Part of MKC's coverage of the 11th New York Asian Film Festival.
In discussing the life and works of South Korea’s legendary actor Choi Min-sik, who is making a special appearance at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, I feel the first thing that should be mentioned is how very lucky we are that he was given a chance to make any films at all. Choi was born in 1962 in Seoul and during his early childhood he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. His doctor’s prognosis was that he wouldn’t make it but following a lengthy convalescence in the mountains, he beat the disease. I know that I and many others are very glad that he did!
Choi graduated from Dongguk University with a degree in theater and didn’t become active in cinema until the 1989 with Kuro Arirang. He made a handful of other works over the coming years, such as Our Twisted Hero (1992), but mostly he was active in theater and television. It wasn’t until 1997 that he committed to cinema after the enormous success of the gangster film No. 3 (1997), which incidentally was also Song Kang-ho’s big break. He played a gruff prosecutor and shared some memorable scenes with Han Suk-kyu, one of the biggest Korean stars of the 1990s.
A year later he turned out another great but this time comic performance in Kim Jee-woon’s debut The Quiet Family (1998). Following that he once again teamed up with Han Suk-kyu for what became the breakthrough film of modern Korean cinema, the box office behemoth Shiri (1999) in which he played a North Korean agent. That same year he starred in the dark melodrama Happy End (1999) and continued a streak of serious roles in art house fare with the poignant romance Failan (2001) and Im Kwon-taek’s gorgeous biopic of Korean painter Jang Seung-up, Chihwaseon (2002).
His next film is probably the one he will always be remembered for, the seminal contemporary Korean film Oldboy (2003) from director Park Chan-wook. His performance as Oh Dae-su, a man who embarks on an odyssey of revenge following his being held being held captive for 15 years in a small room, is magnetic and unforgettable. Following all these dark roles and a brief cameo in the war epic Taegukgi (2004), Choi opted for a lighter part in the uplifiting melodrama Springtime (2004). Soon he was back in his comfort zone with another two heavyweights in 2005, Ryoo Seung-wan’s boxing drama Crying Fist and the final part of Park Chan-wook’s revenge trilogy Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, in which Choi played a deranged sociopath.
In 2006, the Korean government made the highly unpopular decision to slash the screen quota in the country from 146 to 73 days. That is to say how many days of the year that a theater is obligated to screen local films. Choi was one of many film figures that stood up against this, indeed he was at the forefront of the movement and could be found demonstrating in Korea but also at the Cannes Film Festival and after nothing changed he became disillusioned with the industry and went on a hiatus from screen acting. During his four-year break he went back to his roots as he became involved in theater again.
He was finally wooed back to the silver screen by Jeon Soo-il for Himalya, Where the Wind Dwells (2009), a small art film shot in Tibet in which he was the only Korean performer. Following this he teamed up with Kim Jee-woon for the second time as he played another macabre character alongside Lee Byung-hun in I Saw the Devil (2010). After a quick bit of voice acting for last year’s Leafie, A Hen Into the Wild, Choi wowed audiences in Nameless Gangster, which is currently this year’s highest grossing film.
Choi is a big star in Korea and belongs to a limited group of major thesps who do not have the standard boyish looks and six-pack abs but can still connect with audiences. Throughout the 90s Park Joon-hong (Nowhere to Hide, 1999) was such a star but for the last decade it has been Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder, 2003) and Choi that have carried that mantle.
His gruff physiognomy more or less excludes him from certain films such as romantic comedies but he has nonetheless dabbled in romantically themed films though much darker ones that those usually associated with the nation’s film industry. In Happy End he played an emasculated husband who has recently lost his job and suspects his wife, played by Jeon Do-yeon (Secret Sunshine, 2007), of having an affair. The film dissects gender roles in a strictly patriarchal society and does not end on a positive note. Failan, one of the best films to come out of Korea at the start of the millenium, sees him playing a gangster who marries a Chinese woman for visa purposes but never meets her save seeing her through a crack in the door. Following her death a year later he begins to search for who she was and only at this point does he develop feelings for her.
