideas to get noticed by the judges [of a musical theater competition.]

Woo-young: So you should you try to get noticed by the judges?

Jae-hun: That…well, we are doing this in order to win in a competition. If we’re doing it anyway, might as well win, right? I hear there’s some prize money, too.

Woo-young: (Shakes his head, struggles to the board and writes, “Show stopper”) Who knows what this means? (Remember, this show is in Korean and he wrote in English.)

Byung-gun (a musical aficionado): A situation where the audience continues to clap so hard that the performance cannot continue.

Woo-young: Yes, acting that melts one’s heart. The audience clapping, touched by it. This is our goal.

(Puts a hand over his heart.)

Everyone put your hand on your heart. Can you feel what’s in there? It should be there. This black little hole. Every person has at least one of these in their hearts. But because that hole is so empty and cold, you try everything to fill it up.

Some people try to fill it up by trying to earn as much money as they can. Some try to meet someone, thinking loving someone might fill up the emptiness. You get into a relationship, get hurt, and so in the process that hole sometimes gets bigger. And some people, they are so afraid of that hole, they drink their lives away. Or they do drugs.

People like us, who are performers, how do we fill up that hole? Right here, this word “show stopper.”

My acting. My singing. When people react to this and passionately clap at our performances, that’s when that hole disappears.

Of course it is momentary, but still, that hole gets filled up. That’s when your heart finally becomes warm.

This…is our goal.

What he’s talking about, the filling of the hole, it’s unbelievably true. But it happens more often than just on stage. When artists gather to rehearse and discuss, when they get the creative juices going, that hole is also filled.

But there is a road block: You. Your “self”. Your mind. Your thoughts.

It’s quite an experience to “fill the hole”. It’s exhilarating. There can be no fear, no anxiety, no happiness, no sadness, no human emotion. It is less of a feeling/action and more of a state of being – one that does not happen very often. It’s why the stage is the only place many people can fill the hole.

There is a magical disconnect with reality caused by adrenaline, other chemicals that I don’t quite understand, and the spirit. It pushes you beyond yourself and delivers you to a “show stopping” ending.

For Byung-gun, the musical encyclopedia and singer extraordinaire, the stage was the place he could not sing. His mind got in the way – an audience meant negative judgement to him and that was a block. He was only able to completely free himself when he was alone. He could let loose and “go crazy” with no fear.

Tae-yi, a girl who once found it easy to throw everything away to music and let it fill her, lost her voice. The agency she signed with ran her through the training gauntlet and reality prevented her from coming out of herself. It was only after she let all of that go that she found her voice again.

When Jae-hun, the director of the student musical, was first introduced, he was a delinquent. He was running from trouble and stumbled across a young woman singing. The sound filled him and planted within him the desire to do the same. It’s why he went to school – he desperately wanted to find a way to “fill the hole” again.

Jae-hun shows us that a listener can feel just as strongly as a performer. When the artist literally “loses his mind”, “goes crazy” and just IS, then he can connect directly with his audience. When he cries, they cry. When he laughs, they laugh. Everyone becomes lost to the moment.

This is what “filling a hole” is. It’s filling it with a connection to other people and life.

A heart isn’t touched, it’s filled.

This post is dedicated to Zgzgirl Unni. She was my support during the last stages of drama-watching. Yes, that is the sad state of addiction I am in.

8 responses to “What’s Up?: The truth behind the words of Professor Sun Woo-young”

  1. I haven’t watched this drama completely yet, but I’ll get there… in the meantime thanks for sharing your take on Prof. Woo Young’s words. I guess we all have that hole that we can’t fill and perhaps it’s better not fill it completely because it drives us on towards more, to make ourselves better, to push our limits and rise above what we first thought was all we could do.

  2. I agree and disagree. You and Prof Woo Young are right. We, particularly artsy types I think, are always looking for that pure moment when we get out of ourselves and live in the performance. Sometimes the performance happens amongst friends. Sometimes it’s for an audience (and then there’s the added bonus of audience adulation). Sometimes it’s the thrill of your first positive review to a piece of writing or visual art. But that moment when you do what you are meant to do, not necessarily for the public, is absolutely wonderful. It’s so fulfilling. It’s like drinking a sparkling cup for of giddiness.

    That said, I disagree with the idea that it can fill the hold that we all have. I know this isn’t where you were going with this post — at least I don’t think it is — but the hole will always be there unless you fill it with something that is genuinely bigger than yourself…bigger than anything made by people at all. Basically, it’s God or nothin’. 😉 What I mean is that the hole trying to be filled is made for God. People can try putting other things into it, as Woo Young said, but those things continually slip through. I mean…being filled by God is *not* always going to give you the thrill of a showstopping number, but being filled by him gives you a new baseline of contentment that never needs an outside source. Which brings me back to the what I said about “do what you were meant to do.” There’s a quote attributed to Eric Liddell, a famous Olympian about whom Chariots of Fire was done that makes my point: “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” When we do what we’re meant to do well — perform, lead, write, teach, parent, study, etc. — we’re filled with God’s pleasure. But when that’s over, then what do you do if your hole isn’t already stoppered?

    Anywho, that’s my longer answer. I know, now what you were expecting! I do really like this post. It speaks to that moment every artist-type has when your spirit feels the confines of your body and wants to break free. It’s the same feeling the audience gets at an amazing event (Memphis, you were awesome!) But there has to be more.

  3. Nice post…being a musician yourself, WU must really resonate much with you. Last stages of drama-watching? What do you mean? Have you managed to kick the habit? 😛

    • It’s a chronic illness, unfortunately. That was the last stages of the What’s Up? flare. What will flare up next? I have no clue!

      What’s Up? really got to me. They showed mostly the rehearsal process rather than performances. For me that was so real and gritty. People call the stage ‘home’ and its true. There is NOTHING like it.

      But what does an artist/musicians/actor/dancer/painter go back to each day? The rehearsal room, the barre, the studio, the practice room…a place where the art is created and formed and nourished.

  4. For me, that achievement : Filling the heart, is close to the buddhist notion of satori, or the epiphany for christians. You’re HERE and NOW, and you share your authentic nature with others, everything finds its place. It’s at the same time a powerful experience and something simple and basic, like an eureka. It shortcuts the intellect.You discover that you have faith in yourself and in the world and that there is a meaning in your life. Artists of any kind who manage to feel this are blessed indeed. And they can transmit that healing energy ( ?? how to call it ) to the audience.
    I just watched the last episode of Fermentation Family and i had the same
    ” vibe ” than at the end of WU ? : A feeling of warmth and kindness, of comfort.
    I must get old or sentimental, and i’m a bit cryptic, so i would understand if people find me crazy saying this. ..

    • I like that phrase you used “shortcuts the intellect”. That’s very true.

      I completely understand what you’re trying to say. The point of this post was to share that sentimental cryptic revelation I had and I hoped that it would bring out the same in my readers.

  5. Aaaaaaah!!!!!
    I was loving your post, and then…I saw the dedicatory.
    Thanks Raine, you are always a great support when watching dramas. Watching then alone is not the same as being able to share our worries, thoughts, and expectations with a fellow addict.

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