Choi Min-sik: Korean Film Legend and International Star [NYAFF 2012]

On Saturday June 30th, I had the opportunity to attend the Korean Press Conference at the Walter Reade Theater, site of the New York Asian Film Festival.  Participating in the press conference was Korean actor Choi Min-sik, who had a four-film mini retrospective of his work, including his latest film Nameless Gangster (2012) and the classic cult film Oldboy (2003).  In attendance were press people from both Korea and the U.S. and Choi was genial and seemed quite relaxed while fielding questions about his career.

Choi commented that this was his first time at the New York Asian Film Festival and when asked what he thought of New York he laughingly replied “hot”, which got a laugh out of everyone there (it was in the 90s that day).

In the brief half hour press conference, most of the questions centered on Park Chan-wook’s 2003 cult film Oldboy, of which Oh Dae-su is probably one of Choi’s most famous roles.  Our very own Dear leader, Stan Glick asked if he is as strongly associated with the character in Korea as he is in America, to which Choi replied that the subject matter of the film was something very new for the Korean audience and that it did get a very big reaction at home.  Another member of the press remarked that it is the 10th anniversary of such a ground-breaking film and wanted to know what Choi thought the appeal was, to keep Oldboy still so prominent a film.  Choi said that he felt the biggest attraction was that the story appeals to audiences in both the East and West; that “evil knows no boundaries and it is recognized that evil in a person can be brought on by something as simple as what you say to someone.”

Choi had also been asked his feelings on an American remake of Oldboy (plans have been rumored for some years, with the latest being directed by Spike Lee and starring Josh Brolin).  Back in 2008 at the Lyon Asian Film Festival, when asked what he thought of the upcoming (at the time) Oldboy remake, Choi’s response at the time was that he was upset with what he perceived as pressure tactics by Hollywood on European and Asian filmmakers so they could remake these films in the United States.  This time his response was that he’s excited about it and is “curious about its interpretation in the U.S.”  When questioned if Josh Brolin had contacted Choi for some tips on playing the role, he said “I admire Brolin, especially in the film No Country for Old Men (2007), but I had thought maybe Sean Penn would play my role.  Brolin hasn’t called, but we can have a few drinks and I’d be happy to give him some pointers.”

When asked what attracts him to a role Choi responded, “I don’t have a specific taste for a character to play….it’s more about the story, no matter the genre.  It doesn’t matter if the character is evil or if the character is good.  When I read a script and I want to continue through to the end….if I want to talk to the writer about why he wrote this script, that is what attracts me.”  A bit later Choi was asked about the physicality of such roles as Oh Dae-su, and if the fact that he’s getting older is a factor in how physically demanding a role may be.  Choi said he felt that “not just Oldboy, most of the roles have been physically demanding, but that there is a common understanding of a scene’s importance to the film.”  He also said that sometimes when he’s finished with a movie, he says that he’ll never do a role like that again, but reiterated that the roles he chooses are based on the character’s story and not really the physicality of the role.

Finally it was my turn to ask a question, but allow me to give some background.  Choi Min-sik is an activist as well as an actor.  In 2006, he and other actors/activists began a public protest over what is referred to as Screen Quotas as part of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States.  The treaty had been amended to reduce the number of days a Korean film was required to screen in the U.S. from 146 days to 73.  Choi ultimately returned a prestigious award, saying that the reduction in the Screen Quotas would “be a death sentence for Korean film.”  As a result, Choi began a self-imposed exile from the Korean film industry.  In 2010 Choi made his return to the big screen with I Saw the Devil, a major studio film directed by Kim Ji-woon, whom Choi approached with the project.  I wanted to know what it was about the script for the film that led to the ending of his protest exile.  He explains:

“…when I read the script for I Saw the Devil I thought that the devil was a very sad devil, which is not something I’d seen before….I thought this was the story of a monster who was in appearance a human being but he was a monster in his genes.  So that fact in itself was very thoughtful and very sad and I could really sympathize with the character.  Of course as a human being I cannot accept the actions of the character.  When I look at him I see both monster and devil and it is very sad.”

Choi was also asked about his influences, both Korean and outside the country and he stated that his biggest influence was his professor at college.  He said that when he needs grounding he reminds himself of his professor’s teachings and hears his voice in the back of his mind.  Choi also said he greatly admires the work of actors Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Sean Penn.  When asked how he felt about working with Ha Jung-woo on Nameless Gangster, he said that he had “a strong affection for him—a great respect and friendship.”  The final question of the conference was a funny one, with the young interviewer pointing out that Choi looks ten years younger now than he did in Oldboy, and he wanted to know the actor’s secret.  Choi seemed flattered and said that was the first time he’s ever heard that.  He said that even though he’s 50, “…my mental age is around 21….I talk to my younger friends, pay attention to the young female pop groups, and make an effort not to feel old.”

And with that, the press conference came to an end and Choi Min-sik then posed for pictures for all of us.  I didn’t get a picture with him but that’s okay, because I was thrilled just to be in the same room with him and I got to ask him a question about one of my favorite films.  In my opinion, he is one of the top actors in the world.  He completely engrosses himself in the characters he plays, fleshing them out with a three-dimensional realism not always seen among actors today.  I sometimes refer to Choi as the Korean Gary Oldman because sometimes he so totally becomes the character he plays that he’s almost unrecognizable.

The Choi Min-sik retrospective at the NYAFF included the films Crying Fist (2005), Failan (2001), Oldboy (2003), and his latest film Nameless Gangster (2012), a review of which will be posted tomorrow.