[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Episodes 5 and 6 of A Shop for Killers. Read at your own risk!]
Who was Jeong Jinman? That is the question at the center of A Shop for Killers. In the Korean action series, which premiered Jan. 17 on both Hulu and Disney+, Lee Dong-wook stars as Jinman — a man with a hidden past tasked with raising his niece Jian (Kim Hye-jun) after her parents were murdered. In the very first episode, however, Jinman is also declared dead. To the disbelief of Jian, her uncle's death is ruled as a suicide. And when their home is suddenly attacked on all fronts — think drone strikes and sniper attacks — Jian quickly realizes that she knew nothing about the man who raised her.
A Shop for Killers, which has released six of its eight episodes, slowly unravels the mystery behind Jinman's identity. Very quickly, Jian learns that he was the operator of a shop on the dark web, "Murthehelp," that specialized in selling military grade weapons. Jumping back and forth between timelines, the series based on Kang Ji-young's novel The Killer's Shopping Mall also reveals the unordinary relationship between Jinman and Jian — and how he has covertly prepared his niece for his death.
The two latest episodes were integral in unearthing secrets. While Episode 5 focused on Jian and the future of "Murthehelp," Episode 6 was all about Jinman's past as a mercenary. He was a trained assassin working for the organization Babylon, and clashed with one particular man named Bale (Jo Han-sun) who was the definition of a cold-blooded killer. And Bale, who was presumed dead, seems to be the key to the tragedies that have befallen Jinman's family.
Lee and Kim spoke to TV Guide over Zoom, via a translator, about the events in A Shop for Killers Episodes 5 and 6, the relationship between their characters, and the growing popularity of Korean media around the world.
The structure of the drama is really interesting, with flashbacks filling in the gaps to who Jeong Jinman was. What was your reaction when you read the script for the first time?
Lee Dong-wook: That point was exactly the point that was intriguing for me, and that's why I chose to be part of the show. I don't think Jinman has that much screen time, but he's definitely someone who really leads the narrative of the story.
Kim Hye-jun: I also liked how the narrative unfolds not in a chronological order, but it jumps back and forth in time. What I really liked about the script was that you can see the growth of Jian as she maneuvers through all the difficulties that come her way. That's why I chose to be part of the show.
On the note of Jian's growth, was there one flashback between Jinman and Jian that most fascinated you?
Kim: Those were not the scenes that I shot myself, but there are moments when Jinman and the child Jian get closer to each other.
Lee: There's that point when I say if you punch me in the face just once, then I'll let you go live by yourself — that's one of my favorite scenes. I liked the flashbacks between Jian and myself, but I also liked the moments when she learns Muay Thai from Pasin, those were my favorite scenes.
I also loved that sequence. Kim Hye-jun, did you have any experience with Muay Thai? How did you prepare for Jian's fight scenes?
Kim: I've never learned Muay Thai and all other martial arts. This is my very first time, I went to the action academy and really had to start from scratch because I had no experience at all. So I started off learning how to kick, how to punch, how to box. And then later on together with actor Kim Min who plays Pasin, we went to the Muay Thai gym.
That's amazing that you did not have experience. I also wanted to ask, in Episode 5 we see Jian faced with the decision between starting a new life with a different identity and staying in the home to protect "Murthehelp." What is going on in her mind then, and why does she decide to stay?
Kim: I tried to really immerse myself into the character of Jian. And I knew that she would be afraid, she wanted to run away and she wanted to start a new life. But then I think this is the moment when she felt that she has that thing inside her. She has what she needs to become a killer, because she's the niece of Jinman. This is the part when she really evolves and realizes who she really is, so I think that's why she chose to protect the shopping mall operation instead.
Lee: To chime in on that, I think there were definite emotional interactions between Jian and Jinman not just as niece and uncle, but they were like father and daughter. They helped each other grow. And that's why I think she naturally thought about protecting the heritage that her uncle has left. So it's not only just her killer instinct kicking in but it's also about the familial love between the two.
I definitely loved seeing more of their relationship as the show continued. In Episode 6, we finally see the backstory about Jinman and Babylon. Lee Dong-wook, how did you prepare for the hand-to-hand combat scene with Bale?
Lee: When we were on set, me and Jo Han-sun, the actor who played Bale, would practice and do rehearsals for two hours. We would shoot and when there's time for a break, we would start rehearsing again. And both myself and Han-sun have experience in doing action, so it was actually easier than expected.
Something I noticed was that Bale never blinks, which added to how scary he was. Did you have to do multiple takes in case he blinks in the middle of a scene?
Lee: Actually no, we didn't and I didn't really realize that he never blinked until you said that. I think Han-sun probably had ideas in his head about not blinking.
I'm going to get nightmares about him tonight. I also wanted to ask Lee Dong-wook: Guardian: The Lonely and Great God [the 2016 drama in which Lee starred as the Grim Reaper/Wang Yeo] was the first Korean drama for many people in the U.S. and the West. How does it feel to see the growth in popularity for Korean media since then, and to now be in a project being released worldwide?
Lee: It's thanks to the development of the structure of media nowadays. We have so many streamers like Disney+, where we can enjoy Korean content anywhere, anytime. And I'm very thankful because Guardian was actually released before the era of the streamers, but it was loved by a lot of global audiences. I think Korean content had a lot of potential even way back then. We do a lot of new trials and the capacity of both the cast and creators are top of class. So I think we have to stay humble, try new things so that appeals globally. Even for A Shop for Killers, I think it could come off as fresh and new to global audiences because it's a story of killers but against the backdrop of Korea.
A Shop for Killers is available to stream on Hulu.