There's a warmth that permeates the vibe at the studio. Sure, there's a Hallyu star seated on the chair getting his hair and make-up done—Ji Soo, who is famous for his roles in Korean dramas like Strong Girl Bong Soon and Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo and in the film One Way Trip (also known as Glory Day)—but there's a lot of banter and jokes being tossed around by the actor and the photographer Rxandy and stylist RJ. This is not a one-off shoot for them. They've worked together many times before, years and years ago, when Ji Soo was just starting in the industry.
On Ji Soo: Ensemble by Nina Amoncio; Jewelry, Luna by Drake Dustin Ibay
"I have a lot of Filipino friends," Ji Soo shares, "I made friends when I was here when I was 20 years old and I've still kept in touch with them." Ji Soo has a lot of good memories in the Philippines and he knows quite a number of people. He mentions it has just been three or four years since his last visit and that he doesn't just see them as friends. They are "like family to me," he says.
It's a full circle for the young actor, who just ended his compulsory military service. He eagerly shares that his "first movie" is a Filipino-Korean co-production called Seoul Mates. Recalling the film, Ji Soo mentions that it was a student film by the Korea-based Filipino filmmaker Nash Ang. They shot primarily in Seoul but he got a chance to visit Manila when the film made it as an entry to the CinemaOne film festival in 2014. He calls it "my first movie" and his "first work and it's why I have a lot of good memories with Filipinos."
On Ji Soo: Ensemble by Vin Orias
After being away from the spotlight for almost two years, Ji Soo is planning a comeback and it just seems fitting that he'd be doing a shoot in a place that's familiar and filled with good friends.
"I missed it," he shares. "I'm now shooting for a magazine again and it's a lot of fun." Towering above everyone in the studio, Ji Soo is a natural model. His masculine frame is just perfect for the different clothes RJ asks him to wear. He stares directly at the camera unwavering, a calm expression on his face. Rxandy asks for movement and Ji Soo does a simple turn. It's not big but it registers in the camera.
On his enlistment and being away from the spotlight
"I'm done with the army thing," he says, "All Korean men have to do it and I've learned a lot of things. I've matured. I've definitely gotten humbler." Due to a leg surgery back in 2016, Ji Soo was exempt from enlisting in military service and instead had to do social work for the community. He was assigned to work at the senior center where he had to assist the elderly. "It was challenging but it was also a lot of fun," he recalls. "I got to share stories with them and I learned a lot from them so it was worthwhile."
On Ji Soo: Jacket by Kirby Cruz
His enlistment came right after a controversy where Ji Soo was the victim of unverified rumours about him in his youth. It put his career on halt despite it being revealed that it was all untrue and, in his own words, a "misunderstanding" on the part of the accuser. Since the controversy, the two have talked and cleared the air and have become friendly, even to the point of him cheering the actor on his comeback.
When asked what it was like being a "regular person" and away from the hustle and bustle of the entertainment industry, it took Ji Soo a while to answer. He thinks about it hard before saying, "Nothing changed." He talks about going to work at the senior center or hanging out with friends and he never felt that distance.
On Ji Soo: Jacket by Jhobes Estrella
What it did was it made him miss acting more. "For me, my happiness is in acting," he shares. "I'm happiest when I'm on the set and I'm shooting a drama or a movie." He comes alive when he is talking about the work or the work of other people. These days, he is watching the Disney+ show Vigilante starring his friend Nam Joo Hyuk and the director Choi Jung-yeol, whom the actor says "is like my family."
Director Choi Jung-yeol directed Ji Soo in the film One Way Trip (alternate title: Glory Day) which the actor shares is his "first Korean movie." It co-stars Ryu Jun Yeol (of Reply 1988 fame), Kim Jun-myeon also more popularly known as Exo's Suho, and Kim Hee Chan. As the lead, Ji Soo delivers a stand-out performance that showcases all his strengths as an actor. It's a mature, nuanced performance that highlights his ability to draw you into the character. Of the shoot, Ji Soo says that he's still very good friends with his co-actors and the director. Of Choi Jung-yeol, he even states that he'd "love to work with him again."
On Ji Soo: Ensemble by Nina Amoncio; Jewelry, Luna by Drake Dustin Ibay
And while he's most probably known for his work in highly loved dramas like Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo or Strong Girl Bong Soon, when asked about his favorite work amongst his filmography, he is quick to point out that he has a soft spot for his work in the OTT streaming show Amanza, where he played a cancer patient.
"As an actor," he explains, "I'd like to be challenged. That's what I find interesting in the work. I like to try out different roles all the time. I'd like to be a smart student in one project and then be a killer or a bad guy in the next. All roles are interesting to me. I love doing all of it."
The Comeback Kid
While he is looking at new offers and surveying the landscape, there are offers for him to do another Philippine-Korean co-production. Talks are in place and it's another reason why he is in town. On the prospect of working on a possible drama or movie in the Philippines, Ji Soo says, "I would want to work on a drama here. I'll speak in English or something. I love the warm weather and there's just so much color." He's very intrigued by the idea of another co-production, not unlike Seoul Mates, his very first movie. It would be something if his first project would manifest in such a way. It would really be coming full circle.
On Ji Soo: Buttondown by Chris Diaz; Jewelry, Luna by Drake Dustin Ibay
"There is a Korean drama called Casino (in the Philippines it is called Big Bet and is streaming on Disney+) and it is very popular in Korea," he opens up. "I'd like something like that. The differences in culture – of Korea and Philippines – that is something very exciting and interesting to me."
When asked about the possibility of doing variety shows, he laughs and talks about how it makes him nervous. As an actor, he likes slipping into different roles and working with a script. So what does he consider his strength as an actor? He ponders on it before responding with "My physique and I have a very manly poise and presence." It's evident as you watch him pose for each shot during the shoot. He can take some of these stylish clothes, adorned with jewelry and glamorous hair and make-up, and he owns the look. He makes it his own.
On Ji Soo: Ensemble by BOCU
The control might be rooted in his new-found hobby of tennis, which has kept him in shape recently. "It's my stress reliever," he shares. "I can't drink because I'm allergic to alcohol, so when I'm stressed I like to work out. But I find working out boring so I'm happy I found tennis because it's a lot of fun."
Now that he's gearing up and preparing for his return, I ask him if there's anything about the industry he doesn't miss. He takes a pause to think about it. I try to feed him some suggestions—the long hours? Maybe make-up—and he rejects each one. "I don't not miss the long hours or the waiting or the make-up," he says laughing. "I miss it, actually. I know it's hard. It's tough but I don't know why I can just accept it all. I can handle it. I enjoy it." Being away from the limelight has given him a lot of thought in the matter and what being an actor really means to him has become crystal clear. "I enjoy it," he exclaims. "It's my choice," he says with great conviction.
"It's what makes me happy. I miss it all.”
Produced by RJ Roque
Photography by Rxandy Capinpin
Art Direction by Joe Andy
Styling by RJ Roque and Edrick Paz
Assisted by Dani Familara and Louie Roque
Grooming by Mycke Arcano
Assisted by Jam Jacobe
Cover Story by Wanggo Gallaga
Special thanks to SBTown
Featuring fashion from Vin Orias, BOCU, Jhobes Estrella, Chris Diaz,
Drake Dustin Ibay, Kirby Cruz, and Nina Amoncio