In most films, central characters undergo changes through the narrative’s ups and downs and a large part of an actor’s job is being able to sell that transition to the audience. Choi is nothing short of master at this, in fact, he excels at metamorphosis and modifies his performance in such subtle increments that by the end of a film you might be shocked to remember how a character had started out a mere two hours earlier.
Choi is well-known for playing very dark characters such as the sociopathic serial killers in both Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and I Saw the Devil. His role in the former is a supporting one and he is convincing as a pedophile hiding behind his clean appearance and job as an English teacher but within Park’s dense mise-en-scene he is not afforded much opportunity to accentuate his character, especially given his screen time. Think what you will of Kim Jee-woon’s latest film but Choi was universally praised for his chilling performance as a maniacal murderer with nothing resembling a moral compass. Though strong in both neither of these are among his best roles and perhaps it is because he is not afforded the chance to develop his characters. Dare I say that for him these may not have been very challenging roles and yet he still gave his all and turned in great work.
One of Choi’s most remarkable assets as a performer is to able to completely lose himself in a role. The best example of this remains Oh Dae-su in Oldboy, a role that it is hard to imagine anyone else taking on (and further reason for skepticism regarding the incoming Spike Lee-Josh Brolin remake). As Dae-su, Choi was at the same time humane and insane, horrifying and hilarious. Furthermore he was convincing as both a wimpy degenerate and an unstoppable fighting machine. While many of the characters in his filmography undergo extensive change, none do so to quite the same level as Dae-su, and once again it is a testament to Choi’s skills as a thespian that he sells the transition so well. Speaking of dedication to his roles, Choi famously ate four octopuses during the filming of a key scene even though he is a committed Buddhist. He said a prayer for each of them but is said to have been very distraught following the filming.
Jumping ahead to this year’s Nameless Gangster, Choi has again delivered a knockout performance and in my opinion, one of his best. He plays a corrupt civil servant in 1980s Busan who ascends to the upper crust of the criminal underworld. He does so through his cunning but mostly due to his keen awareness of customs and rituals, he knows how to butter up all comers. Here, Choi’s performance steers the character from a repulsive buffoon to a wickedly clever orchestrator and all the while he conveys his savage egotism and desperate need for validation. His protagonist magnificently comes to life through Choi’s commanding stable of ticks and accents.
As for the future, Choi has two films lined up, the first of which is currently filming. New World teams Choi with Lee Jeong-jae (The Housemaid, 2010) and Hwang Jeong-min (The Unjust, 2010) and he will play the superior of a police officer who has gone undercover but begins to have split loyalties. The film will reunite Choi with I Saw the Devil scribe Park Hong-jeong who is taking his second go at the director’s chair after the disappointing The Showdown (2011). The cast is fantastic and though the premise is nothing original I suspect we’ll have a great genre feature on our hands later this year.
Following that Choi will take on the role of Yi Sun-shin, a famed Korean admiral from the 16th century. Battle of Myeongryang, Whirlwind Sea is Kim Han-min’s follow-up to last year’s megahit War of the Arrows. This could be quite the combination and I’m sure Choi will deliver some magnificent work with the character when it hits screens next summer.
As thrilled as I am to see Choi take on these great genre roles I hope it isn’t too long before we see him in a smaller project again, as an actor with such extraordinary range I think he should have the chance to shine through a diverse array of works. For those of you in attendance at this year’s NYAFF, be sure not to miss the opportunity to see his films on the big screen. Aside from the phenomenal Nameless Gangster, which is currently doing the festival rounds, Failan, Oldboy and Crying Fist will all be screened. Not to mention that this is a fantastic opportunity to meet one of the finest actors on the planet. By all accounts he’s a standup guy too so no excuses!
Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update, Korean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time).