Lee Je Hoon, The Traveler

Traveling has a way of revealing people. After all, it sheds light on who you are. Being in a foreign place, surrounded by unfamiliar sights and sounds, it’s easier to see the nuances of your persona. Strange lands have that power. It puts you in a microscope where you recognize someone a little better than before.

This rings true watching Lee Je Hoon in Traveler. Together with Ryu Jun-yeol, we find ourselves following the steps and missteps of two men as they backpack across Cuba, a country that’s often plagued and shaped by many misconceptions. Along the journey, these two actors who, like the country they’re exploring, face many preconceived notions as public personas, reveal a little bit more about the real “them” beyond the big and small screens.

I’ve only recently followed Lee Je Hoon, and have seen a couple of his works. Whether it’s as a charismatic antihero or a provocative bully, Je Hoon, the actor, has a penchant for roles that may be unpopular to the public and even to fellow actors who prefer a safe and polished resume. It’s easy then to mistake the actor as his body of work — bold and dauntless, cold and intimidating, someone who is too serious for his own good. Even he admits to being uptight when he was younger.

So to see Je Hoon — stubbles and all — get lost in the streets of Havana, haggle with street vendors in Trinidad, and try his best to charm Cuban women with lines like señorita, muy bonita is an unexpected sight. Although he only comes in at the third episode of the nimble 10-part series, Je Hoon manages to showcase a side of him that contrasts nicely with his image.

Instead of an aloof and somber actor, we see a childlike Jehoon desperate to use his English and Spanish to get the best price — whether it’s for a casa, a taxi to Trinidad from Havana, or a shirt he wants to buy. Like a young boy scout, he brags to Jun-yeol his pack of kimchi and medicine, as well as his mosquito repellent, almost as if he expects a reward for his preparedness. He fumbles when he realizes he’s eating his pizza too early, forgetting that his fellow actor prays for grace before meals.

He laughs wildly when he gets pranked by Jun-yeol about his niece. At the beachside near Playa Giron, Jehoon is even more disarming as he envies Jun-yeol in the waters but desperately worries his shorts — which were regular shorts — would slip once he dived into the sea. And did I mention Jehoon is so nonchalant in this series he’s wearing tank tops and muscle tees in a few episodes?

His bromantic chemistry with Jun-yeol is something else, too. Far from being an awkward companionship, the two complement each other nicely. Jun-yeol, who arrived a few days ahead of Jehoon, leads most of their trips. He’s confident without being brash. He’s also well-grounded despite being a critically-acclaimed actor. Thanks to him, Jehoon, who can be quite clumsy, settles in quickly, and as a pair, they affectionately share stories, pranks, and even beds in between. 

And it’s in their intimate conversations that both actors reveal themselves a little bit more. In Caleta Buena, for instance, Jehoon and Junyeol lie down after lunch for a nice talk under the trees. Jehoon shares that his pursuit of acting meant he missed out on finishing his college degree. With his popularity, he can’t even take public transportation. Both actors also reminisce about their start in the industry and how they cherished the minor roles they first got. It’s fascinating to hear about the senior actors they admired, have met, and even worked with, too. One senses how grounded both Jehoon and Junyeol are. 

At one point in the program, Jehoon even reflects on his path as an actor and surprisingly admits how things get harder with each new role. This not only struck me as unusual but was also a reminder of a quote from my favorite author, JM Coetzee, in the book Disgrace: “It gets harder all the time, Bev Shaw once said. Harder, yet easier. One gets used to things getting harder; one ceases to be surprised that what used to be hard as hard can be grows harder yet.” I never thought actors had it harder as they flourished in their careers. But it’s a revealing insight, especially when one considers Jehoon’s recent interview where he shares, “As I come to gain more experience, I also feel a bigger sense of accomplishment, as well as a growing sense of loneliness, sadness, and emptiness.” 

These moments are what make Traveler a pleasant watch. For those who, like me, have just begun following Jehoon, the series perfectly shows the actor at his most unguarded — at least in terms of what we can, as a public, watch. Against the backdrop of Cuba’s landscape and intimate Latin music, the intensity that has marked Jehoon’s roles are lost in the gaffes and improprieties that typically mark trips. But he also engages with the profound, as expected when one is absorbed in traveling. In Traveler, Lee Je Hoon unpacks his mind and soul, becoming a little less reserved and careful, allowing viewers a glimpse into the thoughts and sentiments only he was privy to long ago.

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